Big Questions for Tech in 2019

Rather than write a predictions column, I’d instead look at what I think some of the more prominent narratives to keep an eye on in 2019 because they will be trends or events that will set the stage for the upcoming years.

Before digging in, I think it is important to echo something I wrote about last year about where we are in the tech industry cycle. I often get calls from journalists who call me wanting to talk about what the next big tech product or thing will be in the coming years. I have to explain to them that we likely won’t see whatever is next for quite some time. We are in a period of maturity, or postmaturity, which means tech products are mostly past their most innovative cycles and future products will continue to see much more revision and refinement than pure new invention.

This is relevant background context as it helps us look at 2019, not as a year where we will likely see the invention that leads to the next big thing but rather fundamental evolution that will set the stage and further bring us closer to what comes next. Let’s get to the big questions and things to watch. Note, these are in no particular order.

Apple,Component Manufactures, and the FTC vs. Qualcomm
I’m not sure how well understood the ramifications of legal battles that will ensure between Qualcomm and their suit with the FTC and with the component manufacturing supply chain. At an underlying level, Qualcomm provides a great many inventions and innovations that enable hardware brands, telecom, and telecom-related services to be competitive. Qualcomm’s licensing business model, or as it may better be understood as a technology transfer license, enables companies who have little to no intellectual property to enter a market and compete. While their licensing part of their business model is not the focus of these lawsuits (the extra fees or royalties associated are) if a result of this lawsuit has some impact to how their licensing and technology transfer works it could have significant impact to Qualcomm, and in some cases hurt competition making it easier for those conglomerates who do own and create a lot of intellectual property to keep new market entrants or competitors from entering a market successfully.

The dynamics of this case could change the shape and set precedents for more licensing centric business models that exist in the market in ways we may not yet perceive. The entire case will bring out fascinating debates around market power for companies who own a significant patent portfolio, which there are many, and how those companies will be able to monetize those patents fairly in the future. This will be an industry shaping event that will take place in 2019.

Where Does Computational Photography Go?
From a consumer-facing perspective, computational photography is one of the most interesting trends happening. It also appears to be a key battleground smartphone companies are focusing in on and using as a way to lure customers. But what stands out to me as particularly interesting about this trend is how it is more of a software trend than a hardware one. To make this point, it is worth highlighting a recent experience I’ve had as I’ve used a few recent Android smartphones alongside my iPhone XS Max.

I wanted to see what Google’s has done, in software, with older Pixel hardware and recent software updates. To my surprise, the Pixel 2 takes photos that can go toe-to-toe in side by side comparisons with Apple’s latest iPhones. While photography contains a lot of subjective elements with lighting and color accentuation, etc., some pictures in a variety of lighting scenarios had the older Google Pixel hold up against the iPhone XS Max. Notably, that was not the case prior to some recent software updates to the camera app on the Pixel. What brings up an interesting observation about Google’s capabilities in computational photography and the role software can play for them in this market.

Second, Qualcomm’s newest Snapdragon 855 will enable some powerful new features both in hardware and software around computational photography. The 855 will bring impressive capabilities in computer vision processing and image signal processing to growing competitors on the global front like OnePlus, Xiaomi, Oppo, Vivo, and others that will make for exciting battles around photography features.

Something I’m curious about, which relates to the observation most of this is taking place in software, is whether or not those software capabilities will ever make it cross-platform. Particularly with Google looking to own the camera app on iPhone. Most of the things Google is doing that are truly impressive like night sight, for example, as well as their advanced noise reduction, are all done in software and can technically be done with a Google made camera app for iPhone. As more and more of computational photography is executed in software or as a cloud service, this will create some interesting competition in the years to come.

The US-China Trade War
The continued trade battle between China and the US will be hard to ignore in 2019. It is already creating challenges in the global supply chain but with both these markets, the US and China, being two of the most important when it comes to consumer electronics, I expect it to be a fierce fight with unknown implications still looming.

ODMs and other key suppliers are already making plans to move supply and manufacturing of certain things out of China as a backup plan. Countries looking to grow these capabilities like Vietnam, for example, will welcome these companies with open arms. From a competitive standpoint, this creates some interesting challenges for China, if not resolved soon, as they could lose some of their manufacturing competitiveness as other countries scale their skillsets with the influx of business. Watching how other parts of South East Asia capitalize on this opportunity will be fascinating.

Politically, there will be implications to watch as well, but that may be a story for 2020 more than 2019.

Will Voice, Smart Assistants, or Augmented Reality Meaningfully Move Forward?
The last few years, voice interfaces, smart assistants, and Augmented Reality have been talked about as playing a role in the next big thing in tech. The reality is, none have moved forward meaningfully in the past two years. We have seen some moderate evolution, but the way consumers use and engage with these technologies has not changed much. Voice remains just a simple way to automate tasks, smart assistants are still not smart at all, and augmented reality has not yet landed its value proposition with the mainstream.

While I expect to see a lot of all these technologies at CES next week, what is unclear is whether or not any of these technologies take more than a minor evolutionary step in 2019. I believe all three of these technologies I mentioned have transformational potential, but it still feels like we are a long way off from realizing that potential.

The Fall of Social Media?
Social media was the darling of growth stories in the tech industry. It touches nearly every online consumer on every continent in the world. But, the events of the last year, around Facebook, in particular, have no raised bigger questions at an economic and political level around social media. Is it good? Bad? Should it be regulated? All these questions and more have risen, and the result appears to be fatigue around these services and consumers becoming more skeptical and burnt out than ever before.

This is leading to a potential decline in social media from a usage standpoint and at the very least a regulation of time spent or how the services are used by a growing number of consumers. Watching what happens around the narrative, political element, and user behavior around social media will be a fascinating storyline to watch in 2019.

Those are a few of the more significant narratives I will be keeping an eye on that all have the potential to shape the next decade of the tech industry. I’m sure I’ll add update this list throughout the year.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

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