At the start of each new year I like to clarify my thoughts by writing about a few things I think are worth keeping an eye on in the year ahead. They’re not predictions; I’m not a futurist. In previous years I’ve described these as trends, but they’re better thought of as signals. Or, even better, just some things I think are interesting.
For the last couple of years part of my job has been to keep my colleagues and employer up to date on technology trends; to make sure that everyone knows the moves in the technology landscape, and to try to follow trends in the market to help the company position itself well to meet them. This post is about a new process I’m implementing on a couple of aspects of that part of my role.
I have two problems that I want this process to solve. The first is that I want to be able to better track trends in technology, to understand new product releases and actions with better reference to what’s happened before. The second is that I send a weekly email newsletter with curated links to the most relevant and useful stories about the technology landscape, but my current method of assembling it’s cumbersome. I’m experimenting with a solution to both of these problems using Airtable.
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.
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 its 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:
- Unlock phone.
- Find and open Netflix app.
- Press the ‘cast’ button.
- Find ‘Stranger Things’.
Now using Google Home:
- “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.Matt Hartman
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.Intercom
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 its 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.Gartner
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, its 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.Benedict Evans
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, is furiously copying Snapchat’s best features: it wants 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: it’s 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.Alexis Madrigal
Recent Snapchat lenses have started altering voices, and your environment. Snapchat recently bought a company that specialises in adding 3D objects into real environments. With Spectacles it’s not only removing friction from the process of taking a photo, it’s prototyping hardware at scale. This is the road to AR. Snap Inc. wants 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.