2016: a year of digital growing pains

By Adam Tinworth

14/12/2016 | 2016. Ah, 2016. You began with such bright hopes, and as you come to a close about the best we can say is that you did a lot of work preparing us for 2017. The big new technology platforms didn't catch the public's imaginations - and the flaws of the current generation were laid bare, even as the politics of Europe and the US convulsed in a seeming rejection of the direction we're going.

In fact, 2016 Is beginning to look like the year that the tech industry got a simple message: slow down.

We've all been eagerly looking for the Next Big Thing, while not paying enough attention to the impact of what we've already created. Take social media: the "hot new thing" of a decade ago. As we close out the year Facebook and Google are under increasing pressure from both the media and the politicians for their role in propagating Fake News - and when even the Pope has something to say about it, you know that this is a serious issues.

Twitter is struggling to find a business model - and failed to find a buyer - and is dogged by controversy over hate speech on the platform, although selected people are now being banned.

Tech, Trump and Brexit

The first indication that 2016 would be a political year to remember came when the British voted - just - to leave the EU. Although this shocking result had one benefit for NEXT – I invoice in British pounds, which means that the falling value of the currency made me *much* cheaper… – it raised the spectre of making one of the biggest challenges for the EU startups, the lack of a huge, homogenous legal and language market like the US, worse, by removing the English language country from the legal framework of the continent.

However, the demographic breakdown of the votes gave us in insight into the demographic shift in progress, with younger voters, those who have grown up with the border-busting communities of the internet, voting overwhelmingly to remain, with only their older relatives carrying them out of the EU.

Meanwhile, across the pond, the anti-establishment, populist voice that is reality TV star Donald Trump unexpectedly won the the US presidency. But the whole election was dogged by hacking, with that going a step further right now, with suggestions that Russia actively tried to manipulate the elections. We've long know that Russia is actively using the internet for political ends, and that intentionally fictional news is spreading from non-US sources to infect the political discourse worldwide.

Perhaps the most shocking political event of the year was not Brexit more President Trump, but the fact that so many of our political and governmental institutions have failed to deeply adapt to the digital age. Now, we're feeling the consequences of people not taking digital nearly seriously enough.

The Internet of Botnet Things

Even the infrastructure we're building has the potential to be turned against us.

Back at the beginning of the autumn, we saw the internet ground to a halt - by a botnet of infected internet of things devices. Too many bits of tech have been rushed to market without du consideration of security - and the idea of ordinary people having to update the software on their light manually is probably too much to ask for. Security by design is clearly the future of the Internet of Things - otherwise a lack of trust in connected devices will kill the market before it ever really gets going.

It's also the year where we've seen flagship products falter. The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 - the flagship Android phone - had to be completely recalled from the market because it *kept catching fire*. GoPro's new entry into the drone market had to be recalled because it kept falling unexpected out of the sky. And even the normally infallible Apple has kept postponing its AirPods - new Bluetooth headphones that are a key part of its post-headphone jack iPhone 7 strategy. (They finally went on sale yesterday.)

AR & VR

Augmented reality and virtual reality have been touted as the next big thing for quite a while. And this year, we took a step closer to that reality with devices like the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift finally shipping to the public - but they're still expensive, games-orientated devices, only available to people with very high spec PCs.


AR, however, made a huge impact in a much more low tech way. Pokémon Go was the phenomenon of the summer, with horde of people descending on parks and museums in an attempt to catch 'em all. A simple, two-level version of AR, with the Pokémon themselves, along with key locations in the game, mapped onto real world locations as Pokéstops and Gyms. And then, capturing a Pokémon creates an AR view of the space around you.  All of a sudden AR took a huge leap towards the mainstream, while VR remained very much a rich person's toy.

At best, we can say 2016 set the seeds for the success of VR and AR in the next few years. But it certainly wasn't the year it happened.

Wearables

Wearables was the other big category tipped for success in 2016. The result? Less impressive. The first edition of the Apple Watch was the only smart watch to achieve significant volumes, but for much of the year we were stuck with the slow, confusing iteration of the phone. By September, we'd seen a huge jump forward was with a completely reconciled interface in watchOS 3.0, and the Edition 2 watch bringing waterproofing, GPS and a huge speed increase. Tim Cook has indicated that they're selling better than ever in the run up to Christmas - but we still don't know exactly how many are moving.

The rest of the landscape has been a wasteland of broken dreams. Android Wear manufacturers are pulling out of wearables, and crowd-funded smart watch darling Pebble has been broken up for parts and sold off to Fitbit. And that indicates that the market has bifurcated between the low-cost fitness trackers, and the upmarket Apple Watch, which is more being marketed more as a health and fitness device than the communication tool it was originally sold as.

The spectacular Spectacles

What's looking like the big wearable success (in terms of buzz, if not sales) appears to have come from an unexpected source: Snap, the company behind Snapchat, surprised us all with the Spectacles.

Snap's Spectacles

These fun, cheap camera glass shoot immersive clips for rapid sharing on social media. They have people excited. And, in an inspired piece of marketing, they've limited supply to pop-up vending machines available for limited time in a few US cities. Where Google Glass was a failed and expensive attempt to build a computer for the eyes, Snap's Spectacles are a fun accessories for an increasingly visual way of communicating. Cheap, unexpected disruption.

Alexa, did you enjoy 2016?

And that cheap disruption had another manifestation in the form of the Amazon Echo. The huge retailer had only really had one big success - the Kindle reader. The Fire tablets have not set the world on, well, fire, and the Fire phone spluttered out. But the Echo has been a surprise hit. Only available in the US, UK and Germany, with the latter countries joint this year, it's been a slow burn success, as word of mouth spread. It's a great example of an invisible interface, with you speaking into the air, and Alexa's astonishingly good voice recognition picking it up and acting on your commands. Is it limited? Of course. Is it useful? Most certainly.

Echo in the kitchen

In an era when everyone else was focusing on giving us better polished glass interfaces, Amazon managed a home fun in an undefended sector of the market. Google are playing catch-up with their version, called Google Home, and Apple are rumoured to have something similar in their labs, speculation that was fuelled when reports emerged that it had stopped developing its traditional Airport router line.

Self-driving cars

Autonomous vehicles? A road crash this year. Literally.

It's a coming technology. But it's not here yet.

Machine learning

The other big revolution that actually hit our lives was machine learning. Unheralded, geeky and not even on most people's marketing radar, it has quietly been making people's devices better. Google demonstrated what could be done with its incredible analysis and search in Google Photos, that opened up our growing digital photo collections in whole new ways, while Apple brought it to its Photos app with a fun, consumer spin through its auto-generated Memories. Those who are old enough - or who have good enough memories, at least - might remember that one ancestor of the smartphone was a device like the Palm Pilot - a personal digital assistant, as they were called. Machine learning is quietly turning our devices into genuine PDAs. While the most prominent example - Google Assistant in its new Ello app - might not have caught people's attention yet, it's early days, and more subtle examples like app suggestions, and intelligent suggested replies are smoothing off the corners of our digital experience nicely.

And perhaps that is the lesson of 2016: for all the manic pace of change through the last 20 years, we sometimes need time to assimilate, adaptation and refine these changes, to integrate them safely and usefully in our lives. Perhaps - just perhaps - there isn't a big technology device like the phone on our horizon. Maybe the challenge is to make better use of the new platforms we've built.

But that's a discussion for next week's 2017 preview…

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Lead image by Artis Rams and used under a creative commons licence