The year in technology is never quiet. In the consumer world, 2013 saw the launch of the latest – and perhaps last – generation of gaming consoles, as the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 hit shops within weeks of each other. Online, 2013 was about the rise of “temporal social media” – self-destructing messages delivered by apps such as Snapchat. And robots were suddenly everywhere, from Baxter, the industrial robot produced by Rethink Robotics, one of the World Economic Forum’s Technology Pioneers, to Amazon’s plans to deliver parcels using a fleet of flying drones.
However, none of those stories have made my round-up of the year. Here are five stories that, for me, have defined the tech world in 2013:
Spies in the web
If there is a technology story that has dominated 2013, it has been the leaked information about the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) far-reaching internet surveillance operation. In fact, it’s a story that will probably have ramifications for years to come, since more information is set to be released next year.
For anyone who spent 2013 in exile in the wilderness, here’s a summary: in June, the Guardian in the UK and the Washington Post in the US published reports that the NSA had collected phone records from more than 120 million Verizon customers in the US, that it possesses a vast database of online information harvested from millions of people and that it routinely spies on the e-mail and Internet activity of its allies. The information came from Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor who copied files and then fled to Hong Kong and subsequently Russia.
Though numerous reports over many years have suggested that the NSA engages in this kind of activity, the Snowden leaks gave the first sense of the scale of the programme. And they raised other questions, such as whether technology companies were colluding with spies or being unwittingly targeted.
More importantly, it has started a debate about whether or not such a programme is reasonable and justified. On one side are those who argue that it is vital that the security services gather this information so as to combat increasingly tech-savvy terrorists. Against them are those who believe governments should not spy on people without evidence to suggest that they have committed a crime.
The planes of the future: printed
The rise of 3D printing has been steadily progressing for the last few years but 2013 saw the passing of a significant milestone. In the spring, it was reported that GE Aviation, a division of General Electric, plans to mass produce jet engine parts using 3D printing – or “additive manufacturing” as the industrial technique is typically known. The technology makes the manufacturing process cheaper and, importantly for the aviation industry, produces parts that are lighter.
Meanwhile, the price of a home 3D printer fell below $500, enabling more tinkerers to experiment with what such a device might be capable of. Expect to see the profile of this technology rise still further in 2014 and, along the way, more scare stories about projects like 3D printed guns.
Is that a computer you’re wearing?
Like 3D printing, wearable technology drew closer to the mainstream in 2013. The Pebble smartwatch, which raised money through a high-profile Kickstarter campaign in 2012, started shipping in early 2013. By the end of the year Samsung had launched a smartwatch of its own, the Galaxy Gear. In between, Google began selling the first batches of Google Glass, its computer-enabled glasses.
Alongside those, fitness trackers continued to flourish, with several new models reaching the market, including a significant revamp of Nike’s Fuelband. Evidence continues to show that tracking how many steps you take each day – and the benchmark is 10,000 – helps most people to get more active.
In June, a report from Goldsmiths College, University of London, found that the majority of those surveyed said that activity trackers had improved their fitness, made them feel more in control of their lives and boosted their personal efficiency. It’s estimated that 15 million wearable devices shipped in 2013. By 2016, that number could be as high as 171 million.
The fall and fall of BlackBerry is more than just a technology story; it’s the end of an icon of 21st century culture. The BlackBerry was – and for some poor souls, still is – the epitome of the business communications device for the mobile Internet age. The little smartphones with their Qwerty keyboards, rock-solid e-mail functionality and the little flashing light to indicate a new message were once the sharpest of tech. They sparked think pieces in newspapers about addiction to the so-called Crackberry and, such was the teen-appeal of the BlackBerry Messaging service, they were even accused of fuelling the 2011 London riots.
But technology marches on and the company’s decline was not slowed by the underwhelming launch of two new devices at the beginning of 2013. By September the company had agreed a sale to a Canadian consortium and it seems unlikely that it will manufacture any more devices.
Internet of things
The Internet of things is a buzz term in technology circles and it refers to what happens when it becomes cheap enough and practical enough to connect everyday objects to the Internet. A manufacturer might, for example, apply tracking devices to shipments of raw materials coming in and packages of industrial parts going out so as to improve its supply chain. Local authorities can connect trains and buses to the Internet, enabling services that help keep passengers informed. And wine buffs might install sensors in corks that monitor the conditions in which the bottle is stored and send a message when the wine is ready to drink.
Wearables, mentioned above, are also part of the Internet of things, as are the products of Nest, another company in this year’s list of Technology Pioneers. Nest launched its first smart thermostat in 2011. This year it launched the Nest Protect, a smoke and carbon monoxide detector, laying the foundations of a suite of smart home products. The reason Nest represents a leap forward is that its founder, former Apple engineer Tony Fadell, understands how to market these products in a way that makes them desirable, without feeling geeky. Most of his customers will not know, or care, that they have embraced the Internet of things.
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Author: Shane Richmond is an author and technology specialist.
Image: A 3D printer produces a sculpture in Hanover, Germany REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch