Tech predictions for 2013: Big Data, robots, 3D printing and 4G
John Kennedy casts a cautious eye on 2013, the year that 4G finally begins to roll out in Ireland in tandem with superfast fibre services. It will also be the year that Google could shake up mobile computing as we know it with Google Glass and the tech world's battle for the living room will continue to rage.
Internet of things and big data
I enjoy the look on people’s faces when I tell them that 6bn of the world’s 7bn people now carry mobile devices. But they are genuinely puzzled when I say that the number of connected devices in the world is likely to multiply tenfold and that compared with today, where around 1bn people are online daily, the road ahead will consist of potentially 70bn connected devices using the internet without human intervention.
Think about it: in most homes today already the number of connected devices outnumber the people there to use them – web-connected games consoles, PCs, tablet computers, smartphones, smart TVs and more.
Clever start-ups are already creating devices that allow you to switch your lights on with a single tweet or control your home heating via your smartphone.
Companies like O2 are already forging alliances to put machine-to-machine (M2M) devices inside vehicles to allow companies to monitor fuel consumption and driver behaviour in company vehicles.
A world of sensors and automated internet usage, and indeed, an internet that grows around the user to meet his or her needs are currently the topics de jour at international events like the Dublin Web Summit and Le Web.
In 2013, subjects like cloud computing will begin to give way to more practical discussions about utilising big data – making use of the immense volumes of knowledge and insight created every second via tweets and other forms of social media, as well as the data that M2M devices will generate.
As the internet becomes more automated, firms will struggle to make sense of the data to glean economic advantage. Already the first born-on-the-web entrepreneurs are fighting it out for who can put context on this never-ending hosepipe of knowledge.
Superfast broadband and 4G
In recent weeks, a survey revealed that Ireland is trailing the rest of Europe in terms of achieving the digital heaven of 50Mbps to 100Mbps for every citizen by 2020 as stipulated by European Commission vice-president Neelie Kroes in her Digital Agenda. While there are superfast broadband services coming on stream, only 36pc of Ireland’s population can access speeds that are beginning to be taken for granted on Europe’s mainland.
Expect that to change in 2013 as Eircom, with less debt and a new but very seasoned management team, endeavours to bring the battle to UPC in built-up urban areas, starting with 50Mbps services in spring and evolving to 70Mbps speeds later in the year. The real arbiter of how the market will develop will depend on how much access Eircom gives other operators to its new €1.5bn VDSL network and already we are hearing reports of other operators meeting roadblocks in trialling their own VDSL services.
Pressure will be on ComReg to ensure the onset of VDSL in 2013 will not resemble the painfully slow onset of DSL in 2003. Pressure will also be on Eircom to demonstrate that it sees opportunities in wholesale as a route to revenue. If it does embrace this opportunity it could prove the long-term salvation of the company in an era where consumers are choosing data over older PSTN services.
The onset of the first superfast broadband services will dovetail with the arrival of the first 4G broadband services, where speeds up to 180Mbps are possible. In November, ComReg granted the first 4G licences to four operators – Eircom, Hutchison 3G, O2 and Vodafone – and the public can expect the first services to become available in the spring.
The shape and quality of these services will be revealing and will indicate the strategy of the various providers. It is likely Vodafone and O2 will endeavour to provide a reliable, consistent and affordable spread of services across the land – as Vodafone’s outgoing CEO Jeroen Hoencamp said, wherever there is voice there will be data.
In its 4G choice of spectrum it is likely that the 189Mbps speeds that Hutchison 3G highlighted when it received its licence will most likely be concentrated in urban areas.
Eircom is likely to dovetail its 4G strategy with its superfast broadband strategy and Wi-Fi rollout to introduce a quad play service that includes TV.
Either way, Ireland’s trailing position in superfast broadband could potentially be altered in a positive direction starting in 2013.
The robotic future is almost here
Revolutions in technology over the past decade have been concentrated primarily on our ability to communicate – smartphones, the internet, broadband, and more.
It is likely that from 2013 onwards much of this communication revolution will begin to be taken for granted in our day-to-day lives and more physical manifestations of the technology revolution will begin to unfold.
From 2013 onwards, robotics will become a focus of the technology industry. Early in 2012, Google chairman Eric Schmidt mentioned at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona how soon we will be sending robots to meetings in our stead and he wasn’t joking.
At the Dublin Web Summit in October, Liam Casey of PCH International brought Autom on stage, a robot that (like the internet going forward) gets to know you and helps you to get fit. Casey intends to manufacture these robots in volume and sell them into the consumer market.
Eventually, robots will be seen as communications devices, as well as health and safety devices for the elderly. People are already familiar with robotic floor-cleaning devices, but beginning in 2013 the first consumer robot devices with learning and communications capabilities will enter the market.
The year 2013 will begin with the onset of apps and markets for robotic devices, a revolution that will gain pace as the decade continues.
3D printers: ushering in the next industrial revolution?
Many who gush about 3D printers say they herald the next industrial revolution. Up until now, 3D printers – which allow you to create physical objects out of designs on a computer in a similar way to an Airfix assembly kit – were in the domain of R&D departments at industrial giants. They were expensive an unwieldy.
But that is changing and the technology is about to go mainstream, potentially allowing garage inventors to create future products at will. Potentially people will be able to invent things, experiment and go to market with products faster than at any time in our history.
The first steps of this revolution are already being taken with an Irish company at its heart. Mcor, a Louth-based company, has just struck a deal with US stationery giant Staples to allow consumers to submit 3D designs and collect their creations from Staples stores around Europe.
Scientists are using the technology to develop new materials, including an artificial cartilage.
It is early days for 3D printing but this is certainly a revolution to watch.
Tablets, smartphones, smart gear and geek chic in 2013
Google co-founder Sergey Brin demonstrating the internet giant's new wearable computer specs at I/O last year
No doubt 2013 will kick off with more and more rumours about Apple iOS products and Android products from the manufacturers in the Google stable.
The dark horse of 2013 could, however, be smartphones based on Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system, which by the close of 2012 had surpassed 4m sales of the devices since their launch in October. While still tiny by comparison to the peaks enjoyed by Android or iOS, it is nevertheless something to work and app developers would be wise to take note.
Apple will no doubt be preparing its fifth-generation iPad to debut in and around March (the fourth generation was unveiled in October) and expect the company to build on its Retina display, Lightning connector and A6x processor improvements. One of the main failings identified in the iPad 3 was the battery life, so hopefully that will improve in the newer generations.
The weight and width advantages seen in the iPad mini will likely correspond in a 9.7-inch ultra-thin iPad 5.
Judging by the pattern with which Apple releases new iPhone devices, if a new iPhone generation is unveiled in the autumn, more than likely it will be an iPhone 5S rather than an iPhone 6. The ‘S’ will no doubt signify an even faster processor and a device optimised to perform even better on 4G networks, whose rollout will be well under way in most geographies by that stage.
One element missing on the iPhone 5 is the inclusion of an NFC chip and judging by the potential of Passbook as a financial hub on the iconic smartphone, I can’t see Apple overlooking this in 2013.
Google is proving to be quite the contender in terms of hardware and while it works well with manufacturers like LG, HTC, Samsung, et al, my gut feeling is it will build on the advantages it has gained through acquiring Motorola Mobility for US$12.5bn, as well as the initial success of devices like the Nexus 7 and Nexus 10.
The arrival of Google Glass, Google’s smartglasses, will be one of the top headlines of 2013 and it will be interesting to see if this will usher in an age of mobile computing not defined solely by flat display devices but devices that are shaped around the user’s lifestyle. We’re already seeing this with Nike’s Fuel wristbands but the power contained within Google Glass will drive this shift forward another gear.
TV's smarter future
Expectations of an actual television set from Apple were not met in 2012 and if some commentators are to be believed, may never be realised despite Apple CEO Tim Cook’s assertion that TV has evolved little in the past 20 or 30 years.
What is frustrating Apple in its efforts is the challenge of getting big TV networks and content providers to work with it in developing content for its excellent Apple TV set top box which Cook says has evolved from a hobby to an area of intense focus for the company. Expect Apple to add new capabilities to the Apple TV during 2013 as it pushes the notion of TV channels as apps rather than linear experiences.
Expect set top boxes to be where the action is in 2013, as players like Sky and UPC evolve their on demand services. UPC is likely to debut its long-awaited Horizon set top box that doubles as a digital hub for the home in terms of wireless broadband.
In terms of the TVs themselves, well, the Consumer Electronics Show in January will no doubt reveal new innovations in terms of the performance of the displays, 3D capabilities, Kinect-style motion sensors, built-in Skype cameras and more.
Until Apple gets over its content hump with the major networks, the advent of an Apple TV may be less and less than likely in 2013.
So there you have it. In 2013, the smartphone revolution will rumble on, robotics and new form factors in computing will emerge, 4G will become more widespread and 3D printing will start to become more readily available to ordinary folk.