Best technology news 2013

During 2013, stock prices of technology firms raced upward, acquisitions of companies hit a 14-year high, more startups went public than at any time since the dot-com boom, and enthusiastic expectations for the transformative power of technologies like drones and consumer 3-D printing started to defy practical reality.

So by year’s end, it was natural to question whether there is a new tech bubble forming. In November, the Wall Street Journal and other outlets reported that Snapchat, the profitless, two-year-old social media startup with a smartphone app for sending messages that quickly disappear, had rejected a $3 billion acquisition offer.

But while there may be a bubble in social media, a truer reading of the year in the technology business was that it was one of haves and have-nots. Although fast-changing technology brought huge benefits to the companies able to take advantage of it, many struggled to keep pace. And in some areas, like energy technology, a frayed fabric for funding innovation offered small support for the sort of breakthroughs that society needs much more than a new photo app.

Globally, the fastest change is being propelled by mobile computers, whose spread marks a fundamental shift in the world’s main computing platforms and is minting winners as well as losers with astonishing speed. During the year, Microsoft announced new leadership, Nokia sold its phone business to Microsoft, BlackBerry edged nearer to bankruptcy, and Intel struggled with declining market share because it sells few chips for smartphones. More broadly, the lifespan of all large companies may be getting shorter due to technological change.

The effort to keep pace wasn’t restricted to companies. Regions from Beijing to Las Vegas to Israel also compete, and none want to be left out of the tech boom. They all see a handsome economic future at the cutting edge of technology. But getting there isn’t easy. Very few cities are able to create the critical mass needed to become an innovation hotbed. And regional advantages can also be lost. During 2013, the city of Detroit, once the world’s most dynamic industrial center, filed for bankruptcy.

That doesn’t mean automotive innovation is over. Far from it. The year’s most celebrated technology CEO was Elon Musk, whose company Tesla Motors sold more than $1 billion worth of its pricey electric vehicles. Tesla has developed an innovative approach to batteries and to charging electric cars that gives them a much longer range and makes them more practical. Competitor Fisker, which tried to market a car that was more about good looks than the best technology, eventually filed for bankruptcy.

protesters outside Google bus

Occupy Google: Activists in San Francisco block a shuttle bus taking employees to the company’s headquarters in Silicon Valley.

Talk of a technology bubble is loudest around social media. In that field, entrepreneurs can, with historically low investments and some luck, quickly reach historically large audiences. Consider that the size of Facebook’s audience is about the same as that of the televised Olympics, until recently the world’s largest media event. Vivek Wadwha, who wrote for us about why Silicon Valley is so exceptional, is one skeptic. He thinks newer companies like Snapchat and Twitter, which raised about $1.8 billion in an IPO this year, are part of a “bubble that will no doubt burst and hurt the tech sector.” He says the reason is that these companies have unreliable revenue and no great technological advantage over competitors.

That is a bold prediction. Facebook during 2013 defied doubters who believed the shift to mobile browsing would dry up its ad revenues. In fact, MIT Technology Review was first to report that Facebook had solved its problem on mobile by boldly running big ads that users didn’t seem to mind. Over the year, the company’s once battered stock recovered.

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