2012: What’s bubbling up

RIM’s duo gets the boot, Microsoft comes back to life, the PC becomes history, foreigners come to Canada and democracy is tested

I kind of like year-end lists. I dig retrospectives because they remind me of things I might have forgotten–a year is a long time, after all. I also like lists that look ahead because they help me to start thinking about what’s to come. And again, they remind me of things that may not be top of mind right away heading into the new year.

That said, here’s my very own list of things–in order of significance–that are looking likely for 2012 as they pertain to technology in North America, with special relevance for those of us here in Canada. This isn’t so much a list of predictions as much as a roundup of items that seem inevitable because of the momentum building around them.

5. The turfing of RIM’s CEOs.

It would be an understatement to say it’s been a miserable year for Waterloo, Ont.-based Research In Motion, also known as the heart of Canada’s tech industry. From the costly flop of the Playbook tablet to delay-after-delay on much-needed next-generation BlackBerry devices to drunken executives on a plane, there simply wasn’t a shred of good news for RIM in 2011. That must mean things can only get better in 2012, right? Not exactly. As 2011 closed out, reports emerged that a number of high-profile tech companies, including Amazon, had considered buying RIM. With the company’s stock down by about 80 per cent from where it began the year, that’s not a surprise–buying RIM would a veritable steal now. But with founders and co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie still controlling around 10 per cent of the company, a purchase might be difficult to negotiate. The pressure is therefore on the company’s board to oust the pair and either find someone who can turn the company around, split it up or negotiate a sale. Removing the duo from their jobs would make any of these options easier.

Coincidentally, this past year we also learned a great deal about the history and inner workings of one of RIM’s biggest rivals, Apple, thanks to Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography. The parallels are there–Jobs built a company that couldn’t manage its own success before getting he himself was turfed for hubris and an inability to work with others. With Lazaridis and Balsillie attracting “worst CEO of the year” honours for their own alleged arrogance (from the New York Times, no less), perhaps the two could also benefit from stepping away to do something else for a while. It clearly did wonders for Jobs, who learned some humility and co-operation skills before returning to lead Apple to new heights. With RIM’s current trajectory, it just doesn’t seem plausible that Lazaridis and Balsillie will be around when BlackBerry 10 devices finally arrive, supposedly in late 2012. That sure would be good news.

4. The return of Microsoft

It’s almost heresy in tech circles to suggest that Microsoft could be cool again, but the truth is, the company has been taking quiet steps in this direction for a while now. Only a few years ago, the software giant looked like a giant fuddy-duddy that couldn’t get anything right–it completely missed out on search and online advertising and ceded that whole business to Google; it has been asleep at the wheel with mobile and tablets, again giving up those markets to Google and Apple; and it has watched Apple make tremendous strides in home computers, where Microsoft makes most of its money.

But there are signs that Microsoft has been waking up and, and I’m going to point them out at the risk of letting my own biases show through. It’s video games that are at the heart of this fledgling turnaround. Missing from that list of Microsoft mistakes is the Xbox, which has become a shining success story since its launch 10 years ago. Not only are the game console and its associated online media business a hit in its own right, they’re also starting to reshape the whole company. The first obvious step was the transformation of the Windows mobile operating system a year ago to one that more closely resembles the Xbox interface, or more specifically, the failed Zune interface that was eventually absorbed into the game console. The next step was the revealed this past year with Windows 8, which will not only mirror the look of the Xbox and phones, but also incorporate a touch interface that has been designed from the ground up. In other words, the next generation of PCs will be taking its design and interface cues from a game console. Then there’s Kinect, which we’ll get to in the next item.

The point is, Microsoft is moving towards a unified operating system that is aiming to give users the same slick experience across their computers, phones, tablets and televisions (via the game console). Google and Apple are moving in this direction too, which is not surprising since a single, seamless experience across all screens is the Holy Grail of consumer electronics. Yet Microsoft has nearly 60 million Xbox 360 units in living rooms around the world–most of which are internet-connected–giving it a considerable advantage over rivals. With recent online moves, such as making UFC pay-per-view events available for live streaming over Xbox Live, Microsoft is also tip-toeing into circumventing traditional businesses such as cable.

The moving parts are almost all in place. The question for 2012 is: Can Microsoft put them all together, or will the company screw it all up again?

3. The post-PC world accelerates

One surefire sign that you’ve got a cool new technology on your hands is when others start to copy it. In speaking with one of the economists at the Consumer Electronics Association, the group that holds the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, about what to expect at this year’s show, it’s clear that Microsoft may, in fact, be close to reclaiming some of that coolness thanks to Kinect. Some of the big TV makers–Samsung, Panasonic and the like–are expected to show off flat-screens that incorporate flavours of Kinect, which introduced blended motion and voice control to games in 2010. 3D hasn’t really taken off, so how about a voice- or motion-controlled television? Next year is thus expected to be the “year of the interface,” according to the CEA. It’s been a long time since Microsoft started a trend–it’ll be a hoot to see if it actually gets any traction.

And with Apple having ushered in the age of touchscreens–an act that not only killed Adobe’s Flash in 2011 and forced Microsoft to redesign Windows–and the success of motion gaming, it’s clear that keyboards and mice are increasingly a thing of the past as computing effectively expands to all aspects of life. Our poor desktop computers are going to get lonelier in 2012.

2. The foreigners arrive

Turning to telecommunications now–here Canada is set for its biggest shakeup in… well, forever. For years now, pressure has been building on the Canadian government to change outdated laws that effectively prevent foreign ownership of domestic telecom companies (those that own infrastructure, anyway). The pressure is now close to the bursting point. The controversy over whether new cellphone provider Wind Mobile is Canadian or not has been dragging on since the company launched in late 2009 and is still before the courts. More importantly, the valuable airwaves that TV broadcasters were forced to vacate in August are now sitting around doing nothing. Licensing this spectrum will not only net the government billions of dollars, it will also unleash a great deal of opportunity for companies new and old looking to provide robust wireless internet services. An auction has been slotted for 2012, but with the government continually dragging its feet on those pesky foreign ownership rules, it’s increasingly likely that the sale will be pushed to 2013.

I’ve written extensively on the subject, so to summarize: By all accounts, the government wants to liberalize the ownership rules and must do so before setting the auction rules. In other words, if the door doesn’t swing open for foreigners in 2012, it may never happen.

What will follow is a complete transformation and reordering of the industry. While the positions of Bell and Rogers may not change because they are so heavily integrated with broadcasting (ownership rules there will likely stay unchanged), the same can’t be said for many of Canada’s smaller telecom companies. The likes of Wind and Mobilicity are likely to merge or become the target of buy-outs by foreign players, a fate that could also befall Telus–a pure-play telecom company–depending on how the rules shake out. Moreover, a change in ownership rules would also open the door to multinational giants, paving the way for companies like Vodafone, T-Mobile, AT&T and so on to set up shop. Heading into 2013, the telecom landscape will almost certainly look dramatically different–and that’s a good thing.

1. Democracy is tested

Time magazine named “the protestor” person of the year for 2011. Given all the protests and riots around the world, from the Middle East to London to the Occupy movement, it was a fair summation of the year. People all over are discontent for different reasons and are showing it. Here in North America, the underlying message of the Occupy movement seemed to be widespread unhappiness with the influence of wealthy corporations over government–and a desire to put an end to it. If so, the fundamentals of democracy will be tested over the coming year as governments deal with potential new laws that are supported by big companies, but not the general public.

In the United States, there are the Stop Online Piracy and the Protect Intellectual Property Acts, while in Canada there are the C-11 copyright reform and Lawful Access bills. In each case, proposed legislation would give corporations and governments sweeping new powers to patrol the internet and punish those who they believe to be wrongdoers–where that could mean gathering a person’s private information without a warrant, preventing someone from copying a song onto their iPod, or shutting down a website. In 2011, the internet community vocally and repeatedly opposed all of these proposals.

Democracy, even in the swift internet age, often entails long, drawn-out processes–but it tends to work in the long run. Some of the displeasure voiced online has already had an effect, forcing further discussion on some of the proposed bills. If any do go ahead and are actually enacted in their current forms, it’s safe to assume the online protests will spill into the real world as the general public comes to understand what the early adopters of the internet have been warning against for a while. Court challenges will kick off, real-world protests will sprout and some politicians’ heads will roll, as evidence of inappropriate lobbying inevitably surfaces.

There’s also the unlikely possibility that the general public will put up with the new legislation, allowing the entertainment companies and law enforcement agencies to get the new powers they desire. Either way, the power of the internet will be intertwined the larger powers of democracy and the establishment like never before in 2012. As they said in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome: two men enter, one man leaves.

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