2010 is here and I still don't have my flying car or moon rocket, much less a spaceship en route to Jupiter for some serious monolith research. Sadly, I'll have to be satisfied with some baseless and random speculation on the year to come. Take these predictions with a boulder of salt and me out on them in December.
2009 was a big year for technology. A fairly bright spot in an otherwise dismal economy. From a design perspective we've seen the further growth in next-gen UI technologies like Flash, Silverlight, and HTML 5; and a greater focus on design in the app development process. We've also seen major growth of alternatives to the WIMP (window, icon, menu, pointdevice) user interface that has dominated computing for the past 30 years. Touch screens, ePaper, accelerometers, and embedded cameras are mainstream technologies and have started working their way into every gadget we buy.
The next year should be an exciting one, but with mostly evolutionary improvement of technologies we have today. I predict nothing out of the blue. (Of course, if something was truly out of the blue we, by definition, wouldn't be able to predict it). Anyway: on with the show!
I've broken my predictions up into three categories: software, hardware, and misc. Each prediction has a percent indicating the likely-hood it will come true. Next December we'll revisit these and see how I did.
Software in 2010
Social Networking sites become useful. 80%
We've had Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social networking sites for a few years now. I think the industry is starting to coalesce into a set of useful offerings now that we've had enough time to figure out what all of this stuff is actually good for. This means both companies and individuals will start to see real value from these services.
The downside is that privacy sinks to an all time low and our public & private lives heavily bleed into each other. I've taken the step of fully separating my personal and professional identities. I now use Facebook only for personal friends that I know in real life, and push my professional life through Twitter, LinkedIn, and this blog. Fortunately the social networking tools have improved enough to make this a relatively painless process. However, given that each service has a different audience I'm often conflicted about what to post where.
OpenID finally takes off: 70%
OpenID is an open standard which lets you log into a website using your username from another website. It promises to free us having to remember a million different logins. Since Google, Yahoo, and others now expose their user databases through OpenID I predict a huge increase in websites using it. The era of a universal login might soon be upon us.
Downside: the era of a universal trackable login might soon be upon us.
Cloud enabled netbooks ship: 70%
You will be able to buy a small laptop who's entire software catalog is purchased through an online store in the device. It will probably run Chrome OS, Android, or an Ubuntu variant. All apps will be HTML in the browser or written in a crossplatform RIA toolkit like Java or Flash. If your netbook dies, you just buy a new one and click a button to reinstall everything from the cloud.
We'll have several shipping toolkits that let you target all of the major smartphone OSes: 80%
This means a write-once run everywhere cross-device toolset for smartphones that is actually shipping (not tech demos), and supports iPhone, WebOS (Palm), Android, and Blackberry.
We are pretty much there already. Adobe has promised a version of Flash in 2010 that will let you build apps on WebOS (Palm), BlackBerry, and the iPhone; and some Android phones ship with Flash support. PhoneGap lets you target every device with a WebKit derived browser, which is pretty much everything. Silverlight is being ported to other platforms and MonoTouch lets you write C# code that targets the iPhone. 2010 will see all of these toolkits mature, with several prominent app makers adopting them for all of their apps except games.
Windows Mobile and older JavaME based feature phones aren't on the list above because developers won't care about them. Sad but true. WinMo is dead unless Microsoft does something truly amazing with Windows Mobile 7 (and I sincerely hope they do). Older JavaME based phones have the numbers (2 billion +) but those phones (and their associated cellphone contracts) don't encourage users to buy apps, so they don't matter to developers. If you can't ship apps to them then they don't count.
Hardware in 2010
Hardware improvements shouldn't be surprising: everything will be smaller, faster, and cheaper. Moore's Law will not be repealed. The focus on power efficiency means the world is going mobile. The biggest shift we will see in 2010 is the general purpose 'personal computer' losing sales to more specialized devices. eBook readers, smartphones, tablets, and set-top boxes will continue to chip away at the market share of desktop and laptop computers.
Someone will create a TV attached device worth owning: 30%
Everyone has some sort of a TV attached device these days. It makes sense, the TV is the largest screen in most homes so why not do something more with it than just playing video. I want a device which will play media, play games, check mail, browse the web, and let me install my own apps; all displayed in gorgeous 1080p. The potential is huge!
Sadly the market is terribly fractured with no standards and a bunch of half finished solutions. The AppleTV has devolved into an iTunes Store front-end. The Wii, XBox, and Playstation all do games well, but their video and content services are weak. The cable companies have semi-decent DVRs, but don't have stores with downloadable apps or access to internet content. The most compelling options today are actually home-brew Linux boxes running MythTV.
I really hope someone can pull the pieces together into a single solution, but I don't have high hopes. It may take an iPhone-like dark horse entrant to change the power structure of this market.
Pico-projectors for Smart-phones become popular: 20%
The concept seems good on paper: a tiny projector that fits in your pocket, attaches to your cellphone, and projects a 4 foot image on a wall or T-shirt. Sounds like science fiction! It seems like a great idea, but in practice the images are too dim and shakey to be useful. It will remain a novelty that most people don't need or want
Tablet computers will be popular this year: 100%
I'm planning a much longer post on tablets for next week so I'll just summarize here. Both the hardware and software have converged to make a useful tablet computer possible. The key will be building a device that doesn't try to be a full featured desktop computer in a tablet form factor. Any successful tablet computer will be more like a large iPod Touch rather than a flat laptop. It will be the next step along the road of making computing ubiquitous and invisible. After all, what is a tablet but a computer where everything has been made invisible except the display.
Given the Apple rumors and pre-announcements from several vendors I expect several tablets to be on sale next year. If they can figure out one or two killer features (most likely relating to media consumption and social networking) then I think they will be very popular.
My specific prediction regarding the Apple tablet: it will be a large iPod Touch running the same OS and managed though iTunes. There will probably be a few extensions to the Cocoa Touch APIs and new UI guidelines for the larger form factor. The basic apps will be retooled for the larger screen but little change in functionality. iTunes will add a book and magazine store. But that's it. No revolutionary form factor or display technology. Just a large iPod Touch. And it will sell millions. The time is just right.
An ebook reader using something other than eInk ships: 50%
Ebook readers are all the rage right now, and with good reason. They represent the future of paper, but the display technology is still very limited. Virtually all of the ebook readers on the market use the same physical display technology: an electrosensitive fluid from eInk. Refresh rate and contrast is horrible, but it's a good enough start to create a market for better products. A slew of competing technologies are under development and success of the Kindle will ensure they get funding, so there's a good chance one of them will ship in 2010.
Smartphones won't improve significantly, but over half of all phones sold in the US will be smartphones: 80%
The iPhone, Android devices, the Palm Pre, and new BlackBerries have solidified what a 'smartphone' is: a general purpose touch-centric device with user installable applications. A year from now I don't expect this to look any different. We'll have some new devices with more memory and faster CPUs, but the landscape will be pretty much the same.
As a side effect of this market stability I expect smartphones to make huge inroads into the general cellphone market. Thanks to Apple's ads the average consumer now understands the benefits of a smartphone with installable apps, and carriers love to sell data plans. I expect over half of all new phones sold next December to be smartphones. AT&T's network will continue to strain under the usage.
Land line phone service falls by half: 80%
This has been a long time coming. I've personally had only a cellphone for the past decade. Thanks to competition from wireless carriers, Skype, and VoIP solutions I expect the retreat from landlines to reach 50% by the end of 2010.
On The Edge
Voice recognition becomes a significant user interface: 20%
Voice recognition will continue to be a technology that's just around the corner but still never arrives. Any growth will come from 411 style services that let you speak a question and receive a webpage answer. Google is pushing heavily in this area with their Google Voice service. I still don't think we'll have true voice command (KITT style) until we have much stronger AI. But that's just around the corner. :)
Self driving cars: 0.001%
The potential is huge, but the chances of me being able to buy a self driving car this year is almost certainly none.
However, we are likely to see some interesting advancements on the way to self driving cars. Some luxury cars can now parallel park themselves and the DARPA challenges have been successful. I suspect we'll see more closed course demonstrations of cars doing things that would simply be impossible for a human driver to accomplish. Things like drifting and spinning become trivial when you can control each wheel's drive and breaking separately. Since most drivers don't have eight feet, the computer will have a leg up on humans.
YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook combine into a single time wasting website: YouTwitFace
Okay, perhaps that's a bit aggressive. PCs will not go away, much like radio persisted after the advent of television. However, tablets do signal the end of the PC era. Why? Simply because PCs suck. They are heavy, prone to breakage, horribly insecure, and require too much knowledge to keep running. And they were never intended to be used by the vast majority of people who use them today and will use them tomorrow. By the end of this essay I think you'll agree there is a compelling case that the PC era is over and that the growth, and most of the cash, is going to be for tablets and netbooks and other non-PC devices.
When I say "PC" I mean a computer running a traditional desktop windowing operating system like Windows or Mac OSX regardless of whether it's a desktop or laptop form factor. The PC was always designed for a professional. It requires technical knowledge to use and maintain. How many of you have had to fix your parents' computer and thought: if cars were built the way PCs are the car makers would be sued out of existence. This is not to knock PCs. They are technical marvels our ancestors could only dream of, but their major asset is also their major flaw: they are general purpose computing devices. It is this generalness is that makes them some troublesome. It increases both the production and maintenance costs (in dollars, hours, and brain cells). This generalness is what makes them less competitive with the coming wave of post-PC devices.
But tablets are just PCs with touch screens.
So.. right.. touch. Touch is all the rage these days but it doesn't magically make a computer easier to use. Yes the touch interface of the iPhone is easier to use than a traditional desktop UI but most of the improvement is due to the simplification of UI metaphor, not because of touch itself. The iPhone OS doesn't have files. It doesn't have multiple overlapping windows. It doesn't have a persistent dock, screen savers, firewalls, movable palettes, or any of the other things which make up the modern desktop computer. Of course, lacking the features of a modern desktop OS makes the iPhone a more limited device...
But here's the thing: most people don't need these features. Most people use their computers for surfing the web, watching videos, playing music, reading news, and the like. The most intensive typing they do is sending emails and updating their Facebook status. You don't need the full power of a general purpose computer to do these things.
Now most of you reading my blog will say "I'd never settle for just a browsing computer". And that's right, most of you wouldn't. In fact almost none of you would. That's because anyone who reads a blog on software and UI design is by definition not most people. Most people don't write software, use Photoshop, edit videos, or the countless other things that general purpose computers are so good at. The modern PC interface is overkill for what most people actually do with their computers.
It really comes down to this: consumption versus creation. Tablets and netbooks are great at consumptive tasks. Tasks where you browse and click/tap a lot with very little typing or detailed pointing. PCs are very good at those tasks, but long with it comes all of the complexity of a desktop OS. Most people don't need that complexity, so the minute a better solution comes along they will adopt it. I think 2010 is the year when technology will finally bring that better solution: a browsing computer.
What will the browsing computer look like?
Tablets are getting all the buzz right now due to the Apple rumors, but I don't think the form factor is as important as the software interface. Netbooks are just as viable as PC replacements. The only difference between a netbook and a tablet is the presence of a hardware keyboard. Both tablets and netbooks are built out of the same pieces as PCs (and gives us that handy economies of scale), but they are fundamentally different products and are used differently.
The browsing computer strips away the complexity of a PC operating system by stripping away the features that most people never use. Apple's tablet will most likely be a large iPod Touch, devoid of a filesystem, overlapping windows, and system utilities. Of course all of those things will still be inside the tablet's software but they will be implementation details. The end user will never need to know about those things. The Microsoft Windows tablets of the past have always failed because they were desktop PCs shoehorned into a formfactor they were never designed for. The Windows OS was simply never built for touch, and too much of the OS cruft is exposed to the end user. The name "Windows" should be our key indicator: touch doesn't work well with movable overlapping windows. While the iPod Touch does use parts of Mac OS X underneath, the parts exposed to the user were designed from the ground up for a browsing computer experience.
Why now? Why not 5 years ago, or 5 years from now?
This one is a bit trickier. I think the browsing computer is ready to hit mainstream because of a few long term trends that finally converged.
First, Moore's law has made hardware fast and cheap enough to make a viable 400$ browsing computer. Five years ago the iPhone wasn't possible to build for a viable price. Today Apple makes 200$ profit on every one they sell. A few more turns of Moore's law makes the tablet viable for a similar price point (though I expect Apple to charge a premium initially).
Second, all apps are Internet apps now. The Windows OS benefited from the network effects of hardware and software compatible with it. Items bought in stores, requiring shelf space and retailers and distributors. Creating a new desktop OS required replicating this entire network of infrastructure. Today you can make your own profitable ecosystem by distributing everything online and having few or no hardware add-ons. Building a platform with tons of apps and content is a whole lot easier now. The idea of a computer that only runs software from it's own store or browses the web isn't crazy anymore. In fact, the idea of an app that doesn't have some connection to the Internet is now crazy.
Third: slave devices are becoming independent. The browsing computer is built on long term trends that have been underway for a while. What is new is that we are very close to the point where one of these non-PC devices can actually replace a PC for a lot of people. Palm Pilots and the iPod were early steps along this trend, but they were slaves to a PC. The could do nothing without the attached PC. In fact, they were made better devices by the fact that hard tasks were offloaded to the PC, such as syncing with data and managing your music. In 2007 we got the far more independent iPhone. It can directly access the web and install apps without a master computer. You still need a PC to use an iPhone for media management and configuration (plus the initial setup), but it's a lot closer to being the independent PC replacement. The final step may be the tablet/netbook. Devices which exist entirely separate from the PC and don't require it for anything. Even if we don't get these in 2010, they will be here very soon. And when it happens, it's going to happen fast. The world has been waiting.
How about some concrete predictions?
Apple will release a tablet (slate?) and sell millions
In the early part of this year Apple will release a tablet computer, but it will be a large iPod Touch instead of a small Mac. It will be almost exactly twice as large as the iPod touch in both dimensions and have worse battery life, but still be essentially the same. It will run the same software and install apps from the same store. Porting an app to the tablet will just require recoding your UI slightly to fit Apple's updated UI guidelines and the larger screen size. That's pretty much it. There will be no magic hardware, no crazy screen technology, and the UI will be pretty much the same as the iPod Touch. They will probably let you run multiple apps at once, switchable with a dock interface at the bottom, but apps will still fill the screen. It will be more like switching pages in Mobile Safari.
One part I'm unsure of is how independent the tablet will be from your desktop. I believe that Apple fully intends to make a device that will replace your laptop (at least for 95% of us), but I'm not sure they will enable this in the first version. The key will be where you store your music and movies. They might go with a cloud solution, or make a version of the Time Capusle that acts as a headless media server. The key indicator will be if you can sync your iPod from the tablet or if you still need a real PC. In any case, if it doesn't happen now it will in the next few years.
Other tablets will ship
Apple is obviously not the only one working on this. CES should be quite interesting. I expect several other browsing computers will be shown this weekend, running either Chrome OS or Android, and in both netbook (folding screen & keyboard) and tablet (touch screen with soft keyboard) form factors. Possibly something in between, but transformer laptops have never worked well. Apple's primary advantages over the competition will still be their industrial design and the content ecosystem they've developed over the past 8 years with the iPod.
Dedicated eBook Readers will be screwed
It's sad to see a new category of devices leave us so suddenly, but I think the browsing computers will supplant them very quickly. Once a dedicated device can read books for 400$ it's only a year or two before a more powerful browsing computer can do the same for the same price. On the other hand, Amazon won't care if the Kindle dies. They want to sell eBooks, which they do just as easily on the iPhone as they do on their own device. I predict that within a year they will sell more eBooks on other devices than their own, and within 5 years they will stop making the Kindle. On the other hand, the e-paper technology is continuing to improve as well, so these categories may simply merge into one.
PCs will be freed to become workstations again
When photography arrived it didn't kill off painting. Instead there was an explosion of new painting styles after the artists were freed from the duty to faithfully record the real world and could now focus on more creative things. Impressionism and modernism didn't happen until after the bulk of painting chores, portraiture and landscapes, moved to the realm of photography. I think something similar will happen to PCs. Freed from being the browser computer for the masses, PCs can morph into something more advanced and specialized. They will again become tools used by professionals, returning to their original name: workstations. As a PC user I can't wait to see what this future brings.
All of the rampant speculation about the new iPad amuses me. Not because I think the speculation is wrong, but just unnecessary. Apple is actually a very predictable company. They release and update their products according to very reliable patterns. Perhaps we just want to believe that something truly unexpected will happen, even when 99% of the time it doesn't. For example..
The iPhone 4s
Lots of people expected an iPhone 5, even though the iPhone 3g was followed by the 3gs. The simplest thing for Apple to do was follow the iPhone 4 with the 4s. Update the specs and add one big new feature: Siri. The form factor remained the same. The previous generation stayed around to be the entry level model. This is the same thing they did with the 3 and 3gs.
Apple also updates the iPod, iPhone, and iPad according to a one a year schedule. Very simple. Easy to predict. And it lets Apple leverage large economies of scale. It's much harder to get cheap components when you ship 20 devices a year instead of 3.
The iPad 3
When the first iPad was rumored I thought it would be a large iPod Touch rather than some touch enabled Mac. Why? Because it was the simplest thing to do. Give the iPod Touch a bigger screen, and boost the specs. Simple. Creating a touch enabled Mac would have been much harder and complex.
The iPad 2 was the same as the iPad 1 but with updated specs and one new feature: the cameras. The form factor was modestly changed but not much. A simple evolution. I expect the iPad 3 to be the exact same thing: updated specs and one core new hardware feature. This time it will probably be the screen that is updated, to a 2x resolution retina display. That will be it. No crazy new touch technology. No stylus or SD card slot. Just a new screen and updated specs. Apple really is quite predictable.
Perhaps we enjoy reading the speculation and crazy rumors because we really *hope* Apple will do something radical. The original iPhone launch is probably the only time reality lived up to the hype. The only time Apple genuinely surprised us. Most of the time Apple is actually pretty conservative.
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