Tech predictions for 2014: wearables, robots, selfies and cloud

1 Jan 2014

Looking ahead to 2014 the digital world’s penetration of every aspect of ordinary life will near completion. As tech stalwarts Apple, Google and Microsoft eye each other suspiciously, they’ll need to look east as the next wave of innovation is likely to surface from Asia.

I used to think predicting the future was fun, but really it’s like taking a punt on the blackjack tables in Vegas, you start off well but nothing goes how you think it will. Smug elation can quickly result in staring forlornly at an empty wallet.

The only guesswork you can make is based on existing evidence and maybe your gut feeling about things; ultimately the big bets have already been made and the future as we know it five years out is already being determined in an R&D lab in Silicon Valley, Cork or Shenzen.

So here’s how I think 2014 will probably turn out:

Geek chic: the wearable revolution ups a gear in 2014

If you attend a tech event or happen to be in an affluent downtown area of a large US city like San Francisco you’ll notice these odd beings – not hipsters – walking around with something attached to the side of their heads. To their detractors they are called Glass-holes, but really they are the forerunners of the tech elite who happen to be among several thousand people trying out Google’s computing eyewear Glass.

Google Glass is an Android-based wearable computing system that interacts with the smartphone in your pocket and feeds information to your eyes. Already Google has invested in the developer ecosystem to ensure that when Google Glass eventually goes mainstream there will be a variety of apps from running to cooking, photography and social networks.

While many have already began bewailing the privacy implications of people walking around with devices that can record video or search the internet based on facial recognition, this is really the beginning of the contextual computing revolution as expounded by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel in their eponymous book Age of Context.

Google has two choices to make around Glass. Firstly it may launch Google Glass to the masses in 2014 but if it fails to make it available at an attractive price point – circa US$500 – it will be a flop in its first year. But then, think of it as only the end of the beginning. The second course of action Google may take is to continue to treat it like the R&D project that it is, keeping Glass among a select few in 2014 until it can finally come out with an affordable version possibly early 2015.

Late in 2013 Samsung launched its first smart watch Galaxy Gear and Apple is rumoured to be launching its own version of a smart watch – the iWatch – in 2014. There are a multitude of smart watch devices out there from Sony and Pebble not to mention fitness devices like the Fitbit or Nike Fuelband.

Expect players like Fitbit and Nike to add greater functionality such as tiny LCD screens that take information like SMS, weather and GPS from mobile devices and feed them to their dainty devices on your wrists.

Further out – maybe five years – as technology and circuits get tinier and tinier, expect wearable displays to start popping up on t-shirts and jackets as a form of identity and expression. Google Shirt anyone?

The robots are coming, the robots are coming

Staying with Google – because it seems to be making big bets faster than anyone – robotics will become a more mainstream conversation in 2014 as the strategic dimension of its plans become more apparent.

In recent weeks the internet giant, having pretty much conquered a sizeable chunk of the smartphone world, appointed former Android chief Andy Rubin head of its new robotics division. The company’s recent acquisition of Boston Dynamics, creator of the Wildcat robot that can run faster than most humans, is the latest in a string of acquisitions that will put Google out front in what could be the next phase of computing.

Two years ago at Mobile World Congress Google chairman Eric Schmidt pointed out that in the future we could be in several places at once by dispatching robots to meetings in our stead, for example. But rather than merely being communications devices, robots could have a myriad of practical applications from defense and security to life science devices that could provide the elderly with company and monitor their health on a daily basis, for example.

Ireland’s own Liam Casey, CEO of PCH, is working with Intuitive Automata on a device called Autom – a robot health coach that monitors your health and fitness and guides users to weight loss through healthy eating. No two conversations are the same with the Autom robot, signifying an interesting near future for artificial intelligence.

Smartphone saturation – it crawled from the east

In 2014 expect Apple and Samsung’s tense battle to continue as they endeavour to outdo each other in slinky devices with faster processors and better cameras.

Samsung is likely to trot out the Galaxy S V and having already exploited the chassis of the iPhone 5 with the iPhone 5c and 5s, expect Apple to come up with the iPhone 6, introducing a new shape and profile to its family.

But this is predictable stuff – what’s really going to change is what’s possible inside the guts of the device. With the iPhone 5s Apple has already upped the game with a fingerprint sensor and a processor capable of 64-bit computing.

Samsung will likely follow suit with some biometric innovation for security, but to avoid lawsuits will possible steer clear of fingerprint recognition. Now iris scanning, that would be something wouldn’t it?

But while Apple and Samsung continue to fight it out, they would need to be careful to look at what’s coming out of China as feistier new competitors with nothing to lose and everything to gain could soon become mainstream players in Europe and the US.

One to watch, for example, is Xiaomi, a maker of stylish Android smartphones that has managed to headhunt former Google Android product management VP Hugo Barra to expand the business globally.

And don’t forget Huawei and ZTE, having tasted first blood with low cost Android devices and various Wi-Fi appliances and 3G devices will seek to enter the higher end of the market. They will also push into the 4G landscape with wireless hotspot devices that will enable people to create hotspots on the move.

If Apple and Samsung aren’t careful, they could soon be consigned to a place alongside Nokia for missing out on a wave that’s coming. Albeit from a different direction than they are used to.

Apple finally delivers the (new) goods?

Rumours of an Apple television and a smart watch have been going around for a long time now.

The reality is Apple’s pipeline of products are getting a little bit predicable at thi stage. Add a bit of Retina here, up the processor performance there, call something Air or Pro … you know what I mean.

Could 2014 finally be the year that Apple proves the naysayers wrong about its innovation pipeline. “Can’t innovate anymore, my ass,” quipped Phil Schiller earlier this year as he unveiled the Mac Pro desktop, a cylindrical contraption capable of multiple 4K displays.

My hunch is that Apple will indeed surprise people in 2014 with some much needd innovation in terms of form factors. It did this with the iPod in 2001, the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010 and it can do it again in 2014 with something else.

At this stage a smart watch is probably more likely to happen before a TV arrives – or perhaps they’ll arrive together in October 2014.

Sticking to existing product lines is inevitable and you can expect interesting things to happen with the iPad and Mac portfolios. Apple may bite the bullet and differentiate its iPad line further with an iPad Pro device or a lower cost version of its iPad Air.

Having entered the low-cost smartphone world with the iPhone 5c, another route Apple could take is to bring out affordable versions of its Mac personal computing platform. Why not? It has already taken the step of making its OS free with Mavericks. The Mac is a wonderful computing environment to work and play in, it’s such a shame that it has been confined to a sliver of the personal computer market; unfortunately seen as elitist because of the expense involved and far removed from its revolutionary, hippy beginnings.

Could 2014 finally be the year that Mac goes more mainstream?

Microsoft gets its mojo back

Never stir a sleeping giant, especially when it is sleepwalking. Blindsided by the seismic computing shifts that greeted the arrival of the iPhone and iPad (and let’s not forget Android), Microsoft has been methodically reinventing itself for the mobile age. It has reinvented its mobile OS with the Windows Phone platform, it has acquired Nokia, brought Windows back to relevancy with Windows 8 and has brought out its own PC/tablet combo in the form of Surface. Now it just needs to break in the new shoes and start swaggering.

It hasn’t forgotten its steely grip on the productivity world and as the world goes more cloud-oriented, it has an enormous stake in the server computing world.

As outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer gets ready to stride into the sunset, Microsoft’s quest for a new CEO will end in 2014. If the new CEO can demonstrate the appropriate swagger, wow the public, motivate the troops and utilize the fine array of digital instruments that Microsoft has assembled the future will indeed be bright for Microsoft.

2014 is going to be the end of the beginning for Microsoft’s foray into a mobile-first world. The one thing that needs to change? Culture.

Social – better filters and the end of the selfie?

Social media has infiltrated every aspect of our lives – Facebook has 1.1bn users, Facebook has 230m users and there is a lot of road ahead. But the world is changing fast and players like Snapchat are only getting started.

Teenagers, annoyed that their parents and grandparents are commenting on their posts are beginning to depart Facebook in their droves in their quest for splendid faux isolation. Facebook has done a good job ensuring that it has become a fixture of mobile computing but the battle is now on to retain and grow its user base and 2014 will be a year of danger for the social network.

Twitter on the other hand is still enjoying considerable growth but is in the midst of a personal identity crisis – is it a social network, a communications company or a technology company? 2014 is likely to see Twitter expand into new areas like location and voice messaging. But to maintain growth it will need to do more than be a hosepipe of information. My bet is Twitter will add new social and contextual filters to ensure that the information people will require won’t get lost in the flood.

2014 might also be the year that the dreaded selfie trend might die a death. The fact that US President Barack Obama made something of an arse of himself at the recent Mandela memorial in South Africa could be the zenith of the selfie’s popularity as a cheesy form of self-expression.

Do you remember leafing through old photo albums and marveling at the clothes your parents wore and their hairstyles from a different era? Expect kids in a couple of years to ridicule their parents’ digital trail of photographic crumbs: “Yo ma, why did you have a face like a fish when you were young?”

Cloud, big data and careers

Veteran tech investor Marc Andreessen’s famous observation in 2011 that “software is eating the world” has never been more true. In Ireland hundreds of construction jobs are being created by Microsoft and Digital Realty Trust to build vast data centre complexes that are pretty much the engine rooms of the digital economy. Across Europe it is estimated that close to 800,000 jobs are dependent on the apps economy.

Already most workers in most lines of work touch the cloud, be it using Dropbox to collaborate and share data or access email via services like Gmail and Office 365. As digital devices become part of the machinery of the business world this trend will only continue.

This could have an impact on traditional IT services industries like outsourcing as the complexity disappears and all people really require for their IT needs is connectivity. As 4G networks continue to expand in Europe and low-cost and free cloud services grow in popularity IT as we know it will change.

Gartner is predicting that market consolidation will displace up to 20pc of the top 100 IT services providers in 2014, forcing a restructuring of the US$1 trillion IT services market.

By 2015, Gartner predicts low-cost cloud services to cannibalise up to 15pc of top outsourcing players’ revenue.

The real winners here will be the data centre providers, the top line cloud companies like Dropbox and Microsoft and of course the mobile operators who will strive to ensure that we live in an always-connected world.

In 2014 the adage “work is what you do, not where you go” will never be truer.

Predicting tomorrow image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years