h1What is this? Another ultimate weapon?
Dr. Manhattan, The Watchmen
Early January means two things for the technology industry: Lists of predictions about how various magical and/or revolutionary gadgets will change our lives this year, and the gigantic annual CES trade show in Las Vegas, where industry-types gather to convince each other that their gadgets will be the world-changing ones in the future. In reality, these things are hard to predict. Sometimes technology changes impressively fast, and sometimes it takes a lot longer than expected.
How many times have you heard by now that this really is the year of the location-targeted, real-time mobile advertisement? Who guessed a year ago that Google would try to buy Motorola?
These are some of the stories and trends I'll be watching the closest this year. If you're attending CES next week, you'll be hearing plenty about these, too. They may end up being a big deal, or they may wind up in the pile of duds. But that's the great thing about tech: We won't know until we find out.
Will the whole "mobile wallet" thing actually happen in the U.S.? The first time I saw someone using their cellphone to pay for a ride on the Tokyo subway, I was amazed. And it makes sense: Who goes anywhere without their phone? So why shouldn't it become a payment device? The challenge seems to be getting everyone to play along, because everyone wants some of the money and no one wants to take a back seat. That ranges from handset makers to mobile software companies to wireless carriers to banks and credit card companies to retail merchants. It's a mess without a leader. And it doesn't seem to be getting better.
Who's going to win the digital living room? There's a great slide from Steve Jobs' keynote when he unveiled the first-ever iPhone, showing a lineup of the current generation of competing smartphones: A Palm Treo, Motorola Q, etc. They all looked the same - boring - and the iPhone made them immediately obsolete. That "before" slide is how I feel about the living room today. We've all got semi-recent HDTVs, some more advanced than others, with pretty good access to last decade's "channels," but everything is horribly unimaginative. Roku, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and others ‚ even some of the networks ‚ are poking around. The cable industry, which owns the all-important bandwidth pipe into your home, is still standing. But there isn't an iPhone-of-the-living-room yet.
What's going to happen with these personal-monitoring health-esque gadgets? Things like Fitbit, Jawbone Up, Zeo, etc. It even seems like one of the directions Apple could be taking the iPod line in. Is this the next big craze in personal electronics? Is the fitness graph the new social graph? Is the "quantified self" movement going to make it big? Or is it not interesting enough for lazy Americans?
Can Microsoft catch up and make itself relevant in mobile? Windows still impressively dominates the PC market and is still incredibly profitable for Microsoft. But in mobile -- smartphones and tablets, the future of computing -- Microsoft is basically irrelevant today. This year we'll see if its Nokia partnership is working, if consumers can be convinced to buy Windows phones, and maybe even if the forthcoming Windows 8 for tablets will be able to give Apple and the iPad a serious challenge. Two recent positive developments: Two of Microsoft's biggest Windows partners, HP and Dell, have punted on their mobile efforts and may be eager to help.
Will big media realize it's a software industry now? I love a good, glossy paper magazine as much as anyone. Or a funny TV show. Or even a great advertisement. But I'm worried about most of the companies that make those things for us. Many of them still don't seem to have the confidence or capacity to build amazing things for the next wave of consumption. (And that includes the tools their employees need to deliver those things, too.) It's a really tough organizational problem - how to attract, hire, and empower software engineers in a culture that has historically neglected them? But it's crucial for any media company that hopes to grow. And that could explain why Yahoo just hired PayPal's president — a relatively obscure technical executive — as its new CEO
These are admittedly pretty open-ended questions, which may not be fully answered in two or three years, never mind in 2012 alone. But for each of these, there should be measurable progress this year. I'll be watching and keeping score.