I think it would be good to start with a quick review of my three predictions from last year. The first one was Virtual Reality (VR). I think I got this one mostly right as the Playstation VR and Oculus Rift both reached consumers within the year and received extremely good reviews as did some of the Playstation VR games. I say mostly right though as the reach has been pretty limited to those who are well ahead of the curve and to some gimmicky examples mainly for marketing purposes. Although judging by the App Store charts this Christmas VR certainly seemed top of the list with many of the top 20 apps being VR apps.
Secondly was Personal Fitness and Health Tracking. I think this was pretty spot on. We saw a major shift in the wearables market over the last 12 months away from them being a smartphone accessory to being specialised fitness and health tracking devices. There was a clear focus on fitness in Apple’s marketing of the Watch and new Watch 2 in the latter half of the year along with the Watch 2’s new features mostly being around fitness. We also saw the French wearables company, Withings, being purchased by Nokia for 170 Million Euros in a bid to ‘accelerate entry into Digital Health’. Again this Christmas Fitbit was in the Top 5 apps in the App Store.
Finally, I discussed Electric Vehicles although focussed on Plug-in Hybrids (PHEVs). This, I think, was mostly right. The Tesla Model X did start shipping but in quite limited numbers. Details of Faraday Future’s offering were not really released in any detail but will be in the upcoming CES 2017. Most vehicle manufacturers released PHEV versions of some of the vehicles and sales of Low Emission Vehicles in the UK increased by 48% compared to last year. There’s still some way to go on this one though. Perhaps I was a year or two early on this one.
So now let’s get in to 2017. We’re starting to get in to a strange stagnant period, almost a ‘no mans land’ between old tech and new tech. Between the Smartphone and the next generation, between human powered tech and AI powered tech. I think 2017 is going to see some hyped up technologies tank - Autonomous Vehicles top my list as the hype fails to materialise in to anything close to the publics and medias (wrong) expectations.
We’re going to see some interesting things happen though as seeds sewn over the last few years begin to grow.
- Start-up Banks
In Europe, and particularly the UK, there has been a flurry of FinTech (Financial Technology) start-ups raising Venture Capital over the last two or three years. This combined with the relaxation of banking legislation meaning a number of start-ups have been granted banking licenses in the last year means that these start-ups are about to flourish and begin massive growth. Let’s take a look at one of my favourites - Monzo. In the last year they were granted a restricted banking license and according to their roadmap (yes they've released their product roadmap for all to see) they’ll be launching their ‘full bank’ offering within 2017. Earlier this year Monzo reached £20 Million spent through them which although is a drop in the ocean compared to the 100s of billions spent by consumers each year it does show rapid growth. Here’s two infographics showing April 2016 spending and August 2016 spending - the increase is huge and can only continue upwards through 2017.
We’ve also got Atom Bank and Curve growing in the UK while Germany is a hot bed of start-up banks with N26 and solarisBank to name a few services that are growing in popularity.
2. Chat Bots & Virtual Personal Assistants
I put these two together as they use similar technologies, mainly natural language processing and to some extent machine learning (the combination often termed Artificial Intelligence (AI)). Messaging apps have, over the last few years, become a focal point with over 1 billion monthly users each on both WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger (both owned by Facebook). Since Facebook launched bots on it’s Messenger platform earlier this year the number of bots has grown to beyond 30,000. In China the use of messaging apps as a platform is nothing new, they’ve been using them for shopping, banking, taxis and more for a number of years. With it now becoming immensely easy to develop chat bots companies are beginning to realise their value, particularly in customer relationship management.
Marketing powerhouse Ogilvy & Mathers have recently gone in hard on Chat Bots with them saying “messaging platforms are the new internet, chatbots are it’s websites”. There’s a good presentation here by their Innovation Partner - James Whatley.
Personal Assistants are certainly nothing new. We’ve had Siri and OK Google for years but let’s be honest, they’ve been a bit shit. With recent developments in Natural Language Processing though they’re getting a lot better. Over the last year we’ve also seen the unexpected popularity of the Amazon Echo (Alexa) virtual personal assistant. This was one of the most popular gifts this Christmas and has mostly been sold out since it’s launch.
So now with Chat Bots and Virtual Personal Assistants we’re pretty much there with the voice recognition bar some corner cases so I think this year we’re going to see them becoming a bit more intelligent in their answering of questions and performing tasks - something they’ve been lacking so far.
3. Cellular IoT
An interesting area with huge potential is the infrastructure and services to support the Internet of Things (IoT). I believe that one of the most interesting of these infrastructure items is Cellular IoT, specifically NB-IoT (Narrowband IoT). Through 2016 we saw the 3GPP standard develop and become part of Release 13 (LTE-A Pro).
As I wrote earlier this year there are many IoT specific network technologies such as LoRa and Sigfox that do the job quite well but something they’re potentially lacking is open standardisation, Quality of Service (QoS), and coverage. So SigFox for example is proprietary, it uses unlicensed spectrum so cannot give QoS guarantees, and only has relatively limited coverage (although this is growing significantly).
NB-IoT overcomes these potential issues which for many use cases may prove to be show stoppers.
Vodafone, who are very big in the M2M (Machine-to-Machine) arena are investing heavily in NB-IoT and have spent the last year or two conducting trials and will be opening up the first networks in the latter half of 2017. They also have their eyes set on a number of critical use-cases including autonomous vehicles and drones - both of which need QoS and coverage at least.
Now I have to admit that writing this post was a bit of a struggle. As I said at the top, 2017 is going to be a strange year for a lot of tech as we sit in this odd period between major developments. Let’s see how it pans out.