Between the launch in October of Windows 8 and the first serious attempt by Google to take on Apple’s iPad, it’s hard to say what has been the single most important technology product launch of autumn 2012.
In fact, it’s that multitude of new devices and services that is the most important technology trend in its own right. As internet entrepreneur Jason Calacanis said, it took Apple 25 years to perfect its first computer, five years to make the first iPod “excellent”, and just 11 months to perfect the iPad. And it’s hard to argue with Calacanis’s notion of “Time to excellence”: the pace of innovation in consumer technology has never been faster. And this fast-forwarding explains the sheer volume of launches that will translate into an advertising assault on consumers this Christmas.
Whether it is Samsung competing with Apple, or Dyson launching innovative heaters and vacuum cleaners to compete with the likes of Hoover, a company’s ability to develop and launch new products, either off its own bat or in response to the actions of rivals, has never been more acutely important. At the same time, competition on the innovation front means that these new devices and services are much more affordable for consumers. The days of spending pounds 2,000 on a laptop seem long gone, while Google’s new Nexus 4 phone and Nexus 10 tablet both offer top-of-the-range devices for the price of rival mid-range products. Amazon’s Kindle tablets, built on Google’s Android operating system, also bring
the e-reader into the iPad age.
New technology also brings new opportunities: tablets can increasingly replace laptops for many more tasks. More broadly, they are part of a world where, increasingly, every screen is a touchscreen, and where every internet connection is a high-speed connection. This presents myriad opportunities that we have yet to realise: as Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, commented, we have yet to see the true power of a connected world.
A shadow hanging over much of that progress, however, is the patent battles between the big technology companies. An apparently endless round of litigation is costing billions, and enriching only the lawyers: as rival companies build increasingly similar devices, it should be no surprise that patent lawyers rub their hands in glee and few, with the exception of Microsoft’s top lawyer, claim that the current system is not holding back further and faster innovation.
The key development for the UK this year was not a gadget but a whole new mobile network. Analysts at CCS Insight say: “Marketing so far has been centred on speed rather than service,” say CCS. “We question whether this alone will be sufficient to encourage customers to upgrade to the new network.” New devices, whether it’s Apple’s iPad Mini, or the Nokia Lumia 920 handset, are what ultimately grab the media’s attention and excite consumers, but what’s key is the infrastructure they plug in to.
Perhaps surprisingly, it could be Microsoft that leads the way for the next few years. Windows 8 will eventually be running on half a billion devices, from tablets to laptops and desktops. With the launch of its Surface tablet and the new version of Windows, the software giant has woken up and designed a new interface that aims to bring together mobile and desktop computing. Live tiles display the information you need at a glance - and which, of course, depend on always-on connectivity, both at home and out and about. Little wonder that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recently said that if he had to work somewhere else it would have been Microsoft. When Facebook admires Microsoft, it’s clear that innovation in technology can still surprise us all.