2013 in tech: The big stories of the year

Here's a look back at the hot topics, major discoveries, and technological breakthroughs of 2013: from privacy to surveillance, major product launches, successes, and catastrophes.
By Zack Whittaker, Contributor on
1 of 21 Zack Whittaker/ZDNET

Silicon Valley tech giants hacked after Java zero-day exploit

In January, Homeland Security warned users to disable Java amid a zero-day vulnerability. Oracle, which develops the software, said it fixed the bug but Homeland Security warned not long after that the bug persisted.

Lo and behold a month later, Apple and Facebook, among other Silicon Valley giants, said they suffered an internal network hack as a result. The companies said no customer data was stolen, the companies said.

Image via CNET

2 of 21 ZDNet; Microsoft; stock image

Microsoft fined $731m by Europe after browser ballot bungle

One significant but small oversight cost Microsoft dearly after it allegedly inadvertently flouted an earlier antitrust ruling that forced the software giant to offer a choice of browsers to Windows users in Europe.

Microsoft was forced to shell out $731 million by the European Union after it failed to bundle the "browser ballot" screen, which allows users in the region to choose a browser of their choice in the latest version of Windows. The software giant said it took "full responsibility for the technical error."

3 of 21 CNET

Controversial cybersecurity CISPA bill rises from the ashes, buried in Senate

Considered one of the biggest privacy infringing bills in living memory by some — and even members of the Senate agreed. In April, the controversial bill was struck down by the Senate after passing the House. The bill would have allowed private sector companies — such as Silicon Valley giants — to pass "cyber threat" data, including personal user data, to the U.S. government without informing users or the government requiring a warrant.

4 of 21 European Commission

EU to outlaw online throttling and site-blocking under net neutrality plan

A big win for European internet users landed in June when a new proposal by the European Commission announced that internet providers operating in the 28 member state bloc would no longer be allowed to block, throttle, or degrade access to services that rival their own. Granted, it doesn't mean that pirate websites and other illegal sites are safe, but it is paves the way for "net neutrality" in the region. 

5 of 21 National Security Agency

U.S. mass surveillance leaks lifts lid on global spying efforts

In June, U.S. former government contractor Edward Snowden blew the lid on one of the world's biggest secrets in living history: the U.S. government was engaged in a massive global dragnet surveillance operation. It was a massive punch in the face for the White House, which had spent decades keeping the spying programs under wraps. Snowden was charged with espionage, but ultimately fled to Russia under the former-Communist country's protection, and out of the U.S.' reach. The saga continues.

6 of 21 New Zealand Government

New Zealand bans software patents in bid to drive innovation

There is (one imagines) nothing worse for inventors than creating something that may change the world, only to discover someone else holds the patent. New Zealand's government made waves when it dropped the ability to patent software, but went even further by banning software patents completely. The new Patents Bill effectively outlawed software patents, making the Pacific island one of the frontrunners in efforts to reform patents worldwide.

7 of 21 Elon Musk/SpaceX

High speed rail, jog on. Here comes Hyperloop

"No-one loves a smartass," goes the saying. Unless you're Elon Musk, the Paypal founder and Tesla chief executive, who is heralded as one of the greatest geniuses of our time. Earlier this year, Musk drew up a sketch that became the first design incarnation of "Hyperloop," a way to travel from one side of the U.S. to the other in less than three hours. We'll see if it ever comes to fruition, but Musk is enough of a well-established entrepreneur to make it happen above all else.

8 of 21 CNET

Microsoft buys Nokia's devices, services unit

Just when you thought the rumors wouldn't die away, Microsoft went and did what everyone thought it was going to do all along but took so long rumors began to wane. It bought Nokia's devices and services unit — effectively it's phone-making business — for a total of $7.2 billion. Later in the year, U.S. regulators and the European Union regulators announced they would allow the acquisition, making it a done-deal.

9 of 21 CNET

iOS 7 released with a brand new design

Some will moan, some will complain, but it didn't stop hundreds of millions of iPhone and iPad users from upgrading to iOS 7, the the redesigned Apple mobile operating system within just days of its launch in June.

Slated as one of the biggest software releases of the year, it stirred anger and annoyance even after it was first showcased at Apple's worldwide developer event. But not before long, almost three-quarters of all users were hooked on the new software, putting Android's fragmentation issue (not completely but almost entirely) to shame.

10 of 21 CNET

Apple splits iPhone in half, creates iPhone 5s, 5c

Apple, at the same event in June, announced it would offer not just one iPhone but two. The company said in addition to a premium iPhone 5s, it would dish out an "emerging market" or "budget" iPhone 5c to increase its rivalry over Android. While millions waited for their iPhone 5s to arrive amid shortages and extended delivery times, the iPhone 5c remained on store shelves. Apple reportedly reduced manufacturing on low demand for the cheaper smartphone.

11 of 21 CNET

After years of speculation, Twitter finally goes public

Finally. Twitter, the microblogging site, went public after years of rumor and speculation that it would float on a U.S. Stock Exchange. The company sought to gain $1 billion in what was considered the biggest floatation since Facebook's (albeit botched) initial public offering on Nasdaq in 2012. In order to avoid similar woes that its social rival suffered, Twitter underwent a "dry run" on the New York Stock Exchange. The debut was strong, but the company still has a long way to go before it reaches its peak

12 of 21 Long Zheng/Flickr

Microsoft chief executive Ballmer to retire

After more than a decade at the world's most well-known software giant, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer announced he would retire. A new boss is expected to be announced in early 2014. ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley scored Ballmer's exit interview, where he expressed his biggest regrets, his views on Surface vs. the Xbox, and his top five management tips. As for who will replace him? All bets are on.

13 of 21 CNET

Wearable tech explodes, smart watches on deck

From Google Glass to the Galaxy Gear, this year saw an explosion in wearable tech. Despite being in its infancy, many products — despite criticisms that they were "rushed" — are still at a concept stage that aims to eventually bridge the gap between mankind and machine. While most Americans remain mixed (and borderline skeptical) on wearable tech, we saw this year, the first wave of products that will all but certainly develop and pan out into 2014.

14 of 21 ZDNet; Healthcare.gov

Despite good intentions, government suffers Obamacare website woes

To kick off the US's new healthcare law, Obamacare, it was necessary to enter the online world with a blast of registrations. Turns out the website wasn't even close to being ready and fell down at the starting line. Not only did spammers jump on the bandwagon, hackers also attacked the site. But the site's crucial flaw is that it just didn't work. President Barack Obama described the flaws in his own flagship policy's website as "unacceptable." He called in the Silicon Valley big guns to sort out the mess. Though the White House's deadline of November came and went, there are still reported issues on the healthcare marketplace. 

15 of 21 CNET

Windows 8.1 released, hopes to regain customer confidence

In efforts to redeem itself after the widely accepted flop of Windows 8, Microsoft issued an update, Windows 8.1,  to the world's most-used desktop operating system in efforts to claw back some of its loyal users.

Windows 8 (and the "confusing" Windows RT) may not have been all that to so many — millions have kept with aging Windows XP and many more stuck with Windows 7. At the very least, Windows 8.1 brought back in some fashion the Start menu and the ability to boot-to-desktop, bypassing the bevy of tiles on the redesigned Start screen. Whether it changes people's minds about Windows 8 remains something else entirely.

16 of 21 White House

U.S. government throws a hissy-fit, shuts down for three weeks

Blame Obamacare? Or blame the stubborn Republicans who threw the entire country under the bus? You decide. In fact, many didn't care that the government had shut down for about three weeks, with many instead pointing the finger at the politicians who couldn't get their act together. On the other hand, the shutdown affected tens of millions of Americans — many government workers, who weren't even allowed to check their email during the extended "stay-cation." Almost everything shut down — from Healthcare.gov development to the NASA space agency. Even IT spending took a hit as a result.

17 of 21 CNET

BlackBerry crumble: Chief executive out; new boss upbeat on future

It's not often a company's chief executive is led out of the C-level suite and onto the street. But after numerous quarters of poor performance and a failed bid to sell the company, BlackBerry's Thorsten Heins was replaced (after he resigned — though how far he was pushed remains unclear) by former Sybase chief John Chen. He took the role by the horns and said he's keeping the smartphone unit, saying the company would "reclaim our success." 

18 of 21 ZDNet

Rise and fall of virtual currency Bitcoin

After rocketing by more than 6,000 percent in the course of just three weeks, virtual currency Bitcoin, crashed after reaching a peak of about $1,200 per Bitcoin. Was it a bubble? Most certainly. Will it stabilize out over time? Likely. But troubles concern many, not least after underground drug site Silk Road, which heavily relied on Bitcoin, was seized by the FBI and China all-but outlawed Bitcoin sent the currency plunging to its lowest levels in weeks.

19 of 21 CNET

Curved smartphones debut, shakes up mobile market

If you thought smartphone innovation was dead, think again. Not content with the "boring" flat and slate-like shape of modern smartphones, Samsung and LG were both quick to jump on the curved display revolution. Expect more from the curved smartphone space in 2014 where it's expected to emerge, particularly at the annual CES event in January.

20 of 21 CNET

PCs fall further, faster than expected as shipments worsen

The traditional PC is dead. Long live the PC. Well, it's not dead but it's certainly on its last legs as the tablet and smartphone market continues to burgeon. In August, research firm IDC said worldwide PC shipments could plunge by as much as 10 percent. And later in the year, IDC revised its figure further, citing poor back-to-school sales and a not-so-successful Black Friday as a result of a deeper shipments decline. What's worse is that there's no recovery end-in-sight. 

21 of 21 CBS/"60 Minutes"

Amazon debuts drones, promises to change the delivery game

And last but not least: from the Very Weird and Not-So-Expected Department, Amazon announced it would — though not immediately — begin local delivery by drone. Yes, drone. The move was criticized by some as being a publicity stunt, because the retail turned everything-else giant isn't legally allowed at least until the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration authorizes such use. That could be as early as 2018. It's a long way off, but others are experimenting with drone technology — even if it won't be on your doorstep any time soon.

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