A look back at Google in 2013: Barges, privacy concerns, and Google Glass

From moonshot projects to regulatory battles, Google dominated the tech headlines in 2013. Mountain View continued to build on its well-known search, mobile, and Nexus products, but also took a leap of faith with continued investment in Google Glass, as well as more forward-thinking efforts like Project Loon and Calico.

But building the future is not without its struggles. The search giant forked over millions in privacy-related settlements, and joined forces with its tech rivals to take on secretive government surveillance programs.

Before we delve into the fights, let's take a look at some of the actual products that emerged from Google last year, starting with a bid to bring the power of voice to your PC. In January, Google added speech recognition to the beta version of its Chrome browser, allowing users to speak their commands. We got a more in-depth demo of the technology at Google's I/O developer conference in May 2013, and finally saw it come to fruition in late November. Google's predictive Google Now service, meanwhile, also landed on iPhone and iPad in April.

May's I/O conference also saw the arrival of an overhauled Google Maps that incorporated more personal results (which also received a further bump from Google's August acquisition of Waze), as well as a facelift for Google+. That same month, Google also rolled out a tabbed inbox for Gmail, a rather polarising feature that sparked some debate; to tab or not to tab?

Another move that sparked debate – if not outrage – was Google's decision to shut down Reader. When plans for the shutdown were revealed in March 2013, online petitions cropped up immediately, and users expressed disappointment across the web. But despite the backlash, Google went ahead with its plan and shut down Reader on 1 July, making way for RSS reader replacements from the likes of Feedly and Digg.

On the hardware front, in February 2013 Google added the pricey Chromebook Pixel to its line-up of web-based PCs. In July, we got a revamped Nexus 7 tablet, and the cheap Chromecast dongle went on sale in the States, though sadly it still isn’t available this side of the pond. Also, the Nexus 5 – equipped with Android KitKat – landed in October to critical acclaim.

Futurist or Glasshole?

The Google gadget that got the most press this year, however, was Google Glass, the search giant's futuristic specs. They were first revealed in 2012, but a larger group of Glass Explorers got their hands on the $1,500 (£900) glasses in 2013 as Google widened its pool of beta testers.

Not surprisingly, this expansion invited concern from lawmakers and trolls alike. Policy makers in the US and the UK took steps to ban drivers from using Glass while behind the wheel, and one woman was ticketed for wearing Glass while driving. Congress also penned a note to Google asking specific questions about how Glass will work, though Google's response was disappointing to at least one Congressman.

Google insists that Glass is a work in progress, but it took some steps to protect users, from nixing facial recognition to banning porn apps. By October 2013, Google released upgraded Glass hardware, and allowed Explorers to invite friends to try out Glass over in the US. Up next is a final Glass Development Kit (GDK), which will allow developers to unleash new apps for the glasses.

Meanwhile, the mysterious "Google Barge" (pictured above) which was spotted in San Francisco Bay (and off the coast of Maine) late on in 2013 will be an "interactive space where people can learn about new technology," according to Google, which probably includes Glass.

Privacy woes and NSA surveillance

Google's legal team was just as busy as its engineers throughout 2013, battling inquiries into the company's search practices, privacy policy, Wi-Fi data snooping, and compliance with government data requests.

Things kicked off in January, when the US Federal Trade Commission found that Google did not unfairly manipulate its search results to highlight its own products and demote competing firms. But it did order Google's Motorola subsidiary to license its standard-essential patents on a fair and reasonable basis, while Google agreed to stop certain practices that unfairly burden its rivals.

The decision was largely viewed as a slap on the wrist for Google, but regulators overseas might not be so lenient. In January 2013, Joaquín Almunia, vice president of the European Commission responsible for Competition Policy, said that Google's business practices appear to be an "abuse of [its] dominant position." After some back and forth, however, the EU didn’t manage to reach a deal or hand down a decision on the issue, and this is going to drag on through 2014.

Speaking of dragging on, questions about Google's "new" privacy policy – which went into effect in March 2012 – continued into 2013, with European regulators, particularly those in France, calling for Google to make changes. The policy combined 70 or so Google privacy policies as well as accounts for various Google services – YouTube, Search, Blogger – into one. Regulators took issue with the account consolidation part, saying it ran afoul of data protection laws. However, Google refused to make changes, and by September 2013, France moved to impose sanctions against Google. The Dutch, British, and Spanish have also taken action.

Another privacy snafu that made news several years ago also prompted regulatory action in 2013 – Google's accidental collection of data traveling over unencrypted Wi-Fi networks via its Street View cars. Google reached a $7 million (£4.3 million) deal with US states in March – and another $17 million (£10 million) deal over Safari tracking later in the year – and was hit with a $189,000 (£115,000) fine in Germany in April. In September, meanwhile, an appeals court ruled that Google must face charges that it violated wiretap laws with Street View data collection.

Google had better luck in the courtroom in November when it prevailed in a long-running lawsuit over its book-scanning project. A New York judge tossed the case and ruled that the search giant's effort is fair use.

Throughout 2013, Google fought (and is still fighting) for the right to reveal more information about how it cooperates with and pushes back on government requests for data. Companies are prohibited from speaking about requests they receive from the secretive FISA court, but in the wake of the leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, Google – and rivals like Facebook and Microsoft – have asked the US feds for permission to tell users just how much data officials are requesting. So far, the government has allowed firms to include this information in with other data, but only in values of 1,000, and denied tech firm requests to get more specific.

To infinity and beyond

Google continued to invest in "moonshot" projects in 2013, in other words, projects that could change the face of tech – or just fizzle into nothing. In the US, the search giant's Google Fiber project moved beyond Kansas City with plans for Provo, Utah and Austin, Texas. The balloon-based Project Loon, meanwhile, was fired up last year to try to bring Internet access to far-flung corners of the globe (whether Bill Gates likes it or not).

You'll need a lot of time to read everything that's on the web, so it’s just as well that in 2013, Google began working to extend your life (yes, really) via Calico, and it might also have some robots up its sleeve thanks to its acquisition of Boston Dynamics (and other firms).