Throughout 2023, the tech landscape was marked by continuous drama, from Elon Musk’s relentless antics to the ongoing developments in the generative AI race. Despite the constant stream of news, the year brought about more positive outcomes than expected. Noteworthy winners emerged, with standouts such as Threads and AI taking the lead. Surprises also surfaced, including Apple’s success with the Vision Pro headset and the company’s adoption of several open standards. As the tech world navigated the challenges and triumphs of the past twelve months, the Engadget team compiled a list of the biggest winners in 2023.
A year ago, the notion that Mark Zuckerberg would leverage the chaos sparked by Elon Musk at Twitter for the benefit of Meta wouldn’t have been surprising. However, if someone had suggested that Meta’s hastily assembled attempt to create a standalone Twitter clone based on Instagram would emerge as the most viable and popular alternative, it might have been met with skepticism and laughter.
Yet, the events of 2023 have shown that Elon Musk’s impact on Twitter X was more profound than anticipated, taking it to lower lows. While a literal cage match between Zuckerberg and Musk is unlikely, it’s undeniable how much Meta’s Threads has thrived amid Musk’s self-inflicted challenges. The dynamics of the tech landscape in 2023 have certainly provided unexpected turns and opportunities for various platforms.
After experiencing an initial surge and subsequent decline in interest, Threads has made a remarkable comeback, boasting 100 million monthly users. Notably, it secured the fourth spot among the most downloaded apps of the year, according to Apple. Despite launching mid-year and facing several months without availability in the EU, Threads has demonstrated resilience. The app is embarking on a long-anticipated experiment with federation, aiming to achieve interoperability with Mastodon.
Threads has benefited significantly from Meta’s extensive engineering resources and the company’s adept use of growth-hacking techniques. Nevertheless, concerns persist regarding Meta’s content moderation practices and the potential consequences of granting the Facebook owner control over yet another major social platform.
The rapid growth of Threads in the face of these challenges underscores the strong demand for an alternative social media platform. While Threads may not be the most advanced or intriguing among the wave of alternatives, its ties to Meta and Instagram have allowed it to capture significant attention. At present, Threads possesses a crucial advantage over X: substantial momentum. — Karissa Bell, Senior reporter
Culminating in 2022, the notable trend was the surging popularity of ChatGPT, OpenAI’s exceptionally powerful generative AI chatbot. While the concept of conversing with a chatbot wasn’t entirely novel, ChatGPT distinguished itself by leveraging a large language model (LLM) to deliver natural, almost human-like responses. It showcased the ability to generate coherent and readable text, along with the capability to retrieve information on demand. This development signaled that AI would be a pivotal theme in 2023.
Microsoft underscored this trajectory by introducing Bing’s AI Chat in February, driven by OpenAI’s next-generation GPT-4 model. This marked the commencement of what has been referred to as the “AI wars,” as different entities sought to assert dominance and innovation in the realm of artificial intelligence.
In a bid to preempt Microsoft’s Bing Chat launch, Google hastily introduced its Bard chatbot. However, it faced challenges as it showcased the limitations of generative AI when it inaccurately answered a question about the James Webb telescope. This misstep resulted in an immediate 8 percent drop in Google’s stock, creating an impression that the company was merely chasing after the achievements of Microsoft and OpenAI with Bing Chat and ChatGPT. Notably, Bard was initially powered by Google’s LaMDA LLM, which had been in development since 2021.
Microsoft’s initiatives extended beyond Bing Chat, as the company introduced AI integration in Microsoft Edge through a “Copilot” sidebar. This feature later made its way into Microsoft 365 apps, Windows 11, and Windows 10. On the other hand, Google announced Bard integration for its Assistant and implemented numerous AI-powered features across Gmail, Docs, Sheets, Meet, Chat, Slides, and the new Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro.
As we enter 2024, there are anticipations for Google’s GPT-4 competitor, Gemini. Additionally, Microsoft has disclosed plans to upgrade its Copilots with GPT-4, indicating a continued evolution and competition in the field of artificial intelligence.
In 2023, AI emerged as the predominant buzzword across the tech industry, overshadowing previous trends such as Web 3.0, crypto, and the metaverse. Amidst the inevitable hype cycle, text-to-image generation tools like OpenAI’s Dall-E 3 witnessed significant advancements, moving beyond the eerie multi-fingered imagery it was initially known for. Notably, AI’s influence extended beyond the tech realm, becoming a focal point during the 148-day strike by WGA members, and even tricking individuals with fabricated images like the famous one depicting the Pope in a puffy Balenciaga coat, generated by Midjourney.
While AI’s impact on our lives continues to unfold, there remain numerous uncertainties. Ethical concerns associated with AI are consistently raised by researchers like Timnit Gebru, founder of the Distributed AI Research Institute, and Margaret Mitchell. The AI landscape often mirrors the ethos of “move fast and break things,” with incidents such as the surprise firing and re-hiring of OpenAI CEO Sam Altman adding to the drama. The AI world appears to be following the pattern of “move fast,” and as AI technology evolves, we can anticipate more controversies and developments in the years to come. — Devindra Hardawar, Senior reporter
Apple meets RCS, USB-C and Qi 2
In a surprising turn of events in 2023, Apple, renowned for its closed ecosystem, not only introduced new phones with USB-C charging ports but also declared its support for the RCS messaging standard. This move followed persistent pressure from Google and public discourse around the so-called “green-bubble stigma.” Apple seemed to relent, acknowledging past reservations.
While Apple’s embrace of the RCS standard is a positive step, offering improved security and multimedia support for iPhone users texting Android users, the bubble-color divide remains. Even with the adoption of the messaging standard, it might not alter the way texts are visually presented. iMessage still boasts features that RCS lacks, including those introduced in iOS 17, such as Voice Memo transcripts and Check Ins.
However, Apple’s acceptance of interoperable standards doesn’t appear to be an open-armed embrace. The adoption of USB-C, for instance, seems to be a reaction to the EU’s mandate requiring all new devices sold next year to charge with the same standard. Furthermore, despite announcing RCS support, Apple actively worked to block workarounds that allowed Android platforms like Beeper and Sunbird to provide some form of iMessage support to non-iOS devices.
In 2023, Apple underwent notable changes, including the introduction of new iPhones with USB-C charging ports and support for the RCS messaging standard. Additionally, the iPhone 15 became one of the first devices to work with the new Qi 2 wireless charging protocol. While it might not feel entirely fitting to label Apple as a “winner” due to these developments, the company has significantly expanded its support and services, better serving a larger user base. The momentum generated by these changes suggests that Apple may receive a considerable amount of goodwill from users who now find their needs better met by the company’s devices. — Cherlynn Low, Deputy editor
Since 2019, Samsung has dominated the market for big, high-end foldable phones. However, in 2023, the landscape changed with the introduction of two new challengers: the Pixel Fold and OnePlus Open. While neither can claim absolute superiority, both have brought interesting innovations to the foldable phone category.
The Pixel Fold stands out with its super-thin design and a wider front display, enabling users to utilize all apps without unfolding the device. When unfolded, the device showcases its impressive 6.7-inch flexible screen. Notably, Google prioritized camera quality and didn’t compromise, offering better image quality than most other handsets, whether foldable or traditional, except for its recent sibling, the Pixel 8 Pro.
In contrast, the OnePlus Open introduced a clever card-based multitasking system, simplifying the process of switching between apps. It stands out for its thinner and lighter design compared to Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 5. Despite being relatively expensive, OnePlus implemented a deal that lowers the price to $1,500 with the trade-in of any phone, contributing to reducing the barrier to entry for foldable devices.
In a year where Samsung’s pace of innovation felt like it might be stagnating, the emergence of two new rivals injected increased competition into the foldable phone category. This development is considered a win for anyone considering the purchase of a large foldable phone. — Sam Rutherford, Senior reporter
Apple Vision Pro
Apple has a history of not being the first to introduce a product category, such as the iPod and iPhone, but has a track record of innovating and reorienting the entire technology landscape. The Vision Pro, while not initially targeted at everyone, follows a similar approach. While companies like Oculus (now Meta) and HTC Vive have been pursuing consumer VR for almost a decade, the Vision Pro takes a bold leap forward. It offers the potential for apps to float above your desk, videos to be pinned to a wall in your room, and the ability to relive memories through 3D spatial videos. It can also deliver immersive virtual experiences when needed.
Expressing the magnitude of Apple’s accomplishment with the Vision Pro is challenging through words, screenshots, or promo trailers, as is often the case with VR solutions. While the $3,499 price tag may deter some, the Vision Pro, based on experiences during its launch event, appears to be something special. Its screens are remarkably sharp, delivering a better mixed reality experience with intuitive gestures for navigation. Despite its clear issues and being geared towards developers and early adopters, the Vision Pro fundamentally reshapes the way mixed reality is perceived. It transcends the boundaries of VR games and business-focused devices, representing something genuinely new that could pave the way for the future of spatial computing. — Devindra Hardawar
In 2023, there was a surge of handheld gaming PCs that combined the nostalgia of classic portables like the Gameboy Advance or the PSP with substantial performance and larger builds. These devices offered the freedom to play a wide range of titles. The market saw diverse designs, from chunky units with detachable controllers like Lenovo’s Legion Go to a significant update for the Steam Deck, featuring a new OLED display. Sleek designs with top-notch specs were offered by systems like the ASUS ROG Ally. Additionally, smaller manufacturers like Ayaneo, GPD, and others introduced their own unique twists to the category. What sets these devices apart is their cost, as most are priced at half the cost of a typical gaming laptop, providing a wealth of options for those prioritizing portable gaming in various settings. — Sam Rutherford
As of the beginning of 2023, Elon Musk’s Neuralink, a brain-computer interface startup, faced significant challenges. The FDA had rejected its petition for human trials of its implantable prosthetic due to concerns about the death of porcine test subjects. Rival BCI maker Synchron had already successfully installed their device in a human patient, and the USDA initiated an investigation into animal cruelty claims against Neuralink. Musk’s promise of starting human trials within six months seemed increasingly unlikely.
Entering 2024, Neuralink has seen improvements in its situation. The USDA conducted a “focused” inspection of the company’s facilities and did not find compliance breaches beyond a single issue in 2019, which Neuralink self-reported, according to a report obtained by Reuters. While this addressed the investigation related to a complaint filed by the Physicians Committee of Responsible Medicine, the USDA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) independently initiated its investigation in response to federal prosecutors’ concerns. This ongoing process will determine if Neuralink’s actions violated the Animal Welfare Act.
In May, Neuralink received positive news as the FDA granted clearance for the company to initiate early-stage human trials. This clearance followed Neuralink’s satisfactory resolution of the FDA’s previous concerns, including issues related to the device’s lithium battery, potential wire migration in the brain, and the removal of the device without causing damage to brain tissue. In September, nearly a year after Elon Musk’s six-month promise, the PRIME (Precise Robotically Implanted Brain-Computer Interface) study opened for subject volunteers. The study aims to assess the safety of Neuralink’s implant and surgical robot and evaluate the initial functionality of the brain-computer interface (BCI) for enabling individuals with paralysis to control external devices using their thoughts. The decision on whether patients will have the devices implanted will be disclosed upon completion of the trials. However, Elon Musk’s controversial behavior and statements could potentially complicate the task of persuading individuals to undergo cranial surgery for the implant. — Andrew Tarantola, Senior reporter