There’s always something to divert us, isn’t there, some novelty in the field of consumer electronics that quiets the desperation and keeps the existential wolves at bay.
As a team that makes its living from reviewing and writing about gadgets, we here in the Digital Life Laboratories were concerned that 2017 might be a little quiet, putting us out of a job. How much more is there to say about the latest phone? (Turns out, quite a bit…)
But on the contrary, 2017 turned out to be fascinating, not only for the things that actually came out this year, but for the things that appeared on the horizon. Advances in artificial intelligence, backed by big data and vast cloud-based computing power, put us on the verge of huge, life-changing developments in computing.
We were hoping that 2017 would be the year that voice assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana and Samsung’s Bixby would really find their voice, so to speak.
Controlling computers with your voice will eventually give rise to what’s known as “ambient computing”, where we simply voice the thing we want (“Play Better Call Saul“, “Cool the house down another 2 degrees”) and pay no mind to the thing that does it.
But we didn’t quite get there this year. All manner of devices, from vacuum cleaners to Wi-Fi speakers, had voice control added to them in 2017, but the result has been you need to operate two or three different systems simultaneously (chiefly Alexa and Google, but also Siri) to take advantage of them.
While some of the voice-control companies have started to work together, so a command issued to Cortana might, for instance, turn on a light controlled by Alexa (Microsoft and Amazon are two of the companies that decided to collaborate in 2017, as did Microsoft and Google), it’s still very early days. We’re a long way away from the seamless, voice-controlled world that all this will result in.
In the meantime, there’s a more practical problem to solve. How do users find out about new and even existing voice commands? On a device with a screen, there’s a menu of things you can do. But voice-controlled devices offer no such menu. Figuring out a non-intrusive way to “surface” existing or new features is one of the big challenges for 2018.
Internet of Things
After a bit of a false start a few years ago, Internet of Things (IoT) devices started to make a comeback in 2017, almost entirely as a corollary of developments in voice control.
While you might question the value of a lightbulb that you can turn on only after you have rummaged around the house for your mobile phone, a light globe you can turn on with a voice command such as “Alexa, turn the bedroom light on … Alexa, set the bedroom light to purple” makes a great deal more sense.
There is still a problem with market fragmentation – a motion sensor from brand X may not be able to automatically turn on a light globe from brand Y, for instance – but hopefully some of that will be sorted out in 2018, through the voice partnerships mentioned above, and through efforts to create open platforms for IoT device interoperability. In October, Samsung said it would create an open platform for all IoT devices to work together, and while Samsung is anything but the market leader in IoT, artificial intelligence and voice control, it does sell more things than any other company, so something may come of it.
The chance of Apple’s “Home” IoT platform working with Samsung’s “SmartThings” IoT platform seems remote, though. One can only dream, I guess.
Speaking of the two giants of consumer electronics, there was a little progress in the mobile phone business in 2017, nothing as world-changing as voice and IoT, but something to get excited about nonetheless: displays now account for just about the whole front of phones.
Samsung’s three flagship phones, the Galaxy Note8 and the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus, all went all screen (well, 83 to 84 per cent screen-to-body ratio, at least), as did Apple’s iPhone X (83 per cent screen).
LG’s V30 (81 per cent) and G6 (79 per cent), Huawei’s Mate 10 Pro (81 per cent), HTC’s U11 Plus (78 per cent) and a few others moved to the new screen format, too.
App-wise, the transition to the new format, which generally has an 18:9(ish) aspect ratio rather than the 16:9 aspect ratio we were all used to, was much smoother for Android users than iPhone X users. Most Android apps just seem to adopt the aspect ratio with no questions asked, but even as 2017 draws to a close, a vast number of iOS apps still use the old aspect ratio on the new phone.
Thanks in part to Apple’s decision to abandon the 3.5mm headphone jack in its iPhones, a move which opened the way for Google to do the same with its Pixel phones, Bluetooth headphones enjoyed a renaissance in 2017.
All manner of innovation took place in Bluetooth headphones, from earbuds that use minute changes in your pulse to help you relax, to ones that amplify the voices of people around you to help you hear better in pubs.
It’s a microcosm of a much larger trend in consumer electronics that’s been going on for a few years now: crowdfunding has met with highly scalable, low-cost Chinese contract manufacturing to create a perfect gadget storm, where anyone with a good idea and a bit of get-up-and-go can bring their toys to a global marketplace full of people who want for nothing more than something new to play with.