| USA TODAY
Thursday is around the corner, and while many of us will be refraining from traveling for Thanksgiving, USA TODAY will continue our annual tradition. It’s time to roll back the clock and look at the top tech turkeys of the year, the products or companies that let us down, big time in 2020.
Let’s start with Google Photos.
The pitch was hard to ignore. At a time when Apple, Microsoft and Amazon charged for backing up your photos online, in 2015 Google Photos debuted and told consumers “you can now backup and store unlimited, high-quality photos and videos, for free.”
That is, until 2020, when it backtracked and said that after some 4 trillion photos had been uploaded to the service, it would now engage in a classic bait-and-switch move by moving to a paid model as of June.
With over 1 billion users for the service and Google revenues of $161 billion in 2019, as great as Google Photos is, it’s hard to feel Google is justified in asking us to pay anywhere from $1.99 to $9.99 monthly to continue using the service. This is a company that urged consumers to do auto bulk uploads of all their photos from their phones, with no discretion or selectivity, only to turn around and shift gears once our libraries have grown so large there it would be a major hassle to leave.
If most people opt for the $9.99 monthly plan, which also includes storage in your Gmail, Google Docs and Google Drive, Google is looking at a new revenue source: $10 billion monthly, or $120 billion yearly, more than enough to make up for shortfalls from slower pandemic era advertising.
Many of us scratched our heads when the YouTube-meets-Hollywood short video service Quibi launched. Despite big pedigree from former Disney studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, the sales pitch seemed so flawed. Who would pay $7.99 monthly to watch short videos on Quibi when trillions are available for free on YouTube?
And despite big names in front of and behind the camera, including Jennifer Lopez and Reese Witherspoon, it turns out very few were willing to dig in for the quick bite. Quibi, which launched in April with $1.75 billion in venture capital financing, said it will shut down in December.
This is not a knock on a next-generation videogame system, which has gotten rave reviews. It’s on Sony for how it initially sold it. Online pre-orders only, and no retail sales when it became available on Nov. 12. All those retailers who have taken it on the chin during the pandemic weren’t able to satisfy the eager customers who entered their stores looking for the $499 updated console. And what happened? Inevitably, the ones who were able to get it were gougers who have been offering the unit for as high as $1,700 on eBay. Smart marketing.
In a year when so much misinformation poured out of both the White House and social media, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg drew the ire of many for refusing to take down things that were clearly bogus. “I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online,” he said, earlier in the year.
By the end of the year, Facebook said it put warning labels on more than 180 million misinformed posts and took down 265,000 pieces of content it said violated Facebook rules. But there was so much more that Facebook didn’t touch – and it certainly wasn’t alone. It’s not like YouTube was much better. It allowed tons of misinformation on the site, including a video of President Donald Trump claiming victory in the presidential election, which was called for president-elect Joe Biden, on 305 electoral votes to 232 for Trump, when 270 are needed to win.
YouTube responded that it allowed such videos to stay up because “discussion of election results & the process of counting votes” is allowed on YouTube. It added that 88% of the election related videos came from “high-auth sources.” Which puts the other 12% in highly questionable territory, right?
Tik Tok ban
How to respond to an app that’s insanely popular with over 100 million people in the United States? Ban it, of course.
TikTok is beloved by young users for posting short, fun videos that usually include some forms of clowning around, singing and dancing. It’s owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, which is the reason Trump gave for his ban, saying that the Chinese government could get access to the same personal information TikTok mines that Facebook does here.
We’re not a fan of social media tracking, but was an outright ban, still pending, such a smart decision? There wasn’t another solution? Especially since TikTok said no user information was stored in China, but on U.S. servers? Besides, if this is a decision based purely on where the company headquarters was located, why not ban AMC Theaters from operating in the United States? It’s majority owned by a Chinese company. As is GE Appliances, Riot Games and Smithfield Foods.
Facebook loves to copy successful features on other apps, most notably the “Story” format from Snapchat that it successfully parlayed into Instagram and Facebook hits. So in the wake of TikTok’s woes with the Trump administration, the social network introduced what many in the press expected to be another clone, this one for Instagram, a feature called Reels.
The world wasn’t impressed. The New York Times called it “a dud” while Vox asked the question: “Why does Reels suck so bad?”
I actually don’t think it’s that bad. It’s just nothing. It’s a sort of feature on Instagram that doesn’t look any different from other parts of the app. Really short videos featuring young people having a good time. Nothing new there. And let’s add LinkedIn and Twitter to the list for adding the ephemeral “Story” format as well. This is the best you can do to remain relevant? Where’s the innovation?
Amazon and COVID
As front line workers risked their lives and health to take care of people infected with COVID, so did employees of Amazon, which saw requests for e-commerce products go through the roof, as people looked for contactless purchases. But all was not rosy in the factories, where people were apparently jammed together and not very social distanced. Workers got sick, some sued the company for unsafe conditions others started speaking out. How did Amazon respond? By firing several of them. Not great for public relations in a year when the big tech companies were called to testify to Congress and defend calls for a breakup of Big Tech. By the fall, Amazon admitted that nearly 20,000 of its 1.37 million workers had gotten COVID, and eight had died.
I have a really smart idea. If a company has come up with a breakthrough that will solve a major consumer pain point, say, like shielding us from endless robocalls, don’t announce it unless it really works. As in T-Mobile’s “Scam Shield,” introduced in July, It said that customers would get robocall protection with “no special device, plan or app required.” Only one problem. I’m a T-Mobile customer. And my robocalls haven’t gone down, they’ve gone up since, to the tune of at least 10 a day. Back to the drawing board, Un-carrier?
Netflix, YouTube TV, Hulu with Live TV, AT&T’s U-Verse, DirecTV, and the list goes on and on. Streaming companies showed no shame when it came to getting those of us suffering from a pandemic to pony up more dollars so that their shareholders could see more profits. That hurt the pocketbook. But the worst offenders: cable companies. These firms add a “sports tax,” to all subscribers, whether they want sports or not, to pay for ever escalating sports fees. And even in the spring, when sports seasons and games were cancelled due to COVID, the cable companies didn’t magically stop collecting the fees, noted Phil Swann in his TV Answer Man column.
The biggest tech hit of the year has clearly been the Zoom video meeting service, due to the pandemic. It changed the way we live, working and learning from home, and love it or hate it, we spent more hours in video meetings than we’d probably like to believe.
As it has been for much of the year, as of this writing, Zoom is the No. 1 most downloaded app on the Apple iOS app store. But Microsoft would love to see some love for its enterprise-based app Teams, which also has video meetings. So what does Microsoft do to get more people in front of teams? How about a stand-alone device for meetings, similar to DTEN’s 27-inch $599 Zoom for Home unit, or Facebook’s Portal, which starts at $129 for the 8-inch version, and allows for Zoom meetings.
Except that Microsoft decided to go much bigger, which is good, at 85 inches, and a way heftier price tag, which isn’t so hot. Like, try north of $22K.
Next year, talk to me and let me set you straight.
As for turkey runner-ups, Black Friday sales started in earnest Sunday, and there are only a handful of really great deals out there. So don’t get me started.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
Follow USA TODAY’s Jefferson Graham (@jeffersongraham) on Twitter