Take a Bow: The Tech That Said Farewell in 2020
Obsessing over tech news in 2020 might feel a little ridiculous, but time marches on in Silicon Valley. Some products launched to great acclaim, while others crashed and burned. Let’s review those that had their final bow in 2020.
For many of us, 2020 was a year of loss. Some of that loss was small in scope: daily routines interrupted; vacations cancelled; in-person gatherings reduced to squares on a screen. Others faced the loss of friends and loved ones, jobs, homes, and their own health.
So you’d be forgiven if obsessing over this year’s regular dose of tech news, from new phones to powerful graphics cards and game consoles, felt a little ridiculous. Does it really matter which smartphone takes the best photos if the only thing you’ll be photographing is the inside of your apartment? Maybe not. But that didn’t stop us from trying to make the best of lockdowns and grim headlines; we binge-watched, battled bots, tested out innovative new services, and otherwise kept each other amused as much as possible.
In Silicon Valley, time marches on. In 2020, some products launched to great acclaim, while others crashed and burned or petered out, just like they did in 2019, 2018, and 2017. As we get ready to welcome 2021, let’s take a look back at the technology that had its final bow in 2020.
Early in the year, we said goodbye to flight and hotel search aggregator Hipmunk. After Hipmunk was acquired by SAP Concur in 2016, several Hipmunk execs—including CTO Steve Huffman—made the jump to Reddit, as Inc.com reports. That, in addition to increasing consolidation in the online travel space, resulted in Hipmunk’s demise. “As its approach to providing business travel solutions has evolved, SAP Concur has made the decision to retire the Hipmunk product,” the company said in a goodbye note. “As a travel metasearch, we helped travelers take the agony out of travel planning and gave SAP Concur a deeper understanding of how to develop innovations that meet the needs of today’s traveler”
IGTV Inside Instagram
Changes to social media layouts are always controversial (for a few days, anyway), but early in 2020, Instagram removed one particularly unsightly element: the dedicated IGTV icon. IGTV is still available as a standalone app, and IGTV clips can be posted to people’s feeds on the main Instagram app. But as Instagram looked to compete more with TikTok than Facebook Live, it turned its attention to Instagram Reels, which now features prominently in the app’s Explore tab.
Google App Maker
Google is known for killing its apps and services willy-nilly, and one of the first to get the heave-ho in 2020 was App Maker, a low-code development tool built into G Suite. Google cited “low usage” for the shutdown, which started in January 2020. Come January 19, 2021, existing App Maker apps will stop working and you will no longer have access to them.
Google Fiber TV Service
After coming out of the gate hot, Google Fiber operations have been scaled back over the past few years. It’s tough to be a competitive ISP and video provider, even if you’re Google. To that end, the company announced in Februrary that it would ditch TV service to focus solely on internet service. Google argues that all you need for great TV service is blazing-fast internet; live TV and other streaming services fill in the gaps. “Customers today just don’t need traditional TV,” according to Google. Existing Google Fiber TV customers can continue using the service, Google said in February, but we’ll have to see how long that lasts.
Intel Nervana Neural Network Processors
Intel had a rough year, and something had to give. In February, it stopped work on the Nervana Neural Network Processor, just two months after the launch of the Nervana NNP family. Intel acquired AI startup Nervana in 2016, but it then acquired Habana Labs for $2 billion in 2019. “With two AI companies designing two architecturally very different chips for the very same markets, it was just a matter of time before one had to get axed,” Wikichip Fuse notes.
TCL BlackBerry Phones
TCL started making BlackBerry-branded phones in 2016, but announced in February that it would cease production of the handsets by Aug. 31, 2020. It will, however, provide support for existing devices until at least Aug. 31, 2022. BlackBerry superfans should keep an eye on a company called OnwardMobility, which made a deal with the BlackBerry software company to use its name and intellectual property to create a new keyboarded Android smartphone, coming to the US and Europe in 2021.
A little over two years after its launch, minimalist shopping site Brandless announced plans to shut down. Positioned as an Amazon alternative that offered organic grocery items without flashy branding, the company quickly ran out of money despite (and perhaps because of) a huge SoftBank investment, Fast Company reports. A leaner version of Brandless emerged later in the year after its assets were acquired by SEO marketing firm Ikonifi and VC firm Clarke Capital Partners. But thus far, it does not appear that Amazon has much to worry about.
Oh, Essential. The phone company emerged several years ago with Android creator Andy Rubin at the helm. In our 2017 review of the Essential PH-1, we found that it combined top-notch hardware and pure Android software for an amazing deal on Sprint, but its more costly unlocked model was a harder sell. In October 2019, Rubin tweeted images of “Project Gem,” an unusually tall-shaped smartphone that resembled a remote control. By February, the company announced that it had “no clear path to deliver it to customers. Given this, we have made the difficult decision to cease operations and shut down Essential.” Not helping matters: a 2018 New York Times report that said Rubin was forced to depart Google over a credible sexual misconduct claim, but not before Google paid him a $90 million (!) exit package. But Essential was still able to raise $330 million in venture capital funding, according to Crunchbase.
Sonos Recycle Mode / Trade Up Program
Sonos’ Trade-Up program, unveiled in late 2019, offered discounts on new Sonos products when you traded in old ones, but some customers were unhappy with how Sonos disposed of old speakers and related products. They had to be placed in “Recycle Mode” and returned to Sonos in order to get the discount, even if they were still in working order. By March, Sonos said it would not require people to return older speakers to get a discount, meaning fewer speakers ended up in landfills. In November, Trade Up was rebranded as the Sonos Upgrade Program, offering up to 30% off new speakers for those who own older Sonos speakers; trade-ins not required.
Facebook’s AR selfie app exited stage left in March, no longer relevant as more and more social media apps incorporated face-swapping filters directly into their core features. Facebook picked up MSQRD in 2016 as part of its Masquerade acquisition in a bid to bring Snapchat-like face filters (think barfing rainbows, puppy dog ears, and flower crowns) to its Live video platform.
Another AR app to bite the dust in 2020: Google Poly. Dating back to 2017, the site let you find, view, and download free AR and VR objects and scenes. Poly will shut down on June 30, 2021. Uploads will be turned off April 30, 2021, Google says.
Google strikes again. The crowdsourced Q&A Neighborly app launched in 2018 in India as “a cross between Nextdoor and Quora,” The Verge notes, but it never really caught on. “In these difficult times, we believe that we can help more people by focusing on other Google apps that are already serving millions of people everyday,” Google said in April.
Samsung S Voice
Samsung first tried to defeat Apple’s Siri with a custom digital assistant—S Voice—in 2012, but that didn’t succeed, and the South Korean company turned its attention to Bixby. Still, the outdated Siri rival continued to operate until this year. S Voice, which debuted alongside the Galaxy S III, said farewell in the spring.
Blue Wireless, a small wireless carrier that mostly served low-income customers in New York and Pennsylvania, confirmed plans to shut down after transferring its airwaves to Verizon in April. The service officially called it quits in July with no incentives or discounts to move to other providers.
If you had a connected car dongle from Automatic, support for the devices ended in May, with Automatic blaming a coronavirus-related downturn. “Like many other companies in the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic has adversely impacted our business, and we have made the difficult decision to discontinue the Automatic connected car product, service and platform,” effective May 28, Automatic writes on its website. Those dongles are now bricks, and Automatic encourages people to dispose of them responsibly.
If you used PublishThis to create email newsletters or other content, you had a bit of a rude awakening in early May when the platform abruptly announced plans to shut down within 30 days after 11 years in business.
macOS Support for SteamVR
Following the demise of the Gear VR last year, meanwhile, Samsung said it would gradually sunset its XR applications, which allowed people to stream VR apps from a smartphone with a dedicated VR headset, throughout the year.
Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto Smart City
In 2017, Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet, announced Quayside, a smart neighborhood on the Eastern waterfront in Toronto. The idea was to “combine forward-thinking urban design and new digital technology” and offer “precedent-setting levels of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity.” But concerns about privacy and lack of oversight, among other things, eventually sunk the project. Daniel Doctoroff, Sidewalk Labs CEO, blamed “unprecedented economic uncertainty…around the world and in the Toronto real estate market,” making it “too difficult to make the 12-acre project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan we had developed together with Waterfront Toronto to build a truly inclusive, sustainable community.” According to the Toronto Star, Waterfront Toronto is now looking to develop a less tech-focused housing development.
In 2016, Walmart tried its hand at e-commerce combat by spending $3 billion on Jet.com to compete with Amazon. But following the shutdown of the Jetblack personal shopping service in February, Walmart formally folded Jet.com in May. The URL now redirects to Walmart.com. As CNBC reports, Walmart execs say the acquisition gave Walmart.com a boost and helped it expand into new categories, but jury’s out if that was worth $3 billion.
Bodega / Stockwell
Every year has some tone-deaf Silicon Valley shenanigans, and in 2017, that honor went to Bodega. It aimed to kill corner stores by replacing them with optimized vending machines in building lobbies. That didn’t sit well with fans of actual bodegas, and ultimately prompted a name change to Stockwell. By 2019, the company had raised a nice chunk of change, but that came to an end this summer when the company announced plans to shut down on July 1, citing “the current landscape.”
In 2013, Google announced Chrome Apps as a way of easily running apps outside of the browser. By 2016, they were being phased out, and Google this year confirmed that support for Chrome apps on Windows, Mac, and Linux would end in December 2020. (Google Keep will stick around until February.) Chrome extensions live on.
iTunes U and iBooks Author
Apple’s iTunes U emerged in 2007 as a repository for university lectures. In our 2015 review, we noted that a lot had changed in the online education space in the previous eight years in terms of competition, though iTunes U remained the best way to pursue online education on the iPad. This year, however, Apple said farewell to iTunes U, directing people to other apps, Macworld notes. The same fate befell iBooks Author, a self-publishing platform for Apple Books.
If you always dreamed of cruising the streets in a brand-new Mercedes-Benz, but couldn’t decide which particular model was best for you, Mercedes-Benz Collection offered access to a variety of Mercedes vehicles for a monthly subscription fee. Planning a summer getaway? Request an SUV. Date night? Swap the SUV for a roadster. Sounds great, but prices ranged from $1,095 to $2,995 per month. Collection didn’t get enough traction in its pilot cities (Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Nashville) and was shut down on July 31.
Microsoft’s Mixer live-streaming platform for video games failed to compete with Twitch and threw in the towel in June. “It became clear that the time needed to grow our own livestreaming community to scale was out of measure with the vision and experiences that Microsoft and Xbox want to deliver for gamers now,” the company wrote in a blog post, which encouraged all users to migrate to Facebook Gaming. It came as a shock to high-profile esports pros like Ninja, who left Twitch for Mixer in 2019. After a brief stint on YouTube, Ninja has now returned to Twitch.
Amazon Dash Wand
In 2017, Amazon introduced the Dash Wand With Alexa, a handheld device with a built-in scanner to read barcodes for groceries you wanted to reorder. Those items then showed up on your shopping list in the Amazon app, where you completed your order. It was handy, but with the explosion of Alexa-enabled devices in the past few years, Amazon abandoned the Dash Wand and ended support for it on July 21.
Firefox Send and Notes
Mozilla announced in September that it’s permanently shutting down Firefox Send and ending support for Firefox Notes. Both services appeared from the Firefox Test Pilot program, which allowed users to provide feedback on projects that were far from polished. Firefox Send launched in March last year and allowed Firefox users to share files of up to 2.5GB in size “safely and simply” direct from the browser. Firefox Notes on the other hand, offered a way to take notes in the sidebar of the browser and securely synchronize them between the desktop and Android versions of the browser. Ending both services is part of a restructuring Mozilla announced in August, which resulted in layoffs and a tighter focus on select projects.
EA has been running its Origin digital game service since 2011, but Origin is being retired and replaced with a new app known as EA Desktop, which is now in open beta. “The EA Desktop app is being designed to deliver a frictionless and socially connected experience that is faster for players to get into their games,” according to EA SVP Michael Blank.
For the last 11 years, Facebook users in the millions have been playing the agricultural-simulation social network game FarmVille, but they have just a few more hours of access. The game was developed using Flash and continues to rely on Adobe’s software platform to function. Adobe will stop distributing and updating the Flash Player on Dec. 31, and Facebook will also stop supporting Flash games at the same time, so FarmVille either had to be ported or shut down. Zynga chose the latter.
Almost none of the technologies on this list have the dubious distinction of debuting and dying in 2020. But Quibi is that rare failure. Founders Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman secured an ungodly amount of money for their short-form video-streaming service. But the service was intended to be consumed in quick spurts; during a commute or while waiting in line for coffee or lunch, for example. Unfortunately, the service launched just as the coronavirus was exploding in the US, and much of the population abandoned their daily commutes and routines and retreated into lengthy binge-watches of shows like Tiger King. Once those Quibi free trials ended, not enough people paid to continue their subscriptions, and the money dried up within six months.
Remember Slingbox? The company announced last month that it will discontinue all products and services. If you happen to still be using a Slingbox, it will become inoperable two years from now, on Nov. 9, 2022. But you might want to explore other options now, because while most models will work normally, they’ll gradually lose their range of functionality as SlingPlayer apps are phased out and the number of supported viewing devices decreases.
Google Home Max
With the launch of its new Nest Audio smart speaker, Google this month discontinued the Google Home Max. It’s no longer being made, meaning whatever stock is left at retailers around the world are the last new units available. When PCMag reviewed the Google Home Max, we found a smart speaker offering great sound quality, an attractive design, and liked the ability to use it as a mono speaker, stereo pair, or as part of a whole home audio system. It did have too much bass for audio purists, though, and the lossless audio options could have been better.
Twitter is pulling the plug on the Periscope live-streaming app on March 31. According to Twitter, the service is no longer worth running as a standalone app. “The truth is that the Periscope app is in an unsustainable maintenance-mode state, and has been for a while,” the Periscope team says. The company acquired Periscope in 2015 when live streaming on smartphones was still a novelty, and the company wanted to compete with the now-defunct Meerkat. But now you can live stream across all major apps, including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok. Also this year, Twitter axed the experimental twttr app it introduced in CES 2019 to test out new features.
HP Instant Ink’s Free Tier
Printers are cheap, but ink is not. So HP introduced its subscription-based Instant Ink program in 2013. Members pay a monthly fee to print a defined number of pages per month, and the monthly fee covers ink, shipping, and recycling. There’s also a free plan, which lets you print 15 pages per month free for the lifetime of the printer—until now. Earlier this month, HP killed the free tier and will now charge people 99 cents per month.
If you’re buying a new phone and want to get a few bucks for your old device, Gazelle has long been a reliable place to trade in your phone for cash. But the site this week said it’s getting rid of its trade-in option on Feb. 1, 2021. “If you have a trade-in that is in process right now, your trade-in will continue as planned,” Gazelle said in an email to users. Going forward, Gazelle will focus on selling discount electronics via its online store.
Originally published at https://www.pcmag.com.