Business

Tech’s big 8 for 2016 – from flameouts to home runs

2016 was a quirky and in some ways frustrating year for technology. Here are a few items that caught my eye as being representative of where we are and where we’re going.

▪ The next great interface is voice. In fact, I’ve heard voice described as “the last interface,” in the sense that it’s hard to see what we’ll need after it. We’ve been talking to computers for some time, as programs like Dragon NaturallySpeaking remind us, but 2016 saw products like Amazon Echo and its cousins settle into common use, and Google Home arrived to up the ante. Throw smartphones into the mix and voice is only going to get better as the way to obtain information, launch applications and in general track your daily routine.

▪ Digital literacy breaks through. Or doesn’t, given how poorly it seems to have taken hold. Back in 1997, I wrote a book called “Digital Literacy” that was all about how the internet challenged us to master basic skills of information assessment to be sure what we were reading is accurate. But 2016 was the year when bogus news stories took off through online venues like Facebook, leading us to question everything we see on social media. The key question: Why are people so gullible as to buy into news without any credible source?

▪ How do we go about fixing Facebook? There’s a lot to like here, from staying in touch with distant family and friends to bringing internet access to underserved parts of the world, something the company is working on through a solar-powered drone project. And Facebook’s live video lets you take your smartphone perceptions to a global audience. But Zuckerberg and team seem to be ducking the fake news problem which is making money for online trolls and exacerbating divisions in a country already deeply polarized. The question 2016 raises: How to filter out junk when Facebook is built around collecting so much of it?

▪ I’m not going to call this the “year of the cloud” because for most consumers, that’s only part of the story, but I am surprised to see how many of my friends work comfortably with cloud-based applications, storing everything from personal letters to priceless photographs on computers that could be a continent away. DropBox, into whose cloud I back up most things I do, saves me from local data calamity, but we all have to be careful about the things we choose not to put into play. Hackers are not going to leave us alone any time soon.

▪ To me it’s of little consequence that Apple left a headphone jack out of its latest iPhones, but the matter certainly stirred up attention. Maybe the biggest point is that Apple is driving the market toward devices with fewer hardware connectors, opening up precious space for more internal tech. An even bigger issue, though: Do phones always have to get thinner and thinner – what is the ultimate design goal? Couldn’t a thicker iPhone maintain its headphone jack and still incorporate the latest changes without reducing market share?

▪ Curvy and full of glass panels, architectural firm WATG’s freeform 3D printed house isn’t my choice of living space. But that doesn’t really matter, because what’s interesting here is that this is the first time a freeform 3D printed house has come into being, in response to a design challenge to produce a 600-800 square-foot single family dwelling. WATG’s plastic and carbon-fibre panels give us insights into what 3D printing can bring to architectural design as we work out hybrid techniques meshing new tools and more conventional construction.

▪ Samsung’s exploding Galaxy Note S7 is one of the biggest flameouts I’ve ever seen, a device with a ready audience that directly took on Apple’s best product and offered a strong alternative. Until, that is, the devices started melting, setting cars on fire and being banned from aircraft flights. Even the recall was a fiasco, and you have to wonder how Samsung is going to recover in terms of public perception no matter what its next products look like.

▪ Best timed product launch of the year is the Google Pixel. It’s fast, runs pure Android, offers the new Google Assistant and a world-class phone and gives you a slick user experience. And after the Galaxy S7’s trajectory, Google’s timing couldn’t have been better for the release of the Pixel. The device marks Google as being all in when it comes to consumer hardware, but the real story should begin next year as we get Google’s Andromeda OS, melding Android and Chrome OS. As a shot across the bow, though, the Pixel makes Google’s intention to out-hustle the iPhone crystal clear.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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