Tech journalists, enthusiasts, and investors are always waiting for The Next Big Thing, the compelling new device, app, or service that will captivate, and change, the world. Like Google search, or the iPhone, or the Kindle, or Facebook.
But nothing like that happened in 2015.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. All the big tech companies, and some small ones too, brought out new things, and, in my reviews, I liked some, and not others. Some sold well, others flopped. But nothing newly minted in 2015 has captivated and remade the lives of the masses yet, though some technologies that I believe will eventually do so got better and more real this year. At the same time, some vital, foundational tech showed signs of stagnation or worse.
So here are some broad trends I saw in 2015.
The smartphone seems mature
The smartphone is the most important computer in our lives now, and, in 2015, it seemed to lose the ability to surprise us with significant new features. That doesn’t mean it’s done — not by a long shot. Lots of people globally still lack one. And there could be something very cool brewing in the labs in Cupertino, Mountain View, Seoul, and Shenzhen.
3D Touch hasn't seemed to take off
But, in 2015, we got little big news out of the top phones offered by Apple, Samsung, or Google’s Nexus line. All were very good, even excellent, in many respects. Cheaper phones got good, but didn’t bring bold new features.
Perhaps the most disappointing new twist came from Apple’s 3D Touch. In my iPhone 6S review, I said I thought it could become a big deal. But, so far, it hasn’t seemed to take off. Maybe next year. Maybe never.
The laptop continues to struggle
Microsoft and its hardware partners continue to work to turn around a years-long slump in Windows laptop sales with touchscreen designs that try to combine the laptop and tablet form factor. The software giant even brought out its own sleek, high-end hybrid laptop, the Surface Book, this fall.
But it isn’t working. Research firm Gartner reported a 7.7 percent year-over-year decline in PC sales in the third quarter of 2015. This drop was entirely in Windows machines, as the Mac posted a small gain. Perhaps the holiday quarter will be the start of a turnaround, but I’m not counting on it. The laptop remains vital, but people aren’t impressed enough with all the hybrid designs to want to buy new ones very often. Even Apple’s latest offering, the sleek little pricey MacBook that requires an adapter to use standard USB devices, hasn’t exactly generated waves of enthusiasm. The newest Mac is slow, overpriced, and has a keyboard some find tough to get used to. So, presumably, those relatively healthy Mac sales are generated by the MacBook Air and Pro.
Microsoft is back
After completely blowing the 2007 smartphone revolution, and bringing out a confusing and flawed version of Windows, Microsoft seemed to come out of a coma in 2015. During the year, Redmond launched a much-improved version of its iconic OS, Windows 10; refined its Surface Pro tablet offering and began to see both sales and praise increase; and, as noted, launched its first notebook.
Microsoft seemed to come out of a coma in 2015
Perhaps even more importantly, the company delivered more and better versions of its software crown jewels and online services to its competitors’ mobile operating systems and cloud platforms. This is a new strategy designed to spread the gospel of Microsoft apps, regardless of which device or service a customer uses, and to compensate for the fact that the company lacks its own popular mobile platform.
Microsoft still has a lot of work to do, especially in smartphones, but new CEO Satya Nadella has a clear vision for the future of Microsoft and the company is executing well enough to get itself back in the game.
Apple’s big new product isn’t setting the world on fire
The year’s biggest hype was bestowed on the Apple Watch, the first big new hardware category Apple has embarked upon since the 2011 death of Steve Jobs. But, eight months later, it’s hardly talked about anymore. App makers aren’t hyping new apps much, and, at least for me, the Watch is mainly useful for texts and fitness tracking. The whole category seemed in 2015 to be looking for a reason to exist.
Smartwatches seem to be looking for a reason to exist
This doesn’t mean the Apple Watch isn’t selling well for a smartwatch, though Apple doesn’t release sales figures for the device. Just based on its build quality, number of apps, and the Apple brand, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the world’s best-selling smartwatch (as opposed to a fitness band). Some analysts think it will be a popular Christmas gift. But smartwatches themselves are just a niche now.
This past year was another very strong one financially for Apple, and its major products remain, in my view, best in class. But iPad sales keep dropping, and, given its success, it grows tougher and tougher to scale new heights with the iPhone. Apple has to hope that, like the iPod years ago, the Watch is just a slow starter that will become huge.
The Internet of Things remains a mess
Even more than in 2014, companies continued to churn out gadgets and apps to control everything from your lights and thermostats to your door locks and appliances. Some of these things can even be tied together. But it’s all still too confusing and disjointed for typical consumers. This is true despite the fact that Apple, Google, and others introduced systems to try and instill some order and consistency. But IoT makers have been slow to use these. Judging from 2015, it may be that people won’t go for anything much more complicated than the Clapper.
Artificial intelligence gets better and better
All the major platforms now have intelligent, voice-controlled, methods of input. And all got smarter and more capable in 2015. After four years, Apple’s Siri is now reasonably reliable and useful. It even can conduct granular searches on the new Apple TV. Ditto for the voice commands in Google Now. Amazon has jumped into the game with Alexa, in the Amazon Echo and more. And Microsoft with Cortana. In 10 years, the state of all this in 2015 will no doubt seem crude. But compared to Siri when it debuted in 2011, it’s impressive. And 2015 will also be remembered as the year that Elon Musk formed a nonprofit designed to make sure AI advances remain open source, to protect against some potentially dangerous version down the road.
And the foundations of the future were being built
There are four technologies that, while not yet mainstream, made major strides in 2015. One is virtual and augmented reality, which Oculus, Samsung, and others are pushing. In 2015, even an aging institution, The New York Times, distributed cardboard VR viewers with its newspapers to try storytelling with the technology.
The second is mobile contactless payments, which could someday replace credit cards. Apple has Apple Pay, and Google has the similar Android Pay. Confusingly, Samsung — the largest Android phone maker — has its own system, Samsung Pay. Most of these services are still accepted at too few merchants, offline and online, to be an integral part of daily life. But they grew in 2015, and I believe that will continue.
It wasn't the most exciting year — but the seeds of the future were sown
The third is driverless cars. Google is the leader here, having done years of work on the idea. But Apple is believed to be working on it. And every conventional car maker is as well. There are even rumors of a Google-Ford joint venture of some kind. Mainstream use is years away and faces regulatory obstacles, but a lot happened in 2015.
Something similar can be said about civilian drones. They’re still not a daily sight on your average street, but they’ve become so common in 2015 that the government is requiring that they be registered. And Amazon last month showed off prototypes for a fleet of package-delivery drones.
No, this wasn’t the most exciting year in personal technology. But it may have sown the seeds of great things to come.