Considering that 2020 was truly a year from hell, there are few things that offer more hope and excitement than wishfully looking forward to what 2021 will bring. When it comes to tech, the possibilities are endless considering that 2020 not only brought us products that were refined to the point of perfection and/or downright transformative.
But in a year where we spent more time sitting inside our home than ever, it also radically shifted our habits when it comes to the way we use gadgets, and so it’s reasonable to expect that tech companies will respond to that with their new offerings in 2021.
And with the new year fast approaching, we’ve been thinking a lot about the most exciting new ideas in tech that we can reasonably expect to see in 2021, and also spoke with industry expert David Myhrer who is the Research VP of Consumer Strategies at IDC, a market research firm. His job not only involves keeping his finger on the pulse on major innovations from tech companies, but also talking with consumers to get a sense of how they’re using current technology, and what they’re looking for out of their future products.
Overall, 2020 was marked by people spending a lot of money on tech devices, according to Myrher. And as history has shown, it’s easier to introduce innovative new software and services when you have a large number of people who own the hardware needed to facilitate those experiences.
And so looking forward to the coming year, here are five tech innovations we’re expecting to hear more about in 2021 (and one that won’t have as much of an impact).
1. You’ll Start to Actually Notice the Benefits of 5G
Implementing new network technologies is always a long and tricky process, but when it came to the 5G rollout, the last few years were especially challenging. Prior to 5G, the benefits of new cellular networks were always obvious: They were faster and more robust, which in turn allowed us to do more with our phones. But with the arrival of 4G back in 2012, things got to a point where mobile internet speeds were largely fast enough.
It wasn’t until this past year that we finally saw 5G technology arrive in a meaningful way, with mobile carriers finally rolling out their networks and major tech companies, such as Apple, Google and Samsung, releasing 5G-enabled phones. But while those devices arrived in 2020, it will be 2021 when their impact is really felt.
“The new 5G iPhones are having some year-end success and are going to start to catalyze the 5G market in a way that we’ve all been waiting for. (2020 was) supposed to be the year of 5G and then Covid hit and so Apple pushed of fits launch until later,” Myrher says.
So what will this mean for you, the consumer?
In the short term, you’re probably going to notice faster, more consistent mobile internet all of the time, even in areas where you normally wouldn’t expect to have good reception. At its best, 5G can offer speeds that is as fast, if not faster than many home Wi-Fi networks. But more than offering higher peak speeds, 5G networks simply have the capacity to transmit more data simultaneously, which means that you’re less likely to experience performance drops in busy areas (think music festivals or professional conferences).
And so, as we start to return to a post-pandemic state of normalcy, you can start to imagine more devices besides phones using 5G networks more regularly. That could include working outside of your home or office without having to rely on Wi-Fi at a coffee shop, being able to stream video without worrying about your carrier throttling your speeds or video quality, or having internet in your car that isn’t powered by your phone.
In addition, 5G could be the foundation that will help deliver on the promise of some other technologies we’re excited for in 2021.
2. Cloud Gaming Is Here to Stay
Cloud gaming is something that has been a moonshot of sorts for consumers and corporations alike over the last 15 years. And admittedly, it’s a tantalizing concept: Instead of needing a $500 console or $3000 PC to run the most advanced games, games would run on uber-powerful servers from top tech companies and would be streamed to your phone, laptop or TV without requiring any computing power on your end. All you’d need is an internet connection that’s fast enough to handle the data and service that will provide the games.
After years of low-stakes tinkering from companies such as Sony, Google attempted the first big splash in 2019 with its Stadia service. But it got off to an extremely rocky start and discovered first-hand why it has taken so long for cloud gaming to reach the masses.
One of the big challenges with cloud gaming has been eliminating input lag, and one of the big promises of 5G has been that it can reduce input lag dramatically. That, paired with the overwhelming number of mobile users across the globe (especially in areas where consoles and video games are prohibitively expensive), is giving analysts such as Myrher reason to be optimistic about cloud gaming’s future.
“In cloud stream gaming, and I know the user base is still relatively small, but we’re expecting the number of cloud stream gamers to double worldwide in 2021,” Myrher says.
Gamers are definitely ready to spend big on cloud gaming, and this is going to lead companies to develop the infrastructure that they need to make it happen. But one of the reasons these companies are so bullish on cloud gaming is because of what that means globally. When you look globally, there are millions of potential gamers who have smartphones but don’t necessarily want consoles. I think you’re going to see more things come together to push cloud gaming forward. Frankly, it’s a transition that’s overdue.
To Google’s credit, it has stayed the course and is steadily working to improve Google Stadia. In 2020, a few more major players including Amazon, Microsoft and NVIDIA also entered the cloud gaming fray and all of these companies appear to be playing for keeps.
“Most of the companies have been beta testing things up until now, so I think that Amazon jumped in with Luna this year really shows the commitment of all of these companies to this and you can see why when you think about the cloud infrastructure that’s actually needed to deliver this,” Myrher says.
While these services havent yet delivered on the idealized vision of what cloud gaming can be, the hope in industry circles is that 5G will enable both the technical performance and user adoption necessary to push this next wave of gaming forward in 2021. It’s Myrher’s belief that the slow and steady approach by Microsoft in 2020 with its xCloud service, which currently only works with Android phones, has allowed Microsoft to test out the technology and make sure it meets consumer standards before giving it a bigger push in 2021.
“I think that youre going to see them make a bigger effort to invest in this area, maybe in a way that companies have been more reluctant to do. I think now that you have a big player like Apple actually launching 5G phones, their customer profile has always been higher end, and so I think that bodes pretty well for cloud gaming.”
3. AR and VR Will Become More Relevant Than Ever
Augmented and virtual reality have been on the cusp of that breakthrough iPhone moment for a few years now, only to be undermined in recent years by some high-profile setbacks, such as the failure of the Magic Leap AR headset. Despite this, the AR/VR space is one that is still met with a high level of anticipation.
Oculus has already proved with the Quest that it was possible to produce a fully-featured headset that didn’t cost a small fortune, while the gaming industry has flashed the potential of what can be done with VR and AR.
And while nobody could have seen what 2020 had in store, Myrher believes that if companies such as Oculus had been better equipped to handle the demand for VR and AR products in the face of the pandemic, 2020 would have been its watershed year.
“The Oculus Quest, from what I understand, has been sold out for much of the year,” Myrher says. “I think going forward, even with vaccines on the horizon, I think that we’re in a spot that we’re in a spot that we’re going to see some interesting things and pick up some momentum in a way that hasn’t been the case previously.”
Instead, we can no look to 2021 as the year VR becomes more than a niche curiosity and the end of 2020 offered a look at things to come. With Oculus finding critical success with the Quest 2 headset, and Nintendo releasing an AR version of Mario Kart that was better than anyone expected, there’s plenty of reason for optimism.
“We’re expecting a 50 percent increase in the sale of VR headsets in 2021,” Myrher says.
And don’t be surprised if this is the year we see AR/VR offerings that go beyond entertainment. Apple has very quietly been working on developing its AR technologies over the past five years, even going as far as to include a LIDAR sensor in the iPhone 12 which has led many to speculate it will be making an AR play in the near future. And just like with cloud gaming, the potential of 5G to minimize input lag could open up all sorts of possibilities for new AR/VR devices that could arrive in the coming year.
And don’t be surprised if existing VR tech doesn’t make its way into another facet of our lives that was radically altered in 2020…
4. We’ll See Tech That Will Help Us Get Better at Working From Home
The retired and independently wealthy aside, there is not a single person on this planet who did not feel the impact the pandemic had on the professional world. While many of us were lucky enough to work from home, many were unable to work at all for months on end, while others eventually returned to socially distanced offices where commuting and trying to collaborate in person could be more of a hassle than just setting up a Zoom call.
And as we all continue to wait for the day where office life gets back to the way it was, Myrher believes we’re could to see more tools and services in 2021 that will make working from home a little easier for collaborative teams, including AR and VR.
“All of the stuff about work and school has home has driven a whole bunch of new device sales. People have bought PCs and tablets like there’s no tomorrow after not buying them much at all,” Myrher says. “One of the frustrations I hear even with executives and CEOs being pleasantly surprised that work from home has actually worked out well and that people have shown that they can be productive, you find out that after some time they’re like ‘how sustainable is the way that we’re working?’
“What’s working really well is individual productivity, but some of the collaboration, some of the innovation that needs to happen across teams doesn’t really happen. So that’s another place where augmented reality and virtual reality could help.”
It’s also easy to imagine that software makers will look to find ways to improve remote working and learning in 2021. Whether you’re talking about Apple, Google and Microsoft adding tools to Mac OS, iOS, Android or Windows, or companies like Zoom and Slack continuing to refine and enhance their virtual workspaces, it seems like a no-brainer that we’ll see some big developments in this space.
But even looking at this less ambitiously, the 2020 rise in sales of devices that had previously fallen by the wayside, such as mice and webcams, could spur a new wave of improvements and innovations to home office gear in 2021.
5. We’ll Become More Savvy With the Tech That’s Already Here
One of the more interesting insights Myrher brought up during our conversation is that all the time spent at home in 2020 gave people a lot of time to revisit the existing products they already owned or had previously stopped using, and found new things to do with them.
“One of the things that’s really interesting about what has happened this year, based on interviews I’ve done with consumers over the course of the year, is just the way they’ve reengaged with devices, Myrher says. “Having time on their hands and poking around to see how to learn to do this or that with it. People were just so busy doing everything else, they only had time to only learn to do what they needed from devices.”
Anecdotally, some of us here at Spy definitely spent 2020 learning how to use all of the smart home gear they had spent the past couple of years stockpiling and discovered that it had all sorts of uses they didn’t even realize.
And so while this may not directly lead to the emergence of new technologies or products from companies in 2021, we could continue to see greater consumer interest than expected in some areas of tech (such as smart home gear and voice-enabled speakers), or in categories that had previously regressed (such as laptops).
But that all said, there is one wave of tech that might not take off as expected in 2021…
6. Don’t Expect Much From Dual-Screen and Foldable Phones
Aside from VR, there hasn’t been an innovation since the arrival of multitouch displays that felt more exciting or magical than a foldable display. The idea of having a phone that could expand into a tablet is a compelling idea in theory, but in practice, it hasn’t borne much fruit.
This mostly comes down to the fact that the foldables we have seen are often bulky and unable to offer up a truly revolutionary use case. And in 2020 this was reflected in the relatively low adoption rate by consumers.
“From what I’ve seen things look like they’ve been relatively timid. I think there’s a lot of curiosity and intrigue,” Myrher says in reference to sales. “But it’s one of those things that’s so new that things are still relatively glitchy, so I don’t know that it’s obvious to consumers why they should get one in practice.”
While we saw some really compelling ideas floated by devices such as the LG Wing, the truth is that it will take more than a single device to make that potential come to life. It will require a critical mass of phone makers and app developers to give foldables momentum, and it will also need consumers to buy those products to ensure this is more than a fad.
But without an innovation leader like Apple or Google throwing significant weight behind the idea, it’s hard to imagine 2021 will provide an inflection point for this fledgling space.
What Comes After the Year From Hell?
Given how unpredictable 2020 was, we’ll surely see some things we never would have expected in 2021, but we believe the big tech sectors above will all be in the headlines as the coming year unfolds. But just like death and taxes, a few things are certain in the tech world, which means that there are smaller innovations that will also arrive. Whether its improvements to flat-screen TVs, smartphones and laptops — or the mere fact that you’ll actually be able to buy a PS5 or Xbox Series X next year — there’s plenty to come.
So stay tuned, and we’ll see you in 2021.