By Alex Hern
From new gaming consoles to activism at Apple, we predict the things you will – or won’t – see in tech this year.
1. Tesla’s cybertruck will not ship
This is an easy prediction to make, because even Tesla isn’t claiming that its eye-catching angular steel beast will be available for sale in 2020. The company’s own pitch is that production won’t even begin until 2021, with owners receiving their first shipments in 2022. But the gap is relevant to Tesla’s future: where the company was once genuinely ahead of the curve, in making beautiful electric cars that people wanted to buy, it has increasingly relied on beating its competitors to announcements, rather than actually shipping. The list of Elon Musk’s as-yet-unfulfilled promises grows every year – but the electric fleets of BMW, Ford, General Motors and others grow faster.
2. Google’s Duplex won’t come to Europe
One of the most impressive, and futuristic, products to have come from Google in recent years, Duplex is an AI assistant that can make calls to local businesses on your behalf to do things like book appointments and find out opening times. The tool was criticised when the company first revealed it, for being so good that its use could plausibly be described as “deceptive”: the AI assistant even injects “um” and “er” into speech to sound more human. That, combined with the difficulties of gaining consent for receiving an automated cold call, means that GDPR might well keep the technology from European shores for years to come.
3. Advertising will come to smart speakers
Amazon and Google comfortably dominate the smart speaker landscape, but neither has yet answered an important question: what’s the advantage of getting all these devices in homes? Aggressive price cuts mean that neither is making a substantial amount of income from sales, and the absence of paid services means that they aren’t taking a glorious 30% cut of revenue either. Amazon has long experimented with using Alexa as a retail channel, but the only way to really make millions is by delivering sweet, sweet advertising to the ears of your customers. Expect the dial to be turned up.
4. 5G will be meaningful
For Brits, 5G is technically here already, with multiple networks offering the ultrafast mobile standard in denser urban areas. But there are few devices that support the new standard yet – and fewer still that are acceptable to the gadget-obsessed early adopters who would otherwise be first on board, since the flagship devices from manufacturers such as Samsung, Google and Apple continue to be 4G only. That will change in 2020, when you can expect hardware like the Pixel 5, iPhone 12 Pro and Samsung Galaxy S11 to support the faster connections.
5. Your homescreen will still look the same
It’s been years since any consumer app broke through into the mainstream – with an honourable exception for TikTok among the under-25s – and that trend shows no real sign of curving upwards in 2020. Between the dominance of default apps from Apple and Google, and the ability of the major platforms to acquire, clone or kill upstart competitors, it’s a hard time to be a consumer software company. Harder still to become one of the 28 who get a coveted spot on a typical user’s homescreen, rather than being buried in a folder.
6. Facebook will kill Portal
It was always hubristic for Facebook to release an Echo competitor. The company had no real expertise in building hardware, nor an obvious strategy for getting its products to market: it may own the world’s most valuable advertising real estate, but it’s not a store. Then Cambridge Analytica broke, and Portal went from a bold idea to a bad one. Who would want to put an always-on microphone connected directly to Menlo Park in their homes? The answer, it seems, is “not many people”, because Portal sales have reportedly been minuscule. A second iteration was squeezed out earlier this year; don’t expect a third.
7. VR will have a second mini-boom – thanks to one game
Virtual reality has been the “next big thing” for five years, and has been a big thing for precisely none of those. But just when it was on its way out, there’s the potential for one last flurry of attention, thanks to the work of PC gaming company Valve. The company announced a new edition of its beloved Half-Life series, the first since 2007, would be exclusive to its VR headset. There have been few titles that can encourage non-believers to spend the thousands required to get high-quality VR at home, but Half-Life: Alyx is one. Whether it sparks a lasting resurgence, or just a final flash in the pan, remains to be seen.
8. Amazon’s Alexa expansion will slip
Alexa has been coming to new products at an impressive clip. Amazon has incorporated its voice assistant into almost every gadget it makes, and a good few it doesn’t. But, even though voice assistants remain popular among their devotees, privacy concerns are only growing among the cohort of refuseniks who want nothing to do with always-on microphones. If Ford, for instance, starts losing out on sales because of an overly ambitious plan to put Alexa in everything, you can be certain they’ll reassess that integration rapidly.
9. We won’t hear about Apple’s smart glass or car
The two worst-kept secrets in technology are Apple’s biggest experimental projects: a pair of augmented-reality glasses and a self-driving car, both being developed in Cupertino. The glasses have a path to release, and references to them in the code for Apple products have started showing up in beta tests and other leaks. The car, for now, has no existence outside of a few offices in Sunnyvale and some suspicious hires from companies like Tesla. But, at the earliest, the glasses won’t hit shelves until 2021, and Apple is always wary about pre-announcing things.
10. The console wars will restart with a vengeance
Video gaming has been quiet for the past few years. With Xbox Ones and PlayStation 4s in houses across the nation, Microsoft and Sony turned their attention to intra-generational upgrades and cheaper models designed to be a second console. Nintendo took a different path, releasing the Switch and upending what a home console could be. And Fortnite rendered the whole thing moot anyway, as the most popular game in the world worked on every console, PCs, and even mobile phones. But 2020 will see the launch of a new Xbox, a new Playstation, a new Halo and a new Last of Us – and the return to playgrounds nationwide of tiresome debates about which is better.
11. Google could gain from article 13
While the European Union was hammering out the details of 2019’s copyright directive, Google began one of its largest lobbying efforts to date. The company was incensed by two proposals – articles 13 and 15 of the draft bill – which it dubbed the “upload filter” and the “link tax”. Passage of the directive, it implied, could result in the end of YouTube in Europe for good. It mobilised thousands of YouTubers in opposition, and sparked group hysteria among tween fandoms on Instagram and elsewhere. While individual nations ratify the legislation, expect more protest and legal challenges, but ultimately Google may gain from article 13: after all, they are well placed to build and license the content filters required to police copyrighted material.
12. AI will be mobilised in cyberwar
Simon Shooter, a partner at law firm Bird & Bird, predicts that 2020 will see “the escalation of the cyberwar, with AI in use on both sides of the divide”. Hackers have long been experimenting with automatic tools for breaking into and exploiting corporate and government networks, but the need to stay undetectable has limited the use of AI in practice. As the cyber cold war heats up, however, that could change.
13. Cool China
The rise of TikTok may have concerned the adults in the room, who see the company’s role in exporting Beijing’s censorship and slow adoption of child protection standards as reasons for caution. But among the younger generation, it could have the opposite effect, cementing a perception of China as the home of cool products and services. Who would win if that happened? “The success of TikTok will not have gone unnoticed by Tencent, which owns WeChat,” says Tamara Littleton, CEO at social media agency the Social Element. “It has struggled to gain traction in other countries… but I predict they will make a play for the UK and US audience with a slightly tailored version.”
14. Apple will experience worker activism
The only people with the power to change how Silicon Valley works are inside Silicon Valley. Employee activism burst through in a big way in 2018, with Google workers walking out over sexual harassment and plans to open up a censored search engine in China, Microsoft workers campaigning against working with the US Department of Defense and Amazon workers joining in protests against working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But Apple, the largest of them all, has so far kept its staff from expressing public dissent. Whether that’s through the carrot or the stick is unknown – but with the company coming under increasing pressure for its craven stance towards both Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, it surely cannot last.
15. Digital wellbeing on the statute books
Both Apple and Google launched their screen time controls in 2018, and upgraded them this year. Ross Sleight, chief strategy officer at tech accelerator Somo, thinks this trend will continue – and will start to impact on regulation. “Many people are now very aware of their addictive habits and are trying to disengage,” he says. “A shared responsibility for wellbeing falls on to each one of us: the companies designing applications and user interfaces that play on our psychology, but also on policy makers.” How that would look in practice is likely to be the result of years of legal wrangling – but watch the proposals bubble up over the next year.
16. Google v Nike for wearable tech’s second place
When it bought Fitbit towards the end of 2019, Google signalled a renewed desire to succeed in wearable technology, a space where it has previously struggled. The company’s Android Wear operating system bombed against competition from the Apple Watch, and its decision not to engage in hardware directly looks short-sighted in a sector where elegant pairing of software and design is table stakes. But, says Jim Prior, global CEO of brand consultancy Superunion, challengers may come from leftfield: “The bulk of these gadgets and garments lack an emotional narrative to differentiate themselves, connect with consumers and drive purchase. In comparison, sportswear brands are highly engineered and technical but have mastered this – in particular Nike, which has woven a strong narrative around the brand driven by its creative vision.”
17. The loot box bans spread
Loot boxes, treasure crates, card packs – whatever they’re called, the practice of offering randomised rewards for real money has gained an increasingly bad reputation. Stories of children spending hundreds of pounds of their parents money – and adults spending thousands of pounds of their own – back up the perception of the offerings as closer to unregulated gambling than a fun aspect of video games in the 21st century. Self-regulation might be on the cards if the industry showed the slightest interest in doing it, but the billions it rakes in from the practice (Fifa loot boxes resulted in more than half of EA’s 2017 revenue from game add-ons) makes a voluntary change unlikely.
18. The continued death of new media
In the past decade, hundreds of small sites were launched with venture capital cash, riding a wave of social media distribution and programmatic adverts to a peak of bubbly excess, before it burst in 2016 and they dropped like flies. In the US, consolidation has seen some outlets close, others merge, and still more lay off hundreds of employees in total, and the trend shows no sign of abating. The biggest scalps have already been claimed, but 2020 could be a time when smaller sites start to lose out, like the hyper-partisan news outlets that so shaped the 2017 election, or the few remaining independent blogs that have eked out a living on reader support and savings.
19. The next iPhone will have four rear cameras
The smartphone industry seems to be following the trend set by Gillette and one-upping itself on an annual basis. Other phones already have four cameras, so why not Apple? The company would have a good reason for adding another lens: while the iPhone 11 Pro is perhaps the best smartphone camera on the market, it falls far short in one specific area, with just a 2x optical zoom at the highest level. So a bigger zoom lens would be well received by any users who like shooting big things far away or small things nearby.
20. Britain continues not to regulate tech
The online harms white paper, revealed in a blaze of publicity in the summer of 2019, has gone nowhere. The prime minister who commissioned it is out, as is the culture secretary who launched it. Whoever sits at the head of cabinet in 2020 is unlikely to want to progress this odd legislation, assembled as it is from a mishmash of Telegraph-pleasing statements about harmful but not illegal speech. And they’re unlikely to have the parliamentary time to do so even if they did want to. So instead, everyone will continue to talk about how much we need to update our laws, while doing nothing of the sort.