Google, Microsoft, Apple; 2013 in Review

Hard to believe it, but we are in the final days of 2013. A year that saw multiple new threads of discussion come to the techno-cultural table. Each year we see huge leaps forward in the performance enhancement and shrinking size of technology, giving birth to new possibilities. Not since 2007, with the entry of the iPhone, have the advancements caused such dramatic form function progressions. 2013 was marked as the year wearable technology entered mainstream markets, as Samsung launched the Galaxy Gear moving wearable tech from a geek gadget to trendy tech, especially as the release of Google Glass looms in the future.

The year also saw some giant merges and acquisitions, as convergence drives the need for big brands to follow in Apple's example to own the entire ecosystem.

Some of the numbers from 2013 are staggering; on December 1st there were 6.8 billion mobile devices for 7.1 billion people. A coverage that sees a mobile phone in the hands of 91% of the worlds population, more than clean drinking water and toilets. And an amazing 56% of mobile owners use a smart phone. The number of devices is expected to pass the number of people before the end of this, 2013, year. 1.2 billion people use the internet via mobile only. Mobile really has become the engagement of choice as 50% of all smartphone users use their mobile as their primary internet connection point.

Facebook grew to touch on 1.3 billion users, with 700 million of the being active daily users, and a rumoured loss of 2 million users (still only a rumour). While Twitter crosses the 1 billion mark, with only 100 million active daily users. Powering this is a global average internet connection speed of 4.7 MBPS.

Wearables were a letdown

Samsung-Galaxy-Gear-Smart-Watches_2While they entered the market amongst a buzz, smart watches were easily the biggest letdown of the year. Despite the fact that nearly every big electronics manufacturer is working on one, the battery and display constraints have stumped designers. Right across the various media, reviewers have declared existing models unfit for widespread adoption, with both Sony and Samsung unveiling devices that failed to make a compelling case for themselves. The Dick Tracey appeal of the smart watch sounded like a great idea, but the implementation has proven tougher than originally thought, along with the challenge of why we would want a smart watch in the first place. It's an industry that has some serious lessons to learn from people like Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, and the Wright Brothers might have little in common, but they all started with why. They knew the reason for their product or causes to exist, why is a powerful word that invokes a true connection to drive action.

Google Glass is expected to reach store shelves sometime in 2014. When it does, Google's connected headset could do more than change the wearable technology market: it could change Google, too. There are several thousand Google Glass testers, mostly in the United States, who are wearing, testing, and writing apps for the Android-powered headset. Glass receives a monthly firmware update that adds small but important features such as voice command support for navigation and music. Rarely are there big, world-shattering updates. Last month saw the debut of the Glass Development Kit preview, finally giving owners access to most of the hardware APIs so that they could build more interactive apps.

Let's hope that in 2014, the design teams behind this new line of devices can bring a compelling message to market, otherwise this fantastic possibility may fade to the back.

Tech giants, some good, some suffering, some arranging their funeral

Microsoft lost close to a billion dollars gambling on the Surface tablet, a device that was meant to be their savour in a non-PC world. Rumour mills revealed Microsoft’s poisonous internal culture, fathered by a leader who has been continually questioned as CEO. The outlook wasn’t much better for Intel, not because the company hasn’t continued to innovate, but because people don’t need as many of its microprocessors, and the ones they do need are less profitable than ever. Acquisition replaced innovation at Microsoft, as they final made a move to swallow Nokia‘s devices business, which would have been an astonishing turn of events a few years ago, but now felt like a lurch into an unsure future in which Microsoft remains an also-ran in mobile devices. Both Nokia and Microsoft have struggled in the mobile space since iOS and Android entered the market, changing the consumer mobile landscape forever. We've known for sometime now that MS and Nokia were asleep at the wheel, but can this union save them?

Google retired its much spoken about 20% time

Google's done away with their policy of allowing engineers to spend a portion of their working time on their own projects. A key reason that Google has been such a desirable place to work over the past decade. Google also got the check book out acquiring crowd sourced mapping app Waze for a price tag of $1 Billion, before quickly integrating the data into Google Maps. For Google, 2013 was oriented around Android 4.4, aka Kit Kat, and the ongoing growth of Google Glass in the development communities. And we can't forget Vince Vaughan and Owen Wilson's hilarious performance as Google interns in the film The Internship. But while Google was quiet on the 'big announcements' Google has made significant inroads on multiple paths; Google+ has lead the charge as Google has been aggressively promoting its services which are all somehow connected and converging. In late August 2013, the Moz scientific correlation study revealed that "After Page Authority, a URL's number of Google +1s is more highly correlated with search rankings than any other factor. In fact, the correlation of Google +1s beat out other well known metrics including linking root domains, Facebook shares, and even keyword usage. Google plus will play a key role in search in the future as a great place for content discovery, though it will be very tempting for Google to monetize the network through social ads, a market currently dominated by Facebook.

BlackBerry may have just driven the final nail in its coffin as they shed new light on why no one has appeared anxious to snap up the once powerful smartphone maker. Any prospective buyer looking over the company in the last couple of months likely got a clear sense of what other investors found out on Friday — the new BlackBerry 10 smartphones just aren’t selling. That is a major burn for the company’s bet-the-farm approach to the new platform that seems to have failed against the likes of the iPhone and Android, and even Microsoft’s still nascent Windows Phone. This is looking like the end of the road for the previously dominant enterprise mobility giant. Surprisingly through, reports suggest that there were 5 million downloads of BBM on iOS in the first eight hours of its launch. WTF? It seems a company riddled with contradictions. Who could forget the now infamous tweet from inbound Creative Director Alicia Keys, who was so excited about joining BlackBerry she shared it with the world, from her iPhone ;)

And let's not forget Michael Dell's 11th hour $25 billion buyout to return Dell to private ownership. It’s not that Dell hasn’t been talking. Ever since February, when he announced his plan to take his eponymous company private, armed with his own fortune and billions from the private equity firm Silver Lake Partners, he’s traveled the globe–including three trips to China–privately reassuring everyone who would listen that Dell was business as usual. But at the advice of counsel he kept a tight lid on talking about the buyout. A move that should hopefully see the computer manufacturer reinvent itself in 2014.

Social media became profitable

twitter-ipo-nyse-7nov2013-lateral-signWe became more tired of social media than ever. Twitter filled up with machines. Facebook’s response—to mess with the algorithm that determines what’s in your feed, called Edgerank—made the site less appealing to many. Facebook did crack the code on how to increase its revenue and boost its share price back to the levels of its 2012 IPO. Unfortunately, those methods included obnoxious video ads. Twitter’s IPO, meanwhile, suggested that the company will have to follow in Facebook’s wake—more, and more intrusive advertising in order to justify its share price. But one thing reigned supreme, social media is a powerhouse that is now likely to disappear anytime soon. Strong financials are gaining momentum, turning the networks into lucrative platforms. And while strong rumours suggest that teenagers are turned off by Facebook, they still signed in massive numbers. Yes, there we have seen the demand for additional services like Instagram and SnapChat, but these are additional services in the digital natives' life, not a replacement.

With Google+ aggressively growing, and even rumoured to be on track to surpass Facebook in late 2016, early 2017, the social graph remains a strong framework to mesh together the complicated abundance of content and services on the Internet as more and more people get their day news 'awareness' from social networks.

NSA spying scandal

Snowden’s leaks showed why we should distrust both tech companies and governments. As more and more revelations emerged from the documents Edward Snowden lifted from the US National Security Agency, observers seemed numbed by the sheer scope and audacity of the agency’s domestic and foreign internet surveillance. The fallout for the tech industry has just begun: US companies must now prove, especially to foreign customers, that the move to cloud-based services, which necessitates sending all their data through the very same communication nodes to which the NSA has access, won’t put all of their secrets in the hands of US spymasters by default.

snowden artwork

In his blog, Eugene Robinson stated there are really just two possible choices for person of the year. I want to say Pope Francis, but I’ve got to go with Edward Snowden. The spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics and a whistle-blowing fugitive from American justice have just one thing in common: impact. Francis, by shifting his church’s focus to social justice, may change the world. But Snowden, by revealing the vast extent of government surveillance, already has.

The effects are already being felt. Cisco blamed a poor quarter on deals in Russia and Brazil soured by fears about the NSA. Cisco also warned that this will affect many other US firms, and that it threatens the future of the internet of things—fitting, since the implications of a world in which every gadget is a potential mole sure are scary.

Names like Snowden, Assange and Manning lead the culture of a generation that demand transparency. This generation has their own and unique ideas about how consumers and brands are to interact. They have an expectation of quick, seamless communication across many platforms and social channels. Transparency is not just important; it’s required.

Check books come out

Yahoo officially confirmed that it is buying blogging platform Tumblr for $1.1 billion mostly in cash, after reports on an impending deal. Yahoo says it will keep Tumblr as an independent company, with founder David Karp at the helm as CEO. “The product, service and brand will continue to be defined and developed separately with the same Tumblr irreverence, wit, and commitment to empower creators,” it writes. Yahoo claims the deal offers "unique opportunities" for both companies. Yahoo plans to deploy its personalisation technology and search infrastructure to Tumblr, which should help users find relevant content more easily. On the other hand, Tumblr brings 50 billion blog posts, 300 million monthly unique visitors and 120,000 daily signups.

But the surprise of the year came from Jeff Bezos, after we learnt that the Amazon founder was paying $250 million for The Washington Post, the news media fell over itself trying to make sense of this sudden and surprising announcement. Bezos was buying one of their own, and he runs one of the most powerful companies of the internet age, an outfit that controls so much of the online world that newspapers have so much trouble coming to terms with. The irony is that most pundits were reluctant to suggest the purchase had anything to do with the internet giant he founded. In the very same year the Kindle Paperwhite v2, drove further growth in the eBook sector.

Yes, Bezos bought The Washington Post with his own cash, not through Amazon.

Looking forward

2013 has been a year of surprises, especially from Google and Samsung, there has been no really ground breaking innovation, but there have been powerful moves by those that dominate the digital world to boost their strength, and position them for a world that is destined to become more digital every year. With Generation Z entering the workforce in the millions in 2014, the role of digital starts to shift from a complement to traditional ways, to becoming the top priority. Shifting gears in the transformation of many industries.

Look out for my follow up piece on 2014 predictions from industry giants such as Google, Apple, and Microsoft in the coming weeks.