What were the biggest Silicon Valley tech stories in 2012? We could probably make a list a mile long this year, but to keep it short and sweet, we thought to highlight a few head-turners. We’re hoping you can add your own candidates.
The fight over SOPA and PIPA—two congressional bills designed to thwart the piracy of movies, music, books, artwork and other copyrighted materials—went viral in January, as legislators squared off with hackers, tech entrepreneurs and tweens simply attempting to live their lives and snap up as many Bieber torrent tracks as humanly possible. Hollywood and the music industry funded the govt. push to deactivate websites that freely distribute copyrighted material, leading to Megaupload’s shutdown and its founder, Kim Dotcom, being arrested in a New Zealand mansion. Authorities reportedly found him hiding in a safe room with a sawed-off shotgun. The censorship backlash was fierce, as hacker group Anonymous crashed a number of sites, including those belonging to the FBI and U.S. Dept. of Justice. Taking a more civil approach, Craigslist, Wikipedia and others blacked out their sites for a day, leading legislators to stand down or face the angry, invisible mob that is the Internet.
If Facebook’s epic IPO fail taught us anything, it’s that people still aren’t exactly sure how to make money off the Internet. Subscriber growth was healthy, but Facebook’s advertising results were scant despite Madison Avenue firms paying top dollar. As the IPO date approached, rumors morphed into outright skepticism. Facebook execs then made the colossal goof of adjusting their expectations in the lead-up, ostensibly to justify a high-end opening price. By show day, the groundwork was laid for a mad dash to adjust positions, sending IPO managers’ computers into conniptions. When it was over, Facebook’s stock had lost nearly half its value, setting the stage for lawsuits, government inquires and a Wall Street breakdance fight.
Startup Silicon Valley TV
The general reaction from anyone who’s spent an hour watching Randi Zuckerberg’s new Bravo Network show “Startup Silicon Valley”: Really? With the exception of self-proclaimed “lifecaster” Sarah Austin, the show’s hype proved to be just that—delivering the kind of 20-something-white-kid drama that forces other white kids to meh their way to Real World/Road Rules Challenge XXVII. Without even a hint of the heady, fast-paced, high-stakes startup life it claimed to represent, the show’s departure from reality left more than a few women and entrepreneurs disappointed at its messaging.
It’s always been puzzling why the Internet 1.0 leader, Yahoo!, could never convert its superior curation of content into a profitable enterprise. With that as background, could Marissa Mayer’s appointment as CEO be one of the coolest things ever? Women and young valley watchers sure seem to think so. Mayer’s eloquent and photogenic presence has long been sought at valley events, and while the former Google VP was always happy to comply, observers noted that the search giant underutilized her talents. Can Mayer turn Yahoo’s fortunes around as well as tend to a new baby? It’s a story that has breathed new life into one of the Valley’s tech darlings and will be worth watching in the future.
Facebook bought Instagram
While many observers were left dumbfounded by Facebook’s surprise $1 billion purchase of Instagram, which offers a photo app that seemingly mirrors the existing photo posting capability within Facebook, insiders instantly recognized the brilliance of the move. After all, Instagram data could automatically deliver answers to an advertiser’s most elusive questions: Where are you now? What are you interested in? Who are your friends? And most important: How can we put your face next to our product? What Facebook didn’t anticipate was the negative reaction by regulators and some consumers. While Facebook execs promised not to mingle the two databases, recently proposed changes to the user agreement make it clear that the company does intend to create the mother of Big Data repositories—triggering a round of new protests from organizations like the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Digital Democracy.
Kickstarter: The best thing that ever happened for startups, or just another source of letdown for entrepreneur hopefuls. Those are the factions, as more stories of phenomenal success like ArduSat and InstaCube blend with rants about near-misses that left a lot of great ideas not just unfunded, but unfriended as well. Of course, not all the news is bad: The increasing dissatisfaction has prompted a wave of new crowdfunding sites with modifications on the model.
Everybody wants to be Pinterest
It’s been a long time since anyone felt design envy for a Silicon Valley company other than Apple. But heads turned in a big way with the success of Pinterest, the Valley-turned-San Francisco startup with the elegantly simple pin board design. In fact, the look and functionality of the site is so intuitive that it was replicated not once but several times, by a who’s who of Internet leaders, including Myspace, eBay, Apple’s iTunes, and even Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters social network. Social media consultant Janet Fouts of Tatu Digital Media said there’s good reason for all the similarity: “As we start to refine what people really want from a social network we will see a lot more similarities between them.”
Apple Maps Mess Leads to Exec Departure
Apple doesn’t often goof up a product, but when it does, heads roll. That was the case earlier this year when the company introduced iOS 6 with lots of bells and whistles—and a really bad map app. Rolled out as a swank new feature at the iPhone5 release, the app was quickly found out to be a botched attempt at replacing Google Maps with voice activation. Apple CEO Tim Cook later acknowledged that he was unable to negotiate an agreement from Google to include the voice command feature, which Google considers to be a strategic advantage for Android devices. Apple’s replacement maps were so bad—replete with roads that went nowhere, twisted and sagging bridges, and land masses that appeared to rise miles high—that Cook issued a public apology. Meanwhile, Apple map app users were reassured by Siri that they were, indeed, lost. But the effort to repair the blunder didn’t stop there. Apparently in response to his refusal to sign the letter of apology—forcing Cook to sign it himself—Apple software design leader Scott Forstall was fired within weeks. This led Cook to further reassign the software group to Sir Jonathan Paul “Jony” Ive, who was already head of hardware design for the company. Significantly, the last person to be in charge of both hardware and software design at Apple was the late Steve Jobs. Observers noted that as the head of all product design, Ive arguably now holds one of the most powerful positions in the tech industry today.