From SOPA to speech: Seven tech trends to monitor

Data, voice recognition, and the "social backbone" will shape the months ahead.

Here’s what’s coming for 2012, starting with the bad.

SOPA and PIPA

Although SOPA has had a setback in the House, it would be a bad mistake to assume that this story is at an end, or that it will end any time soon. And its evil twin, PIPA, still rumbles along in the Senate. You’ve all read the arguments about how SOPA and PIPA have the potential to harm the Internet-based economy, and how it makes it nearly impossible to protect the integrity of the DNS, virtually guaranteeing an explosion of malware. But I’m more disturbed by the big legislative theme of 2011: rather than rule-by-law and innocent until proven guilty, we have rule by corporation and guilty if a wealthy corporation says you are. Laws that sneak around legal due process are not a good thing in a democracy, particularly when there’s already a very lengthy history of copyright abuse by actors ranging from outright trolls such as Righthaven to supposedly reputable movie studios and record labels.

SOPA and PIPA aren’t dead. The most important thing we can do in 2012 is see that they become dead. I wish I could predict some useful intellectual property reform for the next year (or even the next decade), but right now that train is heading in the wrong direction. A few bloggers have opined that we’ll get patent reform when the big players realize that intensifying patent wars are counterproductive. I wish I could believe that.

Now to happier thoughts:

Speech

I was talking to Brady Forrest a few weeks ago, and I asked “what do you think the most important new thing is?” He said immediately “speech interfaces, because of Siri.” And my reaction was “D’oh. Should have thought of that myself.” I’m not terribly impressed by Siri. I’ve been using Google’s voice commands for a couple of years now, and I’ve yet to see an interesting use case for Siri that Google voice commands couldn’t match. I don’t particularly need my mobile devices to talk back to me. But Brady is absolutely right, that Siri, backed by Apple’s fan base, has put speech interfaces on the agenda in a way that Android hasn’t.

In the long run, I don’t think the winning speech applications will be as ambitious as Siri. Having a conversation with your phone is ultimately dull and sterile. But Siri will cause developers to push the envelope of what’s possible, and what’s desirable, in a speech interface. Speech opens up new possibilities in user interface and user experience design; we’re just at the beginning of figuring out how to use it. A key question is whether Apple will open up APIs to Siri, so iOS developers can play with it. But even if Siri remains closed, companies such as Twilio (and many others; a quick Google search showed a surprising number of companies building cloud-based voice platforms) stand to benefit as developer rush to build voice-enabled software.

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Deployment as a service

People have been talking about “the cloud” for a few years now. No big deal, right? It’s been a while since we’ve seen a startup that wasn’t built on top of a cloud vendor (usually Amazon). But there’s been a change in the past year. Heroku and VMWare’s Cloud Foundry have made huge steps in taking the pain out of deploying and managing cloud services. Heroku isn’t new, but it’s greatly expanded its offerings from Ruby on Rails to include Node.js, Java, Python and more. Cloud Foundry is a new open source product that runs everywhere from laptops to commercial clouds, and supports a similar set of application frameworks.

How is this different, and where is it leading us? Deployment has always been the bête noire of web (and now mobile) development. It’s easy to get something running on your laptop; a lot harder to get it running properly on your servers; and even harder to get it running in “the cloud,” where everything is happening via remote control, as it were. If Heroku and Cloud Foundry succeed in making deployment of complex applications to the cloud as simple as deploying the application on your laptop, that will lead to a major change in the way cloud computing is used. Simplifying cloud deployment for complex real-world applications is obviously much more difficult in practice than in demo, but I hope they succeed. They’re calling this “platform as a service” (PAAS), but I think it’s a step farther. Deployment as a service?

Services, not apps

A while ago, I was talking to a mobile app developer who made an important comment. All the noise over whether you make more money selling apps for iOS or for Android was meaningless. Unless you have a mega-hit, you’re talking about the difference between making $1,000 or $300, both of which are insignificant compared to the development effort. So I asked him what his plan was, and he said “we’re selling a data service, not the app.” The app is really just a proof of concept, something to help users get their heads around the data they’re making available. What’s really interesting, and what he’s betting on, is that other people will build apps on top of their for-pay data service. That strikes me as a much more plausible strategy for building a profitable company than buying a ticket in the app lottery.

The social backbone

We’ve been saying for years that everything has to become social. But a good six or seven years into the social networking phenomenon, there’s really not much that’s social, particularly if you look at enterprise software.

There’s a good reason for that: social networks aren’t easy to build. It’s not trivial for a company to make itself into the “next Facebook,” particularly if it’s really interested in selling clothing. Amazon, with its reviews and reviewer pages, may come closest, but you’d never mistake Amazon for a “social” site.

One of 2011′s highlights was Google’s long-anticipated entry into social networking with Google+. But most people missed the point. The point of Google+ isn’t the social site that you see when you visit plus.google.com. Nor is it the 400 million users it hopes to acquire by the end of 2012. I believe that Google is playing for bigger stakes. The Google+ page itself is only the proof of concept. Google’s bigger strategy will be to get developers building social into their own apps, using the Google+ APIs.

Google+ is a general framework for “socialness,” automatically integrated with all of Google’s other features. If you want to build “social” into your ecommerce application, you no longer need to build your own Facebook: Google will deliver it, complete with well-staffed datacenters. And since Google itself is increasingly built on Google+ services, building on top of Google+ will be nothing less than integrating with Google itself.

Is that the not-so-hidden downside? Google certainly wants your data, and will put it to use. And if you get in bed with an elephant, you’ve got to worry about what happens when it rolls over. But Google strikes me as a more reliable, consistent partner for this kind of enterprise than the alternatives. Regardless of what I think, though, this year we’ll see Social as a Service. Google-powered.

Microsoft gets its game back

I’m not a huge follower of the Microsoft borg, and certainly not a fan. And it’s not news to anyone reading this that Microsoft has been something of a paper tiger over the past decade. However, one thing that I’ve noticed about Microsoft over the years is that it’s a company that doesn’t stop trying, and it’s a company that can be surprisingly nimble when its life depends on it. I remember Microsoft trying to figure out how to package Internet services with Windows back in the early ’90s. There were four successive strategies, within a period of about eight months, until Microsoft finally hit upon the right one, which was bundling Internet capability with the operating system. You might say that bundling Internet with Windows was the obvious right choice, and it should have done that first. Yeah, but it didn’t, and hindsight is always 20/20.

Here’s what I learned: Unlike many large companies, Microsoft realized it had made a mistake, fixed it, and kept fixing it until it got it right. Would AT&T do that? Would Oracle do that? Hey, would Apple do that? (Before you answer that last question, just contemplate the word “antenna” for a few minutes.)

So it’s never wise to count Microsoft out. Starting with Windows 8, with a possibly revolutionary new interface design, continuing with the release of new Windows Mobile phones from Nokia, continuing to push more developers to Azure — this is clearly a big year. Microsoft has a lot to accomplish, or it’ll be relegated to the dustbin of cyberhistory. But counting Microsoft out is always a mistake. It’ll be back in the game.

Data?

The data train is chugging along. It’s going to keep chugging. We’re looking at a severe shortage of competent data scientists; the Hadoop space is becoming competitive, with Cloudera, Hortonworks, and MapR in the game, plus Oracle admitted that “big data” is important. Open source tools for working with streaming data are arriving (Storm and S4), and I expect that we’ll see more.

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