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MacManus: 2019 tech predictions

In his final column of the year, Newsroom's technology columnist Richard MacManus looks at what we can expect from the technology sector in 2019. The first question that springs to mind is: can it get any worse?

2018 was an especially grim year in tech, as I outlined in my annual review. It will be remembered as the year we had a privacy reckoning in social media, which fueled a public relations backlash against the big tech companies. In addition, the cryptocurrency market crashed and concerns arose about the manipulation of AI in our society.

There were positive developments last year too; such as the integration of AI in business to improve efficiency, and the development of indie web tools that may eventually challenge the social media incumbents. But overall, it’s fair to say 2018 was a dark time for technology – especially for social networking companies.

So let’s look ahead now to 2019. I should preface the rest of this column by saying that my prediction powers are as good as any self-proclaimed “futurist.” Which is to say, not very good. That’s because innovation in the tech industry happens super quick and often has unintended consequences.

Facebook’s popularity will decline

Speaking of unwanted consequences, Facebook’s old motto was “move fast and break things.” Well, it’s showing no sign of slowing down on the breaking things part. Last week there were new revelations of even more privacy breaches.

2018 was a bad PR year for Facebook, and in 2019 Facebook will likely pay for it in declining user numbers and usage rates.

Statistically, Facebook’s growth rate has already slowed. Anecdotally, it’s looking even more dire. Prominent critics, like novelist Dave Eggers, are suggesting that high-schoolers are not even signing up to Facebook. According to Eggers, teenagers regard Facebook as “some ridiculous and intrusive thing their parents did.”

All that said, I don’t believe there will be an exodus from Facebook in 2019. That’s because it is still a great tool to keep in touch with family and friends – where else can I post my baby photos? But in other areas, Facebook’s usage rate will decline. For example, more and more of us will realize that, actually, Facebook is a terrible way to track news. The penny will also drop that we don’t actually have to listen to the political opinions of people we barely know in real life.

There will be an open web renaissance

Okay, this one is more wishful thinking than a confident prediction! But hear me out.

My hope for in 2019 is that people realize they don’t have to be locked into the closed platforms of companies like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. The open web has plenty of better alternatives, whether it’s new microblogging tools like Mastodon or well-established tools like the open source blogging platform WordPress.

Being realistic, I don’t think this will happen on a large scale next year. That’s because the social web of this era is akin to television in the late 20th century. We use tools like Facebook and Twitter primarily to consume content. That’s not changing any time soon (although I for one will be advocating for it to change).

We’ll see many more cloud computing mashups

2018 showed that cloud computing rules the enterprise IT landscape. As with everything else in tech nowadays, just a handful of companies dominate the cloud. Amazon, Microsoft and Google are the cloud leaders in the western world; in Asia, Chinese cloud companies like Alibaba are in the mix too. In all regions, Amazon is the dominant cloud provider.

What’s most notable in cloud computing is how fast innovation happens – indeed, it’s much faster than consumer web innovation these days. At the recent Amazon Web Services Re-Invent conference in Las Vegas, more than 95 new services or updates to services were announced. One of them was AWS Outposts, which enables clients to spread their data around a number of data centres.

AWS Outposts will be just one of the ways cloud computing is sliced and diced in 2019. I’m not qualified enough to give a more specific prediction, although I can guarantee we still won’t see quantum computing in 2019 (that’s a perennial annual prediction in IT trade magazines).

Crypto and blockchain will reset

This time last year, I was predicting continued growth for crypto and blockchain. How wrong I was on that. So I’m naturally more circumspect now about the chances of cryptocurrencies and blockchain making an impact in 2019.

What is needed is small wins. First of all, how about some practical use cases that aren’t silly games (like Cryptokitties) or tools for financial speculation (like all crypto exchanges). Am I confident this will happen? No. But I’d love to see, for example, a useful crypto retail app or a micropayments app.

One fairly easy prediction in this sector is that many of the so-called “altcoins” will disappear next year. Bitcoin and Ethereum will likely struggle to re-gain momentum, in both price and development. But they’ll survive. Overall, 2019 will be about resetting expectations for this market and continuing to build up the technical infrastructure.

AI will become less opaque

AI was a key business tool over 2018, but one aspect of it clashed with the overall shift in tech towards better privacy controls for users. The opaqueness of AI – its black box nature – is not only a threat to our privacy, but has implications for how much control government and corporations hold over us.

According to Josh Feast, CEO of AI software company Cogito, next year “society will push for the demystification of AI and demand a better understanding of what technology is being built, and greater transparency into how it is being used.”

Why is this important? Because AI is everywhere now. We know that government AIs are making decisions that affect citizens. We also know that many companies – and not just tech companies like Facebook and Amazon, but retailers, insurance companies and many others – are using AI to help make decisions that affect us all.

Positive vibes for 2019

In summary, I think 2019 will be a more positive year in tech. I don’t expect power to diversify much from the digital oligarchy (Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft). But I think we, the people, will make them more accountable and transparent.

And if big company behaviour still won’t change, then it will create a huge opportunity for open web tools. So I’m optimistic we’ll have a good year in tech, regardless.

Happy Christmas and see you next year!

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