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Top 10 Tech Stories of 2016

This year will go down as a year where many potentially game-changing technologies actually made it into people’s hands.

Now we just have to see if they will actually change the world.

Consider it the real beginning for things like virtual and augmented reality, technology that had been gestating, but finally became real products.

To go along with that promise, there were also plenty of examples that showed how dependent we have become on our devices – and despite our many advancements – how precariously fallible some of them still remain.

Here are the 10 biggest stories from the year in technology.

Samsung Explode-gate

A month after its release in September, the first Samsung Galaxy Note 7 exploded in flames. Then another, causing a plane to be evacuated.
A month after its release in September, the first Samsung Galaxy Note 7 exploded in flames. Then another, causing a plane to be evacuated.  (Shawn L. Minter/AP)  

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 was easily the most innovative flagship phone released this year. The South Korean electronics giant reorganized its production cycle to release the phone in August, in advance of the next iPhone. And for a short while it worked: the phone received rave reviews and preorders were strong.

Then a month after release in September, the first phone exploded in flames. Then another, causing a plane to be evacuated. All told there were 92 incidents, which spurned two recalls, many forced software updates, and eventually turned bringing the phone onto an airline in the U.S. into a felony.

All told, the incident will cost Samsung at least $5.3 billion (U.S.), but the company soldiers on, and has already said there will be a Samsung Note 8 next year.

Pokemon gets people Going

Children wearing hats of a Pokemon character, Pikachu, play Pokemon Go during a gathering to celebrate "Pokemon Day" in Mexico City in August.
Children wearing hats of a Pokemon character, Pikachu, play Pokemon Go during a gathering to celebrate “Pokemon Day” in Mexico City in August.  (CARLOS JASSO/REUTERS)  

When it launched in July, the hardcore Pokemaniacs were excited, but no one was prepared for the phenomenon of the first hit augmented reality (AR) game.

Based on Google’s Ingress, Pokemon Go took the basics of Pokemon and set it in the real world. That resulted in hundreds of thousands of players all over the world looking for pocket monsters everywhere they went. Busy zones with many Pokemon — like Toronto’s Harbourfront ferry terminal were overrun by players — and for a while in the summer it was everywhere. It still has a large base of players, but it’s not the fad it was. As the first big AR hit, it sets the stage for more to come.

How we get hacked now

Many hospitals and schools have fallen victim to ransomwares, those digital brigands which dominate the malware market.
Many hospitals and schools have fallen victim to ransomwares, those digital brigands which dominate the malware market.  (DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)  

It was the year of ransomware, although Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attacks just snuck in under the wire as a co-winner on ways that technology can be used against us.

Ransomware is the use of malware that locks up a computer and extorts the user into paying a fee to get their data back. As it can be in almost any attachment, many hospitals and schools have fallen victim to this scam in which an unwitting user clicks a link that infects a network. Some victims have chosen to pay up in order to quickly get back up and running.

DDOS attacks have been around for years, but a new twist now features malware that uses thousands of unsecured devices connected to the Internet (such as webcams) as a “botnet.” In October, this caused a North American-wide internet slowdown. There was also an attack during an online literacy test in Ontario in the same week. Many experts believe these are just the beginning.

Jacking into the expensive matrix

Google Daydream View virtual-reality headset sets itself apart by including a handheld controller that responds to gestures and other movement.
Google Daydream View virtual-reality headset sets itself apart by including a handheld controller that responds to gestures and other movement.  (Eric Risberg/AP)  

Virtual reality (VR) became a reality this year, with several different headset from rival manufacturers launched. There are tethered headsets like the Oculus Rift, HTC’s Vive and PlayStation VR, as well as mobile offerings, like Samsung’s Gear VR and Google’s Daydream View.

There is a surprising amount of content out there, but at this point, it really does vary greatly in quality. But there is one commonality between all of the products so far: They are all very expensive, costing at least $1,000. That is the main thing holding it back from true mainstream adoption.

Facebook and fake news

In a Facebook post, Mark Zuckerberg said the company was looking into how to detect and flag false news content, after the site was accused of affecting the election's outcome by failing to stop bogus news stories.
In a Facebook post, Mark Zuckerberg said the company was looking into how to detect and flag false news content, after the site was accused of affecting the election’s outcome by failing to stop bogus news stories.  (JIM WILSON/NYT)  

With the election of Donald Trump in the U.S., the proliferation of fake news on Facebook has come under fire.

This has been an ongoing story this year, first with a Gizmodo investigation in May that reported Facebook had fired all of its news editors, who were responsible for the Trending Topics on the news feed.

Since then, there have been reports of suppression of right-wing topics, but also several instances of clearly fake stories from non-existent outlets that gained traction on the social network.

In response to the criticism, founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg at first held fast to the belief that it isn’t a huge problem, but then caved to the criticism.

In mid-November, Zuckerberg posted a number of steps the site was taking toward tackling the problem, including using technology for stronger detection, tools for users to easily report fake stories, potentially partnering with fact-checking organizations to verify articles and making it harder for fake news creators to profit off their fabulist creations.

A year of big tech deals

Snap’s rumoured IPO in 2017 will likely become the new benchmark for valuations of these social media companies. But this year, the big tech deals were mostly acquisitions.

Microsoft buying LinkedIn for $26 billion (U.S.) in April was only the big capper. Oracle was also on an acquisition spree, with its the $9.2 billion buy of Netsuite the headline grabber. Marissa Mayer’s failed turnaround of Yahoo resulted in that company selling its Internet business to Verizon for $4.2 billion. And very early in the year, Canada’s Opentext bought Dell’s content division for $1.6 billion.

Twitter’s tumbles

Donald Trump demonstrates the Twitter app on his Samsung smartphone in this file photo from 2015. This year was suppose to be a turnaround year for Twitter but instead its woes continued.
Donald Trump demonstrates the Twitter app on his Samsung smartphone in this file photo from 2015. This year was suppose to be a turnaround year for Twitter but instead its woes continued.  (JOSH HANER/NYT)  

The company’s headlines started off in January with a local story, in which Gregory Allan Elliot was found not guilty of criminal harassment for his dealings with two woman’s rights activists online.

But that was just a small blip on the company’s checkered year.

With founder Jack Dorsey back in charge, 2016 was supposed to be a turnaround year, but instead its woes continued.

User growth was stagnant on the service, and the biggest hit came in the fall when rumours abounded of companies, including Disney and Salesforce, possibly acquiring it. Those plans were apparently scuppered when potential buyers reportedly became afraid of possible brand damage from the many harassing trolls who use the service.

The company may finally be dealing with its community issues, as in November, it unveiled more powerful anti-harassment tools and also booted some alt-right users off the service.

Consoles wars speed up

Microsoft released the Xbox One S signalling that the usual long console cycle is getting shorter.
Microsoft released the Xbox One S signalling that the usual long console cycle is getting shorter.  (LUCY NICHOLSON/REUTERS)  

Both Sony and Microsoft quickly announced – then released – updated versions of their flagship consoles, signalling that the usual decade-long console cycle is shortening.

Microsoft released the Xbox One S, a slimmer version of its console, and is launching Project Scorpio, a new, more powerful console next year. Sony released the PS4 Pro, a more powerful version of its console in November. Both say they are taking advantage of technologies like 4K and High Dynamic Range (HDR) in new TVs, but they are also walking a fine line, promising customers who have already bought into this console generation that they won’t be left behind.

Islands and the stream

By end of the year some long time holdouts, like Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young put their music on several streaming services.
By end of the year some long time holdouts, like Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young put their music on several streaming services.  (SCANPIX DENMARK/REUTERS)  

While streaming music has long had to deal with bad press — mostly over artists boycotting over low rates — this was an interesting year. This summer many major artists launched exclusives on Apple Music and Tidal.

While this did help those services in the short run, there was a backlash, and now some record labels have said they won’t continue the practice.

But by the end of the year, some long time holdouts, like Neil Young, put their music on several services.

This was the year that digital music revenues surpassed traditional formats. Recent studies showed that streaming music subscription services accounted for $2 billion (U.S.) in revenue this year, which helped overall music revenues grow for the first time in over a decade.

The fight over chat

The app, dubbed Duo, represents Google's response to other popular video calling options, including Apple's FaceTime, Microsoft's Skype and Facebook's Messenger app.
The app, dubbed Duo, represents Google’s response to other popular video calling options, including Apple’s FaceTime, Microsoft’s Skype and Facebook’s Messenger app.  (Google/AP)  

Social networks used to have messaging options, but as more services build out, experts believe that it is the apps and services that we use to chat on that could end up being the centre of our online experience.

Spurred by Asian messaging services such as WeChat and Line, North American services kept adding and building out their services.

Facebook Messenger kept adding features like Room and Snapchat-like photo filters. Google has launched Ally and Duo, a text chat with the company’s assistant at the centre and a video calling app, respectively.

As well, companies are experimenting with chatbots, making it easier to automate how we communicate with them. In many instances, people can’t tell the difference between a bot and a real live person.

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