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The Infamous Eight: 2015's memes, themes and big pieces

140 characters leaves you hungry? Try this for 12 months

By Gavin Clarke, 30 Dec 2015

Year in review So, was US Central Command (CENTCOM) hacked, were a LOT of Polish Airlines aircraft cyber breached, and did China block imports of products from Apple and others? The answer in all three cases was a simple “no”.

So what of the multiple cloud outages, and Uber’s ongoing global legislative and driver woes? In a 140-character-driven culture the problem is that everything is important. In the moment. Now.

OK, so if these weren’t the landmark stories of 2015 – news that stood the test of time or said something about the players or the industry – what was?

Quentin Tarantino has his Hateful Eight. Here’s The Reg’s infamous eight – the themes, memes and stories we believed were worth recall.

Ashley Madison hack

It wasn’t the only data breach of the year or even the biggest breach ever – JP Morgan in 2014 saw 76 million affected. But the Ashley Madison hack stood out for a number of reasons.

Hackers took details including email addresses from 33 million accounts, and proceeded to post the data online, totally capturing the net’s attention.

Why was this a stand out? First, there was the sheer schadenfreude and salaciousness of the site, and the possibility of finding out who was on it. Sadly, it drove some to suicide.

Next was the fact that an online firm could make a business in extramarital affairs – a business it was going to take public with an IPO. Moreover, the act revealed the apparent fragility of the site’s core business, with reports claiming that many of the supposed women on the site were bots created to lure men, something Avid Life Media, owner of Ashley Madison, denied vehemently.

Avid Life Media responded by offering a $500,000 reward for the hackers, but nobody was apprehended. Rather, the hack cost site founder Noel Biderman – self styled “King of Infidelity” – his job as Avid Life Media’s chief. It also killed – for now at least – those plans to list on the London market.

Social networks turmoil

Twitter ditched CEO of six years Dick Costolo, bringing back founder CEO Jack Dorsey, and shares in the firm promptly jumped ... but why?

One of the first in social media, arguably one that’s defined the very medium, Twitter has failed to parlay both growth in traffic and tweets into profit and revenue. It’s a long, long way behind Facebook.

In many ways Twitter suffered an open-source problem: trying to charge for something it’s been doing for free and doing so in a way that didn’t alienate users. Twitter has been free of the kinds of privacy concerns that have given Facebook a bad name in its quest to help advertisers make the most if its free users.

And now, Jack is back – the founder returned in an attempt to re-capture the early promise of Twitter and rely on the brains that set it up in the first place to somehow come up with a way for Twitter to grow and prosper financially. Three months later Dorsey was back full time and a month later a plan was materialising: eight per cent of its workforce, 365 staff, chopped to revive growth.

Google and Reddit, meanwhile, began to grapple with the idea of what was permitted speech on their sites and services, and they turned puritanical. The former turned on revenge porn on its Blogger service and banned any explicit material unless it offered a "public benefit".

But ban porn and you may as well try to outlaw posting photos of cats – it’s critical to the web and three days later, Google succumbed to pressure and U-turned, asking people instead tag pages that contained nudity.

Earlier, Reddit had decided to clamp down on unauthorised postings of people’s private nude shots. Reddit's interim chief executive Ellen Pao fell to the trolls<?a> in July following her attempts to clean up the self-proclaimed "front page of the internet".

Ellen Pao closed five hate reddits including one on fat people, resulting in a petition on Change.org for her removal that collected more than 213,451 signatures in just a month.

Digg, Reddit’s arch rival, released new community guidelines in September also supposed to tame the hate, but with less fallout than over at Reddit.

Icebergs and supertankers: slow moving, massive shifts

So, 2015 witnessed two major corporate reorganisations. Against a backdrop of struggling turnaround and falling share price, Hewlett Packard Co split into Hewlett-Packard Co (printers and PCs) and Hewlett Packard Enterprise (everything else). HP is an iconic Silicon Valley name, once a pillar of personal computing and scientific invention.

Years ago, and under a now ex-CEO, such a split would have been called “a spinning out of the HP PC business” ... now it’s called a split with the idea both firms can focus more clearly on their respective fields.

Dell announced the industry’s biggest ever acquisition – external storage system giant EMC for $67bn. EMC is the industry’s biggest maker of external storage drives, but suffered falling income and announced job cuts.

Dell, which dominates storage in terms of capacity, took on EMC to cover “digital transformation, software-defined data center, converged infrastructure, hybrid cloud, mobile and security". More likely the deal was driven by private equity announced as a strategy truce between EMC’s management and investor Elliott Management expired.

The big holdouts were IBM and Oracle. Missed quarters and falling revenues for both, combined with tumbling share price for the former and Oracle’s stock nearing the bottom of its 52-week low – yet management at both firms seemed untouched by the winds bashing the others.

IBM unleashed the biggest re-org in its hundred-plus-year history, but senior heads didn’t roll, and nor were there talks of sales or breakups.

Perhaps IBM’s shareholders were relatively benign and took a long-term view – those such as Warren Buffett were held prisoner by the fact they’d take multi-billion-dollar baths if they cashed out.

The most curious of corporate acts befell Google. The internet’s number-one search and ads firm became a subsidiary of a new firm named Alphabet, with chief executive Larry Page and his fellow Google co-founder Sergey Brin in charge.

Page handed the CEOship of Google to that company’s former head of products, Sundar Pichai. Alphabet was to run Google’s X Lab skunkworks and run prototyping, with Pichai in charge of the bread-and-butter ads and search.

This is a comment on the current state of Google: numerous failed social network initiatives yet continued dominance within ads and search. The moves freed Page and Brin to experiment while leaving the job of the core products to a products man.

Otherwise it was business as usual: another year, more trouble with Europe’s regulators continuing to grind out whether Google is an anti-competitive force.

Oh, and Google splashed out a record $25m to own – and sell – domains ending in ".app", beating off competition from 12 other bidders, including Amazon and almost every large internet registry.

Clock watching at Cupertino

There were more iPhones – including a mega pad with controversial stylus – and an electronic payment service that rapidly cleaned up and panicked banks.

But what got everybody excited was the April launch of Apple Watch, the product of years of speculation and hype. By November Cupertino shifted more than seven million smart watches, according to the analyst firm Canalys – far in excess of Samsung, Pebble, Fossil and Tag Heuer. Some had Apple’s timepiece heading towards iTunes and iPhone-scale market share – 68 per cent. Apple would not say how many it had sold.

Apple broke fresh ground in desirability, it seemed. A family of devices deeply challenged on battery life and an online lemon unless tethered to an iPhone, what Apple sold was a range of looks and finishes: starting a “merge” several hundred quid up to £9,500 for watches wrapped in 18-Carat gold cases.

The end of free cash

Abnormal became the new normal some time ago for the UK, US and the global economy. But in December 2015 the US Fed put interest rates up for the first time since 2008, with an increase of 0.25 percentage points. That means US banks can now charge between .025 and 0.50 per cent on loans to other banks.

That’s important because it marks the beginning of the end of the kind of cheap money that’s fuelled start-ups and corporations for eight years.

Start-ups such as Uber, Box and Slack inhabited a bubble – no need to make a profit, as the revenue rolled in from low-interest loans. Nose-bleed funding rounds of $30m, $40m, $50m and more using cash from banks, hedge funds and private equity. Big players such as Microsoft took on debt because it could pile up ready cash at low interest rates.

That reality has changed. Existing loans will be locked in, but what then? No more easy decisions supported by cheap cash, and a return to the fundamentals of business, essentially asking what’s doable and what’s justifiable, and a focus on profit.

That will mean questions over setting up new companies, offering new services, cutting prices, development of cloud data centres and hiring. It will almost certainly mean a slowdown in the number of startups and a shake out. It should mean the end of that tech bubble you’ll have read about.

Take Windows 10. We insist

2015 was a big year for Microsoft, with Windows 10. The goal of Microsoft’s new client was to bury the Metro fiasco of Windows 8 and finally move people on from Windows 7, with a pragmatic embrace of traditional desktop with touch-screen future. Years late, Windows 10 was Microsoft’s tablet-friendly operating system.

Microsoft pulled out the stops, offering a year’s free upgrade.

But the glory was eclipsed by what emerged as a stealth campaign to push Windows 10 onto PCs, regardless of the owner’s choice.

Privacy became a hot subject, with Microsoft forced to pull a Windows 10 update for messing with users’ security settings, and bugs uncovered.

But when it came to really big, Windows 10 couldn’t top this: the biggest write off in Microsoft’s history – $7.6bn in its fourth quarter, over its failed purchase of Nokia’s mobile business announced in September 2013.

Microsoft has spent $7.2bn on Nokia, its second biggest deal - only Skype was bigger. Explaining its decision, Microsoft confessed: “The future prospects for the Phone Hardware segment are below original expectations". No kidding. Half a year later IDC reckoned Windows Phone was going nowhere – the vast majority of sales that had been made had been on Nokia’s handsets.

Spies spy, but some spies spy harder

US tech firms bridled at the UK government’s plans to mandate back doors into encryption on their products – things such as iPhones. But they had already been compromised.

The NSA and GCHQ had hacked the SIM cards used by millions of people, letting spooks eavesdrop on calls and data traffic. SIMs are used by AT&T, T-Mobile US, Verizon, Sprint and some 450 wireless network providers, according to the latest Edward Snowden documents bomb.

At the start of 2015 Lenovo was also caught penetrating systems, only for commercial gain. China’s PC maker was found to have installed not one but two pieces of code on machines to push crapware on unsuspecting users.

Lenovo countered with the defense that unnamed “other” PC makers were also doing this but it bowed to the inevitable. “Our goal, in the end, is to make this right,” Lenovo's CTO Peter Hortensius told The Register. "It's going to take a long road to earn trust back."

Oh yeah? Months later the existence of a Lenovo Service Engine (LSE) was uncovered, something built into the firmware that let unwanted software remain on systems even after it was discovered and supposedly deleted AND that presented a possible security back door. Lenovo pulled LSE from new desktops and quietly released a tool to remove it from others.

Bubble: think your way out of that, Mr. AI

Intelligent machines? The BBC thought so, running assertive news and features on the arrival of artificial intelligence in terms of the arrival of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000.

AI was certainly peddled hard by all of the major tech vendors.

Indeed, 2015 was the year of IBM’s Watson supercomputer while Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook evoked AI via their digital assistants on mobile phones – Facebook, late to the game, announced a limited beta of its M in August.

Of these, Microsoft pressed hardest, taking battle to Apple and Google by putting its Cortana voice-activated personal assistant on Android and iOS mobile platforms. This was a significant move as Microsoft had never before put its client-side apps on anything other than its own platform.

In the days of the hegemony of the PC, that was Windows. Microsoft took AI into augmented reality, with HoloLens – its counter to Facebook’s Occulus Rift. IBM wasn’t far behind: from solving medical problems to replacing lawyers to Christmas shopping, IBM let it be known its mainframe was capable of anything.

Cars were supposedly going “smart”, too, with Google pushing driverless vehicles.

The consumer and gadget-obsessed press land fanbois in every camp lapped up each twist of the digital assistant tale, but was there any substance? Was AI here. Again? Underpinning AI were machine learning and big data – the latter was recent years’ next big thing.

AI is the industry’s attempt to turn technology from something that does what we want into something that learns and that then anticipates what we might want, and to deliver that.

With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that firms are either collecting huge amounts of data on us – Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook – or those with vast amounts of computer power – the above, plus IBM – are looking for ways to use their existing digital assets to deliver this goal.

Enterprises are ready recipients of the ideas of AI, looking for ways to “get closer to” their customers, as they explored ideas founded on some of the building blocks of AI in big data and digitisation.

It’s a long march, complicated by the fact AI means different things to different people and that AI has existed as a concept for decades, so the goals have always shifted, and always seemed one step ahead of where we are.

Where were we in that long march in 2015? On the first step. ®

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