8 Big Questions About Media and Technology to be Answered in 2017

Technology’s rapid acceleration is causing disruption in long-standing industries and social norms, and we are just now starting to become aware of the tradeoffs. After an eventful 2016, here are the big questions looming over the technology industry:

1. Will consolidation of content and distribution businesses disrupt net neutrality for good?

The prevailing example is if AT&T completes its acquisition of Time Warner, will AT&T begin offering its customers “discount” access to HBO, and how will this cause a landslide of “deals” telecommunications companies offer customers that ultimately may translate to lock-in and reduced access and choice overall? Similarly under the microscope is T-mobile’s practice of “zero-rating” certain content providers, or not charging customers for data that is used to stream partner content vs others. The concern is, as this fosters an uneven landscape, new startups will no longer be able to compete because they won’t have the resources to negotiate deals required to be competitive with existing players.

2. Will OTT video finally disrupt the traditional cable industry in a meaningful way?

Last year, Sling was the first big name to offer a competitive “skinny” bundle of broadcast video content that could be purchased and streamed over the Internet without a traditional cable subscription. This year, DirectTV launched their own OTT bundle DirectTV Now, and Hulu announced their own upcoming OTT television offering. Sling, meanwhile, answered by announcing an integrated box that combines local network TV channels, Sling TV bundles, and 3rd party content such as HBO Now and Netflix. All of the sudden there are a variety of compelling options for consumers to quit their expensive bloated cable contracts for cheaper more personalized options that can be accessed by a wealth of devices. Whether anyone makes the switch is one question, another is whether the new OTT options available nationwide put pressure on the historically anti-competitive monopolistic cable companies to offer better value themselves.

3. Will Alexa and Google Assistant successfully usher in a new era of hands-free UI?

Even without Amazon having a formal presence there, the big story at CES this year was Alexa. Just about every company was either building Alexa into their product, adding ‘skills’ (programmable Alexa commands) for their products to the Alexa library, or both. Amazon Echo and Google Home were also the hits of the holiday season, with both seemingly sold out by December 25th. But the real question is, once we have voice-activated, AI-powered assistants in every corner of our home, and every device, will we use them? Alexa’s early success was due, in part, to its confined and predictable use cases in the home that ensured Amazon surpassed expectations. If the ecosystem grows too fast and quality starts to degrade, it could cause the Siri effect — voice controls that are fun, but too unreliable to be worth it. The hope is Amazon, Google, and others understand the bigger picture and avoid pursuing short term buzz for long-term behavioral shifts.

4. How will all of these connected “always on” smart devices impact privacy, liability, and security?

In December it was revealed that police in Arkansas were seeking to access data from an Amazon Echo to prove someone was actually in their house at time of a murder under investigation. Whether this is even feasible given what Echo captures of un-initiated ambient information isn’t the point. Perhaps even scarier, modern cars like Tesla are capturing and acting on a wealth of data about drivers and the car’s surroundings, and it’s unclear what the ownership and liability of all of the data is. Purchasing a car used to be seen as transfer of ownership, but the age of AI in cars shifts this to an ongoing service relationship. Are car companies prepared to protect the data they’re now collecting from unwanted eyes, what will they do with the information they have, and are drivers even clear at all about the new terms of the “contract”?

5. Will tech companies band together to solve the Fake news and echo chamber problems?

The presidential election exposed significant issues with the state of content on the web today. Old systems of measuring authority and credibility are proving ineffective and even harmful, with people being exposed regularly to fake content that they are predisposed to believe in. After significant criticism, Facebook is beginning to test a variety of solutions for its platform, but it’s an industry-wide problem that would benefit from a collaborative effort. Industry leaders John Borthwick and Jeff Jarvis have proposed creating a universal verified sources list and a method of system for packaging fact check related metadata with content. Whether any stakeholders consider proposals like these remains to be seen.

6. Will consumers start “voting” to support media with their wallets again?

Hand-in-hand with the content quality issues is questions around the perceived value of content. It’s easy to want Facebook to behave differently, but the reality is most CPM based businesses end up in a downward spiral of volume over quality. For a long time, consumers have gotten used to getting everything they want for free — but the sentiment may be changing. In fact, the New York Times saw a 10x increase in subscriptions the day after the presidential election. It turns out people may not be happy with the terms of an entirely ad-based media industry. If that behavior shift happens, what will it mean for media businesses, and will that shift spill over to other industries such as software development, where many independent developers have found it very difficult to sustain themselves building and maintaining innovative applications?

7. Will AR and VR continue prove to be more than a gimmick?

While it feels like we’ve been talking about AR and VR forever (okay maybe only a couple years), the technology is finally starting to catch up to our expectations. Hardware requirements for high end devices is coming down, and interactivity is becoming more advanced. HTC recently announced the Vive Tracker, a motion tracking device that can be attached to things like baseball bats or gloves to bring real-world objects into the virtual world. And Google’s new Project Tango has the potential to turn mass market smartphones into powerful Microsoft Hololens-like Augmented reality like devices capable of placing virtual objects into our view of the real world with full spacial awareness. With all of these new more accessible capabilities will we start to find real compelling reasons to use VR and AR on a daily basis?

8. And what to make of the state of the gadget industry?

After a year in which Kickstarter darling Pebble watch went out of business, GoPro is gasping for air, Apple underwhelmed us with consecutive products, Snapchat came out with possibly the most exciting wearable (Spectacles), and wireless routers became hot again, it’s hard to decide if we should be excited or fearful for the gadget industry right now. It may be that we are transitioning to a more practical phase of gadget innovation, with older companies and older ideas figuring out their place in the world. Mass market OLED screens could spur a TV refresh cycle that gimmicky 3D and curved screens never did. Mesh networking could finally solve in-home wifi. Spectacles can do way less than the ill-fated Google Glass, but much more easily, and in tune with human behaviors. 2017 could be the year our lists grow with things we want and would actually use.

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