For making the hit laptop nobody saw coming. “A chintzy laptop with a browser for an operating system? What a stupid idea.” That was pretty much the reaction from the tech community in June 2011 when Google announced the Chromebook. It was underspecced and utterly useless without an Internet connection. Dead on arrival. But flash-forward three years, and suddenly Chromebook sales cracked 5.2 million units in 2014 alone, a number that, according to Gartner, may nearly triple by 2017. How did it happen? Well, the OS got a lot better, and quickly. Core applications like Gmail, Drive (formerly Google Docs), and Calendar now work offline, making the Chromebook, essentially, a fully functioning—if basic—laptop. Then manufacturers started selling those fully functioning laptops for $300. Nowhere has the resulting explosion been more evident than in the U.S. education system. Schools are perpetually in need of computers, and if they can get one that does everything students need for a fraction of the cost, it’s a no-brainer. More than a million Chromebooks were shipped to the K–12 education market in the third quarter of 2014. In fact, IDC and FutureSource both recently announced that Chromebooks have become the best-selling device for K–12 schools in the country.
For revving its electric engine despite the bumpy road. In a year full of challenges—a drooping stock price, rock-bottom gasoline prices—Tesla remains the country’s dominant and most exciting electric-car manufacturer. CEO Elon Musk responded to the company’s growing pains with characteristic brio. First, he announced that Tesla would give away its patents in an effort to accelerate the growth of the electric car industry. (“If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles,” Musk has said, “but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal.”) Next came word that Tesla would build a $5 billion battery factory—the so-called Tesla Gigafactory—in Nevada. The Musk logic? Scale up battery production dramatically to reduce his cars’ sticker price. Tesla plans to debut the Model X SUV in 2015, but if the budget-friendlier Model III (due out in 2017) can prove more economical, that will further spur the company’s steady growth.
For putting cameras in the sky. 2014 has been the year of drone video, and it’s almost entirely thanks to this Shenzhen, China-based company that makes the suddenly ubiquitous Phantom line of consumer drones. Phantoms are relatively inexpensive (about $1,300) remote-control quad-copters that are made for filming, some with stabilized HD cameras built in. The small and light drones are fairly user-friendly and extremely high-performance. They fly at speeds of up to 35 miles an hour and up to 400 feet. They also have GPS and stabilizing sensors to idiot-proof them as much as possible, with features that allow them to automatically return to where they launched should they lose contact with their remote. The company was founded in 2006, but in just the last three years, its sales have grown by a factor of 150, making it the fastest-growing drone manufacturer in the world. The most recent data has DJI’s annual sales at $163 million, and we’d bet on that being a lot higher at the next tally.
For being the tablet giant for little techies. It’s the fastest-growing private company in the U.S., with its rate of growth over three years coming in at an astonishing 160,000%—ever heard of it? Well, if you’ve got kids under 12, you’ve probably heard of Nabi, an extremely popular line of kids’ tablets. They run the latest and greatest version of Android, with Fuhu’s Blue Morpho skin on top. The Nabi features more than 17,000 adaptive lessons for preschool through sixth-grade kids that change as they progress. It also has novel features such as a curfew time that parents can set, and even a feature that lets parents reward their kids with virtual currency for chores completed or good behavior. Fuhu makes tablets in several different sizes that cater to different age groups, and even has an HD GoPro-like camera made for kids. Sales are currently around $200 million and growing quickly.
For making everyone an action documentarian. “Action cameras” were once considered a niche item for surfers, but GoPro turned them into the best-selling camera in the world. How? Aside from being a legitimately excellent product that continually gets better, most recently GoPro added the ability for its cameras to stream live feeds. GoPro also has one of the best marketing strategies in the world: People use their GoPros to record amazing things, the videos go viral, and, voilà, the company has an ad that people can’t stop talking about. GoPro goes a step further and puts out serious prize money for GoPro of the Month contests, which entice even high-level pro athletes to upload clips, creating even more impressive ads. Since the company went public in June 2014, it has more than doubled its IPO price, and it launched its own video channels for Xbox and Virgin Airlines.
For never fearing a fight, and picking a big one. Windows 10 looks to be a compromise between the new design introduced with Windows 8 and the familiar functionality people have demanded. Microsoft Office continues to be a gigantic cash cow for the company, and moving to a cloud-based subscription model was a big leap of faith that has paid off so far, with 5.6 million continuing paid subscriptions. With the Surface 3 Pro, it looks like Microsoft finally has something that can compete not only with the iPad, but also with the MacBook Air. Factor in a steadily improving Xbox One ecosystem, Windows Phone’s Cortana voice assistant (that currently stomps both Siri and Google Now), and, oh yeah, the peek at HoloLens, and you’ve got a company that isn’t afraid to stick its neck out.
For being the Dropbox of physical stuff. So you’ve managed to save a ton of hard-drive space by offloading a bunch of your music, videos, and other files into the cloud. Take a look at your hallway closet, though, and you’ll find yourself wishing you could do the same thing for your physical possessions. That’s essentially the promise of MakeSpace, a New York-based company that’s being hailed as the Dropbox of physical storage and has now raised over $10 million in funding. You pay $25 a month, and for that you get four big, empty bins delivered to your doorstep. Fill those bins will all the junk you don’t need immediately (off-season clothes, perhaps, or holiday decorations), and then MakeSpace will come pick them up from you and store them at its secure storage location. You can visually catalog bin contents by taking photos, and when you want one of your bins back, you just click it on the website or app, and it will be quickly redelivered. While it’s currently limited to NYC, it’s poised to take off in other urban areas.
For learning from its mistakes. Samsung briefly outflanked Apple in the smartphone wars, but it has now lost ground to competition from Xiaomi. Of course, Samsung is a lot more than smartphones—and in an era full of new Internet-connected devices on our bodies and in our homes, that may matter more in the long run. While Apple fusses over the intricacies of luxury watch design and Google crows about buying a fancy thermostat company, Samsung has been cranking out next-generation wearables and building dozens of smart appliances: refrigerators that text you when the door has been left open, dishwashers that decide when to run a load based on spot energy prices, robot vacuum cleaners that you can control with your smartwatch, your Galaxy Note, or (gasp) your iPhone. “Imagine a world in which these appliances are connected to each other,” says David Eun, a Samsung executive vice president. “What you’d have is one of the largest platforms for distributing content and services and apps—even ads.”
For making a phone that privacy advocates trust. Heard much talk about privacy concerns, data security, or phone hacking lately? Thought so. Silent Circle is the first phone maker to capitalize on those fears with the Blackphone, a device that promises to deliver paranoid persons to a mobile safe haven. Blackphone comes from a joint venture between renowned cryptographer Phil Zimmermann’s Silent Circle and Geeksphone, a Spanish hardware startup. Silent Circle’s pitch is that the Blackphone gives users “everything they need to ensure privacy and control of their communications, along with all the other high-end smartphone features they have come to expect.” It achieves this goal through a preinstalled suite of Silent Circle’s security apps, such as Silent Phone for encrypted voice calls, Silent Text for encrypted SMS, Silent Contacts for a locked-down Rolodex, and additional measures to protect the phone from data-harvesting Wi-Fi attacks. The Blackphone isn’t NSA-proof (because nothing is), but it gives you the highest-grade mobile security available to consumers, and that’s something a lot of people are very interested in.
For continuing to innovate, even out of the spotlight. Being sold by Google to Lenovo last year doesn’t seem to have dampened Moto’s spirits any, and as a result, it’s putting out some of the most inventive mobile hardware today. Most significantly, there’s the Moto 360. We’ve been seeing a growing surge of smartwatches over the past few years, but most have been terrible and all have been pretty geek-focused. The Moto 360, with its beautiful round face and elegantly simple design, is the first device to have made even staunch smartwatch refuseniks say, “Ooh! I want that!” Motorola’s latest flagship phone, the Moto X, is a perfect (and rare) example of a company focusing on features that users actually want and will use. It has arguably the best user interface of any smartphone out there (a very lightly tweaked version of Android), and its powerful suite of truly hands-free voice commands (no button pushing required) makes using it an absolute joy. Factor in the Motorola Keylink–its little Bluetooth-enabled keychain that saves you from having to enter an unlock code as long as it’s near your phone–and you’re looking at a company making a lot of smart choices.