The 2014 holiday season was not without its share of losers. When it comes to tech, there were several notable disappointments: products struggled, services failed, and a few moviegoers may have had their plans altered.
Although some of these events could ultimately prove minor, they all serve to highlight significant, ongoing shifts in the tech landscape.
Movie theater chains
Sony (NYSE:SNE)Pictures, the film arm of the Japanese electronics giant, had originally planned to release The Interview on Christmas Day in theaters nationwide.
But a hacking attack -- seemingly fueled by the film -- spoiled Sony's plans. After receiving threats, Sony announced it would pull The Interview, but later relented. Movie theaters would be allowed to show it, but Sony would also distribute it online, offering it directly to consumers through YouTube, Google Play, Xbox Video, and, later, iTunes.
During its first four days, The Interview ranked in $15 million in online sales -- not a bad take for a film that was available to rent for just $6 (far less than the average theater ticket). In comparison, the last time Seth Rogen and James Franco teamed up for a comedy, 2013's The End, it sold just over $20 million worth of tickets in its opening weekend.
It was only one film, and an extraordinary circumstance, but it could help catalyze a shift in the movie business. Online distribution has been building momentum in recent years; The Interview's impressive performance could tempt studios to offer other films over the Internet.
PlayStation 4 owners
While Sony's film performed relatively well, its video game consoles struggled: PlayStation Network (PSN), the online service underpinning Sony's PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4, was down for several days around Christmas (even as I write this, Sony admits that PSN is seeing only "intermittent" connectivity).
A group of hackers calling themselves Lizard Squad targeted (and took down) both Sony's PSN and Microsoft's Xbox Live. Microsoft's gaming network was back online within one day, however -- Sony's took considerably longer. This isn't the first time the PSN has run into connectivity problems -- back in 2011, it was down for nearly a full month.
But it is more significant in 2014. Online gaming has continued to grow in popularity -- many of the year's best-selling games (such as Destiny) depend on online play. In time, the recent outage could be forgotten, written off as a temporary setback for new PlayStation owners. Or it could undermine confidence in Sony's Internet services, something it can hardly afford as it shifts its focus toward cloud-based, streaming games.
Microsoft's operating systems
Two of Microsoft's biggest competitors -- Apple and Google -- had a solid holiday season, largely at the Redmond tech giant's expense.
Windows Phone, its struggling mobile operating system, didn't see much adoption around Christmas, according to mobile analytics firm Flurry: Less than 6% of the mobile devices activated between Dec. 19 and Dec. 25 were Nokia branded. Apple, in contrast, came out on top, with 51% of activations; Samsung nearly 18%. This isn't particularly surprising -- Windows Phone's market share has been in the single digits for several years now -- but it may be disheartening for a company that was looking to a build an operating system presence in mobile.
Desktop Windows is in considerably better shape than Windows Phone -- well over 90% of desktop and laptop computers run some version of Microsoft's operating system. But Windows' long-term dominance is far from guaranteed. Over the last year, Microsoft has run an aggressive campaign targeting Google's Chromebooks -- cheap laptops powered by Google's Internet-dependent operating system.
It isn't working. For the second consecutive year, three different Chromebooks were the best-selling laptops on Amazon.com this holiday shopping season, edging out would-be Chromebook killers like $199 HP Stream. Chrome OS isn't going to obliterate Windows anytime soon, but continued, strong demand for Chromebooks is bad for Microsoft.