OBSCURED BY CLOUDS
Remember when software came on CDs in shrink-wrapped boxes? It’s a quaint notion in the age of software-as-a-service, where most applications are delivered from the “cloud” – generally an overseas data centre.
Cloud computing has blossomed as Google, Amazon and others have built massive data warehouses to store our information virtually, delivering it up to any device whenever we need it. From Dropbox to Google Drive, Adobe Creative Suite to good old Microsoft Office, most software vendors have embraced the cloud. The convenience is compelling, even if the occasional server meltdown renders your data inaccessible – or worse, lost for good.
But there is no going back from here. Driven by cheap storage capacity and ever-increasing processing power, delivering software centrally is extremely efficient. The cloud is also levelling the playing field for New Zealand companies such as listed accounting software company Xero and internet gaming start-up SmallWorlds, which are tackling international markets through the cloud.
A SOFTER TOUCH
The smartphone revolution, kickstarted by the arrival of the iPhone in 2007, would not have happened without multi-touch – the ability to manipulate a phone’s screen with your fingers, swiping through web pages and tapping out text messages.
Its arrival spelt the end of the poky phone keyboard and ushered in a faster, more natural way of interacting with technology. The rise of the iPad and a wave of Android-based tablets cemented this more natural way of computing that makes the mouse and keyboard of the desktop world feel decidedly clunky.
The craze has caught on. I can wave my hand to lower the volume on my Samsung Smart TV and the Xbox Kinect took video games beyond the unwieldy controller, using a camera that detects your movement and gestures.
Apple’s Siri service lets you search Google using voice commands, and voice-activation can help you make a phone call in your car without breaking the law. The next step is “invisible computing”, removing the device from the equation, building the components into our environment, our clothing and, eventually, our bodies.
For now, we have the likes of Google Glass. The augmented-reality glasses being trialled by the search engine giant beam a digital stream of information directly to your right eye so you don’t need to glance down at your smartphone screen any more.
We are proving slow to embrace ultrafast broadband – less than 3% of premises that have fibre running past them thanks to the Government’s $1.5 billion broadband build-out are taking up the service, which offers speeds of up to 100 megabits a second.
But all the technologies transforming our world – from the super computers crunching genetic data to the servers holding our Flickr photos – rely on internet connectivity and increasingly fast connections. Our old copper-line phone network has turned out to be incredibly versatile for providing faster internet access, with new technologies squeezing out more speed.
Mobile data speeds have also increased; we are in the midst of the roll-out of fourth generation (4G) networks, which will offer connection speeds similar to what we currently enjoy in the home.
Fibre-optic cables will ultimately broaden the options in the home and business, in healthcare and education.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t far wrong when back in 2010 he effectively declared privacy dead.
Through a series of whistle-blower leaks, the United States’ National Security Agency has been shown to have access to just about anything that people do online – even if it is encrypted. But it is telling that the bulk of the NSA’s work – and of surveillance agencies in general – is in sifting through publicly available information, much of it generated voluntarily on social networks, Facebook included.
A generation of digital natives have grown up with their security setting defaulting to “share all”. The implications of these evolving social norms are many and complex. We are more networked and accessible than ever, but online interactions on Twitter or Google+ are often shallow and fleeting. Some of us post photos and comments that will come back to haunt us.
Internet activists who buy into the mantra that information wants to be free have taken the concept to its logical conclusion. Julian Assange’s publishing of hundreds of thousands of sensitive US diplomatic cables on the WikiLeaks website represents the largest leak of government files in history – and a form of radical transparency that the network effect of the internet only accelerates.
HIGH STREET’S NEMESIS
Over half of us bought something online last year. We racked up $3.2 billion in online purchases, a figure Statistics New Zealand expects to reach $5.4 billion by 2016. The online spend-up is changing the face of retailing. High street stores struggle to stay competitive as we take advantage of a strong dollar and a tax loophole that allows us to get cheaper deals from offshore e-tailers.
Bookshops and music stores have been hardest hit as Amazon.com makes its presence felt globally. But everything from digital cameras to kit-set furniture is now just a click and a courier delivery away.
Online transactions have become second nature, with many of us buying concert tickets or selling stuff on Trade Me, still the country’s unrivalled marketplace.
SLAVE TO THE SMALL SCREEN
Use of smartphones has jumped to 60% of New Zealand mobile users, up from 32% last year. Smartphone screen sizes are edging up past four inches to accommodate the type of activity we like doing on the move – texting, instant messaging and surfing the web.
Driving the smartphone craze are ever more powerful handsets such as the HTC One and soon to be released iPhone 5S. Apple recently exceeded 50 billion downloads from its App store, which sells parcels of software that make the smartphone truly useful.
Tablet computer penetration is now up to 20% in New Zealand, showing the slightly larger format is also popular, particularly for content consumption, web surfing and gaming.
MINING BIG DATA
Data never sleeps. The petabytes of digital information we are generating are increasingly being analysed for hidden trends, insights into our behaviour that are useful to advertisers, governments and even those working on the cutting edge of medicine.
The data deluge has spawned a new industry in data processing and analysis. Every status update on Facebook, every tweet we send, is collated and run through computer algorithms to extract meaning. Google can track the spread of pandemics based on key words entered into its search engine. Law enforcement agencies are pinpointing crime hotspots through collating numerous data sources.
The term “big data” has become sexy only in recent years, but its exploitation is already playing a pivotal role in many aspects of people’s lives – even if we don’t know it.