The technology year
- 27 December 2013
- From the section Technology
Smartphone battles, console wars, and conflict over web surveillance - it has been a turbulent year in the technology world. But as we look back at all the new products launched in 2013, what stands out as part of a lasting trend?
That is what I discussed with two top technology pundits, Belinda Parmar of Ladygeek and the Pocket-Lint founder Stuart Miles, when we met in a 3D printing shop. You can watch our review of the gadget year.
I've also been looking back at this blog and the stories I have covered in 2013. So here are some highlights:
It has been a year in which Samsung and Apple continued to make huge piles of cash from smartphones - and the rest scrapped for third place. There was no radical innovation in phones this year - although screens got ever bigger and 4G became standard. With lots of new brands, notably from China, making very decent smartphones at a low price, it was a good year for consumers. But for the likes of Nokia, HTC and Blackberry, making a profit in this market got ever tougher.
In the UK, impatience over the slow progress of the government's rural broadband programme has mounted. Some communities decided they had better do it themselves and projects like B4RN, where farmers laid fibre optic cables across fields in Lancashire and Cumbria, showed what was possible.
The idea that Britain's schoolchildren need a better grounding in how computers work really took hold this year, with the cheap Raspberry Pi computer project providing an opening for many schools. This post about a schools competition showed just how inventive children can be with computers when they are given the right tools.
At the beginning of the year who'd heard of Bitcoin apart from a few libertarian enthusiasts? By April, though, the crypto-currency had soared in value, climbing from above $200 (£121) after starting 2013 at below $10 (£6). As wave after wave of media interest propelled it higher - it topped $1200 (£730) in early December - the Bitcoin believers proclaimed it the future of money. The sceptics talked of the Dutch tulip mania, and asked whether Bitcoin could be called a currency when you could not use it to pay your taxes or buy your lunch.
San Francisco in May was the place to be for a glimpse of the wearable technology future. The select few who had been admitted to the Google Glass Explorer programme converged on the city for the Google I/O conference. They were able to take a picture, translate a phrase into Japanese, or get directions around town simply by looking through their glasses. But is that cool - or a creepy vision of a future where nothing is private?
Edward Snowden's flight from the US with huge quantities of evidence about the extent of web surveillance was the big story of the year. Whatever your views on his actions and his motives, the revelations caused huge ructions for the US technology companies. Customers of Facebook, Google and Microsoft around the world - and that is most of us - began to question whether their data was safe when stored on American-owned servers.
Then there was the issue of just how much cooperation there had been between these companies and the National Security Agency. At first, the air was thick with angry denials. Later, the companies united to call on their government to be more transparent and set limits on surveillance.
Meanwhile in the UK, another battle over regulation of the internet. David Cameron and the coalition government were under pressure to do more to protect children from online pornography. That meant asking reluctant Internet Service Providers to switch on web filters by default. A leaked memo showed just how much tension this issue caused between the two sides.
The patent system is meant to protect the small inventor and allow them to profit from their ideas. But, in the United States at least, it has fallen into disrepute, with so-called patent trolls making large amounts of money from lawsuits rather than from inventions. We travelled to Texas, global headquarters of patent litigation, to talk to the trolls and their targets.
They had been "in a relationship" for a while, but in September Microsoft and Nokia updated their status and entered into a full-blown marriage. For Finland and Nokia, this was a sad day as what had been Europe's most valuable technology business became just another branch of an American giant. That sadness turned to anger, as news emerged of the £16m payoff Nokia CEO Stephen Elop was getting to rejoin Microsoft. For Steve Ballmer, this was his last big deal as CEO - and one which signalled Microsoft's determination to be a force in mobile computing, whatever it took.
Old media businesses continued to struggle to adapt to the digital age - and looked on with bemusement and anger as sites like Buzzfeed grabbed attention, audiences and advertisers in double-quick time. Whether mixing cute kittens with serious news or confusing editorial with advertising is good for the future of journalism may be open to doubt. But companies like Trinity Mirror, with its new ventures Usvsth3m and Ampp3d, have decided if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
As Twitter became the latest Silicon Valley superstar to make its founders billionaires with a successful stock market launch, the search continued for a British equivalent. The UK does build some great technology companies - look at the likes of ARM and CSR in Cambridge. But are we just too cynical and dismissive about anything new to provide a healthy environment for ambitious web entrepreneurs?
On both sides of the Atlantic one truth remains constant - big government IT projects always seem to go wrong. In the United States, it was the Obamacare health insurance website which failed to deliver. In the UK, the system behind Universal Credit looks likely to turn into another IT fiasco. Just before Christmas the government announced that the first system, which has proved so problematic, will keep running alongside a new improved version. So far, about £40m has been written off - insiders say that bill could rise sharply in 2014.