Five stories that changed technology in 2011


23 December 2011

Even without the economic turmoil you can’t say 2011 wasn’t interesting. Between the continued growth of the tablet market, activist groups taking on ‘The Man’ and privacy scares on social networks, technology made its presence felt on a cultural level as never before. So, in no particular order, here is a quick summary of the highlights.

1) Steve Jobs dead at 56
The biggest technology story of the year was the passing of Steve Jobs. Only months after the release of the iPad 2 and barely 24 hours after the presentation of the iPhone 4S Apple’s visionary CEO passed away after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. From the iPod, iPad and iPhone to iTunes and the Macintosh, Jobs took markets that were either ill-developed or floundering and made them new again. But for apps would the smartphone market be as cluttered as it is today? Would we still be buying CDs if iTunes didn’t take off? From the original Macintosh computer to his spell at Pixar to his revival of the company he founded in 1976 with fellow geek Steve Wozniak.
When Jobs returned to Apple in the mid-90s he found a company on the brink, by the time he left it had over $80 billion in cash – more than enough to solve Ireland’s debt crisis.

2) Sony, Lulzsec and hacktivist arrests
Hacktivist group Anonymous came to notoriety at the end of last year after launching distributed denial of service attacks on Mastercard, PayPal and Amazon that made them effectively useless for customers, costing them millions in lost business. Often operating under some banner of convenience, Internet censorship, withholding funds from Wikipedia etc. the group at least tried to portray itself as some kind of cyber-revolutionary group. In May this paradigm shifted as a splinter group, Lulzsec, ditched the political philosophy in favour of something more akin to vandalism on a global scale.
Lulzsec’s weapon of choice was shame, exploiting vulnerabilities in corporate networks allowing them to grab names and passwords of users and publishing them online. Victims included Sony, US state agencies and police forces and News International. The party came to an end following the arrests of members ‘Topiary’ and ‘T-Flow’, leaving four members at large.

3) Nokia self-destructs
When your employer likens the company to a burning oil rig you know something is amiss. Despite holding a commanding position in the mid-range, mid-priced mobile phone market, Nokia has failed to make anything out of the smartphone space. Having thrown in behind dated operating system Symbian in the N8 and the open source MeeGo in the N9 – neither of which has met market expectations – in February the company announced it would be ditching both systems in favour of Windows Phone 7.
CEO Stephen Elop, a former Microsoft exec, has plans to slash a further 3,500 jobs at the company and has overseen the closure of Nokia’s music service and realignment of the Ovi app store. If he doesn’t score a hit with Windows Phone 7 in 2012 his position will be under threat.




4) Blackberry outage enrages millions
How not to handle a crisis? Pretending it doesn’t exist is a pretty good start. In October Research in Motion infuriated millions of Blackberry users around the world when its messaging service went down for four days. When co-CEO Mike Lazaridis released a video message apologising for the slow response and slower restoration of service the damage had been done.

5) Facebook stares down privacy audit
In October privacy group Europe v Facebook complained to the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner (ODPC) about the social network’s practices regarding user data. The group, brainchild of Austrian law student Max Shrems, complained that Facebook’s labyrinthine terms of service left users personal data open to exploitation by (commercial) third parties.
As Facebook’s corporate headquarters are located in Ireland it fell to the ODPC to investigate how safe users’ data actually is. Fingers were crossed that some kind of scandal would be exposed or that punitive measures be introduced to protect ordinary citizens from exploitation. That’s not quite how it turned out.
Barring some minor adjustments Facebook’s policies were found to be broadly in line with Irish, and hence EU, law. The issue of automatic tagging of photos by facial recognition was recognised as a bone of contention, and this can be turned off simply in an account-holder’s privacy settings.
Users may have noticed a message outlining how Facebook makes money flagged on the top of their profile pages. It’s worth a read, if only to dispel a few urban myths.

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