As we count down the days until 2014, its time to look back at the most important stories of the year that was 2013. Unlike the last post that look at the top failures of 2013, this list ranks the importance of the tech story regardless of whether it was good or bad for anyone. These are stories that will have a lasting impact on the way people do business, interact with each other, or how technology is regulated and created on all levels. So follow on to our tanking of the most important technology stories of 2013.
Number 1: Snowden and the NSA
Once the news of Edward Snowden and the governmental spying programs hit the front pages in June, the worlds of technology and politics hit head on. While much of the rhetoric was basically a huge "I told you so," the stories confirmed for the world that the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation had for years been conducting massive surveillance programs of American citizens, foreign nationals, and international leaders. Much of the specific details on the programs remain secret, but we do know that both agencies had nearly unlimited access to phone records, email, and other means of communication through collusion with major telecom and internet communication companies. Many critic of the programs maintain that the unlimited access to private communications are unconstitutional under American law, but the final say will come later when official challenges are made to the programs before the supreme court.
Number 2: HealthCare.govThe bungled October 1 rollout of HealthCare.gov has the distinction of casting a pall over President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The $630 million website, built to let millions of Americans shop for health care, was able to sign up a meager six people on its first day of service, 248 in the first two days and just 27,000 people in the first month. Outages, incorrect data loading and security concerns continue to plague the site. The problems appear to stem from lack of overall project oversight, insufficient testing, and glitches in the system's ability to link to multiple government databases. On its Dec. 1, the self-imposed deadline for fixing the problems, the government reported that tech workers had made more than 400 bug fixes and software improvements to the site. However, remaining issues include multiple-hour queues to get into the system, outages, and lost applications. For now, the site is being held up as exhibit number one in the case against the government's ability to handle Obamacare.
Number 3: Microsoft's Ballmer finally quits
Steve Ballmer's announcement in August that he would be leaving Microsoft after more than three decades was an industry milestone but did not come as a shock. Ballmer, who will depart within 12 months of the announcement, took over as CEO from Bill Gates in 2000, leading Microsoft as revenue increased from $22.9 billion to $78 billion. Known industry-wide for his booming voice and manic exhortations at Microsoft meetings, Ballmer broadened the company's product portfolio beyond Windows and Office by, among other efforts, building up its data center, Xbox, and search businesses. But Ballmer operated under increasingly intense criticism for completely missing out on the mobile revolution and being outflanked by Apple in the consumer market with the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Microsoft's lackluster share price is a sign that consumers lack confidence in the company's ability to innovate in the post-PC era. Microsoft's next CEO will need to lead the company's transformation into a devices and services business if the company is to continue to be successful.
Number 4: Bitcoin
The most popular of the so-called "crypto currencies," Bitcoin is a peer-to-peer payment system devised in 2009 by a developer Satoshi Nakamoto. Bitcoin uses open-source cryptographic algorithms to enable transactions and create units of digital currency under the same name. Bitcoins are created, also referred to as mined, as computers solve mathematical problems used to verify transactions. As speculators fueled the buzz, bitcoins skyrocketed in value from under $20 at the beginning of 2013 to $1,200 by the end of the year. Transactions are anonymous and touted as more secure than credit cards. In early December the French central bank issued a warning about Bitcoin volatility and a China central bank ban against banks dealing in bitcoins caused the giant search engine Baidu to stop taking them as payment, causing the value of bitcoins to plunge by more than $500.
Number 5: Google Glass
Google Glass was first unveiled in 2012 and is not expected to be publicly available until 2014, but was the most talked about wearable tech this year as developers got their hands on prototypes. The "Explorer" versions of the devices -- essentially optical, head-mounted display computers that users can control with voice commands, made their way into some early-adopter's hands for nearly $1500. The uses of the new technology have been questioned and many users continue to push the boundaries of acceptable use as in these cases: police arrested a driver who was wearing the device; a surgeon used the device while performing surgery; government officials raised questions of privacy since facial recognition is an obvious application. Meanwhile, Google announced it would disallow sex-related applications and declared that facial recognition applications would not be enabled until privacy questions have been settled.