2013: A Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year for the Tech Industry

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Google Glass was the standard bearer for disappointments in a year that saw little change in the technology used by most consumers. (AP)

All in, 2013 was an embarrassment for the entire tech industry and the engine that powers it—Silicon ValleyInnovation was replaced by financial engineering, mergers and acquisitions, and evasion of regulationsNot a single breakthrough product was unveiled—and for reasons outlined below, Google Glass doesn’t count.If it’s in the nature of progress to move in leaps, there are necessarily lulls in betweenHere are all the reasons 2013 was a great big dud for technology as a whole.

Mobile Phones Stagnated

Apple’s huge iPhone launch concealed a deeper truth—its devices are less distinguishable from each other, and from competitors, than ever. (AP)

2013 was the year smartphones became commodities, just like the PCs they supplanted. Even at the high end, Apple and Samsung’s newest flagship phones weren’t big leaps ahead from previous versions. The most that Apple could think to do with the new, faster processor in the iPhone 5S was animate 3D effects that make some users feel ill and a fingerprint sensor that solved a problem that wasn’t exactly pressing. Apple’s new iOS7 mobile operating system, which felt “more like a Microsoft release,” crippled many older iPhones and led to complaints of planned obsolescence.

Samsung’s update to history’s best-selling Android phone, the Galaxy S series, delivered on the technical specifications but continued the line’s “unpleasant, cheap design.” Packed with new features like touch-free gesture control, the phone also has an “easy mode” in recognition that many will want to switch them off, and suffers from an interface that stutters at odd moments despite its powerful electronics. Meanwhile, Google’s mysterious superphone turned out to be the Moto X, which is a nice Android phone but hardly revolutionary.

The one good thing about all this commodification is that smartphones are cheaper than ever—in 2014 they’ll cost as little as $20 in China—just like high-end televisions. Prices for good tablets have similarly collapsed.

Wearables Were a Letdown

Samsung’s Galaxy Gear smart watch disappointed. (AP)

The tone-deaf design of Google’s Glass headset—which to anyone but its user is a head-mounted video camera without the tiny light that all other video cameras have to tell you you’re being filmed—made the device such anathema that one pundit wondered whether he should be ashamed to wear it in public. Sergey Brin’spersonal campaign to make wearing Glass look normal couldn’t hide the fact that Glass is a technology in search of an application—unless that application is invasions of privacy.

Smart watches were easily the biggest letdown of the year. Despite the fact that nearly every big electronics manufacturer is working on one, the battery and display constraints have stumped designers. Again and again, reviewers have declared existing models unfit for widespread adoption, with both Sony and Samsung unveiling devices that failed to make a compelling case for themselves.

Former Giants Continued Their Inglorious Decline

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will be pushed out, but not soon enough. (Reuters)

The outlook wasn’t much better for Intel, not because the company hasn’t continued to innovate, but because people don’t need as many of its microprocessors, and the ones they do need are less profitable than ever.

BlackBerry, which investors once thought might be broken into smaller businesses with some latent value, proved to be a near-total loss. And while Hewlett-Packard has put the disastrous acquisitions and rapid-fire leadership changes of recent years behind it, the best that can be said so far is that it’s gracefully managing its own decline.

M&A Replaced Innovation

Activist investor Carl Icahn helped Apple make headlines for all the wrong reasons. (AP)

Microsoft bought Nokia‘s devices business, which would have been an astonishing turn of events a few years ago, but now felt like a lurch into an unsure future in which Microsoft remains an also-ran in mobile devices. Most big news about Apple was about the company’s tax-avoidance techniques and general failure to deliver any new products of note. (It still isn’t making phablets, though they’ve been hugely successful for other manufacturers.)

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Christopher Mims is the science and technology correspondent for Quartz. His work has appeared in Wired and Scientific American, as well as on the BBC.

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