Why 2013 was a lost year for tech: Best of the Web

Was 2013 a ‘lost year’ in terms of tech innovation?

That’s the controversial argument put forward by Christopher Mims at Quartz in an essay that has certainly garnered some controversy in the tech community:

All in, 2013 was an embarrassment for the entire tech industry and the engine that powers it—Silicon Valley. Innovation was replaced by financial engineering, mergers and acquisitions, and evasion of regulations. Not 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 between.

Mims argues the lack of innovation was most keenly felt in the smartphone sector, where Apple and Samsung were underwhelming in their innovations, to say the least:

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… 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.”

Mims also includes the ‘letdown’ of wearables such as Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, the decline of industry giants including Microsoft and BlackBerry, industry arrogance, bitcoin hype and the NSA among his other reasons for 2013 being a disappointing year.

Industry supporters fight back

As I mentioned above, Mims’ article earned quick rebuttals from several other writers, including John Gruber and the Wall Street Journal’s Farhad Manjoo.

One of the best rebuttals came from GigaOM’s Om Malik, who disagreed with consumer-tech focused columnists such as Mims:

If anything, in 2013 it became even more fashionable for some of our fellow scribes and righteous founders to lament the lack of innovation in Silicon Valley. A lot of that has to do with the lack of a whiz-bang device, a new earthshaking iPhone (or Apple product) or a big new platform…

The latest such example is a piece in Quartz, a sister publication of The Atlantic. This article, under the headline 2013 was a lost year for tech bemoans Silicon Valley and all its failures, has turned intellectual trolling into high art. It is fairly easy to focus on the lack of whiz-bang technologies like the iPhone or the Kindle. It is pretty easy to focus on the tech-NSA nexus, which I agree is deplorable. And it is also very easy to focus on what some think of as pointless apps.

Malik argues that innovation happens at different paces and time scales:

Even if you ignore the predetermined narrative of the Quartz piece, the article today and many such articles before this one simply reinforce the point that no one — and that includes bloggers like myself, high-brow/super-successful venture capitalists and writers for mainstream intellectual publications like the Atlantic — have little or no understanding of independent spirit of innovation and disruption. Innovation happens in different places, in different sectors and follows a different time scale that only a handful really comprehend.

He goes on to describe some businesses – such as Twitter and Amazon – where the pace of growth was longer than a year, yet the technology ended up being tremendously disruptive to many industries.

In 2006 when Twitter launched, it was a joke and somewhat misunderstood (including by myself). Seven years later, it has turned into the digital heartbeat of our planet and now vies for attention with hundred-year-old media behemoths.

Both Amazon and Twitter are examples that show innovation and its impact are not bound by an investor or a publication’s sense of time, say, a year. Quartz bemoans Google Glass and labels it the standard bearer of disappointment in tech in 2013. Google Glass might earn you the sobriquet “glasshole,” but the reality is that in the future we will have a much improved derivative of Google Glass in our lives. It might not even look like Google Glass, but the wearable computing and personal compute fabrics will be a reality in the not-too-distant future.

So will 2013 be remembered as a year of long-term innovation, or a year in which no really innovative new products were released? Only time will tell.

Technology flops of 2013

While the debate about the industry overall having a bad year might be controversial, there can be little doubt there were a few blunders along the way.

Over at Inc, John Braddon has a piece listing some of them off:

There were plenty of tech advancements this year that might have made you want to rush out and do an office-wide upgrade.

But there were lots of others that only resulted in companies with egg on their faces. In some cases, we don’t know what the true fall-out will be yet–the technology either died suddenly or is still going through a slow death. But one thing is clear: you can learn plenty about marketing and innovation from these flops.

One of the more controversial items on Braddon’s list is the iPhone 5S. While some say there’s still hope for the lower-cost iPhone, Braddon is chalking it up as a failure:

Despite recent reports that this budget iPhone in multiple colors is starting to catch on with consumers, I’m not so sure. One report says Apple has cut production of the 5C model by 35 percent. Why the decline? Try holding one in your hand. It feels a bit cheap and goofy compared to the solid iPhone 5S, which, in my opinion, is one of the best gadgets of the year. The 5C lacks a fingerprint sensor. Another problem: take a close look at the specs. The processor in the 5C is the exact same chip as the one in the older iPhone 5. But the biggest issue is how the 5C degrades the Apple brand. It’s just not a brilliant phone.

Other mishaps include the failure of BlackBerry’s Z10 “comeback” phone, the Windows 8 touch interface, Google’s decision to kill off its popular Reader app, Facebook Home, and US President Barack Obama’s Healthcare.gov website.

The deathwatch for 2014

While Google and Facebook are likely to survive their missteps, the same can’t be said for some of their competitors. Over at Ars Technica, Sean Gallagher takes a look at some of the tech companies starting 2014 on life support:

With all of the holiday cheer now behind us, it’s time to take stock of the year ahead. And while 2013 was a good year for the stock market and a somewhat better-than-recessionary year for the economy as a whole, the ravages of the past twelve months have placed a handful of technology-related companies at a crossroads—one that could lead to a miraculous recovery, an acquisition, or the sort of corporate undeath that turns them into intellectual property zombies that feed on other companies’ brains for survival.

It will probably surprise no one that BlackBerry is near the top of Gallagher’s list:

I left BlackBerry off of our deathwatch list last year because it seemed like things were looking up just a bit. Then the OS and product launch happened. And after flooding retailers with the new keyboardless Z10, the new phones didn’t sell. A comically bad marketing campaign (including a jaw-droppingly bad Super Bowl commercial) did nothing to help, nor did the hiring of Alicia Keys as “creative director.” The company was forced to take a $1 billion loss on unsold Z10 handsets in September. That’s billion, with a “b,” as in BlackBerry.

As the company continued to restructure—slashing 40 percent of its remaining payroll—BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins and the board started shopping the company around for sale and eventually tried to cobble together a leveraged buyout to go private like Dell—a strategy that ended up collapsing and costing Heins his job.

Key rivals HTC are also an unsurprising entrant on the list:

The year was capped off by the indictment of six HTC employees on a variety of charges such as taking kickbacks, falsifying expenses, and leaking company trade secrets—including elements of HTC’s new interface for Android phones. Thomas Chien, the former vice president of design for HTC, was reportedly taking the information to a group in Beijing that was planning to form a new company, according to The Wall Street Journal.

On top of that, despite positive reviews for its flagship HTC One line, the company has been struggling to sell the phone. Blame it on bad marketing, bad execution, or just bad management, but HTC has been beaten down badly by Samsung.

Gallagher also cites AMD, Zyna and Radio Shack as businesses that will struggle to make it through 2014.

And while 2013 might have been a year of long-term innovation, I suspect it’s a year shareholders in those tech companies would rather forget.

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