Biggest stories of 2016

2016 was a glorious, terrible year. We lost people who inspired and entertained us, but we gained technology that could propel us into the next decade. So many big, important stories come to mind. Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality became... real. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning became table stakes. The logistical revolution continued with self-driving cars and the promise of packages dropped from the sky. The right to privacy became a visible battle. Hacks happened at enormous and pivotal scales. And Apple deleted the 3.5mm headphone jack from the iPhone.

iMore covered a lot of them this year. Some were wicked obvious and others flew under the radar. Here are my picks, guided by our analytics, for the biggest of both.

Pokémon Go

No one saw it coming, least of all developer Niantic's servers. There was every reason to believe Pokémon Go's mix of nostalgia, a beloved brand, augmented reality, and location-based gaming would be a hit. But a hit that momentarily eclipsed the biggest launches of Apple and Google, likely combined? Well, that's exactly what happened when millions upon millions of people downloaded the game and hit the parks, playing, battling, and laughing with family and friends. It was the perfect storm and while current active users aren't anywhere near the absurd numbers we saw in July, they're still among the biggest in the industry. It remains to be seen if Generation 2, events, and updates can keep the magic alive, but it's inarguable that Pokémon Go was one of the biggest tech stories of 2016.

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FBI vs. Apple

The FBI wanted Apple to create a key that could unlock a back door into iOS, all in the name of fighting terror. Apple pushed back, saying such a key, once made, could and would inevitably get out and expose the data of hundreds of millions of people to hackers and criminals. It was just a skirmish in the greater war over privacy we now face, where the demands of law enforcement are increasingly at odds with the rights of individuals. The FBI eventually got into the iPhone 5c at the heart of this specific controversy without Apple's help, but nothing has yet been decided. We, as a people, are going to have to wrestle with this again and determine just how much real liberty we're willing to exchange for the promise of security.

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It was the future. No, it was stupid and hostile. No, it was both! When rumors started making the rounds about Apple ditching the iPhone's 3.5mm headphone jack, those were the most common reactions. The headphone jack, in various forms, had been around for 100 years; who was Apple to take it away now? But, surely, it wouldn't be around for another 100 years, so if not now, when? So. Much. Angst.

Ultimately, the iPhone 7 did indeed ship bereft of its audio connector, though with an adapter included in the box. Nowhere nearly as much has been said post-launch as pre-launch, and while some are still legitimately upset, others are happily living the Lightning or wireless life. Same with the new MacBook Pro, which ditched USB-A, MagSafe, HDMI, Thunderbolt 2, and SD card for the USB-C / Thunderbolt 3 combo port. You're either living la vida dongle or exploring the blisteringly fast new world. The big story here was that Apple will never please everyone but their timing has to be spot on not to piss off too many at once.

Smaller on the outside

2016 kicked off with an Apple event that introduced new versions of established products — iPhone and iPad Pro. The big news about both, though, was just how small they were. iPhone SE packed most of the punch of iPhone 6s in an iPhone 5s-sized casing. iPad Pro 9.7 packed almost all the punch of the 12.9-inch model in a package the size of an Air 2. For people who prefer smaller-sized devices to hold and to carry, they were godsends. And, stripped down like Superleggera race cars, with processors just as big but way fewer pixels to push, they flew. How Apple handles smaller-sized devices going forward will be interesting to see, but if 2016 was any indication, we'll continue to see good things coming in small packages.

Stop, rewind, rethink

watchOS 3 could be considered a simple upgrade to Apple's wrist-centric operating system. Or it could be considered a profound reset where the company realized the previous versions lacked performance and coherence and spent memory and power budget to fix the former, and swallowed their product pride to fix the latter. Similarly, when competitors started making artificial intelligence, machine learning, and related technologies table stakes on stage and on Wall Street, Apple could have kept up their traditional culture of secrecy and let everyone keep thinking they were once again behind, left out, and/or doomed. Instead Apple carefully peeled back the curtain and showed all the work they've been doing on sequential inference, computer vision, and everything else from silicon to software. The only thing worse than making a mistake is stubbornly refusing to rethink and restart. In 2016, Apple showed a willingness to do both when and as necessary, and that's key to thriving in the future.

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Your biggest stories of 2016?

Those are the stories that stood out the most to me this year. Let me know your thoughts on them and, if you think other stories were bigger, let me know which ones and why?