In the world of tech punditry, the month of December is practically synonymous with predictions about the year ahead. I try to opt out of the fun. I’m a sober, serious journalist, dammit–not the Amazing Kreskin!
Besides, predictions are a no-win situation. If your prognostications are sure things, they’re hardly worth mentioning. If they’re wacky and surprising, they’re unlikely to come true. You end up either boring people or looking stupid. Or both.
(MORE: Top 10 Gadgets of 2011)
Still, I’m not above musing about what’s next for technology–what’s bound to happen, what I hope will happen and what I fear could happen. Herewith, some thoughts along those lines in nine categories.
What we can assume will happen: By the end of the year–and maybe way before that–Microsoft will release its radically new, touch-centric operating system. (“Windows 8” is a code name: Its final moniker may be something else.)
What I hope will happen: Well, first of all, I hope that Windows 8 will be good. (Microsoft released a test version in September, but it’s too rough and incomplete for a final verdict.) But even if it’s great, it’s so different from Windows 7 that it’s going to take many folks a while to understand it, let alone love it. Like the shift from Microsoft’s text-oriented DOS operating system to Windows, this one could take years to play out. I’d like to see everyone from consumers to businessfolk to tech pundits acknowledge that and demonstrate some patience with Microsoft’s big new idea.
What I fear will happen: Windows 8 won’t catch on right away, and will be widely–and prematurely–declared to be a Vista-like debacle.
What we can assume will happen: Apple will release a new iPhone, a new iPad and some new Macs. (I refuse to speculate on any other items it might have up its sleeve for 2012.)
What I hope will happen: With these products and other 2012 moves, Apple will make a statement about its post-Steve Jobs future. And I hope that it will quickly make clear that its goal isn’t to reflexively channel its cofounder, doing precisely what he would have done in every instance. That strategy might work at first, but in the long run it would turn the company into something similar to the Walt Disney Company as it existed in the years immediately following Disney’s death in 1966–the period when it produced regurgitated tripe like The Aristocats. The sooner Apple’s current management shows it’s thinking for itself, the better.
What I fear will happen: Rather than judging Apple’s 2012 products on their merits, pundits will be fixated on judging them primarily in terms of how Jobs-esque they feel–and will decide that they fall short.
(MORE: 50 Best iPhone Apps of 2011)
What we can assume will happen: A high–and growing–percentage of the world’s smartphones will run Google’s mobile operating system, whose current version is the very-pleasing-overall 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.
What I hope will happen: Google and handset manufacturers will work aggressively to eradicate Android fragmentation, the unfortunate phenomenon that leaves most Android devices running outdated versions of the operating system that have been modified in ways that don’t always improve it. Assuming that Google is able to go through with its planned acquisition of Motorola Mobility, I also hope that it backtracks its promise to run the handset maker as an independent unit that doesn’t get any preferential treatment. I’d rather see it try to make the world’s greatest, best-integrated Android devices.
What I fear will happen: Nobody responsible for Android’s fate will take fragmentation all that seriously. (They might even maintain that it’s a virtue.) And the phones made by Motorola will indeed feel like they’re designed by people outside of Google rather than inside it.
(MORE: Top 20 Must-Have Android Apps)
What we can assume will happen: Microsoft will soldier on with its operating system for smartphones, which is a critical success but currently ships on fewer than two percent of all handsets.
What I hope will happen: Terry Myerson, the newly installed honcho in charge of Windows Phone, will figure out how to make it successful. Not iPhone-and-Android-killer successful–that’s not going to happen in 2012, if ever–but successful enough that consumers and software developers consider it to be a rising star.
What I fear will happen: A year from now, people will still wonder how a piece of software as nifty as Windows Phone can sell so poorly.
What we can assume will happen: Some time before 12:59pm on December 31st, 2012, RIM will finally release the first BlackBerry phones based on its all-new, QNX-based BlackBerry 10 operating system, the replacement for the rickety software used by current BlackBerry models.
What I hope will happen: The next-generation BlackBerry handsets will be spectacular–so spectacular that the line is instantly vibrant and viable, not tired and troubled. The tech punditocracy will stop calling for the ouster of RIM co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie and start congratulating them on pulling off an amazing turnaround.
What I fear will happen: Like other recent RIM products such as the BlackBerry Storm, the BlackBerry Torch and the BlackBerry PlayBook, the next BlackBerry phones will look good in demos but prove to be meh–at best–in real life. As a result, people will refer to RIM in the past tense more than ever.
(MORE: The Tragic Decline of BlackBerry)
What we can assume will happen: The world’s dominant social network will continue to dominate. (It claims more than 800 million active users today, so it might hit a billion before 2012 is over.)
What I hope will happen: Facebook will continue to evolve at a rapid clip. But it’ll usually manage to sidestep the controversy that’s traditionally been associated with nearly every major change it’s ever made. Thanks in part to pressure from the feds and new rivals, 2012 will be the year that Facebook grows up a bit.
What I fear will happen: It’ll continue to tick off people in unnecessary–and sometimes counter-productive–ways. And like Microsoft in the 1990s, it’ll behave as if its extreme popularity gives it the license to do pretty much anything it pleases.
What we can assume will happen: Americans will be less interested in watching broadcast television at an appointed time–not of their choosing–on a TV set. They’ll want to stream whatever show they want, whenever they want to watch it, on any device they select.
What I hope will happen: The companies that control content will get more and more comfortable with transmitting it over the Internet rather than willfully holding it back to prevent competition with traditional means of distribution. Enough consumers will prove willing to pay for services such as Hulu Plus and Netflix to make the economics of Internet TV look more tantalizing. UltraViolet, the copy-protection technology which lets you buy a movie once and get access to it on multiple gadgets, will be a hit with studios and consumers alike.
What I fear will happen: We’ll backslide, as the industry chooses to protect existing profits from plain ol’ prime time and DVD/Blu-ray rather than gambling on this newfangled Internet thing.
What we can assume will happen: An awful lot of companies will release tablets, a high percentage of which will run Google’s Android operating system.
What I hope will happen: Actually, I’d be perfectly happy if the current deluge of tablets turned into a mere trickle. We don’t need gazillions of tablets in 2012 What we need are more models that have a coherent reason for existing other than that there’s a tablet fad going on. These tablets should feel more polished and professional than certain 2011 models. And they must come from outfits which, unlike some (coughcoughHP), have enough courage to keep plugging away until they get it right.
What I fear will happen: As 2012 draws to a close, it still won’t be entirely clear that any company that isn’t Apple has figured out how to make a tablet with mass appeal.
What we can assume will happen: Patent wrangling involving major tech companies–especially ones that make smartphones and tablets–will continue to make plenty of news.
What I hope will happen: Some of the high-stakes cases currently hanging over the industry like gloomy little clouds will get resolved, one way or another. Companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Motorola and Samsung will decide that suing each other (or threatening to do so) is less fun and profitable than focusing on making cool stuff. Patent trolls will conclude that it’s harder to make money by blackmailing everybody else than they thought. In short, I hope that the patent mess gets less messy in 2012.
What I fear will happen: It’ll make news the way it did in 2011–by getting more messy.
So there you go. Remind me to revisit this column next December. With any luck, at least some of my dreams will pan out, and most of my fears won’t turn into ugly realities. But if none of the scenarios I outline above come to pass in 2012, don’t blame me. Didn’t I tell you that I do my best to avoid making predictions?
McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist; on Twitter, he’s @harrymccracken. His column, also called Technologizer, appears every Thursday on TIME.com.