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What the latest technology company results say about the future of technology

Mature Tech.

When the major tech companies report their quarterly earnings, the media, and to a lesser extent, the markets, tend to focus on the drama that surrounds Apple’s ability, or otherwise, to “surprise the market” with better than expected sales. It is somehow taken as a key indicator of whether we will continue to see real innovation in technology and consequently whether we will see that innovation continue to change our lives.

Apple has indeed managed to surprise with its latest results on the back of strong sales of the iPhone 6. But investors are still expressing caution, because as always, they see Apple’s run inevitably coming to an end. Looking at the results of the technology sector as a whole, and looking at other technologies like the PC and tablet, we can see that there is in fact reason to express caution about the future, as all indicators point to a mature market with far less scope for surprises.

The mobile phone market

Take the smartphone market for example. Apple reported record sales of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus whose principal difference to their predecessors is their larger size. Apple increased the size of its phones in response to the success in the market of its major Android rivals, especially Samsung. The success of the iPhone 6 is ironic given Steve Job’s famous proclamation that nobody would ever buy a large sized phone.

At the same time, Samsung has demonstrated that nothing lasts forever by reporting earlier this month that its operating profit had dropped around 40% over the previous year on dissapointing sales of its smartphones.

Samsung is finding it tough going because markets are maturing and there is increasing competition from Chinese manufacturers of inexpensive Android phones.

Apple’s iPhone 6 has now caught up with the top of the range Android devices on features. The problem is, where to next? For the smartphone market, it is difficult to see any obvious market-shifting developments waiting to be implemented.

If life potentially may become difficult for Apple, the results of Microsoft and Amazon showed how impossible it is for anyone other than Apple and Android manufacturers to rest any significant market share. Amazon ironically enough, crashed and burned with its smartphone, the Firephone. They sold so few of these devices that they were left with a $83 million worth of hardware at the end of the quarter.

Microsoft on the other hand finished assimilating Nokia and slightly increased sales of its Windows phone globally this quarter. Its market share however continues to be completely insignificant compared to the iPhone and Android.

The tablet market

If the smartphone market is showing signs of maturing, the tablet market, for Apple at least, continues its path into decline with sales falling 8% over the previous year. Gartner estimates that the overall tablet market will increase over last year but clearly this is at the cheaper end of the market. Tablets are not replacing the PC as a primary work tool and larger phones are fulfilling the role of some of the smaller tablets, especially when used as media devices. Interestingly, Microsoft had more success with sales of its latest tablet, the Surface Pro 3 but one reason for this is its positioning of the device as a ultra laptop rather than as a pure tablet.

The personal computer market

If Microsoft was achieving some small success with the sales of the Surface Pro 3, sales of Windows continued to decline, reflecting an overall decline in PC sales globally of 1.7%. Apple again managed to buck this trend with an increase) in sales of its Mac computers of 21%. Clearly there is the potential for Apple here to continue to increase market share at the expense of Windows-based PCs but how long that can continue is not clear. Enterprise customers may be more comfortable with allowing staff to use Apple laptops now that they have adapted largely to supporting Apple mobile phones. Overall however, the PC market, leading those of smartphones and tablets, has definitely reached its peak.

And what of the future?

The PC, tablet, and phone are the primary devices that we use as our interface with the digital world. They all allow significant two-way interaction in contrast with other devices like smart TVs, media devices and even wearables which are mostly used to consume information. Even though we may see the smartwatch market grow with the release of Apple’s watch, it is not going to have the same impact on our working or social lives that the smartphone and tablet did. This ultimately will translate into all technology companies facing more challenging times with far less likelihood of surprising positive results.

Wearable technology will not bring about a health revolution

The health benefits of wearable technology may have been oversold, just a tad. Technology image via www.shutterstock.com

Rumours are surfacing that Microsoft will launch its own smartwatch in the next few weeks. Given that Microsoft Windows Phone accounts for just 2.5% of the world smartphone market, the watch will work with Apple and Android devices as well as Microsoft’s own platform.

What is interesting about this move is that the commentary about the device is focusing on its role in tracking heart rate rather than its other features.

The focus on the health aspects of wearables is part of a general trend amongst technology journalists who predict a “coming revolution in healthcare” as a result of these devices.

This is not surprising given that when Apple CEO Tim Cook announced Apple’s smart watch he described it as a “comprehensive health and fitness companion.”

The future of wearables as health devices is easy to imagine. Sensors will collect a range of data, software guided by artificial intelligence algorithms will make sense of this data and both the wearer and the wearer’s physician will be updated with a real-time analysis of the wearer’s health status.

Couple this with the terrifying statistic that in 2012, 50% of all US adults, that is 117 million people, had a chronic disease. In 2006, 84% of the total health budget was spent looking after this 50% of the population. The situation in the rest of the world is not that far behind the US.

Unfortunately, there are many problems with this picture that make the impact of wearables on health outcomes extremely limited.

The first of these is the limited number of people who currently use any sort of fitness tracker or smartwatch. Somewhere between 5% and 15% of Americans wear fitness trackers of any sort.

Of these, 35% will stop wearing their devices after six months. It is not known what proportion of people with smartwatches actually use the fitness tracking capabilities of these watches on an ongoing basis.

There is little information about the demographics of people who purchase fitness trackers and smartwatches; however, given the cost, consumers are likely to be the “wealthy well”.

People suffering from chronic disease on the other hand are more likely to come from the less educated and lower income population.

And then there is the issue of what data these devices collect and what we can actually do with that data. Fitness trackers and smartwatches currently report activity through steps and heart rate.

This is useful information to measure exercise intensity and duration, but not very useful as a diagnostic for health. Even if sensors could deliver information that was useful in actual diagnosing or managing health conditions, there would always be an issue with doctors reluctance to rely on information they haven’t themselves collected and on equipment that was not medically certified.

Acting on unverified information could leave medical personnel legally if that information later turned out to be incorrect. None of the smartwatch manufacturers is currently interested in taking their watches through a medical certification process and so the data that comes from them is always going to be couched in legal disclaimers.

Finally, there is the issue of privacy. Storing step counts on Fitbit.com’s website may be acceptable to most people but the idea of storing more sensitive health-related information with companies like Apple and Google will prove another major barrier to adoption.

It was privacy fears that stalled the adoption of Google’s and Microsoft’s previous attempts at providing a cloud-based health record services.

Doctors and health services wanting to interact directly with data provided by patients’ wearables would have to be extremely confident that they could do this without that data being accessed by hackers.
Fundamentally however, wearables do not address the central issue of the burgeoning chronic disease problem which is caused by poor diet, drinking alcohol, smoking and lack of exercise.

The root cause of these behaviours are social and economic. While the tech companies may try to market wearables on the basis of health benefits, these devices will never be a revolutionary cure.

Digital death and the digital afterlife. How to have one and how to avoid it

Digital Death.

In 2012, the UK’s Sunday Times reported that actor Bruce Willis was going to sue Apple because he was not legally allowed to bequeath his iTunes collection of music to his children. The story turned out to be false (and shockingly bad journalism) but it did start a conversation about what we can, and can’t, do with our digital possessions.

It turns out that “possessions” is actually a misnomer. We actually don’t own the music, books and movies we “buy” from Apple and Amazon. As Amazon puts it in its license terms, “Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider”. In other words, we are allowed to read the content but we are not allowed to pass it on.

It comes as no surprise then that 93% of Americans surveyed were unaware or misinformed when asked about what digital assets they were able to pass on in the event of their death.

But the problems don’t stop there. Relatives of the recently deceased are frequently left with a range of decisions and challenges when it comes to dealing with their online accounts, especially social media. This is not made easier by the fact that every company implements different strategies in dealing with accounts belonging to a deceased user, coupled with the fact that in the UK in 2012 at least, the average user had 26 accounts. In most cases, getting an account shut down requires close family to produce a range of documentation to prove that they have the right to request that the account is terminated. This doesn’t allow for those relatives to get access to the content of the accounts however.

Taking a lead in making the process of handling accounts of the deceased simpler, Google has implemented their Inactive Account Manager. This allows anyone to specify what should happen in the event that an account has not been accessed for at least 3 months. Up to 10 people can be notified and the contents of the accounts, including services such as YouTube and Google+, shared with them. Alternatively, the accounts can simply be automatically deleted.

Facebook will, on request, “memorialise” a person’s Facebook page. This freezes the page with the same permissions as it had when it was last accessed by the user but will stop the page from being discovered in a search and will not actively promote the page to others.

The role of social media in the bereavement process has been the focus of an increasing amount of research. Generally, it is thought that social media can help in the bereavement process, although the persistence of a person’s profile online may make final acceptance of the passing more difficult. An interesting finding has been that when people post on a memorial page, they frequently do so in the present tense as if the person was still alive.

In the UK, a survey has found that 36% of people would like their profiles to continue being available online after they die, with a larger proportion of 18-24 year olds preferring this option than over 55s.

It doesn’t have to stop there. There are now services which allow you to continue Tweeting after you die using a bot that has studied your tweeting style. Other services allow users to send final messages via Facebook and LinkedIn.

Digital estate planning is starting to become more of the norm and people are being prompted to think about what they want done with their digital assets and accounts after they die. This is going to be a significant issue for social media companies in the future. Since Facebook started, about 10-20 million users will have died. This number will increase and eventually overtake the number of living users on the site, by one estimate, in 2060.

In one humorous envisioning of the future, Tom Scott has produced a disturbing possibility in his video “Welcome To Life: the singularity, ruined by lawyers”. In it, he describes a corporate sponsored network as a resting place for the digital version of your consciousness, that is, of course, ad sponsored. In this case as with the question today, it is perhaps best for all if your online social presence ends when you do.

Welcome To Life