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Seven ways technology will change in 2019

Guardian Technology 05 Jan 2019 05:00
Facebook is in trouble after the UK parliament released its internal emails. Photograph: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

1 Silicon Valley’s cold war with the EU heats up

At the beginning of 2019, as at the start of 2018, Margrethe Vestager remains the most powerful woman in tech. The EU competition commissioner has the world’s biggest companies walking on tiptoe, afraid of her habit of enforcing competition law where the US authorities have refused to do so.

In 2018, Google was the subject of Vestager’s cold gaze, receiving multibillion fines for its anti-competitive practices around its Android operating system, its shopping service and Chrome browser. But in 2019, it’s likely to be someone else’s turn. The only question is who.

In the US, Amazon has been the odds-on favourite, thanks to a combination of a hostile president, a direct negative effect on commercial competitors and the rise of the doctrine of “hipster antitrust” (broadly arguing that monopolies can be harmful even if consumer welfare appears to be boosted). But in the EU, with a greater focus on privacy and data protection issues, Facebook looks vulnerable.

It isn’t just Facebook that might be feeling the hot breath of a regulator on its neck. The EU’s ruling against Google’s dominance of the Android app store could be the first domino to fall in a sweeping change that will reshape the consumer technology industry.

Now that’s starting to wobble. Regulators are chipping away at one corner: Google’s aforementioned fine in the EU and a court case in the US accusing Apple of abusing its monopoly over the iOS app store show the unease governments have over that centralisation of power. At the other end, slowly, power is shifting through external causes. Epic Games, maker of Fortnite, has become one of the few publishers to rival the power of the platform owners themselves and it is wielding it effectively: launching a new app store for Android devices and another for PCs and offering to take a substantially lower cut of game revenues on both.

There are two schools of thought surrounding driverless cars. One is that the technology is 99.9% complete and that soon “level five” autonomy will be reached, meaning that cars can safely drive themselves in any situation. When that happens, the world will undergo rapid change, as driving jobs begin to disappear, urban spaces are reshaped and road travel becomes safer by the day.

Only a fool would predict the death of bitcoin, let alone the wider industry it has spawned. The community has repeatedly shown an impressive capacity for survival against gigantic crashes, crippling hacks and severe legal roadblocks, and the nature of the blockchain is such that, if even one diehard is still mining bitcoin in an attic somewhere, it can never be said to be truly over.

Maybe this will be the year that the industry puts its head down, starts putting substance over hype, and emerges in 2020 with something to show for more than a decade of speculation; or maybe this will be the year it slowly suffocates, deprived of the attention it needs to live. Either way, at least we can take a break.

Smartphone innovation has stagnated in recent years; screens have got as good as they’re going to get, battery life is hitting the limits of physics and processors have become so fast that developers are already struggling to use all the power at their fingertips.

In theory, the USB-C connector is better than its predecessor. The standard has some obvious physical benefits: a smaller plug that works in any orientation; the ability to transmit more power, more data and more standards; cables that can be used in either direction, across domains.

Even the cables are baffling. Just because a piece of wire has a USB-C plug at each end doesn’t necessarily mean it can charge a device at full speed, let alone transfer data at maximum bandwidth.

It’s rare for world-changing technological events to come completely by surprise. In 2017, the WannaCry cyber-attack that shut down the NHS was largely foreseeable: it exploited a vulnerability that had been patched by Microsoft months earlier to combine an example of crypto-ransomware, first seen years earlier, with so-called “worm” mechanics that allowed it to self-propagate, first seen decades earlier.

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