Progression and consolidation: technology in 2017

Tech review 2017
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2017 review

A year ago we asked the Channel what tech would look like in 2017. Now at the end of the year, Jonathan Easton looks back at that future-gazing to see just how accurate our industry insiders were

In terms of the Channel, 2017 was quite a dramatic year, punctuated by the shocking shuttering of firms such as Entatech, Mad Catz and Misco. But while the industry was changing from a business point of view, it too was evolving in terms of sales and products.

In order to look back, we’ve taken the three big talking points from last year’s predictions to see where we stand now at the end of 2017.

The rise of the machines

One area that almost everyone we spoke to a year ago agreed on was that 2017 would see a drastic rise in the prevalence of AI assistants.

“I expect AI to take the tech world by storm in 2017,” said Gekko MD Dan Todaro, and he wasn’t wrong. Amazon’s Echo range did gangbusters, as its Alexa AI became one of the most hotly discussed technological talking points of the year. Amazon launched new Echo ranges, while a bevy of vendors employed Alexa, Google’s Assistant and Microsoft’s Cortana into their speakers; and even Apple got in on the act with its Homepod to be released in December. In the realm of phones, Samsung even dedicated an entire button to its new Bixby assistant in its flagship Galaxy S8 handset.

South Park Alexa

Not only was Alexa, along with Google’s Assistant, the subject of a lampooning on South Park (a sign if ever there was one of something having a cultural impact), but they both became vital ecommerce tools. In August it emerged that almost half of Alexa users were making purchases using their voice – a figure that is likely to have grown even greater in the months since.

At the time of writing, the holiday shopping period is just around the corner, and, according to Salmon, 45 per cent of consumers already use or plan to soon use digital assistants in making their Christmas purchases.

Our industry cohorts didn’t quite predict the impact of smart assistants in consumer sales, but they did anticipate them having a huge year. One such prediction came from Vanti CEO and CompTIA executive council member Mike Brooman. “I think we’re going see AI taking a more central role in the industry,” he said. “We’ve already started to see glimpses of it coming through this year but what we’ll see in 2017 is it becoming more mainstream.”

VR’s faltering start

Virtual reality was all the rage in 2016. It was all anyone wanted to talk about. From the high-profile (and high-budget) ad campaigns around Sony’s PlayStation VR, to the use of HTC Vive headsets in a ride at Thorpe Park, VR dominated the conversation of ‘future tech today’ way back in 2016.

Now however if you read any article about VR devices on the market, the words ‘problem’ and ‘disappointment’ are likely to appear towards the top of the story. Headlines such as ‘This VR cycle is dead’ and ‘VR sales numbers are wet blanket on adoption hopes’ show that the enthusiasm for the technology has wavered to say the least.

In terms of sales figures, it got off to a flying start. Sony sold 745,000 PSVR units within the first three months of going on sale, but it wasn’t until June that it hit the one million milestone and the company hasn’t updated us on numbers since. However, the company in October – one year on from launch – revealed a new, slightly modified, version of the headset and reinforced its commitment to the platform (though it must be noted that a large criticism of VR – in particular for gaming – isn’t so much of the hardware, but that there has been a lack of compelling software titles to keep users engaged).

PS VR

In a similar vein, Oculus made a Summer price cut to its Rift headset permanent in the Autumn and announced a new PC-less headset to counter what some perceived to be a poor year for the company (following disappointing sales figures and the PR nightmare of ex-boss Palmer Luckey).

Some 12 months ago however, the Channel hadn’t bought into VR quite as much as the blogosphere. Many of the industry figures we spoke to said that it was augmented reality that was set to have a breakout year in 2017. “I think AR will be a bigger focus this year than VR,” ruminated Maximity director and CompTIA executive council member Tracy Pound.

And indeed, at both Apple and Google the conversation did shift a lot of the excitement towards AR. Apple launched ARKit for developers to create apps for iOS and Google’s own ARCore platform launched on a few phones to do the same for Android. Right now it certainly seems like the momentum is with AR.

Still though there is much optimism around VR, with it entering the ‘Slope of Enlightenment’ phase of Gartner’s oft-cited Hype Cycle meaning that, going forward, things should be on the up. AR however is, according to the research firm, set to enter the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’ – i.e. expect a lot of the doom-laden rhetoric from 2017 about VR to move towards AR during 2018.

The PC problem

While people had varying opinions on the state of VR 12 months ago, one universally held belief was that the desktop PC would continue its struggle to remain relevant in an increasingly mobile world. Brooman even went so far as to make the absolute claim that ‘the desktop will definitely continue its decline in 2017’.

However, contrary to popular belief, 2017 actually saw something of a stable year for PC sales, according to IDC. It had previously been projected that sales of PCs (including notebooks, desktops and workstations) would decline by 1.4 per cent year-on-year, but the analyst announced in October that sales had slowed to a decline of only 0.5 per cent.

“With customers increasingly adopting a mobility mindset, notebooks were undoubtedly the drivers for the EMEA PC market,” IDC stated. “Although desktops continued to erode, growing interest in gaming contributed towards keeping the desktop market afloat.”

A contributing factor towards this as well was the resurgence of AMD with its Ryzen, Threadripper and Vega component ranges. The growth in competition drove sales and helped the better-than-expected PC sales.

Tick tock goes the clock

2017 didn’t really see the release of any massively innovative products. What we got, by and large, were developments and iterations of technology and categories that had been introduced in previous years.

Alexa dominated, VR fluctuated, the PC bounced back and the iPhone lost its home button. But the main takeaway from all this is that the Channel was pretty spot on with its predictions.

With 2017 largely being a year of consolidation for emerging tech, we can only hope that 2018 will build upon the successes of the past 12 months and introduce even more exciting innovations and opportunities. 

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