This is CES week, when the consumer electronics industry, and some of the tech industry, descends on Las Vegas like digital locusts, to show off some new wares. I'll be there again, as I have been for many, many years. And my Verge colleagues will have great, wall-to-wall coverage.
But, as I noted in an essay last year, the most important consumer tech companies — the ones you rely on most every day — have very little presence at the show. And the most impactful consumer tech products of the last 20 years or so weren't unveiled there.
So, for this week's column, I thought I'd look past Las Vegas, and past the ritual predictions of what will happen in tech this year. Instead, I'd like to talk about what should be done in 2016 by five of the biggest companies — to make your everyday digital life better.
The search giant has already said it's pooling some of the engineering teams from its two operating systems, Android and Chrome OS. I am told by top officials there that this doesn't mean an entirely new software platform is in the offing. There is already some limited ability to run Android apps on Chrome. But it would be pretty great if Chromebooks could, out of the box, run all Android apps — provided that, unlike on the recent Pixel C tablet, the Android apps were able to adapt better to a bigger screen. Oh, and to repeat a wish I expressed in an earlier column, 2016 should be the year Google starts building its own smartphones.
The dominant digital hardware company needs to use 2016 to get a better handle on its software. The core Mail, Calendar and other out-of-the-box apps on the iPhone, iPad, and even the Mac haven't had really major re-thinks in years. Both iTunes on the Mac and the Music app on iOS also need simplifying and renovating, especially since Apple Music was grafted onto them. And the company's cloud services — long a weak point — need shoring up. It's great that Siri can summon up tunes on your new Apple TV, not so great when the tunes stop playing midway through.
The longtime software king is enjoying dipping its toe into hardware, with tablets, phones and even a hybrid laptop. And old, familiar desktop Windows keeps perking along. But the modern, touch-centric, full-screen app platform built into all its devices via Windows 10 still desperately lacks third-party apps.This is especially damaging for the company's smartphone line. In recent years, Microsoft has tried paying developers, and now it's trying to leverage Windows 10 on PCs to get them to write so-called "universal" apps that can run on all its devices. But, so far, it doesn't seem to be working. If the Windows 10 Universal app strategy doesn't catch fire by summer, Microsoft should turn to Plan C, whatever that is. I hope it can. Having a competitive third smartphone platform would be good for consumers.
It's hard to fault the king of e-commerce for its highly customer-friendly online retail business, or its addicting and expanding Prime subscription offering. But it's easy to wonder whether Amazon will ever again do a truly great consumer hardware product like the Kindle reader. Its color tablets have been mediocre, its smartphone was a flop, and its set-top box is actually harder to navigate than competitors from Roku and Apple, in my view. The Echo intelligent speaker was impressive, but seemed more like a demonstration of the company's underlying Alexa artificial intelligence system than an essential hardware product. So, my wish for Amazon for 2016 is to get bolder with hardware. Maybe take another shot at a smartphone, with Alexa behind it. Or maybe build out the Echo as a whole house system.
With over a billion daily active users, Facebook is not only a huge success, but it's getting crowded. And so is your news feed. Once you have more than, say, a hundred friends, it becomes easy to miss posts of interest. Awhile back, the company introduced a feature that let you designate whose posts you wanted to see at the top of your feed, but I find that this just drive other potentially interesting posts deeper down the silo. There's also a way to remain friends but not see posts, an option I stumbled upon one day. So, for 2016, I'd like Facebook to rethink the news feed in a major way, with a central focus on giving users greater control and a clearer understanding of how to exercise it.
I'm as excited as anyone to see the new gadgets, apps and services that 2016 will bring, especially after a relatively unexciting year in 2015. But I also think the big five platform companies, the ones without big booths at CES, can can still make products and services we all rely on so much better than they are today.