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I like this type of post because it is great to look back and see how close to a coin toss the following can end up being, so without further ado, here goes:

The easy stuff

2013 is going to continue seeing the rise of the post PC platform with both tablets and smartphones outselling PCs. I don’t think that tablets will fully kill laptops but I do think we are going to see two big invariants in the future of a lot of laptops by the end of the year, both borrowed from its younger cousin the tablet: touch all the time and ARM at the core; the former you can observe from anyone who has both a laptop and a tablet and suffers from the smudged screen syndrome where they forget they can’t touch the interface element, and the latter is simply a function of ARM’s superior power/performance and the meager linear power improvements battery technology struggles to give us. As these two things happen, the lines will blur and laptop-tablets that don’t suck will begin to refine the general purpose tablet/laptop form factor. Not unlike the Surface but without the Microsoft strategy tax, legacy bloated software, and lower price points (note the big punt on this prediction is that I’m not sure how much more powerful than iOS the software will have to be but am almost sure it will be even if along simple to see features such as multi-tasking and multiple windows).

Apple is going to continue ruling the roost when it comes to the relevant new form factors, probably a little less in the phone space where carriers will do whatever it takes to balance their installed bases across iOS and Android, but they will absolutely crush it with the iPad mini (I am betting on a blowout Christmas quarter) and seal the ecosystem lock they have on the home with a Pandora killer and some sort of TV thing this year. This domination of the consumer wallet will force Amazon to keep dropping the price of the Kindle family of devices and as such I suspect 2013 will bring us two free (subsidized) Kindles: a cheaper cousin to the Paperwhite and a smartphone.

Google, on the other hand, has found its groove with a return to software, chipping away at the iOS advantage from the inside out. On iOS, one could credibly argue that the Goole search app beats Siri, Google Maps crushes Apple Maps, and Gmail is far more productive than Mail.app. Of course this assumes you use Google services, but guess what? Apple’s services stink and a little hardware/software/services diversification is a good thing. Hopefully the recent success that Google has had here will convince them to quit messing around with hardware efforts and focus on what they excel at. And while we’re at it, they should be sent the memo that netbooks are dead and they should thus kill the Chromebook.

The less obvious

While a couple of years ago, it was a geek fantasy that HTML5 and the mobile web might provide a viable enough platform to build on, I think it’s now more likely than not that we’ll begin to see startups that build their V1 with these open technologies. It won’t work for all apps (native device access to sensors and actuators being what it is), but it already works for enough of them and there are encouraging signs in recent iOS 6 support for APIs like File upload, Web Audio, better storage limits, and generally faster CPUs/Javascript engines. When combined with the nightmare that distribution has become for most publishers in the respective app stores, continued Android fragmentation, improved wireless bandwidth through LTE, and consumers coming to their senses on just how crappy it is to manage client software (how many people like: “72 apps to update?” followed by your being unable to access Evernote for hours), we might just be at the point where we see the first native 10M+ HTML5 user property emerge this year.

Two other quick points on this prediction: the much (mis)quoted Facebook statement about how HTML5 cost them years in mobile was quite simply a MacGuffin meant to distract us from the fact that the company had been asleep at the switch. It was great to see this then proven by the nice folks at Sencha (who no doubt have a dog in the race).

The second point relates to the mantra that “2012 was about getting on the home screen and we’ll figure out the rest [enagement/monetization] later” which I’ve heard repeated several times over the last 12 months: I think that publishers are about to discover that Springboard positioning beyond the first page is about as valuable as the email address you bought 10 years ago for 20 cents from that shady email marketing firm with the address in the Bangkok. And as such, I wonder whether CPI (cost per install) won’t collapse this year, taking with it most of the “pure play mobile advertising revenue.” If it does, this will be a good thing as it will force the mobile advertising folks to look for higher ground when it comes to delivering real value to advertisers.

The speculative stuff

I was disappointed not to see more native content creation experiences for the tablet platform emerge in 2012. The main exception is the category represented by Apple’s App of the Year: Paper— a really terrific painting/drawing app in a category full of really well implemented apps. Sadly though this category predates this generation of tablets and goes back all the way to those wonky Wacom things you could plug in as peripherals. By native content app I mean something that a) isn’t done more easily on a PC and b) ideally targets its output to tablets themselves. Compiler authors have a term, “self hosting,” when a target platform is able to compile its own compiler and this is exactly what we’re still missing.

Late in the year we did get some interesting candidates in new categories though: there is the always forward leaning Horace Dedieu with his Perspective presentation app which is a very interesting experiment in self-hosted Powerpoint, a programming app called Pythonista which is a brilliant marriage of the Python programming language and just enough iOS primitives, and Betaworks’s story-telling tool Tapestry which is also experimenting with the design principle of software above the level of a single device. None of these is fully baked, but each points in interesting directions for native creation experiences and I’m hoping 2013 brings us 100 more such experiments and 10 that really start to click.

I’ve consciously left out a few big themes which I’ll hopefully get to in the coming month: social networking, spot labor markets, the death of the server in the face of the service fabric of APIs, and machine vision as the big four that I suspect will also be fun areas to make predictions about as they relate to this shift.

In the meanwhile, back to your regularly scheduled platform shift...

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I’ve spent a lot of time this year thinking about device modalities when it comes to personal computer use— a fancy way of saying: I’ve spent far too much time thinking about what to take on day trips, to meetings, or even to the office.

Compare 2012 to 2007 for a moment to see why: in 2007, I had one 15 inch Macbook Pro that weigh as much as a small boat anchor and cost $3,500. In 2012 I can use the same amount of dollars to buy an iPhone, an iPad mini, and iPad Retina, a Kindle and two Macbook Airs. What is more, my content creation and consumption across media, social networks, work and side projects is split across all of these devices in ways that guarantees no matter what I’ve left at home, I am going to miss something.

I know, I know— a high class problem to have. Or is it? Most people already own smartphones. And for a while now, laptops have been issued as the choice “bicycles for the mind” of information workers. Combine these two devices with a media-based subsidy model for some sort of a content consumption tablet and you’ve got the average Joe carrying (or thinking about) carrying 3 devices— again certainly for less money than they spent on their purple Sony VAIO a decade ago.

The big platform guys would do well to think about this software above the level of a single device view of the world and design use cases around it. Sure Dropbox and Evernote enable some of this but in what feels like tweener solutions; for instance, the iOS/Android Dropbox apps are nothing more than document viewers on devices which by design don’t come with filesystems. Similarly, I used to be a fan of AirDisplay which allowed my iPad to become my laptop’s external display or Type2Phone which allows your laptop keyboard to become an external Bluetooth keyboard to your smartphone but both of these are truly just parlor tricks.

And so I’m left with an iMessage experience which is still very broken across devices (the phone can bridge to texts when required but no other devices can?) or worse still, apps that carry the same name (iPhoto) but possess radically different sets of functionality. And this is all while “on the same platform!”

Navigating this world of software above the level of a single device won’t be easy but it will be increasingly a differentiator for the big companies and it’s a good place to put some cycles towards as we think of designing for abundance of devices we’re currently lucky enough to have.

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The Web we lost

Anil Dash has a terrific post on the web we let go when we went easy on the attributes that brought us all here in favor of the convenient and easy. The thing that got me about the piece was the thread it pulled from a half decade ago around RSS and podcasts and more generally the world of great possibilities around people publishing to a world of humans and machines who listened. That is clearly gone now when it comes to the open web, replaced by a sort of sharecropping of eyeballs and identity in the face of the inexorable march of the business model. If indeed the purest expression of intent is the Google Search then that is the world we are all left dealing with: looking for the digital crumbs that might be worth pennies on the dollar of search harvesting intent be they social or mobile pennies— neither of which will ever be as good as what the Great Google once brought us.

But what Anil's piece hints at is a world where we might have ended up with a set of richer social experiments where syndication and personal publishing might have led to a more interesting set of equilibria where new business models might have emerged that were not centered on harvesting first order intent or even just eyeballs to be “looked alike” or “retargeted” for the sake of the ever ephemeral CPM. He does not lay out what that world might look like because he just doesn’t know— and neither do we, at least not until some brave entrepreneur dares to dream big outside of the current context and show us where we might be going from here.

And until then, we’ll just have to rely on William Gibson and his view that thought the future might already be here, it simply is just not widely distributed.

Merry Christmas 2012 everybody!

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Everyone loves the Nexus 7. It's the "right size." It's "like butter." Even the Apple loyalists are questioning whether the broken nose syndrome that can come from precariously balancing a 10 inch 1.5 lb tablet on your chest late at night is worth it in the face of this little waif.

For me though, there is no clearer sign that the Nexus 7 (like the much crappier Kindle Fire before it) belongs to a new class of device: the disposable vending machine for digital content. Worth it from a software perspective only if you are ok consuming content from the hard wired app stores that each of the platform players provide. They give up the gross margin on the hardware and you give up: usability, control, and general purpose-ness for the sake of consuming content like you never have before.

Sure you can install Android Market (er, Google Play) apps. And sure you can even replace the launcher— if you are interested in getting back into the brain damage of the typical Android spring board experience. But this is not the experience of the mainstream user paying $200-250 for what seems like a "deal." And the deal? Paying for the placement of a vending machine right in your lap— one that sells you cokes while you can read up on your tweet stream.

As far as I am concerned, the main thing the Nexus 7 proves is that the e-reader form factor can be extended for checking email, playing games, and the occasional web surfing experience. But this is much more of a wake up call for Amazon (who hopes to own the category of e-readers++) than Apple who might be just fine waiting to launch a 7 inch tablet until price pressure forces them to.

I like my Nexus 7 (unlike my Kindle Fire). But primarily as an e-reader. As a vending machine, I prefer the kind where I stick quarters in...

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The Economist has a great survey this week on the future of manufacturing with some really interesting articles on short-run digital manufacturing, labor arbitrage opportunities (potentially moving manufacturing back from China), and collaborative manufacturing in the age of collaborative consumption.

Overall as with their recent interest 3D printing, these guys seem very bullish on the future of additive manufacturing technologies such as FDM and SLA. One interesting fact mentioned a few times is that the percentage of finished parts coming out of additive machines (where you deposit or solidify a powder/polymer/etc in a sort of 3D inkjet process) is up to 20-28% for final use parts as opposed to prototype use case which have been the main purview of these manufacturing techniques for a couple of decades now. From prosthetic limbs to airplane parts it turns out that increasingly the benefits of the accuracy of a computer model when combined with the precision of a finely controlled 3D printer is finding its way into mainstream products.

Despite the success of the fantastic entrepreneurs at companies like Makerbot, the mainstream use case is still elusive. At HP we used to wonder whether 3D fabrication through additive techniques would follow the inkjet distribution model (one in every home) or the service provider one (which remains one of the few growth areas in conventional ink on paper printing). The arguments for the latter are clear: more expensive machinery amortized over greater demand that can be kept in better shape by trained operators. But then again such was the argument for mainframes and minicomputers before the advent of the PC.

One thing I do wish they'd covered in the survey was the advances in subtractive manufacturing technologies because of digital design and the dropping costs of computation in general. Though modern forms of milling may be less sexy than the Star Trek replicator fantasies induced by the promise of 3D printing, the fine folks at MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms have all but convinced me of the relevance of subtractive techniques especially when it comes to near term hobbyist applications. I'll have more to say about those (and specifically about custom electronics) in posts to come.

The final point I'll mention from the survey is how generally optimistic and "lean forward" the promise of bringing the advantages of computing into the physical world through these new (or recently re-factored) manufacturing techniques is. Compared to the recent "SoLoMo" malaise (brilliantly covered by Alexis Madrigal in the Atlantic this week), it is a breath of fresh air.

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