Our resident mobile expert, Michael Mace, brings us his insightful thoughts in this forward-looking blog post.
Tech industry predictions can be hazardous to your health. Conditions change so quickly that predictions that seem like slam dunks in January often sound foolish by December. In my time in mobile, I’ve seen a series of industry consensus predictions turn out to be spectacularly wrong: portable music players were supposed to be a trash product category, no one would ever want to do e-mail on a smartphone, tablets were a tiny niche, and so on.
We shouldn’t be surprised that it’s hard to make predictions in the tech industry. After all, we pride ourselves on creating the future. If we’re all doing that successfully, we should expect to be surprised on a regular basis.
So instead of trying to predict what will happen, I think it’s best to prepare for what might happen. If you anticipate the possibilities, you can prepare for possible surprises. And maybe you can make better plans for how you’ll surprise everyone else.
Will we see a breakthrough in wearable computing?
Everyone seems to agree that wearable computing is a hot category, but will we see a breakthrough device in 2014? To answer that, watch for the killer app. Consumer computing devices generally take off when they solve a particular problem or fit into an unfilled niche in peoples’ lives. For personal computers, the killer apps were spreadsheet and word processing. For BlackBerry, it was mobile e-mail. So far, the only broadly popular wearable computers are fitness trackers: they fill a clear need for a well-defined group of customers. In contrast, most other wearable computing devices, such as smart glasses and smart watches, are bundles of technologies searching for a usage. If they find that usage, they’re likely to take off rapidly. But until they do, they’ll probably remain curiosities.
Will flexible screens remake the phone market?
Some day, phones and tablets will merge: Your phone will be a tiny device that you unroll or unfold into a tablet when you want to look at something on a big screen. But “some day” is not coming in 2014. Samsung and LG are both working on phones with “flexible” screens that are pre-bent into arc shapes, but they’re fixed in a single position. You can’t fold or roll them, for a very good reason: repeated flexing breaks the conductors in the screen, and pixels start to go dead. If you ever hear of a company solving the conductor fatigue problem, you can bet big on foldable phones. Until then, don’t hold your breath.
Will the smartphone market break into segments?
If we’re not going to get flexible screens anytime soon, will some other breakthrough remake the phone market? I think the answer may not come from technology itself. If you look at other maturing consumer product markets, there’s usually a point where segmentation takes hold. Automobiles, for example, started as one size fits all but eventually split into luxury cars, sports cars, SUVs, etc. That hasn’t really happened yet for smartphones. What are the natural segments for the smartphone market? And who will take the lead in them? The answers to those questions could drive the next big change in mobile computing.
Will HTML 5 displace native mobile apps?
Most app developers would love it if mobile web apps became as powerful and accepted as native apps. It’d be much easier to manage a single codebase rather than native apps for every platform, and you could bypass the app stores with their restrictions and the 30-percent cut they take from your revenue. I think it’s pretty clear that HTML 5 can’t do it alone. Apple and Android continue to add features to their operating systems rapidly, and many of those features are not accessible to web apps. Because HTML 5 is managed by committee, it can’t keep up in the feature arms race. In addition, many users value the fine details of user interface and responsiveness that can be hard to duplicate in a web app. So I think the thing to watch is the third party application frameworks that are attempting to build a common layer on top of both Android and iOS. Some of them mix in web features, so you can deploy at least part of your app through the web. If you’re a developer, you should keep an eye on those layer products, to see if they can produce an acceptable user experience for your particular type of app.
Will someone break the Apple-Samsung duopoly?
With Samsung increasingly beating down its Android rivals, the smartphone market is starting to look like a duopoly, with Apple capturing much of the profit and Samsung selling most of the units. Can anyone break that stranglehold? Microsoft/Nokia certainly wants to. Two other candidates are Amazon and Facebook, both of which are rumored to be working on smartphones. But as HTC has proven, the market for me-too phones with slightly better features than the Big Two is precarious. So the real question is, can Microsoft, Amazon, or Facebook come up with a smartphone that’s significantly different from the competition, either in price or in features? Microsoft hasn’t shown the ability to cook up a major differentiator, and Facebook would be better off partnering with Apple rather than competing with it. But Amazon has the ability to innovate in both features and business model. An Amazon-subsidized phone, designed to encourage purchases of Amazon goods and services, might be able to go to price points that neither Apple nor Samsung can reach.
Those are my top five issues to watch in 2014. What do you think? And what would you add to the list? Please post a comment and share your thoughts.
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