Trends in digital media for 2017

Alright, stand back every­one: I’m about to have some opin­ions about tech­nol­o­gy in 2017. Because obvi­ous­ly there’s been a short­age of those.

As part of my Tech­nol­o­gist role at +rehab­stu­dio I put togeth­er inter­nal brief­in­gs about dig­i­tal media, con­sumer tech­nol­o­gy, where the dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing indus­try could go in the near future, and what we should be com­mu­ni­cat­ing to our clients. Not try­ing to make pre­dic­tions, but to fol­low trends.

This arti­cle is based on my lat­est brief­ing. It’s some­what informed, pur­pose­ly skimpy on detail, and very incom­plete: I have some thoughts on adver­tis­ing and pub­lish­ing that I can’t quite dis­til yet, and machine learn­ing is a vast sur­face that I can bare­ly scratch.

If for noth­ing more than press cov­er­age, 2016 was the year of mes­sag­ing, and the explo­sion of the mes­sag­ing bot. The biggest play­er in the game, Facebook’s Mes­sen­ger, launched their bot plat­form in April, and by Novem­ber some 33,000 bots had been released. Recent tools added to the plat­form include embed­ded web­views, HTML5 games, and in-app pay­ments.

The first six months of bots were large­ly the ‘fart app’ stage, but there are signs that brands and ser­vices are final­ly start­ing to see the real oppor­tu­ni­ties in mes­sag­ing: remov­ing fric­tion from their users’ inter­ac­tions with them. Fric­tion in app man­age­ment and UI com­plex­i­ty, for exam­ple.

The same removal of fric­tion is also a key dri­ver behind the growth of home assis­tants and voice inter­ac­tion, like Alexa. Remov­ing the UI abstrac­tion between users and tasks is a clear trend. As an illus­tra­tion, com­pare two user flows for watch­ing Stranger Things on Net­flix on your TV; first using a smart­phone:

  1. Unlock phone.
  2. Find and open Net­flix app.
  3. Press the ‘cast’ but­ton.
  4. Find ‘Stranger Things’.
  5. Play.

Now using Google Home:

  1. OK Google, play Stranger Things from Net­flix on My TV.”

Home assis­tants make the smart home eas­i­er to man­age. No more sep­a­rate apps for Wemo, Hue, Nest, etc; a sin­gle voice inter­face (per­haps glued togeth­er with a cloud ser­vice like IFTT) con­trols all the dif­fer­ent devices in your home.

Mes­sag­ing and voice are vis­i­ble aspects of the trend towards the inter­face on demand:

The app only appears in a par­tic­u­lar con­text when nec­es­sary and in the for­mat which is most con­ve­nient for the user.

While native mobile apps are still a growth area, it’s becom­ing much hard­er to get users to down­load and engage with apps out­side of a small pop­u­lar core. This is espe­cial­ly true for retail, where con­sumers are more omniv­o­rous and like to browse wide­ly.

Improve­ments in the capa­bil­i­ties of web apps (espe­cial­ly on Chrome for Android) sug­gest an alter­na­tive to native apps in some cas­es. This has been demon­strat­ed by the suc­cess of new web apps from major retail brands like Flip­kart and Ali Baba in devel­op­ing economies where an offi­cial app store may not be avail­able, or net­work costs may make app down­loads unde­sir­able.

Web apps require no instal­la­tion, avoid­ing the app store prob­lem. They’re start­ing to get impor­tant fea­tures like push noti­fi­ca­tions and pay­ment APIs. And mes­sag­ing plat­forms, with their large installed user base, pro­vide the web with a social and dis­tri­b­u­tion lay­er that the brows­er nev­er did:

Mes­sag­ing apps and social net­works [are] wrap­pers for the mobile web. They’re actu­al­ly browsers… [and] give us the social con­text and con­nec­tions we crave, some­thing tra­di­tion­al browsers do not.

So it may be that for some brands, a web­site opti­mised for per­for­mance, engage­ment, and shar­ing, along with a decent mes­sag­ing and social strat­e­gy, will offer a bet­ter invest­ment than native apps and app store mar­ket­ing. Patag­o­nia already closed their native app. Gart­ner pre­dict that some 20% of brands will fol­low by 2019:

Many brands are find­ing that their mobile apps are not pay­ing off.

The most impor­tant app on your phone could be the cam­era, which will be increas­ing­ly impor­tant this year. First, by reveal­ing the ‘dark mat­ter’ of the inter­net: images, video and sound. So much of this data is uploaded every day, but with­out the seman­tic val­ue of text, it’s mean­ing is lost to non-humans — like search engines, for exam­ple. But machine learn­ing is becom­ing very good at under­stand­ing the con­tent of this opaque data, mean­ing the role of the cam­era changes:

It’s not real­ly a cam­era, tak­ing pic­tures; it’s an eye, that can see.

It can see faces, land­marks, logos, objects; hear back­ground chat and music. That’s under­stand­ing con­text, loca­tion, pur­chase his­to­ry, and behav­iour, with­out being explic­it­ly told any­thing. This is why Face­book, through Mes­sen­ger and Insta­gram, are furi­ous­ly copy­ing Snapchat’s best fea­tures: they want their young audi­ence and the data they bring.

Will it be intru­sive? Yes. Will it hap­pen? Yes. I’ve tried to avoid mak­ing hard pre­dic­tions in this piece, but I am as con­fi­dent as I can be that our image and video his­to­ry will be used for mar­ket­ing data.

Cam­eras will also be impor­tant in alter­ing the images that are shown to the users. Aug­ment­ed real­i­ty is an excit­ing tech­nol­o­gy, although good-enough ded­i­cat­ed hard­ware is still a while away. But there’s a def­i­nite mar­ket drift in that direc­tion, and lead­ing it is Snapchat: they’re stealth­ily intro­duc­ing AR through mod­i­fy­ing the base lay­er of reality—first, by alter­ing faces using their lens­es. This isn’t friv­o­lous; it’s expand­ing the range of dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, like emo­ji do for text.

If peo­ple are talk­ing in pic­tures, they need those pic­tures to be capa­ble of express­ing the whole range of human emo­tion.

Recent Snapchat lens­es have start­ed alter­ing voic­es, and your envi­ron­ment. They’ve recent­ly bought a com­pa­ny that spe­cialis­es in adding 3D objects into real envi­ron­ments. With Spec­ta­cles they’re not only remov­ing fric­tion from the process of tak­ing a pho­to, they’re pro­to­typ­ing hard­ware at scale. This is the road to AR. Snap Inc. want to be the cam­era com­pa­ny — not in the way that Nikon was, but in the way that Face­book is the social com­pa­ny.

The com­pan­ion to an aug­ment­ed real­i­ty is a vir­tu­al one, but I don’t believe we’ll see VR going main­stream in 2017—and I say that as a pro­po­nent. It’s sta­t­ic, iso­lat­ing, and it requires peo­ple to form a new behav­iour. It’s inter­est­ing to see cre­ators exper­i­ment with the form, and I’ve no doubt that we’ll see some very inter­est­ing expe­ri­ences launched this year. But domes­tic sales aren’t huge, and high-end units are too expen­sive, and low-end not quite up to scratch yet. Still think it will be big for gamers, though.

I have more. A lot more. But I think it will all be bet­ter explained in a series of sub­se­quent blog posts, so I’ll aim to do that. In the mean­time, would love to hear your thoughts, argu­ments, objec­tions, and con­clu­sions.