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In-depth

The biggest tech stories of 2021

From the security disasters to Facebook’s timely rebrand, we look at the year’s biggest stories

This was supposed to be the year we discovered what the ‘new normal’ would look like. On reflection, however, 2021 appears to be a near-replica of 2020, with conversations around hybrid working and further mutations of COVID-19 equally rife.  

That being said, we saw a number of significant stories that might yet go on to define the tech world this year. From corporate leadership changes to global security incidents, the industry was as eventful as ever over the last 12 months. 

Microsoft Exchange Server terrorised

Microsoft Exchange logo displayed on a laptop

Shutterstock

The Microsoft Exchange Server exploit has arguably been the longest-running story of 2021. The tech giant was first notified of four zero-day bugs in January, but these weaknesses were still being exploited as late as November. 

Exchange Server is a software suite used by small and large enterprises around the world and includes email, calendar and collaboration services. It quickly became apparent just how many companies use the service when reports began emerging of mass-scale data breaches. By exploiting the four vulnerabilities, hackers were able to launch remote code execution (RCE) attacks to hijack servers, embed backdoors, insert malware and steal data. 

Despite Microsoft releasing patches in March, the exploit was abused throughout the year, with hackers mainly targeting unpatched servers. The US, and other allied countries, have since pointed the finger at a Chinese group known as Hafnium. 

Mixed messaging on remote work 

A businessman working remotely outdoors in sunny conditions

Shutterstock

The UK is ending 2021 as it started; with COVID-19 restrictions in place, this time to fight the spread of the Omicon variant. Specifically, the government has recommended those who can work from home should do, which was the same guidance in place up until July. 

Over the summer, however, the government appeared to be divided on the subject of returning to the workplace. There were concerns, for instance, that shops and restaurants, particularly in town centres, would close down without footfall traffic. In July, Boris Johnson told the House of Commons that remote working would not be the ‘new normal’ because people wanted to get back to in-person meetings and office collaboration. Just a week later, though, Liz Truss, the minister for women and equalities, called for bosses to make flexible working a standard option for all new employees. This mixed messaging on remote work from policymakers stands in stark contrast to tech giants as they strive to define what hybrid work means.

Is the UK government gutting GDPR?

Boris Johnson reading the report prepared by a special taskforce of Conservative MPs

UK Government

It’s only a matter of time before the UK's current data protection regime comes to an end. In June, a special taskforce commissioned by the prime minister put forward recommendations to scrap the existing rules. Its report said that the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) “overwhelms people'' with too much complexity and also “unnecessarily” restricts the use of data for worthwhile processes. The taskforce, instead, put forth proposals that included implementing a new data protection framework that, vaguely, wouldn’t stifle growth and innovation. 

On that basis, the government opened a consultation on the data protection landscape, with some ministers suggesting a full divergence from GDPR was required. The proposals eventually put forward weren’t as extreme as first billed, though. The plan included removing existing requirements for organisations to designate data protection officers, while also scrapping data protection impact assessments (DPIAs). Plans are also underway to change the remit of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

The death of John McAfee 

John McAfee speaking at an event

For most of the last decade, the life of John McAfee seemed to be an endless source of crazy headlines and scarcely believable tales. It all came to a tragic end in June, however, when the creator of one of the world’s most famous antivirus softwares was found dead in a Spanish prison at the age of 75

At the time of his death, McAfee was wanted by US authorities for alleged tax evasion; he was arrested at Barcelona International airport in October 2020 and held at the Brains 2 penitentiary while awaiting extradition to America. Just hours after Spain’s highest court had approved said extradition, the infamous John McAfee was found dead. 

Judicial staff were dispatched to the prison to investigate and their statement said that "everything points to death by suicide". Inevitably, a number of conspiracy theories have since disputed this account, claiming, for instance, McAfee was murdered. It's almost a fitting end for a man who lived such a mythologised life in tech. While his relevance to the industry has waned in recent years, his legacy, nonetheless, will live on.  ​​

Windows 11 launches to great fanfare

The Windows 11 Desktop in dark mode

Microsoft

Microsoft unveiled a new version of its flagship desktop operating system (OS) in 2021, with the highly anticipated Windows 11 making its debut this Autumn. The tech giant once famously suggested Windows 10 would be the last OS we'd need, which might still hold true given reviews suggest it's more of a visual refresh on Windows 10 than a wholesale change. 

This OS did, however, come with a host of shiny new features, including a central start menu, a dedicated Microsoft Teams buttons and native Android apps. The upgrade also included a new store with significant policy changes for developers. What’s more, it appears the rather annoying virtual assistant Cortana has been demoted, so users aren’t forced to listen to it waffling on during the startup process. 

OS upgrades are a slow process, both for users and providers, and it can take a while for the best features to emerge, and bugs to be fully ironed out. This appears to be the case here, with Windows 11 enduring mixed messaging over compatibility, alongside a number of early patches.

A new era at Amazon

Andy Jassy on stage

AWS Press Office

Jeff Bezos stepped down as Amazon CEO at the start of the third quarter of 2021. The announcement was made back in February, with Bezos transitioning to the role of executive chair to free up more time to work on other ventures, such as his commercial space flight startup, Blue Origin. 

Bezos left the company in an extremely healthy financial condition, but there have been growing concerns about the way Amazon treats its workers, as well as its minimal tax contributions. These issues, however, are now at the door of Andy Jassy.

Jassy is the logical successor to Bezos, having been in charge of its cloud computing arm, Amazon Web Services (AWS), for the last 15 years. The appointment highlights the growing importance of cloud computing, particularly in the post-pandemic world, where online services are dominant, while signalling the priorities for one of the biggest companies in the world as we move into 2022.

Facebook enters the Meta-verse

A smartphone showing the Meta company logo in front of a large Facebook logo

Getty Images

A lot of political pressure came Mark Zuckerberg’s way in 2021; the Facebook chief is fighting regulators, MPs and even whistleblowers.Still, though, the biggest Facebook story of the year was its change of name to Meta, to reflect its newfound focus on the metaverse. 

This is a concept that blends collaboration software with virtual reality (VR), essentially turning work into Fortnight with avatars and so on for meetings. Facebook has invested heavily in mixed reality over the last few years, so there's a logical reason for the move, although the tech giant stresses the metaverse should be open source and not “owned” by a singular entity. 

The metaverse bandwagon is already picking up traction, with companies like Nike and Microsoft also announcing plans to build their own versions. Zuckerberg has stated Meta’s vision could take several years to come to fruition, which leaves him plenty of time to deal with the litany of regulatory concerns on his doorstep, not to mention policymaker resistance over the proposed merger between Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp

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