Evaluating Our Predictions for 2015

Last March, I wrote a post evaluating three of the most interesting technology predictions for 2015; one from Frog Design on fitness devices, one from Deloitte on “Software-Defined Everything,” and one of my own on “Pervasive and Invisible Computing.” Some of these predictions were better than the others, so let’s see what was right and what was wrong.

Fitness Devices

I agreed with Frog that fitness devices were ready to move ahead of the step-counter devices sold by Fitbit, and we were both right and wrong. We were right that a number of devices appeared that offered a lot more function than Fitbits. The Apple Watch can count steps, but that’s no big deal. The best features of Watch’s standard fitness app are its calorie burn estimator, its workout tracker, and its “stand up” reminder. The thing that distinguishes Watch from other fitness devices is the fact that it’s not only a fitness device.

Because it notifies you of people who want to contact you, what’s going on with the time and weather, how your stocks are doing, what’s happening on your social networks, the news, and whatever else you care about in the real world as well as giving you control over your automated home and allowing you to make mobile payments, the fitness stuff it provides is basically for free. So even if you’re not a highly-motivated fitness buff, Watch can help you improve your overall state of well-being. It’s unclear how well Watch is selling; Best Buy recently discounted the entry-level Sport version to $300, which probably doesn’t happen if it’s selling like crazy.

While there were a number of introductions and upgrades in the advanced fitness space, Fitbit doesn’t appear to be suffering. Its app was number one in downloads from the Apple App Store on Christmas day, and number 10 among free apps in the Android app store. So most of the action in the fitness space is around the oscillation between couch potato-dom and caring enough about fitness to at least keep track of basic measurements. Of course, the Fitbits given as Christmas presents aren’t necessarily going to be used; they’re probably “message presents” given as suggestions to loved ones to get a little bit more active. But as more people enter the gateway to the fitness pyramid, there will probably be more people graduating to the more dedicated space served by the firms Frog liked, Sensoria, Moov, LEO Fitness Intelligence, and GYMWatch.

The trouble with Frog’s picks is that they’re in a no man’s land of fitness, more powerful than the Fitbit but far less powerful (and informative) that the hard-core training watches sold by Garmin and Polar. If you’re training for a marathon, triathlon, bike race, or swimming contest, you’ll get a lot more from a Forerunner 920XT than from a Moov or LEO. And you should, since it costs four times as much. But $400 for a 920XT (or $200 for its ancestor the 910XT) isn’t going to be your biggest worry. If price is a barrier, Garmin offers lower cost watches with a lot of functionality (such as the Vivoactive) as well. So the established companies are doing well and the upstarts have a big hill to climb.

Software-Defined Everything

I endorsed Deloitte’s Software-Defined Everything prediction because it’s a can’t miss call. The major consequence of Moore’s Law progress in semiconductors is the decreased reliance on special-purpose hardware and the increased reliance on software. We see this dynamic playing out in the fitness space, where Apple Watch is cannibalizing low- and medium-function fitness devices by virtue of the fact that it does so much more than the single-purpose devices do. Because firms don’t want the nuisance of doing things they’re not good at, such as managing data centers, so they can focus on things they are good at, it’s inevitable that they will outsource distractions when the price is right.

Every technology advance meets resistance from regulator who only see downsides in a changing world, of course. And this has certainly come about in a big way in the European Union. As I pointed out in March: “Software Defined Networking is on a collision course with the desire of some national regulators – such as the US FCC – to regress to legacy telecom regulatory models and to limit network flexibility.” The FCC re-imposed Title II common carrier regulations on Internet Service Providers, and Europe vacated the safe harbor provisions that allowed data for European users to be housed on servers outside the EU. It then went on to enact far-reaching regulations on data portability, the right to be forgotten, and a “Right to Reject Automated Personal Decision Making” that bans algorithmic marketing.

The US FCC and the European Commission have seen the 21st century and they don’t want any part of it. And they’re not alone: the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has put Facebook’s “Free Basics” on hold as it formulates net neutrality regulations based on the US mold. It’s ironic that Facebook would become a victim of net neutrality in India after supporting it in the US, but the big loser in India will be the 80% of the Indian population that still has no Internet access.

Europe will also suffer more than the US under its data regulations because it has such a weak Internet economy already; none of the top 15 web sites are European today, and it’s hard to see how these regulations on privacy, portability, and advertising are going to help. The only avenue that appears to be open in Europe is subscription-based services like Netflix and Amazon. This may not be all that bad, but it remains to be proved that Europeans will be willing to pay for news and music.

The US stands to emerge from the dark ages of Internet regulation in a better position than our international rivals. The FCC’s regulations aren’t on a stable legal foundation, so they can be struck down by the courts or by the next presidential administration. And the net neutrality regulations currently in force in the US don’t prohibit cloud computing, software-defined networks, or software-defined functionality in wearables, the Internet of Things, or automation generally. The FCC doesn’t have jurisdiction outside the communication space, and the other regulatory agencies (such as the FTC) don’t share the FCC’s fear of the future.

The FCC’s regulations are widely predicted to reduce investment in networks, which makes efficiency measures like SDN all the more important. So regulatory overreach can’t repeal technological inevitabilities and this prediction was sound.

Pervasive and Invisible Computing

PIC is more of a long-term play than Software-Defined Everything because it depends on upgraded devices and infrastructure. It’s also more vulnerable to regulatory overreach because it has a privacy component as well as the investment-based device and infrastructure elements. That said, it’s advancing quite nicely. Apple has added Siri to Apple TV, but at the moment it can’t do much more for the user than find content and control playback. While we can say “Hey Siri, raise the temperature to 69” through the iPhone or “Hey Siri, take me to IKEA” through Apple Watch, these commands are outside the scope of Apple TV’s Siri.

Amazon’s Echo is an alternative to Siri, superior in some ways because it connects to a wider array of devices than Apple’s HomeKit supports; it apparently controls the Nest thermostat through an unofficial hack, and interfaces with Samsung’s SmartThings hub officially. Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana are also in the game with credible feature sets. You don’t have to do anything to enable Google Now on a smartphone, and if you have Google Maps loaded you may already be seeing notifications about how far you are from home and what the traffic looks like. Cortana is more challenging because it only runs on Microsoft’s phone OS, a very rare platform, so Microsoft may have missed the bus here. It could be that its best play is to appeal to Android users such as Samsung who are looking for differentiation from the low-priced mob. This was the motivation for Samsung’s purchase of Smart Things, so it’s not like they haven’t added value to Android before.

The expectation that motivates pervasive computing – and in turn is ratcheted up by it – is that we’re never out of range of our data, our devices, the Internet, and our contacts, accounts, and subscriptions. This gives rise to the desire to be able to access any data or service from any device, possibly with reduced function because of things like screen size and data rates, but with respect for context. So if you start streaming a movie on your TV set, it should continue after you switch to your computer, your phone, and even your watch. That’s not much to ask, but there will be more: the ability to push an application session or a data set to another computer over which you have no control, for example. So if you’re talking to your doctor and want to show him your blood pressure history while exercising, a few words or gestures to your watch or phone should make it happen.

Visible pervasive computing works best across a unified product line such as Apple’s or Google’s. If all your devices run a common set of applications, then you have very little infrastructure dependence; all you need is a connection and your devices can use whatever’s available as long as it runs IP. Hence, Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, and Google have motivation to port applications to foreign devices and operating systems. iTunes on the iPhone can talk to iTunes on Windows and Chrome on the Mac can talk to Android. Many were mystified by Amazon’s ill-fated smartphone, but it probably came from a desire to knit Echo and Fire TV into a larger whole.

The barriers to pervasive computing are primarily technical at this stage, even though they will become regulatory in the near future. So this prediction was also sound.

We’ll be back shortly with predictions for major trends in 2016. In the meantime, check out Vivek Wadhwa in the Washington Post on six world-changing technologies.