2013: A Look Back At The Year In Tech

Originally published on January 14, 2014 5:15 pm

This year started with high expectations for Google Glass and other wearable technology, but even by the end of the year those devices haven’t really reached the mainstream.

Companies like Samsung and Snapchat saw great success, while others had a few flops.

NPR technology correspondent Steve Henn joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to look at the year in technology.


Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.



And it's been a busy year in the world of technology - from wearable technology like Google Glass to game consoles like the PS4 and Xbox One, and yet I'm still looking at a computer and a TV screen, good old fashioned stuff. Joining us from Silicon Valley for a look back at the year in tech and a look forward is NPR technology correspondent Steve Henn. Steve, welcome.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Oh, thanks for having me.

HOBSON: Well, I think it was about a year ago I was asking what are we going to be looking forward to in tech in 2013. And everyone said, oh, this is the year that people will start really wearing their devices. They'll have Google Glass on, and they'll have watches on that act like smartphones. And I don't think that's really happened, has it?

HENN: I have never seen someone walking around with a pair of Google Glass outside of Google's campus. Out in the real world, you know, I don't think they've really caught fire. And I think the same is true of some of the smart watches that were released. Samsung obviously released a watch. A lot of people expected Apple to release its own smart watch. Obviously, that didn't happen.

But I don't think that means that wearable technology is dead or is never going to arrive or even isn't growing. Lots of athletes are wearing Fitbits or Nike FuelBands. And, you know, a lot of the sensors that make these kinds of technology small possible are getting smaller. And so I think we're going to continue to see this grow, but you're right. As of now, there's no one device that's really caught the public's imagination in the way, say, the iPhone did or the iPad did a few years ago.

HOBSON: Is that because they're still too expensive or they're not available in enough places or what?

HENN: I think it's a mix of things. You know, Google Glass isn't widely available. But I also think it freaked a lot of people out. I'm not sure that the world is really comfortable for what Google has in mind with Glass. I think for a lot of the other devices, the user interface is a little awkward. I think until devices get better at either understanding gestures or recognizing human speech seamlessly, a lot of these really tiny devices are going to struggle.

HOBSON: All right. This was the year also in which Apple finally came out with a device that it was marketing specifically to people who didn't want to pay as much as some of the previous devices cost. And I'm talking about the iPhone 5c. But that didn't really do as well as Apple had hoped, right?

HENN: Right. It didn't do very well at all. And, you know, honestly, I don't think that Apple delivered on what people expected. When, you know, the rumors started that Apple was going to introduce a low-cost phone, I don't think anyone thought that the price point would be what the 5c was. I mean, I was just reading an article about Apple finally getting on China Mobile, the biggest telecom network in China. And to buy the, quote, unquote, "cheap phone" there, Chinese consumers will have to spend over $600 U.S. So it's not cheap. It's still a luxury good.

And fundamentally, the 5c is really almost exactly like the older the phone, the Apple iPhone 5 except they used cheaper materials. They replaced the metal cover with a plastic cover and then they sold it at the same price that they used to sell their older models at. So I don't think that this is going to impress the consumers in the developing world in any real way. I think, in some ways, it undermined the desirability of the older phone by sort of marking it as a cheaper device, right? If part of the reason why people buy Apple phones is for status, you know, if you get one with the plastic cover, it kind of undermines that.


HENN: So, you know, I think this was a failed marketing initiative that didn't have really anything much in it for consumers.

HOBSON: All right. So a few things that did not do that well this year. What about the things that did, Steve? I noticed that one of the most search-for things of the year around the world on Google is the Samsung Galaxy S4. What did well this year?

HENN: Well, Samsung has been on an enormous roll. And, you know, I think it's captured close to a third of the global smartphone market, which is just a huge market share for a company that was a relatively minor player not too long ago. And one of the reasons it's been able to do that is that it's delivered very high-end phones at a competitive price. But it's also had tremendous success in developing markets like China and India by delivering really good phones at a much, much more competitive price than, certainly, Apple but also other Android phone makers.

HOBSON: What would say, Steve Henn, were the biggest advancements in tech this year? What did you see that you just were amazed by?

HENN: You know, I think there's a lot going on at the edges that are really interesting. I think one of the most amazing things that I've seen this year just happened this past weekend. DARPA had a robot challenge.

HOBSON: DARPA is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, part of the government.

HENN: Yeah. It's where the new products are developed and tested and the big ideas often come from in technology. And so after the Fukushima disaster, DARPA decided to have robotics challenge and asked a number of teams around the country to try to build a robot that could basically go in and turn off a toxic nuclear power plant. So it challenged folks to build a robot that could shut off a valve, that could get into a car, insert a key, turn it on and drive it. All these kinds of tasks that are actually very difficult for a mobile robot to successfully do that a human could do but, obviously, humans couldn't do in that kind of toxic environment.

So this weekend, this past weekend, they had their first test of these teams, and a number of them did incredibly well. One of the most fascinating things about that is that a number of these teams have already been bought by Google. And the last, you know, big robotics challenge that DARPA put forward was to create a self-driving car. After that challenge took place, Google hired a lot of the competitors. They put them together in a big room where they worked and built a self-driving car. So, you know, I recently sent folks at Google a note, asking if they were, you know, planning to build a humanoid robot. And they said, you know, officially we have no comment. And off the record, how do you know I'm not a humanoid robot?


HOBSON: Well, Steve, what are you expecting for next year? What can we expect in 2014 since we've already got, it sounds like, the makings of a robot that can go inside a nuclear plant and, of course, a self-driving car? They're already coming up with laws to deal with self-driving cars in your part of the world, in California.

HENN: Right. Right. Yeah. You know, what Google does with its robotics company purchases is going to be really interesting. I think what happens in social media will be interesting. I think the rise of Snapchat has been fascinating and this idea that people, young people especially, want inpermanence(ph), messages that self-destruct, I think, is sort of a cultural shift that's interesting in telling and possibly threatening for companies like Facebook and Twitter even.

HOBSON: I would like to have email that self-destructs so that I, you know, if I don't respond to it or don't delete it, it'll just go away.


HENN: Right. Yeah. But you're not the only one who wants email who self-destructs. So that's another thing. The other thing I'm going to be really fascinated to see - Apple bought a company called PrimeSense. And PrimeSense makes 3-D sensors. It is the company that made Microsoft's Kinect sensor a couple of years ago possible.

HOBSON: Right. The Kinect, for people who don't know, is this thing that sort of takes a picture of you while you are playing the Microsoft Xbox and you can interact with it by sort of moving around in the room, and it watches you.

HENN: Right. It's a 3-D scanner, so it not only takes a picture of you but it knows if your arm is forward or away so you can sort of, you know, pitch a baseball. And that company was bought by Apple. They make a tiny little chip small enough to build into a tablet that would allow you take 3-D scans of a room with your tablet or, you know, you could build it into a television set and it would know where you were in the house.

I think what Apple does with that could be really fascinating. And I think some of the little sensors that were built into its most recent phone that measure acceleration and how you're moving with the phone could be really interesting as well. It's one thing I'm going to watch for.

HOBSON: NPR technology correspondent Steve Henn in Silicon Valley. And, Steve, every city around this country wants to say they're the next Silicon Valley. What's your prediction for 2014? What's the city to watch?

HENN: Austin. No doubt.

HOBSON: Austin, Texas. Steve, thanks a lot.

HENN: My pleasure.

HOBSON: And let us know what the biggest technological advancement for you was in 2013. You can go to hereandnow.org or facebook.com/hereandnowradio. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.