2021 wasn’t a banner year for technology innovations, but there were some interesting products launched this past year. It was also a
year of challenges due to a worldwide chip shortage, surges in COVID-19 infections and widespread criticism and cynicism about the impact of at least some tech companies on our society.
Severe weather, fires at production facilities, a trade war with China and the impact of COVID-19 on chipmaker staffing and consumer demand all contributed to a dearth of computer chips that affected the supply and price of numerous tech-heavy products, including automobiles. The shortage is even having an impact on the upcoming annual CES tech tradeshow set to open Jan. 5 in Las Vegas. Gary Shapiro, who heads up the trade group that runs CES, told the Associated Press that chip shortages, “probably produced more cancellations of exhibitors than anything having to do with COVID.” He added that some exhibitors “are not participating because they just can’t get their product, they can’t get their prototypes together, things like that.” I’m sure the shortage is an issue, but I suspect that the surge of COVID-19 cases due to the omicron variant is the main reason the 2022 show is likely to attract a much smaller number of visitors and exhibitors. With the exception of 2021 when CES was cancelled, I’ve been to Las Vegas every year since 1981 for CES, the now-defunct COMDEX or both. But, like my colleagues from many media organizations, I’ll skip the trip to Las Vegas and cover whatever happens at CES 2022 from home.
Probably the biggest tech story of 2021 was one the tech industry would have preferred to avoid. Facebook (now Meta) was on the hot seat after a whistleblower along with the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and other media organizations, disclosed numerous issues including company sponsored research showing that Meta-owned Instagram can have a negative impact on the mental health of some teen users. But Facebook wasn’t the only company to get bad press. Apple and Google were accused of gouging the public and their smartphone app developers by requiring use of their app stores for distribution and charging a hefty 30% commission on paid apps. Amazon is facing scrutiny and lawsuits for unfairly crushing competitors, and Google is being investigated by the Department of Justice for unfair control over the ad market. Criticizing big tech is the one thing Democrat and Republican lawmakers seem to agree on, though one side is convinced they stifle free speech while the other complains that they fail to block dangerous speech. The divisiveness of our politics — and even the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — was blamed in part on Facebook, Google and Twitter.
There were some bright spots in tech’s 2021 portfolio. For one thing, workers around the world continued to rely on computers, smartphones, and internet to get to work, despite the emergence of vaccines and the hope that people would be able to return to offices. But the delta and omicron variants prompted numerous companies to postpone or at least severely limit in-person work while at the same time realizing that many of their workers not only preferred commuting by video, but were able to get the job done without having to come in. Video conferencing systems like Zoom, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams were only part of the solution.
Services like Slack enable workers to interact in real time with colleagues and virtual private networks and other technologies enable workers to be logged into company networks from anywhere. As someone who’s worked from home for decades, it came as no surprise to me that people can be productive — perhaps even more productive — while working from home. Just this week, I had to do a TV segment which — in the past — would have required me to travel to a studio or host a crew at my home office. Not only was I able to broadcast from home, but the reporter who interviewed me, KPIX’s Kit Do, was broadcasting from his car. He had a MacBook perched on his dashboard, and I have a home studio with a reasonably high-end microphone and a 4K web camera which — combined — cost under $500 — a tiny fraction of what TV stations typically pay for remote cameras. Many people who go on TV from home just use their laptop’s built-in camera and some don’t even bother with an external microphone.
Interesting products of 2021
There were several interesting products released this year. Like most phone upgrades, Google’s Pixel 6 wasn’t that big of a deal, but it came with a software feature called Magic Eraser — that makes it possible to very easily remove objects from photos, often without affecting the background.
Rivian revealed its R1T electric pickup truck, and Ford announced its F-150 Lightning electric truck. I’m hoping someday to get an electric RV or turn one of these trucks into an RV, but it will be a while before that’s practical. In the meantime, here’s hoping electric pickups are picked up by people in the heartland who might otherwise eschew Teslas and other electric cars that — right now — seem to be popular only in blue states.
Popular Science is out with its 100 greatest innovations of 2021 awards, and among them is a simple but useful Surface Adaptive Kit for Microsoft Surface laptops that provides 3-dimensional stickers that enable people with serious visual issues to identify critical keys, match ports and cables. There are DIY ways to accomplish this, but it’s nice to see a PC maker provide them in kit form.
Here’s hoping for a happy, healthy and productive 2022.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit internet safety organization that receives support from Facebook, Google, Amazon and other tech companies.
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