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GADGETS

2012 in tech — and what it means for the year ahead

by Rick Martin

In the world of technology, the past year has seen a changing of the guard in almost every sector. Personal computers, mobile devices, gaming and Internet services have all seen incredible developments, with new challengers taking the place of old incumbents. As we move into the new year, we’ll meet a vastly different tech landscape from the one we knew in years gone by.

Starting in the PC space, 2013 will be the year that Lenovo steps beyond previous market leader Hewlett-Packard and assumes the role of the world’s most dominant computer maker. By some accounts, the Chinese manufacturer may have already done so (U.S. research firm Gartner says it has). Next year will also be the year that consumers get their first real taste of Windows 8, as they buy more and more PCs with Microsoft’s new OS. There’s some debate over whether or not consumers are ready for the new Modern tiled user interface (previously called Metro UI). But I expect that customers here in Japan will be even more reluctant to get aboard with this change, especially on the enterprise side, where adoption of new tech can be downright glacial.

Perhaps I’m just being optimistic, but I think that with the potential confusion around consumer adoption of Windows 8, some PC maker will finally get behind the Ubuntu operating system as a way to differentiate itself. This could be Dell, if its Project Sputnik initiative to reinvent computers works out. The company is already selling its XPS 13 Developer Edition laptop, and it would be great to see more PCs emerge from this sort of mold. Taiwan’s Asus, which dabbled with Ubuntu in 2012 as well, might be another to try this. Of course, then there’s Google with its Chromebook laptop products, too.

In 2012, Japan’s legal system got tough on media piracy, with a new revision to copyright law making illegal downloading a criminal offense. And while it’s not certain how this will be enforced, there’s a window here for streaming-media services to jump in with offerings for music, movie and television content on a free or subscription basis. America’s Hulu is making a strong marketing push in Japan, and is gradually adding more selection to its locally licensed on-demand film and TV library. KDDI’s Smart TV Box launched late in the year and is another option for Japanese consumers. DoCoMo’s NotTV mobile-television service did well this past year, quickly building up a solid base of paid-for subscriptions. On the music side, standout local startup Beatrobo has cleverly skirted potential copyright issues by providing an interface where its users can consume music served from YouTube and SoundCloud. Similarly, another music startup, Frekul, is doing interesting work connecting music fans with artists they like.

Amazon launched its Cloud Drive service in Japan in November, but at the time the company made no mention of music. Currently there are Japanese music titles available via Amazon Japan, and those can be played using Amazon Cloud Player — but Amazon has been very quiet about the music functions of Cloud Drive thus far, and it will be interesting to see how long things stay that way. Currently the service is merely described by Amazon Japan as a place to store documents, pictures and video.

Last year at this time I made a few Apple-related predictions (www.japantimes.co.jp/text/nc20111228ga.html), and while a few of them were realized (the new iPad and iPad mini), we still haven’t seen the long-rumored TV solution come to market. Piper Jaffray senior analyst Gene Munster expects that it will arrive in November 2013, but he notes that other Apple goodies could come our way a little earlier — such as a MacBook Air with Retina display next summer, and an iPhone 5S in the fall. Apple could also offer a streaming-media service similar to Pandora or Rdio, but we’ll have to wait and see if that turns out to be more than just a rumor as well. Japanese Mac blog Macotakara cited “inside sources” on Monday, claiming that a thinner iPad could be coming in March as well — so if you’re planning to buy an iPad, it might be advisable to wait until spring.

While Apple is certainly a company to watch in 2013, though, its rival Samsung arguably deserves more attention. The Korean manufacturer is forecasted by analysts at iSuppli to be the top mobile maker in 2012, ousting the once-mighty Nokia from the position it has held for 14 years. Expect more dominance from Samsung in 2013. The company just opened its first Samsung Mobile Store in Paris, and more stores could spring up in other regions, including here in Japan.

In terms of mobile hardware, I think 2013 will be the year when we see the boundary lines between phone and tablet further obscured, as phones get bigger and tablets get smaller. This year brought the iPad mini, Nexus 7, Kindle Fire and Galaxy Tab 7.7, all with screens of or around 7 inches. But there are indications that some manufacturers are even exploring the 6-inch format, most notably China’s Huawei, which recently teased a 6.1-inch device at a store in Guangzhou. I’m all for more choice, so long as we abolish the term “phablet” (combining “phone” and “tablet”) once and for all.

Perhaps the most exciting development in the Japanese tech space is in mobile social services, where companies such as DeNA, Gree and NHN Japan have been pioneering new mobile-business models, even as the world’s media mourns the supposed death of innovation in Japan.

As smartphone penetration continues to grow, Japan’s mobile companies will come up with new ways to milk consumers of their money, setting an example for the rest of the world’s mobile industry. More mobile-gaming companies will ride the smartphone platform to expand their businesses beyond Japan’s borders. But as many of us grow bored with Facebook and explore other things, social networks designed with mobile devices in mind are also a big draw. Line is the most popular candidate in Japan, and it has a growing user-base around the rest of Asia too.

NHN Japan has already experimented with everything under the sun on its Line chat platform, with offerings ranging from games to paid stamps/stickers to fortune telling. Expect this kitchen-sink strategy to continue in the new year, with physical merchandise complementing the company’s digital property (teddies of the company’s bear mascot were a hot gift item this Christmas).

Line has put the impetus on Japan’s other leading gaming and social companies to step up a few gears as well. Both DeNA and Gree now have chat app offerings, and social services such as mixi and CyberAgent’s Ameba are putting more focus on smartphones too. Expect even more TV commercials from these companies (as if we haven’t seen enough already) as they fight for your attention.

In somewhat stark contrast, I fear Nintendo will continue to stick to its conviction of only making games for its own hardware in 2013. While it would be nice to see the Kyoto-based company bring some games over to smartphone platforms too, I wouldn’t advise that anyone holds their breath waiting for this to happen. Still, with its Wii U console redefining multiplayer gaming and doing robust business this holiday season, Nintendo was another winner in Japan in 2012 — ensuring that in some industries, the old guard remained firmly in place.

Rick Martin is an editor at TechInAsia.com. Read more of his work at 1rick.com.