2017 in Tech: The Year of Not Much

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Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A year ago — if you can remember that far back — we were all getting ready for the year of the bot. Or, maybe, the year of virtual reality. Tech companies and the press that covers them were prepping us all for a considerable paradigm shift. Buzz was starting to build about chatbots, programs that you conversed with as you would a person. These amazing pieces of software were supposed to harness the power of Natural Language Processing and deep machine learning to change how we interacted with computers (and make a new generation of chatbot middlemen rich). The first consumer virtual-reality headsets were being developed and released; new opportunities for gaming, social networks, journalism, and even activism were being promised. (Not to mention new opportunities for revenue.)

As you know, the paradigm didn’t quite shift. So far — and Facebook freely admits this — the chatbot revolution is off to a slow start, barely out of the primordial ooze and onto the beach. (Where it’s given itself a Nazi armband.) Likewise, virtual reality is ready to sell to consumers but lacking in both ease of use and setup, as well as a robust software library, and sales have been disappointing.

These days, the tech industry is looking increasingly like the auto industry. Sure, cars might now have Bluetooth connections and slightly different contours than the year before, but they’ve had four tires, and pedals, and a steering wheel for a while now. What were once unique gadgets are now commonplace, embedded in the foundation of modern society. Enthusiast culture — people really into cars or computers — still exists and bustles along, but it’s not the core of the business anymore. The question, now, is whether there is anything to get really amped about. It doesn’t look like it. If 2016 was supposed to be, somehow, the Year of Bots and the Year of VR and the Year of the Self-Driving Car, 2017 is shaping up to be the Year of Not Much.

In part, this is an obvious side effect of that fact that most of the country is jacked in via a traditional computer or a mobile device, and general interest in gadgets has waned to the point of boredom. This is not to say that technology won’t continue to improve, only that it will do so in the boring ways we expect: lighter, smaller, faster, stronger, and so on.

The market-creating technologies the industry was hoping for last year aren’t going to come in 2017, either. VR, while intriguing, doesn’t quite have a killer app yet, a piece of software that makes the hardware a must-own; right now, it’s a neat party trick. Autonomous vehicles have hit their own bumps in the road (get it???): Uber launched a pilot program in Pittsburgh earlier this year, but had a similar initiative hit snags in San Francisco after the cars ran red lights on multiple occasions. Google and Apple, meanwhile, have reportedly scaled back their self-driving programs — opting out of manufacturing vehicles and instead focusing on making hardware and software that can be outfitted on cars made by other companies. Chatbots are stalled by their own incompetence and what seems to be a general consumer lack of interest. Between VR, self-driving pilot programs, and bots, 2017 looks to be a year of aggressive demoing.

That’s not to say that there isn’t new or potentially transformative tech being developed. The Amazon Echo and Google Home speakers — internet-connected speakers and microphones that communicate with a powerful back-end language-processing system — are fascinating, and quietly popular. And they point to a kind of paradigm shift, in which hardware updates aren’t happening in your home anymore, but on a server farm out in the middle of nowhere. We’re moving past the paradigm of desktop computing and visual interfaces into something very different — a realm where, significantly, software and services don’t require annual upgrade cycles. The Echo is now over two years old, and hasn’t changed much at all since its initial release.

This is nice for consumers, no longer pressured as heavily to upgrade and repurchase their gadgets every year. But it means the end of an era — one that overlapped closely with a Silicon Valley–friendly presidential administration — in which the technology industry was dynamic, rapidly changing, and genuinely exciting. Now that the “Fearsome Five” (Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon) and nearly there peers like Snap and Uber have reached the ubiquity and power they’ve long sought, users are realizing that these are not benign, value-neutral organizations that simply want to make the world better; they are firms that yield a vast amount of power over the information they spread and what their users are capable of. It’s not a sudden epiphany, but the ever-increasing scrutiny has triggered a type of retrenchment. Governments — American and European, local and national — are less and less likely to provide the kinds of inducements and incentives to encourage start-up growth. Besides Snap, there are no flashy IPOs on the horizon, and fewer and fewer overnight millionaires. In 2017, that seems unlikely to change.

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2017 in Tech: The Year of Not Much