Top software trends of 2016

Streaming, messaging, AR, VR, and home devices make marketshare gains, while Apple holds steady.

Well, that was an odd year. We got a very public lesson in why it's important to keep online communications secure; we went outside to toss Poke Balls at augmented-reality pocket monsters; and we asked inanimate objects in our homes for assistance. Here are the software trends of 2016 that we found intriguing, important, or entertaining.

Streaming services put cable TV on notice

Stranger Things Netflix show

Cutting the cord keeps getting easier and more attractive. When PlayStation Vue launched in March 2015, Sony's Internet-based competitor to cable TV was available only via the company's videogame consoles, limiting its appeal. But now it's available pretty much everywhere, and AT&T has joined the fray with DirectTV Now, with Hulu slated to follow in 2017. Unique shows also keep adding incentive to adopt streaming services. Our parent company CBS is preparing to launch a new Star Trek show exclusively on All Access. With Stranger Things, Netflix produced one of the most talked-about sci-fi shows in years, and the excellent police procedural Longmire will end up having as many seasons on Netflix as it did on A&E. If you wanted a reason to cut the cord this year, you didn't have to look far. -- Tom

Virtual reality gets in your face

HTC Vive VR headset

Virtual reality gear took off in 2016 with the release of the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PlayStation VR , and Google Daydream View, to name a few. This is the strongest concerted effort that we've ever seen in the VR space -- but the gamble is real. Content creators are working with a relatively small audience, so they won't be striking it rich. And the audience isn't likely to explode, because there's a high barrier to entry: If your VR setup requires a computer along with the headset, you'll easily cross the $1,000 mark. To ease the pain, Microsoft announced in October that VR headsets are on the way for as little as $300 and will be able to run off a cheap laptop. -- Tom

Pokemon Go popularizes augmented reality

Pokemon Go creature

Augmented reality (AR) doesn't suffer from VR's market headaches, because it doesn't require special equipment. Niantic's Pokemon Go game is arguably the best example this year of AR's potential for mass appeal and business sense. Niantic might not be updating at the speed that its players would like, but its runaway success proves that the audience is there. And AR isn't only for gaming. With Google Translate (Android, iOS), you can hold your phone's camera up to text written in a foreign language, and your phone screen can overlay your native language on top. And both Pokemon Go and Google Translate should work fine on the phone or tablet that you already have -- no expensive purchases required. -- Tom

Messaging becomes an even broader platform

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If you were already amazed that you can exchange photos, voice messages, phone calls, and GIFs over messaging apps, then your mind was definitely blown in 2016. This year the world's three most popular messengers introduced a slew of new features to keep you engaged and entertained. Facebook Messenger added its own virtual assistant, M; an in-app gaming experience called Instant Games; Instant Video chat; and the ability to purchase products and tackle customer service issues directly in Messenger. WhatsApp, which became free and reached 1 billion users this year, now lets you write, draw, and tack emoji over your photos and videos, as well as video chat with your contacts. Line added group calls, a polling feature, and video call effects like filters and emoji. Messengers are giving you more ways to communicate -- and more ways to do things without leaving the app. -- Josh

Messaging security comes to the forefront

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With so many security breaches in the news this year, the demand for privacy grew to new heights, and popular messengers took notice. WhatsApp introduced end-to-end encryption; Facebook Messenger added Secret Conversations, an opt-in feature that guarantees privacy; and Line introduced end-to-end encryption along with self-destructing timeline postings. Furthermore, after the US presidential election, a previously little-known app called Signal -- which is so privacy-minded that it gets Edward Snowden's endorsement -- saw a 400 percent spike in downloads. -- Josh

Live video makes recorded video look passe

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The popularity in 2015 of livestreaming video apps like Periscope and Meerkat guaranteed that in 2016 behemoths like YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram would get in on the action. Facebook rolled out Facebook Live and YouTube introduced Live Events in the spring. Instagram just added Live Videos. Not stopping there, Facebook Live and YouTube Events now support 4K and 360-degree video, and Instagram's Live Videos will probably see these enhancements soon. -- Josh

Household intelligence

Google Home Google Assistant

I always imagined that a house's intelligent assistant would look more like the robot maid in "The Jetsons" than a space-age flower vase. But this year Google's Home and Amazon's Echo and Dot -- shaped like artful pieces of pottery or sleek cylinders -- have unobtrusively found their way into homes. Offering to do everything from playing music to ordering food, the voice-controlled devices show the way for how artificial intelligence may assist us, from smarter homes to driverless cars. A downside? Unlike the Jetsons' maid, the current assistants don't dust or vacuum (yet). -- Cliff

Apple's suboptimal year

Sierra Siri Help


For those accustomed to feverish Apple events, the company is closing out an uncharacteristically tepid year. Other companies were the media darlings of 2016, making news about augmented reality, intelligent assistants in the home, and even sleek and powerful desktop computers. Apple was more low-key, releasing a collection of hardware and software updates that kept Apple fans somewhat content, a bit underwhelmed, and at times frustrated.

Users were also annoyed by hard-to-remove Calendar spam and elusive AirPods. And the year ended with reports that Apple is uninterested in pushing MacOS and Mac hardware forward. On the positive side, the company did take a public stand on privacy with the FBI. -- Cliff

About Joshua Rotter

Joshua Rotter is a copy editor for Download.com and covers iOS.