The top tech newsmakers of 2014

31 Dec 2014

Ten-year-old Lauren Boyle teaches Taoiseach Enda Kenny how to code during Hour of Code

The year 2014 has been an amazing year in technology but the real newsmakers aren’t the gadgets, the breakthroughs or the apps, but the people behind them.

Lauren Boyle – for being an inspiration

Our top newsmaker of the year is 10-year-old Lauren Boyle, recently named European Digital Girl of the Year 2014.

Lauren’s Cool Kids Studio, an initiative she coded herself that now spans three websites, has gained significant recognition in recent months, the culmination of which saw her head over to Rome to receive her latest illustrious award.

A website for kids, designed by a kid, Cool Kids Studio has already seen Lauren awarded the Next Generation Award for Excellence at the Irish Internet Association’s Dot IE Net Visionary Awards, while it was also recognised in the websites category at this year’s CoderDojo Coolest Projects Awards.

In recent weeks, Lauren sat down with Taoiseach Enda Kenny, TD, to teach him the basics of computer programming as part of the Hour of Code, a one-hour introduction to computer science and coding, aimed at demystifying the complex and explaining the basics.

At just 10 years of age, Lauren Boyle is a marvel and an inspiration and we await her next adventures with interest.

Sophie Healy-Thow, Ciara Judge and Émer Hickey – for world domination

Sophie Healy-Thow, Émer Hickey and Ciara Judge with Silicon Republic CEO Ann O’Dea on stage during the Women Invent Meet-up in November

After winning the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition back in 2013, three schoolgirls from Kinsale, Co Cork, Ciara Judge, Émer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow went on to make 2014 a year of triumph for Irish science.

In September, the girls were named the overall winners of the Grand Prize as well as winner in the 15-16 age category at the Google Science Fair.

Just weeks later, they were also honoured alongside Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai in Time magazine’s list of The 25 Most Influential Teens of 2014.

The girls’ project investigated the use of diazotroph bacteria as a cereal crop germination and growth aid.

They carried out an extensive study on crops of wheat, oats and barley. Statistical analysis of their results indicated that naturally occurring Rhizobium strains of the diazotroph bacteria family accelerated germination by up to 50pc and, in the case of barley, increased yields by 74pc, which has implications for food production.

At Silicon Republic’s recent Women Invent Meet-up in November, the girls said that while they haven’t patented their idea yet, it is something that may happen.

The Collison brothers – for building a US$3.5bn empire

Stripe co-founders Patrick and John Collison

There has rarely been a month in 2014 where two young men from Limerick – brothers Patrick and John Collison – weren’t making headlines.

Their company Stripe, an online payments engine that simplifies the purchase of content and goods on websites, is now worth US$3.5bn after taking on a new investment round of US$70m.

Patrick (25) and John Collison (23) were recently listed in Forbes’ top 30 under 30 people in tech. They formed a start-up called Shuppa in 2007, which later became known as Auctomatic, attracted funding from Silicon Valley venture capital firm Y Combinator, and was acquired just a year later by Canadian firm Live Current Media for $5m (€3.2m) when the brothers were just 17 and 19, respectively.

Their Silicon Valley-based company now employs 120 people.

Tim Cook – for magnificent leadership at Apple

Three years after the passing of former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, current CEO Tim Cook has proven all his critics wrong and has ably manned the helm of what is the world’s most valuable company, recently achieving a market capitalisation of US$700bn for the first time.

Cook has revealed himself to be a steady and confident leader capable of delivering on strategy.

Under his tutelage, the consumer tech giant this year released a bevy of new products, including the new iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, the iPad Air 2 and the iPad mini 3, as well as the stunning new iMac Retina 5K display. As well as this, Cook has led Apple’s foray into electronic payments with Apple Pay and oversaw the roll out of new operating systems iOS 8 and Mac OS X Yosemite.

His next major feat will be the launch early next year, possibly in March, of the Apple Watch, the tech giant’s first foray into wearables.

On a personal level, Cook addressed the fact he is gay in an open letter that includes his feelings about being part of a minority and said being gay is a “gift from god”.

The Pope – for being a fan of the Big Bang theory

Pope Francis

Speaking of God, his representative on Earth Pope Francis has been in the news this year for his views on matters of science and technology.

The Pope began 2014 by declaring the internet is itself a gift from God. Warning of a world where the divide between rich and poor is widening, he said digital media and the internet can be used as a force for good to close these divisions and inspire solidarity if people are prepared to listen and learn from one another.

“The internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. This is something truly good, a gift from God,” the Pope said.

However, while the internet may be a gift from God, the 77-year-old leader of the Catholic Church in August publicly lamented youth’s obsession with technological instruments of distraction and advises young people to not waste so much time on the web and smartphones.

The Pope himself is no stranger to modern technology and tweets in nine different languages to about 15m followers through the Twitter handle @pontifex. Though he had described the internet as a gift of God, he later recommended a good dose of calm, reflection and tenderness to ensure it is “a network not of wires, but of people”.

But perhaps what sparked the most interest in the Pope’s views on science and technology was his decision to call on his followers to accept the theories of evolution and the Big Bang, dismissing the notion that God is a ‘magician’.

This represented a considerable turnaround for a church that has for more than a century advocated for the theories of the universe’s grand design and creationism, particularly Pope Francis’ predecessor Pope Benedict XVI.

U2 – for the rock gods’ gift that was too much for the internet

Rock band U2. Photo by Paolo Pellegrin

Irish rock band U2’s special deal with Apple that meant gifting the band’s new album Songs of Innocence to 500m iTunes users for free didn’t turn out exactly how frontman Bono and the lads envisaged.

Apple and U2 had collaborated to release the new album for free on 9 September to iTunes users around the world, with the option of downloading it for free up until 13 October.

However, the move prompted a bit of a backlash and disgruntled users said they weren’t happy with the band’s album being part of their music collection without their prior consent.

Within a week, Apple provided a one-click remove button to make it easier for non-fans to remove the album from their iTunes library. However, once removed, the album would no longer be available for free if users had a change of heart.

On Facebook, Facebook user Harriet Madeline Jobson addressed U2. “Can you please never release an album on iTunes that automatically downloads to people’s playlists ever again? It’s really rude.”

To which Bono replied, “Oops, I’m sorry about that. Had this beautiful idea, we got carried away with ourselves.”

Martin Shanahan – for grace and calm under fire

There are gods and there are men. And there are news anchors in America who need to go back to school and study geography and history.

IDA Ireland’s new CEO Martin Shanahan, who has presided over thousands of new jobs in Ireland within months of assuming his role, is among our newsmakers of the year for his grace, calm and equanimity in the face of breathtaking buffoonery.

During an appearance on US television on CNBC’s Squawk Box, Shanahan gave a good account of himself, addressing general but also some insightful and reasonable questions about Irish tax policy.

However, it was Shanahan’s bemused but polite demeanor towards the end of the interview that set him apart when one of the anchors appeared shocked that Ireland uses the euro and Shanahan had to explain that Ireland is a separate country to Britain.

He was also asked if Ireland’s corporate tax policy was a contributing factor to the country’s large number of talented golfers.

Mark Zuckerberg – for winning China in a few words

Even though Facebook is blocked in China, the social network’s co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg built a bridge that few US CEOs have managed by answering a couple of questions in Mandarin in October this year during a Q&A session at Tsinghua University.

In heavily accented Mandarin: “Hello, everyone,” before explaining to the rather surprised audience, “I want to study Chinese culture. Studying the language helps me study the culture. So I’m trying to learn the language. Also, I like a challenge.”

While people in China were impressed, it is understood that the level of his linguistic ability has been likened to that of a seven-year-old. But either way, he made a good impression. And that is how it is done.

Stephanie Roche – for that goal

Irish footballer Stephanie Roche’s goal for Peamount United in a game against Wexford Youths during the Bus Éireann Women’s National League on 20 October 2013 made her an online sensation in 2014.

Roche recently attracted votes from all over the world to make it to the final three in the world for goal of the year in FIFA’s Puskás Award, squaring her up against footballers James Rodriguez and Robin van Persie. The final result will be announced in January.

“When the ball came towards Peamount United forward Stephanie Roche against Wexford Youths, she had her back to goal, yet three touches later and without the ball touching the turf, it was in the back of the net. With her first touch she controlled it masterfully, before producing a dink over her marker’s head, spinning and unleashing a magnificent volley,” the FIFA website describes.

Stephanie Roche Makes Puskas Top 3 from Football Association of Ireland on Vimeo

Satya Nadella – for ascending to the helm at Microsoft

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella

Satya Nadella’s rise to CEO of Microsoft and resulting impact could be described as that of a thunderbolt. He has begun the process of building Windows 10, he has opened up Microsoft’s ecosystem to bring popular apps, such as Word, for free to iOS and Android, and he has begun a restructuring that will reduce the size of Microsoft by 14pc.

However, this thunderbolt appeared to hang suspended in mid-air in recent months, when he made an infamous gaffe by suggesting female tech workers should trust karma for a pay raise.

Nadella was speaking at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Phoenix, Arizona, on 9 October and had answered a question about female tech workers seeking pay raises.

In a tech world reeling from the realisation that ‘brogrammer’ culture has gone too far and greater diversity and sensitivity is required in the industry, Nadella’s comments went down like a lead balloon.

Nadella swiftly apologised and described his comments as inarticulate.

The gaffe has however, resulted in some positive action, with Nadella outlining a new diversity plan and more positive changes at Microsoft. He described the episode as a “humbling and learning experience”.

Meg Whitman – for splitting HP in two

HP’s CEO Meg Whitman deserves a special mention in dispatches for deciding on a course of action that has eluded her predecessors.

Whitman has taken the bold step of dividing HP into two companies: Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, which will focus on servers and software, and HP Inc, a PC and printing company.

Whitman is to be president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard Enterprise; Pat Russo is to be chairman of Hewlett-Packard Enterprise Board.

HP, one of the biggest tech companies on the planet, has lurched from one corporate crisis to another and one leadership succession after another.

The year 2015 will be the first year that these two entities will come into being. Let’s hope Whitman’s decisive action will end a run of bad luck for one of the founding giants of Silicon Valley.

Liam Casey – for building a US$1bn tech giant and kickstarting hardware hackathons in Ireland

PCH CEO Liam Casey

Hardware renaissance man Liam Casey is pressing ahead with building a US$1bn a year (by revenue) technology giant and he has become the go-to guy in Silicon Valley for making the visions of entrepreneurs and tech giants alike come to life in vivid detail.

This year Casey brought not one, but two Hardware Hackathons to Dublin, unleashing a wave of creativity and entrepreneurialism in time for what could be a new industrial age.

He has also established design labs and prototyping facilities in San Francisco and Asia, as well as securing distribution deals with retailers, such as Radio Shack, to ensure new hardware emerges from the start-up and re-emerges on shop shelves.

If you look closely at Casey’s modus operandi, you’ll realise he wants to make it easier and more comprehensive for hardware entrepreneurs to get their products to market.

But that doesn’t make it less risky. “If we can take the risk out of it and create a secure channel for the entrepreneurs, it means they can put the focus back on the creativity,” he said in an interview this year. “You have to be protective of the innovators, because that’s where the magic is.”

Christian Bale – for bailing on the role of a lifetime

Christian Bale was an unusual feature of tech news coverage this year mainly because he had been tipped to play Steve Jobs in a biopic based on the book by Walter Isaacson.

At first Bale was confirmed for the role in a movie scripted by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle.

However, weeks later Bale bailed on the opportunity without any reason given, except he no longer wanted to play the co-founder and former CEO of Apple.

The movie, which is also understood to have hired Seth Rogan to play Steve Wozniak, was subsequently dropped by Sony.

However, the movie may be reprised by Universal Studios, which purchased the rights to the biopic.

Sexist Barbie – for her book ‘I Can Be a Computer Engineer’

All that is wrong with the tech industry can be summed up in the storm that accompanied revelations of the existence of a Barbie book entitled I Can be a Computer Engineer, chock-full of stereotypes and sexist nonsense and assumptions of women in technology.

Toy maker Mattel was forced to apologise for the book’s existence after writer Pamela Ribbon penned a scathing critique of the book, pointing out that, despite the title, Barbie actually just comes up with “design ideas” (such as drawing puppies) and needs the help of two guys named Steven and Brian to do the real programming work.

The article sparked the fury of the internet, with many Twitter users taking to the social network to call Barbie manufacturer Mattel out on the piece. The website Feminist Hacker Barbie has also been established to allow people to rewrite the book.

Taylor Swift – for sounding a bum note about streaming

It’s not every year that a pop star gets to shake the tech industry to its core and this year it was Taylor Swift who was to prove the exception. Swift caused a flurry of soul-searching about the future of music and the roles played by streaming platforms such as Spotify when she removed her entire music catalogue from the service.

“Music is art, and art is important and rare,” she wrote in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. “Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.”

Her move took Spotify off guard. But Spotify CEO Daniel Ek pointed out that the service has generated US$2bn in revenues for labels, publishers and artists, and said Swift herself earned US$2bn out of the deal.

“Any way you cut it, one thing is clear – we’re paying an enormous amount of money to labels and publishers for distribution to artists and songwriters, and significantly more than any other streaming service,” Ek said.

John Bell – for challenging Einstein

The achievements of one John Bell (1928-1990) were marked this year in Ireland for the Belfast physicist’s achievements in challenging Einstein and breathing a new life into quantum physics.

On 4 November 1964, the journal Physics received a paper written by Bell with the short but punchy title On the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Paradox.

Bell’s theorem opened the way for research leading to quantum computing and cryptography.

His achievements were honoured this year across Northern Ireland.

Bill Gates – for wanting to cure malaria and keep the lights on

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates

Despite remaining the world’s richest man, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has the whole world on his mind and he is tackling the world’s problems one step at a time.

Gates was in the news this year for championing a number of causes, most notably his efforts to see the end of malaria in his lifetime. Gates is preparing to push the malaria programme budget of his Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to more than US$200m per year – a 30pc increase. This includes plans to develop a vaccine to combat the disease. In all, the foundation will spend more than US$500m this year to fight various parasitic diseases in poor countries, including pneumonia and diarrheal.

Gates is also investigating the potential of cold fusion technology as a way of solving the world’s energy problems.

“I’m optimistic that science and technology can point the way to big breakthroughs in clean energy and help us meet the world’s growing needs,” said Gates. “In this area, like so many, there are no quick fixes, which makes it even more urgent to start work now.”

Whatever problems Gates turns his hand to, he has plenty of cash to throw at them. Gates, who has a net worth of US$78.2bn, would need to spend US$1m a day for 218 years before he runs out of money, according to Oxfam.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years