These Are The 10 Most Important Tech News Stories Of 2018

In the same year, Apple became the richest company to ever exist, it also forecasted poor iPhone sales for the first time in years and fell victim to a number of disconcerting controversies. It even quickly lost its top spot to Microsoft shortly after its record-breaking announcement. That’s just the kind of year it’s been for Apple.

9. A 7-year-old becomes the highest-earning YouTuber

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It’s been a rocky year for YouTube super-celebrities like PewDiePie and Logan Paul. All the while, the relationship between YouTube and some of its big stars as a whole has been strained further due to changing policies.

Amid the controversy, news broke that a 7-year-old named Ryan had become a millionaire — the current highest-earning YouTuber. The kid runs a delightful YouTube channel called “Ryan ToysReview,” where he’s racked up over 17 million subscribers. Now that’s something we can all get behind.

8. The rise and fall of MoviePass

moviepass giveaway check in

As much as we all love going to the movies, nothing spelled out the uncertain future for theater chains quite like the rise and fall of MoviePass. The subscription model once called “the Netflix of movie theaters” was supposed to give brick-and-mortar cinema a fresh breath of air. Millennials eagerly signed up, pushing the company past 1 million subscribers heading into the beginning of 2018. All seemed well.

From there, controversy after controversy sent MoviePass spiraling into chaos, eventually culminating in a fraud investigation regarding misled investors. On top of that, the roller-coaster ride of changing policies and pricing has been an ongoing cause for disillusionment and frustration. The entire concept may have been too good to be true all along.

7. The year of the Bitcoin roller coaster

what is bitcoin mining

Bitcoin had a similar rise-and-fall story in 2018. Heading into 2018, the cryptocurrency was at the height of its boom, pushing the price of Bitcoin up well over $10,000. The world wasn’t sure what to do or how to react.

But no matter how many crypto enthusiasts and startups repeated the promise, Bitcoin’s value never made it back over $10,000. Today, it hovers just below $4,000, fairly close to where it was in the fall of 2017. The downward trend hasn’t stopped though, and the future of crypto feels as uncertain as ever. If there’s one thing we’ve been left behind with, it’s blockchain, the revolutionary public ledger system Bitcoin is based on.

6. Elon Musk sent a car into space

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The eccentric billionaire didn’t have the greatest year in terms of publicity. Scandal after scandal has mired the once world-saving persona of Elon Musk. But before he abused Twitter to the point of being removed as chairman of Tesla by the Securities and Exchange Commission, he did something that captivated the world.

So, yes. Musk really did send a Tesla Roadster into space, aboard the huge Falcon Heavy rocket. It’s still out there, floating through space beyond the orbit of our planet. It was a sublime moment in the chaos of news, politics, and technology — a moment to stop and celebrate the fact that humanity did something cool just because we could.

5. Net neutrality was officially repealed

net neutrality ajit pai header

Net neutrality regulations haven’t been around for all that long, first introduced by the Federal Communications Commission in 2015. But just as quick as they appeared, so they were also quickly removed. The ruling was made in late December 2017 under the new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and officially went into effect in June 2018.

While we haven’t seen any major violations of net neutrality so far (at least none out of the ordinary), multiple states have already introduced their own protections to keep net neutrality enforced. But as it’s been with General Data Protection Regulation, drawing corresponding geographical lines on the internet is complicated, which could mean this fight isn’t quite over. Even with federal regulations pulled back, the future of the carrier-controlled web and content discrimination in 2018 still feels open-ended — and that’s a good thing.

4. Fortnite became a cultural phenomenon

fortnite ninja espn the magazine cover

What can be said about Fortnite that hasn’t already been said? The free-to-play, battle royale hit may have launched in late 2017, but it was throughout out 2018 that it became a cultural phenomenon, far surpassing the game world. Now that it’s available on every platform imaginable (including iOS, Android, and Nintendo Switch), it feels unstoppable, bringing in a reported $3 billion in cash this year.

With homegrown celebrities like Ninja gracing the cover of ESPN and outside entities like Drake popping in to play, it’s safe to say a game has never succeeded in the way Fortnite has.

3. The Spectre/Meltdown processor vulnerabilities affect nearly every computer in use

Spectre Meltdown

Intel’s 2018 has been tumultuous, but it all started with the discovery of a security vulnerability found in just about every processor currently in use. The problem was Intel’s alone to bare. AMD and Arm were equally affected, meaning it was a vulnerability that was nearly inescapable.

The problem extends beyond just the mere existence of the vulnerability. Because of the way these companies responded, the larger question of how the tech industry is held accountable for potentially earth-shattering security issues was brought to the forefront of public thought. Given the amount of data breaches and leaks we get each year, we need all the accountability we can get.

2. NASA’s InSight Lander makes it to Mars

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Nothing brings us together quite like space travel. It’s what President John F. Kennedy knew in 1969, and it feels even more true today.

The robotic lander began its journey in May 2018 and clamped its metallic feet down on the rocky surface of Mars in November. Watching the NASA InSight Lander complete its mission to Mars provided the escapism we all needed. Something about blasting beyond Earth’s orbit allows us to forfeit our own divisions and anxieties among each other. Even for just a short moment, the world stopped its spinning and let us all take a deep breath of inspiration. Thanks, space!

1. Cambridge Analytica forced us to rethink social media, privacy, data, elections, and the future of the internet

Zuckerberg Testimony Congress

Large-scale data scandals are nothing new, especially for Facebook. But the Cambridge Analytica case, in particular, started an important, far-reaching conversation about the future of the internet that none could have seen coming.

To put it simply, an organization called Cambridge Analytica, which has too many international political ties to even attempt to name, created a fake personality quiz on Facebook. Using the information gathered, the organization hijacked the platform to harvest data points for up to 87 million profiles. Using this data, the organization then instructed political campaigns all around the world, most notably with the 2017 U.S. presidential election and the U.K. Brexit campaigns. All of a sudden, social media wasn’t just cat pictures.

More importantly, the scandal opened a new dialogue around social media that expanded to issues of freedom of speech, censorship, news, journalism, and even the nature of democracy in the age of the internet.

The immediate effects have been clear: More attention to third-party applications, login credentials, and data access. The larger issues of social media, privacy, and what we want the future of the internet to be, have only begun to be discussed. Five years from now, the internet might look pretty different — and the Cambridge Analytica data scandal just may have been one of the more significant turning points in that change.

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Instagram Got Rid Of The Scrolling Feed For Some Users And People Freaked Out

Instagram said it was a “bug,” but also said it was a test gone wrong. Hmmmm.

What is going on? That’s what Instagram users wanted to know Thursday morning when some people got a new version of the app that required them to tap through posts instead of scroll through them. Posts moved from right to left instead of up from the bottom of the phone screen.

People were up in arms over the change. Twitter — the service everyone uses to be outraged about things — was overflowing with angry reviews of the new update. But it seems the update will be short-lived.

“Sorry about that, this was supposed to be a very small test but we went broader than we anticipated,” Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, wrote on Twitter. “Should already be rolled back. If you’re still seeing it you can simply restart your app and you should be good to go.”

There was some confusion with Instagram’s communications team. When asked for comment, a spokesperson told Recode that this wasn’t a test, but rather a bug.

“Due to a bug, some users saw a change to the way their feed appears today. We quickly fixed the issue and feed is back to normal. We apologize for any confusion,” a spokesperson said.

Hmmm. That seems unlikely considering some who got the feature also saw a screen explaining how to use it. Bugs don’t often come with explainer screens.

In either instance, it sounds as though the tap-to-advance feature may have had its 15 minutes of fame, though that doesn’t mean it will go away. Tech companies regularly push out unpopular updates if they think it will lead to more engagement down the line. When Facebook rolled out News Feed, for example, angry users protested outside of the company’s office. When Twitter rolled out longer tweets, a lot of users were furious. Now, no one seems to care. (And Twitter looks silly for not doing it two years earlier as it had originally planned.) It’s possible Instagram found that tapping through posts instead of scrolling through them increases how much people use the app. On the other hand, Snapchat proved this year that some redesigns can have serious consequences for your business if you don’t get them right.

 

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New Malware Takes Commands From Memes Posted On Twitter

twitter malware

Security researchers have discovered yet another example of how cybercriminals disguise their malware activities as regular traffic by using legitimate cloud-based services.

Trend Micro researchers have uncovered a new piece of malware that retrieves commands from memes posted on a Twitter account controlled by the attackers.

Most malware relies on communication with their command-and-control server to receive instructions from attackers and perform various tasks on infected computers.

Since security tools keep an eye on the network traffic to detect malicious IP addresses, attackers are increasingly using legitimate websites and servers as infrastructure in their attacks to make the malicious software more difficult to detect.In the recently spotted malicious scheme, which according to the researchers is in its early stage, the hackers uses Steganography—a technique of hiding contents within a digital graphic image in such a way that’s invisible to an observer—to hide the malicious commands embedded in a meme posted on Twitter, which the malware then parses and executes.

Although the internet meme looks a normal image to human eyes, the command “/print” is hidden in the file’s metadata, which then prompts the malware to send a screenshot of the infected computer to a remote command-and-control server.

Here, the malware, which the researchers named “TROJAN.MSIL.BERBOMTHUM.AA,” has been designed to check the attacker’s Twitter account and then download and scan meme (image) files for the secret commands.

malware

According to the Trend Micro researchers, the Twitter account in question was created in 2017 and contained only two memes posted on October 25 and 26 that delivered “/print” commands to the malware that instructed it to take screenshots.

The malware then sends the screenshots to a command and control server, whose address is obtained through a “hard-coded” URL on the Pastebin site.

Besides taking screenshots, the malware can also be given a variety of other commands, such as to retrieve a list of running processes, grab the account name of the logged in user, get filenames from specific directories on an infected machine, and grab a dump of the user’s clipboard. The malware appears to be in the early stages of its development as the pastebin link points to a local, private IP address, “which is possibly a temporary placeholder used by the attackers.”

It’s worth noting that the malware was not downloaded from Twitter itself and the researchers currently haven’t found what specific mechanism that was or could be used by attackers to deliver the malware to the victims’ computers. The good news is that the Twitter account used to deliver the malicious memes appears to have been disabled, but it is still not clear who is behind this malware and how the mysterious hacker was circulating the malware.

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[Update: Google Confirms Shut Down, Denies Timeline] 2019 Is Your Last Year To Use Google Hangouts If You Haven’t Moved On Already

According to source familiar with the product’s internal roadmap, Google Hangouts for consumers will be shutting down sometime in 2020. That’s not surprising at all since Google essentially ceased development on the app more than a year ago. But just know, going into 2019, this is indeed your last year to keep using the beloved (?) legacy chat app. Last spring, Google announced its pivot for the Hangouts brand to enterprise use cases with Hangouts Chat and Hangouts Meet, so the writing has been on the wall for quite some time regarding the Hangouts consumer app’s demise. Meanwhile, Google has transitioned its consumer-facing messaging efforts to RCS ‘Chat’ and Android Messages following Allo’s misadventures.

Given Google’s abandonment of the app in terms of development and its presumed eventual death, many have already transitioned away from using it. But Hangouts is still the prominent chat option in Gmail on the web and the app remains on the Google Play Store to this day. Many recent reviews say that the app is showing signs of age, noting bugs and performance issues.

As mentioned, Hangouts as a brand will live on with G Suite’s Hangouts Chat and Hangouts Meet, the former intended to be a team communication app comparable to Slack, and the latter a video meetings platform. Meanwhile, Google Voice calling, which was at first independent and then long integrated into Hangouts, was moved back out to its own redesigned app earlier this year.

Interestingly, despite its forthcoming axing, Hangouts was one of a few apps to get early support for Android Auto’s new MMS and RCS functionality, alongside Android Messages and WhatsApp.


Update 12/1: Google’s Scott Johnston has chimed in and denies that any decisions have been made about the timeline of legacy Hangouts’ shutdown. Confusingly, however, he says that users of consumer Hangouts users will be somehow “upgraded” to Hangouts Chat and Hangouts Meet, both being enterprise-focused products that fill different needs.

Scott also explicitly confirms for the first time that Hangouts Classic, the subject of this report, will be shutting down “eventually.”

Meanwhile, a second source has since corroborated my initial report and says decisions have indeed been made for the deprecation of legacy Hangouts.

Scott Johnston@happyinwater

Hey @hallstephenj, I run Hangouts and this is pretty shoddy reporting. No decisions made about when Hangouts will be shut down. Hangouts users will be upgraded to Hangouts Chat and Hangouts Meet. Your source is severely misinformed. You can do better.

2019 is your last year to use Google Hangouts if you haven’t moved on already

According to source familiar with the product’s internal roadmap, Google Hangouts for consumers will be shutting down sometime in 2020.

Stephen Hall

@hallstephenj

Hey Scott, will update my report, but I stand by my sourcing. Would you be able to elaborate on exactly how legacy Hangouts users will be “upgraded” to Hangouts Chat and Meet, since those are entirely separate enterprise products that fill different needs?

Scott Johnston@happyinwater

1/ I can’t comment on your sourcing, since I don’t have any details. The frustrating part about your reporting is it leaves the reader to jump to dramatic conclusions, because it is only half the story. Hangouts users will be migrated to Chat and Meet.

Scott Johnston@happyinwater
1/ I can’t comment on your sourcing, since I don’t have any details. The frustrating part about your reporting is it leaves the reader to jump to dramatic conclusions, because it is only half the story. Hangouts users will be migrated to Chat and Meet.

Scott Johnston@happyinwater

2/ So while that will result in the eventual shut down of Hangouts classic (as we now call it), it doesn’t imply we are ending support for the use case supported by the product: messaging and meetings.

Our response:

Stephen Hall

@hallstephenj

1/ I have immense respect for this team and their products; my report was not meant to disparage Hangouts Chat/Meet, which we have covered extensively since their announcement, nor to suggest that their use cases were going anywhere.

Scott Johnston@happyinwater
Replying to @hallstephenj

1/ I can’t comment on your sourcing, since I don’t have any details. The frustrating part about your reporting is it leaves the reader to jump to dramatic conclusions, because it is only half the story. Hangouts users will be migrated to Chat and Meet.


Google’s Take

Shutting down Hangouts has been a long time coming, so if anything, its retirement still being more than a year away is what’s surprising here. I’d venture to guess that its actual usage numbers are still significant given that Google’s initiative to build a true messaging alternative, Allo, flopped miserably. Meanwhile, the ‘Chat’ RCS initiative that Google’s leading up still isn’t off the ground, either.

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