Epic wins and even more epic comebacks
Time waits for no one, sang the Rolling Stones. And that sentiment is doubly true in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it world of consumer technology products. The past 12 months have seen an abundance of role reversals, fresh faces, and astounding comebacks from a slew of companies—many of which were languishing on the ropes when we rang in 2013.
No, the end of 2013 barely resembles its beginning. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest agents of disruption (groan) this year.
Image: Massimiliano Calamelli via Flickr/Creative Commons
Sure, Bitcoin has been around for a while, but the (mostly) anonymous crypto-currency never caught the public eye until this year, sparked by the meltdown of various European economies. But Bitcoin became blazing hot only after the authorities shut down the notorious Silk Road online drug marketplace, which relied on the digital currency for all its transactions.
People speculated the Silk Road's demise would kill off Bitcoin, too—but the fluctuating currency bounced back stronger than ever, with prices at one point topping $1200 for a single coin. A multitude of businesses now accept Bitcoin, but can the concept fight off competitors like Dogecoin (bleh) and sustain itself beyond 2013? That's the true multi-million-dollar question.
There’s no way around it: Yahoo’s 2012 sucked. Between the company’s innovation quagmire, a shareholder-led battle for the board, and the curious case of the CEO who lied on his resume, the future looked bleak. Then Marissa Mayer was hired.
Under Mayer’s eye, Yahoo spent 2013 gobbling up scads of startups, overhauling its core services to drag them into the 21st century, and—gasp!—even redesigning the iconic Yahoo logo and homepage. Mayer herself basked in the spotlight, including a controversial Vogue photoshoot.
The result: Yahoo’s stock price is skyrocketing, and OMG, people are talking about the company again. Questions linger, however. For all the noise, what about Yahoo really changed this year?
AMD had an even rougher 2012 than Yahoo. Intel and Nvidia were cleaning its clock in both the CPU and GPU markets, the company was burning through cash, a new CEO was installed, and people were publicly wondering how long the company could last.
AMD had a monstrous second half of 2013, releasing a new generation of Radeon graphics cards that go toe-to-toe with Nvidia's GeForce cards in price and performance. (Gamers love the Never Settle bundles, too.) Plus, AMD silicon powers the heart of all the next-generation gaming consoles. AMD leveraged that trifecta to announce a new "Mantle" API that provides amped-up performance on consoles and computers alike. Yep, AMD's fighting now.
Speaking of next-gen consoles, both the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One are off to a glorious start (despite some severe prelaunch missteps by Microsoft). A full eight years after the launch of the previous console generation, the newcomers each managed to sell a whopping 2-million-plus consoles in the span of mere weeks. While their internals can't quite compete with cutting-edge PC gaming machines, the Xbox One and PS4 are a huge step up over their predecessors.
Beyond the big two, Valve announced its Steam Machines in pint-size, console-esque gaming PCs built for the living room. Valve even created the Linux-based SteamOS to handle backbone duties. Details about specific manifestations of Steam-based Machines are only starting to trickle out, however.
What's old is new again. The humble Graphics Interchange Format—or GIF, if you'd rather—first appeared way back in the CompuServe days, but thanks to listicles from BuzzFeed and a flood of sarcastic social memes, these bite-size animated images enjoyed an unprecedented moment in the sun in 2013.
Sure, "GIF" may have been Oxford Dictionaries' word of the year in 2012, but the debate about how to pronounce the three-letter word hit both the White House and Jeopardy in 2013. If 2012 was GIF's comeback year, 2013 is the year the meme-carrier declared clear victory. Here's how to make one without Photoshop.
After years of floundering in the battle for your cellular attention and nearly being gobbled up by AT&T, T-Mobile came back with a vengeance in 2013, thanks the work of a T-shirt-wearing, profanity-spewing CEO and a bold new “UnCarrier” initiative.
As the so-called UnCarrier, T-Mobile did everything you would never expect a major cellular carrier to do, including ditching new-phone subsidies, allowing you to upgrade more often, and giving away free tablet and overseas data under new CEO John Legere. And Legere hasn't been afraid to take the fight to the streets, publicly mocking AT&T's brass and personally using Twitter to convince unhappy AT&T customers to switch to T-Mobile.
Google wasn’t happy with Motorola’s product pipeline after acquiring the phone maker in May 2012. So in October of this year, the two companies released something better. The Moto X is the first Motorola phone with a strong Google influence, and it shows. Software features such as Active Notifications and hands-free voice commands augment Android in clever ways, and the ability to create your own design is a nice touch. The complete package was compelling enough to be PCWorld's pick for the best phone of 2013. Now, if only people would buy the thing.
Surface Pro 2
For its latest high-end hybrid, Microsoft ignored the naysayers, kept its head down, and iterated in all the ways that counted. The Surface Pro 2 doesn’t look much different than the original, but it's a big improvement, with much longer battery life and a dual-mode kickstand that’s easier to use in the lap. Microsoft is finally onto something—something appealing enough that, like the Moto X, the Surface Pro 2 was one of PCWorld's top products of 2013.
After years of churning out mediocre phones, and ultimately paying the price as profits sank, HTC went back to basics. The HTC One is the rare Android phone with a premium design, sporting an aluminum body, loud and crisp speakers, and a camera that performs well in low light. HTC’s woes are far from over, but making better products is a good place to start.
In January, Netflix laid out a clear vision for the future: “The goal,” Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos said, “is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.” This year, Netflix made serious headway, winning three Emmy awards for its original series House of Cards and earning critical praise for Orange is the New Black. A partnership with Disney’s Marvel will result in four original superhero series, and Netflix has its eyes on original movies as well. It’s all paying off, as U.S. subscriber numbers shot past HBO’s in October.
Despite Eric Schmidt’s grand promises, Google TV never got much traction. It was too clunky and confusing for mainstream customers, and TV makers seem more interested in creating their own platforms than giving control to Google. So this year, Google tried something much simpler. The Chromecast dongle is an easy to way to get streaming music and video on your TV, using any phone or tablet as a remote. It works as advertised and costs a mere $35, ensuring that many more people will give it a try. In the future, Chromecast may even be built into televisions, giving it the reach that Google TV never had.
The last thing the world seemed to need this year was yet another video sharing service, but that didn’t stop Twitter’s Vine from notching 40 million users by July. Vine shows looping videos that max out at six seconds in length, allowing users to capture a vibe without fretting over the details. The service now faces stiff competition from Instagram and its 15-second videos, but it can still ride Twitter’s coattails and become a media darling.
No matter how hard they try, TV networks can’t seem to kill Aereo, a service that lets you record and watch broadcast television on phones, tablets, computers, and set-top boxes. Lawsuits against the startup have so far proven unsuccessful, prompting Aereo to expand the service to new markets. Networks are now threatening to pull their broadcasts from the airwaves, but only time will tell whether they’re bluffing. In the meantime, Aereo is making the establishment sweat, and that’s usually a good thing for consumers.
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