What will the big tech trends be in the coming year? Will rural Ireland finally get broadband? What will the next must-have gadget be? Our technology editor has 10 predictions...
2017 will see a year of very slow broadband progress for those living outside cities or big towns. While Eir and Siro (the joint venture between Vodafone and ESB) will continue to roll out fibre broadband in the country’s largest towns, very little will change for more than one million people living in rural parts of the country.
The Government has admitted that the rollout of the State’s National Broadband Plan, which promises high-speed connections to all rural homes regardless of where they are situated, will be delayed again until 2018. (It says it has to get the contracts right before it can build it out.) That means that up to half of those in rural areas will see little improvement until 2020. The cost in opportunity foregone, investment pitches lost and emigration could be huge.
2. iPhone 8 super-cycle
It’s a fair bet that this will be the biggest tech hardware story of 2017. Sure, the latest iPhone is always big news. But next year is the 10th anniversary of its launch. Already, industry analysts are feverishly talking about a ‘super cycle’ that will see the biggest ever upgrade to an iPhone. The new model is already tipped to have a curved glass shape with no bezel, no physical button and an ability for ‘long range’ wireless charging.
While curved glass models are already around (see Samsung’s S7 Edge), Apple is also likely to load the new phone with even better cameras and more storage memory, further bedding it down as your main everyday computer and communicator. Then again, it could be something completely different.
3. The seeds of 5G
It may seem ironic to those struggling to get a decent 3G (yet alone 4G) mobile signal in some parts of Ireland, but 2017 will be the year when Ireland’s main operators start seriously planning for the introduction of the next milestone in mobile connectivity — 5G. By definition, that potentially opens the way for big steps in other parts of our lives.
Self-driving cars, for example, may need very reliable, fast bandwidth to operate safely and effectively on city streets. The same is true for a raft of ‘smart city’ initiatives which depend on constant communication over the airwaves between devices operating on their own without human intervention.
For punters, it will mean getting fibre-grade speeds on your phone and portable computing devices. Where 4G currently maxes out at around 60Mbs in real-world situations here, 5G will easily exceed 100Mbs.
4. Mobile payments are coming
Ever wish you could pay for your daily basics in a shop or cafe with your phone? By the end of 2017, you will be able to do just this. In the last weeks of 2016, Google launched Android Pay, which allows you to ‘save’ a credit or debit card (AIB and KBC only, with more bank cards to come) into your Android (Samsung, Sony, Huawei and more) phone and then swipe or tap your phone against a contactless terminal anytime you want to pay for items under €30.
Sometime in 2017, Apple may well follow suit in Ireland with its own Apple Pay system, which operates in a similar way for iPhone owners. Not to be outdone, Samsung may also launch Samsung Pay here, too: it has said it will launch the payment system in the UK early next year.
5. Fake news on social media
In late 2016, social media was blamed for helping to tip Donald Trump into the White House through the unchecked proliferation of so-called ‘fake news’.
It already looks like this is going to be a huge issue in 2017, although perhaps equally played out as a proxy issue as much as a real one. Between them, Facebook and Google now take some three quarters of the online display ad revenue in the US, and over half in the UK. That is leading to significant resentment among big media publishers (and quite a few journalists) who bristle at this market dynamic. And this is not unrelated to the slew of commentary pieces, news stories and high-handed editorials suggesting that some sort of intervention should be on hand to bring social networks into a regulatory framework ‘just like we have to deal with’.
Oddly, the focus is more on Facebook than Google, even though the latter takes far more ad revenue. Google, you see, had been around long enough to be regarded as an essential utility. So it gets a bye.
Facebook, though, has only really started to rake it in over the last three years. And this has been at a particularly sensitive time for publishers, who face downsizing and existential uncertainty that are directly linked to a loss of ad income (“to Facebook”). In this vein, expect Facebook to face more and more media hostility and institutional calls for its wings to be clipped via regulation.
6. Robots and artificial intelligence
There’s no getting away from more robots and smarter machines entering our lives or in chipping away at our jobs. This month, the first self-driving Uber cars began to pick up passengers in the US. Amazon has released a new video showing delivery by drone, this time in the UK. Microsoft is rolling out artificial intelligence that lets online bots call you via Skype on behalf of regular companies.
But while robot vacuum cleaners, smart homes and even clothes-folding machines may make life easier for us, the mechanised devices are coming for our jobs, too. Both Amazon and Apple’s biggest factory partner, Foxconn, are replacing thousands of human employees with robots. Call-centre operators are switching human agents for computer ones. And fast-food restaurant owners are now starting to talk along similar lines. (McDonalds already has self-ordering terminals in Irish outlets while US chain Carl’s Jr is considering replacing burger-flipping staff with robots.)
2017 may be the year where we see roboticisation and artificial intelligence start to encroach on jobs in accountancy, finance, marketing and other white-collar activities.
7. Virtual reality: still the next big thing
2016 was supposed to be the big breakthrough year for virtual reality in our lives. It wasn’t quite that, but it certainly made some significant strides. While PC-based variants such as Oculus and HTC are still seeing slow sales growth, Sony’s launch of its Playstation VR (an add-on for its Playstation 4 games system) may have given the tethered ecosystem its first significant mass-market boost.
Samsung’s mobile Gear VR headset has sold pretty well, too, while Google and Facebook have both dedicated a lot of attention to it through new headsets and services (such as Google Daydream and 360 video on Facebook).
Some broadcasters and publishers are starting to film a few things in VR-friendly 360 degrees, too. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal have some interesting 360 content on their mobile apps, while Sky has announced its intention to bring a lot more sport and documentary content to a VR platform.
8. Apple in Ireland: a turning point?
To say that 2016 was a challenging one for Apple’s presence in Ireland is an understatement. Just two weeks ago, the European Commission confirmed a €13bn fine, claiming that Ireland has given unfair and selective state aid to the company through tax policy here. Apple and Ireland are both vigorously challenging the Commission ruling. But if Brussels wins the day, will Apple’s presence in Cork — where it employs 6,000 people — be jeopardised?
The election of Donald Trump as US president also has a bearing here: his administration looks likely to issue a repatriation tax amnesty for companies such as Apple which have been earning and keeping billions of dollars abroad. Trump has also made it clear that US policy might more aggressively persuade companies to base more operations in America than abroad.
Apple chief executive Tim Cook has repeatedly said that Apple will stick with Cork no matter what. But a year is a long time in international business.
9. A withering laptop market
The influence of laptops in our lives will fall even further in 2017. Over the last five years, sales of PCs have fallen around 20pc. And new figures from Statcounter show that PC and laptop internet traffic has fallen below 50pc globally for the first time. The reason is simple: we don’t use them for much outside work projects anymore.
Last month’s MacBook Pro launch by Apple is a case in point. It should have been one of the biggest tech events of the year. Instead, it only piqued interest. We still use laptops for work, and if we’re into design, gaming or other niche pursuits, we take an active interest in them. But for the rest, a laptop is increasingly just a bare utility to get something done during office hours.
Five years ago, my desk was regularly flooded with requests for advice on laptops, both by colleagues and readers. Which model was best for travelling? Which was best for students? Was Windows or Mac the best long-term option? Then, virtually all of the interest dried up. I have barely had one query about a laptop — from anyone — in the last 18 months. Instead, I get weekly queries about phones. Is upgrading to the iPhone 7 the best strategy now? What’s the best Samsung to get? Are alternative models such as the One Plus 3 a savvier choice?
It’s a phone’s world now; laptops are becoming the servers we only fall back on when we need to.
10. The resurrection of iPads
For the last three years, sales of tablets have fallen because five-inch phones have usurped their role as web-browsers, video screens and social-media devices in the eyes of many consumers. That leaves tablets and iPads in something of a no-man’s land: they’re unnecessary for Facebook, but aren’t quite built to handle traditional office work flows.
But changing demographics, together with the continuing demise of laptops, are set to give tablets a reprieve. For most people, smartphone interfaces are now the most familiar computing system they know.
Increasingly, it is Windows and Mac OS interfaces that look complicated compared to the ‘ordinary’ smartphone systems.
This is particularly true for those under 25, a growing number of whom have never spent much time with older Windows or Mac PC systems. But they still need big screens to get projects and light work done.
Some manufacturers are starting to bet on this trend. Lenovo, which vies with Dell and HP at the top of the PC-manufacturing heap, recently launched its Yoga Book. This is a moderately priced tablet-and-keyboard combo that adds in extra productivity features. It’s aimed mainly at students and younger people, who aren’t as brainwashed into thinking that PCs are ‘real’ computers while phones are ‘add-ons’.
In Ireland, tens of thousands of kids now use iPads at school and have never operated a PC or a Mac. For them, switching on a laptop is an unintuitive chore.
So while middle-aged laptop-buyers (those over 35) still can’t fully contemplate a tablet as a full-time laptop replacement, young adults increasingly have little problem with the notion.