Asked to summarise the year by my editor, I wrote this piece for the Irish Times for the 21st December:
How significant a year has 2015 been for the computer industry?
This year consumer interest in drones and quadcopters (excuse the pun!) really took off. By the end of the year, some two million units may have been sold worldwide. Earlier versions were difficult to control, particularly in wind. Flight management software has improved considerably, with drones increasingly capable of autonomous flight. The coming year is likely to see geo-fencing become mandatory in many jurisdictions, so that drones will self-police themselves away from sensitive and controlled areas, and from airfields in particular.
2015 has also been a year for autonomy on the ground. Most major vehicle manufacturers are known to be working on self-driving systems. Self-parking, collision warning and lane keeping systems are becoming available as active assistance to drivers, from many of the major car brands. Daimler is testing a fully self-driving truck on public roads, allowing lorry drivers complete hands-free operation while motorway driving.
Many wonder whether the public will accept self-driving cars, since so many of us seem to be furtive petrol-heads at heart. Ultimately regulation may mandate that autonomous cars are better for society than human-driven vehicles. The roads should become safer, traffic more predictable, and per-trip energy consumption reduce.
2015 has been the year in which computers are not only watching us from the air, and how we drive, but also monitoring how we are. The Fitbit IPO last June marked the arrival of wearable computing in the mass market. Wearable devices nudge us towards fitness and health, prodding us towards daily exercise and reminding us of our heart rate and blood pressure. Many devices have become statements: they fashionably assert that the wearer cares about fitness and health.
Another wrist worn fashion statement arrived this year: the smart watch, and the Apple Watch in particular. Watches are personal ornaments, and most tell the time pretty well. So why then would anyone want an Apple Watch? Well, you could dig out your iPhone from layers of clothing or the depths of your bag and then, finally at last, regally wave it at a contactless reader so as to pay for your skinny cinnamon dolce latte coffee: but thats so 2014! Now you can just raise your wrist to the reader instead. You can even present your wrist at a boarding gate, with your QR-coded boarding pass visible on your watch. Cynics may respond that the best use case of an Apple Watch is just to find just where you abandoned your iPhone.
As for iPhones and other smart devices, there has been incremental, rather than dramatic improvements in the year. Nevertheless for the first time, the unit sales of smart devices worldwide now exceed the numbers of traditional desktops and laptops being sold. This in turn is dramatically changing the web. The greatest disruption caused by the smartphone has not been the replacement of keypad cellphones (and their vendors) in favour of smartphones with touch sensitive screens, but rather the creation of an entirely new market: third party apps.
In 2015 for the first time some companies are no longer maintaining and keeping their websites current and fresh. Instead they just keep their apps exciting. Consumers are preferring to interact with these companies using apps and do not bother with their websites. This trend is particularly noticeable across Asia and the emerging markets: the West may see more of this transition in the coming year.
Advertising on smart devices is this year more than half of the digital advertising spend on all devices. Smart devices have led to location-aware digital advertising, so that not only are you presented with ads which are based on what online purchases you recently considered or made, but also where you have been and are right now.
Social networking is also location aware. Perhaps the most dramatic examples from 2015 are the highly successful campaigns of Donald Trump in the USA and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. Disdaining traditional big money advertising campaigns in the mainstream media, both politicians have neatly sidestepped courtship of established journalists and media in favour of an “over the top” appeal directly to voters in particular locations. Their spend on targeted digital social media campaigns has been minuscule compared to traditional PR campaigns, and yet arguably their advertising spend has been significantly more effective.
It has been an interesting year. I observe how computers are increasingly taking an active role in our lives: we are not so much browsing the web as doing tasks using apps; we are not so much watching dials and moving controls as letting the system manage itself, and we are not so much noticing mass adverts as reacting to ads crafted personally for us. We are increasingly being gently nudged and nurtured towards particular views and to courses of action by the computers which are now so pervasive around us. The danger is of course that we increasingly do not realise, or actually do realise but in fact do not care to care, how many choices are increasingly being made automatically on our behalf.