In tech, the biggest moments of the year included the meteoric rise of OpenAI and generative artificial intelligence as a lucrative concept, the destruction of Twitter and its transformation into X by Elon Musk, and a seemingly never-ending stream of layoffs as companies played at “responsibly” responding to inflation.
If 2023 could be summed up by its successes, it would be that people can still be excited by an old idea if it feels natural and easy. That good design can seemingly reinvent stale interfaces and make a category that seemed boring interesting again, and that despite the constant devaluation, human labor still matters in a world increasingly interested in even more expensive solutions.
If you were to sum up this year with its failures, it would look a lot like this list. As the year draws to a close, let’s take a minute to revisit the biggest tech failures and product flops. So grab a drink and get comfy because we might ruffle some feathers.
11. Apple’s “FineWoven” Leather Replacement Sucks
Apple’s fall iPhone 15 launch event saw the introduction of not only new iPhones and Apple Watches but also the company’s first “carbon neutral” products. Through a combination of recycled materials in the Apple Watch Series 9, Apple Watch Ultra 2, the Sport Loop band, and Apple’s existing environmental commitments (and those of its suppliers), the company claims it’s now creating its first products with net zero contribution to emissions. How Apple is actually able to claim that is questionable at best, but the announcement was paired with a decision with an even more immediate impact: the end of leather accessories across the board.
Apple replaced leather with “FineWoven,” an “elegant and durable twill” made from 68 percent post-consumer recycled material. The FineWoven cases and bands have an almost suede-like finish that’s soft but doesn’t exactly age or weather as nicely as leather. Reviewers have pointed out that the new material stains and scratches more easily than leather does, which can immediately ruin the look of the case in a single drop. Considering Apple is charging a similar premium price for what’s ended up being an inferior product, it’s hard to claim FineWoven as a real victory.
10. Displace’s Wireless TV Literally Fell Off A Wall
Displace landed at CES 2023 as one of several wireless TV concepts — including the notable $30,000 LG Signature OLED M — and was greeted by a renewed interest in home theater equipment in general. The Displace TV stood out from the others thanks to features like rechargeable batteries, motion controls instead of a remote, and its use of “active-loop vacuum technology” instead of stands or brackets to stick to walls.
That suction technology was the secret ingredient to a wireless TV future, but in my experience, whether or not it works in the long run is an open question.
In a brief booth demo on the show floor, the Displace TV failed to successfully latch onto a wall; I watched it dramatically fall and immediately rushed backstage afterward. Since January, Displace has redesigned the Displace TV’s rear vacuum to include multiple safety features like “advanced wall-sensing algorithms,” retractable adhesives, and a zipline with deployable foam cushions to protect the TV if it were to ever fall off a wall. Over-designed or not, Displace is right on the money that TVs are ripe for disruption, and a wire-free future is still the ultimate dream, but maybe vacuum suctioning tech isn’t the way to get there.
9. Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Go 3 Is For No One
Microsoft can’t seem to crack the formula for an affordable laptop or two-in-one device. The Surface Go 2 had terrible battery life and performance, making for subpar tablet and laptop experiences. The Surface Go 3 didn’t do much to change the formula, based on reviews. The Surface Laptop Go 2 was better but had issues with managing heat and battery life that left something to be desired — even if it came in a fun green color. For the Surface Laptop Go 3, Microsoft didn’t exactly go back to the drawing board.
Slow Intel chips, a low-res screen, and a dreadful webcam would be one thing if the Surface Laptop Go 3 was priced appropriately, but starting at $799 — more than other laptops with better specs — the compact laptop just doesn’t make sense. The Surface Laptop Go 3 was conceived under the reign of Panos Panay, Microsoft’s former chief product officer, before a dramatic exit in September. According to Business Insider, some of the issues that prompted Panay’s exit were changing priorities at Microsoft. Namely, they were far less interested in hardware as they threw everything at OpenAI and the Copilot experience in Windows. It’s hard to say where Surface hardware goes next, but if it's more products like the Surface Laptop Go 3, it won’t be anything interesting.
8. Razer Fails To Sell Anyone On Game Streaming Over Cellular
First impressions of the Razer Edge 5G were positive. Razer is best known for its accessories but it had captured an interesting idea with the Edge, a 5G tablet and controller combo that could play Android games locally or stream them from cloud services like Xbox Cloud Gaming, GeForce Now, or Shadow. Using the device for review, however, revealed more fundamental issues. While vastly improved over Razer’s original Kishi controllers, the Kishi V2 Pro is still too small for larger hands. The tablet screen of the Edge is also narrow enough at a 20:9 aspect ratio to require black bars around games designed for 16:9 displays.
Then there’s the issue of game streaming itself. While Microsoft is committed to its overall “play your game anywhere” strategy, the universal high-speed internet environment that allows game streaming services to truly flourish hasn’t materialized in the U.S., and likely won’t for years. Combined with the other fees the Razer Edge 5G requires, including a Verizon cellular plan, and subscriptions to multiple streaming services on top of the cost of the device itself, it’s hard to make the Razer Edge 5G makes sense when you can achieve something similar with your phone and a Kishi V2.
7. Dyson Zone Is A Jack-of-All-Trades And A Master Of None
The Dyson Zone active noise-canceling headphones are a bizarre product as both a vacuum maker’s first foray into audio hardware and a late-to-the-party personal air filtration device. Dyson’s ability to cram all of the components of an air purifier and headphones into a single device is commendable, even if it did come with some compromises, like the giant heavy earcups of the Zone, which hide the device’s air filters. But it’s hard to not find the actual look of the device misguided — at best you look like a nerdy Bane and at worst… you look like a nerdy Bane. You kind of need your air filter to look like something people will want to wear for it to be useful.
While in our brief hands-on the Zone seemed like a more than capable pair of headphones, longer-term reviews found that trying to listen to audio and filter air at the same time quickly drained the battery life of the headphones, taking the device’s 50 hours of battery life to something more like one to four hours. The $949 price tag also didn’t help. It’s not hard to see how the Zone’s launch (outside of China) in 2023 was more of a whimper than a roar.
6. Nothing Chats Fails To Bring iMessage Features To Android
Outside of design, which made products like the Ear 2 and Phone 2 instantly iconic consumer tech products, Nothing is best known for making grandiose statements about itself and the industry. But even critics have to admit, Nothing Chats was a pretty ballsy idea. In order to make the Phone 2 and future Nothing products more enticing to anyone switching from iPhone, Nothing partnered with Sunbird to create Nothing Chats, an all-in-one chat app that lets you send iMessages and appear as a blue bubble to iOS users.
Sunbird’s method for doing that required you to log into a Mac mini in a server farm somewhere with your Apple ID, but assuming you took the company at its word that the service was secure — a huge assumption, mind you — you could do the impossible and iMessage from an Android phone. In this case, the Phone 2. In a major twist, Apple announced it planned to support the Rich Communication Standard (RCS) days after Nothing Chats was announced, and (perhaps unsurprisingly) Nothing CEO Carl Pei seemed to take credit for it. But then less than 24 hours after the app launched, Nothing Chats was removed from the Play Store because Sunbird’s delivery method was not, in fact, end-to-end encrypted, and left messages vulnerable at multiple parts of the process, which made them easy to intercept.
5. New York Would Rather Spend On An NYPD Robot Than Libraries
A large portion of New York City’s budget has always gone toward funding the New York Police Department. But NYPD spending was never more ridiculous than it was in 2023. The NYPD’s 400-pound K5 robot was introduced in 2023 to monitor subway stations and features four cameras that record video and not audio. The NYPD hopes to use the robot as an alternative way for commuters to call for help on subway platforms, but critics remain concerned that the police force could turn them into mobile facial recognition machines.
K5 isn’t the first robot that New York City has attempted to incorporate into law enforcement. A Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot named “Digidog” was previously tested by the NYPD in 2021, leading to public outcry over police overreach that ultimately ended with the robot dog being retired. In April 2023, New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced the city would purchase two Spots to be used alongside K5, and deployed in specific high-risk situations only. Testing robot police would be less of a concern if there weren’t vital city programs going underfunded while the NYPD buys toys — like the New York Public Library system, which has been forced to close all branches but one on Sundays as part of budget cuts.
4. Tesla’s Cybertruck Finally Launches, But Not At $40,000
When Tesla announced the Cybertruck in November 2019, the EV pickup truck was different from pretty much any car it made, or any other truck on the market. With a dramatic, angular look, 500 miles of maximum range, and a bulletproof body, it was dystopian and immediately memorable. Tesla originally planned on starting delivery for the truck in 2021; flash forward and the company has delivered just 10, doesn’t plan on releasing its entry-level model until at least 2025, and faces major competition from Ford, Rivian, and Hummer, to name a few.
Now a pandemic will set anyone back, but as it turns out, Tesla isn’t even delivering on its original promise with the shipping model of the Cybertruck. The max range is shorter at 340 miles and the truck is more expensive with a starting price of $60,000, which is $20,000 more than the $40,000 starting price that Elon Musk promised four years ago. More than that, the Cybertruck seems to mark a darker turn for Tesla’s image. Musk has always sold a vague notion of techno-optimism with the Tesla brand, but the Cybertruck launch was focused on the truck's apocalyptic impenetrability. It can survive a bioweapon attack, take bullets like a champ, and seriously harm anyone in a car that dares to crash into the Cybertruck’s stainless steel frame. As automotive reporter Sean O’Kane writes, the Cybetruck is very much “the EV for doomers.”
3. Neuralink Definitely Hurt Some Monkeys
Neuralink, like other Elon Musk-founded companies, has a justifiably sci-fi premise: creating a brain implant that lets quadriplegic customers control their phones and computers with their mind. Neuralink released a video of a primate named “Pager” playing a game of Pong with its mind in 2021. The video served as an illustration of the potential of the Neuralink, though not exactly an original one. With a bit of calibration, the device could decode Pager’s brain waves and understand where he wanted to move the paddle as if he were using a joystick. It was genuinely impressive — hopeful even. Unfortunately, the eggs the company has had to crack to make that experimental omelet happen are more than a little disturbing.
Wired reported in 2023 that several monkeys tested by Neuralink at the University of California, Davis’ Primate Research Center were grossly mistreated due to errors with the installation of the Neuralink implant that led to medical complications and eventually, euthanization. As recently as November 2023, Musk has claimed that the Neuralink device wasn’t responsible for the death of any monkeys, claiming that subjects that did die were “terminal monkeys” that were “about to die” of their illness rather than the Neuralink itself. While Wired’s reporting doesn’t necessarily contradict that and describes a case where Neuralink didn’t “legally” kill its macaque subject, they did make it miserable — causing a severe neurological defect with symptoms that included frequent vomiting, seizures, and paralysis. Neuralink is planning to begin human trials soon.
2. THE EU: 1 / U.S. TECH MONOPOLIES: 0
The European Union officially revealed its Digital Markets Act in 2022, a package of legislation focused on reintroducing competition in the tech industry and generally punishing “gatekeepers,” companies that in one way or another exert monopolistic power over their platforms. While written with European citizens in mind, the official enforcement for the DMA that started going into effect in 2023 has already had major impacts on companies like Apple and Microsoft, with more likely to come.
Apple’s move to USB-C on the iPhone 15 line unifies the charging standard across almost all of its devices, save for a few accessories, and makes using phones, laptops, and tablets in the company’s ecosystem that much easier. It’s also a change that likely wouldn’t have come about without the DMA, and the general concern that Apple had too much control over its proprietary Lightning connector and which accessories makers were allowed to use it. The company’s willingness to finally adopt the RCS communication protocol backed by Google next year can be similarly attributed to the DMA. Microsoft is similarly making big concessions in response to the demands of the DMA, with plans to let Windows users in the European Union (along with Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway) remove Bing and replace it with another search provider for Windows Search, and uninstall Edge and several other pre-installed Windows apps.
1. AI Demos Demonstrate The Flaws Of Generative AI
Generative AI flourished in 2023, making its way into productivity software, social apps, and web searches. Despite its prominent placement and the frequent promises that AI is the future of computing, one of the biggest trends of the year was generative AI getting basic facts wrong every time it was demoed to the public.
In February, Microsoft showed off multiple features of its Bing chatbot (now called “Copilot”), like planning trips and analyzing information about businesses, that included incorrect information about restaurants in Mexico and the company Lululemon. Not the best way to show off a product that’s since weaseled its way into Windows 11 by default. Of course, Microsoft wasn’t alone. Google demoed its competitor, Bard, at I/O 2023 and similarly managed to highlight a flaw: Bard falsely claimed a photo was taken by the James Webb Space Telescope when it in fact wasn’t. Rounding out the year, Humane, the creator of the Ai Pin, managed to include two errors in its launch video for the wearable device.
Most generative AI services regularly remind you that the chatbots make mistakes and that you should check all information if you’re at all worried that it could be factually incorrect. That being said, it is a bit concerning that these kinds of errors made it into official marketing material from Microsoft, Google, and Humane — companies that in general should know better. It could speak to the slapdash nature of the whole AI boom, or the inherent flaws of models that at their most basic focus on creating coherent sentences and filling in the most likely words based on an input. Either way, it’s as good a sign as any that generative AI experiences aren’t quite ready for prime time.