And just like that, 2014 is coming to a close. We live in fast-moving, hyper-connected times in which it seems technology is driving numerous cultural changes. NPR tech reporters Laura Sydell, Aarti Shahani and I looked back on a few ideas and topics that intrigued us this year but will continue to get attention in the year ahead.
Laura's Pick: Apple Inc.
The company's stock is near an all-time high, it released larger iPhones to swift sales and Fortune named Apple CEO Tim Cook one of its top people in business, not just for his stewardship of the company but also because he "stole the spotlight by matter-of-factly becoming the first openly gay CEO in the Fortune 500."
But some intriguing tests are ahead. Will the just released Apple Pay and the Apple Watch due early next year help the company keep its reputation as an innovator?
Elise's Pick: Voice Activation And Anticipatory Computing
This year I explored the fast-advancing world of "magical" computing, or devices that know what you need before you ask. My prediction for 2015: We'll get so overloaded by having to use our thumbs for data input that we finally start using our voices to command our devices. Smart virtual personal assistants a la Siri have been a concept as old as Star Trek, but they're finally hearing us better and anticipating our needs in more useful ways.
Take for example Amazon's Echo, which debuted just in time for the holidays. It looks like a cylindrical speaker that you can stand up in the middle of your living room. You activate it by voice (you say its name, Alexa) and then get it to add things to your shopping list, do simple arithmetic, conduct basic searches and more.
Aarti's Pick: Data Breaches
It seemed that there wasn't a week that went by in 2014 without a company getting hacked in one way or another. Not even Goodwill was safe from data breaches. Because the consequences of credit card data breaches don't tend to fall on consumers, a lot of us felt data breach fatigue. So will systemic solutions come in 2015 to prevent these from happening so often — or will the cybersecurity problem grow worse, leading to more dangerous and personal attacks?
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Our tech team is with us to talk about the year in tech. NPR's Laura Sydell is in New York.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Hello.
SIEGEL: NPR's Aarti Shahani is in San Francisco.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Hi.
SIEGEL: And NPR's Elise Hu is with me here in the studio in Washington. How're you doing Elise?
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Doing great, thanks.
SIEGEL: Each of you has picked a big theme that you've been following this year. And Elise Hu, since you're right here let's start with you. What has piqued your interest this year?
HU: Well, I'm always fascinated by the way we humans actually behave with technology. So this year I've been focused a lot more on this next wave of computing. Essentially devices controlled by voice that are anticipatory, meaning they kind of know what you need before you ask. This holiday season in fact, Amazon rolled out one of its anticipatory devices. They call it Amazon Echo. It takes advantage of these ideas. You put the Echo - which looks kind of like a cylindrical speaker - in your living room then you activate it by saying its name - Alexa. In fact, there's a demo where there's a family that's busy baking and I've prepped some of that for you guys.
(SOUNDBITE OF AMAZON "ECHO" DEMO)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Alexa, add wrapping paper to the shopping list.
ALEXA: I've put wrapping paper on your shopping list.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Alexa, how many teaspoons are in a tablespoon?
ALEXA: One tablespoon equals three teaspoons.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Alexa, set a timer for eight minutes.
ALEXA: Eight minutes starting now.
SIEGEL: Alexa is just - she's a bundle of laughs.
HU: She can do a lot of different things at once. And of course, in eight minutes and she will remind you that that timer is up.
SYDELL: Elise, I remain somewhat skeptical because I've had a lot of frustrating interactions via voice with computer. So have you tried it? Is it better than Siri?
HU: It is smarter than Siri and in fact, Cortana, which was Microsoft's answer to Siri, also improved on the original Siri. So part of our disappointment with voice in the past has been that it just hasn't been that great.
SIEGEL: So Elise, based on what you've seen from Amazon's Alexa and the like, what do you look for going forward?
HU: Well, bottom line - our voices are just going to become a much more common way of interacting with our devices. These major consumer-facing tech companies are all moving forward in the voice realm and the part about all this that's either convenient or creepy, depending on how you look at it, is that these microphones that hear us and we're speaking into will do much more than just accept commands. They're going to be listening to our daily patterns and from there generate insight into how we live our lives.
SIEGEL: So my phone could tell me, you are late again, Robert? It could be doing that in no time?
HU: That's exactly right.
SHAHANI: And is it always going to do it in a female voice?
SYDELL: (Laughter). That's actually a huge criticism of this, right?
SIEGEL: Really, yeah, they're always women. Yeah.
SYDELL: Right. Siri, Cortana, Alexa - all women and they all have names that end in vowels.
SIEGEL: Laura Sydell, we just heard from you. You've been paying close attention to Apple. And they've had an eventful year with Tim Cook running the company. Tell us about Apple's year.
SYDELL: Well, I guess I would say that Tim Cook has been very closely watched because of course he is stepping into the very large shoes of the charismatic founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, who passed away three years ago. This year began with Apple shares falling eight percent when iPhone sales were off and missed forecast. Then in the fall though, he released the iPhone 6 and it literally broke records for iPhone sales. But even perhaps on a social level, Cook bravely came out as a gay man in "Bloomberg Businessweek" and he has committed the company to being a more diverse workplace although meanwhile he's been facing down Jesse Jackson who's organized protests over the low wages of Apple's contract workers.
SIEGEL: I gather, Laura, that one big product for Apple next year will be the Apple Watch.
SYDELL: This is big, right. We got a glimpse of it this year and there is not an exact date for a launch, though Apple says it's going to be early 2015. This watch is really going to be a big test for Tim Cook. It's the first new product category that Apple has stepped into since the passing of Steve Jobs. Now, under Jobs, Apple reinvented existing products and popularized them. Take for example MP3 players. None of them really took off with the public in a big way until the iPod came out. The question now with this watch is can Apple do the same thing? Samsung and Google have smart watches, but people aren't that excited about them, you know?
SHAHANI: Yeah, and I have to say...
SIEGEL: Yes, Aarti Shahani?
SHAHANI: I'm actually skeptical that Apple's going to suddenly burst open some consumer appetite for their wearables. I know that there was a lot of hype around their event this year and we're all waiting to see what happens next year, but I mean, do you actually think they're going to do it?
SYDELL: I think the jury is out. And I think it is a big question because Steve Jobs was brilliant at figuring out what consumers wanted and can the company do that without him? The jury's out.
SIEGEL: Well, finally Aarti Shahani, there's been a long list of hacking debacles this year. You've been looking at that. What's the big threat out there for average people?
SHAHANI: Well, I mean chances are if you're listening, I don't have to tell you that every few weeks in 2014 we heard about some credit card hack in a store that we know - Staples, Kmart, Supervalu. Around Black Friday this year actually, Bebe, the women's clothing store that I shop at, got hacked too. And it's not just bad luck, right, it's technology too. According to security experts, just about every single retailer could still get hacked the way the way that Target did. And you know, one finding that I found remarkable in the process of reporting is that when we, NPR, called out to the major retailers and we asked them, hey, are you at least spending more money on IT security? The answer that we got was dead silence. They weren't even willing to tell us on the record.
SIEGEL: What do you sense about consumer behavior? That is, do we think that it changes radically after a huge story that Target has been hacked? Elise Hu, you wanted to say?
HU: That's actually a really good question, Robert because what I've been writing a lot about on ALL TECH the blog is that we have a sense of sort of hack fatigue or data breach fatigue, right? This happens again and again and again, but we don't really feel the consequences. Consumers don't, right? Because the banks tend to pay for the hacks of our cards.
SHAHANI: And the data actually shows that sales are up, so you know, it's not just that from our own experience we see ourselves shopping, but the aggregate data is saying the same.
SYDELL: Aarti, do you think this year though that there will be the kind of hacks that consumers will really feel? For example, identity theft?
SHAHANI: Yeah, I mean I think it's exactly in that direction that people are going to start to care a lot more. I mean, the credit card hacking, Elise as you just said, ultimately it's the banks, the financial institutions that pick up the bill and we just get inconvenienced with having to get a new number. But with identity theft, it's a lingering problem. So you know, like, take the Sony hack - you know, it's not just that the company has to worry about its movies getting pirated, the company lost the Social Security numbers of more than 47,000 employees and actors like Sylvester Stallone.
And then also, on a larger scale even, health care data is getting stolen a ton. There've been a couple hundred big hacks reported to the government this year. And there was that ginormous one with community health systems this year - 4.5 million patient records breached. And you know, think about it just for a moment. Someone takes your daughter's Social Security number and opens her first bank account before she gets to, or someone gets prescription drugs on your name and drives up the cost of your insurance. So there are a lot of repercussions that are lingering. You know, when a credit card number gets stolen the real victim is the agency that has to pick up the bill, but when your identity is taken, it can't just be replaced with 16 new digits.
SIEGEL: Well, Aarti Shahani, Laura Sydell and Elise Hu, thanks so much for giving us your analyses of the year in tech and what's ahead.
SYDELL: You're welcome.
HU: You're welcome.
SHAHANI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.