Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

Looking Back at 20 Questions for 2015


On January 1 Benedict Evans, an analyst at a16z, posted 20 questions for 2015 and posed a number of interesting questions and predictions for the year. Now that 2015 is drawing to a close I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at his post, what actually happened in 2015, and what 2016 may have in store.
The list of questions focus on Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon – along with companies that compete with or who are connected to their mobile and tech ecosystems such as Samsung, HTC, and RIM. Apple and Google by virtue of iOS and Android may seem to be the major players here with Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon experimenting with their own apps, services, and products on these mobile platforms, but depending on the angle you’re evaluating them from, there’s many interesting moves that took place in 2015 and possibly even more to come in 2016.

Mobile Hardware

When looking at the mobile hardware side of this – Apple, Google, Microsoft, & Amazon are all involved in producing mobile phones and tablets. If you include Android OEMs such as Samsung, HTC, Sony, and now even RIM in this space it’s definitely a crowded one but still boils down to the fact that despite there being far more Android devices made and sold, Apple collects the majority of the profits from its iPhones.
Evans wondered if any well known OEMs would exit the market in 2015 and as far as I know that hasn’t happened yet, but Sony, HTC, and even Samsung have suffered significant losses both on the low end from inexpensive Android phones and on even more so on the high end with Apple’s introduction of the larger screen iPhone 6 and 6 Plus in 2014 and the 6s and 6s Plus in 2015. RIM has launched the Priv, their first Android based phone to try and remain relevant and Samsung is refocusing its mobile efforts to try and regain some ground on Apple. With rumors of an iPhone 6c swirling again, Apple may take another shot at grabbing some of the profits from the low end side of the market too.
Google’s own hardware efforts have been described as little more than a “vanity project”, aren’t a significant source of revenue for the advertising giant, but there’s no indication that they’ll shutter the Nexus brand in 2016. However, they look to be gaining ground in the education market with their affordable Chromebooks (my kids have used them at their school) however their new Pixel C tablet, while nicely designed, is being panned for its performance and software issues.
Amazon’s Fire phone was a disaster and wasn’t able to to make much of a dent in the marketplace, however they’ve persevered with their Fire tablets and entertainment devices mainly as consumption and shopping devices. Amazon looks to be partnering with Baidu in China to distribute their Fire tablets with Baidu’s apps and services, perhaps the phone will get reintroduced in China in 2016 as well?
Microsoft introduced its new line of Lumia phones which run Windows 10 Mobile and offer an interesting feature called Continuum that allow the phones to connect to a keyboard, mouse, and display and operate more like a PC. If only there were more apps available that you’d actually want to do this! If they’re not able to resolve this problem, there’s probably not much of a future for the Lumia line of devices or Windows 10 Mobile on smartphones and as Evan’s wonders, will probably mean furthering their ‘it doesn’t need to be on our OS’ approach.
Finally, as far as tablets are concerned many low end devices will continue to be sold as pure consumption devices, and many aging iPads or higher end tablets will turn into them as they’re handed down or unable to keep up with the latest apps. Tablet sales largely remained flat in 2015 so it will be interesting to see if the iPad Pro or Surface Pro will affect that trend as tablets start shipping with laptop level performance.

AI, Invisible Apps, & Curation

This is an incredibly interesting space as Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon each have their own entrants that are competing with each other alongside some smaller, independent apps and services. Unfortunately for Google, with the exception of Google Now, all of these services can drive search traffic to other sources than Google, which results in fewer ad impressions, so would expect Google to make a big push here in 2016 to try and drive some traffic back in its direction.
Amazon Echo DeviceSiri, Google Now, Facebook M, Cortana, and Alexa each offer a natural speech or text interfaces and offer to help you find what you’re looking for, schedule your appointments, set reminders, help you shop for gifts, find restaurants, and more. To some extent they’ve delivered on this promise, but when they can’t, the results are sometimes comical and definitely frustrating.
Alongside these major AI backed digital assistants are some independent “invisible apps” that often work over SMS or via a chat like interface and use a mixture or AI and humans in the loop to try and deliver high quality results to a range of inquiries. Instead of asking Siri or Google Now for a restaurant recommendation you might instead send a text to Luka and through a short “conversation” find a restaurant and make reservations.
Adding humans in the loop with curated results or responses was another trend in 2015 that I’d expect to continue next year. For example, with Apple Music one of the selling points and differentiators from other streaming services was their introduction of radio stations and curated content by renown DJs and artists. Apple claimed that introducing this human touch delivered a better experience than automatically generated playlists of recommendations based on similar artists or what your friends are listening to. Some of the other services already have introduced human experts in the loop to curate and improve responses, and I’m curious to see what kind of part that continues to play as advances in AI are inevitably made and the interfaces to this generation of digital assistants continues to evolve, especially as key components of the AI side of this are made available to independent developers through services like Watson or open source projects like TensorFlow.
Facebook.M.8.27.15Finally, Facebook M looks like it will become a part of Messenger and looks to address Evans’ first two questions along with payments, video calling, Hello, and Businesses on Messenger which looks to offer something similar to Wechat’s integration with businesses and other services through the familiar Messenger interface. With support on iOS and Android it will be exciting to see how this develops and what share of this space Facebook is able to draw away from Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.

Wearables, Payments, VR, Gaming, TV & Entertainment

If as Evans claims, the smartphone is the new sun, these segments will be in a more visible orbit in 2016 following developments in 2015. Again – Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon all have products or services in these segments or are rumored to be working on them. I think what’s most interesting to see if their individual take on these segments and how they attempt to tie them into the existing mobile ecosystems.
AppleWatchTumble-1024x576The most prominent wearable in this space is undoubtedly the  Watch which arguably with a potential $10k price for the Edition model and the exclusive Hermès models marks Apple’s entrance into the fashion or luxury goods markets as well. Sales have been modest in comparison to other iOS devices, but look to be outselling other smart watches by a wide margin. Those expecting an iPhone on their wrist were disappointed, but for those looking for a way to filter notifications, make Apple Pay trivial to use, or for a basic fitness tracker it has become indispensable. The initial round of apps, and those updated for watchOS 2.0 haven’t been that compelling, so should be interesting to see if the second generation Watch rumored to be announced in the Spring of 2016 changes this, and what upgrade options (if any) Apple offers to existing owners.
Pebble, Android Wear, Microsoft Band, and other fitness and health focused wearables definitely became more mainstream in 2015, and I expect this trend to continue in 2016. While Google has largely shelved its Glass wearable, the project has supposedly continued under a new name with some direction from Nest’s Tony Fadell.
Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon each continue to look to carve out their space in your living room with streaming or gaming boxes. Their respective music, video, and app stores are all well established and any remaining innovation here looks to be in creative input devices, integration with digital assistants, and the unbundling of cable TV. The first two areas are almost a given, while the final one looks to continue to be elusive as cable providers and content owners are reluctant to embrace streaming boxes or à la carte channel subscriptions without a matching cable TV subscription. The highly anticipated 4th generation Apple TV launched to mixed reviews with a frustrating keyboard and another take on the App Store that unfortunately so far doesn’t look like it will be a significant source of revenue for app developers.
Oculus-Rift-5Finally, and possibly most the segment that could make the most news in 2016 is VR and AR.  Following the launch of Samsung’s Gear VR headset and fun demos using Google Cardboard and Microsoft Hololens Facebook’s Oculus Rift headset is scheduled to ship early in the year. Besides the obvious gaming implications, commercial applications such as the Daqri helmet or what Magic Leap (with financing from Google) is cooking up have the potential to be as significant as the introduction of the iPhone back in 2007. Through some acquisitions and patents it looks like Apple is working in this space and I’d be surprised if Amazon wasn’t as well.

Looking Forward

Evans’ post provided a thoughtful look forward at 2015 and am looking forward to another on January 1 of the new year, of course along with all the changes the mobile and tech industries have in store with it!

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