Each year, Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab asks writers and thinkers in and around journalism to make predictions for the upcoming year. This year’s slate includes author Nicholas Carr, web pioneer Dave Winer, Columbia Journalism School’s Emily Bell, Wired’s own Senior Maverick Kevin Kelly, digital strategist Amy Webb, and many more: a solid mix of familiar faces and up-and-comers.
Nieman also asked me to contribute predictions about what the year might bring for mobile and portable reading devices: smartphones, tablets and e-readers. Here’s a slightly-superstitious pet theory about technological evolution and the calendar:
In consumer technology, five year cycles are really interesting. For instance, if you look at Apple, it’s about five years between when Steve Jobs returns to the company and when Apple introduces Mac OS X, the iPod, and its first retail stores. You can talk about the first iMac and a few other things, but it’s really in 2001 that Apple becomes the company we recognize today… In another five years, you get the [transition to] Intel Macs and [then] the iPhone. And another five years gets you to today.
It’s not just Apple; you see the same five year pattern with… a lot of other companies, products, and subfields. Sometimes, it works so well that you feel like you’re cherry-picking or inventing the pattern. But I think you can also argue that it takes about five years for a breakthrough product to mature, for companies and designers and partners to see its potential, and for users to not just be ready for a big leap forward, but to really want and demand that leap.
Why does this matter for 2012? Well, besides five years of iPhone, we’re also looking at five years of Kindle. That’s two five-year anniversaries that really signal the point when mobile reading became mainstream.
Once you factor in where all these devices are in their product cycles and what we know about the development of new digital publishing standards, it seems increasingly likely that next year won’t just bring modest updates to smartphones, tablets and e-readers but genuine, revolutionary transformations:
We’re not just going to say, “wow, there’s a cheaper version of this other thing that I wanted.” We’re actually going to want new things.
I’ve written for Nieman Lab in the past, and they included me in this series, so it’s probably tough for me to be objective. Still, unless you’re burned out on the whole end-of-year review-and-forecast genre, I think the whole slate of predictions has the right mix of measured sanity and long bets to be worth reading.
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