First, when I looked back across last year, checking up on predictions I made I realized that I was timid in the sense that I did not make any bold predictions, but instead just talked about how hard making bold predictions can be. I spent the year playing the role of guardian against popular buzz; which is fine, in that that’s the point of this column, but I find myself disappointed that I didn’t take any risks. A New Year’s resolution of sorts is to make some more serious predictions, if only so we can all have a good laugh at how wrong I’ll be by this time next year. But those come next week.
This week: 2012. What happened? It wasn’t a banner year for some new gadget. This wasn’t the year we all joined Facebook, or the year we all bought iPads or the year we all started trusting electronic books. It’s not that nothing happened, and certainly not that the information revolution didn’t keep, well, revoluting, but there wasn’t some obvious anchor like there has been in years past. Let’s begin with what didn’t happen:
Facebook didn’t implode, is still worth more than Disney: It isn’t so much that the people who said Facebook was overvalued were wrong, just that those who reveled in some schadenfreude fantasy of Facebook swirling down the toilet were sorely disappointed. Even if overvalued, the demise of Facebook was just one of those stories that certain people wanted to believe. The less cynical version of this story was that Google+ would overtake Facebook. It certainly isn’t unwise to put faith in a Google product, but Facebook still holds the reins. I admit Facebook tends toward the more mundane class of social interactions, but the writing is on the wall; millions of people sink hours a day into this service, and Facebook, (not Google), is the company positioned to monetize social media in new ways if it ever comes to it.
Voice recognition still Star Trek: A quieter but persistent tech prediction for 2012 was the rise of voice recognition. While hardly the far off dream it used to be, it seems there isn’t the industry push to make this common. I feel this is a fun prediction to make because the last few years have been about departing from conventional WIMP interfaces. What is less obvious is exactly how to design a voice interface such that it is more pleasant than a touch tablet. I repeat: the success of voice recognition has less to do with the technology itself and more to do with design. These things are likely coming soon, but correctly picking the year ahead of time is going to be hard.
Tablets still tablets: Buzz last year was that tablets would get smaller or cheaper, or there would be more success from tablet/phone hybrids. In retrospect it seems natural that, having bought into this new platform wholesale, that consumers would rather have spent the year doing new things with the platform, rather than investing in new hardware again. The line between tablet and smart phone will continue to blur, but it will be a more gradual change.
Cloud computing stricken from the buzzword list: In this case, the popular prediction was the implosion of the cloud-computing venture capital market, and was in some senses correct. We avoided any catastrophic headlines, but at the same time, “the cloud” is much less of a marketing gimmick than it was this time last year. Considering that all “the cloud” ever was was just the notion that we’d be trusting more and more of our information to the Internet, it isn’t so much that cloud computing is dead, (because in any honest sense, it never will be), but that all the squawking about that distinction between what is on your machine and what is in the cloud is just not something that affects most user experiences. It is an invisible distinction, and a transition that will happen gradually. To declare that cloud computing is dead is to fundamentally misunderstand what cloud computing is all about, but the days of cloud computing being a common buzzword are behind us. The business owrld will continue ot move in this direction, but consumers will no longer have to hear about during a commercial break.
So what did happen? I would say the year can be marked by one significant, if subtle, change.
The widespread adoption of streaming video services: This was the year in which it started to feel more normal to watch television on a computer screen than on an actual television. Some would say this reality was forestalled by some unpopular decisions made by streaming giant Netflix back in 2011, but here we are now. The entertainment industry is hardly shaken, (yet), but it is clear that on-demand video is going to stick around only get more popular. The streaming industry survived the setbacks it faced in 2011 and one can no longer pretend that this market is unreliable or otherwise faddish. What does this mean for the future? Well, answering that sounds a lot like a prediction, and for that, you will have to wait until next week.