SciTech

Gilster: Themes and trends from the year in tech

Wrapping up the year gives me the chance to reflect on trends and markets, not all of which are easy to figure out. Here are some musings on what caught my attention in 2015.

▪ Security is the year’s major issue as we dealt with hacker intrusions and terrorist atrocities. 2015 saw the data of 32 million users hacked at one steamy site (Ashley Madison), and deep intrusions into everything from the FBI to BlueCross BlueShield. Even the US government’s Office of Personnel Management was nailed for data on 21.5 million government employees and contractors. That points to the need for good security software on our PCs, but these days the question is, will even the latest package be good enough to protect our data?

▪ The same theme persists in our own use of various apps. On the one hand, encrypted messaging tools like Wickr give us unprecedented privacy – nobody can hack into them. That’s also the problem when we see a host of widely available tools being used to conceal illegal activities and terrorist plans. How we learn to balance privacy with our need to detect dangerous activities is the question of the season, and it’s one that 2016 won’t be long enough to answer.

▪ What exactly is happening to our televisions? When my older son gave up cable four years ago, I wondered how he’d adjust to the lack, but streaming options quickly filled the void. These days Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, AcornTV and others are out there making new programming and showcasing old favorites, all available when you want to see them and often in their entire run. Now we’re seeing live TV options like CNN and ESPN becoming available via streaming from players like Sling, while HBO explores direct streaming. More user choice is easy to endorse.

▪ Where exactly are tablet computers going? I still use my early iPad every day, but International Data Corporation isn’t the only market analyst to see tablet sales declining in 2015, and who knows what happens next? The iPad Pro, Apple’s latest foray, doesn’t answer the question, because despite its larger screen and faster processor, it still won’t run the OS X apps that would open it up to serious business use. At year end, this niche is murkier than ever.

▪ That other “tablet” market, electronic book readers, seems a good deal more clear-cut. The overall market, despite conflicting reports, seems to be stable, with high publisher prices holding down more robust growth. As a collector who enjoys first editions, I sympathize with lovers of the physical book, but advantages like onboard dictionaries and search make ebooks a natural supplement for serious readers. We’re watching the publishing industry enduring disruption as we work toward incorporating new models for content providers and readers alike.

▪ Smartphones seem to get better and better, and if I were going to hang around at the top of the food chain, I’d surely opt for either a Galaxy Note 5 or an Apple 6S in either of its sizes. But hey, let’s not forget a sensible compromise when it comes to price. The Motorola Moto G does most anything you would want at a workable price below $200. I love my Galaxy S6 because of its camera, but a sturdy build coupled with a great price may be the ultimate killer feature.

▪ If you’ve ever wondered how to do live streaming from your own location, look no further than Twitter’s Periscope app. This is surely app of the year, with its ability to send streaming video from your phone to anyone also equipped with the app. Now available for Android, Periscope gained a million users within ten days of its debut in the Apple store. It roils the news business even as ebook readers shake the publishing industry.

Finally, I can’t let this column end without noting the spectacular triumphs of 2015 in space exploration. We’ve had a fascinating flyby of Pluto and its moon Charon, an orbiter around the asteroid (or ‘dwarf planet,’ as it’s now known) Ceres, and triumphant operations around a comet in the form of the Rosetta mission from the European Space Agency. What a year!

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

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