The year that was in tech: best & worst of 2013

If Dickens was right, then 2013 was indeed the best and the worst of times in tech. From the triumphant to the depressing, the industry never failed to make things interesting. Here’s a quick peek at some of the highs and lows:

The Best

Pebble cast some ripples
Wearable devices this year finally morphed from our Dick Tracy-esque sci-fi dreams to attainable reality. Smartwatches like Samsung’s Galaxy Gear and Sony’s SmartWatch 2, smart glasses like Google Glass, and fitness bands like the Fitbit Force, Jawbone Up, and Nike FuelBand SE pointed us toward a post-smartphone future. While Samsung’s and Sony’s offerings disappointed with too-high price tags and limited capabilities, a once-Canadian upstart showed the major players how it was done. Fresh off a record-setting $10 million Kickstarter campaign, Pebble sold 190,000 units by November as developers eagerly cranked out a growing number of apps.

Mobile payments went mainstream
In 2013, virtually every major Canadian bank and wireless carrier launched at least one mobile payment initiative. TD announced its Ugo e-wallet and signed up Loblaw Companies Limited as its first retail partner. Bell and RBC announced a secure mobile payments solution, and Rogers and CIBC expanded their mobile payments offering. As more smartphones shipped with key technologies like Near Field Communication (NFC) and Bluetooth Low Energy (LE), more Canadians than ever were able to leave their wallets at home.

Phablets made a big statement
Smartphones continued their steroidal growth as users spent less time talking on them and more time watching videos and using apps. In the post-voice, app-driven era, real estate matters more than anything else. This year, the 5-inch smartphone became a standard, and 5-plus-inch devices – notably Samsung’s 5.7-inch Galaxy Note 3 and its 6.3-inch Mega – filled the middle ground between big smartphones and 7-inch tablets. ABI Research expected 150 million so-called phablets to ship this year and account for 18 per cent of the global smartphone market.

Chips mattered again
The term “Haswell” may not ring a bell, but it could be one of the most significant technology stories of the year. It’s the name chipmaker Intel assigned to its 4th generation of Intel Core processors, and when laptops, tablets and other mobile devices sporting the new chips bowed earlier this year, they leapfrogged earlier-generation devices with stunning increases – often doubling or more – in battery life. More than any one feature, batteries that last all day and beyond are crucial to unleashing mobile productivity.

The Worst

The NSA got creepy
If the year could have its own supervillain, it would be the National Security Agency. The U.S. government outfit tasked with monitoring all electronic transmissions – signals intelligence – to keep the country safe made everyone’s Big Brother-esque worst nightmares come true with revelations of wholesale, warrantless snooping into the online lives of major corporations, everyday citizens and everyone in between. Edward Snowden is either a hero or a zero for blowing the whistle and confirming what many had long suspected. But it’s clear a privacy line was crossed in 2013, and the repercussions will be felt for years to come.

BlackBerry tanked
The Waterloo smarthphone maker bet the company on devices based on the BlackBerry 10 operating system – and lost. Despite positive reviews following their January introduction, BlackBerry simply couldn’t stop the iOS and Android tide, and by year’s end amid skidding sales and accelerating red ink had turfed its CEO and slashed its workforce by an additional 40 per cent as it refocused on the enterprise market.

Healthcare.gov crashed hard
The high-profile website that was supposed to make it easy for Americans to sign up for their health care benefits instead became one of the most reviled URLs of all time amid persistent reports of crashing and freezing. Worse, a Canadian firm, Montreal-based CGI, is the site’s prime contractor. Why did it fail? Every project management worst practice you can imagine, followed by equally bad PR when the entire thing blew up like a 4th of July fireworks show.

The Facebook Phone didn’t phone home
Facebook introduced its Home app designed to turn any Android phone into a Facebook-first experience. That answered a problem no one had, and users stuck with their familiar Facebook mobile apps. Similarly, the dedicated HTC First Facebook phone sat alone and unloved in dusty store corners everywhere. With fewer teens this year signing into Facebook and a controversial switch to auto-loading video ads, the company enters 2014 on shaky ground with a growing number of its users.

Surface didn’t surface
Microsoft took a US$900 million writedown after its wannabe-iPad killer failed to slay the Apple dragon. Why? Relatively few apps in the app store, the lower-priced RT version’s incompatibility with older Windows software, and it wasn’t any cheaper than Apple’s offering when it first hit stores. The second-generation devices fixed some of the early hardware glitches, but as the centrepiece of Microsoft’s plan to transition the market toward a post-PC Windows-driven future, the Surface in 2013 failed to keep increasingly mobile-centric users firmly in its ecosystem.

Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own. carmilevy@yahoo.ca

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