Adrian Weckler: Eight tech trends to watch out for in 2019
From Facebook's ageing profile to the rise of electric scooters, technology editor Adrian Weckler predicts the tech trends to watch out for in 2019.
1 Rural Broadband will improve, if only marginally
2019 will see some improvement in the availability of broadband in Ireland. At the very least, the last 100,000 of the 330,000 rural fibre-to-the-home connections being built by Eir will be completed by June. These are connections into areas that have never had any form of decent broadband availability, so it's a net gain for the country. However, it still leaves 540,000 homes and businesses - mostly in rural areas - without a proper connection.
So will we see a start on this state-subsidised process, known as the National Broadband Plan? It's possible that the fate of this scheme may become clear between the time of press of this article and its publication - a decision from Government on whether to go with the last remaining bidder (Granahan McCourt) is expected imminently. But it's a big call: if the Government skips this bid, it's probably several years until non-urban Ireland gets the kind of basic internet infrastructure that currently enables city economies.
2 Facebook will become a place mainly for pensioners and the middle-aged
The end of 2018 saw one interesting shift in social media trends here: Facebook is now being used by old people more than by young people. Specifically, 170,000 Irish people over the age of 65 use Facebook compared to 150,000 people who are aged between 13 and 18, according to the company's advertising numbers. And 1.2 million of Facebook's Irish users are over 40, compared to 1 million users aged between 13 and 30.
So where have all the younger people gone? Instagram. (Conveniently, this is owned by Facebook.) The Irish figures reflect a global switch from young to old on Facebook.
In the US, recent research shows that just 36pc of teens use Facebook at least once a month, down from 52pc two years ago.
So get ready to see more posts about nice walks and where to play golf and fewer posts about crazy nights out on the town.
3 Emojis will become a calling card for the middle-aged
Remember when SMS-speak first appeared? It was used by young people to save money when sending texts. Old people gave out about it relentlessly. But then they adopted the format, just as phone operators started offering unlimited texts, obviating the need to shorten messages.
Kids then stopped using text-speak and soon it became apparent that if you got an SMS that used '4' instead of 'four', it was probably your mother and definitely not your niece.
Then kids started using emoji and old people gave out about it. As the cycle goes, now the older generations have adopted the emoji format, just as kids have switched to using selfies as replacement icons.
So in 2019 if you get a text with a thumbs-up or a 'crying laughing' emoji, it's a decent bet that it's from someone older. Or, if you're reading this and realising that you recently started sending emoji but are wondering why your nephews or daughters don't reciprocate, try a selfie instead. (But given that old people give out relentlessly about selfies, you may be ahead of your generational curve if you do.)
4 5g Mobile will make an entrance
Yes, we know that many of you do not yet have a 4G mobile signal (or even a reliable 3G signal). Even so, 2019 will be the year when the first 5G mobile services are launched in Ireland. But instead of seeing a '5G' symbol on your existing smartphone, the technology will probably first be rolled out as a wireless broadband service.
For example, Vodafone Ireland is dipping a toe into rural 5G mobile broadband with trials in Roscommon, Wexford, Tipperary and Waterford. The operator is setting up a service around towns in the countries with what it calls "5G capable equipment". It means that wireless connections from the equipment will be able to get high-speed broadband of up to 500Mbs, according to the operator. That's several times faster than the fastest Eir 'eFibre' phone broadband.
The 12-month trials will be conducted with equipment given to 250 homes and businesses in the four counties. It will consist of an external antenna installed at the triallist's house which will be connected directly to a home Wi-Fi router that picks up the dedicated 3.6Ghz spectrum.
Last month, Ericsson announced a 5G Wi-Fi router that can translate a 5G signal into high-speed mobile broadband for existing laptops, phones and tablets. The device is expected to be launched for sale in Ireland next year. Eir also says that it will look at 5G trials next year, while Three is expected to do the same. But while we might see one or two 5G smartphones announced next year, don't expect fully compatible handsets to be announced until 2020.
5 Electric Scooters will become far more common in Irish cities
Anyone who lives or works around Dublin city probably sees them every day. But 2019 may be the year when the electric scooter gets closer to becoming a mainstream mode of urban transport. The gadgets, which are available from outlets such as Three for €450, are charged up using an ordinary electric socket and can travel at around the same speed as a bike.
They have a range of around 20km and a top speed of around 25kph. Foldable, they're easy to bring in and out of an office. They're perfect for someone living in or around a flat city like Dublin. However, in Ireland, electric scooters are specified under law as "mechanically propelled vehicles", meaning that they're regarded in the same way as motorbikes and cars in Ireland. So you need to have a licence, insurance and tax.
But it looks like that might change. There is some support in the Government to regulate them more like bicycles, based on their ability to take people out of cars and to ease congestion on other public transportation.
Critics of electric scooters point out that those who use them are prone to doing so on public footpaths because the scooters themselves are smaller than bicycles. As well as being illegal, this is dangerous, particularly with a device that travels at up to 30km per hour.
6 DSLRs will start to die out
If you were thinking of buying a camera, know that the traditional format that Canon and Nikon have dominated (called a DSLR camera) for so long will take a big step closer to obsolescence in 2019. Sleeker, slimmer mirrorless cameras - which have the same quality as DSLRs - are now wiping out DSLRs in sales and demand. Their attraction is that they shoot completely silently, are lighter and can show you exactly what your photo will look like in the viewfinder before you hit the trigger. DSLRs can do none of these things. Knowing this, Canon and Nikon have started a multi-year programme of replacing DSLRs with mirrorless counterparts. Sony got in well ahead of the game and are now the bestselling camera company.
7 Amazon will trigger an even quicker high street transformation
We've seen it in the US and the UK. But 2019 could be the year when Amazon - and online retail outlets in general - cause real problems for physical shops in Ireland. In a nutshell, people are slowly switching away from physical shops to online ones when it comes to a vast array of goods they buy. But Amazon is the one setting the pace and causing the most accelerated change.
In its last major Irish retail analysis, PricewaterhouseCoopers found that 67pc of Irish consumers now shop on Amazon. Of these shoppers, one in six (17pc) are Prime subscribers, meaning that they pay a monthly fee for free delivery on everything.
This encourages them to use the service even more than casual users. But what should really warn us of the effect that Amazon is having on all of retail here is the PwC finding that 18pc of Irish shoppers shop less often at other retail stores as a result of Amazon. And this looks set to rise if we follow trends in other countries: in America, one in three has now cut down on shopping from 'bricks and mortar' stores because of their use of Amazon.
This is no small piece of the pie, either. We know that online shopping in Ireland has reached €5bn, or over €1,000 per person. Of this, some €3bn goes to retailers outside the country. And Amazon is estimated to take a big chunk of this pie.
The result is that in an economy that is reportedly booming, with unemployment rates at a near-historic low, some shops are going out of business with retail spaces being boarded up or given over to temporary 'pop-up' stores. The number of cafés, nail bars and other non-product stores has proliferated as landlords increasingly try to fill the gaps.
What's different now from when online stores first came about is their normalisation into people's lives. Almost 80pc of those who shop online now say they buy clothes through the medium, with around a quarter using it to buy major electronics.
But the biggest difference is the advance of proper shopping on phones. The PwC figures illustrate that almost a third of Irish consumers make significant purchases on their phones at least once a month, a figure that is rising every year. And why wouldn't it? Almost all phones sold now have screens that are almost as large as mini-tablets - they are now unquestionably the main computer that everyone uses everyday.
Irish retailers are finding it hard to keep up. With few exceptions, the online stores of Irish retailers are comparatively slow with poor search functions. It can be a chore trying to search for, or buy, things, especially from a phone.
So far, the response from the major retailers and the property sector has been to either deny that there is a physical retail decline or to put it down to other factors, such as 'bad weather' or a recession that happened five years ago (Ireland has been a boom retail economy for at least three years).
But if high streets are to remain as thriving centres, it looks like town planners will have to come up with other ways to make those areas attractive. Because Amazon - and online retailers in its wake - looks set to wipe out a chunk of the physical retail base here.
8 Electric cars will still struggle to sell
Will 2019 finally be the year that electric vehicles make a meaningful breakthrough in Ireland? Don't hold your breath. While some new models will hit the Irish market, the distance range on vehicles that cost less than €50,000 (about 90pc of the Irish car market) is only marginally improving. That means that you can't stray more than about 50 miles from home before you have to turn back in fear of running out of power.
There is some hope. The Government has announced new measures to boost investment in charging infrastructure around the country. It is sorely needed. At present, there are stretches of main road in the country with just a single charger available for 50km. And most of those available take hours to recharge a normal, compact electric car.
Proponents of the cars say that this isn't a big deal, that because most car journeys are under 80km, worrying about whether you can get beyond 150km isn't the main issue.
The Irish public disagrees hugely: less than 10,000 electric cars have been sold here in the last five years, a minuscule number compared to what the Government had planned for. And it seems clear that a main concern is a lack of distance range.
It's all a huge shame as electric cars are, in general, superior cars to drive. They also suffer far less wear and tear than traditionally-fuelled cars, making electric cars a brilliant long-term choice. But with such a small range, they remain a non-starter for the vast majority of motorists.