Commentary: Looking into a crystal ball for the year to come, we’ll say goodbye to Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and electric scooters — and hello to pricey foldable smartphones and 5G networks that most people can’t use.
2018 is a year the tech industry wishes it could forget. But 2018’s problems aren’t going anywhere.
It was the year we came to grips with how little we can trust Facebook and how much we’re addicted to our screens. It was the year that online hate and misinformation became an unavoidable reality and Google, Microsoft and Amazon faced revolts from their own employees over ethical lapses. It was the year Apple became the first trillion dollar company – and then lost $250 billion when we yawned at its new iPhones.
When my Washington Post colleagues and I looked into a crystal ball to make this list of nine intentionally provocative headlines we might see in 2019, it was hard to see past the problems we’re bringing with us into the new year.
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New technologies like 5G networks, alternative transportation and artificial intelligence promise to change our lives. But even these carry lots of caveats in the near term.
I’m still optimistic technology can make our world better. So here’s a glass-half full hope for the new year: 2019 is tech’s chance to make it right.
Sheryl Sandberg will leave Facebook as its woes continue
Facebook’s dumpster fire of a 2018 brought, by a conservative count, 21 major scandals. With consumer faith in the social network’s ability to protect our data dropping faster than the Times Square ball, Facebook needs to do something dramatic to signal it understands accountability. Since no one can challenge the throne of co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, it’s not hard to imagine one other big possibility: The departure of longtime chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.
Sandberg, who has already spent a decade at Facebook, is too talented an executive to stick around and continue to get blamed for Zuckerberg’s ongoing bungles. She could have the CEO job at another major company that might help rebuild her image. (How about Disney? The contract for CEO Bob Iger expires in 2019.) For Facebook, the upheaval might give it the opportunity to reboot its surveillance business model into other services and maybe even subscriptions. Why can’t we pay for Facebook instead of letting it spy on us for advertisers?
Asked about Sandberg earlier this year, Zuckerberg told CNN: “I hope that we work together for decades more to come.”
Tesla survives, but gets real competition
Like him or not, Elon Musk is our new Steve Jobs. Through his maniacal product focus – and sometimes despite his erratic behavior – Tesla survived “production hell” on its mass-market electric Model 3 in 2018 and even eked out a profit.
But more tests await Tesla: It needs to prove its chops in autonomous driving, which Musk has been talking up for years. And soon, Tesla will have serious electric car competition, meaning it needs to hurry up and sell a car for the $35,000 Musk originally promised for the Model 3 in 2017. Volkswagen has said it could build up to 15 million electric cars over several years, and likely coming by 2020 is a hatchback called the I.D. that can go about 370 miles on a charge. And at the high end, there’s Jaguar’s I-PACE, the Porsche Taycan, Volvo’s Polestar – and that’s just to name a few.
Congress keeps talking about tech – but makes little impact
There’s bipartisan talk about reining in tech. But Congress is likely going to be too busy fighting about other things in 2019 to pass tech legislation with teeth. And internet companies, which are powerful lobbying operations in their own right, will resist the changes that we really need.
That’s not to say tech won’t still be on the hot seat in Washington. Now that Democrats control the House, new hearings could shift away from concerns about anti-conservative bias and toward serious privacy and antitrust issues.
We’re also still waiting on the Federal Trade Commission to deliver on its investigation of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica data privacy lapse. But the agency, whose power is limited by law, lately has shown little ability to deliver a serious blow.
Apple is going to squeeze more money from you
With people waiting longer and longer to upgrade their iPhones, Apple isn’t just interested in selling hardware anymore. Now it’s doubling down on being a services company, too. Apple subscription offerings already include Apple Music for songs, iCloud for storage and AppleCare+ for repairs. Next up: Subscriptions for news and video.
But as Apple pushes deeper into entertainment, it’s going to need a few frenemies to get its content out of iPhones and onto the biggest screens in our homes. The Apple TV streaming box is not nearly as dominant in homes as Roku and smart TVs from Samsung and others. Apple doesn’t have a reputation for playing well with others, but already, in December, it took the once-unthinkable step of making Apple Music work with Amazon’s top-selling Echo speakers. (Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)
Scooters fizzle out
More modes of transportation are an urban necessity, and less reliance on cars is a good thing. But app-enabled scooters are the buzzy transportation idea most likely to fizzle out because ultimately too many people don’t feel comfortable riding them. Until dramatic street design changes make it safer for small electric devices, shared bicycles make more sense. And even then, that’s still a fraction of the people in the U.S. who would rather take an Uber car to their next meeting.
Big tech IPOs arrive, but keeping sky-high valuations may require increasing prices for customers
The year ahead is supposed to bring initial public offerings from some of the most iconic tech start-ups of the last decade: Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and Pinterest. But I don’t expect Silicon Valley will be partying like it’s 1999. Right now, market conditions are so bad that only the most desperate for cash would pull the trigger in the next few months. (The Nasdaq composite, which contains a lot of tech stocks, has lost about 19 percent from its August high.)
“The IPO market may not be open for business for the first part of the year,” says Kathleen Smith, principal at Renaissance Capital. “It’s possible that many won’t get done, and those that do get done will be at lower valuations.”
Many of these companies haven’t been forced to focus on profitability as they’ve been propped up by private investors for years. A new focus on profits could well require higher prices for customers.
5G cellular networks arrive and wow few at first
After years of hype, next-generation 5G networks from AT&T and Verizon are finally popping up in American cities, with the promise of blazing-fast internet speeds over the air for phones, cars, gaming gear and all sorts of connected devices. But it probably won’t change your life in 2019. That’s because these initial networks are limited to particular neighborhoods – not entire cities. It will take years for 5G to be as common as the 4G LTE Networks we use today. Meanwhile, expect marketing wars where carriers try to convince us their not-really-5G networks are already 5G.
And then there’s a hardware problem: The first devices that can take advantage of these networks are just WiFi hotspots. Apple will wait until at least 2020 to put 5G into iPhones, according to leaks. Samsung has promised it will release a 5G-compatible smartphone at some point in 2019, but the increased demands of the new network are likely to drain the battery quickly.
Samsung debuts a folding smartphone, and it’s mind-bendingly expensive
After a long dry spell, smartphone design is about to get interesting again. Samsung plans in 2019 to sell a phone that unfolds like a book to reveal a 7.3-inch screen inside. Samsung will have to prove its Infinity Flex Display is more than a gimmick, but the idea is that it gives us access to both a really big phone for working and watching video and a small pocket-size phone at the same time.
If you’re intrigued, you’d better start saving up now. Samsung, like Apple, is looking for reasons to price phones more like laptops, as we wait longer and longer before upgrading. With all that new hardware, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Samsung’s new phone touch $2,000 or beyond.
Trump gets into a big fight with an ever-bigger Amazon
The easiest prediction to make for the last decade has been that Amazon will get bigger. In 2019, we’ll buy even more everyday things online and shop at Amazon’s growing spate of physical shops, like Amazon Go convenience stores in airports. We’ll connect our homes to even more Amazon speakers, cameras, clocks and appliances so they can work better together – and the retailer can gather even more data about our lives.
And that makes Amazon the company most likely to run afoul of President Donald Trump, who uses tech as his favorite foil (after the media). It has already happened on a smaller scale over the rates the retailer pays the U.S. Postal Service. With Amazon’s tentacles spreading into more areas of the economy, Trump will have plenty to argue with, from its impact on jobs to questions about whether Amazon has just gotten too big.