Year in tech: The stories making headlines in 2021

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter

2021 introduced us to tech terms including Metaverse and NFT (non-fungible token).

Facebook took a dramatic new direction, heading off into virtual reality.

The internet, which had held up remarkably well over a series of lockdowns, experienced a few wobbles.

And we learned that those chips in all our devices, which we take for granted, weren’t infinite.

Here’s our rundown of some of the biggest stories on the BBC Technology site over the past year.

January: Winter of disconnect

Image source, Getty Images

Even though he lost the presidential election at the end of 2020, Donald Trump continued to make headlines into 2021.

The tweet that led to the ban was seen as particularly inflammatory given the storming of the Capitol building just the day before.

The events acted as a wake-up call to social media networks which had previously allowed politicians to have, more or less, free rein posting online.

During the course of the year both Facebook and Twitter adopted new rules on how to deal with the high-profile accounts of world leaders and politicians.

Of course it was not the last we heard from Mr Trump – but more on that later.

February: What’s up with WhatsApp?

Facebook insisted the changes did not mark a dramatic shift, but admitted that communication had been poor.

Privacy advocates said it merely highlighted that WhatsApp was already harvesting huge amounts of data for its parent firm.

A few days after the backlash was reported in the media, WhatsApp revealed that those who did not accept its updated terms and conditions would be unable to receive or send messages after the 15 May deadline.

Later in the year, WhatsApp was forced to rewrite its privacy policy following a £190m fine imposed by the Irish data protection authority. It subsequently had to provide much more information about what exactly it does with user information.

March: McAfee charged

Image source, Reuters

In Spring, anti-virus creator John McAfee, who has always been a controversial figure, was charged with fraud – accused of promoting crypto-currencies on Twitter in order to inflate the price.

At the time, he was already being detained in Spain on separate charges relating to tax evasion.

April: Hold the chips

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,

Computer chips plants are working flat out

It has been a year dominated by chip shortages – the result of a combination of factors, including the pandemic and the sharp increase in demand for certain goods as everyone adapted to working, learning and socialising at home.

In April, Cisco became one of the first to warn that the computer chip shortage was a problem, although its suggestion that it might last for six months proved to be rather optimistic.

May – return of Trump?

Some pointed out that it seemed to be little more than a glorified 1990-style blog – and just a month later it was shut down.

It has raised $1bn to date, but has also courted controversy and is facing an investigation from the SEC.

June – the internet under strain

Similar problems plagued Amazon Web Services, Akamai and Cloudflare during the year, prompting some to question the reliance on a handful of companies to keep the internet working.

July – goodbye to Jeff

Image source, Reuters

One of Silicon Valley’s original innovators, Jeff Bezos, stepped down from Amazon, exactly 27 years after he founded the online retail giant. For many he was a business visionary, and the company he started bears this out – worth $1.8trn at the time of his departure.

But like all tech giants, Amazon is facing increased scrutiny, over how it treats its warehouse workers, for example, as well as questions over whether it monopolises online retail.

Mr Bezos isn’t planning to walk out of the limelight however. His latest obsession is Space – in October he and Star Trek’s original Captain Kirk, aka William Shatner, blasted into sub-orbit in his rocket, Blue Origin.

August – how to make money in the school holidays

Image source, Benyamin Ahmed

This year we learned that NFT stood for Non-Fungible Token. Less understood was what it meant – essentially a digital token that can be used as a way of paying for digital collectibles.

Elsewhere, an NFT of an animated cat GIF sold for more than £365,000, while Jack Dorsey’s first ever tweet hit £2.5m and Tim Berners-Lee web source code NFT went for a cool $5.4m.

But the NFT craze was not without its critics: author David Gerard describes NFTS as the “new form of worthless magic bean”.

Either way, it was hard to ignore, and NFT made it into Collins dictionary of new words for 2021 – along with Metaverse.

September: Bad vibrations

The document, published by Apple and spotted by MacRumours, suggested that engine vibrations could harm the phones’ optical-image stabilisation or closed-loop autofocus systems.

The BBC’s retelling of the story got millions of hits.

October: the firm formerly known as Facebook

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,

A rebrand for Facebook attracted less attention than a few hours outage of its services

It was also the month that Facebook announced its new focus on the metaverse – a concept that has rapidly become one of the most hyped words of 2021, and one which Mark Zuckerberg seems to have endless enthusiasm for.

Essentially, it is a virtual reality version of the internet in which Meta, along with some other big names in tech, believes we will live, play and work at some point in the future.

Of course, the more cynical wondered if the newfound enthusiasm for the metaverse – which came with not just a company rebrand, but a plan to hire 10,000 people in the EU to build it – was a distraction from Facebook’s ongoing issues with real-world content.

November – the hunt for hackers

Image source, National Crime Agency
Image caption,

Rumours suggest alleged Evil Corp hacker Maksim Yakubets’ wedding may have cost more than half a million dollars

It took him to a golf course and a shiny skyscraper in Moscow. He didn’t find the hackers, but he did learn that they were making a huge amount of money – alongside driving the requisite Lamborghinis, hosting plush weddings and keeping exotic pets.

Any direct links to the Russian state are denied by the Kremlin, but experts believe that hackers are allowed to flourish in the country provided they don’t target Russian nationals. While US law enforcement claims they are also enlisted for state hacking.

December – radioactive necklace

Image source, RIVM

This year there has been a renewed surge of disinformation around vaccinations, Covid and politics.

Technology has not been immune to conspiracy theories either, with attacks on 5G transmitters from those who believe they omit dangerous radio waves.

Despite no evidence the transmitters cause any harm, the theory has spawned a range of products which claim to protect people against them.

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