There are many words one might use to describe this last year in tech: controversial, acrimonious, volatile. One counterintuitive term also fits: calm. While Facebook, Google, and other web companies faced their most challenging year in a decade, in the world of consumer hardware, very little actually happened that was in any way interesting. It was almost like a lull before a storm. Instead of truly groundbreaking innovation, we saw a handful of new, slightly updated products. What few attempts at novelty did emerge, like the Google Pixel Slate, mostly fell flat.
This is unsurprising. 2018 was a year in which hardware markets were clearly at their mature state. Smartphone sales began to flatten out, a fact most starkly highlighted by Apple's decision to stop reporting unit sales. Even social media was affected: Facebook and Instagram use didn't grow in North America for the first time in years. Where are we headed next? In truth, 2019 will likely be a year of transition, too. We'll continue to see the various tech giants fight to define the future of computing.
The elephant in the room is Apple. The world's most important tech company is going through a rough patch. After signals that iPhone sales might have finally plateaued, plus a remarkable collapse in its stock price, the company seems to be faced with a significant challenge: It built its business around the iPhone, and it seems to have finally reached market saturation.
In response, it is likely we'll see some tweaking of the iPhone strategy — though not necessarily in the direction people might think. Right now, what seems to have thrown a wrench into Apple's plans is weaker-than-expected demand. But don't expect iPhone prices to go down. Instead, I suspect Apple will try and distinguish the next line of iPhones with even more shiny new features; perhaps a fingerprint reader under the screen, a camera to match the now class-leading Google Pixel 3, or some other shift we are yet to anticipate. The point is that Apple won't change its strategy of producing high-end, high-margin devices, but will instead double down on it.
At the same time, Apple will also be looking to expand beyond the iPhone. While 2019 is almost certainly too early for a grand reveal of whatever the company's next big bet is — whether that be augmented reality glasses or a push into the automotive sector — the gang at Cupertino will continue to hone their focus on the iPad as the future of the computer. With the flashy hardware redesign out of the way, expect iOS13 to place more emphasis on new productivity features for the iPad Pro, making the device closer in function to a Mac, while addressing the complaints many reviewers had about the device's limitations.
Elsewhere, hints from chip makers Intel and Qualcomm suggest that 2019 will see the launch of dual screen, foldable computers. These machines may resemble Microsoft's much-discussed but ultimately cancelled Courier project, which sought to create a digital successor to the paper notebook, complete with pen input. The aim is to find a productive middle ground between the smartphone and the PC.
Similar attempts at dual screen or foldable devices will come from both Samsung and Microsoft, but these devices may be more smartphone-like in their form factor, with the aim being to find some sweet spot between the tablet and phone. Expect both Samsung's foldable device and Microsoft's dual-screen gadgets (codenamed Centaurus and Andromeda) to focus heavily on pen input.
Meanwhile, we may finally see a viable Windows competitor to the iPad, if a new "8cx" chip from Qualcomm that promises high performance is any indication. Other recent attempts, like Microsoft's Surface Go, were solidly executed but hampered by inferior performance and battery life compared to Apple's tablet. This new chip may address those problems. By extension, that same technology may help Microsoft finally create a lighter, instant-on version of Windows with great battery life by allowing it to run on ARM devices. Thus far, devices using ARM chips have simply been too slow.
In 2019, we'll also inevitably see a broader focus on the double-edged nature of technology. After a year in which it became increasingly evident that the digital era not only exacerbates existing divisions and problems in society, but produces issues of its own, there will be an increasingly harsh spotlight on the tech giants. Facebook and Google will find their data practices more intensely reviewed, and will work to quell what is for now mostly a media-driven narrative before it turns into a wide-scale revolt. Apple and Microsoft will continue to push their privacy policies as competitive advantages. Meanwhile, Amazon will find out if the dubious selection process for its "HQ2," and the online retail giant's increasing ubiquity in American life, generates any real backlash.
In short, 2019 will be a year of concepts and policy rather than blockbuster sales and launches. The tech cycle tends to move in waves, as various parts of an ecosystem all fall into place. In the last wave, we saw broadband internet, online services, and mobile computing come together to form entire new business models. We are still waiting for the next set of tidal waves to roll ashore. In the meantime, we will have to content ourselves with hesitant guesses as to what comes next.