2019 was full of hype. From excitement over foldable phones and laptops to plenty of noise about 5G, the year was packed with news about promising new technology that had the potential to monumentally change the industry. But many of these were first-generation efforts, and what we ended up getting, instead of piles of functional new toys, were buckets of disappointment.
Most of the items on this year's list of bad tech are victims of too much hype, but there are also things that are objectively bad. A gorgeous Android phone with no Google services? That's basically a very expensive brick. And we know this isn't technically a gadget, but Silicon Valley companies like Facebook and Amazon continued to do bad things this year, and they sorely deserved their spot on the list.
While the tech world floundered a little this year, it did get some things right. Making mistakes is an important part of the learning process, and the silver lining in this cloud of fails is that they represent opportunities for companies to learn and course correct. As we look back on the worst tech of the year, let's keep in mind the lessons we all stand to learn from the experience.
Samsung Galaxy Fold
Senior Editor, Mobile
Samsung may have managed to deftly move on from its Galaxy Note 7 debacle, but 2019 saw the company deal with another PR disaster: Reviewers were easily (and accidentally) destroying their $2,000 Galaxy Folds. And just like that, Samsung's most ambitious smartphone ever -- not to mention the world's first commercially viable foldable phone -- became something of a punchline.
The company quickly returned to the drawing board, and within months it redesigned the Fold with sturdier screen assembly and a hinge that was better at keeping pocket schmutz away from those precious internals. All that work, however, couldn't fix the Galaxy Fold's underlying fragility. No matter how careful you are with one of these things, the risk that something could happen to that soft, flexible screen can't ever be completely ruled out. Consider our second Galaxy Fold review unit, for instance: It held up surprisingly well during a prolonged stretch of testing, but a handful of the folding screen's pixels died two weeks into our second testing period. That hasn't happened to any of the other phones we've tested in the past two years.
It wasn't long before Samsung's issues began to affect the rest of the industry's foldable plans. Huawei pushed back the launch of its Mate X presumably to conduct more intense testing, and Motorola's foldable Razr -- which the company originally intended for a summer launch -- will now hit store shelves in early January 2020, after a slight delay. And while there were certainly other reasons at play, companies like LG have largely decided that building a foldable phone right now just isn't worth the trouble. Instead, it invested in snap-on secondary displays for some of its newest smartphones, and as clunky as they can be, they're viable, relatively inexpensive options for people who want more out of their smartphones.
In any case, the Fold remains a valiant attempt to reshape the smartphone experience, and the devices that follow -- like the Microsoft Surface Duo and Lenovo's foldable all-screen laptops -- benefit from the lessons Samsung learned in public. But, at the end of the day, is the Galaxy Fold actually worth investing in right now? We think not.
Microsoft Surface Pro X
Microsoft's early efforts to make Windows on ARM happen were a spectacularly documented failure. When announcing it would bring Windows 10 to Snapdragon-powered devices, Microsoft tried to shake off the stink of Windows RT by promising that, this time, there would be no confusing, limited alternative interface. You'd just get the same desktop you're used to and apps would look familiar. After starting with repurposed smartphone chipsets like the Snapdragon 835, Qualcomm began to make chips designed for laptops, and the first Snapdragon laptops started to ship last year. But despite efforts from carriers, OEMs and Qualcomm alike, the first two waves of devices only proved that Microsoft needed to do more to encourage ARM support from developers.
The Surface Pro X was Microsoft's first real attempt to take charge of the Windows on Snapdragon movement, and it was truly a gorgeous piece of hardware. With a custom-engineered SQ1 chipset, it promised plenty of power to multitask like crazy. But even though Microsoft tried to make recompiling Windows apps for ARM64 easier, the ecosystem still suffered from limited app compatibility. Worse, multiple reviewers, myself included, encountered the dreaded Blue Screen of Death while testing the Pro X. I can't even remember the last time I saw that before I reviewed the Pro X. Clearly, Microsoft still has a lot of work to do before ARM-based Windows can be viable, but this year the Surface Pro X dampened any hope I had for Snapdragon PCs to find mainstream success before the end of the decade.
Huawei Mate 30 Pro
Sometimes, for obvious reasons, the story around a product drowns out the discussion about the product. In the case of Huawei's Mate 30 Pro, it's clear that the back-and-forth between the US and China, not to mention the sanctions, is a key part of the story. But it also distracts from discussion of the phone on its own merits.
The Mate 30 Pro is Huawei's oversized super-premium handset and, like its predecessor, went from also-ran to a worthy alternative for Galaxy Note fans. At least, it would have in normal circumstances, had it not had its heart and soul ripped out at the last minute. That wasn't down to technical issues, either, but geopolitical ones.
Huawei getting added to the US Entity list meant that Google, among others, had to stop supporting new devices from the Chinese company. So the Mate 30 Pro released with the open-source version of Android, but without access to Google Play. In the West, the phone was unable to use any of the apps that you'd customarily expect to access on an Android handset.
And that's a shame, given how good the Mate 30 hardware is, with gorgeous industrial design, a lovely display and staggering cameras. The 30 Pro has a quartet of lenses that can capture the beating of a bee's wings in flight or pick out detail from the world in pitch darkness. That's before you get to the lightning-fast internals, snappy under-screen fingerprint reader or speaker, too.
In China, where Google is banned, the lack of Google's app world isn't an issue because rival ecosystems flourish. But here, Android and Google are treated as one and the same, and Huawei did little to educate would-be buyers. Except promising to write a check for app developers to, eventually, copy their Android apps on to Huawei's platform.
All this added up to make the Mate 30 Pro one of this year's biggest losers, despite its fabulous hardware. If we've learned anything this year, it's that good hardware can only go so far to make up for shortfalls in software.
WearOS, more like WhereOS, am I right? Google's smartwatch operating system might have turned five years old in 2019, but it appears to have stopped developing this year. We didn't hear anything about new software or features, barring some updated tiles, and none of the battery promises that were made in 2018 have been fulfilled. The Snapdragon Wear 3100 chipset was meant to boost performance and efficiency for Android watches, and yet WearOS watches still clock less than two days of average use. Popular running app Runkeeper even pulled its WearOS app this year, citing a "buggy experience."
What's even more telling of the platform's suspended adolescence was a moment at an Android fireside that took place during Google I/O this year. In response to an audience member's question about whether the wearable platform was "dead," vice president of engineering Dave Burke joked that the fact that there were no WearOS developers present at the fireside might have answered the question. To be fair, Burke did follow up and add that the company is continuing to hire for and invest in the OS.
In November, Google bought Fitbit for $2.1 billion, and execs said at the time that the deal is an "opportunity to invest even more in Wear OS, as well as introduce Made by Google wearable devices." Wear OS' Sameer Samat added that the companies will combine Fitbit's hardware with Google's software smarts. It seems as if Google's wearables efforts just got a much-needed boost with this acquisition, and 2020 may bring us more capable and longer-lasting smartwatches.
Picture Alliance via Getty Images
Facebook, Amazon and other Silicon Valley failures
If 2018 was the year that the world turned on big tech, then 2019 was the year that tech became more like a villain. Sure, companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon would say they do a world of good by bringing people together, serving you information wherever and delivering packages to your door. But in the course of doing all of that, they've also made several missteps, mishandling customers' private data, enabling misinformation and creating toxic environments for their employees.
Facebook was arguably the worst offender this year. The company did try to make up for last year's failings with new privacy-focused efforts, but it has continued to screw up. Not only was it caught storing millions of passwords in plain text, it also stubbornly declined to take down false information. It wouldn't remove a fake Nancy Pelosi video from earlier this year, and it refused to ban false ads from politicians. Sure, Facebook might have a network of fact checkers to prevent dissemination of fake news, but that's pointless if politicians are still allowed to spread misinformation.
Another tech company committing misdeeds in 2019 is Amazon. Concerns from previous years lingered, with news this year about company employees potentially listening in on Alexa conversations and warehouse workers complaining of poor working conditions. The company has also come under fire for providing law enforcement with a map of Ring doorbell installations and allowing them to keep recordings indefinitely. More recently, Ring was also in the news for numerous hacks, including cases where perpetrators extorted their victims and even harassed an eight-year-old child.
But perhaps one of the most pressing issues plaguing the tech industry is how it treats its own rank-and-file. Google has allegedly retaliated against employees for their workplace activism, even going so far as to fire a few of them. Other companies have faced similar accusations: Kickstarter was accused of union-busting after firing two employees, and suitcase maker Away was also exposed for its toxic work environment where employees were threatened into working extra hours without compensation. Many Silicon Valley investors even leapt to Away's defense, showing how widespread this problem might be. It's indicative of a dangerous culture: one that demands excessive labor and blind loyalty. It's that toxic mindset that is one of the key failings of the industry. Hopefully, the spotlight shone on these issues in 2019 will pave the way for better behavior in 2020 and beyond.
Google's cloud-gaming service, Stadia, is not the worst. It's fine, actually, and often verges on good. After decades of stuttering through pseudo-cloud-gaming services like OnLive and PlayStation Now (it doesn't and never has worked, you guys), Google's platform is refreshing. Stadia is proof that cloud gaming is theoretically possible in 2019, bringing titles like Red Dead Redemption 2 and Destiny 2 to players on Chromecast Ultras, laptops, tablets and smartphones with minimal lag and completely playable graphics. Well, under the right circumstances.
Unfortunately, the right circumstances are rare. Stadia may be the best cloud-gaming service in history, but it still has plenty of problems. Due to internet infrastructure issues outside of Google's control, Stadia is inconsistent, unreliable and temperamental. No one can see the service as a replacement for traditional locally stored gaming.
This wouldn't be a problem if Google hadn't promised all of these things, and more, in the run-up to Stadia's launch. Google revealed the service in March, and even then executives were talking about seamless 4K (and even 8K) streaming and sharing games with friends through links alone. The week before launch, Stadia boss Phil Harrison tweeted that every title on the service would support 4K. This was proven to be blatantly untrue even days before Stadia went live.
Stadia has issues, and Google knows it. The company stifled its launch, charging $130 for access and pausing sharing options off the bat. Wireless play with the Stadia controller is locked to TVs only, and both Red Dead Redemption 2 and Destiny 2 run in upscaled, not actual, 4K.
Simply put, Google promised too much, too soon. If Stadia had launched as a beta (which it essentially is after Google restricted access and features), it could have easily been in the Best column for 2019. Instead, Google over promised on cloud gaming, just like plenty of companies before -- and that's a disappointment, every time.
When the industry was first getting together to come up with the 5G standard, the target date for the rollout was initially set for 2020. And yet, because carriers couldn't help trying to one-up each other, 5G became the victim of confusion and customer fatigue in 2019. We kicked the year off with AT&T's 5GE debacle, where the carrier decided to roll out the confusing label for its customers despite not having activated technologies that were part of the standard. This prompted Verizon (Engadget's parent company) to write a stern letter to its competitor, while T-Mobile took to Twitter to mock the move. Sprint decided to take things further and sue AT&T over the branding, and the two companies ultimately settled out of court.
Meanwhile, carriers raced to see who could be the first to deploy real 5G networks. But between understanding the differences between technologies like millimeter wave (mmwave) and sub-6 GHz, as well as the ruckus over the 5GE fiasco, consumers were left with a lot of noise and not a lot of real-world examples of benefits. Even though we did make strides towards a widespread 5G rollout, there also weren't a lot of 5G-ready devices to choose from.
Smartphones that worked with the networks were exorbitant, so you had to be a relatively wealthy early adopter to spring for one. Plus, with most carriers currently focusing on sub-6 deployment, there's still another wave of infrastructure updates that have to happen before the full promise of 5G can be fulfilled. The new networking standard holds a lot of promise for industries like smartphones and laptops, as well as the likes of VR and game-streaming. But if companies continue to pollute the news cycle with petty squabbles over who gets to be first, consumers will be too fatigued by 5G to care about its benefits. And that's not the way to kick off a new decade.