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Sunday, 29 December 2013

Unlucky for some: 13 mobile expectations for 2014

The beginning of a new year is often a time for looking forward and of expectation for the future. I thought it would be fun to jot down my own personal expectations for mobile technology in the year ahead. Note, these are expectations rather than predictions. I'm not trying to crytcal-ball gaze 10 years into the future, just clarify the trends we can already see emerging and that will shape 2014. Perhaps this time next year I might review these expectations and mark my homework!


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

We often forget the incredible range of sensors in today’s smartPhones; the iPhone in my pocket includes a pedometer, compass, accelerometer, GPS, fingerprint sensor, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, 3G & 4G, camera and microphone. This is a veritable Swiss Army knife of sensors.

But I don’t think the addition of more sensors is finished. Apple’s acquisition of Prime Sense, a leading maker of 3D sensors like those used in the XBox, might indicate our phones are about to get such capabilities. A 3d scanner in your phone for the real-world? It’s hard to imagine what this might mean, but I bet it will interesting. One thing is for sure; the addition of new sensors is part of the competitive battle in the industry and smartPhones are only going to get better at understanding our world. 2014 means more sensors, more ways of interacting, more ways of understanding the environment and context in which mobile devices are used.


2. Smartphones get smarter, with more artificial intelligence

Apple’s Siri and Google’s Now both try to anticipate your needs and interact in a natural language manner. But both of these services are relatively crude when compared to IBM’s Watson, a computer that beat the world’s best players in the US General Knowledge TV quiz program Jeopardy!

The journey that Siri started is one that will end with an intelligent assistant that can converse in natural language and knows pretty much everything. And every year will likely see incremental progress towards that goal. I fully expect Siri and Google Now to incrementally improve in 2014 and beyond.


3. Mobile extends to the Home

Nest is reinventing the home control market. Heating control and smoke/CO sensors have never been this stylish and easy to use. I control and monitor my Nest Protect via an app on my iPhone. Nest have launched an API initiative; their ambition is to mobile-enable the home. Heating temperature, CO and Fire sensors are only the start.

Of course home control technology has existed for a long time, so nothing here is new technologically speaking. But what Nest is doing is important; its making previously obscure geeky technology available to regular people. Nest is available in John Lewis (a UK department store), its childs-play to install and is being marketed directly at non-techy consumers.

The timing could be right here, as consumers get more conscious about reducing energy consumption and managing their bills. More intelligent management of the home promises significant energy savings; in the US Nest promises average savings of $173/year with their heating control.


4. Mobile extends to the person

We’ve also seen manufacturers try the “smart watch” concept, but with very little market success so far. It seems to me that the “smart watch” needs to be more than a remote control for the smartPhone, so there needs to be a “killer app” that we’ve not yet seen.

What’s unique about wearable tech is that it’s attached to the body, which makes a variety of health sensors possible. Fitbit, Nike, et al have proved the concept and market acceptance of wristbands to track movement for health purposes.

I’ve noticed with interest the increasing band of friends and relatives who’ve invested in a FitBit. Conversely, none of my associates have purchased or expressed interest in a Pebble, Samsung Gear , Qualcomm Toq or Sony Smartwatch. Too bulky, too geeky, and “what’s the point ?” seem to be the general response.

A small, discrete and fashionable device with a multitude of health sensors could provide the “killer app” that existing “smart watches” have been looking for. I wonder if a successful “smart watch” might not be more like a Fitbit on steroids than a Samsung Gear?


5. Fashion and style become increasingly important

At last tech has got style. Nobody launches a smartPhone without an eye to design, style and even fashion, anymore. This is the reality of mainstream consumer electronics, rather than niches for geeks. Fit, finish and build quality are table-stakes with mobile; manufacturers live in fear of snarky reviews from The Verge.

Things like colour, shape, size, thinness and construction materials are increasingly used to attract consumers and we can only expect more of this in an intensely competitive marketplace. As mobile technology extends into the home and about the person, then we have even more reason to believe that fashion is important.


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

All modern smartphones, be they iPhone, Android, Blackberry or Windows, now support Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). It’s unrelated to the old Bluetooth with its pairing and battery sucking inconvenience. BLE devices can run for weeks or months on the smallest of batteries. Seamless networking makes their usability a big improvement, without the need for pairing.

Most of the health tracking wristbands, like FitBit, use BLE to sync with your smartphone in the background. New uses like Apple’s iBeacons allow for micro location detection, where an app on your phone can perform an action when it detects a given iBeacon signal. BLE also allows detection of proximity - so an app knows not just that it can detect a BLE signal, but can estimate how close or far-away it is from the source of that signal.

PayPal has already launched a mobile payments service using BLE technology. I have a game on my iPhone that’s a kind of “hide and seek” for smartPhone using BLE iBeacon technology to signal the seekers hotness or coldness to the hiding phone. A bar in London’s Shoreditch uses iBeacon technology to deliver free content to devices in the immediate vicinity. Popular in-store rewards app Shopkick is integrating iBeacon with its service.

I believe we’re just at the start of a profusion of BLE-based innovation - for both data connection/syncing and micro-location purposes. Given the widespread acceptance by all mobile device and OS manufactures BLE, and not NFC, is likely to be the dominant near-field wireless technology.


7. Processor innovation shifts from performance to low power usage

Apple’s shift to 64bit and the ARM-v8 instruction set for its A7 mobile processor make it so powerful is hard to tax an iPhone5s or iPad Air. No doubt the rest of the industry will follow this direction in 2014. At this point our mobile devices are more powerful than a three year old laptop.

I wonder if the next period of processor innovation, after 64bit and ARM-v8, might focus more on battery life than on ultimate performance? Who doesn’t look back at the week-long battery life of old Nokias with fondness?

So far the only phones with a longer battery life have been giant phones with giant batteries, for which the physical bulk limits demand. Some may like "phablets", but I'm adverse to the suspicious bulge they create in a man's trouser pocket. Just as Intel’s Haswell processors enabled Apple to tout a 12+ hour battery life for its svelte MacBook Air computers, so a similar focus in mobile processor efficiency could benefit users greatly and be a source of competitive advantage.


8. Innovation emphasis shifts from hardware to software

I love the hardware, but the truth is that better screens, faster processors, etc make little difference to my use of mobile devices. However, a good app can be transformational. Apps empower my devices to do new things and are the driver behind them increasingly supplanting traditional computers.

I’m talking about Apps and usage scenarios like:

  • Writing presentations and presenting directly from an iPhone or iPad (via a VGA adapter) with Keynote.
  • Constructing blog posts (like this one) with a new generation of Markdown-based editors including Editorial, Writer Pro and Byword.
  • Performing advanced photographic retouching, including RAW processing, in Photogene.
  • Managing my life with Clear, the only todo list manager that’s ever got me to use it for more than a week.
  • Helping my daughter to build a stop-frame animation for homework with Smoovie.
  • Constructing diagrams for work with Sketchbook.
  • Organising ideas with Corkulous.
  • Keeping track of projects on Github with iOctocat.

This is not about media consumption; good apps transform mobile devices into very efficient content creators.

Its notable that many of these apps are from very small or independent developers. Whilst large companies can afford to create and offer free apps as a kind of “loss leader”, these small developers cannot. The ability of a given mobile ecosystem to sustain a viable living for small independent developers is therefore critical.


9. Backend As A Service gets serious

Mobile apps are remarkably quick to develop. The development time is typically measured in months rather than years. A very respectable app can be developed by a very small team in just 3 – 6 months.

But mobile apps are increasingly connected, and dependent on, large server infrastructures for syncing and access to services and data. These systems typically have much longer development timescales and use different technologies to mobile apps.

This is why many app developers are using “back end as a service” (BAAS) providers like Parse (recently acquired by Facebook), StackMob (acquired by PayPal), Kinvey (still indie) and a profusion of others. These services vastly simplify interacting with and building server-based logic to support mobile apps.

For big companies entering the world of mobile, the truth is that building a mobile app is trivial; the costs involved are small in comparison with typical corporate budgets. The hard, and expensive, bit is changing the back-end systems to allow access from that mobile app. I think we’re going to see the concepts and approaches popularised by BAAS providers creep into big companies in response to these challenges.


10. Mobile continues to eat the PC market

With limited funds to spend on technology, many are choosing to stretch their PC upgrade cycle and invest the cash saved in a far more exciting mobile gadget. I can only see this trend continuing.

The simplicity, instant on, long battery life, low weight, silent nature (no fans, whirring hard drives or clickety keyboards) and fashionable styling seem to be winning fans. Those who feel a reminiscence for the physical keyboard can augment with a bluetooth one.

At the same time, new app-enabled ways of doing things are emerging. For example, Editorial on the iPad is such a brilliant text editor precisely because it does not ape Microsoft Word.

By reinventing for the mobile age, rather than copying the way we did things in the PC era, apps are helping mobile to supplant the PC. I wrote this blog on an iPhone on a crowded train, on an iPad on the couch, with the data synced in the cloud - in places where a PC was simply not an option. New ways of doing things, new ways of looking at old problems, rather than replicating the PC, are where mobile is succeeding.


11. The platform wars are over

Its a peculiar factor of computing technology that the various technologies attract an irrational and intense support. We saw it with Windows, Linux and Mac in the PC era. And we’re seeing it again with Win-Mobile, Android, iOS and Blackberry in the mobile era.

My personal choice is strongly for iOS, but I can see the benefits of different platforms - Android with its cheaper devices and ‘openness’ (whatever that might mean), Blackberry for the keyboard and security-conscious corporate die-hards, Win-Mobile for its plucky upstart “lets try something different” approach.

What I don’t understand, or appreciate, is those who feel a need to insult those who’ve made a different decision to themselves. Sadly, mobile technology seems to be fertile hunting ground for such individuals. Except I think the mobile platform battle is over. Both iOS and Android won. The fan-boys should disarm.

Blackberry’s marketshare is collapsing at a frightening rate - it’ll be a herculean task for them to recover from where they find themselves today. Win-Mobile shows small signs of life, but only in some regions. In important major markets like the USA, its essentially nowhere. Murmurs of “alternative” mobile OS’s like “Firefox OS” or “Sailfish” remain exactly that; murmurs.

Until Apple has secured the high-end, there is no reason for it to shift focus to lower-priced devices. It’s a little understood fact that the fruit company is still in its rollout phase for the iPhone, only very recently signing distribution deals with Japan’s DoCoMo and China Mobile (which alone secures access to an incredible 700m subscribers). The opening of massive new markets like these is almost guaranteed to secure healthy iPhone sales for the immediate future.

I see no reason to suspect that we’ll end 2014 with market share statistics wildly different to today; namely Android dominating the low-end, Apple the high-end and everyone else struggling for relevance.

Incidentally, global marketshare is of little relevance to anyone but journalists for two reasons:

  • In the USA the iPhone and Android are neck-and-neck for share. In Spain, Android dominates massively. In Japan 3 in every 4 phones purchased are iPhones. And in some, although few, markets Win-Mobile has relevance. So share varies massively by country and region.
  • The usage of different devices also varies enormously. IBM’s analytics consistently report iOS generating 3x the online shopping than does Android, despite Android having greater device market share. Listening to two colleagues discussing the merits of the Tesco Hudl as a cheap device to give to kids, I wondered if this might help to explain such discrepancies (kids not being known for their internet shopping prowess). I have yet to see a presentation at work being driven from a Hudl, but iPads proliferate. Its not what device you have, but how you use it, that matters.

12. (Small) Cameras replaced by phones

For many, the cameras on top-end smartphones are beginning to compete very effectively with cameras as stand-alone devices. We reached the point where magapixel count on smartPhones was sufficient a couple of years ago. With 8+ megapxels there’s really no need for any more resolution. I’m a keen photographer, but don’t feel a need to purchase a carry-around camera when my iPhone’s camera is this good. There is even an iphone photography awards.

But mobile technology isn’t threatening more serious cameras. Early attempts at merging phone and camera, like Samsung’s Galaxy NX, are very unconvincing. More serious picture taking still requires hands-on control of shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white-balance, etc. And this means lots of physical buttons. Buttons that your fingers can sense blind whilst you’re looking at, or through, the viewfinder. This is not a good fit for a big touchscreen focussed device. Creative control of depth of field (i.e. those arty photos where only a part of the picture is in focus) requires a sensor several orders of magnitude larger than a smartPhone's. The laws of physics dictate that a large sensor needs correspondingly large optics. So we aren't going to see DSLR's being replaced by smartPhones any time soon, if ever.

I see mobile cannibalising “point and shoot” cameras, but not DSLRs. Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Sony: your advanced camera sales are safe.


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

Consumers are increasingly using cloud services like Dropbox and iCloud. The ease of use and freedom from backup issues is a real benefit. And yet we continue to hear revelation after revelation about how both governments and large companies are tapping into our personal data. This tension will likely remain unresolved, but increasingly obvious, throughout 2014.

Are we happy to be the product rather than the customer, where companies like Amazon and Google give us free or subsidised services in order to get access to our data? Data that they make money from by using it to sell services to other companies?

I don’t think there’s widespread understanding of the nature of the bargain we’re entering into when we Google something (Google retains a record of every search you do). Who really understands that if you leave your Facebook account logged in, Facebook is tracking you as you move around other websites?

It strikes me the current situation is only tenable because most people don’t appreciate what data they are giving away. If they did, would they give their permission? Is the value obtained really equal to the value of the data we are giving away and the associated risks (eg identity theft)? I’m not sure it is. There is a big unresolved tension here, right at the centre of the new mobile-cloud-centric technology world we are building.

11 comments :

  1. “More serious picture taking still requires hands-on control of shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white-balance, etc.”

    It also needs a sensor capable of better signal/noise than what can be crammed into a slim iPhone or other mobile device. Your everyday (APS) DSLR captures over 4 f-stops worth of light more than the very good iPhone 5s's sensor, because it's about 24X the size (area).

    Sensor technology, and the digital processing of the images, have improved dramatically in the last 5 years — I just last night tested my new Canon SL1 against the 5-year-old XS-1 it'll replace, and see a very nice bump up in bitdepth & detail vs color and luminance noise, roughly similar to what Apple did in my wife's iPhone 5S vs my 5. But there's still a huge gulf between the two sizes.

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    1. I agree. Although smartphones are about "good enough" for many casual snappers, those more discerning can easily see the difference. Washed out skies are a typical symptom of not enough DR. Its interesting that the "instagram" generation maybe isn't so discerning though - the heavy use of digital filters pretty much obscures the benefits of a decent sensor. But for many of us, MUCH bigger sensors (as you point out) have a lot of value. However, a lot of (non enthusiast or pro) picture taking is shifting to mobile just because of the convenience (1 device instead of 2).

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  2. I would be skeptical in accepting "I see no reason to suspect that we’ll end 2014 with market share statistics wildly different to today". Because disruptions in Tech can come anytime, from anywhere. New company might not be able to able to gain too much traction when you judge in terms of "market share statistics ...to today" but they might create new promises and hopes. I might be unnecessarily optimistic but anyways Happy 2014!!

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    Replies
    1. True, disruptions can come anytime....and there's any number of things that might be created and set a new trend. My argument is that we don't see anything at the start of 2014 that is going to upset the market - but that doesn't mean something might not emerge during 2014 that could impact future years. Indeed, I would bet that we will see new things emerge that might influence market share in the future - possibly the home and wearable side - but I think the impact won't be felt until much later than 2014. Anyway, this is all a fun guess...lets see if I am right or not in a year's time!

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