Top Dozen Technology Events of 2015

By Shane Greenstein

Posted on January 12, 2016


It is time, dear readers, for a review of the year in technology.


And what a year it was. Yes, indeed, information technology in 2015 had its share of strange and notable people, events, and ideas! Who deserves awards? Below you will find a dozen winners.


How are these awards chosen? On what criteria? Be assured, it is a thoughtless process. Accuracy was carefully researched on Wikipedia, and winners were chosen after at least 23 seconds of contemplation. Alright, true confession: there are two primary criteria. The first criteria: these events must have something to do with information technology. The second criteria: these events should make you wake up tomorrow and think, “Thank goodness, the Internet is one bizarre place.” In the event of a tie, the award goes to the person or event that enables a hefty helping of snarky comments.


Image:Greenstein_sally-field.jpgAs in prior years, winners receive no monetary compensation. The only award is the notoriety of appearing in Digitopoly on a day when somebody randomly comes across this post. In addition, winners receive a virtual award called a “Sally.” It is named for Sally Fields, aka the Flying Nun, who – upon winning her first academy award – declared, “You like me, you really like me!” Why is an IT award named for someone who has no distinct accomplishment in IT? Hey, dude, stop asking pointed questions. None of this should be taken too seriously. It is just a virtual award.


Let’s get started….


Image:Greenstein_Volkswagen.jpgBest original script. The Sally goes to the Volkswagen Corporation, and for quite an original action. They cheated! While the rest of its competitors were sacrificing performance to spare the planet from more toxic and noxious pollutants, Volkswagen decided to reprogram the car, and deceive governments and consumers into enjoying a good ride on its diesel-engine autos. This was no accident, my friends. The software could detect when the auto faced a US pollution test, and switched into a performance mode that met all EPA standards – but only during inspections! After the test ended, it went back to polluting. Way to go, Volkswagen engineers! This was entirely deliberate, apparently undetected for six years, and installed in over 11 million vehicles. This also could qualify for the “what were they thinking?” award, but, then again, that is being too nice. If they had been thinking, they would not have done this.


Field of dreams award. Speaking of cheating, our next Sally goes to baseball. Not to be outdone, America’s pastime wanted in on the dishonesty. This year, the spotlight turns to professional baseball, and two stories involved the use of IT for dishonorable purposes. First, the St Louis Cardinal organization were accused of spying on the Houston Astros by using an old password and breaking into their system. But, hey, that pales in comparison to the true winner. Why stop with an organization when you can enlist an entire city? This year the Sally goes to the entire city of Kansas City — the entire city, both the side in Missouri and the side in the state of Kansas. Here is the background: MLB decided to try online voting for the All Star Image: Greentstein_StackedBalls-(2).jpgGame. At one point there was clear evidence of cheating by the entire baseball-watching population of Kansas City, which was notably sore about losing the World Series in the prior year. Taking lessons from Chicago elections to “vote early and often,” at one point the Kansas City Royals had eight of its starters in the first slot, including one player batting less than .230. Eventually only five Royals won spots, which is still a lot, but not a terrible distortion. Perhaps the best evidence of the extent of the security problems came from one Chicago sports columnist, who had repeatedly expressed skepticism about the ability of MLB to monitor cheating in online voting. He voted once, just to try the system, and then later received receipts for voting sixty times. Hmmm, what do you think? Maybe MLB’s online security needs a little work. May I speak for baseball fans everywhere, and ask Major League Baseball to confine cheating to the spit ball and (maybe) an occasional dirty slide? Baseball is giving a bad name to hacking.


Best Spy script. While we are on the topic of security issues, let’s give an award for best hacking story this year. This year the Sally goes to the Chinese military for hacking the Federal employee database. Not once, but twice! First, the hackers downloaded the personnel data base for four million federal workers. Then they broke in a month later and got the fingerprints for 5.6 million federal workers and contractors. Reportedly, the US government traced it to a secret Chinese military installation that houses the group which does all of China’s hacking. The US government got really upset, because, according to US policy, the US is supposed to be the only government who is allowed to pull such dirty tricks. Anyway, the US government accused China, who denied having anything to do with it. (Ya, sure.) The US government demanded they stop, and according to many accounts, the Chinese signaled that they might tone things down for a while. (Well, duh, they already have everything they need. There is nothing left to get.)


Image: Greenstein_guy-fawkes.pngAnother spy story. Not to be outdone by the Chinese military, another winner of this year’s Sally goes to the vigilantes at Anonymous, the group of IT hackers who use a Guy Fawkes mask to hide their identities. Lurking in the shadows of the cyber-sphere and the dark web, these extreme nerds seek to undertake righteous actions against groups they deem out of line. Normally they tend to target corporate activities managed by executives with tin ears, but a few months ago they decided they had had enough of ISIS using Twitter to communicate. So the programmers behind the Guy Fawkes masks decided to take down and interrupt communications from known members of ISIS. Reportedly they have identified thousands of accounts and effectively blocked them with rather crude messages that ISIS members find offensive. Hey, why didn’t the US spy agencies think of that? Oh, maybe they were too busy defending against Chinese hackers.


The next Sally goes for “A year of living dangerously.” This year it goes to the best supporting executive in a soap opera. The Sally goes to Ellen Po, who sued her former partners at Kleiner Perkins for gender discrimination and lost at trial. Only a few months after that, she got into trouble managing Reddit, which had a strike by some on some of its sub-reddits, who struck over the firing of an admin. Whoa. Such drama. More to the point, Ellen Po deserves the Sally because (a) everybody knows she is right that the VC industry is full of gender discrimination, and (b) everybody also knows that many sub-reddit organizers are first class jerks, and their admins should have policed such behavior. And now she is out of job. Two of them, merely for asking some boys to behave less badly. Sometimes the world is not fair. Hey, Ellen, thanks for reminding us that the world is messed up.


Image: Greenstein_good-dino.jpgBest animation and special effects. Switching gears, it is time for this year’s Sally for special effects, which is also the winner of this year’s Sally for best animation. Of course, the winner is Pixar/Disney. It was a close contest between Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur. And the winner is the dino movie because it used over 300 terabytes of data, which is a new record. Think about how much data that is. Wow. 300 terabytes. Why was this movie so data-hungry? The animators decided to make the scenery as realistic as possible. For example, they downloaded the entire US Geologic Survey data file for the Grand Tetons, and modeled many areas after the landscape in Yellowstone and the surroundings parts of Wyoming and Montana. To be sure, the team seemed a little obsessed with those details, so much so, they neglected to put quite as much imagination into the story, which was a cliché’ coming-of-age tale about finding courage to deal with difficult circumstances, except with dinosaurs. Alright, it was cute to cast the t-rex characters as cowboys. Speaking as a parent, a few more adult jokes like that and this would have been a great movie. As it was, who cares? My twelve year old was ok with it, and the scenery was so amazing. I saw it in 3-D and at times I just gasped and thought, “The Matrix has arrived.”


Best costumes and make-up. This Sally goes to Google for renaming their organization, giving itself the name Alphabet. Oh, and there was a reorg chart that went with this renaming, except it did not do much. Look, the new org left the same people in charge of the entire organization, namely, Larry and Sergey. Greenstein_Alphabet-Logo-Google-Android.jpgInvestors, of course, have no say whatsoever. Why did this make any news? Everyone understands that Google has too much money, and both Larry and Sergey long ago decided that they would flitter away part of their children’s inheritance on technically cool experiments – like autonomous cars and cures to aging and who knows what else. Everyone also understands that GoogleX, the lab, makes the resourceful masters of Myth Busters look like a junior high workshop. Everybody also understands that these technically cool experiments are so expensive that even the National Science Foundation and DARPA cannot afford them. Finally, everybody also already understands that a big part of Google’s experiments do nothing other than provide a nerdy playground for really smart engineers who could go work somewhere else if they did not have some nice toys to play with (heck, this is why people used to work for DARPA). Anyway, what’s with scrambling the reorg chart? Maybe Larry and Sergey are just so rich they can do whatever they want, no matter how nuts. If Alphabet comes up with something, then great for the rest of us who have to work for a living. If not, well, maybe they should hire Elon Musk.


And now a Sally for the best prequel to a sequel. The award goes to Apple for its Watch. Why is this deserving? Image: Greenstein_apple-watch.jpgSpeaking as someone who does not like Apple products at the beta stage, I just do not understand the appeal of the watch. More than a million people adopted it in the first three months. Yet, it syncs with the iPhone and nothing else. Its Apps are crap. It does very little except buzz a bit, when your calendar tells it to. It can act as a GPS, which other watches already do for a lot cheaper. True, the Apple Watch saved one person’s life by noticing their heartbeat was off rhythm, but, geez, that is what a pacemaker is for. Its users walk around talking to each other as if they are members of a secret club. And here is the thing: these same users are upset that the rest of humanity has not falling head over heels. Even crazier: a million adopters would be great for a startup, but commentators are talking as if Tim Cook’s job is on the line. Repeat after me: it’s an experiment, it’s an experiment, it’s an experiment. We won’t know if the Apple Watch is a classic or just another Newton until we see the sequel. The sequel will come in more colors, and with more apps. This will all happen soon. Until then, use a Garmin.


Best non-X rated event. Let’s go from Apple to being fruitful. How can we have a year in review for IT without mentioning sex? This year a special Sally goes to a new category, Most Improved PG rating. It goes to Playboy, Image: Greenstein_bunny.pngwho announced it would drop nude pictures from its portfolio of content at the end of the year. To be sure, for most grownups the sum total of the reaction was “Playboy still has naked pictures? Why do they bother?” But for men of a certain age this announcement might have generated a moment of wistful nostalgia, and perhaps a fleeting puzzlement. After all, where are inexperienced and curious adolescent boys going to go to find women with unreal body shapes other than a barbie doll? No, no, that is not what I mean. Where will young men get a supply of airbrushed photos of unreal women taking unrealistic poses as part of unrealistic sexual fantasies? No, no, no, that also is not what I mean. Where will boys find photos that ultimately interfere with intimate and mature relationships between men and women? Hmmm, that also does not sound right. Said simply, where else will anybody find unrealistic pornography on the Internet? Where, oh, where will boys find any such photos? Is there any pornography on the Internet? Oh, never mind.


Image: Greenstein_uber.jpgBest war activity. Let’s give a special Sally to Uber for going to war with virtually every major regulatory body in every major city of the world. And what do they get for their willingness to do battle to bring new technology to local car services? A strike in Paris. Banned in some cities. Relegated to delivering pizza in Barcelona. The mayor of New York, Bill Blasio, had to intervene in the dispute. In Seattle there is a union of drivers. Nothing like being popular with users and not with local governments, employees, and anybody else with a stake in the existing establishment. But, hey, who said war would be easy? To be sure, you might wonder why Uber got an award for disruption this year? After all, Uber could have won this award last year and the year prior to that too, and, given present patterns, it probably could win it again next year. The reason is clear: investors have an appetite for battle. Uber got another round of funding this year to the tune of two billion, valuing the firm at fifty billion dollars. That sure is something for a company that has so few real assets. It is also significant, because, as any student of war will tell you, as a fight drags on and becomes a war of attrition, the ultimate winner will be the side that brings the most resources to bear on the confrontation. Just saying.


Biggest white elephant. Speaking of disruption, now the Sally for the best (or worst) tragedy in an economic story. It goes to our friends in Redmond for what they did to the country of Finland. Buried within the Microsoft financial reports in the summer was a write-off for the purchase of Nokia. Microsoft has eliminated more than 8k jobs and written off $7B for the Nokia acquisition. Nothing like such a news announcement to remind us that this purchase never made any sense. But you have to pity the home country. That is the equivalent of 25% of the high tech employment in Finland.


Image: Greenstein_fcclogo-(1).pngIt is now time for our public policy Sally. It was a close race this year. We could give one to the European Union for its continuing investigation of Google (what do they possibly hope to accomplish?), or to the DOJ for blocking the Comcast-TimeWarnerCable merger and stopping a Sprint-T-Mobile combination before it even got started. But the winner has to go to the FCC for trying to get a set of Net Neutrality rules out for a third time. Once again, their case landed in court for the third time. This one is real serious, because this time the FCC followed the directions the court gave during the last trial. If the FCC strikes out this time, then what? Oh, what me worry?


Image: Greenstein_sheryl.jpgBest public drama. Let’s change the tone and give the Sally for a serious tragedy. All snark aside, nobody deserves an award more for the best drama than the COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, who tragically lost her husband to an accident on a treadmill while he was on vacation in Mexico. Gosh, was this awful. Two young kids. Freak accident. A wonderful person taken from her and everyone. So why make note of that in this year in review? Befitting her status as a major executive at Facebook, Sheryl did her mourning in a very public way, publishing a couple essays on Facebook. The essay at the 30 day mark was quite extraordinary, and I dare anybody to read that and not find it moving. Thanks Sheryl for reminding everybody that life and happiness and fulfillment still mean something, even to powerful executives at major IT firms. Having said that, can I make one slightly uncomfortable observation? I can still remember when mourning was a private matter. So the whole event had an uncomfortable meta feeling. Sheryl was living a very private matter in a very public way. Will everybody mourn in such a public way in the future? Is this the Facebook way?


Image: Greenstein_moore-in-reflection.jpgLifetime achievement. We are almost at the end. How do award ceremonies usually end? With a lifetime achievement award, of course! This year the Sally goes to Gordon Moore, who coined Moore’s Law 50 years ago in a paper Electronics. Happy birthday, Gordon! Woo, hoo! Thank you for making this all possible.


That’s it for this year. Once again, thank goodness, the Internet is one bizarre place. Have a great 2016!



The preceding is republished on TAP with permission by its author, Professor Shane Greenstein, Harvard Business School. “Top Dozen Technology Events of 2015” was originally published on Digitopoly on January 1, 2016.