For better or worse, we begin 2018 in the wake of some historically significant political shifts. Across the U.S., Europe and beyond, establishment thinking and received wisdom failed to predict the electoral upheavals of 2016. In this piece, we explore some upheavals in the tech world that might also come sooner rather than later, manifesting a similar reaction against products and corporations that are increasingly perceived as both too powerful and too self-serving.
1. Apple will enter a full-blown identity crisis
Some might have thought that the corporate drama of Apple Computer would have ended after the Steve Jobs era – but the controversies that have come to characterize Tim Cook’s tenure have turned out to be just as enthralling.
The company Cook inherited in 2011 was very different from the one that Jobs found when he rejoined Apple in 1997. Jobs was brought in because the company had declined into near-irrelevance by the mid-90s; in contrast, Cook took over one of the largest and most successful companies in the world, boasting a highly desirable range of products and one of the most loyal customer bases around.
So, why this prediction — that 2018 is going to herald an identity crisis for Apple?
Well, things have been brewing for a while. First, there are the dumb design decisions that have characterised Cook’s tenure. Don’t get us wrong – Apple have always had a sideline in eccentric, overpriced, and failed products. Remember the 20th Anniversary Mac? Yeah, I thought not. One of the reasons I can’t forget it is that I think of it every time they show that episode of The Simpsons where Homer designs a car.
The 20th Anniversary Mac vs Homer Simpson’s car design
The doomed “hockey puck” – cute, but useless
Even in the Jobs era, there were some product design howlers, including the notoriously unusable “hockey puck” Apple Mouse that was released in 1998. Then, of course, there were the first-generation plastic MacBooks that first discoloured and then (literally) fell to pieces, earning themselves the nickname of “Crackbooks” in the process.
The top-case fiasco became a familiar sight for owners of the 2006 MacBook.
Dumb decisions in the Cook era have included a mouse that you have to turn upside-down to charge, and a battery pack for your iPhone that looks like a parody product, as well as making your phone look pregnant.
The official Apple Smart Battery Case for iPhone 6. Hmmm.
The 2015 Apple Magic Mouse 2. More hmmm.
Until recently, it was possible to take these eccentricities in good humor, largely because they were not that important. But things have been getting more serious in the past year.
For a start, Apple has embraced its market position and begun to systematically position its products as exclusive, premium alternatives to its run-of-the-mill competitors. This has included significant price hikes for its flagship products. A top-of-the-range MacBook Pro will set you back well over $4,000 with a 2TB hard drive, and the iPhone X begins at $999.
As a strategy, this might have been fine, had it not coincided with a series of increasingly embarrassing product design blunders. The 2016 and 2017 MacBook Pro have widely-reported problems with creaking or cracking screen hinges, and failing keyboards. Add to that some bizarre design decisions – such as adding a largely useless Touch Bar and a comically oversized trackpad – and you start to wonder what is going on.
The late 2016 MacBook Pro – beautiful but botched
The most widely remarked-upon oddity of the iPhone X is the “notch”, though I doubt that’s going to be an enduring objection to the product; it may indeed prove to be a very useful piece of branding at a time when other “all-screen” smartphones are pretty much indistinguishable from one another.
More likely to hit the iPhone X’s reputation are emerging security problems with FaceID, which, combined with the product’s exceptionally high price, may go some way to explaining the reportedly slow sales of the handset and its rumoured discontinuation.
The iPhone X from 2017
In short, Apple has set itself up as being better than the rest, but has got into a bad habit of releasing products – both hardware and software – that can’t really support that claim, especially given that the quality of PC and Android products have increased markedly over the past 5 years.
In just the past few weeks, this mismatch between the company’s positioning, and what it is tending to deliver, was painfully evident in the disastrous flaws that MacOS High Sierra shipped with. One bug even allowed anyone to log in to any Mac as an administrator without a password, which led Apple to issue an emergency fix and a grovelling apology. Such a basic error would be inexcusable in a bargain-basement product; that it happened in a major release of MacOS is astonishing from a company that has set itself up as a paragon of virtue in its industry.
Which leads us to our prediction. It’s within Apple’s power to turn things around this year, but it’s going to be difficult. Some of these issues are probably evidence of failing processes within the company – for example, inadequate pre-release quality control and software testing – while the loss of genuinely “pro” features in the MacBook Pro in favor of expensive adapters and gimmicks like the Touch Bar show a lack of connection with user needs.
In 2018, if Apple wants to preserve its prime industry position and justify its price tags, it needs to return to real user-centered product design and re-focus on truly exceptional product execution. What’s more likely to happen, we fear, is that we will see another couple of botched product releases and embarrassing security problems, precipitating an identity crisis and maybe even some high-level departures from the company following 4 years of flat-lining revenue growth.
2. First-wave social media will start to decline
For the purposes of this article, we’re defining “first-wave” social media as Facebook and Twitter – though of course before that, there was the social media vanguard of MySpace, Bebo, and FriendsReunited.
If, like me, you have spent (too) much of the past decade reluctantly but compulsively attached to social media, you might find it hard to believe that Facebook or Twitter will ever die. But, of course, nothing lasts forever, and there are signs that these services are past their prime.
They were most popular amongst millennials, who hit adulthood in the mid-2000s and were excited by the prospect of an easy way to keep in touch with their nascent networks of friends and professional contacts. Facebook also offered an important, accessible way for older people to connect with friends and family far away.
A younger generation of post-millennials, though, have largely failed to see the attraction in these platforms, which offer the user very little granularity in how they relate to and share with different people. Generation Z have turned in their droves to Snapchat and encrypted services like WhatsApp for more secure and granular social networking – which can more faithfully mirror offline social relationships – and to Instagram for a more narrowly defined public sharing experience. Post-millennials have only ever known a data-driven, digital world, and easily see through “meaningless” Facebook friendships.
Facebook has made attempts to recapture the teenage and young adult market with apps like 2014’s Lifestage. This, however, was shut down last year following a lack of user uptake. They have also tried to bring in younger users by acquiring Instagram and other services that the demographic already use. More recently, Facebook acquired tbh, an anonymous compliments app for teens that was reportedly feared to be a potential commercial threat.
On top of this, we have a growing and diverse chorus of voices warning of the dangers of highly engineered social media services. These concerns have emerged partly in response to the alleged propagation of fake and planted news stories through social platforms during the 2016 US election. However, it runs deeper than that.
More importantly, critics draw attention to the fact that it is a core part of the design of first-wave social media platforms to create cognitive overload, psychological addiction, and compulsive sharing. It’s become common knowledge that many high-profile figures in the tech world limit their kids’ screen time or even send them to screen-free schools, perhaps to combat the expansion of tech into every realm of life.
At the Davos international trade summit a few days ago, billionaire George Soros had this to say:
“Mining and oil companies exploit the physical environment; social media companies exploit the social environment. This is particularly nefarious because social media companies influence how people think and behave without them even being aware of it. This has far-reaching adverse consequences on the functioning of democracy, particularly on the integrity of elections.”
Similarly, at the end of last year, Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive for growth until he left in 2011, expressed regret at his role in the company’s expansion:
“the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth. [...] This is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem. It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other.”
And that’s not to mention the huge amounts of compromising personal data that users give over, unpaid, to multi-billion dollar companies to feed a lucrative advertising machine. Even The Economist – generally far from being a radical voice – is asking whether users should be paid for the data they currently freely surrender.
Our prediction is that 2018 will be a tipping point, as users become more aware of how corrosive first-wave social media platforms have become. To maintain their market position, Facebook and Twitter will need to go back to UX design basics and figure out afresh what 2018’s users actually want and need from a social app.
In the year ahead we are likely, at least, to see pushback against first-wave social media’s exhibitionist tendency. User preferences will shift towards more lo-fi, quasi-SMS interactions that require active participation rather than passive scrolling. Particularly in a world with an increasingly mobile workforce, business platforms such as Slack could provide a model for the future of social networking.
Slack’s desktop messaging interface
One important change in the decade since these platforms emerged is that users are now much more willing to pay for apps; paid subscriptions to Spotify and Netflix, which would once have been scandalous to the average web user, are now entirely normal.
User bases, even huge ones, can be fickle: once the time comes, or perhaps more importantly once the right new platform comes, we could see a brutal, mass exodus of regular users within a few years, towards paid platforms that deliver a more user-centered product.
3. Privacy and security will become more important user goals
Which leads us to our final prediction: in 2018, privacy and security will ratchet up the hierarchy of goals for many users. In the year ahead, experts deem it likely that there will be further international cyber-attacks in the wake of the WannaCry ransomware attack, which affected National Health Service (NHS) computer systems in the UK, leading to the closure of some services and diversion of ambulances. In turn, one of the reasons the ransomware propagated quickly was a failure to apply existing Windows 7 security patches that closed the EternalBlue exploit of a Windows vulnerability.
In a press release last year, David Dufour, vice president of engineering and cybersecurity at Webroot, stated that
"This past year was unlike anything we've ever seen. Attacks such as NotPetya and WannaCry were hijacking computers worldwide and spreading new infections through tried-and-true methods. This list is further evidence that cybercriminals will continue to exploit the same vulnerabilities in increasingly malicious ways. Although headlines have helped educate users on the devastating effects of ransomware, businesses and consumers need to follow basic cybersecurity standards to protect themselves."
Individual users are beginning to wise up to the steps they can take to secure their privacy, security and identity, and will soon start to demand more of these controls from the devices and apps they use. To meet this demand, companies are likely to step up their efforts in these areas, perhaps accelerating programs to replace password systems or make 2-step verification mandatory.
After all, there is a long way to go: less than 10% of Google users currently use 2-step verification. By the end of the year, we will see lots more screens like this one from Slack, as more major sites and services beginning to retire passwords completely in favour of other verification systems.
Growing awareness of security and privacy risks may also accelerate the decline of first-wave social media platforms, which are notoriously opaque when it comes to how they use personal data, and the steps that users can take to get it deleted.
In part, this has been a failure of national and international governance and regulation. Particularly with the introduction of significant legal measures such as the EU Data Protection Regulation, we will also see legislators adopting a less hands-off approach to tech companies’ use of data; in the year ahead legislative bodies around the world are likely to pass new laws demanding more rigorous data standards and greater user control.
What do you think?
Thanks for reading our take on the year ahead! We haven’t yet developed a crystal ball at Designlab, so – it should go without saying – we could be way off the mark. What are your predictions for 2018? What do you hope will have changed in the tech world by this time next year? Let us know in the comments, or (ahem) over on Twitter.
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