Trends in Consumer Digital Technology for 2019

For the past few years I’ve got into the habit of starting the new year with an article consolidating my thoughts on where we’re at with consumer digital technology; looking at the landscape, and at what the biggest players are doing—my focus is mostly on Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, but it’s not exclusively on them. I want to tease out a few trends to help orient myself in my role for the year ahead. I try not to make predictions, but perhaps play out some possibilities.

There are two big declines at the core of this year’s trends, which I think set the tone for where consumer tech might head in 2019. They are the smartphone decline, and the Facebook decline.


On the iPhone X’s notch and being distinctive

I’ve been thinking about the ‘notch’ in the iPhone X. In case you’ve no idea what I’m talking about, the X has an ‘all-screen’ design; the  home button is gone, and the front of the device no longer has bezels above and below the screen except for a curving indent at the top which holds image sensors necessary for the camera and the new facial authentication feature.

It seems somehow like a design compromise; the sensors are of course necessary, but it feels like there could have been a full-width narrow bezel at the top of the device rather than the slightly odd notch that requires special design consideration.

But my thought was: if they chose a full-width bezel, what would make the iPhone distinctive? Put one on the table face-up next to, say, a new LG or Samsung Galaxy phone, how could you tell, at a glance, which was the iPhone?

Two rows of icons for smartphone functions, using an outline that looks similar to an iPhone
icons from the the noun project

The iPhone’s single button design is so distinctive that it’s become the de facto icon for smartphones. Without it, the phone looks like every other modern smartphone (until you pick it up or unlock it). The notch gives the X a unique look that continues to make it unmistakably an Apple product, even with the full-device screen. It makes it distinctive enough to be iconic, and to protect legally—given Apple’s litigious history, not a small consideration.

Of course it requires more work from app designers and developers to make their products look good, but Apple is one of the few (perhaps only) companies with enough clout, and a devoted following, to put in the extra work—you can’t imagine LG being able to convince Android app makers to put in the extra shift in that way. So perhaps its still somewhat of a design kludge, but it’s a kludge with purpose.


Data use and privacy in Web services

Tim Cook recently made a speech attacking Silicon Valley companies (e.g. Google and Facebook) for making money by selling their users’ privacy. The problem with what he said is that, first of all, it’s fundamentally incorrect. As Ben Thompson points out (subscription required):

It’s simply not true to say that Google or Facebook are selling off your data. Google and Facebook do know a lot about individuals, but advertisers don’t know anything — that’s why Google and Facebook can charge a premium! [They] are highly motivated to protect user data – their competitive advantage in advertising is that they have data on customers that no one else has.

Cennydd Bowles also argues the same point:

The “you are the product” thing is pure sloganeering. It sounds convincing on first principles but doesn’t hold up to analysis. It’s essentially saying all two-sided platforms are immoral, which is daft.

The @StartupLJackson Twitter account puts this more plainly:

People who argue free-to-customer data companies (FB/Goog/etc) are selling data & hurting consumers are the anti-vaxxers of our industry.

I’ve always maintained that this is about a value exchange – you can use my data, as long as I get control and transparency over who sees it, and a useful service in return. But beyond that, another problem with making premium services where you pay for privacy is that you make a two-tier system. Cennydd again:

The supposition that only a consumer-funded model is ethically sound is itself political and exclusionary (of the poor, children, etc).

And Kate Crawford:

Two-tier social media: the rich pay to opt out of Facebook ads, the poor get targeted endlessly. Privacy becomes a luxury good.

Aside: Of course this suits Apple, as if wealthier clients can afford to opt out of advertising, then advertising itself becomes less valuable – as do, in turn, Google and Facebook.

The fact that people are willing to enter into a data exchange which benefits them when they get good services in return highlights the second problem with Tim Cook’s attack: Apple are currently failing to provide good services. As Thomas Ricker says in his snappily-titled Tim Cook brings a knife to a cloud fight:

Fact is, Apple is behind on web services. Arguably, Google Maps is better than Apple Maps, Gmail is better than Apple Mail, Google Drive is better than iCloud, Google Docs is better than iWork, and Google Photos can “surprise and delight” better than Apple Photos.

And even staunch Apple defender Jon Gruber agreed:

Apple needs to provide best-of-breed services and privacy, not second-best-but-more-private services. Many people will and do choose convenience and reliability over privacy. Apple’s superior position on privacy needs to be the icing on the cake, not their primary selling point.

As this piece by Jay Yarow for Business Insider points out, in the age of machine learning, more data makes better services. Facebook and Google are ahead in services because they make products that understand their users better than Apple do.