Our tech columnist tracks the key consumer tech trends of the pandemic year, and what 2021 promises.
The pandemic year is drawing to a close and many of us are heaving a completely irrational sigh of relief. While 2021 promises to offer more of the same, pandemic-wise, 2020 has been an interesting year in the world of consumer technology and bears intriguing prospects for the year ahead.
There have been developments that we may look back at 10 years from now and celebrate as inflection points. For my last column of the year I’m going to round up three of these developments that I’ve found interesting personally, and set out what we can look forward to in 2021 and beyond, in the world of gadgets and consumer technology.
Apple silicon and ARM on the desktop
Apple has been making at-best desultory laptops in recent years. At their worst they featured bad keyboards, a cable-design flaw that killed displays prematurely, and, shockingly, no USB-A ports, in addition to using pretty much the same processors as all other laptops on the market. They offered little reason to buy them apart from fannish devotion or a reliance on Final Cut Pro.
Then, in 2019 they fixed the cable problem and the keyboards, and in 2020 they released laptops with their own processors using the ARM architecture (unlike the current Intel processors that use the x86 architecture). If initial indications are anything to go by these new chips absolutely decimate the competition from Intel and AMD. It’s only a mild exaggeration to say that Macbook Air and Macbook Pro, released towards the end of the year, herald a new era of desktop computing. The USB port situation is still terrible, but I guess you can’t have it all.
Now that Apple has released these monster machines (with more to come), I am hoping for:
Windows ecosystem, including Microsoft, and chipmakers such as Qualcomm to start taking desktop ARM seriously and invest more in improving their products in this space.
Intel and AMD, makers of legacy x86 chips, to push harder to improve their products to compete better with ARM chips.
Cloud computing to get a fillip so that the computer’s processing hardware becomes less important. With Google’s Stadia and its ilk showing that high-end computing can be delivered to basic consumer devices via the internet, where computers in the cloud do all the heavy lifting, perhaps demanding applications such as photo and video editing will follow suit?
Over the past several years, phones have been getting steadily bigger. Apart from the smaller variants of iPhone, Samsung Galaxy, and Google Pixel, there have hardly been any phones that didn’t feature 6.5” or bigger screens. Even the roughly 6-inch iPhone and Pixel screens are hardly compact by old standards, but probably just about small enough to use one-handed and big enough to enjoy TikTok.
Apple’s iPhone SE did offer a smaller footprint but the tradeoff in terms of screen size and battery was not to everyone’s taste. All this changed in 2020 with the release of iPhone 12 Mini. It’s the smallest flagship from any top manufacturer in years, featuring an almost edge-to-edge 5.4” screen and a decent battery, and it doesn’t suffer from the SE’s crippling flaws either. Add to this Pixel 4A’s relatively diminutive proportions with a 5.8” screen, and there were at least two solidly good phones for people who prefer smaller devices.
Although early indications from iPhone 12 Mini sales aren’t encouraging, I suspect this may be in large part because it’s not that much cheaper than the regular iPhone 12, whereas those who want a smaller phone have the option of the much cheaper SE.
My hope is that the release of iPhone 12 Mini and the success of Pixel 4A, especially in India, will inspire other phonemakers to offer more compact options. If the 5.4” size of the Mini scandalises them too much, even the 5.8” Pixel would be a welcome relief from the gargantuan flagships that are the norm (Mi 11 was just announced yesterday with a 6.8’’ inch screen). These will not displace large-screen phones as the device of choice for most people, but it would still be nice to have a range of options to pick from.
The gold standard for wearables is the Apple Watch, the swankiest, most expensive and most polished of them all. A little behind are Samsung’s Galaxy watches which offer some of these elements, but not quite the range of apps and definitely none of the cachet. Then there are the fitness-focused devices that run the range from pricey Fitbits and Garmins down to cheap and capable Mi Bands.
The most unexciting category of wearables is Android’s WearOS watches, which offer neither the polish of Apple and Galaxy watches nor the focused-fitness tracking of a Garmin, nor the extraordinary value of Mi Bands. There are two main reasons for this, working in tandem; one is the lack of a good processor and the other is Google’s stepmotherly treatment of WearOS, offering far from regular updates and very little in the way of innovation.
This year saw one of these problems getting fixed, with the release of the Snapdragon 4100, finally making available a capable chipset for the WearOS market. I expected to see a raft of devices being launched with this chipset, but oddly enough only Mobvoi Ticwatch 3 Pro has come out so far. That said, the reviews and personal accounts of this device are very encouraging. Finally WearOS has a chipset that is powerful and efficient enough to properly take on the devices from Apple and Samsung. My hope (and perhaps this is wishful thinking) is that Google will take this as a cue to push forward with WearOS innovation and updates, and other makers will release a bunch of devices in 2021, giving users more options in this space.
The year has also seen many pandemic-induced technological trends, including the burgeoning of video-conferencing tech led by companies such as Zoom, as well as the massive expansion of the video gaming industry, growing to eclipse both sports and movies combined. But I’m not really looking forward to these trends sustaining in the coming year; they will wane as the pandemic is controlled, which I know all of you are wishing for in 2021. So here’s wishing you all a (relatively) happy 2021 with faster computers, smaller phones, better wearables, and, most importantly, the end of the coronavirus pandemic.
Contact the author on Twitter @vinayaravind.