Disruption in the payments sphere is opening the way for social media brands to act as intermediaries between consumers and their money, as we noted in our report on payments and currency. Facebook is said to be planning a P2P payments feature for Messenger, South Korea’s KakaoTalk announced a PayPal-like service, and Line is creating a mobile service that will let users make online and offline purchases. Snapchat is partnering with Square to enable payments between users, as explained in an energetic retro musical number delivered by video. After users (U.S. and 18-plus only) enter bank card information, they simply send a cash amount within a text.
While Snapchat’s recent data breaches through a third-party site may give some users pause, the P2P payments space is a smart place to be, as young consumers get accustomed to services like Venmo that make it easy and even fun to pay friends.
Xiaomi, which we included on our 100 Things to Watch in 2014 list, is now the world’s third-largest smartphone maker, according to IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker. The young company has seen triple-digit year-over-year growth in smartphone shipments, according to IDC, surging ahead of both LG and Lenovo. Often described as the “Apple of China,” Xiaomi released its first phone just three years ago; its latest, Mi4, is an iPhone clone that runs on a modified version of Android. The company is expanding beyond China into India and Singapore, and planning to enter a slew of other growth markets, including Russia, Turkey, Brazil and Mexico. It’s also getting into the content game and smart-home products.
From luxury to technology, BRIC and emerging-market brands are increasingly hitting the global stage.
In late September, the startup Circle launched a web app that effectively functions as a bitcoin bank. Using a debit card or bank account, users transfer funds to Circle, which converts the money to bitcoin at no fee. Circle also insures this money at no cost. The company aims to make bitcoin more accessible via consumer-friendly design and is aiming to take on traditional banks and companies like PayPal. Next up: Android and iOS Circle apps.
Circle co-founder Jeremy Allaire gave a keynote speech at the Inside Bitcoins conference in April, citing the need for a “killer app” to bring bitcoin into the mainstream. Now Circle seems to be taking the lead, and others are sure to follow.
Advances in smartphone cameras and the proliferation of mobile editing and recording apps are turning the mobile device into a portable studio capable of professional-standard results. Photographers and videographers can capture images and sound on the go, and edit and upload them without setting foot in an editing suite. Amateurs can also produce high- quality footage, which is opening the gates to more “citizen journalism” and crowdsourced content.
Apps such as Snapseed, TouchRetouch and SKRWT, for instance, allow users to enhance and transform their photos in ways that are often on par with desktop applications. Cortex Camera lets photographers achieve high- quality images in low light. For video editing, there’s Magisto, Animoto, VidTrim and JumpCam. Magisto’s CamCrew technology, for instance, optimizes for the important characters the user is filming and provides real-time feedback on video lighting, framing and stability.
Last year, Apple partnered with Burberry on a video of the label’s fall runway show in London, shot with iPhone 5s cameras. The camera is expected to get better yet: The iPhone due out in 2015 is rumored to bring “the biggest camera jump ever,” according to Apple commentator John Gruber, who says the phone could reach DSLR quality by incorporating a two-lens system. And OmniVision, which supplies camera components for handset makers including Motorola, has said it’s producing a 23.8-megapixel sensor for smartphones (by contrast, Samsung’s Galaxy S5 has a 16-megapixel sensor).
More than ever, the latest smartphones are allowing consumers to become content creators, and generators of entertainment and high-quality visual media. And with their increased technical capabilities, they are taking over from traditional products such as SLR cameras.
“These will outsmart wearables,” says Sophie Hackford, director of Wired Consulting. While consumer-facing wearable technology has focused largely on bracelets that monitor health and fitness, a wave of innovation is occurring in fabrication itself. Ralph Lauren, one of the early major brands to explore this, introduced a Polo Tech smart shirt in 2014 that monitors heart rate and breathing and delivers the data to a smartphone in real time. Elsewhere, fabrics are being developed that can be grown, can correct the air around us, can promote well-being and can also control our movements.
The BB.Suit 0.2, introduced at Beijing Design Week 2014, has an integrated air quality sensor and can purify surrounding air using cold plasma technology. Vasper, using technology designed for American astronauts, uses a compression system to make the body believe a 20-minute workout has lasted for three hours. Brendan Iribe, co-founder and CEO of Oculus, which produces the Oculus Rift virtual reality platform, told crowds at Web Summit 2014 in Dublin that the company is experimenting with clever fabrication and suiting to enhance “the sensation you get with the sense of presence when visually you feel like you’re there—it’s an incredibly powerful component.” Watch for Oculus Rift playsuits.
Mobile really is just the start. Increasingly, smart connectivity will be integrated into the fabric of our clothes, while the properties of fabric and wearables will go beyond monitoring us to enhancing and “super-humanizing” us.
Our digital footprint continues to grow and will only get bigger as the Internet of Things connects some 30 billion devices to the web (as predicted by EMC). With that, consumers are becoming more aware of their privacy. There’s a growing expectation that web users have the right to a clean slate. The European Court of Justice ruled in May 2014 that Google must honor requests for links no longer relevant to the public interest to be deleted. Google had received over half a million requests for link removal by November. This has paved the way for similar initiatives elsewhere. South Korea is looking into legislation that would help citizens remove personal online information. A California law aimed at helping minors wipe their slate clean goes into effect in January.
Meanwhile, a growing number of companies help people clean up their online image or erase an online footprint altogether, including Reputation.com, MyLife and Abine’s DeleteMe. In South Korea, these companies are known as “digital laundry” services, and The Wall Street Journal reports that a crop of such businesses are popping up.
Consumers are increasingly putting a premium on managing not only their digital footprint but their reputation. Will digital invisibility become a new luxury product?
Erik Johnson, managing director of Facebook’s Atlas, claims the cookie— the traditional method of tracking consumers’ paths to purchase and responses to ads—is over. Discussing Atlas, Facebook’s new analytics program, at the Web Summit in Dublin, Johnson said 40% of transactions begin on one device and end on another, which makes the cookie concept redundant for understanding success of advertising and affiliated retail. Atlas joins the dots between all channels: mobile, tablet and desktop, with Facebook extending its reach beyond its own platform to connect in-store purchases with Facebook profiles.
Consumers are multiscreening, hopping between one channel and another, making it more challenging to track responses and ad effectiveness.
Big Data is enabling extreme personalization and also predictive marketing and retail. Alongside that, there’s a rising focus on the importance of serendipitous discovery and the power of serendipity and chance discovery in innovation. “If you’re only presenting people with suggestions based on their past behaviors, that becomes a narrowing field,” explains Matt Rhodes, digital strategy expert and director at FreshMinds consultancy. “There has to be serendipitous discovery.” Chris Morton, CEO of curated shopping platform Lyst, championed the same sentiment in a recent Financial Times interview: “A fashion purchase should never be exclusively search-based— there also has to be an element of serendipity for the shopping experience to really resonate.” Skype co-founder Janus Friis is going down this route with Random, an app that combines a predictive engine to pull out what the reader wants, alongside random suggestions that may or may not be of interest.
On a loftier scale, Nicholas Carr, author of The Glass Cage, questions the dominance of automation, prediction and algorithms, arguing that total automation stifles innovation. “As original responses become rarer, the predictions become predictions based on earlier predictions,” writes Carr. “Where does the algorithm end and the self begin?” Meanwhile, Spotify is celebrating serendipity with its new artist-in-residence program— Serendipity. In a platform conceived by Brooklyn artist Kyle McDonald, the company created the online Serendipity map, which cleverly shows when two people around the world are playing the same song at exactly the same time.
There’s a tension between the convenience and opportunity offered by predictive retail and advertising, and the rising recognition of the importance of randomness, chance and surprise. Innovators and technologists will increasingly focus on incorporating chance discovery to complement prediction and automation.
Systems that learn over time to predict and intuit human desires are being integrated into consumer devices. With the advent of intelligent personal assistants like Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Now, we’re moving toward a future in which mobile devices harness AI and the rich data contained in a phone—calendar, search history, payment history and social media activity—to anticipate their owners’ needs.
Viv Labs, whose founders helped create Siri, are working on an advanced digital assistant “who knows what you want before you ask for it,” according to Wired. Viv Labs is hoping to see this technology integrated into other devices and tools, from TVs to cars to apps. Speech-recognition firm Nuance is focusing on Project Wintermute, a similar technology. And Amazon’s Echo device, introduced in late 2014, is a self-learning digital assistant in the form of a speaker for the home that tunes in whenever the user addresses it. It can play music or take instruction from the user (for example, it can add items to a to-do list). Google Now is an intelligent personal assistant that uses a natural language user interface to answer
questions, make recommendations and perform actions by delegating requests to a set of web services. Google Now can do anything from acting as an intuitive wallpaper picker to organizing your day. It also brings you information when you want it.
Cone, introduced in 2014, is a speaker that “learns what, when, and how you like to listen to music. Turn it on and it automatically plays what you’ll love.” The first product from the startup Aether, the stylish Wi-Fi-connected speaker plays music from the streaming service Rdio and tracks from the user’s Apple devices. Pressing a button on Cone lets you verbally request a track or artist, but the idea is that it requires little user intervention, even self-adjusting volume based on learned preferences. Prizm, which recently conducted a successful Kickstarter campaign, is a similar product from a French company that works with multiple music services. The speaker can also adapt based on who is in the room (as long as people have the companion app on their phones), finding music that it predicts everyone will like.
True artificial intelligence is a long way off, but technology is increasingly becoming capable of learning from its interactions with us and presenting intuitive services. Brands must be wary though— anything too clever risks stepping into “uncanny valley” territory.
As Internet of Things products for the home come to market, consumers will control household appliances via their smartphones—making the phone the “everything hub” of the future. The app for the Nest thermostat lets users change the temperature and set schedules, and the Philips Hue lighting system’s app allows users to adjust the color and brightness of the bulbs. Through Logitech’s Harmony Home Control, users can control any integrated connected lights, locks, blinds, thermostats, sensors or home entertainment devices through the corresponding app. “The more we use our mobile phone to control thermostats, enable connectivity in our car and to act as barcodes to get on the train to work, the more it becomes integral to our lives. The phone is bound to become the remote control,” says Paul Berney, co-founder and managing partner at mCordis.
The mobile phone is increasingly becoming our portal to the world, the channel through which we shop, share, search and direct. As the Internet of Things connects our mobile phones to more and more objects, our phones will know us better than anybody. Who will own that data?
John Sculley, ex-CEO of Apple, is launching an affordable phone brand starting in emerging markets, aimed at young people with a sophisticated design sensibility. He has enlisted Robert Brunner, former director of industrial design at Apple and chief designer behind Beats Electronics, among others, to launch the Obi Mobiles project. Obi phones, priced between $70 and $200, are aimed at tweens and young Millennials in emerging markets. Mobile prices are falling, and the new area of competition is the lower end of the market. According to research firm IDC, which pitched this as a rising trend for 2015, the average price of a smartphone fell from $335 in 2013 to $314 in 2014. The average selling price of the iPhone was $652 in 2011 and $607 in 2013. Affordable internet-first phone brand Xiaomi is the world’s fastest-growing phone-maker.
Affordable smartphones are nothing new, but the key shift is that affordable is becoming aspirational—and Sculley is introducing a design ethos to lower-end products. JWTIntelligence has been monitoring Millennials’ increasingly sophisticated expectations of design. By presenting an affordable brand as hip, and sleekly designed too, Obi is positioning itself well.
Cloud businesses are set to be big in 2015 as more major companies, organizations, brands and consumers outsource their IT to the cloud. For new companies, access to this ready infrastructure will make it easier to launch businesses and jump off from a higher level. Amazon Web Services, Amazon’s cloud-based computing services platform, is growing twice as fast as the rest of Amazon and generating as much as $5 billion annually, with major companies and brands using it. Google, Microsoft and Cisco are all expanding their cloud services. “All business should be on the cloud,” says Sophie Hackford, director of Wired Consulting. “And thinking and acting like a cloud company.”
From governmental bodies to consumers to brands, we’re increasingly moving from the idea of needing to own technology to the idea of technology as a service. As Hackford points out, it’s like the move “from ownership to renting.”
Oculus Rift CEO Brendan Iribe recently said that in the long term, the most exciting thing about his company’s virtual reality headset is its potential to revolutionize communications, just as email and telephones did. He envisions people wearing headsets to feel as though they’re in the same room with others around the world in real time—3D phone virtual reality/augmented reality communication, in other words.
“Face-to-face communication where we can hopefully put on a pair of sunglasses or ski goggles and have a conversation but be in different places in the world—just think how big of an impact that is,” said Iribe. “Most people travel and get in airplanes and cars to go have face-to-face communications. If you could throw on a pair of sunglasses and have that same conversation with people around the world... that’s transformative. When you think about the big new medias that have transformed the world, it’s communications—the telephone, the Internet and personal computers. This is an application that could appeal to billions of people.”
Pundits have speculated on the future of Oculus Rift and its potential to revolutionize gaming, retail and entertainment. Communications is a new avenue.
Big Data and technology loom ever larger in consumer consciousness, and artists, retailers, advertisers and brands are seeking to illuminate the creative potential of technology with interactive, inspiring, spectacular displays of tech virtuosity. Consider Nike’s “House of Mamba” LED interactive basketball court, which features responsive, lit-up data that tracks players as they move. Universal Everything has created the largest LED screen in the world, in New York’s Times Square, to showcase inspiring advertising. In Montreal, the Quartier des Spectacles introduced an interactive digital exhibit, including an illuminated wheat field and robot-populated video games, on 100-foot screens. Fashion brand Diesel has collaborated with German artist Andreas Fischer to create a “living” digital exhibit that responds to Twitter posts in an installation. Google’s Creative Lab made Unnumbered Sparks, an interactive digital sculpture in Vancouver: A shimmering, glowing cloud that changes in response to nearby smartphones.
As Big Data grows, particularly with the Internet of Things, the convenience of technology platforms will increasingly be coupled with distrust. Installations and platforms that display tech as wondrous, inspiring and intimate will help win consumers over.
Last year’s launch of Fairphone, an ethically sourced and produced mobile phone, put a spotlight on the raw materials in our digital devices. The Dutch company, currently taking orders for a second batch of 35,000 phones, ensures that minerals come from conflict-free areas so they’re not helping to fund armed groups. And Intel is showcasing its commitment to using conflict-free minerals in its microprocessors, in a two-minute spot and on its website. CEO Brian Krzanich also spoke on the topic at 2014’s Consumer Electronics Show.
Expect more tech companies to start improving their track record on how their products are made.