The year 2013 has got to be a defining year in technology. Our tech newsmakers of the year include whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, while our hearts were touched by the orbital antics of astronaut Chris Hadfield and awed by the media empire resulting from moggie-turned-mogul Grumpy Cat.
Without a doubt the newsmaker of the year from a technological, geopolitical, cultural and humanitarian aspect has got to be Edward Snowden, the former CIA contractor who defected first to China and then to Russia, leaving in his wake a plethora of revelations that have to be uncomfortable reading for defence planners in the US and UK.
Whether it was PRISM, which allegedly taps into global transmissions to and from major social networks and search engines, GCHQ (the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters), which has assembled a virtual army of spooks to spy on data communications, attempts to spy on European leaders’ mobile communications or the embedding of spies as goblins, dwarves and elves within World of Warcraft, this is only the end of the beginning.
Opinion is divided on whether Snowden is a hero or a traitor, but it is evident his motives were in reaction to his disgust at the level of invasion of people’s privacy and human rights.
Only time will tell whether Snowden will be appreciated for lifting the lid on the greatest invasion of privacy in human history at a time when the internet is really only taking baby steps, or he will be reviled for complicating efforts of security forces to protect citizens from terrorist attacks.
As you tuck into your festive fare, spare a thought for Pvt Bradley Manning, the US soldier sentenced to 35 years in prison for what has to be the biggest leak of all time.
The 10 charges to which Manning pleaded guilty include possessing and wilfully communicating information to an unauthorised person. This accounts for videos of an airstrike in Baghdad, Iraq, and one in Afghanistan, thousands of US diplomatic cables and thousands of reports from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, all of which were published by whistleblowing website WikiLeaks and its media partners between April and November 2010.
A troubled character who went through an identity crisis and bullying in a harsh military environment, Manning alerted the world to what goes on behind diplomatic doors.
While the editor of WikiLeaks Julian Assange languishes in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, accused of what he claims are trumped-up charges related to rape in Sweden and an attempt to vilify him so he can be handed over to US justice, Manning has become something of a fall guy. Again like Snowden, whether hero or villain, Manning has played a defining role for our times.
Commander Chris Hadfield
On a lighter note, one definitive newsmaker of the year has had to be Commander Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut who merged the twitterverse with outer space.
Whether regaling the planet with his wonderful rendition of David Bowie’s Space Oddity to charming people all over the planet – including us folk here in Ireland – with his brilliant photos of our world from outer space, Hadfield became a star in the truest sense of the word during his 147-day sojourn in orbit.
Hadfield, who incidentally happens to have a daughter studying at Trinity College Dublin, will be rekindling his relationship with the Irish in January when he comes to visit the BT Young Science & Technology Exhibition.
The impending retirement of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has left many in the tech world divided on what his real legacy has been. On one hand, Ballmer presided over Microsoft’s struggle in the face of a seismic shift from the dominance of the PC to the rise of mobile as the primary platform for computing as Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems changed the rules of the game forever.
On the other hand, Ballmer has shown decisive leadership, demonstrated skill and a deft hand for managing the world’s biggest software company and has guided Microsoft back to relevance with Windows 8, Windows Phone, Xbox One and for maintaining its steely grip on enterprise-level server and cloud computing.
My suspicion is that history will be kind to Ballmer – a career-long Microsoft man – and his firm but theatrical leadership style will be sorely missed long after his successor has been appointed. Take a bow Steve, and walk proudly into the sunset.
Similar to Ballmer, the real impact of Tim Cook’s leadership at Apple following the passing of Steve Jobs two years ago remains to be seen. Apple’s mastery of the smartphone world is not in terms of the company’s market share (less than 20pc globally compared to Android’s 80pc) but in the sheer profitability of the iPhone and iPad devices for Apple and its shareholders, the massive revenue stream, and how continually Apple maintains its edge as a trendsetter.
The question really is what has Apple got up its sleeve? You could argue that Cook is operating to a schedule of products that had been decided long before the death of Jobs and critics argue that advances in terms of the iPhone 5s, the iPad mini Retina, the iPad Air and enhancements to the Mac Pro and Mac Air product lines are what Apple has had up its sleeve.
On the flip side, Cook has shown decisive leadership, an unwavering management style and whether Apple does eventually trot out an iWatch or an Apple television set only time will tell. Because only Apple really knows.
What could be the true legacy of Cook’s time at the helm for Apple and one that will echo through the ages is his role in the re-industrialisation of the US after having allowed key manufacturing industries to slip away over decades of excess to low-cost locations in Asia. Cook could deftly manage this global supply chain and at the same time bring back growth and prosperity to America’s recession-ravaged blue-collar cities.
Possibly the real leader – operationally speaking – at Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg is one of those really bright people who you continually wonder how the hell they find the time to do so much. She’s marvellous.
The COO of Facebook is also the author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, a book that has inspired the Lean In movement which aims to help women achieve their professional and personal goals by “leaning into their ambitions.”
As well as taking to the road to promote the movement and inspire women and men to ‘lean in’, Sandberg presided over a magnificent turnaround in Facebook’s business performance and success as a ‘mobile first’ social network with more than 1bn connected online.
Although Facebook’s IPO of a year earlier had been something of a damp squib, the stock’s rallying was bolstered by revenue performance exactly a year later in May this year when the company garnered a profit of US$219m from revenues of US$1.46bn. The turning point was the revelation that 715m out of Facebook’s then-1.1bn user base primarily accessed the social network via mobile devices – a factor that no astute investor can afford to ignore.
Worth an estimated US$400m based on her shares in Facebook, Sandberg’s time has yet to come. We can only watch in awe as she gracefully and intelligently guides Facebook’s fortunes – and her own – and guess where she’ll end up next.
If I was on the board of Microsoft she would top my list as a potential successor to Ballmer as CEO.
As CEO of a born-on-the-internet company, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is the true dark horse of the tech world. He is free from the legacies that come with decades-old players like Microsoft, Apple, Nokia and others and continues to surprise.
‘The Amazon effect’ should either send shivers or thrills down the spines of business owners across the planet as Amazon flourishes from being a seller of books to being a real-time player in almost every conceivable form of commerce, from groceries with Amazon Fresh to cloud services with Amazon Web Services.
As well as seeing the company’s foray into e-readers with the Kindle to tablet computing with the Kindle Fire, Bezos has shown himself to be a leader with a magician’s flare to delight, shock and surprise.
He shocked the media world when he bought The Washington Post newspaper for a trifling US$250m and sparked imaginations when he revealed plans to use aerial drones as a way of delivering goods to e-commerce customers within half an hour.
As speculation mounts around Amazon’s plans for smartphones and new product lines, Bezos is the tech CEO to watch in 2014.
Moggie-turned-media mogul Grumpy Cat has simply got to be a newsmaker of the year. A surprise entry to our erstwhile serious hall of fame of newsmakers, the feline celebrity famed for her grump visage has become something of a merchandising whizz, spawning countless internet memes, calendars, books, posters, cat food endorsements and even her own movie.
This has been a defining year for the cat whose real name is Tardar Sauce. Her grumpy-looking face is a symptom of a condition known as feline dwarfism. As well as attracting 2.4m ‘Likes’ on her Facebook page, Grumpy Cat featured on the cover of New York Magazine, played a stormer at SXSW, won Meme of the Year at the 2013 Webby Awards, a Golden Kitty at the Internet Cat Festival and won the Tribeca Online Festival Best Feature for her documentary Lil Bub & Friendz.
In May, Broken Road Productions optioned Grump Cat for a feature film, coming soon.