What to Watch in 2018: The Biggest Tech Trends of the Year to Come

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2017 has been a tumultuous year the world over – not least in technology. Between massive hacks of public and private organisations, the death of net neutrality in America, and the massive (and temporary) upsurge in the value of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, 2018 might have a tall bill to live up to. Here are the top five predictions for big tech trends over the coming twelve months.

  1. GDPR will set in – and many companies won’t be ready

The General Data Protection Regulation of the European Union (including a post-Brexit Britain) is set to kick in on 25 May, 2018. Looking at the report with which we partnered with Right Relevance, we found that the key terms over the past month were largely focused on guides or webinars to help get compliant, or else on companies like Uber which had suffered catastrophic data l0sses due to poor security practices.

This sign of awareness is encouraging, on the one hand: the GDPR attempts to enforce strict punishments on companies which fail to protect personal data of customers, and will enact equally strict restrictions on what processing can be done with that data. At the same time, with just a matter of months to go until the law comes into effect, there’s a danger that companies underestimate how much they need to do to get compliant. Expect more than a few cases of large companies being hit by data breaches, and having to shell out a lot of money for their errors.

2. Hacking attacks will only get bigger

Ransomware attacks like WannaCry – which hit NHS Trusts, amongst other organisations – and Petya/NotPetya showed both the power of hackers (state sponsored or otherwise), and the unpreparedness of major national entities. Even ignoring the GDPR fines, the situation is grim: unless cybersecurity improves, we are likely to see threats to the national grid and other vital infrastructure.

It’s not even just the Russians who we should be worrying about (although given the probability of the second Cold War getting hotter, nothing should be ruled out): the tranches of tools released by Wikileaks dubbed Vault 7 and Vault 8 show that some very powerful weapons designed by the US government are out in the hands of anyone smart and malicious enough to use them.

3. The Cryptocurrency Bubble bursts (maybe)

Perhaps a bit of a cop-out as predictions go, but there is a strange resilience boasted by the cryptocurrency bubble (which experts have long predicted would pop before the end of the year). The abrupt falls in value have put the value of Bitcoin in flux.

There are two possibilities here: the turbulence frightens enough cryptocurrency enthusiasts that they start to sell to try and cash out, or they laugh it off in the belief that bubbles are impossible in cryptocurrencies. Either way, they’ll be confronted by the reality that fewer and fewer outlets accept blockchain based currencies. If that doesn’t change (and there are no clear reasons it will), it gives way to a third possibility: a slow and painful decline as the money of the future goes back to being a curiosity.

4. The Internet of Things will continue to expand…sometimes, too fast

The idea of an internet of things – where everything you own has a tag in it, allowing it to produce data to maximise your lifestyle – is pretty well established in theoretical circles. With Alexa, Amazon’s speakers/personal assistant, we’ve seen this sort of technology starting to make inroads into our homes.

Expect to see a massive expansion of this over the coming year. Between smart watches, shoes, clothing, water bottles, and so on, the amount of data you’ll have to plan your life will be unrivalled by any period earlier. Not that it’s unproblematic: upstart companies may not think your personal data should be as private as you do (especially if they’re quartered outside the EU). There’ll almost certainly be some consumer battles over that in the coming year.

5. Tech Giants will get into more scraps, more often

We live in strange times, where the technology companies battle over content production and distribution. That was what we saw when Google pulled YouTube from Amazon’s Fire TV devices. It’s a not so subtle reminder that whilst the two companies come from very different backgrounds, it’s digital content which they now struggle over. YouTube, once home to cat videos and amatuers, is increasingly moving towards professional content creation with its YouTube Red – the decision to remove this from Amazon is no little snub.

Then again, Amazon is hardly blameless in the debacle, having removed a number of Google products from its store – including Google Home, a rival to Alexa. Given its predominance in the market of online sales, that’s not a symbolic act of aggression. Expect to see this scuffle – and others like it – as the giants of the technology world increasingly overlap in their industries.

Google versus Amazon: Whoever Wins, Consumers Lose

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The internet has always been defined by struggles between the titans. Just think of the Browser Wars – first fought between Internet Explorer and Netscape, and later Firefox, Chrome, and Explorer. They were sources of great innovation, certainly – looking back at a browser from even the mid 2000s is like dealing with alien technology.

Then there was ‘Thoughts on Flash’, Steve Jobs’ 2010 letter on Adobe Systems once standard platform. In spite of Flash’s ubiquity, Apple’s decision to refuse to use the system on the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch was a lingering kiss of death – Flash is heading towards its end of life in just three years. Apple’s reasoning might have been less about security, and more about producing a walled-garden for apps (giving it full control over production). Either way, it helped break a system which for so long had been dominant.

It’s worth turning to these examples from (not-so) ancient history when thinking about the Google and Amazon struggle. The tussle today is over content: where tech companies were once happy to broadcast material made by dedicated producers, we have seen an increasing push towards a kind of singularity (in which companies distribute and create new content).

The struggle stems from Google’s decision to block YouTube on the Amazon’s Fire TV from the start of next year. The home of funny cat videos and conspiracy theorists is a major part of Google’s media portfolio. Google’s also taken the step to block its use on Alexa, Amazon’s smart speaker.

This isn’t the opening salvo in the struggle, admittedly. Amazon had earlier removed Google’s Nest smart home kit, as well as Chromecast video and dongles. It might be fair to say that Google’s response is a reaction in kind: that’s certainly Google’s view.

As the examples at the start suggest, this kind of clash between major tech companies is not out of the ordinary. Content is a particularly fraught area, given that the old guard of broadcast networks are losing their primacy on even original content to Netflix and Amazon. The breakdown of the relationship between Disney and Netflix over distribution rights is a reminder that relationships between major companies are about as stable as those between European powers in the 19th century. YouTube is increasingly becoming Google’s proxy in the content war, with YouTube Red offering professionally produced content (often starring celebrities from the platform) for a monthly fee.

And as the examples at the start show, users can get hurt in the technological war. By refusing to use Flash, Apple made a good reason for building a hierarchical system in which they maintain almost complete control of everything going on for their Operating System. Apple’s design ethos is not merely about simplicity: it’s equally about ensuring the least amount of other players are involved. In the first browser war, it was a more incidental problem – different websites were designed for Netscape or Explorer, so users had to keep their fingers crossed they were on the right one.

And yet in some ways, both Apple’s refusal to use Flash and (more obviously) the Browser Wars, were fundamentally innovative struggles. Apple’s system is by no means the most free and easy to play around with, and yet it hastened the demise of an industry standard that was in many respects subpar. If we’d never had the Wars, on the other side, we might still be stuck with early versions of Internet Explorer – slow, clunky, non-tabbed monstrosities.

That’s where the struggle between Amazon and Google is fundamentally different: it’s not about improving innovation, but punishing the other service – and that means by hurting customers. For those using Amazon products, the removal of access to YouTube (which used to be taken for granted) seems a bit of a kick in the teeth: after all, it was there when they bought the system. At the same time, this is only likely to worsen the feud: any remaining Google products on Amazon may vanish sooner rather than later.

It’s a solution which doesn’t suit either company in the long run because of their central market positions. All that it means is that their users are likely to get diminished service – apparently not a major price to pay.