Big technology trends and storylines of 2012

December 30, 2011

We’ve already looked back at the technology stories from 2011 that had us waiting in long lines (thanks, iPhone 4S), waxing nostalgic (RIP Steve Jobs) or, in some cases, just scratching our heads (Qwikster? Huh?).

But what will the new year bring? What storylines will dominate the conversation about the tech industry? We’ve scoured forecasts released by analysts, journalists and industry insiders to find what they say will dominate the conversation about the tech industry next year. Here’s what to watch for:

Mobile payment systems will go mainstream. Many consumers long ago ditched cash in favor of the ease and convenience of paying with plastic. Now, thanks to apps that allow users to make payments with the tap of a smartphone, shelling out money is poised to get even easier. Google Wallet, which launched in September 2011, is currently only available on a few models of phones and many small retailers are not equipped to use it. But some analysts say that 2012 is the year that mobile payments will proliferate as more devices are outfitted with the crucial Near Field Communication (NFC) chip that makes these transactions possible. Forrester Research said in a June report that it expects mobile commerce to be a $31 billion business by 2016. Given that potential for growth, it’s likely other tech firms will attempt to challenge Google with their own mobile payment apps. In fact, telecom giants Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile have announced a joint venture digital wallet program called Isis, which is slated to debut in 2012.

The Facebook IPO will finally happen, and it will be major. The world’s most popular social network appears headed for a major status update. Many analysts suggest that the company will finally go from private to public in 2012 in what would likely be the largest initial public offering ever for a technology company. Just how big would the IPO be? In January 2011, Goldman Sachs valued the company at $50 billion when it offered private clients a chance to invest in Facebook. Later, in November, the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News reported that company was seeking to raise $10 billion for an IPO worth $100 billion. And if the filing indeed takes place, you can expect its first day of trading to be a big event on Wall Street. The IPO may not be Facebook’s only milestone next year: At least one forecaster suggests the firm could register its 1 billionth user.

Tablets will continue their hot streak. Many experts and insiders seemed to agree on this point. But they differed in their assessments of whether Apple would continue to be king of the heap. According to a December report from research firm IDC, Apple has captured 62 percent of the worldwide tablet market, while Android has just 32 percent. A recent spate of Apple rumors suggest that iPad 3 could be arriving as early as February and may be accompanied by a smaller “iPad mini.” Will that be enough to ward off competition from Android-powered tablets such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab or the relatively low-priced Kindle Fire? Tech geeks and investors everywhere will be closely watching.

‘Ultrabooks’ will gain traction as viable tablet alternative. The so-called ultrabook may be the perfect alternative for someone who likes the sleek, lightweight quality of a tablet but wants a full keyboard. Acer, Asus, Toshiba and Lenovo all offered ultrabooks in 2011. In forecasting a boom in this niche in 2012, Mashable’s Lance Ulanoff wrote, “They’re perfectly designed for getting real work done, but no one will be embarrassed to carry one around.”

Siri’s popularity will spawn imitators. One of the buzziest features of Apple’s iPhone 4S was its voice-activated “personal assistant” named Siri that was equal parts whimsical novelty and practical functionality. While other voice-activated technology existed before Apple’s, Siri introduced a level of sophistication and accuracy that makes for a more seamless user experience. (And she’s got a bit of a sense of humor, too.) It has been reported that Google’s answer to Siri, a project codenamed Majel, could be unveiled in 2012.

Big tech firms will keep jockeying to be all things to all people. It was not that long ago that the tech industry was a fairly compartmentalized one. Motorola, Nokia, RIM, and Apple duked it out for cellphone supremacy; Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile vied for telecom customers; Google battled with Yahoo and Microsoft’s Bing in the Web search market. But those once fairly clear-cut lines were majorly blurred in 2011 as tech companies began trying to expand their silos in order to pull in more dollars and snuff out competitors. Google acquired Motorola Mobility and made an aggressive push into the social networking realm with Google+. Retailer Amazon launched a tablet computer. Microsoft aimed to rival iOs and Android the mobile phone arena with its Windows Phone 7 operating system. Rumors abound that 2012 may be the year Verizon scoops up Netflix, Facebook launches a smartphone or that Apple launches a full-fledged television, all of which suggest that this trend of convergence seems on track to continue and perhaps even heighten.

“Hacktivism” and other cybersecurity threats will get more sophisticated. Both McAfee and Cisco say in their annual forecasts that they expect “hacktivism” to be a prominent cybersecurity issue in 2012. Groups like Anonymous, they say, will continue to use hacking as a means of sending a message or targeting polarizing public figures. McAfee also warns that malware for mobile devices, GPS systems and even medical equipment will get more effective in 2012.

Patent wars will slog on. Tech companies waged some fierce battles over patents in 2011. Oracle sued Google, alleging that its Java patents were infringed on by Google’s Android operating system. Apple accused Motorola, HTC and Samsung of copying the iPhone, and Eastman Kodak waged a patent dispute with RIM and Apple over a mechanism for previewing digital images. Expect these still-in-progress cases to grind on in 2012.

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economics news.
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