Identifying trends in hindsight is easy. The transformation of the tech industry from a PC-centric to a mobile one is obvious in retrospect, for example, but who could blame Steve Ballmer for saying that "There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance" in 2007, when smartphones hadn't yet proven themselves? That's why it's always risky to step out and make tech predictions. But heck - it's almost 2016, and that's exactly what I'm going to do. Here are the big trends to look for in the coming year.
1. We've seen Peak Screen Size. For the last few years, smartphone screens have been getting larger and larger, initially giving rise to the infamous "phablet" form factor with Android devices like the Samsung Galaxy S4. Last year, even Apple finally conceded that users wanted bigger screens and introduced the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. But a funny thing happened in 2015: smartphones sizes topped out. The iPhone 6S and 6S Plus are the same size as their older siblings and no Android devices have challenged the top end. Pockets simply can't accommodate bigger screens, and so phone sizes have stabilized.
2. But substantive improvements in battery life will arrive. Larger displays and speedier processors continue to tax smartphone batteries, which have improved incrementally at best for many years. Unlike computer processing speed, chemical engineering doesn't follow Moore's Law. What batteries have needed is a fundamental technological breakthrough, and after lots of false starts for a number of years, it looks like some big changes are afoot for 2016. A number of technologies - like "nano yolk" and solid-state batteries - are all converging on the market in the near future. They'll offer significantly more capacity or faster charging. Recently, Qualcomm announced Quick Charge 3.0, which will charge a typical phone from 0 to 80 percent in about a half hour, and a company called StoreDot promises even faster charging next year: a full charge in just 30 seconds. And they say it'll be for sale in 2016.
3. Virtual reality goes mainstream. Virtual reality headsets have been a staple of future tech since the dawn of the PC age in the mid-1990s. What's different is that the gold standard in VR, Oculus Rift, will finally hit the market in the first quarter of 2016. Indeed, Oculus Rift has been the rising tide that's lifted all the boats in the VR harbor. A number of competitors, partners, and not-quite-competitors will all be arriving around the same time. Expect to see the Oculus Rift appear with applications for science, education, and gaming, while we'll also get to choose from the HTC Vive (a gaming headset designed to run on Steam), the Samsung Gear VR, and Microsoft's HoloLens (which is more of an augmented reality headset, but promises to offer some of the same general experiences).
4. Yet Smart Homes and Internet of Things remain just for tinkerers. An entire industry has sprung up around another bleeding edge tech: the Internet of Things (IoT). This is a wide field - everything from DIY alarm systems and connected webcams to smart doorbells and door locks to connected weather stations, music systems, and personal assistants (like the Amazon Echo). One of the cleverest new entries is Flic, a Bluetooth-connected button you can stick on any surface anywhere in the house. It can execute almost any action via your phone thanks to IFTTT and other Internet of Things services. But therein lies the problem: The IoT is still a hacker's playground, with too much fiddling and tinkering needed to make it all work effectively. We're still a few years - and the arrival of standards and simplified tech - away from the day that Smart Home gadgets go mainstream.
5. Laptops and desktops become increasingly marginalized. It's been a rough downhill slide for traditional computers. Whether you attribute it to the rise of the smartphone and tablet computing (and you should), to the marketplace failure that was Windows 8, to the increasing longevity of older PCs that have processors which don't become obsolete every couple of years, or some combination of all of those factors, dramatically fewer consumers are buying laptops and desktops anymore. When tech pundits once mused if you could replace a desktop with a laptop, now they wonder if it's possible to just carry a tablet. And for many kinds of users (especially more casual ones), the answer is "yes." Sure, we'll still use traditional PCs for some time to come. But 2015 will see sales slump even further, with the slack picked up by the enormous iPad Pro, the Samsung Galaxy View, and Surface Pro tablets.
6. Likewise, smartwatches will flounder. Smartwatches have been vying for attention for a number of years now, but they've yet to go truly mainstream. And 2016 is unlikely to change that; no manufacturer (Apple included) has been able to tell a compelling story around wearable devices, and there's no sign that anything fundamentally different will happen next year, either. The devices released in 2015 were incremental refinements; Apple Watch tried to marry fitness and notifications in a pretty form factor, while Pebble, Motorola, Martian, and others tried making more watch-like discs. Certainly, there's a market for people who want smartphone notifications on their wrist, but average consumers would rather wear an inexpensive fitness band, it would seem, if anything at all.
7. There will be consolidation in the streaming business. There's little doubt that traditional media companies - TV, cinemas, and music labels - have been thoroughly disrupted. We've watched as streaming devices like Roku, Chromecast, and Apple TV have replaced cable and trips to the theater for many people, and of course music streaming is now the standard way most people access their music. But the proliferation of streaming services can't go on forever, and the cracks are already starting to show in the music world with the collapse of Rdio. On the video side of the business, there's a limit to consumer patience for fragmentation. To have all the options cable subscribers were used to, you now need to pay for Hulu, Netflix, HBO, Amazon, and more. Next year, CBS will launch its own subscription streaming service with original content. At some point, the industry will need to simplify this ecosystem or risk losing customers to a better disruptor.
8. While crowdfunding grows amid greater scrutiny. Sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo launched a revolution in venture capital, and consumers have responded enthusiastically. Crowdfunding has essentially doubled in size year over year for the last few years - $16B in 2014, these sites collected over $34B this year and are on track to surpass the established, traditional VC industry in 2016, which is just $30B. On the other hand, look for more regulation for crowdfunded campaigns in 2016 or soon thereafter. A handful of lawsuits in 2015 - like the FTC's case against a video game developer who spent his campaign's earnings on personal items and never delivered any of the promised rewards -- have exposed deceptive campaigns that essentially stole backer's money in what is today an almost completely unregulated space.
9. Passwords will start to become obsolete. There is no doubt that the Internet is an increasingly dangerous place, and passwords are perhaps the weakest link in your online armor (with the possible exception of social hacking). Passwords are probably going to be with us for a while, but it's becoming less and less necessary to enter them by hand. Instead, 2016 is going to see more and more alternative input systems, especially biometric. Many phones already use fingerprints, for example, and Windows 10 works with a small number of cameras to perform face recognition. With widespread understanding of the weakness of passwords, this trend will only accelerate.
10. While mobile payments proliferate. Finally, 2016 will be the year that the nails finally get driven into the coffin of cash and credit cards. Consumers have been slow to adopt mobile payments, but that's changing, especially now that retail locations and more reliably accepting mobile payments and the technology is becoming more dependable. Apple Pay finally takes Discover, for example, Samsung has acquired LoopPay, giving them acceptance at a staggering 30 million retail locations (that's compared to less than a million for Apple Pay), and universal electronic credit card Coin is rolling out an EMV-compatible version in 2016.
Photo courtesy Oculus Rift