2014 in preview: A look at upcoming tech trends

Contextual computing, the next phase of the post-PC era, 3D printing and the mainstreaming of wearable computing are a few of the 2014 themes we're watching.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

The year ahead should be an interesting one for business tech as multiple tectonic plates are shifting all at once and rejiggering industry leadership.

Here’s a look at the key themes for 2014 from our editors around the world:

Larry Dignan: Post PC fallout hits hard

To me one of the biggest themes will be the fate of Windows 8.1. The time for excuses is over, the hardware has improved from the ecosystem and the Windows systems are priced well. The big question: Will people buy Windows machines en masse? If not, what does that mean for the future Microsoft franchises such as Office? We’ll know how this one turned out early in 2014 when tech giants start reporting their results. A few reasons why Windows worries are warranted:

  • Chromebooks have sold pretty well.

  • Apple’s Mac franchise is holding steady.

  • We’re in the post-PC era.

  • And there’s a good chance you’re going to see PC makers diversify their OS options. You may even see some Android running PCs.

Those moving parts add up to the days where Windows isn’t the lock it used to be. The year ahead may go along way toward determining the relevance of Windows.

A few other trends worth noting:

  • 3D printing goes mainstream (in the supply chain): A lot of the coverage around 3D printing will revolve around consumer applications. Spare me. The real revolution is already about to happen and that’ll be in the supply chain in 2014. As 3D printing bolsters the supply chain and creates parts on demand there could be a manufacturing renaissance ahead. We’ll all be makers.

  • Big data goes production. Big data may sound like so 2012, but the real enterprise applications are on deck in 2014. Those pilots have no gone production and every company knows that data is the primary asset they have. Enterprises will remain big data happy.

  • Enterprise software companies make the cloud turn (sort of). Adobe’s transition from licensing and maintenance to the Creative Cloud was instructive. It will also be copied by every other software company that didn’t start out as a SaaS play. The year ahead may bring a shakeout among those tech players merely cloud washing.

Eileen Yu: China’s increasing footprint, local players to battle global leaders

It became the world’s largest Bitcoin trading platform amid the buying frenzy that took the global market by storm in 2H2013, and it is expected to bypass the U.S. to become the world’s biggest e-commerce market by the turn of the new year. China will likely continue its upward climb in 2014, with local players such as Huawei, Xiaomi, and Alibaba leading the way. Say what you may about the Asian economic powerhouse, but the Chinese market offers so much growth potential that it got the likes of Apple and Samsung in 2013 to issue rare public apologies for less-than-adequate product repair policies and quality issues.

Huawei, for one, has its eyes on expansion in Europe where it has committed a US$2 billion investment to grow its footprint across the region, following a fallout with the U.S. government over spying allegations. And Chinese smartphone maker, Xiaomi, may be a relatively young market player--making its debut in April 2010--but it is currently valued at US$10 billion and is making plans to take expand globally. It is now planning a Singapore office to serve as its Southeast Asian hub, and expects to double its sales to 15 million units in 2013 from 7.19 million in 2012. It will be interesting to see how global market leaders such as Cisco Systems, Apple, and Samsung are planning to fan off the Chinese onslaught in 2014.

China, however, faces several key challenges. It has strong detractors who remain sceptical of its ability to innovate without plagiarizing, while others still have concerns over spying allegations against the Chinese--although Snowden diffused some of this by proving the accusers were guilty of spying themselves.

2014 may also mark the year big data will finally take off. There’s still much untapped potential in the Internet of Things and machine-to-machine (M2M) communications. If predictions about wearable technologies going mainstream do actually materialize, these will further fuel the need for M2M and big data to integrate the various services and provide the information businesses will need to better understand customer requirements.

Chris Duckett: Fragmentation in mobile

Fans of fragmentation are going to be in for a frolicking solar rotation full of fragmentation fun. Should Windows Phone continue gaining market share, app developers will have to start giving the platform the time of day, while at the same time, a group of upstarts in the guise of Firefox OS, Jolla, and Samsung with Tizen will be looking to steal market share from the lower end of the mobile market.

The sleeper pick for the long-term future could be Valve’s Steam Machines -- not only because it has the opportunity to overturn the PC gaming industry, but also because it is the first reason in a long time that many developers have had to take a second look at building for Linux-based platforms. Gaming was one of the reasons why Microsoft got into the household, and it could be one of the reasons why it disappears from it too.

Steve Ranger: Wearable devices become mainstream: whether we like it or not

Everybody's got a smartphone, tablet prices are crashing and the biggest consumer tech companies are trying to figure out what they can make next to keep the profit rolling in. As such, we're going to see through 2014 renewed attempts to make wearable technologies – glasses, watches and others – into desirable and useful consumer devices. The devices we've seen so far are at best intriguing but flawed; marred by limited capabilities, clunky designs and poor battery life. And they’re being anxiously pushed by hardware manufacturers on a mostly underwhelmed public. But they hold promise – whether that's in health monitoring or just allowing us to check messages without digging out a smartphone. So next year will see better versions of these devices and maybe – just maybe - if Apple hasn't thought better of the whole thing, the arrival of the iWatch. If anyone can make smartwatches a success (and many, many have tried and failed) and kickstart the age of wearables, it's likely to be Apple.

Jo Best: All change in telecoms

2013 hasn't been short of big name companies buying and selling communications companies: E-Plus in Germany, Virgin Media in the UK and O2 in the Czech Republic were among those to find new owners this year. It's unlikely to be the end of such shenanigans: EE in the UK and KPN in the Netherlands should be finding new homes in 2014, while former bedfellows Vodafone and AT&T have both made no secret of seeking acquisitions in the continent. On the network side, if 2013 was the year LTE became mainstream, 2014 could be the year of its successor, LTE-A after trials kicked off in France, Germany, and the UK. And if 2013 was marked by the end of Nokia's handset business, 2014 should see the growing maturity of Europe's new breed of mobile upstarts not afraid to do things differently.

Jason Hiner: The rise of contextual computing

Your technology knows more about you than you can possibly imagine. In some cases, it even knows things about you that you barely understand about yourself, which scares some people and is going to raise more red flags than ever during 2014. Nevertheless, contextual computing can be shockingly useful and efficient, and that's what is going to make more and more people tacitly opt in to it over the coming year.

The general idea with contextual computing is that your tech tools triangulate data about you from your various digital services, your location, and your history of usage activity. Then, it serves your information tailored to you just when you need it, or sometimes even before you know you need it. It anticipates your needs (which is destined to make husbands everywhere look like even bigger slackers, but that's a topic for another day).

The flag for contextual computing was carried by Google Now in 2013. I wrote about it several times this year, even calling it one of Android's two "killer innovations" of the year.  It was the first consumer-facing app that showed us the power of Big Data on a large scale. Look for a lot more products and services to experiment with contextual computing in useful and scary ways in 2014.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the United States.

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