The worst of tech in 2022

Two words: Tech bros.

Jeenah Moon / reuters

Though it can be depressing to consider the worst in tech each year, sometimes naming some of the losers can actually bring some schadenfreude. In 2022, watching the long-overinflated crypto bubble burst was like staring at a pimple being popped in slow motion: oddly and grossly satisfying. And though some of us were sad to see Stadia go, no one in the tech and gaming industries was surprised when Google sent it to the graveyard. More frustrating, though, were the debacles that unfolded this year with very real and sometimes dangerous repercussions for the most vulnerable communities. As we recap the worst things that happened in tech in 2022, let’s hope that the year ahead brings more positive developments for us all.

Twitter

Even before Elon got his hands on Twitter, the service was being mis-handled by its leaders. As soon as Musk floated the idea of a $44 billion takeover earlier this year, Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal and the company’s board seemingly jumped at the potential payday. Who cares if it’s a singular social network, one of the few platforms for under-served communities to get their voices heard? Agrawal alone reportedly received $57.4 million from the sale. (Founder Jack Dorsey ended up rolling over his investment in the site, rather than nabbing a near $1 billion payout.)

And now we have Musk’s Twitter, an increasingly toxic pit of the internet’s worst, driven entirely by the richest man in the world’s id. Advertisers are leaving in droves, and Twitter obsessives are making their way to whatever alternative they can find. Meanwhile, Musk is learning just how difficult running a social network is (what’s that, you actually need content moderation?!). At this point, we can only hope Twitter will go the way of Tumblr: Mismanaged until it’s sold at a fire sale price to someone who actually cares about the internet. — Devindra Hardawar, Senior editor.

Crypto, FTX and everything related

2022 saw the value of major cryptocurrencies fall by a significant margin, with billions of dollars being wiped off the industry in minutes. Major crypto companies saw that a winter was coming, and started running layoffs in the hope of staunching the flow. But that winter got turned into a blizzard when FTX collapsed, pulling the already downward trends even further south. The year also saw plenty of other crypto exchanges get hacked, or burn up quite spectacularly when things got hairy. It was only then that the air started pouring out of Sam Bankman-Fried’s bubble, and we’re living through the consequences of that right now.

An Aside: I studied company law and finance for two years, and while I’d never pretend to be a high-minded finance type, even a cursory look at FTX should have aroused suspicion. The business was structured so opaquely that it seemed like an obvious ploy to mask something, be it amateurishness, or criminality. No company that drew in just $388 million in profit needed to be structured into 100 wholly-owned sub-businesses – only a megacorporation like Disney could possibly justify such a sprawling structure.

The other thing that FTX’s collapse should remind us all is that, while the current banking system is hardly a paragon, it does it least function. The fact that FTX was allowed to hold so much money in a system run by a bunch of comparatively unqualified figures is ludicrous. Maybe there’s a reason we don’t let a bunch of relatively young kids with little real-world experience in the banking world run major financial institutions.

Sam Bankman-Fried, founder and former CEO of crypto currency exchange FTX, sits after his extradition from The Bahamas with his attorneys Mark Cohen and Christian Everdell at his arraignment hearing in Manhattan federal court in New York City, U.S., December 22, 2022 in this courtroom sketch. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg
Sam Bankman-Fried, founder and former CEO of crypto currency exchange FTX, sits after his extradition from The Bahamas with his attorneys Mark Cohen and Christian Everdell at his arraignment hearing in Manhattan federal court in New York City, U.S., December 22, 2022 in this courtroom sketch. REUTERS/Jane Rosenberg

If you want to know how bad FTX was, just look at what John Ray III, who famously nursed Enron through its bankruptcy, wrote in the Chapter 11 filing. “Never in my career have I seen such a complete failure of corporate controls,” he said, adding that the founders were “inexperienced, unsophisticated and potentially compromised.” It gets worse when you reach the bit where it turns out the company had no idea how much cash it had at any one time. Which is surely table stakes for most financial institutions?

Then there’s the, ahem, alleged prevalence of wash trading in the NFT sphere, as holders swap assets amongst their wallets to give the appearance of a healthy market. Or the fact that a number of major crypto billionaires recently passed away in mysterious circumstances. But there’s no proof, friends, that this is tied to crypto’s usefulness in laundering cash for major criminal networks. None at all.

I do think, however, that what will really hammer the nail into crypto’s coffin in 2023 is the recession, as people need to cut down on their luxuries to pay for the essentials. Sure, you could justify buying a Bored Ape as an “investment” when there were stimulus checks rolling around the economy. But when you’re deciding between getting $100 bucks to cover your fuel bill this month or a JPEG of Jimmy Fallon as a monkey, a lot of people are going to make the sensible choice. — Daniel Cooper, Senior editor.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks during a Google keynote address announcing a new video gaming streaming service named Stadia that attempts to capitalize on the company's cloud technology and global network of data centers, at the Gaming Developers Conference in San Francisco, California, U.S., March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks during a Google keynote address announcing a new video gaming streaming service named Stadia that attempts to capitalize on the company's cloud technology and global network of data centers, at the Gaming Developers Conference in San Francisco, California, U.S., March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Google Stadia

Stadia didn’t last long. But at times during its short life, it was amazing. During Cyberpunk 2077’s unmitigated disaster of a launch, Google’s cloud gaming platform was one of the best places to run the sprawling game with minimal problems. When many couldn’t get the latest PlayStation or Xbox, Stadia was a way to play games with visual fidelity beyond the PS4 and Xbox One – as long as your internet connection could handle it.

The problem (and there are a few reasons why it struggled) was Stadia didn’t have enough games to stay relevant. Exclusives were rare and there simply weren’t as many games as the competition. Many of Stadia’s titles were also far more expensive to buy compared to other online game stores – even when on sale. When the company closed its internal development studios last year, it was not a good sign.

Then, a rumor gathered pace in late July 2022 that Stadia was going to be shuttered by the end of the summer. It was never substantiated, but it was enough to send devoted Stadia gamers (and their communities in places like Reddit) into freefall. Perhaps this was because Google has a reputation for killing its darlings. (RIP Google Hangouts, Play Music, Cardboard, Reader and the rest). Or perhaps because it was completely plausible?

Google denied it. Well, for two months. Then, the company announced it was shuttering the service, saying Stadia "hasn't gained the traction with users that we expected.” Which was… true. But it worked incredibly well. That’s probably why this isn’t where Google’s game-streaming tech ends. Earlier this year, AT&T offered a handful of games, including Control, to its customers through Google's Immersive Stream for Games – aka Stadia but not. Capcom used Stadia’s technology to offer a web-based Resident Evil: Village demo back in June, while Bungie reportedly used it to test out Destiny 2 changes and improvements with staff before rolling it out to gamers.

Google is, mostly, doing the right thing and reimbursing game and hardware purchases. But that didn’t include Stadia Pro subs – arguably what its most passionate supporters were using. Users will be able to play their game library until January 18, 2023. Then the Stadia servers get turned off, forever. — Mat Smith, UK Bureau Chief.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 28: U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks as House Democratic lawmakers hold a press conference to oppose restrictive abortion laws and support women's health care at the U.S. Capitol on July 28, 2022 in Washington, DC. The Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health case overturned the 50-year-old Roe v Wade case and erased federal protection for abortion. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 28: U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks as House Democratic lawmakers hold a press conference to oppose restrictive abortion laws and support women's health care at the U.S. Capitol on July 28, 2022 in Washington, DC. The Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health case overturned the 50-year-old Roe v Wade case and erased federal protection for abortion. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Period tracking apps and digital privacy

After the Supreme Court’s draft decision to overturn Roe v. Wade leaked, there was widespread panic. Amid disbelief, incredulity and outrage, people began to question if the tools they were using to track or avoid pregnancy would be used against them. Chief among the concerns was the reliability of period and cycle tracking apps. Were they collecting data that could be used to identify people who had terminated pregnancies? Would they hand that information over to anyone looking for it?

The Dobbs decision had a ripple effect when we went from scrutinizing the privacy policies of all cycle-tracking apps, to realizing that the overall digital privacy of every user was on a tenuous foundation. Lia Holland, campaigns and communications director for Fight for the Future, told Engadget in June that period-tracking apps were the “canary in the coal mine in terms of our data privacy.”

We learned too, that tracking tools used by platforms like Facebook to serve personalized ads could also be used for insidious reasons. Anti-abortion groups, for example, kept tabs on people seeking abortion services using Facebook’s advertising tools, despite Meta’s rules against doing so. Those groups could also share the data with third-party anti-abortion marketing companies to target “abortion-minded” people with ads. Though Google announced its intention to phase out third-party cookies in Chrome by 2023, this year the company had to delay that to 2024 as it continues to test a feasible replacement that would protect consumer privacy while allowing marketers to serve targeted ads.

At the start of 2022, Google announced that it was trying out a different tracking approach called Topics API, instead of the FLoC method it had initially prioritized. In February, after years of testing, Google’s proposal was accepted by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority. Still, despite rolling out previews of its privacy sandbox on Chrome in March and Android in April, Google still needed to push back the disabling of third-party cookies in its browser another year.

The outlook on our digital privacy in general may be bleak, but there may be hope for improvement. With all the scrutiny this year, many popular period-tracking apps took clear stands and launched privacy-focused modes or made it clear that they would not collect user data. The FTC has also warned companies and data brokers against the misuse of health and location data, and said it was “committed to using the full scope of its legal authorities” to safeguard consumer privacy. — Cherlynn Low, Deputy editor

Lifestyle image of the Peloton Row
Lifestyle image of the Peloton Row

Peloton and home fitness tech (everyone went back to the gym)

We’ve all been cooped up at home long enough and in 2022, we all let the dogs (and ourselves) out. And as we all ventured outside, we stopped using the at-home gear we bought to tide ourselves over during the dark days of lockdown. Every time we came home to the sight of the expensive console or the exorbitant stationary bike we no longer used, we were reminded of sadder times or unfulfilled goals.

So while companies like Peloton and Bowflex saw a huge boost in sales during the lockdown, they quickly saw numbers stagnate or plummet in 2022. After an ambitious effort to manufacture its own equipment, this year the company gave up making its own products and struck a deal to start selling its machines on Amazon. That marked the first time Peloton had sold its products on a platform other than its own, signaling that the company needed help to move units.

Since then, it’s also launched a partnership with sporting goods retailer Dicks to sell the Bike, Tread and Guide at 100 brick-and-mortar stores in the US. It also launched a rental program to let people get the Bike for a monthly fee and CEO Barry McCarthy said it was contemplating opening its workout content to competing bikes and treadmills.

These efforts to reach a wider audience makes sense. Peloton posted a net loss of $757.1 million for the first three months of the year on a revenue of $964 million. The company tried drastic cost-cutting measures, including laying off about 2,800 corporate employees, which is equivalent to 20 percent of its total workforce. It laid off an additional 570, 784 and 500 workers in July, August and October, effectively halving its workforce in a year. It also cut the prices of existing models in an effort to lower the barrier to entry and draw in more new customers.

It’s not all doom and gloom for Peloton, though. The company did launch a new rowing machine and connected camera this year, and appears to be setting its sights on more markets around the world.   C.L.

2023 Toyota bZ4X all-electric SUV is displayed during the 2021 LA Auto Show in Los Angeles, California, U.S. November, 17, 2021. REUTERS/Mike Blake
2023 Toyota bZ4X all-electric SUV is displayed during the 2021 LA Auto Show in Los Angeles, California, U.S. November, 17, 2021. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Toyota’s EV failure

Everything about Toyota’s bZ4X is disappointing. It came far too late, long after the company established itself as a hybrid leader and Tesla paved the way for true electric vehicles. It’s a bit ugly and surprisingly boring compared to other EVs, judging from practically every review. Oh, and it had to be completely recalled because the freaking wheels could fly off. Instead of being a market leader in safety and reliability, the bZ4X made it seem like Toyota had never built a car before. Even its name didn’t make sense!

While Toyota has resumed production of the bZ4X, it’s clear the company missed out on a huge opportunity with its first mass market EV. (There was a RAV4 EV, once upon a time.) And it’s doubly disappointing after we’ve learned that the company has been lobbying to slow down the EV transition. It’s classic innovator’s dilemma stuff – after pioneering with hybrids, why rock the boat any further? Toyota is reportedly pushing to reboot its sluggish EV plans, and given its sheer size it’ll likely catch up to other EV companies within the next decade.

But the company’s image is tarnished. It used to be the car maker that put its customers first, one that actually cared about the environment. But it turns out even the good guys can become complacent.   D.H.