With the year drawing to a close, it's a good time to view the year in tech in retrospective. While we had some truly amazing technology grace our lives this year - and you can have a look at some of it here -, 2020 also had its fair share of disappointing tech products, services, and happenings in general.
In this piece, we'll look at five of the biggest tech disappointments of 2020. Note that this is very much dependent upon personal preferences so you obviously may not feel as strongly about a product as we do, and vice versa. Furthermore, the failures that we highlight may not necessarily be commercial flops, and may have their ardent customers and fans for various reasons. With that out of the way, let's begin!
1 - Microsoft Surface Duo
Following much fanfare, Microsoft finally took the wraps off its highly anticipated "Surface Phone" last year, under the "Surface Duo" moniker. The dual-screen hinge design as well as Microsoft's penchant for building premium Surface devices had many hopeful that this would be the time the company finally nails the mobile category with a truly revolutionary device that amplifies productivity. Coupled with the fact that it would run Android rather than some new Microsoft OS meant that it would enjoy a huge library of apps too - unlike Windows Phone, where the "app gap" became the bane of its existence.
Well, the Surface Duo finally landed in August this year, housing a Snapdragon 855 processor, 6GB of RAM, 128/256GB storage, a 3,577 mAh battery, a very mediocre camera, and two 5.6" displays held together by a hinge. Apart from the specs being nothing to write home about with an outdated processor and a very mediocre camera, the things that really disappointed about the Surface Duo on paper were its price tag of $1,399 and its U.S.-only availability.
As our Senior Editor Rich Woods wrote back then as well, the Surface Duo was tragically overpriced. With foldable phones priced around $1,500 and above, you would think that Microsoft's offering fits in neatly in this niche, but an important distinction is that other devices in this price bracket offer a foldable display, rather than two displays held together by a hinge. In fact, the LG V60 variant which comes with a dual-screen accessory, Snapdragon 865, 8GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, and a 5,000 mAh battery is priced at $899, which is considerably cheaper than the Surface Duo. On paper, the V60 is a much better value offering than the Duo.
Of course, the next argument from ardent supporters was that the Duo offers premium build quality and an Android OS that is customized by Microsoft for this device. While the first argument definitely holds weight, the second fell extremely short when reviews of the Duo started pouring in, with the most scathing ones pointing out the numerous software bugs and glitches present in the device that actually result in decreased productivity in day to day tasks, rather than the opposite.
Although all of this is expected from a first-generation device that largely appears to be experimental - and we've seen Microsoft turn things around with the Surface before as well -, it was still disappointing to see the Duo fail to live up to the hype that it had built over the past couple of years. This is one device that many believed would allow Microsoft to establish a foothold in the saturated mobile market, but clearly, this is not the case. With the company offering three years of feature updates for the Duo as well as finally expanding availability to more markets, one would hope that the company has learned its lessons from this release and things will improve both for this device and other potential successors. This particular device category certainly has promise, but can't live up to it right now, and definitely not at this price.
2 - Cyberpunk 2077 on consoles
Yet another heavily hyped product that failed to live up to expectations this year, to some extent. While development on Cyberpunk 2077 started back in 2012, it was not until the completion of The Witcher 3's DLCs in 2016 that CD Projekt Red (CDPR) went all-in on its upcoming AAA title. The title was marketed as a truly groundbreaking gaming experience, the likes of which players had never seen before. The game was delayed multiple times, but was finally released on December 10, 2020.
Let's be clear here from the get-go: Cyberpunk 2077 is not a bad game by any means. According to most reviews and feedback from players around the world, it delivers a gripping narrative, decent gameplay, and a beautifully designed vertical open world. The problem is that it doesn't offer a polished experience right now, not even close to one.
On PC, many players are experiencing bugs and crashes, but they still seem to have the better end of the stick as compared to console players. When it launched, players on last-gen consoles, namely PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, were treated with a myriad of issues, with the most glaring one being the game struggling to hit 30fps, and mostly hovering around the 20fps and below mark. It is important to note that this happens while maintaining a resolution of below 1080p on both consoles. On PlayStation 4, it hovers at 900p and lower, and the Xbox One runs at a similar resolution too. PS4 Pro and Xbox One X fare only slightly better.
The situation is only slightly better on next-gen consoles such as PS5 and Xbox Series X|S. While the title runs at a better resolution, it is barely able to maintain the ideal 60fps target. Other issues such as bugs and crashes still persist across console generations.
Thousands of people have complained about the state of Cyberpunk 2077 on consoles, claiming that CDPR intentionally misled players by not showing off gameplay on consoles providing no console copies to reviewers.
The company has since issued an apology, accepting that the game is not in a decent condition especially on last-gen consoles, and that it will be releasing major patches in 2021 to address concerns. However, it has emphasized that the patches "won’t make the game on last-gen look like it’s running on a high-spec PC or next-gen console, but it will be closer to that experience than it is now".
Following this public apology, Sony removed Cyberpunk 2077 from the PlayStation Store, offering full refunds to anyone who wants them. Microsoft has offered refunds for digital Xbox copies of the game as well, but has not delisted it.
Since the title's launch, CDPR's stock has dropped by almost 40%. That said, it is important to note that Cyberpunk 2077 is apparently not a failure in terms of units sold. Recently, CDPR revealed that it has managed to sell 13 million copies, after removing refunds from the equation. One can only hope that the firm manages to pull itself together and turn things around sooner rather than later.
3 - Quibi
We wouldn't be surprised if you told us that you haven't heard of Quibi before. The name is a play on the "quick bites" phrase, where the platform offered short video content and shows to mobile users only. It launched on April 6, 2020, with a free 90-day trial and two subsequent subscription plans: $4.99/month with ads or $7.99/month without them.
Although it received 1.7 million downloads in its first week, reception ranged from mixed to negative, with some praise directed at original shows. This made sense given that this is already a market mostly captured by TikTok, YouTube, and other services, which offer free alternatives. And if Quibi was targeting users who had subscribed to the likes of Netflix or Disney+, it didn't have the brand recognition or content to justify its price.
This was further confirmed when reports indicated that 90% of roughly one million people who signed up for a free trial in the first three days after launch did not renew their subscription after its expiration.
Following its lukewarm reception, Quibi announced that it is shutting down on December 1. The company stated that it is closing its doors "because the idea itself wasn’t strong enough to justify a standalone streaming service or because of our timing". The latter is a bit difficult to believe since we are in the middle of a pandemic in which people have more time on their hands to stream shows, especially ones which have episodes less than 10 minutes in length.
This was rather a quick end for a company which raised $1.75 billion from investors such as Walmart, PepsiCo, and Anheuser-Busch. It would be unfair to say that Quibi failed for lack of trying since it did try to chase original programming, and was actually nominated for 10 Emmy awards, two of which it won. Many claim that it failed purely because it spent too much on advertising and was focused on mobile users only rather than offering a broad platform.
Farewell Quibi, we hardly knew ye.
4 - Apple's stance on cloud game-streaming
Microsoft finally brought its Project xCloud cloud game streaming service to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate this year, allowing people to play console games using just their Android smartphones and tablets. The key concern here is "Android" only, when it comes to mobile platforms.
Microsoft fully intended to bring this service to iOS devices as well but faced stiff resistance from Apple, which claimed that it won't allow it because the company claimed it wouldn't be able to review the games being offered, and would have no control over what content is made available to users. This is a very weird argument because it doesn't translate well to content streaming services like Netflix or Disney+, which also offer different content in the same way without moderation from Apple.
Microsoft isn't the only company facing problems on this end. Google Stadia and Nvidia's GeForce Now are unavailable on iOS for the same reason as well, although the former worked out the issue by releasing a dedicated Progressive Web App (PWA).
Following criticism on its stance, Apple did backpedal a bit in September by offering an olive branch. Kind of. It modified its rules to allow game-streaming with some caveats; game-streaming providers can still offer catalog apps, but they'll have to link to the individual games in the App Store. Moreover, they'll have to allow users to sign up for the service in the app, meaning that Apple gets a 30% cut, and they'll have to support Sign in with Apple.
Microsoft promptly responded to the move, stating that it offers a poor customer experience. The company went on to say that:
Gamers want to jump directly into a game from their curated catalog within one app just like they do with movies or songs, and not be forced to download over 100 apps to play individual games from the cloud. We’re committed to putting gamers at the center of everything we do, and providing a great experience is core to that mission.
Unfortunately, Apple has refused to budge further, and Microsoft isn't willing to comply with Apple's restrictive rules either. As such, it has been rumored that the Redmond tech giant is working on an alternate solution to circumvent Apple's policies. It is reportedly planning to introduce a browser-based web app - à la Google Stadia - that will directly bring xCloud game streaming to iOS next year. This was allegedly confirmed by Microsoft's gaming head Phil Spencer at an internal meeting with employees, in which he stated: "We absolutely will end up on iOS".
5 - Zoom's privacy and security fiasco
Online communication platform Zoom had an excellent year when it comes to stock prices and usage in 2020. This was mostly thanks to the ongoing pandemic in which people were forced to work from home, observe social distancing, and adjust to the "new normal", where most formal work communication has to be done remotely.
However, the company also had a string of issues related to user privacy and security, which were all the more serious because of the number of people using the platform this year. While the firm dealt with each problem as it emerged, it was in the headlines frequently, and usually not because of good reasons.
In March, it was revealed that Zoom sends analytics data to Facebook, even if the user doesn't have a Facebook account, a security gap which the company plugged by removing the problematic SDK. Then in April, a major vulnerability was disclosed which allows hackers to steal a user's Windows credentials. SpaceX immediately prohibited its employees from using Zoom in official capacities.
Following this fiasco, Zoom vowed to fix privacy and security flaws in a 90-day feature freeze. During this period, it updated its macOS pre-installation scripts because it was revealed that they contain abusive behavior that circumvents Apple's OS restrictions and installs the software on Macs without proper user consent. It also enabled waiting rooms by default to prevent "zoombombing".
While it was fixing these issues, Zoom developed a negative press image as a software that is insecure and violates user privacy. Two U.S. state attorneys started looking into Zoom's privacy practices, while a shareholder sued the company. Google banned its use on employee laptops, Singapore prohibited teachers from using it, Standard Chartered told employees to stay away from it, and the Indian government called it an "unsafe" platform for video conferencing.
The company also made a misleading claim that it has "more than 300 million daily users", a phrase that it backtracked on and changed to "surpassing 300 million daily Zoom meeting participants".
While things have been better for the video conferencing app on the privacy and security front in the second half of 2020, with the company finally rolling out support for end-to-end encryption, it was certainly disappointing to see a mainstream service, being used daily by millions of users around the globe amidst the pandemic, be so lax when it comes to ensuring the safety of its online user base. Here's to hoping for a stronger showing next year with the COVID-19 vaccines on the horizon and competitors like Microsoft Teams and Google Meet upping their game as well.
Those were our picks for the top five tech disappointments of 2020, but we're certain that there may have been other things which ticked you off as well. Managed to grab a next-gen console yet or did you have to submit to the will of malicious scalpers? We have highlighted what we personally consider the biggest tech disappointments this year, but feel free to let us know your thoughts in the comments section as well!