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Sunday, 21 December 2014

Reviewing 2014 Mobile Predictions

About this time last year I wrote a blog entry outlining my predictions for mobile technology in 2014. I said at the time that I might review my predictions and here we are – a year later. So, how did I do?

1. Smartphones get smarter, with more real-world sensors

This prediction wasn’t exactly difficult. Every new phone continues to support an expanded set of environmental and communication sensors. We saw Apple’s iPhone6 include new “Sensor Pixels” to provide Phase Detection autofocus normally associated with DSLRs, an air pressure Barometer sensor and new NFC communications for Apple Pay. We can all see the way that smart-watches are including personal health sensors, made possible by their close proximity to our skin – the Apple Watch, for example, includes movement sensors and a heart-rate monitor. There have been many articles speculating on other health sensors that might be built into mobile devices – detecting chemicals or perspiration in our skin, blood flow, etc. There doesn’t seem to be any let-up in the real-word sensing our mobile devices acquire.


2. Smartphones get smarter, with more artificial intelligence

Apple’s Siri and Google Now both continue to get cleverer. This year they were joined by Microsoft’s Cortana. Having natural speech technology and artificial intelligence now appears to be table-stakes for a smartphone platform.

My personal usage of these services is probably best described as erratic at best. Interestingly, however, app trends in China seem to indicate that “chat” interfaces are now de-rigour for all sorts of apps. If this trend crosses to the West, then automated intelligence is going to be critical a critical component.

My employer, IBM, launched its new Watson division this year. A $1bn investment in artificial intelligence (we call in “Cognitive Computing” now, but its the same thing) isn’t to be sniffed at. Most Watson apps tend to surfaced through a mobile interface. And Watson isn’t about fulfilling the trivial whims of a smartphone owner; its about much more serious things. Like diagnosing and curing cancer.


3. Mobile extends to the Home

Google bought Nest, validating the importance of the “smart” home. Nest saw a bunch of competitors emerge with their own “smart” thermostats, including Honeywell, Hive and Tado to name a few. Apple incorporated HomeKit into iOS8, providing a common framework to manage smart home devices from your iphone or ipad. We seem to be getting pretty close to the connected home being a reality not just for the geek squad, but for the average consumer.


4. Mobile extends to the person

Android Wear devices trickled onto the market, including the much talked about Moto 360. They’ve so far failed to make a market impact and I’ve never seen one, so maybe the jury is out on how much consumers really want or need this kind of capability.

The Apple Watch announcement was one of the biggest and most anticipated from the fruity company. Can it succeed where others are struggling? Its rumoured to make it’s debut around February 2015, so its not long to wait now.

For me the killer app for these devices might be a new form of very personal communication. The haptic feedback in the Apple Watch that lightly vibrates a message against your skin, mimicking that tapped out by your friend on their watch, is a peculiarly intimate form of communication. Or perhaps not quite as intimate as transmitting a pulsing heart rate to your lover? Time will tell, but there seems high potential for new forms of intimate communication here.


5. Fashion and style become increasingly important

Apple have been on a mission this year to woo us with the fashion status of the Apple Watch. Articles in Vanity Fair and events at Paris Fashion Week - they sure want us to see the watch as a fashion accessory. The Apple Watch is probably the first electronic gadget that’s been deigned and marketed so explicitly with fashion in mind.

The watch comes in four different case metals, two different face sizes and can be customised with a huge profusion of straps in different colours and materials. When you then add the array of electronic faces and software customisations, its clear the Apple Watch is without doubt the most customisable and personal piece of gadgetry we’ve yet seen.

This is the first serious piece of fashion-conscious design and marketing we’ve seen in the tech-world - and if the rest of the industry does what it usually does when Apple leads, we’re going to see much more of this. Indeed, the most talked-about Android Wear watch is the Moto 360 - not because of its capabilities, but because of its looks.

Personally? I’m tempted by an Apple Watch, 38mm Stainless Steel Case with Brown Modern Buckle. Maybe Santa will pay an unseasonal visit in the spring!


6. Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) powers new forms of mobile interaction

I’m a big fan of BLE-enabled iBeacon - I think it has the potential to bring about very interesting new forms of interaction between mobile devices and their physical environments. But we’ve not seen much of it in our day-to-day lives so far.

I’m told there’s an Oxford Street app (one of London’s main shopping districts) that sends you marketing alerts as you walk past shops - but why would you want that? In the USA the NFL is using iBeacon within baseball stadiums. And of course Apple itself uses iBeacon within its stores. But so far, I’d argue, the usage of this technology is relatively invisible to most of us and therefore its potential remains unlocked.

We now have iBeacon devices being manufactured by high-profile organisations like Qualcom’s Gimbal spinoff and Estimote. But it’s taken a year for this manufacturing capability to mature. The way that iBeacon apps might be used is also taking a little time to mature beyond the simple ‘marketing alerts’ that few of us want or need. However, I think we’re getting there - it’s just taking a little time for all of the components to fall into place.

SCORE: Maybe

7. Processor innovation shifts from performance to low power usage

I kind of got this one wrong. I thought phones were powerful enough, so the emphasis would shift to battery life (because that’s what we all complain about).

However, I misread the forces. Screen pixel density and size has been increasing - and more pixels mean more processor power is needed to shift them around. We’ve still been on the “need more power” part of the maturity curve.

Perhaps more importantly, phones are no longer phones. If smartphones were to stay as relatively simple devices then we have all the power we need - but they won’t. They are morphing into pocket computers with more real-world sensors and capabilities than we ever imagined.

Phones are becoming games machines - Apple’s 64-bit A8 processor means that iPhones are beginning to rival dedicated consoles for their graphical capabilities.

And the rumour sites continually mention tantalising snippets of information about 3D user interfaces, 3D real-world sensors, Haptic displays and DSLR-quality cameras. Such capabilities surely drive increasing demands on processors due to the sheer quantity of data that’s needed to be processed.

As excitement over the novel tablet form factor seems to have slackened off slightly, we're seeing a focus on the software capabilities. ie. "yes, ok, I like the device, but what do I *do* with it"? Microsoft Office on the iPad was an important inflection point. And Pixelmator on the iPad rivals Photoshop - which was unthinkable when the first iPad emerged. But serious apps like this need all the processor power they can get.

My mistake in this prediction was in categorising smartphones and tablets as an effectively static category with static capabilities. However, it's now clear that its a moving category - as the devices become more powerful, consumers and industry are finding more ways to exploit that power. The iPad Air 2 is faster, processor-speed-wise, than a 3 year old Macbook Air - and if we're going to be editing documents, photos and videos it needs to be.

There is, however, an interesting dynamic that’s going to hit us soon. The yearly reduction in die-size of microprocessors has been a central part of the increase in power that we’ve seen over the years. As processors become smaller, they also get faster. Today’s Apple A8 chip is based on 20nm technology and next year’s A9 is rumoured to be based on 14nm technology. After that 10nm is predicted, but then it starts getting tricky. Below 10nm the experts say that we’re nearing the edges of physics - to reduce even further has a great deal of uncertainty and requires the invention of new materials. The level of deep science required to continue the Moore’s Law path is enormous, which is why IBM is investing $3bn in microprocessor research. Whether we hit a bump in the road, or if the science keeps ahead of us, is a little uncertain – it’ll certainly be interesting to see what plays out over the next few years.


8. Innovation emphasis shifts from hardware to software

I was naive in predicting that processor speeds will stop increasing and I think I was naive on this one for similar reasons. The idea that my iPhone is as good as I ever need it to be for a phone ignores that my iPhone is going to do a whole lot more as hardware capabilities improve. Screens with haptic feedback, 3D sensing of the real word, possibly even 3D screens (if Nintendo can do it with the 3DS then I’m sure we’re going to get it on phones before long).

Yes, software is an engine of innovation. Apps like Pixelmator, that provides a photoshop-like experience on the iPad, transform what we can do with mobile devices. Without this software-led innovation we get stuck making phone calls and browsing the odd website. But we're not. When entire ad campaigns are filmed on an iPhone, we know software innovation is at the heart of things. The software revolution of apps are central to what has driven the popularity of mobile devices. But so is hardware – and I’m willing to predict that rather than a tailing off of innovation, we might even see an increase. Haptic feedback is in the Apple Watch, so how long before it hits the iPhone, for example?


9. Backend As A Service gets serious

In the IT industry there’s one sure-fire way to tell when a technology is getting serious – when my employer, IBM, gets involved. IBM’s release of Bluemix in the Spring of 2014 was one such move. Bluemix includes mobile-back-end-as-a-service(MBAAS) capabilities and is seen as an incredibly strategic move within the company. Most mobile apps now need to interact with some server-side capabilities – and making the job of mobile app developers easier and simplifying server-side programming is critical. I can’t think of a better way of validating this prediction than the evidence of Bluemix.

Whether it’s Amazon, Facebook’s Parse or IBM’s Bluemix – any app worth its salt needs a back-end.


10. Mobile continues to eat the PC market

Yes, the PC market continues to stagnate, with further sales declines year-over-year. There’s little let-up for PC manufacturers and price competition is relentless. Innovation certainly seems more obvious in mobile, where sales volumes continue to increase. The very personal nature of mobile devices means those volumes are unlikely to slack-off until every human on the planet has one. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg even thinks he can make that happen with internet.og


11. The platform wars are over

I’ve noticed a more balanced commentary in the market as 2014 has progressed – less ill-informed “my phone is better than yours” discussions. I’m not sure the fan boys have quite declared de-tante yet, but most normal people have. iOS and Android own the market and it seems pretty clear that position isn’t going to change in the foreseeable future. Android’s higher sales figures are balanced by Apple’s focus on the more affluent (and therefore commercially influential) part of the market.

In some (but not many) price-sensitive markets MS's loss-leader strategy with Windows Mobile has led to reasonable market shares for the platform. But I find it hard to see how this success can be replicated around the globe profitably.

For a given market its obvious what the important mobile platforms are – mostly that's iOS and Android. But most of us have got bored of talking about it. If you still think your preferred mobile platform is going to take over the world – get over it!


12. (Small) Cameras replaced by phones

The market for compact cameras appears to have collapsed. The cameras in our phones are now as good as many of us need need for casual snaps. A perusal of the most popular cameras on photo-sharing site Flickr, I think, provides all the evidence that we need.

We’re also just beginning to see the emulation of depth-of-field lens blur in smartphone software – so even that arty shallow-focus effect of high-end DSLRs is now possible.

Whichever way you look at it, it seems pretty certain that smartphone cameras and very clever image manipulation software are rendering the point-and-shoot camera obsolete. Maybe they will one day threaten DLSRs as well, who knows?


13. Tension between cloud convenience and corporate/government snooping grows

Apple even went as far as building an entire website dedicated to privacy and making their approach to the subject a selling point of the iOS platform. And shortly afterwards, Google announced that Andriod 5.0 Lolipop would follow iOS8’s lead and enable encryption by default. Many internet companies have also moved to rapidly increase the level of encryption used in their cloud data centres.

Of course, these moves incensed the security agencies, with the UK’s Robert Hannigan (head of spy headquarters GCHQ) writing an article in the Financial Times complaining about it. Quite how this will all work out is very unclear – but the tech companies certainly seem to have caught onto the public mood of concern about recent spying revelations.



I make this 10.5/13, if I award myself 1/2 mark for the “maybe”. Not bad. It’s certainly interesting to see how things have worked out and where some of the trends are heading. I don’t think I’d change the categories here for next year’s predictions and I’ve given a perspective on what I think will happen in 2015. I wonder what I’ll be saying in another year’s time?

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