With what has happened to us in 2020, there should not have been much scope to predict anything more. Last year, we said 2020 would see the advent of 5G, better smartphones, smarter everything, more voice-enabled devices and data driven users. While most of this ended up being true, except for the fact that India is still a generation behind 5G, we all missed out factoring in a tiny virus that was already gaining some currency, in a part of China at least.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the unprecedented lengths to which we had to go to keep its spread under check also resulted in never-before imagined dependence on technology. The entire world was suddenly stuck at home with real life getting an unnerving accent of virtual reality as we tried to get close to friends, family and colleagues without actually being there. As social distancing ensured technology we had taken for granted, such as video conferencing and collaborative software, scaled up to new heights, it also burst many bubbles, especially those in the space of travel tech. And the Internet really came to the rescue as people across the world people kept their jobs because of this ubiquitous technology.
For a change, as everyone uncharacteristically trudges towards a new year with caution, there is a lot you can expect in the world of technology. What has happened in 2020 will have a significant impact in how technology shapes up in the coming year. This is very unusual, because technology is usually forward looking. But it all depends on things remaining at least the way they are — ceteris paribus as the economists would say. Here is our punt on what the tech world will be like in 2021.
We will be pushing the envelope in optimism if we expect to be back in office soon. Even with a vaccine, work from home has got acceptance across the world and businesses have not really seen a drop in productivity. So if last year #WFH was an act of desperation, in the new year you will see more technologies that act as enablers for remote employment at scale. We already have a host of companies that help collaboration among colleagues in real time, but we could see startups emerge with out-of-the-box ideas on creating virtual offices that take away the requirement for being in a physical space.
There is already lot of talk about extended reality, or XR, being extended to fill the gaps in our work environment. XR is a mix of augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR) that combine the realms of the real and virtual. In a few months, you could be back sitting next to your colleagues in office, though they are spread all over the country, thanks to a 5G-powered XR headset you are wearing to work from home. Or explaining a new project to customers in a virtual boardroom as they walk around scaled-down models, moving them with virtual swipes. Companies like Qualcomm are already close to this rather confusing reality, which is already used to train people before they get to work on high-value assets.
Then a lot of bells and whistles that are impacting the very experience of work from home could get polished. For instance, laptop makers might finally start making a Full HD camera a standard feature because it has suddenly become the most important feature in the device. You could also see laptops with wireless connectivity become more common as these try to unfetter from Wi-Fi and offer a connectivity backup to those working remotely. This is where 5G could become an important part of enterprises in the coming year.
As people the world over spend more time at home, there is a huge opportunity to offer them indoors what they are missing outside. This is why you could see a boost in how home entertainment technologies improve in the coming months. Television screens could become larger, offering immersive experiences and theatre-quality sound. We have already seen a bit of this with projectors that can create cinematic sound. This push will also come with increased affordability of better technologies. While this would mean curtains on many cinemas, new streaming services will try and cater to all kinds of content demands to cash in on the urge to be entertained.
A lot of the smart home technology so far has been worked around scenarios where the residents would want to control gadgets from their places of work. Now with all these users stuck inside the homes, smart home software will have to improvise and improve the experiences of people who have nowhere to go, keeping them entertained, informed and healthy.
Also, expect gaming to enter our homes like never before. And no, it will not be limited to the younger ones. The segment is already in the midst of a boom thanks to the pandemic and now there will be new consoles and services that make gaming the vent for all your indoor frustrations, irrespective of age.
Your doctor is now more accessible than before, often just a tap away on an app. But these virtual consultations hit a hurdle as soon as there is a need to look at data. While smart watches and other gadgets now offer more data on different aspects of the user’s health and wellness, the quantified self is going to get more attention now. In early 2020, for instance, the Consumer Electronics Show had a lot on show around sleep technology. These products are now becoming available to people, tracking their vitals as they sleep and alerting them of anomalies as they wake up.
Expect more wearables and smart gadgets near your body keeping a tab in not just the vitals, but also alerting you of what could be the early symptom on an underlying condition. There will also be a lot more assistance in the wellness space, especially with stress management.
As our dependence on technologies increases, at least those who can afford it will start pulling out of the mainstream to subscription-based services that are niche, but offer a better quality and experience because of this. Companies are already working on products that offer a different experience from what the Internet offers for free. So you will see companies like Neeva that offer an ad-free search service and more publishers and production houses offer premium content behind a paywall.
The movement towards niches will also be a reaction to big tech, which is slowly losing user trust. While governments try to regulate how big and powerful these companies can be, the lack of trust is already moving users to scaled down environments where they are more confident of not being exploited as just a data binary.
While we have been hearing about artificial intelligence for decades, the pandemic has presented these models with use cases at unprecedented scale. As countries try to figure out how to vaccinate sizeable chunks of their populations, intelligent systems like IBM’s Watson will come into play in helping figure out the rollout of the vaccines. Since we are literally talking about everyone in the world, these are not figures that are easily manageable without help of AI-driven models. And it is not just about the vaccines: AI is already being used to alert about new Covid-18 hotspots based on early trends that are plotted against patterns seen elsewhere. Also, when there will be the question of how to tackle the surge in information demand from people as vaccinations starts, here too it could be computers that answer queries because of the sheer scale.
While Made in India devices are not rare anymore, expect these devices to be more Indian than before as companies try to cut the cord with China when it comes to what goes inside these gadgets. India has the potential to lay the foundation of a home-grown smartphone ecosystem this year, looking well beyond the software part. The country is already emerging as a smartphone manufacturing hub because of the large domestic market.
And what about the gadgets, you might ask. 2020 has been a weird year of makers of smartphones and other technologies. After a few weeks when sales dried up, most experienced a surge because of the pent-up demand. There was also the new opportunity created by online education. At the same time, a lot of the product thinking went out the window at least for a couple of years as it went down in the priority list.
In 2021, expect smartphones and all other devices to pack more computing power because that will be what they need to focus on, more than cameras and battery life — which are not such big pain points if you are not stepping out. With Apple entering the silicon space with its M1 processor, you will see the personal computing segment undergo some revolutionary changes with rivals trying their best to catch on the processing power and battery life this new entrant can offer. So by end of the year, expect more laptops to offer all-day battery life.
You will see folding, rolling, swivelling smartphones in the new year too, but they will stay well within the fringes and the consumers will be more bothered about the devices that will work long hours without tiring, offering good screen clarity and front cameras for video calls. There will also be a spate of affordable computing devices that try and offer a viable alternative to the budget smartphone that is now being used for online education in many households. Clearly the focus will be on the functional and not the gimmicky.