Four trends to watch in 2010

“Never make forecasts, especially about the future.” Wise advice from Samuel Goldwyn.   Which I am now about to ignore at my peril.   Here’s my take on what to expect in 2010.


1. The Dawn of Ambient Awareness & Networked Consciousness

What happens when real-time status updates and news feeds are combined with GPS location data and context-aware computing?  You may experience a new kind of awareness that leverages the perceptions and commentary of other people.  You might call it collective intelligence.  And it will make you smarter.

Human beings have always used tools to extend and amplify their senses and their physical capabilities.  Now with always-on computing and high speed mobile devices and ubiquitous broadband connections, we can extend our consciousness, not just our physical senses.  Suddenly, with the real time web, it has become easy to find out what other people are thinking about everything:   get ready for  a flood of meta-data emanating from every place on a map, every object with a RF tag, every product for sale in a store, every breaking news report, every media event.   No, it’s not telepathy.  Everything, every event, and every place will be surrounded by an invisible halo of ambient data that your mobile phone will decode.  This is the ultimate crowdsourcing project.  People are tagging, bookmarking, liking, sharing, marking up and commenting on EVERYTHING.   Take a look at TripAdvisor, Yelp, Amazon Reviews and Google Reviews to get a sense of how rich the potential can be.   There are big business opportunities here.   We will need real-time contextual filters to separate relevant signal from noise, otherwise we’ll get overwhelmed.   That’s where companies like Social Approach have a good opportunity.  They separate contextually -useful data from less-relevant chatter in the real time stream.

Where will this trend eventually take us?    Some people predict a kind of augmented human mind.  My friend Edo Segal wrote  provocative piece for TechCrunch on this concept.  Edo’s been working on it for ten years or more, and he’s been right before.  And here’s a link to Will Schroll‘s mindmap.  Ultimately this trend is a subset of the larger macro trend towards transhumanism or H+.

2. Smartphones for everyone!

No fewer than 30 smartphones sporting Google’s Android operating system will reach the market in 2010.  These phones will cover the entire spectrum of price points and form factors, from ultra expensive to cheap, from smartphones to netbooks to e-readers and more.

High end devices like Motorola’s Droid tend to attract the most attention from tech journalists.   That’s not surprising.   But the greater impact will occur in the mid-range, where sub-$100 smartphones will put ubiquitous mobile computing within reach of vast numbers of people, thereby supplanting the standard-issue feature phones and flip phones that dominate the bulk of the mobile phone market today.

More than a billion mobile devices are sold each year. In 2010 smart phones will move from the fastest-growing segment of mobile phones to the largest segment of active devices in the market.

By bundling Gmail, Maps, Navigation, Voice Search and dozens of other useful software features for free with Android, Google has established their mobile operating system as an innovation platform that will attract more developers and more device makers.  Already, the Android App Market is attracting a flood of rich new apps, which will erode one of Apple’s key advantages.

And the price point will put the phone within reach of a vast number of consumers.

And that will change everything.  What happens when everyone has a smart phone ?

  • Apple’s grip on the future of the mobile phone will weaken.  Indeed, the power of all handset manufacturers will weaken.  Software will drive hardware as developers are attracted to the most open platform to foster innovation.
  • Microsoft  Windows Mobile, Palm and RIM will fall behind.
  • Consumers will learn to expect (and later, demand) that all of their data is entirely portable from device to device, and from network to network.  Goodbye, closed ecosystems.
  • Hundreds of millions of new users will begin to generate metadata linked to places and GPS coordinates, creating a cloud of ambient data that surrounds real world landmarks and events.  The virtual world of the web will become an overlay on the real world (see “augmented reality“) accessible to all via affordable standard-issue smartphones.
  • These trends will make smartphones even more useful and appealing to more users, and thereby the trend will accelerate.

This trend won’t be painless.  Already developers are grumbling about platform fragmentation and the difficulty of testing Android apps across a range of ever-evolving devices.   We are about to go through an awkward growth spurt.  But don’t let the near-term speedbumps distract you from the long term destination.

3.  Hardware and software will approach “free and disposable”.

Will we ever really get to a totally “free” computer?   Not next year, and maybe not ever, but it seems evident that the cost of computing power can be plotted on an asymptotic curve that approaches, but never quite reaches, free.

Already, it is possible to get good computing power for “almost free” in the context of a service contract.  Telecoms network operators provide phones and even netbooks for “free” when you sign a multi-year contract.

In some cases, computing power becomes free when it is embedded in a CE device.   Previously, we rented set top boxes from cable companies, but now those have become virtualized into the TV set.   And now a new generation of TVs will include direct access to the web,  no computer required.

This trend begs the question:  why do we still pay for hardware?  Why do we rent DVRs from the cable company?  Why does Amazon sell the Kindle for a premium instead of giving it away free?   Why does Roku charge $79 for their Netflix box?   Obviously, hardware makers must recover their cost.   But in so doing, they limit the adoption of their newest devices because price is a real barrier.  Game console makers have always toyed with the idea of “give away razors and charge for the razorblades.”   Charging consumers for the device instead of (or in addition to) the content service spurs consumers to seek out alternatives.   That’s good for competition and innovation, of course, but it seems like a paradox that doesn’t reward the first to market with a huge base of adopters.  Will that change as devices get cheaper?

I believe that nearly-free computing power is leading us into an era of disposable devices.   Already, Americans dispose of more than 400,000 cell phones every day.  It’s fun to speculate about where this trend might end up.    I love this vision of a totally free, totally disposable paper computer.

Bottom line:  value will shift from hardware to personal data that spans multiple devices.   Cloud computing and free operating systems like Android and Linux will reduce hardware to commodities.  This trend is good for Google and Apple’s Mobile Me, but not good for companies who depend upon consumer lock in or whose products exist only in a narrow niche.

4. The end of the tyranny of square screens (and the end of the desktop).

Did you ever stop to consider how much time we spend each day staring at  screens?   That glowing square on the front of your favorite device (whether it’s a PC or a phone or a camera or a Nintendo DS) commands a lot more than your attention.   The backlit screen also dictates the shape and size of your device, the battery life and the durability of the gizmo.   It is the single most fragile part of a CE device and the single biggest impediment to innovation.

Think about it:  your iPod, your cell phone, your eBook and your digital camera are all the same basic shape.  A boring rectangle.  That’s because these devices must be designed around the little flat square of glass in the middle.   Until today, the only major advance in screen technology for mobile gizmos has been an increase in resolution which makes it possible to display more info on a smaller screen.  Result: smaller screen and a smaller overall form factor.   But the device is still a rectangle.  And rectangles are boring.

Why not wearable curved devices, like bracelets or wrist bands?   Why not ergonomically designed devices that conform to human body shape?   Why not bendable devices that can be folded in a pocket or purse and unfolded for use?

This year we will see long overdue innovation in screen technologies.  Fold-out screens for laptops and netbooks.    Flexible screens that can be folded or rolled up into tubes.   This isn’t science fiction:  it’s already here.  Check out this prototype from Kyocera.  Sony showcased this prototype in 2007.

The end of the flat rectangular screen spells the end of the square device.  We’ll see the beginning of non-rectangular mobile gizmos in 2010.