77 Comments

Summary:

The Atlantic’s sister publication, Quartz (QZ) yesterday published a provocative piece under the headline — 2013 was a lost year for tech. It was a good way to boost attention, but it also highlights a trend of looking at technology from a narrow lens of consumer-tech.

Values and Mindsets of media and innovation Matter screenshot

If anything, in 2013 it became even more fashionable for some of our fellow scribes and righteous founders to lament the lack of innovation in Silicon Valley. A lot of that has to do with the lack of a whiz-bang device, a new earthshaking iPhone (or Apple product) or a big new platform. This public handwringing is brought on by a myopic view of what counts as technology and is reflective of a somewhat limited idea of innovation. Many view the world from the lens of “consumer and web technologies” and thus are often overcome with dismay and disappointment when they fail to see anything new and shiny.

The latest such example is a piece in Quartz, a sister publication of The Atlantic. This article, under the headline 2013 was a lost year for tech bemoans Silicon Valley and all its failures, has turned intellectual trolling into high art. It is fairly easy to focus on the lack of whiz-bang technologies like the iPhone or the Kindle. It is pretty easy to focus on the tech-NSA nexus, which I agree is deplorable. And it is also very easy to focus on what some think of as pointless apps.

But to label 2013 a lost year for technology is hyperbolic, to put it generously. What’s more distressing to me is that other smart folks are simply echoing the headline. I look at the world around me, and I find a technology landscape that is blooming. How can you not be excited about the idea of sensors, apps and data turning our phones into a doctor’s virtual proxy. (I live with a disease and my phone is as much a part of it, as my meds.) Helium-filled disk drives that can store more and more data? Breakthrough or boring. Depends on how you look at the world — as someone who loves technology or someone who loves the shiny interpretation of technology.

Do you know your tech?

Even if you ignore the predetermined narrative of the Quartz piece, the article today and many such articles before this one simply reinforce the point that no one — and that includes bloggers like myself, high-brow/super-successful venture capitalists and writers for mainstream intellectual publications like the Atlantic — have little or no understanding of independent spirit of innovation and disruption. Innovation happens in different places, in different sectors and follows a different time scale that only a handful really comprehend.

Back in March 2006 when Amazon launched its s3 cloud storage service, there weren’t very many of us who had an idea that it would one day become the key component of an economic engine that would jump start entrepreneurial activity across the planet. No one thought that little storage service was sexy! Today, if you ask Dropbox CEO Drew Houston, he will have a few billion reasons to think of AWS as the greatest thing since sliced bread. Yeah, that joke of a service will soon be a multibillion dollar business that has put everyone from Oracle, Dell and HP on thin ice.

In 2006 when Twitter launched, it was a joke and somewhat misunderstood (including by myself). Seven years later, it has turned into the digital heartbeat of our planet and now vies for attention with hundred-year-old media behemoths.

Both Amazon and Twitter are examples that show innovation and its impact are not bound by an investor or a publication’s sense of time, say, a year. Quartz bemoans Google Glass and labels it the standard bearer of disappointment in tech in 2013. Google Glass might earn you the sobriquet “glasshole,” but the reality is that in the future we will have a much improved derivative of Google Glass in our lives. It might not even look like Google Glass, but the wearable computing and personal compute fabrics will be a reality in the not-too-distant future.

Innovation moves in mysterious ways

The Nest thermostat.

The Nest thermostat.

Not a single breakthrough product was unveiled. If it’s in the nature of progress to move in leaps, there are necessarily lulls in between… Here are all the reasons 2013 was a great big dud for technology as a whole. (QZ)

Quartz lamented that smartphones became commodities in 2013. To that I say, what’s wrong with that? Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired, often talks about the peace dividend of the smartphone wars — cheap sensors, cheaper processors and other technologies that are becoming affordable because we are selling hundreds of millions of smartphones.

Those cheap components are the reason we have drones, robots, smart thermostats and intelligent irrigation systems. Maybe not today, but soon enough, these connected devices — many based on chips and sensors made cheaper by smartphone boom — will change how we live.

Remember Baxter, the robot from Rethink Robotics that was announced in 2013? Well, thank your Androids and iPhones for that. Quartz might not think of Baxter as a breakthrough, but I certainly do — it has a huge implication for society, both in a good and a bad way. And there were other breakthroughs with long term implications — such as Willow Garage/Unbounded Robotics’ $35,000 UBR-1. Those robots might not have gotten the screaming headlines of an iPhone, but who is to say that the technologies — mostly software — being used in these robots ends up in other devices.

Baxter (left) with Rethink Robotics CEO Rodney Brooks.

Baxter (left) with Rethink Robotics CEO Rodney Brooks.

Invisible, Incredible

Forget robotics, and let’s focus on the rise of contextual computing. Sure, not everyone was impressed by the new iPhone 5S, but to me the best part of the device was the M7 chip that is essentially a dedicated processor for all sensor inputs. That chip can make the software and apps smarter, and provide the necessary inputs for what we believe is the next evolution of computing: contextual computing. The M7 chip and Apple’s very much underhyped iBeacon technology together open up new opportunities for retail.

Based on low-power chips, the MotoX’s touchless controls are a breakthrough whose implications we will understand sometime in the future. There won’t be any big bang, but very quietly our applications that run on the commodity smartphones are going to become smarter and more adaptive to our needs.

Technology is best when it is invisible, and from our perspective many of the real technology breakthroughs of 2013 focused on that. Take for example the multicore fiber technologies that could result in a petabit network pipe. That’s a breakthrough that happened in 2013, and it will be a few years before it becomes an actual commercial product, but it is a technology that you can’t hold in your hand, put in a box or simply label it as the pinnacle of technology. Yes, we will experience it collectively; perhaps in a decade, or even less. It will allow millions of us to send big fat files from our phones back to Dropbox, and stream 3D video games and watch videos.

Today, we don’t think twice about launching our apps on Amazon Web Services and the cloud. How does Amazon make its infrastructure hacker-proof? How does it all work? All those silent releases that Amazon did during 2013, do they count as breakthroughs? Well, they might not be Kindle Paperwhites, but they sure makes Kindle Books, Dropbox and other cloud services work securely.

Data is a four letter word

data numbers carlos castilla shutterstock_114969346

Managing “big data” became the growth plan of companies like IBM, despite the fact that most companies aren’t handling data that’s anywhere close to “big.” (QZ)

I know it is fashionable to lament “data,” but such comments not only make no sense, they show compete lack of understanding about the role of data, which is caught between labels that range from big data to hyper data. Whatever way you label it, data — when put to work smartly — is going to shape most of our connected experiences in the near future, something we’ll talk about in great depth at our Structure Data conference this March in New York. The size of data, the type of data and what to do with data — those are nuances that are missed in the screaming “big data” headlines.

While I don’t expect to see an end of these type of articles, it would be good for folks to take a step back, think for a moment and stop looking at innovation from the singular lens of consumer apps and gadgets. Instead think about the fact that we have more bandwidth in more places, we have more apps that seem to read our mind and that we can quickly get restaurant recommendations from our phones without as much as thinking. A lot of that happened in 2013, just without fanfare.

So, next time when someone says, “2013 was an embarrassment for the entire tech industry and the engine that powers it: Silicon Valley,” remind them to actually do research before making that statement.

You’re subscribed! If you like, you can update your settings

  1. Kudos OM.

    Only you can write such brave and informative pieces.

    The piece not only represents the most sought answer from the entire tech community to that QZ post but also is a punch on faces of those who just sit and type vague commentaries without actually involving in it.

  2. I’m still with Quartz after reading this, but Om has great points.

    1. Fair enough. I have stated my case and hopefully it makes you think differently about 2013.

    2. I’m with you netsnumbers. While I respect Om and find his articles well reasoned, this is a head in the sand article. You can’t just “gloss over” the fact that the NSA revelations have negatively impacted the same cloud infrastructure named in this article. There’s a picture of the Nest with no mention that adopters are finding the device completely non-fault tolerant and causing many issues in many HVAC setups. Apple has, in an overly simplistic view, done nothing but iterative design on the iPod Touch for several years now. Google has spent time creating, and pushing, a wearable technology for a part of the body that all studies have shown people the least likely to wear this technology.

      Where is the transformative living room experience? Where is the single use CC number process Google demoed at Goolge I/O this year that would partly fix a broken payment processing industry? Companies like Tesla are still fighting archaic car selling laws and can’t open showrooms across the US. The internet is using a technology for security that is mostly broken. Battery life on mobile devices has basically seen only modest improvements while devices become less and less repairable.

      Heck, the most exciting thing from 2013 isn’t even mentioned in this article – 3D printing. The advancements made in this area, specifically in 2013, are going to be revolutionary and not even a sentence in this article.

      1. So basically you are saying 3d printing was huge in 2013 and that is what I missed. Ironic that argument doesn’t hold true for the other piece that is dismissive of everything positive that happened this year.

      2. I disagree. Gruber said best in his most recent post;

        “The nature of progress is to move incrementally. The great leaps are exceedingly few and far between. One needs to pay attention, to learn to appreciate fine details, in order to appreciate progress as it churns. Compare today’s iPhone 5S to the original 2007 iPhone and the differences are glaringly obvious. But some petulant tech critics dismissed every single subsequent iPhone as disappointingly incremental, lacking “innovation”. ”

        http://daringfireball.net/2013/12/the_year_in_apple_and_technology

      3. @hagrin – re Nest, please define “many” (are having problems with it). you provide no data. works flawlessly here…so my anecdotal evidence counters your non-cited opinion.

        re Apple – guess you aren’t aware of it, but iterative improvement is how they work. that’s how we wind up with a phone that is this iteration 50x faster than the first iteration. that’s not accident, that’s innovation. these things don’t improve themselves.

      4. Not to mention, the original Nest Thermostat was released in 2011 and the current version in 2012.

        1. Dane

          Not to mention the fact that I was showing Nest as an example of benefitting from the “commoditization of smartphones” phenomenon and no where do I say in the piece that it was released in 2013.

          Hopefully that helps you.

          1. I don’t understand why most tech writers lament “commodization of smartphones or any other technology”. Isn’t the whole point of a breakthrough in technology, service, medicine etc is to make it available for everyone. What’s the use of an innovation if it’s limited to only few elite insiders or only people with money to spare. Few years ago $500 smartphone was out of reach of most people on earth. Today smartphones are available to everyone at sub $100 price point & that’s a breakthrough to me.

  3. Unsolicited 6 cents Friday, December 27, 2013

    Om, I appreciate the relative balance you try to maintain in your post.

    While its way to easy (and flat out incorrect) to label 2013 “a lost year for tech”, its also too easy to label such pronouncements as the province of those outside Silicon Valley.

    Larger society’s view of innovation and technology through the myopic lens of “consumer and web technologies” is one that is promulgated by Valley insider mainstays like Techcrunch and Pando Daily in addition to rags like Valleywag and BI. For better or worse, outsiders’ views of the Valley are largely shaped by Valley ‘insider’ journalists and their prolific publishing schedule.

    Talking about advances in med tech or networking infrastructure or processing or energy storage is not as sexy as talking about Snapchat and our desire for an erasable internet. However, its the ‘unsexy’ stuff that powers all the consumer facing innovation that Silicon Valley journalists most often write about.

    If we want to change the current narrative, you and other insiders reporting on technology will have to publish more stories about all the ‘unsexy’ innovation. It may not be great linkbait but we’ll get out of this negative and unproductive technology spiral.

    1. I think we do a fairly good job of covering the unconventional and the gnarly stuff. :-) But thanks for the reminder — we will do better.

  4. Katie Fehrenbacher Friday, December 27, 2013

    Love this piece. A perfect response to the jaded cynicism that’s so easy to find in the tech blogosphere.

  5. Well-reasoned rebuttal, especially when you take a long view.

  6. To me, the core issue is one of having unrealistic expectations.

    Apple, Samsung and other companies now get criticism simply because they aren’t completely reinventing their products every year. That’s not how it happens — big steps forward tend to be spaced out every few years, if not longer. A reinvention should be a pleasant surprise, not mandatory.

    1. Jon

      You hit the nail on the head.

      Thanks

    2. Apple, yes. Samsung? Are you kidding me? They have yet to come up with anything useful that wasn’t just copied from Apple (with a lot of help from Google).

  7. Your argument is semantic. Their definition of “tech” and their definition of “lost” are just different than yours.

    Headlines are short. It seems to me that they meant, “2013 was a year in which tech changed our lives less than it has in many of the years immediately preceding it”.

    1. I would like to learn more now tech changed your life more in 2012 vs 2013. It would allow me to understand where you are coming from, and give a better context to your comment. Thanks

    2. Yes. Semantic. Let’s smear out the meanings of words til “Lost Year in Tech” doesn’t mean “Lost Year in Tech”. Perhaps when can then pretend Om’s article was about fungus or baseball.

      “Headlines are short. It seems to me that they meant, “2013 was a year in which tech changed our lives less than it has in many of the years immediately preceding it”.”

      Still wrong.

  8. Innovation should not be confused with novelty. Revolutions influence the course of history decades into the future. The do not and should not happen very frequently.

  9. Microsoft built a virtualization server for your living room that runs Windows and plays Xbox games *at the same time*, yet no one talks about the whiz-bang innovation to make that happen. In fact, there was not a single mention of Microsoft in this entire piece, Om. Not all innovation happens in Silicon Valley… it’s kind of weird how you try to refute the Quartz article’s premise while falling into the same trap.

    1. You appear to be missing the forest for the trees.

  10. A picture for Nest an overpriced product ,that is not from 2013 and ,you know, most people on this planet have no clue what a thermostat is.
    Then ,in your Apple fanboy ignorance you seem to believe that dedicated sensor hubs are something new from 2013. Well, they are not and you should know better.

    Truth is there wasn’t anything big this year at least in consumer, nothing all that exciting and that doesn’t mean there was nothing at all.
    The industry could have done much better, but they are rather slow and stuck in certain patterns.
    In 2012 we had Nexus 7, Oculus Rift, Google Now , Google Glass ,it was quite a bit more exciting.
    Right now phones got pretty boring, tablets are boring, 4k is not quite cheap yet ,glasses and watches(decent ones) have not arrived so maybe you should allow people to be disappointed , they aren’t all that wrong.

    1. I think you are just making the point I was arguing against — disappointment is there if you look at everything from a consumer tech perspective. A lot of other things are happening, they just aren’t sexy enough for people to label as important, when they actually are more long term impactful. Again, different lens on the world.

      1. Om, I have a lot of respect for how you handle such dismissive, or even insulting, comments. Thankfully most people writing here are much more respectful and insightful, for once I am actually enjoying the comments section of an article. That’s a great crowd of readers you have.
        Re. the innovation story, what strikes me is that over the past few years, we (including the mainstream public) have grown accustomed to seeing tech advances happen right in front of our eyes. It feels like, if you have enough popcorn handy (a few truckloads I’d say), you could just sit and watch it unfold. This perception feeds a bias towards novelty and sensationalism among tech news writers and readers.

    2. nest isn’t overpriced – just because something costs more than you wish it did does not make it overpriced. nest retailed for much less than the established home automation thermostats. it has now driven new, cheaper competition. Nest’s commercial success confirms their price point.

Comments have been disabled for this post