Startup, startup, on the wall, who's the most disruptive of you all? That's a rhetorical question of course, as those of us keeping tabs on the startup scene in 2013 could point to dozens of high-calibre young ventures that made a serious splash this year. It seems that at every turn, new companies are setting up shop and challenging the status quo in fresh and innovative ways, and there's scarcely been a more rewarding time to be involved in the grassroots technology world, especially for those of us lucky enough to sit on the edge of London's Tech City.
We wish we could festively sing the praises of every worthy company we've met or reported on this year, but unfortunately, whilst some headlines spoke loudly, others screamed, danced, and rabidly tooted on saxophones. What follows is my personal take on the startup stories that mattered most in 2013 - and what they could mean in the future. As ever, I'd love to hear what our readers think, so please let me know how ridiculous my predictions are via the comment section below, or by harassing me on Twitter.
Twitter IPO is startup fairytale
When does a startup cease to be a startup? It's a hotly contested topic, with one strand of logic holding that a company's flotation on the stock market represents the tipping point. That's exactly the move that microblogging giant Twitter made in 2013, hitting the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in October, some seven years after its formation.
Twitter's initial public offering (IPO) followed fairly closely on the heels of rival social network Facebook, which went public in 2012. Unlike its fellow Silicon Valley resident, however, Twitter's IPO was a roaring success. Investors were buoyed by the $1 billion (£610m) credit line secured by the chirpy platform, and Twitter ended its first day of NYSE trading with shares valued at $45.10, nearly double the expected price. Just as importantly, the company has maintained its form, generally hovering around the low-$40 mark and recently reaching a high of $49.14 after launching a new ad programme.
That suggests considerable investor confidence in Twitter being on the brink of finding a way to dismiss its elephant in the room – monetisation. For all that Jack Dorsey may have snagged himself a supermodel girlfriend, the company hasn't yet identified a steady revenue stream. Complementing Sponsored Tweets, the new Tailored Audiences initiative could be just the tip of the iceberg, and there are a number of further moves Twitter could make in 2014. Whatever its next play is – a new subscription option, perhaps aimed at professionals, would be controversial but not impossible – it's likely that we'll see Twitter continue to go from strength to strength.
Google's $1 billion-plus startup spending spree
Many companies may have spent 2013 pinching their pennies as the business world continues to wait for the long-promised economic recovery, but cash isn't a problem if your name is Google. The search giant had a hugely bullish 2013, embarking on a global startup buying spree that saw it snap up a number of exciting young firms to the tune of more than $1 billion.
The headline splash was Google's $1 billion (£614m) buy of Israeli traffic monitoring and GPS startup Waze in June. The company utilised this acquisition to integrate real-time traffic reports into Maps a couple of months later, and it seems likely that the next iteration of Android - a good bet to be announced at Google I/O 2014 - will feature further cartographic improvements. Similarly, the $30 million ($18.4m) splurged on natural language processing company Wavii is also likely to bear fruit in the New Year, with sources indicating that the company will be incorporated into Google's Knowledge Graph division. In layman's terms, this could mean two things: new personalisation features for Google's core search operation and its closely related news aggregation service, as well as potential enhancements to Android voice assistant and Siri rival, Google Now. Data sharing startup Bump, acquired by Google in an undisclosed deal, also looks to benefit the Mountain View-based firm's mobile arm.
Yet Google's most interesting buys were actually the ones where its motives are less obvious. The acquisition of US-based air turbines company Makani Power potentially nods to Google's green tech ambitions, while the festive snag of robotics expert Boston Dynamics (one of a handful of robotics firms it acquired this year) is more intriguing still. Why? King among the story arcs here is the fact that Boston Dynamics (BD) currently enjoys a very cosy relationship with the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Google's reps have gone on the record as saying that it plans to honour BD's existing contracts - the one with the Pentagon is reported to be worth nearly $11 million, or around £6.7 million - but doesn't plan on "becoming a military contractor on its own."
On its own. Android didn't come to dominate the mobile phone market solely on the back of Nexus devices, but because Google leveraged partnerships with mass producers like Samsung, LG, and Sony. So it's almost obvious that Google won't look to break into military and industrial manufacturing as a lone wolf but as part of a pack. In Boston Dynamics, it has a key piece of the puzzle - a company that, while part of the Google family, is likely to retain independent branding and face less scrutiny than the industry behemoth. Given the public uproar surrounding the NSA revelations in 2013, Google will no doubt want to keep buddying up efforts with the US government quiet - but that isn't to say they won't happen. There may not be any eye-popping headlines made in 2014 on this front, though potential indicators of Google's ultimate robotics ambitions will start to emerge if you're paying close enough attention.
Startups shake up mobile market
While the never-ending cat-and-mouse game played by Apple and Android at the top of the mobile world is set to continue in 2014, that isn't to say that Cupertino and Mountain View will remain sweat-free zones forever. Most obviously, Windows Phone has benefitted from BlackBerry's rotten 2013 and finally appears to be gaining some traction. Then there's Mozilla's bid to woo emerging markets with its new Firefox OS, not to mention Samsung's not-so-subtle ambitions for its native Tizen OS. But 2013 also witnessed three mobile startups making bold entries into a market many consider virtually impenetrable at this stage.
Headlining the trio was the Canonical-designed Ubuntu Edge, a dual-boot smartphone that would be capable of loading Ubuntu's own Linux-based OS – effectively making it a desktop replacement if docked – and Google's Android platform. Despite crowdfunding nearly $13 million (£8m) on Indiegogo, the Ubuntu Edge still missed its heady $32 million (£19.5m) production target by more than $19 million, or about £12 million in old money. So was it a success or a failure? Put it this way – 2013 was not the last you've heard of the Ubuntu Edge. Next year, the phone should be regarded as odds-on to enter production, as the huge amount of interest generated by the device's campaign served as an invaluable publicity stunt and is likely to prompt private investment. When it does finally start hitting shelves, it could well change the way many of us work.
Elsewhere, ex-Nokia employees steered an intriguing new operating system on to the market in 2013, when the MeeGo-based Sailfish OS appeared on the company's first hardware effort, the 4.5in Jolla smartphone. Costing €400 (about £330), supplies of the Jolla have been scarce since its launch in November and it will be interesting to see how the company responds to demand in 2014. The key is that Sailfish is fully Android compliant, meaning users enjoy access to a wealth of apps straight out of the box. Think it's easy convincing devs to commit to a new platform? Ask Steve Ballmer and the Windows Phone team. Jolla Oy could start to prosper next year on this basis alone.
Finally, good old Blighty caused a bit of a stir in the mobile world this year with the arrival of UK startup Kazam, established by former HTC employees. Despite only being founded less than a year ago, the company has already managed to announce its first range of smartphones, dubbed Thunder, which will ultimately feature seven devices. Release dates and pricing have yet to be confirmed, but based on the early details, the star of the show could well be the Q4.5, a (you guessed it) 4.5in device sporting a FWVGA display and packing a 1.3GHz quad-core MediaTek processor, plus 1GB of RAM. The selling point here isn't cutting edge spec but accessibly, so expect reasonable pricing when these devices come to market. What will win over the geeks and purists? There's little doubt that Kazam has its work cut out, but its prospects for 2014 are seriously boosted by the fact that it will be shipping with stock Android.
YPlan parties its way to America
Tech City darling YPlan had a pretty momentous 2013, yet my instincts tell me that we're still only in the early chapters of this particular startup success story. Attracting considerable interest due to the way it cleverly merges event discovery, last minute booking, and paperless ticketing on mobile devices, YPlan nabbed a $12 million (£7.3m) cash injection in June to help it roll out in America and it now has its first US office under its belt in New York. Given the close geography and similarly vibrant startup scene, Boston is the next obvious stop for the YPlan Express and further growth wouldn't be out of the question in 2014. Other early expansion candidates that spring to mind include San Francisco, Austin, and Toronto, while back on our side of the pond, Berlin seems a particularly attractive market. Coupled with YPlan landing on Android, we could be on the brink of the most popular British export since One Direction - and one that's infinitely more useful.
London startup kid is king after Yahoo snaps up Summly
Be honest - you didn't know who the heck Nick D'Aloisio was at the beginning of the year. By the end of 2013, chances are you're jealous of the precocious 16-year-old entrepreneur, whose news aggregation startup, Summly, was snapped up by Yahoo for a fee thought to be in the region of $30 million (£18.3m). When the south London schoolboy isn't busy being richer than you, he studies for something called A-levels, so what can we expect from the startup kid in 2014? Chances are once he finishes his studies, he'll make his way to a top university, possibly in America (Stanford's proximity to Silicon Valley makes it an intriguing prospect), but while we're all for enriching the minds of the nation's youths, it's D'Aloisio's next venture that we're really interested in.
Next year could potentially prove a testing one for the golden boy of the London tech scene, and it will be interesting to see how long working in loose partnership with Yahoo keeps him interested. If he's happy biding his time until he reaches adulthood and gains full employment rights, that will be one thing and I'm sure there will be a top job going. But my money would be on the entrepreneurial itch needing a scratch at some point and D'Aloisio concocting a new venture - possibly as soon as 2014. There's also every likelihood we'll see him play an increasingly visible role in and around Tech City, with homegrown graduate accelerator Entrepreneur First one potential spotlight for the future.