Let’s face it: 2016 was a fairly disappointing year for the average gadget nerd. Yes, there were some bright spots, but they were mostly glimpses of technologies that are approaching rather than ones that are changing our lives right now.
If there is a takeaway for consumers from 2016 — as we predicted at the start of the year — it’s that we appear to be in a bit of a lull when it comes to exciting pieces of technology. And while we’ve seen new gadgets come onto the scene, even the big successes this year felt more incremental than monumental.
There are a few reasons for this. For one, much of the innovation in the technology world of late has been in software — the thing about apps, streaming music and streaming video is that they manage to revolutionize devices that we already have. In fact, they’re best when they don't become their own devices — otherwise, we’d all need a lot more outlets in our homes.
Another is that designing hardware is, well, hard. The smartphone was an extraordinary invention that required a lot of conditions to converge and make it successful. In the years since the smartphone burst onto the scene, manufacturers have worked hard to make them thinner, lighter and more powerful — and appear to have come pretty close to hitting the upper bound of useful improvement. Fingerprint readers and curved screens bring their own advantages, but they’re hardly as revolutionary as the touch screen. That could explain why people, in general, are becoming less likely to rush out and get a brand-new device rather than just wait until their old one fades away. Our love of tech is still strong, but it's not quite as exciting.
Home hubs such as Amazon’s Echo family and Google Home started to prove their worth, but they’ve hardly become a necessity — in fact, their greatest value is their promise to work with a Web of connected home devices that still haven’t proven their worth. Driverless cars have made leaps and bounds in terms of research and even some pilot programs, but they aren’t hitting your garage any time soon. Virtual reality made the biggest strides this year to hit the mainstream, but despite the rosy world painted in Samsung ads, it’s still not a “one in every house” sort of gadget.
The devices on which the tech industry has pinned its hopes are, in fact, ones that will take time to develop as products — and will also take time to earn consumers' trust. Tech companies have had to turn to more personalized tech, which raises all kinds of questions in consumers' minds about oversharing with their tech. Telling a Nest thermostat when you're out of the house, or confiding your shopping preferences to an Amazon Echo that keeps records of your voice may give you pause. That's hardly the kind of excitement that makes you stand in line for hours, particularly when the benefits of a fitness tracker may not outweigh your worries about how closely it's tracking your location. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post.)
Taking a look at what’s on deck for the big CES industry show in 2017, we'll continue to see these small steps before we see giant leaps: smart home gadgets, drones, 3D printing and wearables are all being touted as the tentpoles of the industry again this year. While they’re all steadily improving and worth watching to see what is coming down the pike, none of them have managed to become as ubiquitous as the smartphone quite yet. Nor has their been a gadget — like the iPhone or the Samsung's Galaxy line — that's inspired the sort of singular devotion that we’ve seen in the past for revolutionary gadgets.
Even the latest Apple rumors for the iPhone, in what will be the tenth anniversary of Apple’s smartphone, are a little lackluster. Yes, there are rumors of an all-glass, wireless charging, very sharp-screened iPhone “Ferrari” model, but there’s also the expectation that Apple will simply add it as another option alongside more incrementally updated phones — further confusing Apple’s once-sleek product line.
What it seems we can expect next year are more gadgets that may not rock our worlds but can improve them. This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. Without major stars in the constellation of gadgets, we could see prices for parts come down and turn into improvements for cheaper devices. Intriguing ideas — smart thermostats, connected door locks, etc. -- may get more competitors and give consumers more choice as it becomes cheaper to build them.
But while the pilot programs for the next big things are promising and early adopters may be happy, mainstream tech users will probably upgrade their technology in drips and drabs as it fits their budget, rather than rush out to start a tech revolution all at once. That doesn’t mean tech has stalled or stopped or collapsed. But the truth is that there may be no star gadget in 2017 — just a collection of smaller hits instead.