The top 10 stories of 2018: Blockchain rises, open source reigns, trust wanes

AI, security, big-ticket software acquisitions and the geopolitics of tech and privacy stirred both excitement and concern in 2018.

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2018: The year in review

Optimists can look at 2018 and point to GDPR privacy protections, the launch of blockchain business apps and the creativity of the open-source community as signs technology can lead us to a safe and prosperous future. Meanwhile, security breaches, the data-collection practices of corporate giants and fears that nation-states are using tech as a weapon stir concerns about the corrosive effects that darker trends have on society. Our top stories of the year show that tech, like any tool, can be used or abused.

GDPR, legal, European Union

EU implements GDPR as enterprises scramble to meet deadline

The European Union’s May 25 deadline for implementing its General Data Privacy Regulation, or GDPR, sparked what was arguably the most massive mobilization of programmers since the Y2K bug. That’s because just about any company that handles the personal data of EU citizens, no matter where in the world the business is based, must meet GDPR requirements. As people grow increasingly uneasy about data collection by big tech companies, and governments wonder what to do about it, the security and privacy protections enshrined in the GDPR show that regulators can indeed help balance business needs and user concerns.  

20151027 red hat logo
Stephen Lawson/IDG

IBM buys Red Hat, signaling open-source’s premier place in IT

IBM’s deal to acquire Red Hat for $34 billion is the biggest software acquisition in history announced to date – and possibly the biggest sign yet of open-source software’s central place in IT. Though the price tag raised eyebrows, it’s easy to see what IBM covets: a vast collection of open-source technology with the backing of a huge community of developers, and a hybrid cloud platform that will add heft to IBM’s own efforts. Corporate software infrastructure is increasingly based on open source, and its prime position in tech was acknowledged by other major deals this year, including Microsoft’s $7.5 million acquisition of source code repository GitHub and Salesforce’s $6.5 billion deal for applications integration company MuleSoft.

meltdown spectre

Meltdown and Spectre send shivers through users

The year opened with a nightmare scenario for security-conscious users: Published research revealed that a previously unpublicized class of processor-level flaws in nearly every chip made over the last two decades affects all sorts of devices, software and even cloud services. The main variations of the flaws, Spectre and Meltdown, exploit different methods used to speed processors, resulting in access to information that otherwise had been considered protected by best programming practices. Ensuing patches ended up slowing systems down. Luckily, the vulnerabilities are difficult to exploit and outbreaks in the wild have not been reported … yet.

anti facebook primary
Rob Schultz/IDG

Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal fuels tech backlash

Using a personality-quiz app called “This Is Your Digital Life,” Cambridge Analytica managed to collect personal information not only from Facebook users who took the test, but also from their unsuspecting friends – harvesting data on about 87 million people. The data was used in campaigns for Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, the Brexit vote, and the Mexican Institutional Revolutionary Party. When news of the full extent of the app’s scope broke in March, it crystalized growing public distrust about the data collection abilities and habits of tech companies, and caused Congress to summon execs to Washington for public hearings. Meanwhile, wary users are calling for more regulatory oversight, and a growing number simply stopped using social media.

windows 10 surface laptop
Dan Masaoka/IDG

Microsoft delivers Windows 10 October update, and stumbles

After months of testing, Microsoft pushed out the Windows 10 October 2018 Update (version 1809) at the beginning of the month, only to hit pause three days later and finally re-release it in November. In addition to issues involving Intel device drivers and the Task Manager, the update was deleting files – probably the worst thing you can do to users. Similar issues in the April update delayed the release of that version by about a month. Satya Nadella’s “mobile first, cloud first” strategy has energized Microsoft after years of stagnation, but Windows is still a huge moneymaker and the company can ill afford to irritate users with buggy updates.

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Martyn Williams

Trump blocks Broadcom takeover of Qualcomm, tech industry exahales

President Donald Trump’s decision to block Singapore-based Broadcom’s hostile $117 billion takeover bid for Silicon Valley chipmaker Qualcomm on national security grounds was not the only time he’s flexed his presidential powers in service of a protectionist agenda. But this move, unlike others, was met with relief by many tech execs. Industry insiders feared that Broadcom – known more for growth via acquisition than innovation – would blunt Qualcomm’s edge in 5G. Government officials, meanwhile, publicly said they feared China would step into a void created by the acquisition.

marriott breach
Marriott

Marriott Starwood breach: The hacks just keep on coming

The Marriott hotel group gets the dubious distinction of suffering the biggest corporate database breach of the year, and one of the biggest of all time; the hack potentially affected credit card, passport and other information of 500 million people who stayed at its 6,700 worldwide Starwood hotels over the past four years. Much is unknown about the hack, but it seems that an unauthorized party accessed its database. The methods and type of data stolen point to a nation-state actor, possibly China, adding to tensions between the U.S. and its trade rival. A few things are clear: Hotels have been easy prey for hackers, and travelers should check credit card accounts and credit ratings on a regular basis.

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Google’s Duplex shows advances, and limits, of AI

At Google I/O, when company CEO Sundar Pichai showed a video of the company’s Duplex AI assistant making an appointment at a hair salon – complete with very natural-sounding pauses, mm-hmms and uhhs – even jaded tech industry watchers were agog at how human-like it seemed, and not a few people found it a bit creepy. But when the company rolled out the technology in Pixel phones in a handful of U.S. cities, limitations became clear: For now, it only works for reservations at select restaurants, follows a narrow script, and sometimes human operators at Google jump in to help steer. While there may be growing concern about robots and AI replacing humans, it’s clear that we’re a long way off from a generally intelligent AI.

Microsoft Windows keyboard

The Microsoft Managed Desktop shows that what’s old can be new again

The Microsoft Managed Desktop, officially debuting in September, presents businesses with a Windows 10 device preinstalled with the complete Microsoft 365 Enterprise software package – managed, patched and upgraded by Microsoft for a monthly rental fee. For businesses that like the idea of IT as a utility, keeping IT staffs lean or occupied with higher-level tasks, maintenance-free Windows could be welcome. But some users wonder whether the company that put the “personal” into computing will bring MMD to the consumer market, phase out the option of actually buying software and controlling it yourself, and return us to a mainframe-era style, central-management computing model.

TradeLens supply chain shipping blockchain
IBM, Maersk

IBM, Maersk create TradeLens blockchain platform

In a year in which companies like Google, Oracle, Microsoft and SAP launched blockchain services, TradeLens – the electronic ledger for tracking global shipments designed by IBM and shipping conglomerate Maersk – stood out. The companies are giants in their respective fields, and at launch, TradeLens had more than 90 companies piloting the global program. Blockchain technology, often equated with cryptocurrencies, is at its core a programming architecture for distributed networks using cryptography to securely store data and transfer value. As such, it  can be used as the basis for “smart” contracts and a host of other business applications. Whether or not TradeLens becomes an industry standard, it represents the real potential of blockchain more than bitcoin’s headline-grabbing ups and downs.