The calendar year isn’t quite over yet, but it’s certainly within sight, giving us all good reason to look back and think about what’s really going to define the year 2017.
Yes, every year leaves behind winners and losers, and not just in terms of stocks. It wouldn’t be overstating things, however, to suggest 2017 has been a year of unusually dramatic goofs and equally impressive victories.
Some were political, some were technological and some were merely social in nature. In all cases though, the underlying stories were and still are fascinating.
With that as the backdrop, here’s a quick rundown of 2017’s most memorable missteps and its stunning success stories … even the inadvertent, unforeseen ones. These are the hot buttons and turning points people will still be talking about well into the new year, and beyond.
2017 Winners: Blockchain
Just for the record, bitcoin and the underlying blockchain — or computer code — technology it uses are two different things. Other cryptocurrencies like Ethereum and Litecoin are built on the same blockchain premise.
Although bitcoin’s 1,500% gain since the end of last year is an exciting move, it and other digital currencies are just one mood change away from a disastrous pullback.
With the underlying idea of blockchain as a digital representation for currency though, some big technology players are now wondering how they can use the same blockchain idea to facilitate financial transactions with actual, government-issued currency. International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE:IBM) is one of them. It’s developing blockchain platforms for several of Europe’s top banks, allowing them to more effectively send and receive funds.
The technology, and what it can do, isn’t just some fad.
2017 Losers: Equifax
Just a few years ago, consumers and investors were almost sympathetic to organizations that were hacked, exposing customer data that could be used in nefarious ways. There’s no such sympathy now, though, with companies well aware of the true cyber-crime threat, and with access to a wide array of tools to fight.
That’s why the September announcement that credit bureau Equifax Inc. (NYSE:EFX) had been hacked, exposing personal data of 143 million people, wasn’t met with any sympathy. It was completely preventable, and it should have been prevented given the nature of what Equifax does.
Fanning the flames of frustration was follow-on news that the breach was discovered more than a month before it was announced. Equally problematic was that the person in charge of the firm’s cybersecurity, Susan Mauldin, didn’t have the technical qualifications one would expect such an executive to have.
2017 Winners: Robots
Robots aren’t just something you occasionally see in a science fiction movie anymore. They’re here, and in a way that’s not just a mere novelty, and not merely performing simple tasks like vacuuming your house. They’re doing all sorts of things, including ferrying packages in a warehouse. There’s even a robot that offers … “intimate” companionship.
Up until now, however, robots have been subservient to people, doing the tasks we program them to do, and not complaining about it. This could be changing soon though, if something curious that happened in October in Saudi Arabia is an indication … a robot was granted citizenship.
It’s more of a publicity stunt and something of a joke from the robot’s maker, Hanson Robotics. On the other hand, it’s one of those jokes-that’s-not-really-a-joke that starts the world moving down a slippery slope.
2017 Losers: Juicero
There were more than a handful of poorly conceived products put on the market this year. The Griffin smart toaster and stiletto roller skates from Yves Saint Laurent come to mind. The Juicero, however, takes the proverbial cake.
The Juicero is, or was, a $699 juicer you can control from your smartphone. Although technically speaking, it qualifies as an “internet of things” product and the IoT is the future, the idea more than pushed the limits of how much automation the world really needed … particularly at that steep price.
The death blow: As it turns out, you don’t even really need the juicer itself. You can squeeze the Juicero bags yourself and get the same results.
The company, which uses the same moniker as its one and only product, finally shut down for good in early September.
2017 Winners: Women
There’s no denying the hot button has been used as a political weapon by the elected officials who sit on both sides of the aisle. But, even beyond the politics of the matter, the full scope of sexual harassment has been pushed to the center of the social stage.
It was the Harvey Weinstein allegations from Rose McGowan that got the ball rolling in October, and for whatever reason, it unleashed an avalanche of other revelations that up until now had been stymied.
Since then, politician Roy Moore, actor Kevin Spacey, comedian-turned-Senator Al Franken, news show hosts Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose along with a whole slew of others have all been accused.
With no way of ignoring it any longer, the era of inappropriate treatment of women finally looks like it’s coming to a close.
2017 Losers: Virtual Reality
Although virtual reality became a reality for consumers in 2016, productions of the computers and hardware necessary to make it commercially viable weren’t really available until this year. In April, Inc’s Molly St. Louis laid out five very cogent reasons “Why 2017 is the Year Virtual Reality Becomes a Thing.”
The problem is, it has not become a thing … at least not anywhere near the sense it was supposed to be a thing by this time when its proponents were talking about it a couple of years ago. TechCrunch’s Natasha Lomas had bluntly noted by August that “This VR cycle is dead.”
TechCrunch’s Lucas Matney fleshed the idea out a little more, saying around the same time,
“Over the past several months it’s become clear that the war is no longer HTC and Oculus trying to discover who is Betamax and who is VHS, now they’re just trying to ensure that high-end VR doesn’t turn out to be LaserDisc. Though few of the big players are keen to readily admit it, many investors and analysts have been less than thrilled with the pace of headset sales over the past year.”
2017 Winners: Science
Perhaps one of the reasons virtual reality flopped in 2017 was simply because there was so much amazing “real” reality to experience this year … not in our living rooms, but in our backyards and atop our apartment buildings. This year was the first year since 1918 a total solar eclipse made its way across the heart of the United States.
Truth be told, they’re actually not uncommon. The planet experiences two solar eclipses every year. It’s just that most of them are only evident on the surface of the ocean, or occur in places other than the United States.
Still, the amazing event fascinated a wide swath of young people and scientists who wanted to know how we know when eclipses will occur, and why we can’t stare at the sun.
2017 Losers: NFL
Regardless of which side of the table you sit on, when it comes to the kneeling some NFL players are choosing to do during the playing of the national anthem — to bring awareness to certain social causes — there’s one impact that’s not up for debate. That is, the fallout from the movement has been bad for the NFL’s ratings.
And it’s getting worse. For its big week, 11 games played between Nov. 16 and Nov. 19, viewership fell 6.3%. Over the course of the prior three weeks, ratings were only off between 5.6% and 5.7%.
The league has committed $89 million, payable over the course of the next seven years, to combat some of the injustices that are being brought to the forefront. It remains to be seen, however, if that will be enough to appease protesting fans.
There are other reasons consumers are losing interest, like a huge array of other entertainment diversions.
2017 Winners: Airline Passengers
It’s unfortunate that it took an embarrassing and alarming event to serve as a wake-up call for airlines, but at least air carriers have decided to start treating passengers like human beings again.
The incident, of course, unfurled in April when Dr. David Dao was forcibly dragged off of a United Continental Holdings Inc (NYSE:UAL) flight that had been overbooked. In a strict legal sense, carriers have the right to remove passengers of overbooked flights. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do it though, and United’s way was the wrong way.
Worse (and most damning), the entire incident was caught on video.
Since then, most airlines have revamped their policies for making room on overbooked flights, offering cash compensation to give up their seats. In fact, the bidding process works very well.
2017 Losers: Snapchat
Around the time when video and picture messaging app Snapchat was being taken public by parent company Snap Inc (NYSE:SNAP), the company was all the rage. The euphoria fizzled pretty fast though, and now, SNAP stock is down nearly 40% from its March IPO price. Worse for its earliest buyers as a publicly-traded stock, it’s down 49% from its post-IPO high.
As it turns out, while CEO Evan Speigel did a fantastic job of selling the dream, the company’s done a pretty poor job of selling the product. Last quarter’s daily user growth was only 4.5 million … the slowest growth pace seen since the company’s inception in percentage terms as well as in terms of net additions.
At this stage of the game, Snapchat should be driving accelerating growth rather than decelerating.
Pouring salt in the wound was news that the company had to take a $40 million charge last quarter after it grossly overestimated how many users would actually want to purchase its Spectacles camera/glasses.
As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. You can follow him on Twitter, at @jbrumley.