Life should be good, and LG Electronics has made the call to possibly make some Gauteng residents’ lives really great. LG is calling on…
A year, as the cliche goes, is a very long time. In the tech space, it’s even longer. It’s enough time to crawl back from the brink and rescue yourself from oblivion. It’s also enough time to go from being everyone’s favourite founder/company/new social network to the latest nearly-ran. It’s also more than enough time for the established players to make catastrophic screw-ups and to launch world-changing products without one having any real impact on the other.
That’s what makes writing this kind of article such a challenge. Add in the insane speed at which news turns into social media outrage, before becoming fodder for heart-felt analysis and counter-analysis and you have a situation in which it seems like the only people who might’ve won are the online publishers feeding on your clicks (until you learn how narrow their margins are that is).
Still, we have a sworn duty to our readers the mere scale and complexity of a task aren’t about to put us off it. Here then are the winners and losers of tech in 2014.
In many ways, this year was business as usual for the Cupertino-based giant. It went past the US$700-billion mark in terms of market cap, saw a record opening 30 days for the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, made a smartwatch that the world seems to think will acceptable and launched the kind of mobile payments platform that no one else could.
Those are the victories its legion of fans will point out at any rate. Scroll down to the other section of this piece to see why 2014 has been a story of two Apples.
When Steve Ballmer resigned as CEO of Microsoft, few pegged Satya Nadella as his natural replacement. In fact, he more or less remained a rank outsider until the moment he was actually hired. As it turned out though, the choice was an inspired one.
If Nadella had carried on where Ballmer had left off, he’d probably be among this year’s losers. The thing is, he’s not Ballmer. Or, to put it more bluntly, he’s everything Ballmer wasn’t. He understands where the company’s strengths lie and is willing to play to them. Small wonder then that under his leadership, the Redmond-based giant’s stock has climbed from US$35 to around the US$50 mark.
Go to any list like this one over the past few years and you would likely have seen BlackBerry at the top of the losers column. A relatively quiet year publicity wise does, however, appear to have done the company some serious good. Sure its stock growth hasn’t been spectacular, but the US$12 high it experienced in mid-November is a hell of a lot healthier than the US$6 it was floating around in December last year. It may never again be the dominant smartphone player it once was, but it’s heading towards profitability, mostly by focusing on software and services. That said, the BlackBerry Passport is a very good phone and a return to the Waterloo-based company’s roots.
Read more: BlackBerry Passport review: back to business
If you wanted a case study in how a tech company’s fortunes can rise and fall on the actions of others, you need look no further than Ello. The ad-free social network launched in Beta back in July, but it took Facebook updating its real name policy for it to really take off.
Suddenly people were auctioning off their Ello invites for hundreds of dollars and the network itself was raising millions in VC funding. Whether it manages to ride that momentum into 2015 is, of course, another thing entirely.
When Yahoo bought Tumblr in early 2013, its fans were pretty sceptical. The introduction of ads, deemed necessary to help it turn a profit, was a particular bone of contention. If any users did leave, it didn’t seem to make the slightest dent. In fact, Tumblr is currently the fastest growing social platform on the planet.
After dominating the Chinese ecommerce space for years, Alibaba decided that 2014 would be the year it went public. It wasn’t long before people were pipping it be the biggest tech IPO of all time. And once that happened, it wasn’t long before people started comparing it with Facebook. As it turned out though, the Chinese ecommerce giant learned from Facebook’s mistakes. Its stock debuted at around US$94 and, after an initial few jitters, has experienced strong growth.
Wind the clock back to August 2012. Oculus, the company behind the Rift virtual reality headset, had only just started asking for pledges on Kickstarter. Fast forward to March 2014 and it had been bought out by Facebook for US$2-billion. That’s not a fast and successful exit, that’s the kind of Silicon Valley fairytale that inspires people to put down whatever it was they were doing and start coding.
New age media startups
As traditional media outlets continued to have a torrid time of things in 2014, the new media outlets disrupting both their and older new media models thrived. In August, Buzzfeed raised US$50-million from Andresseen Horowitz, giving it a US$850-million valuation. Vox Media — publisher of sites including The Verge and Polygon meanwhile — got another US$46.5-million funding round in late November, valuing it US$380-million.
WhatsApp embodies the dream of every embittered tech worker out there. Its founders aren’t flash Ivy League dropouts. Instead, they’re a couple of ex-Yahoo employees made immense sacrifices, worked incredibly hard and, with a bit of luck managed to build one of the largest mobile instant messaging services on the planet. Even better, it managed to do so with a relatively small team and without resorting to ads.
Facebook’s multi-billion dollar acquisition of the instant messaging app would earn it a place on this section of the list on its own. The fact that co-founder Jan Koum signed the deal outside the building where he used to collect welfare and that the product hasn’t undergone any bizarre Facebook-inspired changes since the acquisition ensure it.
The higher you rise, the farther there is for you to fall, just ask Samsung. Sure the Korean electronics giant still holds the number one spot in terms of smartphone marketshare but that doesn’t mean much when your profits are being squeezed by low-cost Chinese smartphones at one end and the latest iDevice at the other. Things aren’t expected to get better any time soon either.
In purely economic terms, 2014 was a very good year for on-demand private car service Uber. Its latest funding round, for instance, means that it’ll end the year worth more than US$40-billion. You can’t help wondering though how long people will allow it to shrug off shady tactics against rivals, digging up dirt on journalists and a general culture of “asshole” misogyny.
Speaking of misogyny, 2014 will also go down in history as the year that a minority of douche-bags — with the complicity of more “ordinary” gamers than anyone should be comfortable with — managed to undo so much of the work gaming’s done over the years to transform the way the world sees it. Using the pretext of a debate about ethics in gaming journalism, a minority of gamers have subjected women criticising the industry’s lack of diversity to rape and death threats.
Gamergate became part of the global lexicon, its hashtag one of the most terrifying things to ever happen online and gaming’s reputation remains in a fragile state.
When you’re as big as Apple, you can be a winner and a loser. Granted #Bendgate was just the latest in a long line of crises not to deserve the “gate” suffix — it basically boiled down to being sensible enough not to put a large phone in your back pocket — but it wasn’t exactly great press either. The Cupertino-based giant’s real gaffe however was in assuming that every single one of its users would want a new U2 album forced on them. The emergence later in the year that it had secretly been deleting the music people did want from their iPods didn’t exactly help matters.
Once Africa’s largest mobile social network, Mxit is a shadow of its former self. It ended 2013 with high hopes for the latest iteration of the service, Mxit 7, which looked good and was meant to work as well on feature phones as it did on smartphones. In early 2014, it felt confident enough to launch a high-profile play for the Indian market. Neither of those things however could provide with any kind of real user growth. In fact, things went the opposite way. In June, it emerged that it had shed a quarter of its South African user base. The decision by mobile operator Cell C to make WhatsApp free on its network made Mxit seem even less relevant to the current state of mobile, and by the end of the year its staff were once again facing serious retrenchments.
Gender equality in tech
One of the by-products of Gamergate was a critical examination of gender in the tech space. Among Silicon Valley companies, it emerged that the number of women in software and engineering positions was actually on the decline, thanks in part to its “brogrammer” culture.
As our own African Women in Tech article series shows, things are just as bad, if not worse, on the continent. Female business founders, we discovered, are frequently ignored in favour of their junior male colleagues and there’s an expectation for successful women in the tech space to act manly.
Tech, it seems, has a very long way to go when it comes to bridging the gender divide.
The Amazon Fire Phone
Years after anyone worth a damn had entered the smartphone space, Amazon decided that it should perhaps have a go. And so, in June, it launched the Amazon Fire Phone. It had plenty of gimmicky features, but at US$200, it was a little pricey especially given the sub-standard build quality. It languished quietly on Amazon for a while before it became obvious that the phone had been a complete and utter failure.