The Year in Review: the biggest stories of 2013
The news that mattered, disappointments that didn't, essential products, and what to look forward to in 201473
What a year you were, 2013. Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks turned up the heat on a cauldron of privacy concerns that’s sure to boil over in the next year. Drones expanded from killing machines to potential package-delivery robots. The US government shut itself down and revealed a disheartening lack of technical competence with the Healthcare.gov launch debacle. Microsoft started down a path of completely reinventing itself by looking for a new CEO and trying to buy Nokia. From outlandish promises to dissembling politicians, the Hyperloop dreams were almost as big as the spying nightmares. It’s all a lot to remember, so we’ve put together our take on the biggest stories of the year.
What did 2013 mean and what will the next year bring? Read on for our take.
Biggest stories of the year
The NSA leaks
The leaks began in June. Edward Snowden, an NSA contractor, had collected a vast store of secret internal documents and began sharing them with journalist Glenn Greenwald, The Washington Post, and others. The revelations were shocking: the scope and depth of the NSA’s collection of private data stopped looking like a conspiracy theory and became a cold, hard reality we all had to face. The leaks showed that the NSA has collected troves of phone records, spied on US citizens, and tapped the phones of foreign leaders.
Over the last half of 2013, the relentless cadence of releases overwhelmed the government’s attempts to justify the NSA programs. Snowden himself, who ultimately landed in Russia, declared that he "already won," despite the likelihood that he will live his life in exile. Unfortunately, his claim to victory rings hollow — only now are committees and leaders beginning to take steps to bring about reform.
The Boston bombings
There's no going back. The Boston Marathon bombing will be a defining moment as we continue to wrangle with media, news, and tragedy unfolding live in the years to come. The shocking attacks killed three people in all, injured over 200 others, and lead to a week-long manhunt that shut down Boston and paralyzed the country. In addition to the brutality of the attacks, a new uncertainty aided by the free flow of information dominated the minutes, hours, and days following the explosion. An unending stream of hastily checked rumors, false leads, misinformation, and a well-meaning but misguided amateur forensic Reddit manhunt spiraled out of control. The race to be first tripped up traditional media and the hive mind alike on Twitter and across the internet; clearly the end is not written.
Though the debates surrounding military drone strikes are far from over, 2013 saw a new issue rise: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in US airspace.
This year, the FAA slowly moved ahead with plans to regulate domestic drone flight by 2015, approving the first commercial UAVs and accepting bids for a handful of test sites around the country. Companies, meanwhile, began work on drone-related services even before approval: Amazon made waves late in the year by announcing plans for half-hour, door-to-door delivery service by octocopter. Drones also became a common tool for public services, used by firefighters and police for surveillance, reconnaissance, and search-and-rescue operations. Of course, these developments weren’t without controversy: critics pushed for strong privacy protections to accompany the FAA’s other UAV rules, and several states passed laws regulating how police and private citizens could gather and use drone footage.
Elon Musk, superhero
The CEO and co-founder of two of the most exciting technology companies today — SpaceX and Tesla — Elon Musk sits atop The Verge 50 for a reason. Rarely a week went by in 2013 when the South African billionaire wasn’t in the news, having taken his white-hot electric vehicle-maker to its first-ever quarterly profit, docked a spacecraft with the International Space Station, and — in his plentiful spare time — designed an audacious high-speed transport system that could send commuters from LA to San Francisco in under half an hour. At just 42 years of age, it seems likely that Musk will be a newsmaker for many, many days to come (or sols, once he inevitably finds his way to Mars).
Jeff Bezos, magnate
For most billionaires, buying a newspaper works as a kind of a victory lap — but when Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post this August, he was just getting started. Seven weeks later, while the ink was still dry on the Post deal, he announced the next generation of Kindle Fires, complete with Mayday’s innovative customer support system. As hardware, it’s impressive — but it’s just a bow wrapped around the company’s complete domination of the ebook market, and its strengthening hold on music, film, and TV distribution.
But like any good keynote, there was One More Thing. After the halo had dimmed from Mayday, Bezos called in 60 Minutes to announce something absolutely no one expected — a plan to use drones to ferry packages seamlessly through the sky. With a little help from the FAA, you could be getting drone-powered soap deliveries as soon as 2015.
Healthcare.gov melts down
The Obama administration earlier this year launched the largest consumer-facing app ever built by the government: Healthcare.gov, the health-insurance marketplace that was supposed to be a keystone of the administration’s landmark Affordable Care Act.
Unfortunately, that milestone foray into technology turned out to be a disaster. The website, as thousands of users now know, buckled under even modest traffic and produced absurd errors that often made getting insurance nearly impossible. While the debacle was a huge embarrassment for the administration, it also catalyzed a long-overdue debate about the convoluted and inefficient way the government buys technology. As a result, everyone from Silicon Valley to Washington, DC is now getting caught up on "federal IT procurement reform," a process that is key to the success of government-led technology ventures in the future.
Bitcoin, the virtual currency that mimics cash on the internet, has proven itself to be surprisingly resilient, as technology fads go. Despite increased regulation, repeated price crashes, massive heists, and competition from other virtual currencies, Bitcoin is now almost five years old — it’s showing no sign of going away, and has even spawned a meme-based me-too cryptocurrency.
The currency has faced a steady climb towards relevance, and 2013 was the year that people really started to take Bitcoin seriously. A single bitcoin’s price peaked at a high of more than $1,000, and it was the main subject of a first-of-its-kind Senate hearing on virtual currencies. Multiple international governments, including Norway, Germany, and Singapore, issued official opinions on Bitcoin use. And the illegal drug marketplace Silk Road, which had been a black mark on the currency’s reputation, was shut down by the FBI.
2013 saw the last big tech IPO that everybody had been waiting for: Twitter. Unlike Facebook, which faltered out of the gate, Twitter’s IPO was a home run by most measures. While a host of early employees and angel investors made a ton of new cash (some of which will pour back into the startup scene), the IPO established Twitter as a mainstream company. Next up? Profit, if Twitter plays its cards right. Those cards include more pictures, more ways to bring in new users (and potentially annoy current ones), and more rapid redesigns of its apps. Now that it’s a public company with real investors expecting real returns, the biggest changes for the service are yet to come.
Is Yahoo back?
In her first full year as Yahoo’s CEO, Marissa Mayer kickstarted the company’s once-moribund mobile team and refreshed nearly the entire product line. Yahoo’s new Weather app won an Apple Design Award, and a similar look revived the company’s finance and news apps. Meanwhile, after years of pleas from loyal fans, Flickr got the attention — and redesign — it deserved.
Yahoo’s accelerated pace of innovation was driven in large part by nonstop acquisitions. Since becoming CEO, Mayer has bought more than two dozen companies in areas including imaging, machine learning, video conferencing, and photography. But her biggest buy was Tumblr, the white hot blogging platform that Yahoo scooped up for $1.1 billion earlier this year. It’s unclear whether Mayer’s sharp maneuvers can make Yahoo as profitable as it once was — but with 400 million people now using the company’s products on mobile devices each month, its prospects are looking better and better.
Microsoft in flux
Although Microsoft launched a tweaked Windows 8.1 update and new Surface 2 models in 2013, this year was less about products and more about massive internal change. CEO Steve Ballmer revealed his giant reorganization plan to transform Microsoft into a devices and services company, before announcing, months later, that he won’t be around to see "One Microsoft" take shape. Ballmer will retire from Microsoft in 2014, with his successor expected to be named early next year. The next CEO will take over the ambitious plans, alongside an acquisition of Nokia’s device business. The surprising acquisition came just weeks after Ballmer’s retirement note, and sets the company on a path to be a hardware player in the smartphone and tablet market.
With the new Xbox One console, Microsoft is also hoping to capture the living room. It’s another ambitious plan from a company in transition, but early figures show it’s selling well so far. 2013 has been a year of change for Microsoft, but 2014 is the year the company will need to prove its big bets can really start to pay off.
Snapchat’s success wouldn’t be long-lived, pundits said. The app was too buggy, and its most important feature — its disappearing messages — could be cloned in a minute. But Snapchat kept growing, beating out Facebook’s ephemeral messaging app Poke, and eventually seeing over 400 million photos shared per day — which put it within spitting distance of Facebook. But as Snapchat’s engagement numbers grew, so did its aspirations and ego. As 2013 came to a close, the company reportedly turned down multibillion-dollar acquisition offers from Facebook and Google. In 2014, Snapchat will need to justify staying independent by finding ways to make money and add features — and do so without losing the advantage it seems to have over Facebook with younger users.
Music comes back
Remember when the music industry was doomed? It wasn’t so many years ago, but it feels like longer. It was before Beyoncé ambushed the web with one of the best albums of the year, owning the moment in a way most culture critics thought was impossible in the modern age. She was snatching it from Kanye, who’d been tussling with Daft Punk for control of the world’s headphones all summer. Jay-Z did his strange, transfixing, app-based two-step with Samsung and for months on end, it was all anyone wanted to talk about. And that’s to say nothing of the billion-dollar EDM company that splashed onto the Nasdaq in October. Music? Dead? What were we thinking?
The Netflix studio
Original shows have been produced for the web since the 1990s, but they remained second-class citizens compared to network and cable series no matter how polished they were. In 2013 that all changed. Netflix lead the way as the Kevin Spacey vehicle House of Cards debuted to a flurry of positive reviews and viewing binges. Arrested Development and Orange Is the New Black proved it wasn’t a fluke, and the Emmys made it official when Netflix shows earned 14 nominations. Cards went on to win three awards, including best director for David Fincher.
It echoes the legitimacy HBO gained when The Sopranos became the first original cable series to score an Emmy nomination, setting the stage for a revolution. With Amazon Studios recently releasing its first original shows and Microsoft working on a Halo series with Steven Spielberg, the question isn’t whether a streaming service can produce a "real" television show; it’s if the next Breaking Bad or Lost will even be available through traditional channels in the first place.
T-Mobile’s wild ride
In 2011, T-Mobile was very nearly bought up by AT&T and had no clear path to a next-generation LTE network. But in 2013, under new CEO John Legere, T-Mobile transformed itself from a struggling fourth-place carrier to an aggressive upstart aimed at turning the wireless industry in the US on its head. As part of its new "uncarrier" branding, T-Mobile got rid of the onerous cellphone contract, launched options for people to upgrade their devices more often, offered free data to all tablet customers, and deployed radically cheaper international data roaming plans. Oh, and it finally started selling the iPhone. The plan seems to be working: T-Mobile reported more new customer additions in 2013 than any other major carrier in the US. As a result, AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon have all followed suit with their own rapid-upgrade options, and AT&T recently launched plans that are less expensive for customers who have fulfilled their contracts.
Google gets weird
During a Q&A session at Google I / O this year, CEO Larry Page mused about an intriguing desire to "set aside a part of the world" where experimenters could perform tests and trials that don’t conform to pesky laws and regulations. But really, given all the outlandish experiments the company is running here at home, who needs a Google Island?
This year brought Calico, a Google company tasked with curing illness, aging, and death. It brought Project Loon, a network of high-altitude balloons designed to connect the remaining two-thirds of the world’s population to the internet. And it brought robots. Google this year acquired eight robotics companies, including defense contractor Boston Dynamics, and put them under the leadership of former Android chief (and lifelong robot aficionado) Andy Rubin. Turns out there is a Google Island, after all. And we’re living on it.
Google kills Reader
In March, Google buried a bombshell in its regular "spring cleaning" product shutdown blog post: Google Reader. The RSS client was still popular despite the fact that Reader was an all but abandoned product. Users decried the move and declared that RSS was still important for the web, but nevertheless Reader shut down as planned on July 1st. Luckily, companies from Aol to Feedly to Digg rushed to fill in the gap and by the end of the year there were several RSS reading and syncing options to choose from. RSS may have been supplanted by Twitter for many users, but it’s not quite dead yet.
Banksy takes New York
Banksy’s October "residency" in New York City was about so much more than his silhouette street art. Dubbed Better Out Than In, the month-long series saw unannounced Banksy installations all over the city, with a photo of each posted on Instagram setting off a Stateside frenzy where everyone was discussing street art in public. Art hunters raced around the five boroughs to catch a glimpse, local gawkers huddled nearby, and Mayor Bloomberg got riled up. Banksy strayed from his usual stencils with a tiny 9 / 11 memorial and cinder-block Sphinx, but it was all about art as an event that ratcheted ever higher as the installations disappeared or were defaced, painted over, and covered up in hours.
Mars wins our heart
Experts have been scrutinizing the red planet for decades, but 2013 offered up unprecedented and tantalizing details about what Mars is (and was) made of. After landing on the planet in August of 2012, NASA’s Curiosity rover spent this past year sending back reams of data for scientists to analyze, leading to new insights into the planet’s watery, potentially habitable past. And Curiosity will soon have more company, as this year also saw NASA launch the MAVEN probe to characterize Mars’ atmosphere.
While scientists looked into the red planet’s past, others looked to its future — and kicked off bold ventures intended to get people to Mars within the next decade. Dennis Tito’s Inspiration Mars announced a plot to send two brave souls to the planet and back by 2018, while the Mars One project made headlines for its ambitious plan to create a self-sustaining human colony.
Design goes flat
Windows has its Live Tiles, Google has its Cards, and now, with iOS 7 and OS X Mavericks, Apple has finally left the rich textures of its recent history behind. The company changed the direction of its mobile and desktop software in less than a year, moving from green felt and faux leather to flat panels, thin type, and soft gradients.
The timing of the change is no coincidence: Scott Forstall, Apple's head of iOS since forever, left the company in October 2012, leaving room for Jony Ive and Craig Federighi to take the reins. What does that transition mean? Two experienced people are spearheading the look and feel of all the company’s software. There’s plenty of work to be done, but Apple fans can rest assured that the company’s mobile and desktop software appears, at least, to be in capable hands.
Genetic testing evolves
From the risk of developing an illness to the roots of ancestry, each year brings with it new information on what we can glean from our genetic makeup. But as the burgeoning field progresses, it’s also running up against regulatory roadblocks — ones that, as 2013 showed, have the potential to vastly transform how our genetic data is used and what it might teach us.
First came a landmark Supreme Court decision, wherein justices ruled that a company called Myriad Genetics couldn’t hold a patent on two genes involved in breast cancer risk. The ruling was narrow in scope, but it’s expected to somewhat stymie monopolies on genetic tests. Unfortunately, just as the field started to feel more open, the FDA slammed a door shut: in November, the agency ruled that 23andMe’s genomics test violated federal regulations, striking a resounding blow to the dream of personally managed genetic data.
The Chelsea Manning trial
In February 2010, a young Army private named Bradley Manning provided nearly 750,000 classified US government documents to the online publisher WikiLeaks. Arrested several months later, he faced 22 charges; the most serious, aiding the enemy, carried a potential death sentence. Manning’s court-martial began in December, 201,1 and this year Manning received a 35-year sentence, handed down just as the NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden had begun to make international headlines.
From prison, Manning declared herself female, asking to be addressed as "Chelsea." Since then, she has fought to receive hormone therapy and, around Thanksgiving, issued a public statement thanking those "who dare to ask probing, even dangerous, questions." Manning’s lawyer believes that she could be paroled in February 2020.
Biggest disappointments of the year
Dim approval ratings for Congress are nothing new, but in 2013 they dropped to the lowest since we started tracking such things in earnest — and for very good reason. Congress spent the vast majority of the year deadlocked, a situation that ultimately led to a government shutdown. That meant everything from NASA to government email to President Obama’s surveillance review panel went on hiatus. And our legislators didn’t do much to respond to the leaks that revealed the scope of the NSA’s spying, either, despite a growing consensus that it must be scaled back. In all, Congress made lots of noise, expressed way too much fury, and did precious little of significance.
2013 wasn’t the best year for Facebook. The company’s initial public offering in 2012 was a notorious underwriting disaster, and its newest products — Facebook Home, a revamped News Feed, and Graph Search — didn’t make much of a splash. The HTC First, what many called "The Facebook Phone," was a flop. The company also battled a gamut of publicity problems ranging from PRISM and rumors that teens were leaving the social network in droves to research that showed prolonged Facebook use caused depression. Facebook stock has since bounced back, but Home was a flop, and the company’s new News Feed hasn’t sent engagement rates soaring. Meanwhile, photo-sharing apps like Snapchat and messaging apps like WhatsApp have begun eating into Facebook’s dominance. The company finds itself in a tough position, betting its mobile chips on its mid-2012 acquisition of Instagram and its life on finding "the next billion" users. Facebook has grown large in every way. By trying to do too much, the company achieved too little.
2013 was a rough year for BlackBerry. The once-reigning king of the smartphone world finally launched its much-delayed next-generation BlackBerry 10 operating system, but it utterly failed to catch on with smartphone buyers, and BlackBerry fell into a tailspin of declining market share and even worse financial reports. BlackBerry also launched BBM for iOS and Android, but delays and a rocky start put it far behind market leaders such as WhatsApp. Eventually the company announced that it would exit the consumer market and focus on its enterprise business. Shortly after a failed attempt to find someone to buy the company, BlackBerry ousted CEO Thorsten Heins and replaced him with outsider John Chen, who promptly tried to ease worries that the company was going away. Chen is now tasked with turning around a company that just reported it sells three times as many of its old, BlackBerry 7 smartphones as it does of the new BlackBerry 10 models.
BlackBerry’s turmoil this year highlight just how competitive the smartphone market is. It’s dominated by two platforms, and while Microsoft’s deep pockets enable it to hang on to a small percentage of the market for third place, there’s clearly no room for a successful fourth player.
The TV industry
Despite the great strides made in content, moving internet-based television forward proved to be about as effective as dragging a sleeping cat. After months of rumors Intel confirmed that it was working on an internet-based television system that would provide live TV and on-demand programming… until it couldn’t close licensing deals and had to scrap the whole initiative. Microsoft touted the Xbox One’s ability to integrate live television as a glimpse into the future, but relying on an existing set-top box and IR blaster is more clunky alliance than revolution. And, of course, another 12 months passed without Apple releasing a branded television of its own.
The most remarkable innovation we saw come to market was from Aereo, a company that relies on some careful legal language and a ton of tiny antennas to let users watch broadcast television streamed to them online. Of course, the entrenched powers were none too happy, and Aereo’s found itself in a series of ever-escalating copyright cases that appear headed to the Supreme Court. The desire for internet-based TV is there. The technology for internet-based TV is there. Maybe 2014 will be the year the incumbents in the TV industry stop disrupting the disruptors.
It’s hardly a new phenomenon, but mark 2013 as the year that the impact of climate change gained serious momentum among scientists and governments alike. In September, a landmark UN report put the crisis into stark perspective: the reality of a warming planet is "unequivocal," the report stated, and human activities are nearly certainly at fault. That report was echoed by other high-profile studies throughout the year: a widely publicized Nature paper found that unprecedented high temperatures will be commonplace by 2047, while another concluded that upwards of 1.5 billion people could soon face water scarcity as a result of changing climatic conditions.
And if the actions of international governments this year are any indication, the grim outlooks in those studies will become a reality. At fractious UN climate talks in Warsaw, Poland, countries tussled over emissions goals and financial reparations before reaching disappointingly modest agreements on both. In the US, President Obama made climate change one of his key stumping points — all while releasing a fatally flawed plan to combat the issue, and punting any decisions about the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.
Biggest products of the year
The iPad Air doesn’t have a great story — if anything, it’s indicative of Apple’s dedication to evolving its products rather than compulsively rethinking them. But while it may not be the most interesting or surprising product to launch this year, there’s no question it’s one of the best. Apple’s larger tablet now comes with a desktop-class processor, an incredibly high-resolution screen, a 1-pound body that’s both immersive and portable, and Apple’s huge and growing App Store. The iPad is one of the most popular gaming machines in the world, and it’s as good a Netflix machine as ever. But it’s no accident that Apple likes to show off the iPad Air by demoing Pages and iMovie, or that it’s made them all free to use — this tablet is built for creating, and it’s coming after your computer.
Motorola was purchased by Google in 2012, but it wasn’t until this year that the company released the Moto X, a device that clearly bore the influence of its new overlords. The Moto X defied the spec race by offering hardware that was just "good enough," but when added together became greater than the sum of its parts. The company also demonstrated how minor, innovative additions to Android offer a better experience than a complete revision of the platform, as many other manufacturers choose to do. Other innovative features of the Moto X include the Moto Maker service, which lets customers order a custom-designed phone through Motorola’s website and have it shipped right to their door. Finally, thanks to Google’s financial backing, Motorola became the first company to sell a smartphone assembled in the US. Motorola hasn’t yet been able to attain the commercial sales success of its competitors with the Moto X, but it has the deep pockets of Google behind it to keep trying.
Pebble and wearables
Wearable technology has been on the fringe of the gadget world for years, but in 2013, it jumped into the mainstream consciousness. Kickstarter darling Pebble finally launched its smartwatch, and although it is far from perfect, smartwatches have been a hot topic ever since. Samsung released its ill-received Galaxy Gear, which was considered far too big, expensive, and limited by many, while Sony followed up with the SmartWatch 2, its best effort in the category yet. Smartwatches weren’t the only wearables in the spotlight: numerous fitness trackers from the likes of Fitbit, Nike, and others launched this year, some of which even tried to incorporate smartwatch-like features, albeit without much success. We’re still waiting for the long-rumored wearable devices from Apple and Google to actually be a real thing, but 2013 showed that wearable technology is going to stay.
Everybody likes cheap computers, but no one likes them when they’re slow and underpowered. So Google made Chrome OS, the web-based operating system that doesn’t need high-end hardware or customized software to work well. After a few fits and starts, Chrome OS took off in 2013 — our work and lives are moving ever more into a web browser, and with native apps and offline support a web browser feels a lot less like a compromise on a Chromebook. Meanwhile, manufacturers began to buy in: Acer, Samsung, HP, and others all made Chromebooks that squeeze good performance and good battery life into small, inexpensive packages. Chromebooks sit perpetually at the top of Amazon’s best-seller lists — turns out people still love cheap computers. But in 2013, cheap computers didn’t have to be bad anymore.
Xbox One and PS4
For gamers, 2013 was a year of waiting. Both Sony's PlayStation 4 and Microsoft's Xbox One were announced early on in the year, but it wasn't until November that we finally got our hands on the next-generation game consoles. And the two devices took very different approaches. Microsoft initially unveiled some ambitious features for its console only to scale them back when consumers balked at the idea of an always-online console that couldn’t play used games. It also continued its Kinect push, while furthering the idea of an Xbox as the center of your living room. Sony, meanwhile, tried to label the PS4 as a return to the brand’s early days, describing it as a device built for both gamers and game developers. It didn't have all of the features of the Xbox and was priced at $100 cheaper. Once the two machines finally arrived, they turned out to be remarkably similar in at least one way: they're both still works in progress. While we’ve rendered our early verdicts on the PS4 and Xbox One, with a few software updates and a more robust lineup of games, these will be very different machines in a short period of time.
A look ahead
Will legalized marijuana change America?
America’s war on drugs entered uncharted territory this year, after Colorado and Washington became the first states to decriminalize the recreational use of marijuana. Legalization advocates touted the laws as a turning point for US drug policy, and raised hopes that other states may follow suit. Still, major uncertainties loom on the horizon. Authorities in both states spent much of 2013 crafting strict rules that’ll govern how marijuana is distributed and regulated once it becomes legal, but many have raised doubts over their ability to both oversee the industry and guarantee public safety.
Casting a shadow over all of this is the fact that marijuana remains illegal under federal law, although Colorado and Washington will at least be able to see their experiments through. The Justice Department says it won’t challenge the laws as long as strong regulations are in place, setting the stage for what’s sure to be a fascinating 2014. Marijuana sales begin in Colorado on January 1st, and in Washington later this spring.
Will Apple break into a new product category?
In 1998, it was the iMac. In 2001, the iPod. 2007 brought the iPhone, and the iPad came in 2010. Apple’s remarkable 15-year run has seen it both invent markets and utterly dominate them — and every few years, Steve Jobs would come on stage and announce Apple’s next target. Amid deafening rumor and speculation in 2013, however, Apple stayed its course: upgrade, not overhaul. The chorus will only grow louder in 2014: will Apple finally release the TV set Steve Jobs famously said he’d "cracked?" Will it identify in the nascent smartwatch market the same thing it saw in MP3 players, solve problems in both design and software, and release the first truly mainstream wearable? The iPhone 5C introduced color to the otherwise mostly monochromatic world of Apple hardware designs — will its other products follow suit? Maybe Apple will stay the course again next year, updating Macs, iPads, and iPhones to an audience of upgraders. Or maybe it’ll swing for the fences again and find another industry in need of an overhaul. Either way, everyone’s watching.
Can Oculus reinvent virtual reality?
In 2014, virtual reality may finally have a chance to be more than a ‘90s-era pipe dream. Oculus VR has now raised over $100 million to commercialize its critically acclaimed virtual reality headset — the Oculus Rift — and attracted a raft of talent to ensure the device doesn’t become just another failed PC peripheral. The firm now counts famed video game programmer John Carmack as its chief technical officer, hard at work on an Android version of the system, not to mention former EA Partners and Origin dealmaker David DeMartini, who will use some of the company’s newfound cash to lure game developers to the platform. The company already has a new prototype headset that allegedly does away with motion sickness, but there are at least two major challenges ahead: figuring out how to build compelling games for virtual reality, and finding a natural way to control those games with your hands.
Will a moonshot actually hit the moon?
Tech people have always liked big promises, but in 2013, they got bigger and more outlandish. The weirdest part is, we started to believe them. When Amazon announced it would start replacing UPS with autonomous miniature helicopters (read that again), we doubted the regulation more than the technology. By that point, we’d seen Google promising immortality and inching closer to self-driving cars, all while they used balloons to broadcast the internet over remote parts of the globe. And that’s saying nothing of Elon Musk, Mr. Moonshot himself, who continued to develop his once-outlandish electric car and spaceflight schemes, then dropped blueprints for a next-generation maglev like it was an extra-credit paper.
It won’t all happen, but a lot of it’s happening already. Haters fumed and bankers scratched their heads, but more than during any other year in memory, companies were willing to gamble on an interesting idea. The payoff, if it comes, will be when one of those moonshots actually makes it to the moon.
Can we actually reform our privacy laws?
Despite early assertions from the White House, Congress, and the intelligence community that the NSA’s out-of-control programs were properly sanctioned by all three branches of government, the tide of public opinion may be turning against secret mass government surveillance. Lawmakers, private technology companies, and advocacy groups have increased pressure in the months following Snowden’s initial leaks, calling for NSA reform. Just this month the president’s NSA review panel, widely expected by critics to produce few results, offered sweeping, unexpected recommendations to reform the NSA and end bulk collection of phone records.
But even an end to NSA bulk surveillance won’t resolve some of the most critical privacy issues facing Americans. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a wildly out-of-date 1986 law, established that sensitive metadata isn’t subject to Fourth and Fifth Amendment protections. There is some hope, however, that the government's position on metadata protection may soon change; in December, a federal judge ruled that the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records is likely unconstitutional, noting that the government’s spying programs are "based in large part on a 34-year-old Supreme Court precedent, the relevance of which has been eclipsed by technological advances and a cellphone-centric lifestyle heretofore inconceivable."