The Apple Watch debut went very well -- until the very end, when U2 singer Bono took the stage for an awkwardly scripted, tone-deaf announcement that the band's new album would be distributed free over iTunes. Just as ham-handed, Apple and U2 pushed the album into people's playlists whether or not they asked for it. Yes, it was a first-world problem, but the episode revealed how out of touch a megaband can be.
"Oops. I'm sorry about that. I had this beautiful idea -- might have got carried away with it ourselves. Artists are prone to that kind of thing. A drop of megalomania, a touch of generosity, a dash of self-promotion and deep fear that these songs that we'd poured our life into over the last few years mightn't be heard. There's a lot of noise out there. I guess we got a little noisy ourselves to get through it."
You can't get to be as big as U2 without some self-promotion skills. Fine. But it's hardly some indie band waiting tables in between gigs in obscure clubs, counting every tenth of a penny Spotify sends. Apple does a good job highlighting fresh faces among iOS programmers; the iTunes marketing folks should follow suit.
It wasn't a surprise to industry insiders, but Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook still sent shock waves around the world when he declared he's gay.
"Let me be clear: I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me," Cook said in Bloomberg Businessweek in October. The political winds have shifted dramatically over the last decade, and Cook said his desire for social justice overruled his preference for privacy. "We pave the sunlit path toward justice together, brick by brick. This is my brick."
No matter their views, executives the world over should scrutinize the 800-word essay as a model of clarity, conciseness and engaging persuasiveness.
The words did more than just clear the air and give gay-rights advocates a champion in the highest levels of global business. They also clearly established Cook as a person unto himself. No longer is he merely the guy who happened to take over after Steve Jobs.
"It's not really about asking for the raise but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along. And that I think might be one of the additional superpowers that quite frankly women who don't ask for raises have," he said.
Unsurprisingly in an industry that's struggling to draw more women into its ranks, blowback ensued. Nadella quickly apologized and recanted.
Uber did a number on itself at the end of the year. Buzzfeed reported that Emil Michael, Uber's senior vice president of business, suggested the company spend a million dollars to fight press criticisms by digging up dirt on its foes -- including "your personal lives, your families." Michael disavowed the idea when it came to light.
Next up came Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who in a tweet-storm also disavowed Michael's stance but opted to handle the situation as a teachable moment rather than something warranting more severe consequences. "I believe that folks who make mistakes can learn from them -- myself included," Kalanick tweeted.
Finally, helping to keep the controversy going on a little longer, Uber investor and TV star Ashton Kutcher decided to voice his own pro-Uber thoughts on Twitter. He asked, "What is so wrong about digging up dirt on shady journalist?" But -- the resulting criticism evidently convincing him he'd touched a bad-PR live wire -- he later backtracked, somewhat halfheartedly: "U r all right and I'm on the wrong side of this ultimately. I just wish journalists were held to the same standards as public figures."
The same year Tim Cook came out of the sexual-orientation closet, famed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking also revealed his true feelings on a different contentious matter: he's an athiest. In an interview with El Mundo, Hawking explained what he meant about knowing the mind of God in his book, "A Brief History of Time":
"What I meant by 'we would know the mind of God' is, we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God. Which there isn't. I'm an atheist."
Relations among Silicon Valley tech titans aren't always smooth. Case in point: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg lashed out at a comment from Apple CEO Tim Cook. Cook had reiterated the well-worn idea that ad-supported companies make their living by, in effect, selling their users' personal details to advertisers, and Zuckerberg rebutted the point in a Time interview.
“A frustration I have is that a lot of people increasingly seem to equate an advertising business model with somehow being out of alignment with your customers,” Zuckerberg said. "I think it’s the most ridiculous concept. What, you think because you’re paying Apple that you’re somehow in alignment with them? If you were in alignment with them, then they’d make their products a lot cheaper!"
Zuckerberg has a point that Apple is out to make money, and ad-supported companies can't behave so badly that they chase off users. But Zuckerberg overreached: Apple does have a more straightforward relationship with customers because its job is to convince customers that its products are worth paying for. Facebook -- like Google, Yahoo, CNET and any number of other online sites -- has a more complicated three-way relationship in which it must balance infringement of its users' privacy against its ability to deliver precise data to advertisers that want to deliver targeted ads.
Bill Nye rose to fame as the zany host of a public-TV science show, but now he's been taking a more serious tone.
In February, Nye took on a creationist, Ken Ham, in a two-and-a-half-hour debate about the origins of life and the history of the Earth. Nye closed with a strong point: the approach that led to evolution is the very same one that led to today's technology and that underpins the US economy:
"The process of science, the way we know nature, is the most compelling thing to me. If we abandon all that we've learned, our ancestors, what they've learned about nature and our place in it, if we abandon the process by which we know it..., if we stop driving forward, stop looking for the next answer to the next question, we in the United States will be outcompeted by other countries, other economies."
The co-founder and chief executive is one of those soft-spoken nerdy types, but given Google's clout, it's best to pay attention when Larry Page speaks. Perhaps his most significant words this year, though not even a complete sentence, concerned Google's mission statement, which Page said “is probably a bit too narrow."
It's not going to get anybody into the speechwriter's hall of fame, but those few words in a Fortune magazine interview signaled that Page believes the profitable search-engine business was just chapter one for Google. Other big deals for the company include its Android mobile operating system, YouTube video-distribution site, Chrome operating system for cheap laptops and the Google Apps online productivity apps. But the bigger changes for Google could come as it gets into fiber-optic and perhaps wireless broadband service, kite-based power generation, research into life-span extension and other medical matters, self-driving cars, robots and any number of other ideas bubbling away inside Google's walls.
"Net neutrality is Obamacare for the Internet," tweeted Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, associating a complicated technology matter with his political party's favorite vehicle for attacks on the president. It might be a politically convenient attack technique, but it glosses over real complexities of the situation -- including a legitimate point that Net neutrality could help startups compete against deep-pocketed Internet incumbents -- and it triggered derision even from techno-savvy Republicans.
Cruz elaborated on his opinion in a Washington Post opinion piece, arguing that "it would put the government in charge of determining Internet pricing, terms of service and what types of products and services can be delivered, leading to fewer choices, fewer opportunities and higher prices." But there, too, he also went too far in an attempt to broaden his attack on the Obama administration, arguing that the Commerce Department's attempt to wind down its contract with the nonprofit ICANN group, which helps administer some aspects of Internet addressing, will somehow let scary foreigners take over the Net.
"Once this contract expires, ICANN will be governed by a global, multi-stakeholder community that could grant nations such as Iran, Russia and China more authority over the rules and regulations that govern the Internet," Cruz said. That view overlooks two important points: first, that those countries can and do exercise plenty of control over the Net in their own countries today, and it's that very multistakeholder community that actually has run the Net for decades.
Brendan Eich co-founded Mozilla, which develops the Firefox browser and Firefox OS smartphone operating system, and he spent 16 years at the nonprofit organization. His tenure as CEO lasted less than two weeks, though, as a 2008 donation of $1,000 to an anti-gay-marriage cause blazed up into a political firestorm. Mounting a defense in a CNET interview, Eich said, "If Mozilla cannot continue to operate according to its principles of inclusiveness, where you can work on the mission no matter what your background or other beliefs, I think we'll probably fail."
In principle, embracing the idea of inclusiveness might protect gay-marriage opponents as well as gay-marriage advocates, but in practice, Eich's argument failed to carry the day. The political pressures and backlash against Mozilla proved too strong, and Eich resigned days later.
Digital-ad company RadiumOne hit a rough patch before its initial public offering when CEO Gurbaksh Chahal was fired after a conviction for two misdemeanor counts of domestic violence and battery -- a plea deal down from 47 more serious felony charges involving a half-hour incident with his girlfriend that had been captured on video. Police said the video showed him striking and kicking his girlfriend 117 times, but a judge wouldn't admit it as evidence because police didn't obtain it with a warrant.
Chahal lashed out at the company's board in an open letter that said the incident was merely lost temper and that the board backed his plea deal until collapsing under social-media pressure. In short, he made the case that he was the victim: "You were well aware that if I had gone to trial I would have gotten full exoneration. Instead, I sacrificed full exoneration for the sake of the Company’s IPO, and -- more importantly -- for you and for our shareholders," he said.
The company wasn't having any. "Gurbaksh Chahal's own actions impaired his ability to lead RadiumOne as CEO and gave the board no choice but to terminate his employment and name a new CEO," it responded.
The ripples still haven't yet calmed down after leaks in 2013 from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed details of US and UK government surveillance. There are many subtleties to the issues involved, including the right balance between privacy and national security and the extent to which citizenship affects a person's individual rights. Google and Apple were stung by governmental authorities' legally permitted investigations that turned out to be supplemented by more aggressive, unilateral snooping. So it was no surprise to see that the two companies responded by deciding to build encryption into their mobile-phone operating systems so that only a device's owner held the key to see what files were stored on it. More encryption is coming to communication channels as well.
"BlackBerry pioneered the same business model that Google and Apple are doing now. That has not ended well for BlackBerry," he said at the Web Summit conference in November. Other countries, including Russia and China, require access to such stored data, so Apple and Google have "restricted their own ability to sell."
Maybe there will indeed be political repercussions to protecting user data. But fundamentally, it was the superior products from Apple and Google that hammered the nails into BlackBerry's coffin. Maybe putting the customers first isn't such a bad idea.