What the future of technology holds

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iol scitech 07 jan sa future of tech pic robot

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Google purchased Boston Dynamics, a pioneering robotics firm known for creations such as the LS3, a rough-terrain robot designed to go anywhere marines and soldiers go on foot, helping carry their load.

Tech enthusiasts didn’t have much to cheer about last year. There wasn’t a lot of jaw-dropping or game-changing technology introduced. Instead, it was a year in which old-guard companies such as BlackBerry, MicroSoft and Intel struggled to remain relevant, set new goals and looked for new leadership.

Newer companies, such as Facebook and Twitter, matured - at least enough to make some money - but still haven’t proved they have a long-term business plan.

And it was a year that brought questions about consumer privacy and security to the forefront, with high-profile data breaches and revelations about surveillance programmes at the US National Security Agency.

In short, it was a year that raised a lot of questions but provided few answers.

Analysts say this year could be when the rough sketches about the future of technology and how it affects our lives get fleshed out.

Here are the areas of tech to watch this year:

iol scitech 07 jan sa future of tech pic galaxy gear

The Samsung Galaxy Gear: a device that showed the potential of wearables, but that was more prototype than product.

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Technology has become a part of our daily lives, but last year showed the promise of what could happen if it becomes part of our bodies.

From our socks to our glasses, tech companies have found ways to add sensors to everyday items that turned them into mini-computers. Fitness trackers and Samsung’s Galaxy Gear smartwatch, which can take photos and answer phone calls, showed consumers the potential of wearables.

Companies are “increasingly putting consumers at the centre of a host of digital technologies, devices and services,” said John Curran, a managing director at Accenture.

And there’s far more expected in the pipeline. The Google Glass headset, which pushes users’ smartphone alerts to a screen hovering just above a user’s eye, is expected to see a wide consumer release this year.

Analysts also expect Apple, which has yet to offer even a whisper about a wearable device, to release a smartwatch of its own this year.

Analysts say that the market is already a billion-dollar industry and is on pace to hit $6 billion (R64bn) to $8bn by 2018.

But tech developers’ ability to collect a range of personal data about users – your heartbeat, eating habits and location – has some privacy advocates concerned.

The US Federal Trade Commission has scheduled a February workshop to examine how companies and consumers can deal with the influx of data being held by these companies.

Different forms

Consumers can also expect some of their high-end devices to change form this year with the wider introduction of curved screens for smartphones and televisions.

Tech companies have been studying how to curve screens for years and now appear ready to introduce it more widely to the public, said Raymond Soneira, president of DisplayMate Technologies, which tests and calibrates screens.

Samsung and LG have both already announced that their largest TVs will have a bit of a bend in them and some firms are considering curved or flexible screens for smartphones that would fit more naturally against a user’s face. Screens can also be curved so that they perform better in direct light, said Soneira.

But manufacturing these new screens is a costly process, Soneira said. While consumers will see more of them this year, they’ll probably stay confined to high-end or specialty products, he said. “They’ll make a major technical statement in 2014, but not a major consumer statement,” he said.

Flying drones and advanced robots will generate a lot of buzz this year, but probably won’t be in every home by the end of the year.

Google and Amazon.com invested heavily in the development of unmanned aircraft and robots last year, raising expectations for this year.

Google’s purchase of Boston Dynamics, best known for making robots for the US Defence Department, raised expectations that the tech giant would develop robots for a mainstream audience. Their robots can carry heavy loads even on bumpy terrain.

Amazon says it is planning to use drones to deliver some packages within 30 minutes of being ordered online.

But commercially produced drones will face a few more roadblocks before they take to the skies. The US Federal Aviation Administration has announced that it has selected six states to test an unmanned aircraft system, but it’s unclear when drones will have easy access to the country’s airspace.

Microsoft endured a tumultuous 2013, including the continued deterioration of the PC market and the retirement of long-time chief executive Steve Ballmer.

Now all eyes are on the company as it attempts to find its footing.

“Their successes are overwhelmed by their failures,” said Rob Enderle, technology analyst for the Enderle Group.

“They do need to simplify the company. They’re fighting too many battles and they need to bring it back to something that can be managed.”

Twitter, on the other hand, has the opposite problem – the social media company needs to grow, and grow quickly. Fresh off its market debut last year, the six-year-old company can boast that 18 percent of all Americans have an account on the service, according to data from the Pew Centre for Internet and American Life.

And though Twitter must focus on aggressive growth to satisfy investors, it also has to be careful not to lose its scrappy start-up vibe, particularly as it faces competition from an ever-growing wave of new messaging services such as Snapchat, which lets users send private messages that erase themselves after 10 seconds.

Cybercrime is expected to become even more common this year, posing a tricky challenge for tech companies and retailers encouraging consumers to share information online.

Most recently, hackers gained access to as many as 40 million credit and debit cards used by customers of Target during the height of the holiday shopping season. Analysts say that breach was only the tip of the iceberg.

Data breaches jumped from about 1 700 incidents in 2012 to 2 200 last year, according to an end-of-the-year report from financial information services firm Experian. The firm forecast that at least two-thirds of companies will buy cyber-breach insurance by the end of this year. Many of those, the report said, will be in the health sector as more doctors and hospitals put their data in online databases.

One in four Americans has received at least one notice of a data breach, said Michael Bruemmer, vice-president of data breach resolution at Experian’s consumer services unit. That’s led to apathy from some consumers who are tired of changing their passwords and cancelling their credit cards – a trend that Bruemmer calls “data breach fatigue”.

But not all consumers are taking the growing number of breaches lying down. Bruemmer said that there’s also been a spike in lawsuits against companies whose systems are cracked into by cybercriminals.

“There’s been a corresponding increase in class-action lawsuits, and I think you’ll see that into 2014,” he said.

The Washington Post


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