For the first time I can recall, the big tech stories of the year were also major political stories.
Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency and the botched debut of HealthCare.gov dominated President Barack Obama’s end-of-year news conference. I don’t need to rehash the details, but both issues were the reason Obama summoned tech leaders — including Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Apple CEO Tim Cook, ATT CEO Randall Stephenson and Google (Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt — to a high-level meeting in Washington, D.C., a couple of weeks ago. The tech leaders urged the president to reform the way the government goes after digital information stored by their companies and others. Obama updated the leaders on efforts to fix the beleaguered health care website, including the hiring of former Microsoft executive Kurt DelBene to head the project.
Although it didn’t get headlines, another big government-tech story is the efforts by policymakers to address Internet privacy issues. In July, the Federal Trade Commission started enforcing new rules that extend the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act to cover mobile devices, the privacy of kids’ images and the privacy implications of tracking IP addresses. This year also saw the introduction of a “Do Not Track Kids” bill that would create an “eraser button” for information kids post online, even though all social networking sites I’m aware of already allow users to delete content they post.
U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, is holding hearings on a bill that would limit the tracking of adults, too. Expect this debate to extend well into 2014 and beyond.
There was tech news made in the other Washington, too. Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft released Windows 8.1 this year in response to widespread complaints about the user interface of its Windows 8 operating system that came out in late 2012. The good news is that Microsoft brought back the “start button.” The bad news is that all the start button does is bring users back to the tile-based user interface that caused all the problems in the first place. That interface is great for tablets and phones, but requires PC users to learn a new way of using their computers.
But Microsoft did release one product that’s getting good reviews. The company’s long awaited Xbox One — the first major upgrade of its Xbox gaming system since it introduced Xbox 360 in 2005 — is getting off to a good start. Microsoft loaned me a console and even though I’m not a gamer, I’m impressed with its other strengths. It allows you to use your voice to control your TV, and its built-in Kinect feature lets you — among other things — make Skype video calls from your TV. Meanwhile, Sony released its long-awaited PlayStation 4 game console, making this a great Christmas for gamers of all ages.
AT&T, Verizon and Sprint followed with similar plans. But before you get too excited about this “gift” from the wireless companies, you need to compare the total cost of ownership, which still includes monthly fees along with a much more expensive phone. And as far as freedom to switch is concerned, know that not all phones work with all carriers, so even if you don’t have a contract, there are still limits on which services you can use with the phone you own.
This year probably won’t be remembered as the “year of the smartwatch,” but I was at the IFA trade show in Berlin in September when Samsung introduced Galaxy Gear — the first highly promoted smartwatch from a major consumer electronics company. I’m wearing one now, though, frankly, I don’t use it very often. It has a not-very-good digital camera, but lets me control my smartphone’s music and make calls and read text messages and email without taking the phone out of my pocket. It currently only works with a limited number of Samsung phones and — despite the hype and commercials — hasn’t done much to improve my life.
2013 also saw the debut of Google Glass, a screen and sensor worn like an eyeglass-like frame. I wasn’t among those who shelled out $1,500 to be among the first to wear one, but I have played with it and am convinced that it will eventually evolve into a useful device. Google plans to reduce the price and start selling them to the public sometime in 2014.
It may take a few more years for wearable tech devices to become mainstream. But once they do, you’ll be able to order them from Amazon and have them delivered within 30 minute by an aerial drone, if you believe the story about Amazon Prime Air — yet another big 2013 tech story — that the news show “60 Minutes” aired a few weeks ago.
Happy New Year.