AI is everywhere, iPhone users are sad, China doesn’t care: Tech highs and lows of 2023

Bonus: Elon Musk’s reign of terror continues at X, and Apple wants you to get excited about headsets.

WrittenBy:Vinay Aravind
Article image

2023 is a hard year to summarise when it comes to consumer technology. 

If I had to pick one thing – this was the year of AI, for good reasons and bad. AI is now so ubiquitous that it might feel like it was always around, but 2023 claims the honour of being the first year that AI was literally everywhere. 

But that doesn’t mean there weren't a bunch of other interesting things going on in the world of gadgets and the internet. In this piece, I’ll try and recap some big (and some funny) trends that defined the technology landscape in 2023, and are likely to impact our lives in 2024 . 

Year one of ubiquitous AI

AI has been around in some form or the other for decades now, but a watershed moment occurred in 2017 when a bunch of Google scientists published the now legendary “Attention is All You Need” paper. It introduced to the world the concept of transformers, a completely new way to train AI that was orders of magnitude more capable and efficient than what came before. 

While originally developed for language models, transformers very quickly revealed themselves to be incredibly versatile, and the whole field of generative AI as it exists right now runs on transformers.

If the 2017 paper was its inception, the launch of ChatGPT by OpenAI in November 2022 unleashed a generative AI tsunami on the public, with users signing up in droves (100 million in under three months) and competitors scrambling to get rival products out the door.

Which brings us to 2023. 

Apart from ChatGPT (and its eventual competitors like Bard and Grok), image generation AIs like OpenAI’s Dall-E, Stability AI’s Stable Diffusion and Midjourney were all the rage. Besides the excitement and buzz, there were a host of legitimate concerns, from worries about copyright works being crawled to train models, to fears about all the jobs that might be lost to AI. Some people even wondered if ChatGPT portends the arrival of an Artificial General Intelligence, the holy grail/archvillain of AI – a form of synthetic intelligence that can think, learn, reason and imagine like a human being.

The year of AI also saw its fair share of comedy including lazy brands rushing to use AI images for their ads and being caught out for a picture of a reindeer with five legs, or the once-respected Sports Illustrated magazine getting embroiled in a controversy over publishing AI-generated articles, leading to the ouster of its CEO. A worthwhile reminder that while incredibly capable, AI in the hands of lazy, unethical people and/or those who don’t truly understand it, can lead to disastrous results. 


Support Independent Media

The media must be free and fair, uninfluenced by corporate or state interests. That's why you, the public, need to pay to keep news free.

BMW’s deer with five legs, as spotted by @beastoftraal.

AI is going to creep into our lives more and more over the coming years. So we’re definitely going to look back on 2023 as the year when AI started to be everywhere.

Apple takes a stab at XR

Extended Reality (XR), the field that includes virtual reality and augmented reality, has also been around for several years. Zuckerberg’s Facebook even rebranded itself as “Meta” in anticipation of a world where XR would be everywhere. 

The reality has, however, fallen far short of the hype so far. But when Apple launches a product in a new category, that’s enough to get the world to take notice. And that’s exactly what happened on June 5, 2023 when Apple lifted the curtains off its long-rumoured Apple Vision Pro headset. 

While it’s still some way from its promised “early 2024” availability, the Cupertino giant showed off the headsets to an adoring tech press, and the reviews have in general been all praise for the (eye-wateringly expensive at $3500) hardware. 

However, even the dazzled reviewers are not all in agreement about the potential utility of the Apple Vision Pro, and how widespread its usage might be. While it stands a good chance at being the most capable XR hardware that’s available to consumers, pushing many of the well-known capabilities of such headsets to unprecedented levels of sophistication, it’s yet unclear whether it will do enough to make it a compelling gadget for a wider audience, like the iPad or the iPod before it. 

Once the Apple Vision Pro launches, the years ahead will probably decide the future of XR as a field. Because if Apple can’t make it succeed at scale, it’s unlikely anyone (not even the more experienced Meta) else can. 

Apple Vision Pro

China frustrates the US by defying sanctions to produce microprocessors

When US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo was planning her trip to China in August 2023, she didn’t know that there was a surprise waiting for her. In what could of course be a convenient coincidence (but where’s the fun in that?), China’s Huawei, beleaguered by US sanctions, launched the Huawei Mate 60 Pro while she was in China. 

What was interesting about the Mate 60 Pro was that it featured the Kirin 9000s, a microprocessor developed indigenously in China, and manufactured using a fairly advanced 7nm process at SMIC, a partially state-owned Chinese chip foundry. 

Now, China is not supposed to be able to do this. The US has been trying desperately since 2019 to turn every screw they can to strangle Huawei, and the larger Chinese microprocessor industry. Sanction upon sanction has been imposed, including those denying China access to the lithography machines that are essential to making chipsets. And yet they managed to make advancements that have left the Americans (and Raimondo herself) incensed. 

While the Kirin 9000s is not cutting edge, it is roughly comparable to the state of the art chips from around two generations ago, which is much closer than the Americans thought they would be at this point in time. The Chinese are also throwing their energies into developing various different kinds of processors, including those used in AI. 

In addition to the Kirin 9000s, China saw the release of the Zhaoxin KX-7000, an x86 PC processor whose specifications and capabilities have taken the tech press by surprise. While again it is not quite cutting edge, the release of these chipsets reveals that China is currently punching far above its weight. 

It’s hard to say what lies ahead for the Chinese semiconductor industry. Knowing China’s massive resources and focus on gaining technological independence from the West, the incentives are perfectly aligned. But complex technologies like advanced microprocessors are incredibly tricky and the closer you get to the state-of-the-art, the harder it is to progress without a well established network of suppliers. 

It is in the interest of the world, however, to see a parallel ecosystem of computing emerge so that the whims of the United States cannot control the entire industry. Therefore one can’t help but cheer on the Chinese chip industry for 2024 and beyond. 

Raimondo on CNBC talking about the ‘threat from China’.

iMessage clones rise and fall and rise again 

The American smartphone market is unusual in that it has one smartphone maker dominating over 50 percent of the market. And when that smartphone maker is Apple, that means that it’s by and large the wealthier 50 percent of the market that uses their iPhones. 

The United States also happens to be the home of the international tech press, so frivolous local issues assume outsize significance in the global discourse. One such issue is the “green bubble/blue bubble” conundrum. 

While most of the world is on cross-platform messaging platforms like WhatsApp, Telegram or WeChat, American iPhone users are clearly not familiar with the existence of third-party chat apps. They tend to stick to the pre-loaded iMessage (much like Windows users who used to stick to Internet Explorer). 

So when they have to message their rare Android-using friends, the messages are transmitted via the age-old SMS protocol and these conversations show up in a green bubble (unlike the default blue). For some reason, perhaps the grating reminder that poorer people exist, this bothers American iPhone users tremendously. 

Apple, of course, encourages this absurd mass-psychosis because it helps them to lock in their American consumers. They have also helped this along by, until recently, refusing to adopt the more capable and secure RCS protocol which would allow people to send high quality media and such other features. Although Apple has recently announced they will adopt RCS, they have also clarified that the green bubbles will remain, continuing the pain and misery for their consumers who have poor friends.

On the other side of the coin are Android phone makers trying to help their American users to masquerade as iPhone users by using iMessage. While hacky solutions like Sunbird and Beeper have existed for a bit, this option suddenly appeared mainstream in late 2023 when upstart Android phone maker Nothing announced they would (in collaboration with Sunbird) offer an app that allowed its users to communicate with iMessage with blue bubbles. 

Sadly, this was a grand failure, with Nothing pulling the app after less than two days, on account of security concerns. 

Nothing’s short-lived app.

Following this was Beeper’s announcement of Beeper Mini, an app that could let you create an account and message iPhones with blue bubbles. While it worked initially, Apple cracked down on it, purportedly for security reasons. Subsequently Beeper announced it had devised a workaround, which required access to a Mac computer. While more complicated, Apple so far doesn’t seem to have been able to swat this. But it’s hard to tell what lies ahead. Adding to the drama, the Justice Department, already investigating Apple for anti-competitive behaviour, has taken an interest in this matter. 

Of course, for those of us elsewhere in the world used to seamlessly messaging our friends on cross-platform apps, all this seems utterly absurd. But for Americans, it is likely to remain deadly serious for some time to come. 

Elon Musk tries his best to run Twitter to the ground

It was towards the end of 2022 that Elon Musk acquired the social media platform then known as Twitter. And in 2023 he did his best to run it to the ground. After gutting its staff, stopping rent payments, and removing unpaid verification, he placed the cherry on the cake, torching a decade and a half of goodwill by renaming the site as X. 

To add to the fun, he continued to post unhinged rants, including antisemitic conspiracy theories, and removed all existing bans from the platform, letting back in everyone removed previously for harassment, hate speech and all manner of ToS violations. 

The net result, combined with utterly baffling interface changes, is a social media platform that is a far more frustrating version of what it used to be. This has also led to an exodus of major advertisers, leading to a revenue loss estimated to be in the region of $75 million by end of 2023. In response to this Musk has, in his usual charming style, also told the advertisers to “go fuck” themselves. These days if you scroll your timeline, you mostly get scammy crypto ads (RIP crypto). 

Despite Musk’s best efforts, X continues to be the ‘town square’ of the internet, fending off competition from Mastodon, BlueSky and Meta’s new Threads, but at the rate that he is going, one has to wonder how much longer it will be a viable enterprise or a functioning technical platform.

What lies ahead?

To wrap this up, I am going to put on my Nostradamus hat. If I get these predictions wrong, I do hope you will come and yell at me on Twitter/X, assuming it’s still around. 

AI will be everywhere. A lot of it will be bullshit and hot air, but there will also be life-changing breakthroughs that result from AI, if not in 2024 then in the years ahead. Everything from medical science to material sciences stands on the cusp of exponential AI-driven progress. Of course, the benefits of these advances are unlikely to trickle down to the common man as long as large corporations control the technology, but one must always live in hope.

The risk that AI will exacerbate existing inequalities and injustices is also very real. So while I am fascinated by what AI can achieve in the future, I also view the coming AI-filled years with trepidation.

Chinese companies will continue to make progress with microprocessors, deploying every trick in the book to work around the sanctions, including high-tech industrial espionage. It will probably be a few more years before they are on par with the Americans though. 

Big tech companies like Apple and Google will continue to indulge their anti-competitive impulses, whether through locked-down messaging apps or usurious App store commissions. But there’s always the hope that European regulators, if not American courts, will clip their wings. American iPhone users are likely to remain sad for a while longer, and this breaks my heart.

X/Twitter will continue to bleed and its user experience will proceed along on its death spiral. But I do think it will survive all of it in some form or the other, even if what remains is a cheap facsimile of what it once was.

XR will remain niche and Apple’s $3500 headset is not going to change that, at least not in the near future. Will there be a future where all of us wear dorky headsets on the regular? I seriously doubt it. But then I was wrong about the iPad, so who knows.

I hope you all have a happy and peaceful 2024, where we can see an end to the genocide taking place in Gaza, and justice for its perpetrators. 

Also see
article image2021 in tech: Apple got cheaper, OnePlus dropped the ball, and Chinese laptops redefined value
article imageLooking back, 2020: Apple laptops made a leap, phones got smaller, wearables better

Power NL-TNM Election Fund

General elections are around the corner, and Newslaundry and The News Minute have ambitious plans together to focus on the issues that really matter to the voter. From political funding to battleground states, media coverage to 10 years of Modi, choose a project you would like to support and power our journalism.

Ground reportage is central to public interest journalism. Only readers like you can make it possible. Will you?

Support now


We take comments from subscribers only!  Subscribe now to post comments! 
Already a subscriber?  Login

You may also like