Technology predictions for 2014: smarter cities, bigger games!

From expanded connectivity, drones and patent wars to cheaper tablets, monster games and smart wearables,

Self-driving cars, drones, smart wearables and ever-cheaper tablets and devices are just some of what 2014 holdsSelf-driving cars, drones, smart wearables and ever-cheaper tablets and devices are just some of what 2014 holds

This is the year that cities become even smarter. Local authorities and councils the world over have invested in social capital and connected infrastructure with the aim of better understanding the needs of their citizens.

The Watershed arts venue in Bristol, for example, organised a Playable City Award in 2013, whose aim was “to commission an original, future-facing work, that used creative technology to explore the theme of the playable city.” London, meanwhile, has introduced bins that send text messages when they are nearly full and has used sensors installed under parking bays in the West End to relieve congestion in the area – and the city is manually moving Boris Bikes to bays people are cycling from but not cycling towards (generally, if it’s at the top of a hill).

In 2014, more cities will iterate and experiment. They’ll implement new technologies to not only create a better connected city but to enhance the environment. That could include street lights switching on due to residents complaining about the lack of light on Twitter. There’s a great number of opportunities available – and that’s an exciting prospect.

  • Games:

Bungie's Destiny game logo
Destiny from Bungie, creators of Halo, is set to make 2014 a year to remember.

Although the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One launch games were largely disappointing, 2014 will certainly see both machines move up a gear. The twin giants of the release schedule will be the epic space opera Destiny from Bungie Software, and Titanfall, the new sci-fi shooter from Respawn Entertainment. This is basically the makers of Halo versus the creators of Call of Duty in one galactic face-off. There will be robot limbs and crashed space ships everywhere.

And the carnage won’t end there. 2014 is a year of gigantic action blockbusters. Ubisoft has its cyberpunk romp Watch Dogs, as well as the ingenious online multiplayer strategy shooter, The Division. The PS4 has intriguing steampunk adventure The Order: 1886, while Xbox One has the new post-apocalyptic thriller, Quantum Break, which ties in with and interacts with a TV series of the same name. We can expect more of this media crossover “excitement” as the barriers between games consoles and set-top boxes crumble.

More intriguing perhaps is the rise of persistent online worlds and emergent simulations. We’re getting three very interesting space exploration titles in the form of Star Citizen (from the creator of the legendary Wing Commander series), No Man’s Sky from tiny UK studio Hello Games and Starbound, from another British developer, Chucklefish – the latter two promising vast procedurally generated galaxies.

But closer to home, this will also be a year of ideas. From Chris Hecker’s fascinating asymmetrical two-player body language game Spy Party, to Jonathan Blow’s Myst-like adventure The Witness, to the storybook mythology of Tengami and the heartbreaking adventure title That Dragon Cancer, 2014 will mess with our heads and expectations of what games are. And if you don’t want to be messed with, that’s fine – there are sequels, so many sequels. Hotline Miami 2, Dark Souls II, Metal Gear Solid V and the hugely promising Elder Scrolls Online. 2014 will take a brave look at the future of gaming technology, but it will bring the past along for the ride.

  • Patents:

Nokia Lumia 1020 smartphone
Nokia holds many key patents, and is not afraid to use them,

Sick of hearing about patent lawsuits between big-name tech companies? Bad luck – 2014 is going to bring more of them, after a relative lull in 2013. The part of Nokia that isn’t being sold to Microsoft is sharpening its patent portfolio, and has begun exercising it successfully against HTC. Next in line is Google (particularly Google Maps) and other Android handset makers.

Apple and Samsung will also be back in a Californian court in March, in a second trial in which each is asserting five patents – in Apple’s case, all relating to function, not “how it looks”. Samsung’s list includes two standards-essential patents (SEPs) – which it’s obliged to license, so it’s hard to see it prevailing on those.

Besides those, Rockstar, a company which owns a $4.5bn haul of patents from now-dead Canadian network company Nortel (and is in turn owned by Apple, Microsoft, Ericsson, Sony and BlackBerry), has filed patent infringement cases against Google, Samsung, HTC, Asus, LG, Pantech, Huawei and ZTE – all Android device makers. In a countersuit, Google says that Rockstar’s lawsuit is put “a cloud on Google’s Android platform; threatened Google’s business and relationships with its customers and partners, as well as its sales of Nexus-branded devices”.

All to play for in that one – and Rockstar has a cherry on top, which is a separate case against Google where it claims the search company infringes a search patent filed in 1997, before Google even existed.

  • Emerging market smartphones:

The Chinese market for smartphones has been expanding like a balloon, and it’s continuing. Expect 230m handsets to be sold there in 2014, almost all of them “AOSP” Android (not running Google services).

India too is growing fast – millions of people there will be getting their first smartphone in 2014, and that could change the complexion not only of the mobile market, but also the country itself. One of the strongest phone brands in India? Nokia. Is this going to be Microsoft’s chance?

And South America is being targeted by handset makers interested in getting Firefox OS into peoples’ hands. There’s everything to play for as huge numbers of people get their first internet connection.

  • Wearables:

Nike Fuelband SE
Fitness trackers or personal nag machines?

With luck, 2014 will be the year that wearables actually become wearable – rather than being nagging devices that hassle you to take more steps to meet your “daily exercise quota”. The key problem is crossing the gulf between being “something you wear”, and “something you want to be seen wearing”.

Google Glass still has dorkiness problems, for all its evident usefulness. All eyes are on Apple to do something there, but it can be the smaller companies that surprise.

  • PCs and tablets:

Microsoft Surface Pro 2 tablet
The Microsoft Surface Pro 2 was a full Windows 8.1 computer squeezed into a tablet formfactor and weighed the same as a laptop.

The market for PCs (desktops and fixed-keyboard notebooks) will be flat, at best, but Microsoft – and computer makers – have a lot staked on “convertibles” with detachable keyboards, and touchscreen laptops.

However, there’s no sign that people are interested in them. We like our PCs in traditional packages, and all of Microsoft’s efforts with the Surface haven’t persuaded people that they need one; it’s a weight thing. Thinner and lighter always wins on mobile, and even the new generation of Surface isn’t thin and light enough to beat other tablets. (And success then comes down to how many apps they can run.)

Rumours of a larger Apple tablet – up to 12in? – could mean that the iPad is ready to mature and expand into newer segments. Tablet sales are still rocketing, and even if many are being used as TV replacements (certainly the case in Asia), it’s still an opportunity for app developers to get in front of users.

  • Cheaper, ever cheaper:

Tesco Hudl tablet
Tesco’s Hudl tablet cost just £119 and flew off the shelves.

The budget tablet market exploded in 2013, filling the void left largely untouched by Apple, Google and other big-brand manufacturers such as Sony and Samsung. Lower specified, but cheaper-priced Android tablets costing in the £100 range flew off the shelves, especially in the run-up to Christmas.

Surprise entries from Aldi, Argos and Tesco made headlines, with the latter’s Hudl tablet showing that devices around £100 could perform well enough for the average consumer and inspire impulse buys.

This year is likely to see that downward pressure on price continue, with more and more affordable tablet computers available as more people who wouldn’t have considered buying a computer let alone a tablet at prices well over £100 purchase them.

Tesco has already confirmed that it is working on an updated Hudl tablet for release in 2014, while other British high street brands are likely to follow suit. We’ve already seen tablets go on sale for as little as £30, so could 2014 be the year that tablets fell out of cereal packets?

Buyer beware, however, as you get what you pay for with these ultra-low cost tablets – and for tablets such as the terrible Argos MyTablet, your money is better saved and spent elsewhere.

  • The boring matters matter:

Amazon Prime Air drone
Amazon is working on a Prime Air drone delivery system that could deliver packages in 30 minutes or less, but regulatory challenges stand in its way. Photograph: ZUMA/REX

Silicon Valley’s attitude has always been to ask forgiveness rather than permission. Sometimes, the law catches up with the companies that push their luck, and they are forced to close or comply – although, all too often, the damage has been done. Napster may have been shut down, but our relationship with paying for music has never quite recovered. Other times, the law is forced to change to accommodate the shifts that technology has made possible. That’s why you can now use your Kindle on a plane during take-off and landing.

But in recent years, the gap between the cutting edge of technology and the cutting edge of regulation has been getting smaller and smaller, and 2014 could be the first year in which the roles are reversed. For 3D printing, wearable computing and personal drones, legislators are already gearing up to tackle whether – and how – the law should react.

These technologies haven’t yet hit the mainstream, but they have already sparked consternation in the public. 3D-printed guns have already sparked legislation in congress, West Virginia is set to become the first state to ban using Google Glass in a car, and the FAA is committed to reviewing the rules that currently ban companies such as Amazon from using drones to deliver goods. But the biggest fight hasn’t even warmed up: that will be the battle around self-driving cars. If you thought it was hard to convince regulators to let you use electronic devices on planes, try to find a regulator who will be happy to have a driver asleep at the wheel.

  • Truly smart technologies:

Google Glass tapped by woman
Google Glass could be the future, if it can get over its image and imaging problems. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images,

We’ll see the app store for Google Glass open early this year, and so will finally start to see what wearable, immersive technology will be capable of once developers start to explore the device fully to a wider audience. Expect to see Google working hard to make consumers feel more comfortable with the concept of pervasive image and video recording, challenging and shifting the norm of what is socially acceptable.

Also expect to see Google continue to try to refocus its core search business around social, and with more disquiet from marketers, publishers and businesses as they realise they are being pushed into using Google+.

The education space will become increasingly interesting, with everything from the newly invigorated computer science curriculum in UK schools, to the spread of open online learning courses; it will be interesting to see how many of the prestige UK universities choose to exploit their status and reputation by publishing some free courses as a marketing tool.

Tech entrepreneurs will keep expanding into increasingly diverse niches, so it will be amusing to try and pick out the most obscure market being disrupted in 2014.

As for a few new year wishes, I’d like to see some meat on the bones of the 3D printing movement to take it beyond novelty into something useful, practical and relevant for most civilians. I’d also like to see some big steps in services that aggregate all, or a lot, of our data for us, and automate the administration of living, whether that’s bills or dentist appointments. Whatever the answer is, it needs to cut out the tedium of filling in boxes with details that machines should be able to do for us. Google Now, but more so. And as ever, could somebody please, please make email better?

  • Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies:

“Bitcoin accepted here”, reads a sign at the entrance to a bar in Berlin-Kreuzberg, Germany. Photograph: Alamy

I’m wary about making predictions about bitcoin, and cryptocurrencies in general. The first time I wrote about them, in March of 2013, I said that the value of bitcoin looked like a bubble. If, instead of writing the piece, I’d went out and bought £100 of them, I’d currently be sitting on bitcoins worth a little under £2000. The Alex Hern Regrets Index is near an all-time high.

But I do, fundamentally, stand by what I wrote back then. The price of a bitcoin looks ever more out of proportion with the number of people using it, and that’s a state of affairs that cannot continue. This time last year, the cost of one bitcoin was $13; it is now hovering around $800. And yet, this time last year there were 39,000 bitcoin transactions per day, a number which has barely moved at all, currently standing at 41,000. People are paying ever more heady sums of money for a currency they are steadfastly not using.

But the dying days of 2013 provided a hint as to how this trend will continue into the New Year, with the explosion in value of the “altcoins”.

Because bitcoin is an open-source software project, the programming code at the heart of it is available for anyone to take and use in making their own cryptocurrencies, known as altcoins. The first and biggest of these, Litecoin, was created in October 2011, and exploded in value in November 2013, its price shooting up tenfold in a matter of days.

The next month saw the creation of Dogecoin, an altcoin that had one killer USP: a picture of an adorable Shiba Inu on the front and a website written in multicoloured comic sans and faux broken English. Look, it’s the internet; don’t try to understand.

But the association with the popular Doge meme alone was enough to give Dogecoin the cachet required for its own boom and bust. At its peak, around Christmas, when 30m Dogecoins were stolen in a hacking attack on a Dogecoin bank (another new commonplace of cryptocurrencies), the haul was worth around $18,000.

So, my prediction for 2014? An extrapolation: the smart money, getting bored of Bitcoin, will start moving on to the various altcoins, chasing the massive profits they can no longer get from bitcoin proper. They’ll see their own bubbles of hype and investment, with diminishing returns each time. And by the end of next year, there will still only be a few people actually using bitcoin as a payment mechanism for anything other than illegal and fringe-legal purposes.

  • Microsoft, Apple, and Google:

Inside a Google server farm.
Microsoft, Apple and Google all rely on huge amounts of server power for their globe-spanning services. Photograph: Connie Zhou/AP

Microsoft is going to go through big changes in 2014: the arrival of only its third chief executive, replacing Steve Ballmer, comes as its revenue streams and business models are under growing attack. Mobile computing is becoming a tsunami, eroding the traditional reliance on the desktop and Office. As Microsoft pivots into being a “devices and services” company (which will also own its own handset company, bought from Nokia), it will be competing on every front with Apple and Google.

Prediction: there will be high-profile departures and murmurings of dissent as the new chief executive digs in. Consumers will continue to ignore Windows 8. The coming death of Windows XP (in corporate terms) in April will prompt first-quarter commercial PC sales, but see a lull afterwards. Windows Phone will make gains at the low end, but be unable to dislodge Android or iOS at the high end.

Apple is on its third chief executive if you only include Steve Jobs and John Sculley (and ignore the revolving doors of the mid-90s). Tim Cook’s genius at operations shows in how Apple is now making scores of different versions of the iPhone for different markets, yet everyone thinks there’s only one (the iPhone for the new China Mobile 4G system, for example, differs from all others sold worldwide).

Every new year sees a raft of wild predictions about the unicorns Apple must release or be condemned to obscurity, at least in commentators’ eyes. Every year Apple predictably doesn’t do them. So what will it do?

Prediction: it won’t release a TV – the same TV it hasn’t released for years. It might update the Apple TV set-top box to do more (add an App Store?), but that’s been a “safely wrong” prediction for years too.

It will probably release a wearable something-or-other; a watch seems most likely. Filing for “iWatch” trademarks, as it has in Europe and Japan, is a good sign that something’s afoot. Shouldn’t there be leaks from the supply chain by now, though?

A bigger iPad Air – iPad Pro? – looks likely. A touch-based Macbook Air, though, doesn’t.

Google is only on its second chief executive (and even he was the original one). It’s still a relatively young company, but its rapid growth has seen Larry Page reining in some projects that haven’t been core to what Google does – collect information and collate it. Google+ is core; Google Reader wasn’t. And selling adverts is the ultimate core. Quite where Google Glass fits into this isn’t yet clear; nor is Motorola, which loses huge amounts of money while selling fewer handsets each quarter.

There are also lingering antitrust hassles: besides Europe, where the questions about Google’s integration of its vertical search such as shopping and maps into its front page have gone on for three years, Canada has now begun asking exactly the same questions. It’s a big inconvenience for Google – though the bigger headache might be the patent lawsuits referred to above.

Prediction: Google Glass will go on limited sale, and have limited success; its best use is in narrow commercial applications. Android will continue eating the mobile world, and getting into embedded systems, though frequently without Google services embedded.

Posted By Mantosh Pal


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