Well, the media world has decided to declare this Black Friday a flop. The usual source of information on the ritualistic shopping kickoff for Saturnalia Hanukkah Kwanza Christmas Winter Solstice holiday gift giving, the National Retail Federation, declared the day a bust, down 11% over last year. However, take it with a grain of salt—the lobbying group is famous for almost always having its numbers wrong. We’ll know what really happened when Q4 numbers hit.

Even if they are right, what do we all expect? I personally never leave the house to shop for Christmas. I detest the very idea. 100% online shopping for me. It doesn’t hurt, either, that you could get a few hundred deals from the couch versus one or two at each store. Plus, what’s really out there to buy anymore? I cannot think of one true must-have item my household is missing. If anything, all of our friends and family are paring down on gadgets, trinkets, and anything else that takes up space. You can only have so many tablets, toasters, and tasers.

But there are some areas of commerce that are really taking flight this year…

Digital Dating Takes Flight

Let’s face it, a good partner is hard to find. And that’s one of the many reasons more and more often people are enlisting the help of the Internet to find that special someone.

Internet dating sites claim to scan millions of profiles, running complex algorithms to match up those that historical data show are most apt to be compatible. Does it work better than the old-fashioned way? We can’t say. But people perceive that it does.

The numbers don’t lie. According to Michael Rosenfeld, professor of sociology at Stanford University, the percentage of couples who met online rose from under 2.1% in the early ‘90s to 23.3% in the late ‘00s. Today the figures are even higher, says Rosenfeld. That’s a whopping growth rate:

And one which is only being fueled by the mobile revolution, which has created all kinds of new ways to “hook up” on the go.

For every trend, of course, there’s an investment opportunity. Online dating is no exception. To find out our favorite play, sign up for a risk-free trial of BIG TECH. Our most recent pick is leading growth in the new mobile dating space and has big catalysts coming that we expect will take shares much higher in the coming months.

Tech IPOs Continue at Pace for High-Growth Superstars

The tech IPO space continues to be hot, hot, hot. The year that made Alibaba as big a name in the US as it already was in China has seen a flurry of IPO activity, especially in these late months. In the last few weeks a few more notable entries have been added to the card:

eSports is one of the hottest trends in the technology sector. And soon, investors will have a way to play it. Meet Gfinity, a UK-based outfit that is preparing to go public on the London exchange. The company organizes tournaments in which Internet gamers battle it out on popular games, such as Halo, while other Internet users watch. Watch video games? Who would want to do that? Lots of people, actually. IHS Technology reports that global viewers watched 2.4 billion hours of eSports video in 2013, almost double the 1.3 billion hours in 2012. That figure is predicted to hit 6.6 billion hours in 2018.

The loan industry is transforming, with consumers increasingly borrowing money online from networks of individuals and institutions acting as investors. It’s called peer-to-peer (P2P) lending. The main draw for borrowers: lower interest rates, of course. For would-be lenders: much higher interest on your savings than any bank offers by cutting their good-for-nothing middlemen out of the picture. Leading the revolution is Lending Club, which will tap the public markets next week. Investors are chomping at the bit… and for good reason. Revenues from servicing all those loans are soaring, up 134% to $87 million for the first half of the year.

Workiva, based in that tech hotbed of Ames, Iowa, is gearing up for an IPO. The company is a play on the red-tape trend, with cloud-based software to automate regulatory compliance processes, like the mountains of paperwork flowing to and from the Securities and Exchange Commission. Evidently business is booming. Workiva’s sales have grown from $14.9 million in 2011 to $85.2 million in 2013, over a fivefold increase in just three years, making it one of the fastest-growing companies in the cloud software space.

Ever heard of Outbrain? Probably not unless you look closely. It’s one of a half-dozen “content advertising” companies responsible for plastering the web with the those outlandish headlines and photos on the end of nearly every article. Like these:

Rumor has it that Outbrain is filing for a $1 billion valuation IPO itself.

While Q4 has a reputation for being very hit or miss on IPO quality, the pack right now is shaping up quite well. Mostly.

North Korea Hacked Sony, Exploding the Cyberwar to New Proportions

Everyone is spying on everyone. Last time around, we talked about spy planes from the NSA. Before that, spy hotels. Some government tried to blow up Iran’s nuclear power plants. Another one tried to infiltrate American oil companies. Now, we have countries attacking consumer electronics companies… Attempts to achieve cybersecurity are a bit like playing Whack-a-Mole. As soon as you knock one threat down, another pops up. Like the cool but scary visual microphone.

A few days ago it was Sony’s turn, as the entertainment giant said it was subjected to a November assault that released at least five high-profile movies to file-sharing sites and crippled the firm’s corporate email and other parts of its internal network. North Korea is the suspected culprit.

With even megacorporations unable to stem the tide of hacker activity, it may seem that there’s little an individual can do to protect against intrusions by criminals and inquisitive federal agencies alike.

Still, we can at least try to slow them down by encrypting what we do. Google now pushed for secure connections whenever possible, for example. Apple encrypts iMessages. And now Facebook-owned WhatsApp announced that it’s implementing integrated, end-to-end encryption, an upgrade to its privacy protections that makes it nearly impossible for anyone to read users’ messages—even the company itself. If your phone gets hacked that’s another story, but at least the casual spies will be kept at bay.

I’ll admit that I have always been a bit skeptical about the European Union’s push for a “right to be forgotten” (which, incidentally, Microsoft and Yahoo just started implementing). But as I watch just how flawed all of these big systems are, it suddenly seems like a nice feature. Now, if only I didn’t have to contact every company involved individually.

That’s like the robodialers who call my cellphone two dozen times a week. They blatantly violate the law, but there’s no mechanism to report them. The FCC instead pretends to care by posting rules, then leaves the industry to self-police. Not even a web form to report the calls, let alone a *ROBO to dial and report the last call you got—either make it legal or enforce it like the UK and Canada do. The FCC is such a joke.

Movers and Shakers

Zillow, an online real estate portal, has been on a remarkable run over the last two years, rising from $26 per share to $115 per share, a 340% gain. Have investors missed the boat? Not according to Michael Messara, a fund manager who boldly predicts the stock could reach $770 per share. We’re not going to take that particular bet, given the company already trades at more than 15 times gross revenues and 200x free cash flow.

Wall Street is piling on Pandora Media, with the company receiving several downgrades over the last month. The latest comes from FBR Capital Markets, which downgraded the stock from market perform to underperform and drastically cut its share price target from $28 to $11. FBR predicts that soaring music licensing costs will heavily weigh on Pandora’s profitability in the near term. The stock currently trades at $19 a share, near a 52-week low.

Cimatron, a computer-aided design software developer, soared over 40% early last week after receiving a takeover offer from 3D Systems, a 3D printing company. 3D Systems thinks the deal will be immediately accretive to its earnings, which is bound to receive skepticism from bears who believe the company’s recent acquisition spree is destroying shareholder value.

Prosensa surged over 60% early last week on a buyout offer from BioMarin Pharmaceuticals. The acquisition will give BioMarin worldwide rights to drisapersen, which is being developed to treat Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a rare muscle degeneration disease that affects 10,000-15,000 people in the US. If BioMarin can take the drug across the regulatory goal line, the Prosensa deal could prove to be a real bargain, according to analysts from Leerink.

Taser and Digital Ally, both providers of body cams for cops, have been red-hot over the last four months, rising 90% and 390% respectively. And now, investors have even more reason to celebrate. President Obama recently proposed federal funding for police body cameras, which will certainly be good for business.

Apple has become the first S&P 500 company to reach a $700 billion market cap. But on an inflation-adjusted basis, it still has a ways to go to be the most valuable company of all time. Microsoft’s market cap peak of $613 billion in 1999 translates to nearly $874 billion in 2014 dollars.

iDreamSky, an online gaming provider, soared over 20% last week, thanks to stellar quarterly results. For the third quarter, the company reported revenues of $48 million, up a whopping 276% from the year-ago quarter and well ahead of the consensus estimate of $42 million. Non-GAAP earnings per share were $0.31, smashing the consensus estimate of $0.14. iDreamSky is benefiting from the booming Chinese mobile gaming market.

Veeva Systems, which provides cloud-based number-crunching tools for the life sciences industry, jumped over 14% last week on the heels of strong quarterly results. For the third quarter, the software maker generated $84 million in sales, up an impressive 52% from the year-ago quarter and ahead of the consensus estimate of $79 million. Adjusted earnings per share came in at $0.09, a penny ahead of the consensus estimate.

Bits and Bytes

One side effect of the ever-flattening world is that the US is no longer going to be the launching pad for all the world’s digital successes. Alibaba is a perfect example, as might be Lazada, a Southeast Asian Amazon competitor out of Rocket Internet that just raised €200 million.

Russia may get its own browser, too, as the Yandex search-engine company grabs the open-source underpinnings of Chrome to make a play at creating user stickiness with its own minimalist browser.

And throughout Asia, the war for the smartphone market is a case in point, as Yu tries to push Xioami out of India with its exclusive deal for CyanogenMod on its phones… leaving OnePlus as collateral damage. Never heard of any of these guys? They’re actually the largest players in the region, bigger than Apple or Samsung in many key markets, including China.

In its never-ending lawsuit battle with copyright thieves, the music industry has stepped it up a notch, finally taking on an Internet service provider for not doing enough to curb piracy on its network. Two labels just sued Cox to force it to intervene—a dangerous precedent of policing your online activities if courts side with them.

Yet another freaking smart-watch/fitness tracker/wrist-computer thing. This one from mouse maker Razer. I only mention it because if that’s not a sign of a bubble, I don’t know what is.

Sony is now so skeptical, it released its latest electronic watch, made from e-Paper, secretly and through a crowd-sourcing site only to gauge interest. The product is boring, but I have to give Sony props for some real savvy testing.

If those two weren’t evidence enough of the lack of gadget innovation now upon us, then consider the announcement of yet another bigger iDevice. The iPad is now apparently being upsized, with a 12.2 incher on the way. Yawn.

If there’s one group innovating, it’s the new digital content crowd. Netflix blew us away with Orange Is the New Black, turning a mediocre book into a damn good series rivaling anything from the big boys of broadcast or cable. Now it’s turning its focus overseas with Marco Polo, putting $90 million into a show meant to help with its slow growth overseas.

An outfit better known for piracy than legal streaming, BitTorrent, is making its own original series to try to change that perception. Children of the Machine will be ad-supported, with fee versions that strip those out. How long before BitTorrent is carrying its own show pirated without ads?

Didn’t take long for Sony’s new movies to be leaked after that hack attack mentioned above. Fury, Annie, and lots of other pre-releases are now out in the wild, underscoring the big economic damage piracy can have.

Wondering why your batteries are still awful? CNET has the answer in an excellent piece taking down the lagging industry. On the other hand, MIT Tech Review shows how gadgets like Google Glass are still helping push the envelope on power usage as far as the old battery will take us.

Senators are starting to sniff around the ride-sharing industry after the revelations of Uber playing it loose with privacy. Al Franken sent a letter to the company and another to competitor Lyft, looking for answers. Regardless, the companies are so successful that taxi medallion prices are falling like bricks.

Europe’s regulators are instead going after the tracking of users who block cookies using the “digital fingerprinting” method. Oh, and they also voted to break up Google, a mostly symbolic gesture at the American company they blame for all their woes this time. Yet in their own backyard a behemoth is about to be born with untold power over computing there.

Amazon is going local with plans to hire handymen. Store rumors were much exaggerated, but the local move does help the company close a competitive gap with Best Buy and HH Gregg.

Uh oh! This one hits a little too close to home: software that can write. And one of the leading providers, Narrative Science, just received a ringing endorsement from venture capitalists, via a $32 million investment. But we’re not searching for a new gig quite yet. Narrative’s writing skills are a little, well, robotic. See for yourself.

If you’re not a robot, prove it. And type in this code that hardly anyone can read…

Ever run into that request? Well, it may soon be a thing of the past, thanks to a simple one-click solution from Google that allows users to check a box that reads: “I’m not a robot.”

In geekier news…

  • By the way, TechCrunch fixed that dangerous light saber. Phew. Come to think of it, none of those are sabers at all. More like light katanas and light broadswords. Now I, too, have too much time…

Tired of waiting for your phone to charge? If so, you’re in luck. StoreDot, an Israeli company, is developing a technology that can charge a mobile phone in less than 30 seconds. But it won’t come cheap. Phones with the technology, which could be available in 2016, will cost anywhere from $100 to $150 more than current models.

For those suffering from Parkinson’s disease, eating can be a difficult task. But Google aims to fix that with its new high-tech spoon, which steadies tremors by an average of 76%. You can pick one up for $249.

If you’re in desperate need of a good Winter Solstice gift for a tech enthusiast who loves waffles, here’s an idea…

Yep, that’s a keyboard waffle iron. And it can be yours with a $60 donation to Designer Chris Dimino, who’s seeking funds on Kickstarter to get production of the cookware up and running… and he needs your help. He’s about $25,000 short, with 20 days left to go.