SLIDESHOW

High-tech 2013: The 10 biggest news events of the year

Apple. T-Mobile. Microsoft. And what's going on with PCs? The biggest tech news stories of 2013 may be far-flung, but they were all fantastically momentous.

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A glance back before moving forward

In some ways, 2013 was a sleepy year for the tech industry. The novelty of new smartphones and tablets has worn off, and we’re still waiting for the next big thing. (Sorry, Samsung: Smartwatches just aren’t there yet.) That didn’t stop the juicy headlines from rolling in, however, as tech titans endured major changes in preparation for whatever comes next. Here are the 10 most newsworthy events of 2013.

Image: Morgan via Flickr/Creative Commons

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Edward Snowden’s NSA spying revelations

As we grow more dependent on Internet services to keep our lives in order, the leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden are a stark reminder of what we’ve given up in exchange. The Prism program, in which the NSA collected swaths of user data from major tech companies, was just the tip of the iceberg. Since those first revelations, we’ve also learned about the government’s tapping into Internet gatewayskeeping tabs on world leaders, using tracking cookies to monitor persons of interest, collecting location data worldwide, and even spying on online games. Whether you think Snowden is a patriot or a traitor, there’s no denying his impact.

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Big shake-ups at Microsoft

Thanks to events set into motion this year, Microsoft will be a much different company in 2014. Longtime CEO Steve Ballmer will retire, and whoever replaces him will inherit a new management structure that encourages more collaboration between divisions—and a newfound focus on devices and services, rather than software alone. If the acquisition of Nokia goes through, Microsoft will have its own hardware company, as well. Whether any of these big moves will help Microsoft regain its relevance is still anyone’s guess.

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Apple makes OS X, iWork, and iLife free

Perhaps sensing weakness in Microsoft, Apple went for the jugular by announcing free lifetime software upgrades for Mac OS X, and free copies of Apple’s iWork and iLife suites with any hardware purchase. The new policies are Apple’s way of making sure that customers are permanently hooked on the company’s software and services. So far, Microsoft has responded only with words.

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The next console generation arrives

Although Nintendo kicked things off early with the Wii U last year, the next console generation didn’t truly arrive until Microsoft and Sony followed suit. Both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 launched in November, and so far it looks like a neck-and-neck race. But the console wars will get even more complicated next year, when Valve invades the living room with Linux-based Steam Machines.

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Apple says good-bye to the iPhone you thought you knew

After six years of skeuomorphism, Apple gave its mobile operating system a major face-lift with iOS 7. The new iOS trades shadows and gradients for a more modern “flat” design that polarized critics from day one. Apple also shook up its iPhone line by introducing a midtier model, the iPhone 5c, with a colorful plastic casing instead of aluminum. It could be a sign of bigger changes to come as Apple looks to differentiate its flagship iPhone. A larger screen, anyone?

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BlackBerry’s epic fail

At the start of 2013, BlackBerry still seemed eager to make a comeback as it prepared to launch the first BlackBerry 10 phones. The flagship touchscreen BlackBerry Z10 crashed and burned at retail, however. Twelve months later, the company is on its last legs.

After considering splitting the company up and selling it off, BlackBerry’s directors abruptly scuttled a plan to go private in November, as they sacked CEO Thorsten Heins and numerous other executives while offering no clear vision for the company’s future. But hey, at least you can download BBM for iPhone and Android now.

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The worst year for PCs EVER

If you still needed evidence that tablets are eating away at the traditional PC market, it came in the first quarter of this year, when PC sales suffered their biggest decline in two decades. IDC expects sales to fall by 10 percent this year, the worst decline in history. Blame Windows 8 if you want, but the reality is that consumers are turning to tablets for their basic computing needs, while purchasing fewer laptops and upgrading less often. Traditional PCs, alas, have slowly turned into little more than digital appliances.

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T-Mobile transforms into the industry-rocking ‘Uncarrier’

The blocking of the AT&T–T-Mobile merger looks brilliant in hindsight, as T-Mobile has since reinvented itself as a rebellious “Uncarrier.” T-Mobile eliminated subsidies in March, letting subscribers pay off their phones in installments while paying less for monthly service. The company then followed up with a plan for early upgrades, free international data and texting, and free data for tablets. At the very least, T-Mobile’s shake-up of the status quo serves as a reminder of how uncompetitive the other carriers have become.

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Twitter goes public

As of November 7, Twitter became a publicly traded company, subject to scrutiny from shareholders who’d like to see the social network turn a profit. Although the IPO itself doesn’t have a direct impact on Twitter users, it does pave the way for more attempts at generating revenue, such as photo ads that appear directly in users’ timelines.

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Apple found guilty in ebook price-fixing case

Apple paid a dear price this year for its role in killing off the $10 ebook bestseller. In September, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that Apple had conspired to fix ebook pricing. As punishment, Apple is not allowed to prevent other retailers from selling ebooks at lower prices, and cannot make deals with publishers that would restrict their ability to offer books at lower prices. Apple will also be watched by a full-time compliance officer, who has already been causing headaches. The ruling doesn’t just hurt Apple’s ebook efforts; it could tie the company’s hands in other businesses down the line.

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Honorable mentions

With 2013 being such a newsworthy year, we had difficulty narrowing the list down. Honorable (or, in some cases, dishonorable) mentions that barely missed the cut include the failed Facebook phone, the launch of Google Glass (pictured), Microsoft’s $900 million Surface RT write-down, and the SimCity launch debacle.

Who knows? With the biggest names in tech swerving into gigantic bargesmilitary robotsaerial drones, and skinny-inducing smart bras, the headlines could get even crazier in 2014. Here’s to next year!