The 10 techies to watch in 2014

Some are familiar faces, others less so -- but each in their own way is trying to shake up the status quo.

Anthony Levandowski (at right) briefs Turkish President Abdullah Gul as boss Sergey Brin listens in. Google Plus

The problem with any Top 10 list is that it's subjective and you're afterwards bound to think up more candidates who deserve consideration in the ranking. We plead guilty on both counts. But as we head into 2014, the following compilation features folks who, each in their own way, are trying to shake up their particular corners of the tech universe. Some will succeed, others will not. This much is clear: Watching how their stories unfold will make for fascinating reading as part of the larger tale of technology, circa 2014.

Anthony Levandowski
The New Yorker beat us to print, but Anthony Levandowski is no longer a secret. He was part of a graduate student team that created the world's first autonomous motorcycle, called the Ghost Rider. Now in the Smithsonian, the Ghost Rider is spearheading Google's driverless-car project. As CNET noted earlier this year , the century-old auto culture is on the verge of radical change, and you can thank Google for where it's headed. Yes, if things work out the way Google intends, these so-called robo-cars will usher in a new era that means the end of driving as we know it. Levandowski figures to be a big part of that revolution.

Glenn Greenwald
Journalist? Activist? Combination of the two ? Actually, the moniker doesn't matter anymore. What does matter is the huge impact that Glenn Greenwald has had on our understanding of the extraordinary -- and intrusive -- high-tech intelligence-gathering capability the National Security Agency has built since 2011.

Glenn Greenwald Getty Images
His blockbuster scoops, based on heretofore secret documents supplied by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, are still reverberating, forcing legislators and heads of state around the world to catch up. More to follow in 2014 as Greenwald says that only a fraction of the documents in his possession have been reviewed. We'll see them carried on a new media venture Greenwald is putting together with the help of $250 million from eBay founder and billionaire Pierre Omidyar.

Ted Sarandos
Reed Hastings gets most of the press attention but Netflix's future success as a video content hothouse increasingly falls on the shoulders of one Ted Sarandos, Netflix's chief content officer since 2000.

Ted Sarandos
Sarandos' goal for Netflix is "to become HBO faster than HBO can become us." With a reported annual content budget of $2 billion, he has the wherewithal to make good on that promise. Sarandos also has committed Netflix to make at least five new series every year. In addition to offering the Emmy-award winning remake of the BBC's "House of Cards," Netflix's menu of original offerings also includes the likes of "Lilyhammer," "Arrested Development," "Hemlock Grove," and "Orange is the New Black."

Starting in 2016, the same year a similar deal with Disney kicks in, Netflix will stream movies from the Weinstein Co. film studio before any other pay-TV provider. (Netflix has cut a deal with Disney to stream four original, live-action shows based on Daredevil, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, and other super-powered characters.)

Credit Sarandos with the heavy lifting for all that, thus helping create the buzz around Netflix as it passed HBO in paid US subscribers for the first time.

Marissa Mayer Getty Images
Marissa Mayer
Marissa Mayer joined Yahoo in the summer of 2012 amid extraordinary hype and hope. She deserves credit for returning stability to a company more famous for having five CEOs in five years than for any other achievement. But the picture remains incomplete.

Yet beyond moving Yahoo toward mobile -- a line she repeats at every conference call -- there remain lots of dots left to connect in the absence of a fuller narrative. Mayer's Yahoo has spent heavily, picking up smaller Internet companies, like Tumblr and Summly. That could pay off in helping the company shed its stodgy reputation with younger Internet users. Also, Yahoo is taking another stab at content, hiring the likes of former network anchor Katie Couric and computer columnist David Pogue.

Mayer can afford to experiment, given the windfall Yahoo will reap from its investment in the Alibaba Group, a collection of successful Internet-based businesses overseen by Chinese Internet hotshot Jack Ma. Alibaba recently paid $7.1 billion to buy back half of Yahoo's ownership position. And when Alibaba goes public -- probably sometime in 2014 -- Yahoo will be in a position to pocket several more billion dollars. However, financial engineering aside, that still begs the question whether we ought to think of Mayer as a truly transformative executive or simply as someone with a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Next year may go a long way toward offering an answer.

Charlie Ergen
His high-stakes, hardball antics win him bad boy headlines, but Charlie Ergen can deal with monikers like "Most Hated Man in Hollywood" if that's the price of success.

Charlie Ergan Dish Network
One success after another has followed Ergen as he's built Dish Network into the nation's third-biggest satellite/cable TV provider. Ergen, who once considered a career as a professional poker and blackjack player, is again rolling the dice with a new ad-skipping DVR technology called "Autohop" that has triggered a court battle with the broadcast networks. At this point in the narrative, I must add that CBS, the parent company of CNET, is one of the companies engaged in litigation with Dish. The others are NBC, ABC, and Fox. For its part, Dish has filed a countersuit. If the courts rule for Dish, the broadcasters fear a world in which TV watchers will no longer see commercials. For a decades-old industry that depends on advertising revenue to help cover the cost of its shows, that's bad news in bells. For Ergen, it could prove to be his biggest jackpot ever.

John Legere
Sometimes the road not taken turns out to be the best option. Exhibit A: Consider the experience of T-Mobile. Before John Legere's September 2012 appointment as CEO, T-Mobile, the nation's smallest carrier, was losing more than a couple of million customers a year and its corporate parent, Deutsche Telekom, wanted out. AT&T was willing to take T-Mobile off its hands but subsequently walked away from a deal to buy the carrier after opposition from the Justice Department.

T-Mobile CEO John Legere at a March 26 press conference.
John Legere Lori Grunin/CNET
At that point in the story, you might expect things to go from bad to worse. But Legere arrived on the scene with a mandate to shake things up, and he is making the most of the opportunity, doing everything from eliminating contracts to reducing prices to offering free overseas roaming. (Under the heading of imitation as flattery, other carriers have copied some of the changes T-Mobile introduced, like the monthly installment option and early upgrade program.)

Equally important, T-Mobile has upgraded its 4G LTE network, putting the extra spectrum it received as part of the AT&T breakup fee to good use. The results of that whirlwind activity are beginning to pay off. For the second straight quarter, T-Mobile added customers -- this time more than 1 million subscribers -- even as Sprint and AT&T reported trouble hanging onto price-sensitive customers. T-Mobile may still be the smallest of the carriers but, as CNET reported, it's starting to win away high-end customers from both AT&T and Sprint. To the competition, he very well may be the most dangerous man in wireless.

Andy Rubin
Andy Rubin James Martin/CNET
Andy Rubin
Keep a close eye on another Google guy this year. Andy Rubin, who previously headed the company's Android operations, is now in charge of one of Google's "moonshots." This time it's a project with the not-so-modest goal of figuring out how to use robots to free humans from drudgery. Rubin is one of the tech industry's Big Brains and given his record of accomplishment -- inventor of the Android OS and key participant in creating Web TV, among other things -- he bears close watching, even more so now, given that Google reportedly has acquired seven robotics companies.

True to form, the company is saying very little about the details, but it is offering up teases to whet our curiosity.

"His last big bet, Android, started off as a crazy idea that ended up putting a supercomputer in hundreds of millions of pockets. It is still very early days for this, but I can't wait to see the progress," CEO Larry Page said in a Google+ post.

For the time being, the scope of Rubin's secret project appears to be focused on manufacturing. But this is a company with wide ambition -- for example, driverless cars and the use of high-altitude balloons and blimps to deliver wireless Internet access to the developing world. So, don't be surprised if we hear about Rubin taking the effort in myriad directions.

Hugo Barra
Hugo Barra left a cushy, high-profile job as head of product management at Google's Android mobile unit to head up global operations at a company most Americans have never heard about: a fast-growing Chinese phone manufacturer called Xiaomi.

Hugo Barra debuting the second Nexus 7 in July in San Francisco.
Hugo Barra debuting the second Nexus 7 in July in San Francisco. James Martin/CNET
Xiaomi debuted its first smartphone only in August 2011, but it's already making big inroads. With aggressive pricing on its budget smartphones, Xiaomi leapfrogged the much more established Lenovo to become China's second-largest Android phone seller in the third quarter, behind Samsung. Late in the year, it expanded into Taiwan.

Which raises the question: Could the US be next? That's where Barra figures to play a major role. As the public face of Google's Android smartphone business, he's got the necessary marketing and sales chops. Barra is taking on the role knowing that no Chinese smartphone maker has ever achieved major name recognition. But nothing about the pecking order in the current smartphone market is engraved in stone, and there's always going to be a place for a dependable brand that appeals to more budget-sensitive shoppers. After leaving Google, Barra told AllThingsD that if he does his job, "in a few years, the world will be talking about Xiaomi in the same way that they talk about Google and Apple today."

I'd take that as a clear signal of intent. He'll start to fill in the blanks over the course of the next 12 months.

David Eun
Silicon Valley's big companies get most of the attention but startups are where you'll often find the cutting-edge action. That's where Samsung hopes to get more help to engineer an end around its chief rivals. For all its strengths -- the company ranks as the world's largest electronics firm by revenue -- Samsung still lags behind in software. It's not for lack of trying. This year, 35,000 of Samsung's 62,000 engineers and designers are software-focused, the third straight year that software has outnumbered hardware. That's why we're paying close attention to the efforts of a little-known executive by the name of David Eun.

David Eun Getty Images
Eun, who previously ran AOL Media and Studios, has been Samsung's executive vice president since December 2011. He also leads what the company calls its Open Innovation Center (OIC). The OIC works with software and services startups, and Eun's job is to hunt down new ideas and make sure that Samsung -- not Apple or Google -- gets the first call from startups looking for partners. To help make that happen, Eun -- along with a couple of dozen Samsung execs -- is reaching out to startups and venture capital firms in Silicon Valley. The idea is to share Samsung's strategy and listen to startups pitch their businesses for potential partnerships or acquisitions.

So far, OIC has opened accelerators in Palo Alto, Calif., and New York and made numerous investments. It also spearheaded the Boxee acquisition and persuaded developers to make apps for the Galaxy Gear smartwatch.

"Innovation has tended to happen when you have a small group of people with no legacy anything, just trying to solve big problems," says Eun. If he makes good on the promise behind that fancy phraseology, it will go a long way to help "Samsung 2.0" shed its reputation as a software second-rater.

 

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