A Year In Technology & Gadgets- 2014

There is no getting away from the fact that technology is leading us into a new era.

Some developments of the past 12 months will have a direct impact, some will affect us indirectly, and the ripple of others may be felt in the near future. One thing is clear: Whether it is listening to music, watching TV, reading a book, or simply going out for a jog, life isn’t the same as it was in 2013. And it most certainly will be different in 2015.

Digital India

The Union government wants to take technology to the masses with its “Digital India” programme. In a big way too, with an estimated `1 trillion earmarked to ensure government services are available to citizens online, that the entire country is covered by affordable broadband connectivity, there is Wi-Fi in schools, and mobile connectivity for all citizens by 2019. All this will be supported by manufacturing clusters for electronic goods, to be set up in Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, to produce mobiles, microchip and chip-less designs and set-top boxes.

Already, the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) has started Wi-Fi services in New Delhi’s Connaught Place, and RailTel, a public sector unit, has launched Wi-Fi services at the New Delhi railway station; they are the early birds in this new space. Tech giants, including IBM and Google, have shown an interest in supporting the initiative.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but at least someone is planning.

Snoops and how to stop them

One chapter in the saga of Edward Snowden, the American computer professional who leaked classified information, was about how the US’ National Security Agency (NSA) was snooping on phone conversations, including those of politicians. In India, the government sought assurances from the US after revelations that the Bharatiya Janata Party was targeted by the NSA in 2010. We don’t know who is listening to our phone conversations or reading our text messages, but someone probably is.

Governments can also collect user data from other sources, including cloud storage. Additionally, websites, advertisers and spammers could be accessing your texts and browsing history. Want to stop them?

There are a few phones and apps out there that encrypt conversations. Blackphone runs a customized secure version of Android—PrivatOS. The control centre lets you manage which hardware or service each app can access—perhaps you don’t want a messaging app to have access to the phone’s dialler. Silent Circle (www.silentcir cle.com), which also partnered the Blackphone product, offers a series of secure apps for Android and iOS—messaging, contacts, and encrypted calling packages. Whisper Systems (www.whisper ystems.org) has the free-to-download RedPhone and TextSecure apps for Android.

Instant messaging, the people’s weapon

It has been suggested that BlackBerry Messenger was the backbone for conversations between protesters and their local/foreign supporters during the London riots in 2011. Twitter assumed that role during the 2010 pro-democracy demonstrations known as the Arab Spring. And when the Turkish government shut down parts of the Internet during the 2013 Taksim Square protests—opposing the reconstruction of Ottoman-era military barracks as a museum-cum-shopping centre—people started using virtual private networks (VPN) to access blocked communication apps. In Hong Kong this year, the app of choice for the pro-democracy protesters was FireChat.

The “off-the-grid” feature uses various communication sensors in the phone, and can communicate with other devices in a 200ft range.

The developers, Open Garden, reported that over 100,000 users from Hong Kong signed up within 24 hours on a late September day. With the Chinese government known to turn off the Internet at the slightest pretext, this offline app worked well.

Affordable smartphones for the masses

As we ushered in 2014, smartphone class divisions were clear—affordable phones were intensely frustrating to use. Users would have to spend upwards of `30,000 for top-of-the-line performance. But Xiaomi’s Mi3 packed in powerful hardware at a price point of around `15,000, and Motorola’s Moto E redefined the meaning of an Android phone under `10,000. They changed things.

The more fancied smartphone brands have learnt the hard way. Google’s Android One project aims to take the smartphone to the next billion users. “Terrorists want Android One smartphones more than AK-47s,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said during a speech earlier this month in Jammu and Kashmir.

Starting gun

Raising funds for a business no longer needs suits, golf courses, or reclusive billionaires. Now it can be democratic, and online.

Crowdfunding platforms surged into the business space. Start-ups used social media as a platform to get investors on board. For example, crowdfunding platform Kickstarter released quarterly numbers at the end of Q1 2014—$1,244,868 (around `79,049,118) was pledged on average each day; 4,497 projects successfully reached funding goals; and 887,848 backers joined the platform. This is just the beginning.

Mobile first

It took them a while, but companies understood that smartphones and tablets were becoming primary sources for accessing, consuming and creating content. The PC has been left far behind.

Apple and Microsoft are gearing their office suites for phones. Evernote’s Work Chat makes formal communication crisp and breezy on a mobile device. Banks are pushing for mobile apps and online services. Mobile operators and their phone apps let users do everything from recharge to bill payment. Platforms such as Paytm have evolved to offer a variety of services—recharge, bill payment and shopping—through one interface. Soon, you will be able to ditch all devices but one—the phone.

New Microsoft for one and all

“Irrespective of what device it is, as long as you are using a Microsoft service, we are happy,” a Microsoft executive, who didn’t want to be named, told us recently. The subsequent announcements tie in well with this change in thinking.

Office 365 suite users now get unlimited OneDrive storage (earlier it was 1 TB). MS Office apps (Word, Excel and PowerPoint) are now free to download and use on Android phones and iOS. Then there is the tie-up with Dropbox, and the official extension for the Chrome Web browser that lets users edit files within the browser—you don’t need to have MS Office installed.

Cloud storage: space is free

Online storage space prices crashed in the second half of the year. The Microsoft Office 365 subscription now bundles unlimited OneDrive storage. Google is offering 100 GB space for $1.99 (around `125) a month. Box now offers 10 GB space with the free package. Buy a new smartphone, and chances are Google, Box or Dropbox will offer some free space.

Wearables, bringing sexy back

Smartwatches and fitness bands were a hot gadget category through the year. People were drawn helplessly to the concept of accessing apps, getting notifications and monitoring how many steps they had walked in a day through a sleek device on their wrist. While they are costly, Vishal Gondal’s GOQii band did things a bit differently—adding a human trainer to help you understand the data that the tracker generates, and create a fitness schedule customized to each individual. Motorola’s 360 is, so far, the best-looking smartwatch.

Nokia’s new life

It is official. The Nokia Lumia smartphones will now be known as Microsoft Lumia. Microsoft closed the Nokia deal earlier this year, but the rebranding happened in early December with the launch of Microsoft Lumia 535. The more affordable phones will continue to sport the Nokia branding, because the brand had a better connect with a wider potential customer demographic. Last month, Nokia announced the N1 Android tablet too—it clearly has plans beyond the Microsoft ecosystem.

Amazon’s drones

Same day shipping and delivery will soon be relegated to the category marked snail’s pace. Amazon is working on getting its drones into the air. The service is called Prime Air, and is currently awaiting US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval.

Amazon says drones can help deliver orders to customers in 30 minutes. These drones can fly at 80.5km an hour and lift weights up to 2.3kg. Once the rules are in place, sometime in early 2015, we will see the first commercial tests. Real-world deployment is still some way away, but is inevitable.

Ideas and fads

UrJar: Green idea of the year

A study by researchers at IBM India suggests that discarded laptop batteries still have enough power in them “to keep an LED light on for more than 4 hours a day for a year”. The study found that in 2013, the India operations of just one large multinational IT company resulted in more than 10 tons of discarded laptop batteries. It noted that approximately 400 million people in India are still not connected to the electricity grid.

The solution is not commercially available yet, but UrJar, an IBM India project, pairs discarded batteries with a charging adapter, which features a simple circuit for the power output. The company hopes to give these away for free.

The year of the selfie craze

The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of selfie is “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website”. For some reason, this became the most exciting fad of 2014. Everyone went about clicking themselves (alone or with friends, against any backdrop possible).

Someone trying to take a selfie with a gun managed to shoot himself with both the camera and the gun. Another person got kicked in the head by the conductor of a moving train for standing too close to the tracks. There was some good stuff too: Canadian adventurer George Kourounis descended into a boiling lava lake in Vanuatu’s Ambrym volcano with a GoPro camera and clicked a selfie before heat made the camera unusable. South Korea has banned the use of unregistered selfie sticks, a popular accessory used to attach the phone to one end and hold it further away from yourself: They can apparently disrupt radio frequencies.

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