Paul Gilster: 2014 tech trends and predictions for 2015

Looking for trends that defined the year just ending? Here are some thoughts on what’s happening in the industry, and a couple of “can’t miss” predictions for 2015.

• Laptop and notebook computers never did away with desktop machines, but smartphones and tablets have certainly made them lose clout. The sense of “commodification” among desktop PC vendors deepened in 2014, while smartphone technologies continued to drive innovation. Want proof? Consider that Microsoft Windows, that behemoth on the desktop, actually runs on only 15 percent of all computing devices worldwide. Your desktop PC is where you get work done, but odds are the device that really defines who you are is the one in your pocket.

• Microsoft is, of course, fully aware of these developments, which is why watching its moves has been such good sport in 2014. Where exactly did “Office for iPad” come from, other than a realization of the power of the mobile world and the need to embrace it? I’m heartened by Microsoft’s recent moves, including releasing a test version of Windows 10 into the community for user evaluation and beta testing at the widest level. The company is going open source in its Azure cloud operation and learning how to live with a deeply problematic Nokia acquisition by shedding jobs where needed. New CEO Satya Nadella has his work cut out for him in 2015.

• Mobility doesn’t come without its problems, as anyone aware of the growing issues of privacy and security can tell you. Two symptoms: the rise of Blackphone, which places security first and just announced its own app store built around the idea of keeping your identity to yourself, and apps such as Wickr, which in the post-Snowden era has set about offering texting services built around privacy, with messages that disappear and are not stored on a server.

• Coming out of the National Security Agency revelations and the seemingly constant hacking of corporate and private accounts is a growing trend that brings unalloyed good news. We’re not there yet, but we’re moving toward the death of the password – that all too readily forgotten entryway into our various Web destinations. Biometrics changes all that as your fingerprint – or your face, or your voice – becomes the default way to identify you. Phones such as the iPhone 6 are just the beginning of a broad movement toward security you can’t forget because it’s you.

• This year’s 3-D printing is about as revolutionary as it gets – the best comparison I can make is with the state of computer networking in, say, 1985. We’re dealing with a technology that’s figuring out where it can grow, from replacement parts in hard-to-reach situations (no wonder NASA loves the idea) to cheaper solutions for factory production, churning out product only when needed. The possibilities for customizing personal items that are now generic will make manufacturers more responsive and provide a range of choice unheard of in a mass-produced world.

• Cars with ever more powerful Internet connections are about as mixed a blessing as can be, offering helpful navigation options and a raft of entertainment but inevitably increasing the distraction problem that already plagues smartphone-addled drivers. Web-based information is one thing, but we’re sadly lacking in the interface department, where we need to explore how teched-up vehicles can sense when conditions aren’t right for using their manifold tools. Shutting down driver seat connectivity in a moving vehicle is just one way to start saving lives.

• If you have a television show about making duck calls and say the wrong thing in a different medium, you’re putting your career in jeopardy, as we learned in 2014. But I think this is a passing phase. Nowadays, everything you wanted to know and much you didn’t is being made available by people on social media. Like it or not, we’re getting so saturated with digital ego on parade, that in coming years a few transgressions revealed through online posts won’t matter. They’ll be lost in the sea of postings from other people with their own embarrassments revealed.

• Is this a “sharing” economy or what? Look at Uber, a company built around disrupting the traditional taxi industry by using private drivers and arming customers with a smartphone app. Like apartment sharing service AirBnb, which allows homeowners to become instant hoteliers, services such as these play havoc with existing business methods, which is why Uber is closing the year being scrutinized by regulators and facing injunctions here and in Europe. Major turf battles ahead for “sharing” companies are going to convulse, then shape this new sector in 2015.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at