Drawing the battle lines
While 2014’s greatest tech achievements were largely about steady iteration to existing products, this year’s highlights bring a greater sense of urgency. It seems every company in tech has suddenly awoken to the rapid expansion the next few years will bring, and is now trying to mark as much territory as possible. Here are the best, most successful examples of how that shook out in 2015.
Microsoft's Surface Book nails the high-end laptop
PC makers were understandably miffed when Microsoft announced the Surface Book. While the company’s previous Surfaces were aimed more at the tablet market, the Surface Book was a direct assault on the laptop establishment, with a proper keyboard base, optional discrete graphics, and a detachable tablet display. Although Microsoft’s hardware has suffered some problems out of the gate, in the long run it’s likely to snap the PC makers out of their daze and compel them to try a little harder.
Net neutrality prevails at the FCC
Around the middle of last year, the Federal Communications Commission seemed to have little interest in ensuring a level playing field on the Internet. Rather than attempt tough regulations, the agency backed the idea of “fast lanes,” in which Internet companies could pay a toll to providers like Comcast for preferential treatment. Maybe it was the consumer outcry, but the FCC eventually reversed its stance, and in February decided that Internet providers should be treated like utilities, with no paid prioritization allowed. The classification is still subject to lawsuits and congressional attacks, but has already made an impact as ISPs avoid policies that would run afoul of the rules.
Nvidia stuffs a desktop GPU into a laptop
Gaming laptops have always been about compromise, but Nvidia is looking to change that with the GeForce GTX 980, the first laptop graphics card that truly mirrors the performance of its desktop counterpart. Of course, GTX 980 laptops are still going to be hulking, expensive monstrosities, but the achievement is still a major milestone for serious gaming on the go.
USB-C paves the way for hassle-free connections
For too long, the simple act of plugging a USB cable into a phone or PC was needlessly frustrating, as the connector had a near-magical tendency to face the wrong way on the first attempt. Relief is coming with USB-C, a fully-reversible cable that can also transfer more power—enough to charge a full-blown laptop—and drive external displays. Some laptops and phones started supporting the standard in 2015, paving the way for widespread adoption next year.
Cutting cable TV gets a lot easier
2015 was a huge year for cord-cutting, as the TV industry scrambled to make up for a declining cable subscriber base through online video. Premium networks HBO and Showtime both launched standalone streaming services, Dish Network launched the first “skinny bundle” of streaming cable channels with Sling TV, and Hulu finally launched an ad-free version. Streaming hardware also got a competitive boost with new devices from Roku, Apple, Amazon, and Google. Ditching cable TV still isn’t for everyone, but it’s becoming less of a challenge as the bloated bundle crumbles.
Apple establishes the smartwatch market
Officially, Apple doesn’t disclose sales figures for the Apple Watch, but a recent third-party estimate put sales at 7 million after six months, while traditional watches have seen their biggest year-over-year drop since 2008. The Apple Watch is far from perfect, and remains a barely detectable blip in Apple’s earnings, but it’s already managed to get on consumers’ radars in a way that no other smartwatch has.
Fitbit doesn't sweat the smartwatch threat
Before the Apple Watch actually launched, pundits predicted that it would wipe out the dedicated fitness tracker market. But Fitbit is doing better than ever, with 4.8 million sales last quarter, and 168 percent year-over-year revenue growth. Although smartwatches could still prevail in the long run, plenty of people see more value in a cheaper device that’s laser-focused on personal health.
Facebook rules the planet
Three years after Facebook logged 1 billion active monthly users, the social network behemoth set another record with 1 billion logins in a day, and 1.5 billion monthly active users. One out of every seven people on earth sign in every day, and that doesn’t even count Facebook-owned services like Instagram and Whatsapp. People have been insisting that Facebook has lost its cool for years now, but the numbers show that users are more hooked than ever.
The mid-range phone gets great
Now’s a fine time to buy a phone if you don’t want to spend upwards of $650 off-contract.
Between the Nexus 5X ($379), Nexus 6P ($499), OnePlus 2 ($389), Moto X Pure Edition ($400, pictured), and Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 ($250), buyers have more options than ever for solid, unlocked Android phones. And now that U.S. carriers offer cheaper service with unsubsidized handsets, buying one of these phones actually makes sense.
Driverless cars get real
While Google’s self-driving cars get all the attention—and hit a milestone with the first custom prototypes hitting public roads this year—the launch of Tesla’s Autopilot feature (pictured) was just as significant. The feature allows Model X SUVs and newer Model S sedans to steer, brake, and accelerate by themselves on highways, alerting drivers only when human intervention becomes necessary.
We’re still a long way from fully autonomous cars—even Autopilot suggests eyes on the road—but 2015 brought some major steps forward.