Friday 11 February 2011

Tech Industry overview 2011

As 2011 revs up into full steam, I'm taking a look at various sections of the tech industry. In January the year began with the once amazing Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas but it took place with barely more than a whimper. Facebook continues to lead the pack in the social networking arena, with Apple having failed to tie it's Ping music network into the social giant at the back end of last year. News Corp more recently has launched The Daily, a news service designed solely for online consumption via mobile devices such as Apple's iPad. It is hoping that people will pay for up to the minute news services which are provided by paid professional journalists - we will know by the end of the year whether its hopes are realised. Meanwhile AOL has bought the Huffington Post, taking the opposite view to Murdoch that free web based news content will prevail.

A day or so after an astonishing internal memo by Nokia's CEO was leaked in which he likened the company to a burning ship and catalogued major corporate in-house failures, the company announces a tie-up with Microsoft and its Windows Phone operating system. This virtually signals the end for the old leader Symbian and perhaps Nokia's latest Meego operating system too, as both companies try to catch up with Apple and Google in the mobile devices space. They have a lot of ground to make up and I am very sceptical that they can make it. HP's buyout of Palm has seen it describe a new push in the same marketplace with the inherited WebOS system but they similarly have a huge challenge ahead.

Google is now leading the pack in terms of Android devices sold but Apple remains the leader in terms of money-making in that market. Being a profit-leader is not just a good business statistic. it also gives them a huge cash reserve which is key to strategic purchasing power of components for the next generation of mobile devices. This in turn means that the highest quality devices can be marketed at lower purchase prices which helps drive sales in the longer term.

And meanwhile, on the streets of Cairo, yet another previously dictator-controlled country is suddenly teetering on the brink of overthrow, as people attempt to claim some form of democracy. It is indicative of the Internet's support of people-power that the first clamp down reaction of the incumbent Egyptian regime was to try and cut off the Internet and prevent the mobile social networking being employed by the people organising the protests. And Egypt will not be the last. Gradually over decades, we will see many other dictatorships around the world fall, as technology not only enables people to act on mass with a global voice, but also shows many of them for the first time the freedoms that those in other countries enjoy, and which they then aspire to for themselves.

The rest of 2011 will see some more players in the tech industry merge or otherwise disappear as the strengths of the leading players' platforms increase. Google will continue to suffer the challenge of a continually fragmenting Android system across so many device manufacturers as each of them attempts to differentiate their products. Apple will announce and ship updates to its iPad and iPhone, probably introducing a 'nano' version of the latter to compete at the lower end of the smartphone market. Their high end mobile device replacements will incorporate near field technology to facilitate payments as they take on the banks in the next phase of the iTunes account based eco-system. I see parallels from how the network operators in the mobile phone business have seen their power and value-add services diminish since the original iPhone arrived, appearing in the banking sector as they become bit shifters in the same way as the network providers.

Apple will also want to eventually condense the separate recently launched CDMA iPhone (and later iPad) for Verizon in the USA and other CDMA operators globally into a single worldwide phone which just works anywhere on anyone's network. I think the company is well aware that the international data roaming charges cartel between operators is the single biggest obstacle for users getting the great iOS device experience when travelling overseas. A new open-SIM approach which the operators are already fighting will also be on the Cupertino company's agenda.

The success of iPad shipments in its first full year was absolutely astounding for a new class of product, surpassing the statistics of the previous launches of DVD players, VCRs and other consumer devices, and I think surprising even Apple. The take-up of the iPad in major corporates with hardly any encouragement has also surprised many. This has the potential to really ignite the consumerisation of IT in organisations longer term.

And in the Summer of this year we are promised the next major revision of Apple's computer operating system, OSX (Lion), in which they will begin the transition of many old style computing ideas to the iOS-like mobile computing approaches. I believe the iPad is an embryonic symbol of how computer hardware will almost disappear in the decades to come, as people just get on and do stuff, working with information and media in far more natural ways than the stepping stone technology of the mouse gave us. As mobile networking speeds increase and devices are increasingly sharing information and media between each other, it is likely that Apple will considerably enhance their cloud-based services using infrastructure which is already built.

I doubt very much that 2011 will be boring technological year!