Quibi, Twitter hack and misinformation: The biggest tech fails of 2020 – CNET

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If there’s anything this year has taught us, it’s that we’re more divided than ever. Whether it’s fanboy arguments over Android versus iOS, Republicans versus Democrats, or shutdowns versus opening the economy, we seemingly can’t agree on anything. Well, except for one thing: 2020 is a dumpster fire that we all can’t wait to see in our rear view mirror. 

The coronavirus pandemic, which has infected 60 million people around the world and led to roughly 258,000 deaths in the US alone, forced an economic shutdown that eliminated more than 22 million jobs in March and April. It’s also forced a shift in how we live our lives, which we’re largely spending at home out of fear of either contracting or spreading the disease. That’s led to a particularly hard Thanksgiving holiday, with millions of people unable to spend time with their loved ones. 

It’s around this time of the year that CNET traditionally unveils its «Tech Turkeys,» our annual roundup of the biggest flops in tech. What started out as good-natured ribbing of the tech industry was a list that transformed into something much darker. IN recent years, we’ve seen a YouTuber running into a dead body, multiple claims of sexual harassment and enough hacks to keep us up at night. 

The Turkeys weren’t fun anymore. 

The shift in tone coincided with the broader skeptical and critical look we’ve all begun to take when it comes to technology in general and to the influence that massive tech companies have on our lives. The «Turkeys» aren’t exactly outliers when CNET is regularly covering issues like how technology is contributing to the downfall of democracy. Given the darkness all around us, I wanted to focus on the year’s more conventional tech flops. But I couldn’t ignore the heavier issues out there.  

For the sake of simplicity, I’ll be breaking them down by themes, with a few different examples under each category. 

So without further ado, here are this year’s Tech Turkeys, from most to least offensive.

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Bill Gates is the target of conspiracy theories spread over social media.

CBS Evening News

Misinformation everywhere

So I know this wasn’t supposed to get heavy, but the amount of bizarro information that spread over Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is worth mentioning. I give credit to these companies for finally being more proactive about combating the raft of hoaxes that popped up on their networks, but the fact that some of these gained enough traction that we had to publish articles debunking them is a worrisome sign. Some of the wilder unfounded claims include:

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube buckled down and got more aggressive during the election, flagging posts from anyone — including President Donald Trump — who tried to spread misinformation. Better late than never. 

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The coronavirus impact

The coronavirus isn’t just a «Turkey,» it’s a world-changing disaster. So I’m not talking about the pandemic itself, but more the weirdness that came out of it. That includes:

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Even the cast of Reno 911 couldn’t save Quibi. 

Quibi/Screenshot by CNET

Quibi

Now we’re getting to an old-fashioned tech flame-out. Quibi was backed by $1.75 billion in funding and big names like Hollywood power player Jeffrey Katzenberg and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman. It also had a quirky plan — charge $5 a month for slickly produced short videos originally designed to only be played on your phone. 

It turns out, people don’t necessarily stare at their screens when they’re locked down in their homes. And there’s another little site that offers a few short videos for free — YouTube. Meanwhile, there were seemingly 50 other streaming services that launched over the last year, all competing for your dollars.

The result: Quibi flamed out after just seven months, with Whitman and Katzenberg apologizing and returning much of the funding. You have to give them credit for pulling the plug before it got really ugly. 

TikTok

TikTok itself continues to be a social media phenom, but its success has drawn the scrutiny of Trump, who has railed against the Chinese-owned platform as a security risk for Americans. 

Trump signed an executive order requiring TikTok to be sold to US ownership or risk being shut down in this country, forcing parent ByteDance to scramble to find suitors. Oracle and Walmart stepped up with a proposed deal to buy a stake in TikTok, which would be spun off as its own entity. The deal seemed to get Trump’s blessing, but then the elections happened, and the president seemed to forget about the issue. 

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, has extended the deadline to Dec. 4, so the fate of TikTok remains in the air. The whole situation is just bizarre.

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A work of art of a gaudy design? The PS5 elicited strong reactions for its new look. 

Dan Ackerman/CNET

Next-generation consoles

2020 was supposed to be a big year for gaming. And with the arrival of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X and Series S, it is. But that doesn’t mean the gaming world didn’t see its share of flops. 

  • The next-generation consoles are poised to be hot items this holiday — but maybe too hot. Good luck trying to snag one with supplies limited. The PS5 went on preorder without any notice, despite Sony saying it’d give us ample warning (Walmart is at least partly to blame on that one). 
  • The new standard price for next-generation games appears to be $70, $10 more than the previous generation. That’s exactly what people dealing with a recession need right now. 
  • Microsoft’s big launch title for the Series X, Halo Infinite, was delayed after initial gameplay was widely planned for looking unpolished and incomplete.
  • Marquee AAA title Cyberpunk 2077 getting delayed was bad enough, but gamers were heated up enough to send death threats to the developers. Not cool. 
  • There was light-hearted mockery of the respective designs of the new consoles. The PS5 is definitely a statement piece, while the Xbox Series X was fodder for memes

Twitter’s scary hack

CNET will be doing a separate roundup of hacks later this year, but one of the biggest — and scariest — was the hack of high-profile Twitter accounts that snagged Elon MuskBill GatesKanye West, Barack Obama and other famous tech executives, entertainers and politicians. 

Was it to spread misinformation or swing the election? No, the hackers perpetrated this massive hack to push a Bitcoin scam. 

Twitter ended up locking down all verified accounts before getting a handle on the incident. While this attack was just about money, it raised the question of what would’ve happened had someone even more nefarious had taken control of either of the president’s Twitter accounts. The company, for its part, laid out how it planned to better protect its accounts

Electric car makers behaving badly

Nikola had a memorable year — even if it’s one the hydrogen-electric truck startup would like to forget. The company admitted to rolling its semi downhill and using editing tricks to make it appear as if it was traveling at high speeds on its own engine — it didn’t actually run on its own. Things really began to spiral after financial analysis firm and Nikola short-seller Hindenburg accused the startup of being an «intricate fraud.» Less than a week later, Executive Chairman Trevor Milton stepped down from the company. 

Nikola did complete its first prototype, the Tre, earlier this month. But that’s cold comfort in the midst of an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department

While nowhere near as egregious, China required a recall of every Tesla Model S and Model X imported to China from the US last month due to a reported issue with their suspension systems, according to Bloomberg. Tesla is also the subject of an escalating federal safety investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration over touchscreen failures, according to Reuters

Tesla hasn’t responded to questions about these issues since it shut down its public relations department in October. 

The Surface Duo arrived with high expectations — which it sadly failed to meet. 

Microsoft

Microsoft’s fumbles

Last year, Microsoft made waves when it signed esports and streaming star Ninja to a $50 million exclusive deal to play on Mixer. The next time we heard about Mixer was when it shut down in June, freeing Ninja and other high-profile streamers to jump back onto Twitch, where he first made his name. 

Then there was the heavily hyped Microsoft Surface Duo, a «foldable» phone made of two discrete displays that was years in the making and was set to potentially start a new mobile device trend. 

Ultimately, its unique design was paired with «lots of rough edges and unsatisfying experiences,» says reviewer Scott Stein. 

Zoom backlash

When the lockdown began, video conferencing was all the rage, and no other company benefited more than Zoom. It managed to fill the vacuum that others like Microsoft’s Skype and Teams, Google and Cisco failed to fill with their own conferencing systems. 

But almost as suddenly came the backlash. 

Zoom had long wrestled with security issues, which came back to light once everyone was using it. That resulted in stunts like having hate-filled or pornographic content flood unsecure Zoom sessions, and the term «Zoombombing» became a thing. 

Zoom did plug some of these security holes, and users got savvier about locking down their conferences, but that initial shine had dulled. 

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Fortnite remains banned on Apple’s App Store and Google Play. 

Epic

Epic vs. Apple and Google

Epic knew what it was doing when it set up a direct payment system for its Fortnite users that cut out Apple and Google. Apple and Google responded by pulling the game from their respective app stores, triggering a lawsuit and campaign from Epic shining a light on the industry-standard practice of charging developers a 30% commission for being on either store. 

Apple and Google argue that Epic had violated the guidelines put in place to ensure a safe app store experience. 

Regardless of where you stand, consumers are ultimately the victim, with no new access to Fortnite. A trial likely won’t happen until next July

Speaking of Apple

Apple makes the Turkeys list for a collection of little things that add up to a few annoyances. Yes, there’s the Epic lawsuit. But what has some consumers more worked up is the company’s decision to omit a power adapter and EarPods in its line of iPhone 12 phones

Apple argues that it’s about being environmentally friendly and that consumers already have older EarPods and power bricks lying around at home. But keep in mind that Apple was making its transition to a USB-C cable this year, meaning those older power bricks are useless. Sure, you could use the older cables and adapters, but for many consumers, taking advantage of the new cable meant buying a new adapter, too. 

Apple also made a big deal of all the advances that come from its M1-powered MacBooks, but would it kill the company to pack in a better webcam? In our Zoom-dominated world, having a front-facing camera on par with your iPhone would be nice. 

The latest iteration of Apple’s MacOS, Big Sur, also uncovered that a security feature sent your IP address to the iPhone maker each time you opened an app, effectively tying your location to data about your computer usage. Worse, the information was sent to Apple without encryption.

The discovery sparked an understandable furor, in part because VPNs couldn’t be used to defeat the IP address collection. Apple subsequently said it would stop collecting IP addresses through the security feature and delete any that it had collected.

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Burning Ring doorbells

Amazon’s Ring isn’t a stranger to controversy, and questions remain about its cozy relationship with local law enforcement. But this year’s flub comes from something a bit more run-of-the-mill: an old-fashioned recall. 

Ring recalled around 350,000 second-generation Ring doorbells sold in the US and 8,700 more in Canada because of several reports that they were catching fire. Fortunately, the actual incidents weren’t widespread — the Consumer Product Safety Commission said Ring received 23 reports of the fires causing property damage and eight reports of the doorbells causing minor burns. 

The company noted that the doorbell’s battery overheated when the wrong screws were used, and updated its user manual to reflect this. It noted that customers did not have to return the devices. 

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Creepy. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Samsung’s Neon AI

Neon was one of the most buzzed-about names at CES 2020 — remember that trade show? It feels like a lifetime ago — thanks in part to its funding from Samsung and the promise of ultra-realistic-looking computer-generated people. 

The actual demo found them to be less realistic, and more creepy and janky, with the CG models offering stilted AI answers. Even in the age of social distancing, I’m pretty sure I don’t need a Neon AI helping me out. 

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