Five predictions for the communications world in 2012

In the coming year, mobile internet devices and in particular smartphones will continue to bring the biggest changes to the way we communicate. For the first time, they will also change the way we do business.

As adoption of the recession-defying smartphone tips from 40% to 60% in the UK next year, these devices will morph from communication tools to become platforms for commercial activity, with eBay already reporting a mobile retail rush this Christmas.

And while many of us will be tempted to spend more, young tech-native users will find ways to save money by driving the explosion in free voice and messaging applications.

With these thoughts in mind, here are some predictions for the communications industry in 2012.

1. Mobile retail

This was the year mobile retail entered the mainstream, and eBay tells the story. In 2010, its global sales via mobile tripled. The prediction for 2011 has been revised up from $4-billion to $5-billion.

More than 170 000 UK shoppers spend more than £30 using eBay’s mobile app every week. On Cyber Monday, the peak day for online Christmas shopping in the US three times more people turned to eBay subsidiary PayPal’s mobile app this year than last. Shoppers on the internet auction site have bought homes and even a £70 000 Ferrari from their phones.

Christmas shoppers were predicted to spend 12% of their £13-billion online pounds on mobiles in the UK this year, according to the Centre for Retail Research, which thinks that by 2015, a quarter of online purchases will be made on mobiles.

2. Mobile wallets

Swiping phones at public transport ticket barriers instead of travel cards, or at shop tills instead of debit cards, redeeming electronic coupons in-store, scanning barcodes to compare prices … mobile phone networks have been talking about turning these ideas into reality for years.

But Google is making it happen. This summer Google Wallet opened to the general public in the US, and the company hopesto bring it to Europe next year, beginning with the UK.

PayPal has similar designs, as do the mobile phone networks. This Christmas, Amazon had bricks and mortar retailers choking on their tinsel with the offer of a 5% discount for items scanned in physical shops using its price comparison barcode scanner, which runs on smartphones.

In the developing world, phones are being used not just as wallets but as a first bank account. Migrant workers are sending billions home using mobile phone money transfer services. Juniper Research says that $55-billion will be sent in 2016, up from just under $12-billion this year.

3. Change at the top

Seats are being reserved in the last chance saloon for two of technology’s biggest chieftains: Sony Group’s Sir Howard Stringer and Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer.

A former CBS journalist who went on to run Sony’s American business, including the record label and film studio, Stringer has made it his mission knit the conglomerate into a coherent entity.

During his six year reign he has scored individual hits with PlayStation games consoles, Bravia television sets, Vaio laptops and the Spider-Man films. But not all these initiatives have been profitable and the benefits of making both the content and the gadgets to consume it with have yet to materialise.

This year, Stringer had hoped to announce a $2-billion annual profit. Thanks to Japan’s Tsunami and a sluggish global economy, he reported a $3-billion net loss, the biggest for 16 years.

Kazuo Hirai, credited with masterminding PlayStation’s success and now corporate executive officer at group level, is the heir apparent.

2012 is also a crucial year for Ballmer. He has so far failed to catch up with Google on search advertising, and has yet to make an impact on smartphones.

None of this has mattered so long as Microsoft remained unchallenged on PCs, controlling 80% of the market. Ballmer’s problem is that PCs are being challenged, by smartphones and tablets.

When Windows 8 is released later in 2012, billions of Ballmer customers will ask themselves whether to spend money updating an old computer, or buy a new one. Microsoft word processing, spreadsheets and email are very sticky services, but many people may opt for a tablet rather than a laptop, and Apple dominates the tablet market.

4. Free phone calls and messages

On personal computers and increasingly on phones, young technology natives and those who watch their pennies are finding ways to get something for virtually nothing.

Skype video phoning is a daily activity for schoolchildren. With a BlackBerry and a £10 a month Sim-only contract, messages are free and unlimited. If all your friends are messaging, there is no need to spend any money at all on calls and texts.

For those who can’t do without, there are endless applications which cut the phone bill by pushing the traffic onto the internet. WhatsApp is used to send a billion messages a day. Viber, with free international calls and texts, has been downloaded 30-million times. Video calling app Tango has 20-million users.

These services have arrived and are becoming mainstream. Good for consumers, bad for mobile network company revenues.

5. Apple TV

Nobody really knows what it will look like, but Apple TV is coming next year. A factory in Japan is being retooled to produce it, and unlike current Apple television gadgets, which hook up your existing box to the internet, this one will have a screen.

It will turn the iPhone into a remote control, and may also respond to hand gestures and voice commands. In 2012, shouting at the TV could take on a whole new meaning. —

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