Facebook, Amazon and other Silicon Valley failures
If 2018 was the year that the world turned on big tech, then 2019 was the year that tech became more like a villain. Sure, companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon would say they do a world of good by bringing people together, serving you information wherever and delivering packages to your door. But in the course of doing all of that, they've also made several missteps, mishandling customers' private data, enabling misinformation and creating toxic environments for their employees.
Facebook was arguably the worst offender this year. The company did try to make up for last year's failings with new privacy-focused efforts, but it has continued to screw up. Not only was it caught storing millions of passwords in plain text, it also stubbornly declined to take down false information. It wouldn't remove a fake Nancy Pelosi video from earlier this year, and it refused to ban false ads from politicians. Sure, Facebook might have a network of fact checkers to prevent dissemination of fake news, but that's pointless if politicians are still allowed to spread misinformation.
Another tech company committing misdeeds in 2019 is Amazon. Concerns from previous years lingered, with news this year about company employees potentially listening in on Alexa conversations and warehouse workers complaining of poor working conditions. The company has also come under fire for providing law enforcement with a map of Ring doorbell installations and allowing them to keep recordings indefinitely. More recently, Ring was also in the news for numerous hacks, including cases where perpetrators extorted their victims and even harassed an eight-year-old child.
But perhaps one of the most pressing issues plaguing the tech industry is how it treats its own rank-and-file. Google has allegedly retaliated against employees for their workplace activism, even going so far as to fire a few of them. Other companies have faced similar accusations: Kickstarter was accused of union-busting after firing two employees, and suitcase maker Away was also exposed for its toxic work environment where employees were threatened into working extra hours without compensation. Many Silicon Valley investors even leapt to Away's defense, showing how widespread this problem might be. It's indicative of a dangerous culture: one that demands excessive labor and blind loyalty. It's that toxic mindset that is one of the key failings of the industry. Hopefully, the spotlight shone on these issues in 2019 will pave the way for better behavior in 2020 and beyond.
Google's cloud-gaming service, Stadia, is not the worst. It's fine, actually, and often verges on good. After decades of stuttering through pseudo-cloud-gaming services like OnLive and PlayStation Now (it doesn't and never has worked, you guys), Google's platform is refreshing. Stadia is proof that cloud gaming is theoretically possible in 2019, bringing titles like Red Dead Redemption 2 and Destiny 2 to players on Chromecast Ultras, laptops, tablets and smartphones with minimal lag and completely playable graphics. Well, under the right circumstances.
Unfortunately, the right circumstances are rare. Stadia may be the best cloud-gaming service in history, but it still has plenty of problems. Due to internet infrastructure issues outside of Google's control, Stadia is inconsistent, unreliable and temperamental. No one can see the service as a replacement for traditional locally stored gaming.
This wouldn't be a problem if Google hadn't promised all of these things, and more, in the run-up to Stadia's launch. Google revealed the service in March, and even then executives were talking about seamless 4K (and even 8K) streaming and sharing games with friends through links alone. The week before launch, Stadia boss Phil Harrison tweeted that every title on the service would support 4K. This was proven to be blatantly untrue even days before Stadia went live.
Stadia has issues, and Google knows it. The company stifled its launch, charging $130 for access and pausing sharing options off the bat. Wireless play with the Stadia controller is locked to TVs only, and both Red Dead Redemption 2 and Destiny 2 run in upscaled, not actual, 4K.
Simply put, Google promised too much, too soon. If Stadia had launched as a beta (which it essentially is after Google restricted access and features), it could have easily been in the Best column for 2019. Instead, Google over promised on cloud gaming, just like plenty of companies before -- and that's a disappointment, every time.
When the industry was first getting together to come up with the 5G standard, the target date for the rollout was initially set for 2020. And yet, because carriers couldn't help trying to one-up each other, 5G became the victim of confusion and customer fatigue in 2019. We kicked the year off with AT&T's 5GE debacle, where the carrier decided to roll out the confusing label for its customers despite not having activated technologies that were part of the standard. This prompted Verizon (Engadget's parent company) to write a stern letter to its competitor, while T-Mobile took to Twitter to mock the move. Sprint decided to take things further and sue AT&T over the branding, and the two companies ultimately settled out of court.
Meanwhile, carriers raced to see who could be the first to deploy real 5G networks. But between understanding the differences between technologies like millimeter wave (mmwave) and sub-6 GHz, as well as the ruckus over the 5GE fiasco, consumers were left with a lot of noise and not a lot of real-world examples of benefits. Even though we did make strides towards a widespread 5G rollout, there also weren't a lot of 5G-ready devices to choose from.
Smartphones that worked with the networks were exorbitant, so you had to be a relatively wealthy early adopter to spring for one. Plus, with most carriers currently focusing on sub-6 deployment, there's still another wave of infrastructure updates that have to happen before the full promise of 5G can be fulfilled. The new networking standard holds a lot of promise for industries like smartphones and laptops, as well as the likes of VR and game-streaming. But if companies continue to pollute the news cycle with petty squabbles over who gets to be first, consumers will be too fatigued by 5G to care about its benefits. And that's not the way to kick off a new decade.