Refinement, not revolution
While 2014 didn't bring much in the way of revolutionary technology, it was a great year for refinement. The products and services we've relied on for years became cheaper and more accessible, while once-difficult concepts like virtual reality and mobile wallets starte to look a little more practical. And if you look hard enough, you can even find some examples where the government didn't screw everything up.
Here are the top 10 products, companies and ideas that emerged victorious in the tech world this year.
Microsoft's new moves
Whether you loved or loathed Steve Ballmer, you've got to admit Microsoft has become a more exciting company since his departure. Under new CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft has slain the sacred cows of Windows and Office, offering free versions of both on tablets and other mobile devices. We've seen Microsoft show a deep appreciation for other platforms as well, with new apps and integrations on Android and iPhone. The message? If you haven't been paying attention to Microsoft lately, you might want to reconsider.
Apple Pay makes the mobile wallet work
Mobile payments had plenty of naysayers before the arrival of Apple Pay, as they wondered how paying at the checkout line with a smartphone could ever be easier than pulling out a credit card. Apple's answer is simple: Pair the iPhone's TouchID fingerprint reader with NFC, so users can pay without even looking at their phones or turning on the screen. Not only is that more efficient than a credit card, it's way more secure because it never transmits the actual card number. Older solutions never quite got it right, and that's why Apple Pay quickly became the mobile payments frontrunner.
PlayStation 4 asserts its dominance
While Microsoft hemmed and hawed over its Xbox strategy, Sony realized early on that it could take control of the console wars with lower pricing and a focus on gaming. That plan paid off this year, as the PlayStation 4 outsold the Xbox One in the United States for 10 months in a row. True, Microsoft had a strong November thanks to significant price drops, but chances are those cuts wouldn't have happened if Sony hadn't built up a commanding lead.
Validation for gigantic phones
Samsung was onto something when it launched the Galaxy Note in 2011, even if pundits failed to recognize it at the time. Three years later, even regular-sized phones from Samsung and LG have screens exceeding five inches, and Apple finally saw fit to super-size its iPhone lineup with 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch models. While there's an argument to be made for smaller screens, the jumbo phone is here to stay.
Net neutrality protesters win this round
FCC Chairman (and former telecom lobbyist) Tom Wheeler probably expected some pushback when he proposed some alarmingly flaccid net neutrality rules earlier this year, but the actual response was overwhelming. The FCC received a record 3 million comments—most of them opposed to Wheeler's proposal—and last month, President Barack Obama urged Wheeler to create stronger protections by reclassifying broadband as a phone-like utility. Even if the FCC makes a decision in the spring, as many expect, lawsuits could prolong the conflict for years. At least the public can feel good about making their voices heard.
Oculus takes Facebook's money to make VR huge
Until March of this year, Oculus was chugging along as a grassroots effort, with big ambitions for virtual reality but not enough capital to see them through. That was before Facebook splashed the VR pot with a $2 billion acquisition. The move had plenty of detractors, but Facebook's money allows Oculus to move faster, create better products, and maybe even finally bring virtual reality to the masses. If Facebook can keep its promises not to meddle too much, it might even be a way to win back some much-needed trust.
Winamp keeps on keeping on
After 15 years of kicking out the jams, Winamp seemed to be at the end of its rope last November. A notification informed users that the once-beloved MP3 player would go offline the following month, kicking off a final wave of nostalgia. But in January, Winamp got a reprieve, with a last-minute acquisition by Internet radio firm Radionomy. Winamp may never return to its glorious past, but at least it still has a future.
Cord-cutting gets real
With more people giving up their cable TV subscriptions or deciding not to have one in the first place, it's getting harder for the pay TV industry to pretend that cord-cutting isn't real. This year's biggest acknowledgment of reality came courtesy of HBO, which now says it will launch a standalone streaming service in 2015. Showtime quickly followed suit. Expect this to become a trend as the expensive, bloated cable bundle reaches its tipping point.
Cloud storage gets dirt-cheap
If you’d written off cloud storage as being too expensive to contain all your precious digital belongings, 2014 has been a good year to reconsider. Microsoft kicked off the cloud storage price wars with 1TB for Office 365 subscribers, and later went fully unlimited. Google followed with reduced pricing for consumers and unlimited storage for enterprise users. And Dropbox, whose price per gigabyte had never been a bargain, upped its $10-per-month service from 100GB to 1TB. Add Amazon’s unlimited photo storage for Prime subscribers to the mix, and you’ve got plenty of cloud storage options on the cheap.
Supreme Court says no to warrantless phone search
The U.S. Supreme Court didn’t get everything right this year (see: Aereo). But at least the Justices had the sense to realize that the contents of your phone are just as personal and private as the belongings in your house. As such, law enforcement can’t search smartphones without a warrant. At a time of rapidly eroding digital privacy, the decision was a much-needed shot of sanity.