2011: The Year in Tech

Matt Mullenweg is yet another tech billionaire college dropout. He may be less famous than Mark Zuckerberg, but the blogging platform he founded, WordPress, powers 25% of the web, including Slaw.

In a recent podcast, Mullenweg explained that most of the hot topics in technology that the tech press bombards us with at any given time are too early in their hype cycle, and that a better source of inspiration for tech projects is to look at what technologies were considered hot 5 years ago.

So I went back to 2011 and found a post entitled “2011: The Year In Tech” on the well-known blog TechCrunch. The exercise was initially depressing, but turned out to be uplifting. Let me explain.

Depressingly Uninspiring

Let’s start with the depressing part. The 11 bullets in the “2011: The Year In Tech” post are the following. I’m adding short notes on each of them:

  1. End Of An Era: Steve Jobs Passes Away” – No comments here.
  2. Google Goes Social” – This was to highlight the launch of Google Plus, which certainly failed to meet expectations.
  3. The Kindle Lights A Fire” – This product failed to take a significant market share in the tablet space from the iPad. Sadder still: This line of products resulted in the “Fire” brand being unavailable for Samsung when it chose the name of the Galaxy Note 7.
  4. The Year Of The Pivot” – The post explains: “The one thing startup founders learn very quickly is that failure is okay as long as they learn from it.” While this is not in itself depressing, its inclusion in a “tech year in review” post certainly is.
  5. Netflix Screws Up Again” – The post explains: “This was a tough year for Netflix. Its stock went from $300 to $70 as it tried to speed its transition from a DVD rentals business to streaming online video.” Netflix is certainly doing OK now, but 2011 was probably demoralizing for some of its investors.
  6. Tech IPOs Come Back (Sort Of)” – The list of IPOs that happened in 2011 according to the TechCrunch post is pretty bleak aside from LinkedIn: Pandora, Groupon, Yandex, and Zynga.
  7. The Private Billion-Dollar Club Gets Bigger” – Let us all be happy for these people whose car doors open like this and not like this.
  8. Google Buys Motorola, Microsoft Buys Skype, And Other Big Deals” – See previous.
  9. “The Patent Wars Get Ugly” – Yawn.
  10. Android And Apple Win The Mobile Internet” – This was at the expense of Blackberry, whose demise is a known Canadian tech tragedy. Add to this that the mobile Internet is largely app-based, to the detriment of the Web, which I cherish.
  11. Social Media Fuels Social Protests” – The post says: “Whether it was the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street, social protest movements around the world were fueled by social media like Twitter and Facebook.” I’m not a big fan of what social media seems to be “fuelling” these days in the Western world, not to mention the sad sequel to the Arab Spring that we have been witnessing more recently.

To sum this up, I don’t remember feeling that way, but 2011 seems to have been (in hindsight at least) a little bit sad on the technological front, although I would note two omissions from this (admittedly mostly “business of tech” oriented than about actual technology) TechCrunch year review:

  • The triumph of the machines at Jeopardy with the victory of IBM’s Watson.
  • Spotify’s launch in the U.S.

But Also Uplifting!

If 2011 didn’t seem depressing to us (or to me at least) as a technophile, it means that some of the above news were exciting at the time. Yet, most of them either failed or look completely boring today! This first means that technology moves very fast. We all know that, but just to complete this idea, let’s add the following examples of technological developments that still had not happened 5 years ago:

  • Tesla hadn’t even launched its first “serious” car (the Tesla Model S) in 2011.
  • Uber was still called UberCab in 2011 and was unknown to most people outside San Francisco. (Whether you like Uber’s business practices or not, it’s an impressive tech achievement and not just for Uber itself but for what it builds upon: smartphones with apps and GPS powering a transportation system that does better than the traditional taxi model.)
  • This is related to my note about Watson: Most of us had never heard the expression “deep learning” that has now become almost common place in legal tech discussions. Moreover, computers still could not perform the basic task of recognizing the backbone of Internet culture. Today, Watson is powering a legal robot, as we probably all know. To be perfectly honest, in the podcast I refer to at the start of this post, Mullenweg mentions that one of his strategy is to look at old Wired magazine covers. As a matter of fact, the January 2011 edition of Wired talked in length about AI and claimed that the “AI revolution is on”.
  • Animated GIFs were still relatively rare in 2011 and only started to become really popular in the next year when Oxford Dictionary Press chose GIF (the verb) as the word of the year (a clear sign that 2012 was a more cheerful year than 2016). Today, GIFs are everywhere. Add to this that last year’s word of the year was the “Face with Tears of Joy’” emoji. These two “technologies” (or languages?) could be transforming human communications and art.
  • In 2011, Facebook was still not a public company.

More importantly perhaps for those like me who tend to suffer from tech FoMO, the relative technological dullness of 2011 (in hindsight) also means that it’s probably OK to generally ignore most of the noise in the tech space and focus on what matters.

There are still a lot of buzzwords-filled articles to fend off in the 2016 tech press jungle (and there will always be) and it seems like a safe bet that a lot of today’s buzz will be laughing stock 5 years from now. In the meantime, when you consider that despite having only recently started to regularly headline the tech press, Tesla was founded in 2003 and Uber in 2009. Similarly, Mullenweg released the first version of WordPress in 2003, and Facebook was founded in 2004 (these two sites are still based on PHP, a programming language that wouldn’t be considered so cutting edge today)… not to forget that Slaw was launched in 2005. These are not decades-old projects, but they are not your 1-year-old startup either. Add to this list that the GIF was invented in 1987 and IBM was founded in 1911.

While the pace of technology is certainly very fast, there seems to be room for players who ignore the buzz, take the time they need to realize their vision and bring us world-changing technology and products. That’s certainly more inspiring than my newsfeed these days.

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