At MIT Technology Review we try to keep you informed as new technologies and products emerge. But just as important as the new things that are born are the old things that die. And in 2016, we saw several high-profile tech ideas die in Silicon Valley.
Launched in January 2013, Vine’s popularity grew with each new looping six-second clip it gave the world, like the one of a very angry woman at an Apple Store, the one that originated the term “on fleek,” and “Ketchup Mount Rushmore,” just to name just a few. Twitter’s app also created many stars, some of whom were able to parlay their popularity and Vine-making prowess into real fortune by fashioning clips for marketers. But alas, the service peaked in 2014, and competitors like Instagram and Snapchat drew away many of Vine’s users—including many of its stars. By 2016, more than half of those who had been in the top 1 percent of users in 2013 had stopped posting. In October, Twitter finally said it was turning off the lights. This month, it said it will replace Vine with a new app that will let users continue to make six-second loops and post them directly to Twitter.
Some are still scratching their heads over why Google ever got into the fiber-optic business, investing heavily in Fiber, its high-speed Internet and cable television service. And it turns out that perhaps Google itself never knew the reason for investing billions in it (according to a recent estimate, it costs at least $1 billion to add a new market). In October, the CEO of Access, the Alphabet division in charge of its gigabit broadband initiative, announced that the company would not expand beyond the nine cities in which it is already up and running and four where construction has already begun. The firm will now likely focus on using newer, less expensive wireless technologies to deliver high-speed Internet.
But maybe it hasn’t been all for naught. As James Surowiecki argued in MIT Technology Review last June, Google’s broadband offerings have pushed private companies to improve their services by “forcing competition when regulators won’t.” Without Google, the quality of broadband options today might not be as high, he wrote. In that sense, Google provided a public good “whose spillover benefits are likely to be immense, and one that neither the government nor the private sector was doing much to deliver.”
The rise and fall of Pebble coincided with the rise and fall of our interest in smart watches. The Kickstarter darling’s first watch shattered records in 2013 by raising $10 million, gave crowdfunding a much-needed success story, and helped inspire a resurgence in wrist-worn computers, which we called one of the 10 Breakthrough Technologies of that year. But back then MIT Technology Review’s Rachel Metz also warned that if smart watches didn’t become more versatile, they risked becoming “just another irritating gadget.” How true. Though Pebble released a few more watches, interest in smart watches waned, and Apple’s entry made it very tough to compete. This month, after being acquired by Fitbit, Pebble announced it would no longer exist and had stopped making or selling watches. In a “Dear Pebblers” letter, it did offer refunds for any dedicated backers still waiting for their newest watches.
The headphone jack
Apple called its move to ditch the “ancient” 3.5 millimeter headphone jack an act of “courage.” The argument is that it is leading a much-needed move toward a world where wireless audio is the standard. But while that may end up benefitting consumers in the long term, not surprisingly the move will impact the company bottom line immediately. People can still use traditional headphones, thanks to a dongle that will ship with the new phones, or they can also use headphones that plug into the lightning port—but those won’t work on non-Apple products. For the best wireless audio experience, consumers will need to buy a pair of Apple’s new AirPods for $159. But despite the brazen move to tune out the wishes of many of its customers, so far iPhone 7 sales don’t seem to be suffering because of it. And now it appears that Samsung may ditch the old headphone jack, too.
In September, Google stopped work on Project Ara, a neat-sounding hardware project it had been hyping for years. The dream was cheap smartphones, customizable and upgradable with interchangeable hardware components, like different kinds of camera lenses or sensors. Doubts that it would come true began creeping in last year when the company pulled the plug on a plan to test the idea in Puerto Rico. Ultimately, the trends dominating the smartphone market—short product cycles and cheaper, faster, shinier upgrades—likely helped convince Google to put its modular smartphone dreams aside.