At the end of the year, it’s traditional to look back and take stock of what happened in the previous 12 months. If you’re in the business of technology, looking back on everything that happened this year might give you vertigo. It was that kind of year.
The 13 entries on this list are comprised of two types: tech trends that came into clear focus this year, and products that did something new and have the potential to be disruptive.
This isn’t meant to be a “best of” list, although the individual products that made the cut are here because they’re a favorite of at least one ZDNet editor.
And we fully realize that your list is likely to be different from ours. Which is why we encourage you to add your own comments in the Talkback section. With that out of the way, let's see what we thought mattered in tech in 2013.
Modern cryptography does an excellent job at keeping secrets, assuming you’re using keys that are sufficiently large and properly randomized. When crypto fails these days, it's usually because someone found a way to tap into the data stream at a point where it was temporarily unprotected.
Edward Snowden’s revelations showed that the NSA and its UK counterparts the GCHQ are very good about exploiting those unencrypted weak spots. They tapped into Google's private, unencrypted lines between data centers. They install Trojans on target computers to get data directly off a device, before it’s encrypted. They’ve even tried to compromise hardware and public crypto standards with secret backdoors.
The solution, as we saw this year, is more and better encryption. Google is rushing to encrypt transmissions between its data centers and pushing Forward Secrecy to harden SSL against key compromise. Microsoft is also encrypting their internal traffic between data centers and pushing the industry to use newer and stronger crypto standards.
Well-implemented TLS/SSL is not impossible to break, but it's impractical to do so — even for the NSA. Unfortunately, there's still a lot of bad crypto out there, hobbled by old and weak standards and careless practices. Even governments make huge, important crypto errors.
There has been a steady increase in the use of encryption to protect data at rest and in transit, and you can look for that to increase steadily next year. Also look for governments to attempt to assert control over security technologies, even if it's an obviously futile exercise.
— Larry Seltzer
Passwords are terrible ways to protect confidential data. The list of stupid things we do with passwords is, frankly, shocking.
The obvious solution is two-factor authentication: something you have plus something you know. And the best accompaniment to a password is biometric proof that you are who you say you are. Apple’s TouchID, integrated into the iPhone 5S this year, was noteworthy as the first example of fingerprint reading technology integrated into a mainstream tech product. (A publicity stunt involving an alleged hack got far more coverage than it should have.)
Windows 8.1, which was released to manufacturing a month before iOS 7, has similar technology. A biometric framework and fingerprint registration application designed for use with the same type of reader as is found in the new iPhone (a big improvement over older swipe-based fingerprint readers) is built into Windows 8.1. It can be combined with the Trusted Platform Module (TPM) in a Windows 8.1 device to create a virtual smartcard that makes spoofing of enterprise network credentials very difficult. Look for this technology to become much more common next year.
— Ed Bott
In the beginning, there was the iPad. Then there were a few Android tablets from Samsung and Google. Then Amazon got into the act with the Kindle Fire, and Microsoft released Windows 8.1, which enabled a whole class of tablet-sized devices. The result is a glut of great tablets to choose from.
Yes, there are plenty of dirt-cheap Android devices that deliver an awful experience, but they’re easy enough to avoid in favor of very good brand-name devices. There’s the 7-inch Google Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HDX. Dell has a pair of 8-inch tablets, one running Android and the other running Windows 8.1. And there are plenty of iPad alternatives in the 8.9-inch-and-up form factor, including Microsoft’s Surface and Surface 2. If you’re happy with last year’s technology, the Kindle Fire HD and the original Surface are seriously discounted.
There are so many tablets, in fact, that manufacturers are falling over themselves to offer eye-popping discounts. Those Dell tablets, for example, have been offered for as little as $129 (Venue 8, Android) and $99 (Venue 8 Pro, Windows 8.1), and Amazon is aggressively comparing its $379 price tag on the Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 to the much pricier iPad Air.
Those prices are really good news for consumers, although it’s doubtful that any of the companies involved are making much of a profit at those prices. It’s even good news for business buyers, because many of these devices are perfectly capable of doing work as well as play.
— Ed Bott
When you use a modern smartphone or a tablet, chances are good that it’s powered by a microprocessor or System on a Chip (SOC) based on a design created by ARM Holdings. That UK-based firm is the acknowledged leader in embedded, low-power processor designs that are required by virtually all consumer mobile devices.
PCs and laptops may still use Intel’s chips for raw power and application compatibility, but when it comes to mobile and consumer electronics, ARM is king.
What’s most amazing about ARM is that it doesn't even make chips; instead, it licenses chip reference designs and intellectual property to companies like Samsung, nVidia, Qualcomm, and Apple. Those companies in turn create their own chips, and that silicon eventually ends up in products you recognize, like iPhone and iPads, Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets, and countless Android devices. Even Microsoft has gotten into the game with its Surface devices and Windows Phones from its soon-to-be-subsidiary Nokia.
But ARM-based chips also end up in products you don't directly interact with, like your Wi-Fi router, your Internet-connected TV, and streaming media devices like the Roku and Apple TV. ARM technology is in smart home products like the NEST thermostat, in home appliances, and, of course, in your car. Collectively, ARM powers an amazing percentage of "The Internet of Things," which will eventually be interconnected with apps and services in unexpected (and, we hope, delightful) ways.
— Jason Perlow
First it was Google’s Chrome browser, which turned automatic background updates into a standard feature. Then it was iOS, which pushes free updates out to every device that can run a new version. And now almost everybody is doing it. Well, maybe not Android.
Office 365 (which has its own place on this list) uses Click-to-Run virtualization, allowing it to update automatically with no user intervention required. Both Microsoft and Apple delivered the latest versions of their operating systems (OS X Mavericks and Windows 8.1, respectively) as free updates via their app stores.
Software companies and customers have a strong common interest in making updates free and as painless as possible. There’s still lots of room for improvement, of course, especially when third-party hardware manufacturers get involved. That’s why the Android installed base is so fragmented and it’s why so many owners of Windows PCs still have to struggle to find and apply firmware and driver updates. Maybe next year.
And there’s also entrenched resistance from enterprises that don’t want the disruption that comes with frequent updates. That’s why the aging, increasingly insecure Windows XP will continue to be insanely popular even after Microsoft ends support for it in April 2014.
— Ed Bott
Bloggers and tech reviewers become so jaded, so fast. Reviewing all those me-too devices and reading all those gobbledygook press releases wears down optimism from even the most diehard enthusiast, leaving behind an impenetrable hard shell of cynicism.
Thus the tepid reviews for Apple’s release this year of the iPad Air and Mini and the iPhone 5s and 5c. No, there were no unicorns on stage at the launch events. It wouldn’t be fair to call any of this year’s devices revolutionary. And yet every one was a solid improvement to a line of devices that were already pretty impressive and successful.
Yes, Apple’s share in the tablet and smartphone markets, expressed as a percentage, has declined. Most of the growth is in low-cost tablets and smartphones, which are ubiquitous, especially in emerging markets that are extremely price-sensitive.
Even if Apple never introduces another category-defining product, it should be able to iterate for years to come on the categories it already dominates, regardless of how much those jaded bloggers grumble.
— Ed Bott
A $35 dongle that weighs less than an ounce, plugs into a standard HDMI port, and streams from the web or a PC? The obvious application in the living room, where sufficiently tech-centric hobbyists can use a Google Chromecast as yet another way to throw Internet videos onto a big-screen TV. But that’s just a sideshow, as far as we’re concerned. This little device has tremendous potential as a useful business tool that will really shine in corporate conference rooms.
For example, you can cast any video stream that plays in the Chrome web browser to any HDTV equipped with a Chromecast. That turns out to be a very effective way to push a web-based video-conference—Google+ Hangouts, WebEx, or GoToMeeting, for example—to that big screen at the end of the conference table. No more awkward huddling around a small PC screen. And as a bonus, you’ll use a fraction of the bandwidth that your office would use if a dozen employees are tuning in to the same conference from separate devices.
The Chromecast is also a potential game-changer for sales and marketing pros who spend their time on the road making presentations to small groups. Lugging around a projector and going through the incantations to make it work can suck the soul from even the most battle-hardened road warrior. But if you know you're going to be taking your show to a room equipped with a modern TV and WiFi, you can set up the Chromecast in a matter of minutes and deliver your web-based presentation effortlessly, putting the business back into show business.
— Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols
Microsoft Office is the very definition of legacy Windows desktop software, having begun its existence as a bundle of productivity apps (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint) nearly a quarter-century ago, in 1990. It’s also one of Microsoft’s crown jewels, contributing more revenue than Windows to the company’s bottom line in recent years.
So the fact that the company has managed to transform its most profitable legacy software product into a successful subscription service is a very big deal. Office 365 debuted in early 2013. Less than a year later, it’s bringing in $1.5 billion a year in revenue and is continuing to grow. The Home Premium edition has 2 million paying subscribers, who each pay $99 a year for the right to install the full collection of Office programs on up to five PCs or Macs. And it’s gaining traction in the enterprise as well, with 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies having purchased Office 365 licenses in the past year. (If you’re confused by the different editions, you’re not alone: Here’s an explainer.)
Behind the scenes, Office 365 uses a technology called Click-to-Run virtualization to stream apps to a client device. Signing in with an Office 365 account eliminates the need for activation and long product keys. Subscribers can deactivate an installation anytime and install the software on a different device—a very useful feature in a multi-device world.
What appears in Office often shows up later in Windows. So how long until Microsoft debuts a Windows as a subscription product using the same model?
— Ed Bott
How many digital point-and-shoot cameras are now gathering dust on closet shelves or junk drawers? Lots and lots. They’ve been rendered obsolete, shipped off to the Island of Misfit Toys and replaced by smartphone cameras.
Apple has defined the category with its superb iPhone cameras and software. This year Nokia raised the bar mightily with its Lumia 1020, which boasts a long list of first-of-its-kind specs: a 41-megapixel main sensor, optical image stabilization, Full HD video, and pro-grade software that has evolved steadily since the product’s launch. Or you can ignore the specs and just look at the photos this phone produces, which explain why our reviewer called it “the photographer’s smartphone.”
The 1020 and its companions at the high end of the Lumia line also show off Nokia's exceptional industrial design chops. When Nokia’s acquisition by Microsoft is complete next year, it will join a hardware team that has already produced some impressive industrial design under the Surface brand name. That’s a significant transformation for a company that Stave Jobs once infamously said “has no taste.”
— Ed Bott
A screen you can’t touch somehow seems incomplete these days. Smartphones and tablets have conditioned us to expect devices to respond to a tap or a swipe, and Microsoft is betting the future of Windows on making touch an equal partner to the more traditional mouse-and-keyboard forms of input.
And thus was born the 2-in-1 PC, which works both as a notebook computer and a tablet. Microsoft’s Surface and Surface Pro lines, with click-in keyboards that double as covers, were the first, but all the major PC OEMs have gotten into the act, experimenting with abandon in their attempts to create variations on the theme. On some, the display detaches to work as a tablet; others allow the display to bend 180 degrees to become a tablet; still others incorporate a display that flips on a hinge or within a frame.
Even after a year of breakneck experimentation, it's still too soon to tell whether this new form factor is catching on with consumers. But don't expect Microsoft and the OEMs to give up. They're too far down the 2-in-1 path to give up now. And don’t be surprised if Apple joins the party. After all, they won a patent for just such a device back in 2010.
— Larry Seltzer
2013 might go down in history as the year all of the big tech companies officially gave up on the dream of interoperability and began building ecosystems where your best chance of success comes with using their devices with their software and their services.
And no one has been more determined than Amazon to build its own ecosystem, or more successful. The Kindle readers have evolved in a few short years to be world-class tablets sold at a discount to their competitors. The Kindle Fire HDX is arguably the best 7-inch device you can buy, feather light, with a gorgeous screen. Amazon remade Android in a way that fits its strengths as the world’s largest bookseller.
And the icing on the cake in 2013 was a ruling in Federal court that Amazon’s biggest, most feared rival, Apple, was guilty of violating antitrust law by colluding with publishers to fix prices. The biggest winner is the book-buying public, which will continue to see Amazon aggressively price online books, even selling them below cost to drive sales of the Kindle Fire HDX. Thus keeping it all in the family.
— Ed Bott
Every IT pro knows how virtualization is increasing data center efficiency and streamlining deployment of applications and services. But on desktops, the technology is still mostly a specialized tool for software testers and developers.
That might all change soon, thanks to Bromium, a startup that specialize in what it calls “micro-virtualization technology.” The company released its first product, vSentry, this year, with the ambitious goal of automatically stopping malware and targeted attacks viruses in their tracks on any computer running Microsoft Windows.
On a PC running Bromium’s vSentry, every single process is virtualized. Every time you fire up an application—including a web browser like Internet Explorer, Firefox, or Chrome—it's isolated in its own micro-VM. When you close the application or the process, that micro-VM also dies, as does any malware that may have entered the system via that process.
No virus cleaning, no quarantining. No reboots. It vanishes in a puff of logic.
That, of course, assumes that an attacker was able to get through in the first place. Another Bromium technology, Live Attack Visualization and Analysis (LAVA), monitors every micro-VM for telltale signs of an attack, using crowd-sourced data to spot the behavioral signatures of common attacks. It can spot redirects, cross-site scripting attacks, and phishing attempts as well as rootkits and bootkits, shutting down the micro-VM before it can be compromised.
In the not so distant future, advanced virtualization technology like Bromium’s could very well make traditional Windows malware a thing of the past.
— Jason Perlow
The cloud is your new server. And someday soon it might also be your new desktop, too.
In 2013, Infrastructure as a Service and Platform as a Service went from mind-numbing acronyms (IaaS/PaaS) to real things. Microsoft’s Azure continues to grow, with this year marking its entry into the billion-dollar-annual revenue club in Redmond. You can run a Windows server or Linux in an Azure instance, and the latest update to Microsoft’s traditional server software, Windows Server 2012 R2 with System Center 2012 R2, known together as Microsoft Cloud OS, is more tightly tied to the cloud than ever.
Meanwhile, Amazon Web Services launched an unexpected offering of its own: Amazon WorkSpaces, which it pitches as desktop-as-a-service. Each virtual machine, running in the AWS cloud, hosts a fully licensed version of Windows 7, with or without productivity software like Office, that enterprises can deploy instead of using alternatives from VMware, Citrix, or IBM. Amazon has released WorkSpaces clients for Windows, Mac, and iPads, with Kindle Fire and Android clients on deck.
And if you prefer to roll your own private cloud, you’ve got open source alternatives like OpenStack Havana. That platform, based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux, got a big boost from the newly private Dell, which will be the first OEM to deliver the software as part of Dell Cloud Services.
If you thought the cloud was just a fad, you were mistaken. Get used to it.
— Ed Bott