Thursday, December 26, 2013

The year that was

VR-Zone contributors look back at the big and little ideas of 2013, and reflect on what might be in store for 2014.

With just over a week to go until the end of the 2013, it’s time to look back at the year that was and look forward to the year ahead.

The third year of the 2010s was as interesting and tumultuous a year as one could ask for. Somethings stayed the same, but many things changed.Neither the PC nor Blackberry is dead, as many naysayers said would have happened by this year, but both have substantially changed. New video cards have been released; processors announced but never to appear; a new-generation of consoles have been bestowed upon us; executives have declared surprise retirement.

*Looking away from the down and dirty of industry, technology, in a broader sense of how it impacts privacy, has been in the forefront of political debate during most of 2013. Technology has enabled both government and corporations to conduct overbearing surveillance, be it the NSA’s PRISM, Facebook’s numerous privacy instrusions, or Google creating a super-panopticon*with Google Glass that would give Benthem nightmares.

In many ways 2013 was a substantial year, and shockwaves from the events that occurred this year will be felt far into this decade. The grand debate about privacy, from government or corporation, will likely be one of the defining issues of Obama’s presidency. A new generation of consoles, in what may be the beginning of the twilight of the medium, may only be an incremental shift in the way we play, but may set the stage for something greater in the next-generation. The circumstances surrounding a delayed processor may show that a company’s hubris will prevent it from earning the rightful comeback that it’s worked so hard to achieve. In the same vein, the smartphone market may undergo a radical shakeup and a dominant player, characterised by its own hubris, may be shaken from the top.

Not all forecasts are right, and markets sometimes respond differently than expected. But the big ideas and little ideas in this feature should serve as a useful roadmap for the year to come, by reflecting on the year that was. Big ideas are broad trends that have market changing potential, while little ideas — of no less importance — are specific and niche and will impact focused areas of the sector. Read on to find out what VR-Zone contributors thought of the year that was, and the year that is to come.

- Sam Reynolds, Editor, VR-Zone

Big idea: Privacy

By: J. Angelo Racoma

The year 2013 saw the NSA eavesdropping leaks, public knowledge of PRISM and a handful of consumer-oriented encryption apps. What will 2014 have in store for us in terms of privacy?

*This year will likely be remembered as a year in which concern for loss of privacy has reached new heights. True enough, we may not have been private in the first place, because of our tendency to share information and media through social networks. However, it was in 2013 when public outcry over surveillance again gained momentum, after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden blew the whistle, revealing how government has been actively monitoring communications both within and outside of US territory.

*With this came public outcry for government requests for information, so much that major Internet companies and startups alike are scrambling to assure their users that they are doing their best to protect against intrusions. These can only go so far, however. Google and Facebook, for instance, do comply with lawful requests for data, although the two companies disclose this fact to the public.

*One thing is for sure: there is a need for better privacy and for privacy controls online.

*Changing perspectives on privacy. But what is online privacy in the first place? In previous pieces we have discussed before how Vint Cerf, one of the founding fathers of the Internet, has said that the concept of privacy has evolved and changed since the Internet started to inter-connect our digital lives. Our social networking posts, for instance, leave a lasting impression, and people tend to share too much information about themselves — and worse, other people — by sharing online.

*Privacy apps. We have also seen how privacy-oriented applications have popped up left and right, from Silent Circle, to Telegram to Wickr. Some apps simply allow for a self-destruct mechanism for messages, like Snapchat. Some apps go as far as offering end-to-end encryption for text messages or even calls, as with the premium Silent Circle service. Some offer a middle-ground: free use of their secure, encrypted application, but mostly focusing on basic features, like Wickr.

*Apps are not enough. But are we being lulled into a false sense of security? This is the concern that has been raised by data security experts. Encryption is not enough, because your data and communications could still be vulnerable if the physical location of the data centers is in a jurisdiction that can be accessed by government agencies that might want to take a look. For instance, even analysis of meta data alone — knowing who contacted whom, and when, and from where — is sometimes good enough in gleaning potentially essential information in a conversation. Some firms are moving their data offshore, to mitigate the risk of their governments listening in.

*The future. We are likely to see more privacy-oriented apps in 2014. Or at the very least, apps that we are already familiar with might come up with improved security and privacy mechanisms. But its’ not enough that we rely on the privacy that these apps offer. Whatever digital practices we have will only reflect the ones we are also doing offline. Therefore, our online privacy would still depend on how we act in the real world: on how discreet we are in recording and sharing aspects of our life, and in talking with others.

What’s exciting for technology observers would be the apps and technologies that will be launched for this purpose this coming year. For instance, Swedish developers have come up with, an upcoming messenger service designed with privacy in mind from square one. What other apps will be in the works? What other technologies will developers, device makers and service providers come up with next?

Little idea: The year of MediaTek and Imagination?

By Sam Reynolds

The high-end smartphone and mobile market is saturated. It’s still growing, but growth is in the single digits.

However a whole new market is opening up in the developing world. The next billion smartphone and tablet customers aren’t in North America, Europe, or Japan — they’re in China, India, Indonesia and Brazil.

These new customers want low-cost feature-rich devices, which need to be powered by a low-cost processor. Many mainstream mobile chip makers like Qualcomm are catching on, and releasing chips like the Snapdragon 410 — a low-power low-cost ARMv8 based chip that Qualcomm hopes will power the next generation of LTE capable smartphones in the developing world.

But Qualcomm is not alone in this venture. It has to content with the rising star of MediaTek from Taiwan. At Computex 2013 in June MediaTek had a strong showing, with dozens of low-cost devices and reference designs powered by it’s ARM-based chips.

But the rising star of MediaTek has a challenger from MIPS. As VR-Zone examined in July, IP-rich Imagination, well known for its PowerVR GPUs, purchased MIPS with the goal of getting the chip in to 25 percent of all mobile reference designs. While that may seem like a challenging goal, if there’s one company that can do it it’s Imagination. Remember: Android is already MIPS compatible.

*Between MediaTek, Imagination, and legacy ARM providers like Qualcomm the mobile landscape is going to be fierce and competitive in 2014. What happened in 2013 will make for an exciting year in 2014, and it will be interesting to watch how device makers react.

Big idea: Two babes in the manger, a new generation of consoles

By Derek Strickland

This year has been a monumental one in the way of console gaming mostly thanks to the opening salvos being fired in the next-gen war. Although both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One have been launched onto the market, the war is far from over–in a way it’s only really just begun.

Throughout the year the next-gen battle has taken gamers on a roller-coaster ride with many ups and downs. Microsoft took a hit at E3 2013 as the unanimous dislike for the console’s DRM policies forced the company to backpedal, effectively changing the scope of the system in many ways. The conflict divided gamers across the globe, who took to the net to voice their opinions, giving Sony the tools they needed to refine their armament.

The “resolutiongate” debacle furthered the PS4′s rise, changing how many saw the Xbox One. The quarrel began when Call of Duty: Ghosts was revealed to have a native resolution of 720p on the Xbox One–and then upscaled to 1080p–whereas Sony’s PS4 had a native res of 1080p. Many gamers saw this as confirmation that the Xbox One was “inferior”, leading to a conflict between fans.

The ups and downs of launch day

Despite a rocky launch filled with miscellaneous errors, finicky features, and hardware faults, the two industry titans will roll out a series of fixes and updates to streamline the experience. What we’re seeing now with Sony’s svelte trapezoid and Microsoft’s heavy sable box is the early starting points of the evolution of both consoles.

This year’s launch titles were kind of a weak-point for both systems, though. The Xbox 360 and PS3 launches some years ago have a hefty amount of options available, but we’re kind of limited with the selection for PS4 and Xbox One titles. PS4′s lineup has been cited as being a bit “shooter-centric”, whereas Xbox One has a few other options like Dead Rising 3 and RYSE: Son of Rome to fill its ranks.

As far as anticipation, the launch of next-gen was just as crazed and frenetic as current-gen: gamers camped out in front of stores for the midnight release, early consoles found their way on eBay with exorbitant price tags, and online services crashed from over-encumbrance from millions of users trying to do the same thing at once.

With the eighth generation of consoles, Sony and Microsoft have fashioned gateways to a new era of gaming. The hardware–both the PS4 and Xbox One–are just the beginning: the two contenders each have their ambitious plans set forth to construct a veritable ecosystem of gaming content, permeating through the major conduits like smartphones, tablets and even PC’s.

While the hardware of each console may not change very much, the content offerings will be molded, refined and added to as time goes by. Rest assured that both companies have many more cards up their sleeves for the future, but it’ll take time before the full picture is made a reality.

Sony, for example, has a few cards up their sleeves to solidify the PS4′s stake in the next-gen war. Updates include Gaikai, the PS4′s cloud-gaming network, which Sony plans to use as a means of implementing a form of backwards compatibility. Gaikai support should roll out in 2014, and feature streaming of select PS3, PS2 and possibly even PS1 games across their next-gen PlayStation 4.

*It’s also quite likely that the Japanese gaming giant has a few surprises for us in the future as well, such as hidden features and a few timed exclusives.

*On the other side of the battlefield, Microsoft is readying their massive cloud-based foundation known as Xbox LIVE Compute which is planned to bring a massive array of servers for multiplayer as well as beef up the Xbox One’s GPU hardware.

The Xbox One already has an edge as far as an “all-in-one entertainment solution”, as it serves a multitude of functions with features like Snap Mode, HDMI-in-and-out, DVR capabilities and a host of entertainment apps.

*Despite its capabilities, the console is overpowered by Sony’s PS4, however, and this purported GPU boost would help even out the playing field.

*It’ll only get better with time

As time goes by, developers learn tricks and become more intimately acquainted with any given system. Both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 feature powerful specs and flexible x86 architecture which affords developers with unprecedented freedom with their content; no longer must they port content over to fit a certain platform, they can just translate it seamlessly from the coding environment over to the consoles.

Coupled with the plans for the future and the flexibility of both consoles, the Xbox One and PS4 have staggering potential that will no-doubt be tapped as the weeks, months and years go by. Whether it’s an update that provides more content like .mp3 playback or DLNA support or the introduction of something huge like Gaikai, the future is very bright for console gaming.

*Armed with their respective specs and these plans for the future, the next-gen contenders will push the current boundaries of console gaming to new heights.

Little idea: Three wise men, leave

By: Sam Reynolds

*The late summer and fall of 2013 was defined by an interesting trend: the departing CEO.

*First went Ballmer. On one Friday morning in August Microsoft announced that Steve Ballmer was intending to retire within the year, once a successor was found. Next, Heins. Later in the fall after the Fairfax takeover of Blackberry went awry, Thorstein Heins chose to exit stage left and the board installed outsider John Chen as CEO. Finally, in November, Acer’s *Chairman and CEO J.T. Wang took a bow as the company continued to perform badly and showed no signs of turning around.

*It would be unfair to paint these three wise men with the same brush: they all left for different reasons and will be remembered for different things. While Heins seemed to be nothing more than a caretaker CEO of Blackberry, Ballmer, often vilified, left the legacy of tripling Microsoft’s revenue to $77 billion. Acer’s J.T Wang was dealt a set of cards outside of his control: people don’t want to buy a new PC or notebook because their current is good enough, and tablets, something that Acer wasn’t competitive in were in vogue.

What will happen after these CEOs depart is more important than the specifics of why they departed. While the successor to Acer’s Wang was recently named, the world is waiting for the next CEO of Microsoft to be named . What direction will these men take their respective companies? What parts of their plans will succeed? Fail? This is something to watch in 2014.

Big idea: The great mystery of what’s next in the mobile world

By Adrian Diaconescu

*I’m no Nostradamus, but there are a number of prophecies to be made regarding the evolution of the mobile industry in 2014 that even my dog would feel safe about. First of all, the use of the term “smartphone” may soon be superfluous.

*Smart handhelds have surpassed “dumb” devices in global sales for the first time in 2013 and next year should see the gap grow and grow and grow until feature phones will become a mere blip on the radar.

*Secondly, it’s no longer a secret the mobile industry is a duopoly and there’s no bona fide rival in sight for Samsung and Apple. Especially as both OEMs are gearing up for crucial strategy shifts.

On the one hand, you have the Android king, all ready to ditch plastic in favor of metal for smartphone, sorry phone designs and, most of all, take flexible screens to the next level.

On the other, there’s Cupertino, which looks one step behind Samsung as far as true innovation goes. Be that as it may, the next generation of iPhones will undoubtedly prove a blockbuster, as Apple is finally set to leave all caution aside and go all-in on screen real estate.

*“Bigger is better” seems to be the iconic trend of the tablet décor too, albeit budget-conscious 7-inchers, probably led by the third-gen Nexus 7, are to remain universally beloved. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro (or Maxi) is a wild rumor no more, then there’s an intriguing Galaxy Note 12.2 in the pipeline and I wouldn’t be at all shocked to see Google come out with a Nexus 12 or maybe 13.

The competition in this niche of the future is bound to be fierce, though ultimately he who shall have the productivity edge will likely come out on top. Granted, Windows-powered tablet/laptop hybrids are yet to break into the mainstream, but wait until Apple slaps a detachable keyboard on an iPad and calls it innovation.

By the by, I don’t see Windows capable of becoming a real threat for iOS and Android in 2014.

However, if Microsoft plays its cards right, it could start building towards a bright future. Nokia Lumia phones in particular, with their striking designs and incredible cameras, are a menace. They just need a better, more functional OS with a richer ecosystem. Can Windows Phone 8.1 do the trick? Not likely, but hey, baby steps can get you a long way.

Big idea: AMD, Kaveri and the reality distortion field that plagues the tech sector

By Sam Reynolds

*During AMD’s keynote at January 2013’s Consumer Electronics Show, AMD’s Lisa Su announced the first details of the company’s debut HSA compatible APU called Kaveri. Later that year at Computex, AMD shared more details of this soon-to-debut chip. Between these two events one thing was constant: Kaveri would be launched in 2013.

*Turns out that wasn’t going to be the case. As VR-Zone reported in July, while AMD was telling analysts and the press that Kaveri would be in available in 2013, the company was telling motherboard manufacturers to prepare for a early-2014 launch of the chip. AMD denied everything at first then pivoted to clarify that while the chip would be in the hands of enthusiasts in 2014, the company considered it a 2013 product for accounting purposes.

*While considering Kaveri-delay-gate, let’s take a moment to consider another AMD blunder in 2013: Mantle. When Mantle was announced at #gpu14 in Honolulu it was billed as a “close to metal” cross-platform development tool. In short wherever a GCN core was present, AMD claimed at #gpu14, developers would enjoy “close to metal” access that would dramatically reduce the usual performance overhead from APIs.

*Turns out this wasn’t entirely true. While Mantle would offer developers “close to metal” access for GCN only on PC platforms both Sony and Microsoft separately confirmed that they would not be allowing outside APIs on their respective systems. Not missing a beat, AMD quickly spun the story to say that a cross-platform to console development kit was never its intent — it was only to create a “console like” development environment.

*Are Mantle and Kaveri telling of a structural problem within AMD? Is the company addicted to hyperbole, and scrambles with spin when facts and reality hits?

*Disappointingly this may be the case. AMD has had an extraordinary amount of wins this year and is poised to be a comeback kid. AMD was the big winner, and Nvidia loser, with this year’s Mac Pro and its Firepro cards. As AMD’s Roy Taylor pointed out in an August interview with VR-Zone, “CUDA is doomed” while OpenCL is going to the moon.

*While many companies are guilty of having a strong reality distortion field, aided by a fanboy press and weak scrutiny from equities analysts, not all are in the perilous financial situation AMD is. The company is enjoying a few future quarters of solid cash flow due to per-chip royalties, but when that runs out, and it will soon as Sony and Microsoft will only build enough to fill warehouses, AMD is in the same situation it has been for the last few years.

*To solve this problem AMD needs to be more honest with itself and the press. Microsoft is learning the hard way as it faces a class action lawsuit from shareholders over misleading investors about the success of the Surface. AMD should take heed. It might mean less spectacular launches, or disappointing investors and the press by saying that a chip needs a bit more time in the oven. But the consequences of broken promises and having to retract, or adjust, statements is much worse.

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