Technology develops at two speeds.
Most of the time it moves at a smooth pace. There is a constant stream of small, incremental updates, bug fixes and minor changes. Software version numbers tick over by decimal point or less.
Now and then we see a great leap forward. An unexpected new device, app or service emerges almost from nowhere.
Great leaps change everything. They destroy old categories and create new ones. Think iPhone, Google search, tablets or Amazon Web Services.
It has been a while since the last great leap forward. We can argue about what it was in the comments if you like.
Despite the industry pushing hard in 2015, nothing seismic happened. It was a year of consolidation.
At best we can say some companies laid the seeds of possible future great leaps. While we won’t know what they are until they flower, driverless cars may be one.
This isn’t unusual. Great leaps forward don’t happen every year. Indeed, there are more years without great leaps than with them.
Something that is almost the inverse of a great leap forward happened in 2015. We saw stagnation and worse.
Touchscreens were a fizzer. The biggest slump in PC sales coincided with the mainstream arrival of touchscreens.
The problem is with Windows PCs. Apple sales have grown while Windows computer sales show double digit declines.
Even Apple shows weakness. The new MacBook was a clever attempt to meet a market need. It works well for some users, but sales haven’t caught fire.
One bright spot is advanced hybrid portables like Microsoft’s Surface Pro and the Huawei Matebook introduced last week. Their sales are growing at around 20 percent albeit off of a small base.
Hybrid sales may be growing, but they aren’t winning new hearts fast enough to plug the gaps elsewhere in the PC business.
Phones have replaced PCs at the centre of our working and online lives. For years they developed at a clip adding exciting and useful new features each year.
In 2015 that came to a halt. Phones got a little better. Cheap phones got much better. But there was no compelling new features to justify faster-than-essential upgrades.
Phone technology has stagnated. No doubt there are cool new ideas bubbling in the labs in Apple, Samsung or Huawei. But, at least for now, we appear to have reached the limit of existing phone formats.
Windows 10 is a better effort from Microsoft than the limp Windows 8, but it does little more than put the operating system back on track. It is not a dramatic breakthrough. It is a much-needed fix.
Microsoft scores better elsewhere. Office continues to evolve and spread its reach to new devices. The Surface Pro 4 and the Surface Book are great computers, but neither is a great leap forward.
The most hyped introduction of 2015 was Apple’s Watch. It wasn’t new, a slew of watches were already on sale when it arrived.
It wasn’t special. Sure, many people reading this will disagree and tell me how their Watch is an essential part of their life. It’s almost a year after the Watch first appeared and there is no buzz. Even developers have given up sending out gushing press releases about Watch apps.
Virtual reality continues to generate media copy. Devices may pour out from factories, but little is happening with content. And the content that has appeared is lame.
- This, it turns out, is how most life scientists now think evolution works. Smooth changes and occasional big jumps. ↩
- My picks for the most important recent developments are software defined networking and network function virtualisation. While the technologies are big news for service providers they’re invisible to everyday technology customers. That’s hardly the stuff of a great leap forward. ↩