|The biggest winners in tech in 2023
|Posted by: Engadget on Dec 29th, 2023 2:30 PM
Throughout 2023, it felt like the drama never let up. From Elon Musk’s nonstop shenanigans to the constant launches in the generative AI race, the last twelve months was packed with news. Thankfully, it wasn’t all bad, and this year saw more winners than before. There were clear frontrunners, like Threads and AI, but we also saw surprises like Apple’s Vision Pro headset and the iPhone maker finally embracing several open standards. Of all the things that happened this year, here’s the Engadget team’s list of tech’s biggest winners in 2023.
If you had told me a year ago that Mark Zuckerberg would use the Elon Musk-induced chaos at Twitter to his and Meta’s advantage, I wouldn't have been surprised. If, however, you had told me that Meta’s slapdash effort to build a standalone Twitter clone based on Instagram would emerge as the most viable and popular alternative, I probably would have laughed.
But, if 2023 taught us anything, it’s that Elon Musk was more adept at taking
After an initial surge and drop-off in interest, Threads is back at 100 million monthly users. It was the fourth-most downloaded app of the year, according to Apple, despite a mid-year launch and months without any EU availability. The app is also beginning its long-awaited experiment with federation, which will eventually make its content interoperable with Mastodon.
Threads has, of course, benefitted from Meta’s vast engineering resources, as well as the company’s willingness to engage in good old-fashioned growth-hacking. And there are still valid concerns about Meta’s content moderation practices and the implications for allowing the Facebook owner to control yet another major social platform.
But the fact that Threads was able to grow so quickly despite all that shows just how desperate people were for an alternative. Threads may not have been the most advanced or most interesting of the wave of alternatives, but it’s been able to use its ties to Meta and Instagram to attract the most interest. And, right now, it has something X doesn’t: a whole lot of momentum. — Karissa Bell, Senior reporter
We capped off 2022 with the rising popularity of ChatGPT, OpenAI’s remarkably powerful generative AI chatbot. While the idea of having a conversation with a chatbot wasn’t exactly new, ChatGPT leveraged a large language model (LLM) to achieve natural, almost human-like responses, as well as the ability to craft readable text or pull up information on demand. It was a sign that AI was going to be an important topic in 2023 — something Microsoft proved when it launched Bing’s AI Chat in February, which was powered by OpenAI’s next-generation GPT 4 model. And so the AI wars began.
Google rushed to announce its Bard chatbot to pre-empt Microsoft’s Bing Chat launch, but it demonstrated the limitations of generative AI when it confidently answered a question about the James Webb telescope incorrectly. That led to an immediate 8 percent drop in Google’s stock, and it made the company seem like it was just chasing Microsoft’s and OpenAI’s accomplishments with Bing Chat and ChatGPT. (Bard was originally powered by Google’s LaMDA LLM, which had been in development since 2021.)
Bing Chat was just the start for Microsoft: It also launched AI integration in Microsoft Edge through a “Copilot” sidebar, something that also ended up arriving in Microsoft 365 apps, Windows 11 and Windows 10. Google, meanwhile, announced Bard integration for its Assistant and implemented a slew of AI-powered features into Gmail, Docs, Sheets, Meet, Chat, Slides, as well as the new Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro. Heading into 2024, we can look forward to Google’s GPT 4 competitor, Gemini, and Microsoft also announced that its Copilots are getting upgraded with GPT-4.
Outside of Microsoft and Google, AI ended up being the buzzword adopted by much of the tech world throughout 2023. (How quickly we forgot about Web 3.0, crypto and the metaverse.) But while the relentless hype cycle was inevitable, we also saw text-to-image generation tools like OpenAI’s Dall-E 3 become even more powerful, evolving beyond the creepy multi-fingered imagery it was famous for. AI is starting to influence the the world outside of tech as well: It was one of the most prominent concerns for WGA members during their 148-day long strike, and many people were fooled by the famous image of the Pope wearing a puffy Balenciaga coat, which was generated by Midjourney.
There’s still plenty we don’t know about how AI will influence our lives, though researchers like Timnit Gebru, founder of the Distributed AI Research Institute, and Margaret Mitchell are continually raising the alarm about ethical AI concerns. Much of the AI world seems to be following Facebook’s former philosophy of “move fast and break things” — expect to see more drama around artificial intelligence like OpenAI CEO Sam Altman’s surprise firing and re-hiring. It normally takes a few years for a founder to get ousted from their company, like Steve Jobs and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey. Devindra Hardawar, Senior reporter
Apple meets RCS, USB-C and Qi 2
In 2023, it almost felt like hell froze over. Apple, notorious for its walled garden, not only introduced new phones with USB-C charging ports this year, but also announced it would support the RCS messaging standard. This happened after months of public badgering from Google (and its execs) and multiple reports calling out the green-bubble stigma. Apple appeared to relent, seemingly having come to terms with previous misgivings.
Though Apple’s declaration is a step in the right direction and brings better security and multimedia support for those on iPhones texting people on Androids, the bubble-color divide is far from dissolved. When the company does adopt the messaging standard, it may not change the way texts are presented. iMessage still has many features that RCS lacks, particularly those introduced in iOS 17 this year like Voice Memo transcripts and Check Ins.
Of course, it’s not like Apple is welcoming all these interoperable standards with open arms. Its adoption of USB-C is clearly a reaction to the EU’s mandate that all new devices sold next year charge with the same standard. And even after announcing RCS support, the company still worked hard to plug the workarounds that enabled Android platforms like Beeper and Sunbird to bring some semblance of iMessage support to non-iOS devices.
But when you consider all the changes made this year, plus the fact that iPhone 15s are among the first devices that work with the new Qi 2 wireless charging protocol, it’s hard to ignore the momentum. It doesn’t feel quite right to label Apple a winner because of all this, but with the number of people that are now better served and supported by the company’s devices, it won’t be surprising to see a fair amount of goodwill flow its way. — Cherlynn Low, Deputy editor
Since 2019, Samsung has had a virtual monopoly on big fancy foldable phones. But in 2023, we got not one but two new challengers in the Pixel Fold and OnePlus Open. And while neither can claim total superiority, they’ve brought some interesting innovations to the category.
With its super thin design and wider front display, the Pixel Fold makes it easy to use all of your apps without ever needing to open the device. So when do unfold it, you appreciate its 6.7-inch flexible screen even more. And unlike its rivals, Google didn’t cut corners with its cameras, as the Pixel Fold offers better image quality than pretty much any other handset (foldable or otherwise) aside from its recent sibling, the Pixel 8 Pro.
Meanwhile with the Open, OnePlus created a clever card-based multitasking system that makes it super easy to flip between apps. The Open is also thinner and lighter than Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 5. And while it’s still pretty expensive, thanks to a nifty deal that brings its price down to $1,500 with the trade-in of any phone, OnePlus’ first foldable is helping lower the barrier to entry for devices even further.
So in a year when the pace of Samsung’s innovation felt like it was starting to stagnate, two new rivals brought increased competition to the category, which is a win for anyone who’s ever thought about buying a big foldable phone. — Sam Rutherford, Senior reporter
Apple Vision Pro
Apple didn’t make the first MP3 player, and it certainly didn’t make the first smartphone. But the iPod and iPhone managed to out-innovate existing products and reorient the entire technology world around their existence. The Vision Pro is a similar play, albeit one that isn’t immediately meant for everyone. Companies like Oculus (now Meta) and HTC Vive have been pursuing consumer VR for almost a decade, but the Vision Pro takes an even bolder leap forward. Imagine having your apps floating above your desk, or having a video pinned to a wall of your room, or seamlessly reliving your memories captured in 3D spatial videos. And yes, it can also deliver immersive virtual experiences when it needs to.
As is true for many VR solutions, it’s hard to convey the magnitude of Apple’s accomplishment with the Vision Pro in words, screenshots or promo trailers. If you’re not terribly excited about spending $3,499 on Apple’s unproven goggles, I can’t blame you. But after spending some time with the Vision Pro during its launch event, I’m convinced it’s something special. Its screens are far sharper than any VR headset I’ve seen, its onboard cameras deliver a better mixed reality experience and the simple gestures Apple has developed for navigating its interface are wonderfully intuitive.
While the Vision Pro has its obvious issues — it’s priced for developers and early adopters, not average consumers; it’s still a chunky device that many people won’t want to wear — it fundamentally reshapes the way we’ve been thinking of mixed reality. It’s not just a gadget for VR games, nor is it something purely geared towards business purposes like the Hololens 2 and Magic Leap 2. It’s something truly new, and it could end up paving the way towards our spatial computing future. — Devindra Hardawar
Handheld gaming PCs combine everything you love about classic portables like the Gameboy Advance or the PSP with big performance (and admittedly much larger builds) plus the freedom to play practically any title you can think of. And in 2023, we saw an explosion of compelling devices with a range of designs: from big chunky units with detachable controllers like Lenovo’s Legion Go to a major revamp for the Steam Deck featuring a new OLED display. Meanwhile, systems like the ASUS ROG Ally offer top-notch specs in a sleek design. And this is before you mention smaller manufacturers like Ayaneo, GPD and others that have put their own twist on the category. But the best part is that most of these cost half the price of a typical gaming laptop, so if all you care about is being able to game from… well anywhere, 2023 has given us a wealth of options. — Sam Rutherford
Elon Musk’s Neuralink brain-computer interface startup came into 2023 against the figurative ropes. The FDA had denied its 2022 petition to begin human trials of its implantable prosthetic over concerns that prototypes of the device had killed a slew of porcine test subjects; rival BCI maker Synchron had already beaten it to market (having having successfully installed their device in a human patient that July) and the USDA had launched an investigation into animal cruelty claims against the company. Musk’s promise of beginning human trials “within six months,” made during a November “show-and-tell’ event appeared increasingly unlikely.
Heading into 2024, Neuralink is in a much better place. The USDA conducted a "focused" inspection of the company’s facilities but did not find any compliance breaches beyond a single issue in 2019 that Neuralink self-reported, per a report obtained by Reuters. That investigation came in response to a complaint filed by the Physicians Committee of Responsible Medicine, an animal welfare advocacy group, that alleged Neuralink and research partner UC Davis had caused the needless suffering and death of simian test subjects between 2017 and 2020. Neuralink may have placated that investigation, however, the USDA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) has since launched its own independent investigation at the behest of federal prosecutors into the allegations as such actions might violate the Animal Welfare Act. That process remains ongoing.
In May, Neuralink received the best news of its year: the FDA had cleared the company to begin early-stage human trials, after it had satisfactorily address the agency’s previous issues. "The agency’s major safety concerns involved the device’s lithium battery; the potential for the implant’s tiny wires to migrate to other areas of the brain; and questions over whether and how the device can be removed without damaging brain tissue," current and former Neuralink employees told Reuters in March.
In September, nearly a year after Musk’s six-month promise, the Precise Robotically Implanted Brain-Computer Interface (PRIME if you really squint) study opened for subject volunteers. The study "aims to evaluate the safety of our implant (N1) and surgical robot (R1) and assess the initial functionality of our BCI for enabling people with paralysis to control external devices with their thoughts." Whether patients turn out to have the devices implanted won’t be revealed until the trials are complete but given Musk’s increasingly erratic behavior and irrational diatribes, embrace of antisemitism and promotion of far-right hate speech — the fact that he ran Twitter into the ground in barely a year — could make selling people on the finer points of their cranial surgery an impossible task. — Andrew Tarantola, Senior reporterThis article originally appeared on Engadget at https://www.engadget.com/the-biggest-winners-in-tech-in-2023-143012912.html?src=rss
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