The Blog

Big 2011 Tech Stories About People, Not Products

There were plenty of gadgets shipped in 2011, but the big stories of the year were about the people who made them and used them to change the world.
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There were plenty of gadgets shipped in 2011, but the big stories of the year were about the people who made them and used them to change the world.

The biggest and saddest story was the passing of Steve Jobs. His impact on tech, as well as on movies and music, is likely to be remembered for centuries. He's already an icon, right up there with Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and Henry Ford.

Jobs' legacy is not just the Apple II, the Mac, the iPod, iPhone and iPad but his passion for perfection. Former co-workers say he wasn't the easiest person to work with, but the products he created were not only easy to use, but often elegant and beautiful. While not everyone liked Steve Jobs, many were inspired by him. He was not unlike those depicted in the "Think Different" Apple commercials that began, "Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers," and concluded, "the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do." Well done, Steve.

Turnover at HP

Two of Jobs' heroes were the late Bill Hewlett and David Packard, whose Hewlett-Packard went through a major management change of its own this year. New CEO Meg Whitman is hardly a Steve Jobs, and her political views and failed run for governor of California make her a controversial figure. But she has a business track record and puts a very visible face on a company that can use a face-lift.

HP had a tough 2011. It acquired Palm computing and then jettisoned the very products that Palm brought to HP. There was even a serious proposal to pull HP out of the PC business, but one of Whitman's early decisions was to can that idea and remain in the game.

Activism and Hacktivism

The Middle East and North Africa put tech on their own maps this year with the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain and Syria. Executives at Facebook and Twitter don't take credit for what happened, but there is little doubt that social media helped power the people much as the printing press and mimeograph machines helped spark previous revolutions.

The big difference between a mobile phone running Twitter or Facebook and a printed leaflet is that social media can spread instantly and can be two-way. Not only were activists using it to rally the troops, the troops were using it for logistics and for spreading the news.

Those built-in cameras in just about all smartphones turned activists into reporters. When something big happened -- including atrocious and sometimes deadly reactions from authorities -- images of the incidents were captured and immediately transmitted around the world. It's hard to hide things when thousands of people on the scene are equipped with far more sophisticated video technology than CNN had during the first Gulf War.

Egypt's Hosni Mubarak went so far as to turn off mobile networks and the Internet during his country's demonstrations, but it didn't work. Like weeds growing through the cracks in sidewalks, information always get through, no matter what authorities try to do to stop it.

The Arab world wasn't the only place to witness technology-enhanced people power. The Occupy movement, protests at BART and riots in London all saw increased use of mobile technology.

Another big people story of 2011 was WikiLeaks. This organization, led by Julian Assange, released an enormous number of confidential documents from the U.S. military and State Department, as well as from government agencies and corporations around the world.

The organization relies on leaks from insiders like U.S Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is currently being detained for allegedly stealing and transferring confidential military documents while he was stationed in Iraq. Manning's motive, according to a transcript of an online chat he had that was acquired by "I want people to see the truth ... regardless of who they are ... because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public."

This was also the year of "hacktivism." Groups like Anonymous and LulzSec turned their hacking skills against the likes of Sony and scores of national and local government agencies in a type of high-tech civil disobedience that's clearly illegal but rationalized as social activism against repressive institutions.

Power of the People

Finally, when it comes to people, 2011 was the year that Facebook claimed 800 million active users around the world. It's also when Google started seriously competing with Facebook with its launch this fall of its own Google+ service.

Social networking isn't about the companies that maintain the servers but the people who use the services to post and consume content. If you think about the entire history of media -- from the stone tablet to parchment scrolls to the printing press, radio and TV -- they've all be about one-to-many communications. Sure, Gutenberg made it possible for the common man to consume content back in 15th century. But it wasn't until the advent of the blogosphere, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media that regular people were empowered to create and share it with friends, family and, if it goes "viral," millions of other people.

So, while 2011 saw the introduction of the iPad 2, Kindle Fire, a new Android operating system and all sorts of other great products, the real story this year is how people used the software that runs inside their heads to change the world through technology they can hold in their hands.

This post is adapted from Larry Magid's column in the San Jose Mercury News.