Six themes that will shape technology between now and 2020

Pete Marcus

06 Jan 2016

In PR we spend so much time focused on the here and now that it’s always nice to use the New Year as a chance to lift our eyes up and look further ahead.

Given the pace of technological change, though, it’s probably hard to look further ahead than 3-5 years with any degree of confidence. So here are what I think will be the six big technology themes keeping us busy between now and 2020. Let me know in the comments if you agree or disagree – or if you think I’ve missed anything out…

  1. Mobile is the platform of our time and will only keep growing

Going by the experience of other computing platforms – which tend last 15 years, according to analyst Ben Thompson – we’re about halfway through the mobile era (if we date it from the launch of the iPhone in 2007).

In less than a decade, then, mobile has exploded to become the most revolutionary technology platform ever. At the current rate, every British adult will have a smartphone by 2020. In the insightful metaphor used by analyst Benedict Evans, the smartphone will be the sun at the heart of the solar system, and other devices (tablets, desktops, laptops, watches, TVs) will be smaller bodies orbiting around it.

As we’ve discovered, having a computer in your pocket fundamentally changes your relationship with the world around you: it changes what you can do, how you do it and what you pay attention to. We’ve seen this since 2007 in the boom in apps, social networking, messaging, e-commerce and on-demand services. But mobile’s impact is nowhere near finished and will only get bigger over the next few years.


2. Social networks (and more) are becoming information platforms – the foundation for a new set of services

A decade ago social networking was immature – a new set of rules and a new set of winners (primarily Facebook and eventually Twitter) were still emerging. But now it’s clear that we’re moving beyond those older conventions of social networks to something new.

I call this new paradigm “information platforms”, for a few reasons. You don’t need to socialise on these networks any more to get value out of them (over 40% of people on Twitter are “lurkers”, for instance). In fact, you don’t even need to be on the networks themselves – tweets and posts are published across the web and other platforms. And increasingly it’s not just words or images that are published on these networks – they’re the home for payments, news articles, food or taxi ordering, and more.

Western companies have noticed how messaging platforms in China are ahead of them here. Whole movies are distributed and watched within WeChat, for example. Over the next few years I expect to see more of this: information platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, Messenger, Uber, Slack and Twitter will encompass a whole set of new services and will be the foundation for new companies built on top of them.


3. 5G will be developed by 2020 and will be transformational, enabling the Internet of Things to become a mainstream reality

Mobile technology advances each decade and after 3G in the 2000s and 4G in the 2010s, telcos and tech firms are already working on 5G (the University of Surrey’s 5G lab brings together everyone from Huawei and Samsung to the BBC and Vodafone, for example).  5G will significantly increase the speed and data capacity of mobile networks.

And it won’t just be a handy upgrade in download speed, like 4G was; it will be a transformational advance, perhaps a 100x increase in speeds. This extra speed and capacity will make 5G the key foundational technology for a new set of IoT services that have huge potential.

We’ve been hearing lots about the IoT for a couple of years already, of course. Billions of IoT devices are out there right now, and companies like Nest and SmartThings are already making good strides in building consumer IoT ecosystems. But once 5G comes along the infrastructure will be there to make billions more of these connected devices work seamlessly.

We don’t know exactly what that will look like yet, how these systems will interconnect (if at all), and which smart devices will succeed – but we’re going to have a good time finding out.


4. Mixed reality will become the next platform after mobile

What comes next after mobile? Increasingly it looks like mixed reality will be the next big area where technology, creativity, entertainment and communication come together. (I prefer the term mixed reality as it reflects the fact that all of this is a combination of virtual and augmented reality.)

2016 will be a big year for mixed reality. Facebook’s Oculus system will launch to consumers, Microsoft’s HoloLens is being released to developers, and maybe the mysterious Magic Leap will use some of its gargantuan funding to go live too.

Mixed reality has massive implications for industries like social networking, movies, games, telecoms, education, marketing, medicine and journalism. Already we’re seeing some great examples: virtual ping-pong on Oculus; virtual headsets to bring stories to life in the New York Times; crime-scenes recreated for journalists or jurors. But we’re really only scratching the surface here.


5. As digital becomes the default, physical and human experiences will be premium

So by 2020, if my extrapolations from today are correct, mobile technology will be even more pervasive than it is now, we’ll be able to get an even greater range of services through a few major information platforms, 5G will be enabling super-fast, immersive experiences everywhere we go, and mixed reality will be an everyday tool for work or (more likely) pleasure.

In other words, digital will be the default setting for life. Most communication will be digital, most marketing will be digital, most news consumption will be digital, most TV shows, music or movies will be streamed digitally, and perhaps most shopping will be done digitally too . . . I could go on.

Of course, human contact is fundamental to who we are and won’t disappear from the world. But if digital is default, that means that physical, human experiences will become even more special when they do occur. People will pay a premium for human service. Physical stores will survive but likely in smaller numbers and as a premium experience. A face-to-face business meeting will be a sign of great respect. Real-world (offline) education could become for the well-to-do only.

We can expect to see a new generation of high-end services based around this trend for physical experiences over the next few years.


6. Autonomous cars will be here (or nearly)

One final trend looks a bit further ahead. We know that pretty much every big tech company out there right now is working on one of two things (or both of them): a mixed reality system or a car. Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook, Samsung, HTC and Sony are working on mixed reality. Google, Uber, Apple and Tesla are working on a car. (One notable absentee from both lists is Amazon. I wonder what it’s working on without us knowing?)

Mixed reality is maybe 3-5 years from becoming mainstream. Autonomous, tech-enabled cars are maybe 5-10 years away. But the move to autonomous vehicles is inexorable (this chart summarises where it’s all heading) and will have enormous implications that are hard to fathom just now.

Photo credit: SearchEngineLand