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Sunday, Jan 17, 2021

The most disappointing tech innovations of the decade: from face computers to space tourism

New technology has changed how we communicate, date, work, get around and pass time. But for every hit, there have been high-profile disappointments – remember Google Buzz, anyone?

The past decade in technology started out relatively innocently before growing moody, dark and disillusioned.

In 2010, we were excited about new iPhones and finding old friends on Facebook, not fretting about our digital privacy or social media’s threat to democracy. Now we are wondering how to rein in the largest companies in the world and reckoning with wanting innovation to be both fast and responsible.

Over the past 10 years, new technology has changed how we communicate, date, work, get around and pass time. But for every hit, there have been high-profile disappointments and delays. That includes overpriced gadgets for making juice, face computers, promises of taking a holiday in space and companies claiming to be saving the world.

The failures served a purpose, acting as reality checks for the technology industry and the people who fund, regulate or consume its products. Tech companies spent the past decade first trying to grasp, then distance themselves from, their impact on society. Facebook’s famously decom­missioned “move fast and break things” motto sounded plucky in 2010 and laughably misguided in 2019, when the company had, in fact, broken things.

It was a decade when billions of dollars were thrown at tech companies, and yet many of the promises those companies made never materialised, blew up in our faces or were indefinitely delayed. And while tech failures are nothing new, taken together they brought the innovation industrial complex closer to Earth and made us all a bit more realistic – if less fun.

Non-Facebook social networks

Remember Path? Color? Yik Yak, Meerkat and Google Buzz? And iTunes Ping, Apple’s short-lived attempt at making its music hub social? Start-ups and the tech giants alike launched social products over the past decade, but few succeeded.

In 2010, there was Google Buzz, which was quickly replaced by Google+ in 2011. The service struggled to attract users and experienced privacy issues, such as a bug exposing more than 52 million users’ data. It was finally declared dead last year, though some of its best features live on in Google Photos.

Vine burned bright for too short a time before being closed in 2016 by Twitter, which had bought the company for a reported US$30 million in 2012. (Speaking of Twitter, it hung on, thanks in part to its popularity with politicians, celebrities and people who are mad online, though it is far smaller than Facebook. Snapchat and TikTok have also carved out niches.)

Facebook dominated at the start of the decade and continues to dominate at the end, in part by buying or blatantly copying any competitors along the way. It acquired Instagram and WhatsApp, integrating both more closely with the Facebook brand. Even with major scandals and fumbles, its global user base grew to more than two billion people.

A crowdfunding, DIY revolution

For a short time, it looked as though the next generation of gadgets would come from outside the usual Silicon Valley idea factories. They would be dreamed up by passionate hobbyists, prototyped on 3D printers and funded by fans instead of venture capitalists (though still manufactured in Shenzhen). Despite some notable successes – Oculus, Peloton, Boosted Boards – it turns out getting an idea from your cocktail napkin to market is pretty tough.

Notable failures include the Coolest Cooler, which featured both Bluetooth and a blender and raised more than US$13 million on Kickstarter in 2014. It failed to deliver products to a third of its backers; many that shipped didn’t work. Others never materialised, such as iBackPack, which was supposed to produce a Wi-fi hotspot. The people behind it raised more than US$800,000 and were accused by the US Federal Trade Commission of using those funds to buy bitcoin and pay off credit cards.

Skarp Laser Razor, a razor with dubious hair-removal technology, managed to get more than US$4 million in pledges from interested customers before Kickstarter suspended its campaign for violating policies on working prototypes.

(Kickstarter said the vast majority of its products make it to production and that it aims “to be quite clear about the fact that not all projects will go smoothly”.)

Consumer 3D printers also failed to live up to the hype. We were supposed to have a printer in every home, spitting out replacement Lego and screws, art projects and even food. The high cost of the devices and the skills needed to use them could not compete with overnight shipping.

Drones dropping deliveries

“Could it be, you know, four, five years? I think so. It will work, and it will happen, and it’s gonna be a lot of fun,” Amazon’s Jeff Bezos said.

The year was 2013, and Bezos was on US current affairs television show 60 Minutes to unveil the next big thing in package delivery: drones. He said that within that time frame, quadcopters would be able to drop packages from warehouses at customers’ doors within 30 minutes.

In 2016, Amazon showed off its first commercial drone delivery in a rural area of Britain, a 13-minute delivery of an Amazon Fire TV streaming device and a bag of popcorn. Its latest drone iteration was on display last year at its Re:MARS tech conference, again promising that drone deliveries were coming soon.

But as of the end of the decade, Amazon packages were still being delivered by humans. In fact, Amazon announced in 2018 that it was adding 20,000 delivery vans via third-party delivery partners to its ground fleet. Other companies, including Uber, UPS and Alphabet’s Wing, have also been testing drone deliveries, and it is possible that we will have boxes from the sky onto porches in the next decade.

Vaping to fix smoking

It was supposed to be safer than smoking and a way to quit nicotine altogether. While vaping has indeed caught on, its biggest selling point has blown up in recent years. Eight deaths and more than 2,500 cases of lung-related illnesses have been linked to vaping in the US.

Critics say fun-sounding flavours and colourful devices, most notably from the company Juul, have made vaping wildly popular with teenagers – one in four high schoolers vapes, according to the USCentres for Disease Control and Prevention. Now the US Food and Drug Administration and lawmakers are investigating vaping companies. But if we draw on experience from the cigarette industry, vaping is not likely to disappear any time soon.

Amazon’s big phone play

Apple and Google have direct access to billions of people with their smartphone operating systems and hardware – 2.5 billion devices run Google’s Android operating system and 900 million iPhones are in use.

One company noticeably absent from our pockets is Amazon, but not for lack of trying. After several years of stealth development, Amazon announced its Fire Phone in 2014. The smartphone did not look like much, started at US$199, ran on a customised version of Android and was available only on the AT&T network in the US. Amazon reported US$83 million of unused inventory in late 2014, and it discontinued the Fire Phone a year after its introduction.

Now that Amazon is competing against those two companies for voice-assistant dominance, its lack of a smartphone is even more glaring. It has put Alexa in anything with a microphone, from cameras to headphones and, soon, eye glasses. (It is on smartphones, but you have to open the Alexa app first.) Meanwhile Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant are already in pockets, built into the core of the devices and listening for their next cue.

Tourists in space

It is no secret that big-name billionaires love space. Despite their passion, the three boldest aspiring space barons have made and missed deadlines for sending people into space this decade.

Richard Branson said Virgin Galactic would fly tourists into space by 2020, but its last test mission involved two test pilots and a crew member at the start of last year. Bezos said at an Air Force Association conference in late 2018 that Blue Origin would send a test flight into the upper atmosphere with people on board last year, but the most recent test flight, on December 11, took no humans.

In 2017, Elon Musk announced that SpaceX had taken deposits to fly two passengers around the moon in 2018. That flight did not take place. He has the whole next decade to hit a different goal, set in 2011: sending someone to Mars by 2031.

There are plenty of interested customers. Virgin Galactic has sold tickets to more than 700 people wanting to take a trip to space at US$250,000 a seat.

If there is one thing on this list we would not want to rush just to meet a deadline, it is loading civilians into private rockets and hurling them into space.

A more efficient way of eating

Juice. Colourful, thirst-quenching, packed with vitamins, on-demand juice. It seemed an unlikely product for Silicon Valley to try to disrupt. But in the 2010s, entrepreneurs’ impatience with preparing and even consuming the calories necessary to survive led to a number of eating innovations.

One of the decade’s most memorable tech failures asked the question: what if you spent US$699 for an elaborate machine that squeezed juice from proprietary bags of fruit and vege­table pulp for you? The answer, discovered by intrepid Bloomberg journalists in 2017, is that you could squeeze those packets with your hands instead of paying for a machine. That machine was Juicero, and it raised US$120 million in funding before shutting down just five months later.

Other food innovations have fallen short of their revolu­tionary promises. Smart ovens became fire hazards; meal-kit delivery start-ups went under; and pod-based devices for random foods (cocktails, tortillas, biscuits, yogurt, jello shots) failed. And then there’s Soylent – a meal in drink form, designed to save time by cutting out “tasting good” and “chewing”. Soylent has managed to find a small but enthusiastic fan base, and even got into solids recently with a line of meal-replacement bars called Squared.
The decade’s real food change came from delivery apps that pay on-demand workers to bring meals made in actual kitchens to your door. Those companies are dealing with employee protests over low and confusing pay while trying to become profitable.

Face computers

Google co-founder Sergey Brin debuted Google Glass in 2012 by wearing a prototype of the smart glasses on stage. Its real PR outing came later that year when skydivers live-streamed their jump out of a blimp above San Francisco during a Google developer conference.

By showing information in front of the face instead of on a phone, Google said, the US$1,500 Glass would allow people to interact more with the world around them. Instead, its legacy has been questions about our right to privacy from recording devices, the word “glasshole” and at least one bar fight. The company stopped selling Glass to consumers in 2015 and shifted it to a workplace product, targeting everyone from factory workers to doctors.

Google was not alone. Microsoft made HoloLens, a tech­nically ambitious piece of eyewear that looked like round steampunk goggles and used augmented reality. Facebook bought virtual-reality goggle maker Oculus for US$2 billion and heavily invested in and promoted it as a gaming and entertainment device (and the future of social media). Magic Leap, another augmented-reality headset promising immersive and mind-blowing entertainment, managed to raise US$2.6 billion and release only one, US$2,295 developer product.

Eventually we may wear glasses that display useful information laid over the real world, outfitted with smart assistants that whisper in our ears. Google’s early attempt at a consumer face-wearable was not destined to be that device.

The benevolent, world-saving tech company

“Don’t be evil” read Google’s famous motto, which sat atop its code of conduct until 2018, when it was quietly demoted to the last line.

At the beginning of the decade, that is exactly how many of the largest tech companies and chief executives marketed them­selves. Their products were not only going to make daily life easier or more enjoyable, but they also would make the entire world better – even if their business models depended on ads and your personal data.

“Facebook was not originally founded to be a company. We’ve always cared primarily about our social mission,” chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said in a 2012 letter, just before the company’s initial public offering. He outlined lofty visions, including that Facebook would create a more “honest and transparent” dialogue about government through accountability.

Instead, the decade turned towards disinformation and hate speech spread on social media. Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube were used to spread disinformation ahead of the 2016 United States election while Google briefly worked on a search engine for China that would censor content. Companies profited off mountains of user data they collected but failed to protect, as major data breaches hit Equifax, Yahoo and others.

In response, workers are pushing back, growing into quiet armies attempting to redirect their companies towards social goals.


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