Top Stories of 2020: How the events of this year upended the worlds of tech, science and more

Pamela G. Knowles
The pandemic, race, cybersecurity and economic issues dominated headlines in 2020. MacKenzie Scott Photo by Elena Seibert. Black Lives Matter Photo by Monica Nickelsburg. Bill Gates Photo by Todd Bishop. SolarWinds Photo via BigStock. GeekWire Graphic.

To say that 2020 unfolded in unexpected ways would be an epic understatement, as illustrated by these GeekWire headlines from the spring.

Microsoft’s new coronavirus plan: Seattle-area employees to work from home for next 3 weeks — March 4, 2020

Another month? Computer modelers estimate how much longer coronavirus shutdowns should last — April 17, 2020

Zillow’s housing market projections: Home sales will fall 60%, prices will dip 2-3% — May 4, 2020

With many of us still working from home as the year draws to a close, and resilient housing and stock markets defying an otherwise struggling economy, the changes caused by the pandemic promise to impact tech, business and everything else for years to come.

A national reckoning over race, sparked by the killing of George Floyd, brought renewed attention to the tech industry’s diversity and inclusion problems, and fueled what will hopefully become lasting momentum to finally fix them. 

The influence of Seattle’s tech and scientific communities rippled throughout the world. The region’s life sciences institutions played a key role in uncovering and battling COVID-19, and Bill Gates emerged as a leading voice for science and equity in the pandemic. Enterprise tech companies provided the bedrock for a massive global acceleration of digital technologies.

MacKenzie Scott’s bold approach to philanthropy set an example for her fellow billionaires, as she took extraordinary steps to distribute her Amazon wealth.

And as if 2020 wasn’t eventful enough, the tech industry and U.S. government grappled with an unprecedented cyberattack in the final weeks of the year in the form of the SolarWinds hack, threatening to undermine key institutions and organizations, and prompting an extraordinary response from Microsoft.

Ed Lazowska, University of Washington computer science professor. (UW Photo)

We reflect on this unprecedented year on a new episode of the GeekWire Podcast, as viewed through our focus on technology, business and innovation in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. Joining my colleague John Cook and me for the discussion is guest commentator Ed Lazowska, computer science professor at the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering.

To inform our discussion, we each reviewed lists of top stories on GeekWire for the full year and each month, as determined by overall readership, then offered our own perspectives on the trends, stories and issues that mattered most.

Listen above, or subscribe to GeekWire in any podcast app. Continue reading for highlights, plus a list of the top 50 most-read stories of the year.

Looking back at the stories from the early part of the year felt like watching the opening scenes of a disaster movie in which the hapless villagers were completely unaware of the tsunami that was about to hit them.

The most-read story from January 2020, for example, was an insightful slice of life about the divide between longtime Seattleites and relative newcomers, as it was playing out on the sidewalks around Amazon’s headquarters: Take cover: Amazon’s big umbrellas renew a stormy old debate about Seattle culture.

The first signs of the pandemic emerge in February’s most-read stories. Bill Gates told the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Seattle that the impact of COVID-19 could be “very, very dramatic.”

Bill Gates “had an enormous impact” on the national and global conversation about COVID-19, said Lazowska, who held the position of Bill & Melinda Gates Chair at the UW computer science school for many years. Gates was well-positioned for this role, not only through his work at the Gates Foundation and his past warnings about the threat of a pandemic, but also for his past work such as bringing the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation to the UW; and funding the Seattle Flu Study, which resulted in early detection of COVID-19 cases in the U.S., and spawned the Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network.

Shortly thereafter, of course, Gates’ prediction came true. Here’s my own qualitative list of top 10 stories of the year related to solely COVID-19 and its impact.

  • Early moves by Microsoft and Amazon to implement work-from-home policies, setting the tone for much of the industry. 
  • Acceleration of digital technologies in the workplace, including the rise of collaboration and communication tools for remote work and learning.
  • Resilience of cloud and enterprise technology companies, a traditional strength of the Seattle region’s tech industry, fueled by that digital acceleration .
  • Implosion of the global travel industry, restaurants, traditional retail, events businesses and others sectors that relied on physical interaction, and didn’t have a digital strategy as a safety net.
  • Desktop and laptop PCs reemerge in the center of our lives, taking some of the momentum from smartphones and other mobile devices.
  • One of the people who originally put the PC in the center of our lives, Bill Gates, cements his position as a leading voice for global health.
  • Seattle solidifies its role as a key life sciences research center, through early COVID-19 detection, plus ongoing work on therapies and vaccines.
  • Economic alternative universes —  the stock market and residential real estate boom while many Americans struggle to make ends meet.  
  • Stay-at-home orders give Amazon an even more vital role in the economy. The company spends billions to manage the implications of COVID-19 in its distribution network. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos re-emerges as a day-to-day force inside the company, and Amazon Consumer CEO announces plans to retire. 
  • Record-breaking development of vaccines by Pfizer, Moderna and others create a new model and timetable for dealing with infectious disease.

All of this has made an afterthought out of what otherwise might have been the top story, the antitrust crackdown on Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple.

Among other news items not entirely to the pandemic, Lazowska pointed to the philanthropic initiatives of MacKenzie Scott, the former wife of the Amazon founder, as one of the biggest stories of the year. Scott made headlines this month with the announcement that she was giving more than $4 billion to 384 organizations as part of her pledge to give away the majority of her wealth, using a data-driven approach to make “unsolicited and unexpected gifts” with “full trust and no strings attached.”

“This is just game changing. It’s utterly wonderful,” Lazowska said of Scott’s approach.

In the realm of feel-good stories, John Cook pointed to the efforts of Seattle teenager Avi Schiffmann to track the spread of the pandemic. (Although his story took a twist later in the year when he tested positive for COVID-19.) And for me, one silver lining in an otherwise scary story was the use of technology to track down a nest of murder hornets.

Here’s the full list of top 50 most-read stories published on GeekWire this year at least so far. We’ve still got a few days left in this crazy year, and you never know what might pop up next.

  • Microsoft unleashes ‘Death Star’ on SolarWinds hackers in extraordinary response to breach
  • Bill Gates warned us of a COVID-19-like pandemic — watch his TED Talk from 2015
  • High school student near Seattle builds website to serve as a leading place for coronavirus information
  • Another month? Computer modelers estimate how much longer coronavirus shutdowns should last
  • Whale experts launch free, virtual marine biology camp to entertain and inform kids
  • Bill Gates outlines 3 steps US government needs to take ‘to save lives and get the country back to work’
  • SpaceX’s Starship SN1 prototype blows up during pressure test on its Texas pad
  • Amazon sues former AWS marketing VP Brian Hall after he takes Google Cloud job
  • Earthquake experts lay out latest outlook for the ‘Really Big One’ that’ll hit Seattle
  • Coronavirus computer modelers revise their dates for easing state shutdowns
  • Expedia cuts 3,000 jobs, including 500 at new Seattle HQ — read the internal email to employees
  • Univ. of Washington researchers predict 80,000 COVID-19 deaths in U.S. by July
  • Zillow’s housing market projections: Home sales will fall 60%, prices will dip 2-3%
  • Jeff Bezos shows off Blue Origin’s BE-7 engine — and makes a bold prediction
  • Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella warns about the consequences of embracing remote work permanently
  • ‘We should’ve done more’: Bill Gates says US was too slow on COVID-19, shutdown now unavoidable
  • Tony Hsieh, former CEO of Zappos who sold online shoe retailer to Amazon for $1.2B, dies at 46
  • Amazon employee in Seattle tests positive for coronavirus
  • Bill Gates: Entire country needs to shut down for 6-10 weeks to effectively fight coronavirus
  • Oh, baby, ‘LEGO Masters’ finale lands like a brick on outraged fans who dispute choice of winner
  • 5 trillion bytes a day: SpaceX engineers flash some facts about Starlink satellites
  • Microsoft’s new coronavirus plan: Seattle-area employees to work from home for next 3 weeks
  • Seattle restaurant delivery complaint in ‘reply all’ email turns into $10K donation to food charity
  • Bill Gates warns that coronavirus impact could be ‘very, very dramatic,’ outlines long-term solutions
  • Closer than humanly possible: New launch pad photos capture historic SpaceX liftoff in all its glory
  • Amazon warehouses will stop accepting non-essential items amid COVID-19 outbreak
  • T-Mobile and Sprint reveal new leadership structure — here’s the email sent to employees
  • Inside ‘Amazon Go Grocery’: Tech giant opens first full-sized store without cashiers or checkout lines
  • Amazon: Trump corruption the only plausible explanation for Microsoft winning $10B cloud deal
  • Report: Bill and Melinda Gates buy oceanfront home near San Diego for $43M
  • Coronavirus sleuth outlines his ‘Apollo program’ for bringing down the pandemic
  • NBA teams and Microsoft Teams in action: How fans can get in, and get kicked out of, digital seats
  • Face it, these mask-making efforts during the COVID-19 crisis reveal who we really are
  • Viral sensation: Seattle kid who built coronavirus website catches eye of a top Twitter tastemaker
  • Amazon dives deeper into video games, launches first big-budget title Crucible
  • Bill Gates says coronavirus will forever alter work, but face-to-face school is ‘totally irreplaceable’
  • Amazon Sidewalk rollout shows the future of ‘forced opt-in,’ taking lessons from Xfinity Wifi
  • What’s really happening in Seattle’s protest zone? Photographer creates 360-degree immersive tour
  • Bill Gates calls out federal government for disorganized COVID-19 testing in Reddit AMA
  • If working from home is the ‘future of work,’ here are 11 reasons why the office sounds better
  • Geek of the Week: Jen Haller got first coronavirus vaccine shot, and like all of us, misses normal life
  • Analysis: Microsoft’s acquisition of Bethesda is a massive disruption for the video game industry
  • T-Mobile CEO says Sprint merger could be bigger than expected for ‘growth and synergy attainment’
  • Bill Gates Sr., 1925-2020: Microsoft co-founder’s father made his own mark on Seattle and the world
  • Washington state’s ‘stay home’ order extended through May 31 — here’s the underlying data
  • Photos: Tree deep in Asian giant hornet nest, entomologists recover ‘chewed off’ radio tracker
  • Amazon gives employees option to work from home until “at least” early October under new guidelines
  • RedfinNow pauses making offers on homes as CEO says housing market has taken ‘turn for the worse’
  • Package safety: COVID-19 is ‘stable’ on cardboard for 24 hours, but risk of transmission is low
  • Seattle-based Big Fish Games lays off 250 people — read the memo sent to staff

Podcast edited and produced by Curt Milton.

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