Walt Mossberg

2013: Talk Gets Cheaper, TV Gets Smarter

Personal technology never stops changing. Some new products and services are game changers, like Apple’s iPhone and iPad. Others are clever twists or refinements, like each successive version of Google’s Android platform, which gets better and better. Others are bold gambles, like Microsoft’s new Windows 8, which hopes to combine both a tablet experience and a traditional PC environment in one operating system. But there’s always something new, from large companies and small ones.

So here are a few things consumers will likely see in technology in 2013. Many of these began to take shape in the past year, but will be stronger trends in the new year.

Tablets vs. PCs

While the iPad line, including the new Mini, continues to dominate the tablet market, Android-based tablets are finally gaining traction. But the bigger story is that tablets will continue to erode the role of laptop PCs.

Consumers are using tablets for more and more tasks formerly performed by laptops. Traditional computers aren’t going away—they still do certain tasks, like heavy content creation, better than tablets. But consumers seem, at the very least, to be replacing their laptops less often and spending discretionary funds on tablets, which are gradually replacing another device: the dedicated e-reader. Many analysts had expected Windows 8 to halt or reverse this trend, and it may yet do so. But early indications aren’t encouraging for that outcome.

Integrating Hardware and Software

Meanwhile, another big trend is emerging: Apple’s model of one company making the entire device—hardware, operating system, core apps and an online ecosystem—is beginning to take hold elsewhere. In October, Microsoft unveiled its first computer, the Surface tablet. The company will follow it up as soon as this month with a second, more powerful version. I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft also made its own smartphone this year.

Google is also moving in Apple’s direction. It now sells three devices—a smartphone and two tablets—under its Nexus brand. These products are built by partner companies, but designed by Google. Now that Google owns its own hardware company, Motorola Mobility, I expect it to get deeper into the integrated model. Motorola, freshly stocked with former Google executives, is reported to be building advanced new hardware devices tightly integrated with Android.

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What to Watch: In addition to its Apple TV interface, left, Apple is expected to try to further simplify television viewing.
Rethinking Television

Samsung and others already make TVs that can connect to the Internet, and stream Internet video and run tablet-type apps, without any special set-top box. But I find them clumsy, and their “smart TV” functions haven’t taken off with consumers yet. This may be the year they do.

The biggest expectation is that Apple, which has been working hard on the problem, will finally unveil its long-rumored TV this year, with the goal of greatly simplifying the TV and smoothly melding Internet and cable content. Many, including me, thought it might appear in 2012, but the company reportedly ran into difficulties in negotiating with media companies for content rights. Meanwhile, Apple’s tiny, $99 Apple TV box, while still a relatively small seller, is gaining popularity, partly because the company has built into its laptops, tablets and phones a feature called AirPlay which can use an Apple TV box to wirelessly stream audio and video to a TV.

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Republic Wireless offers the Defy XT with a $19 unlimited plan.
Cheaper Smartphones and Plans

Smartphones are everywhere in the developed world, but most are still expensive—around $200 after a carrier subsidy that requires a two-year contract. And the monthly service fees can easily approach or exceed $100, especially if you use a lot of data, which is the very essence of a smartphone’s purpose.

There are already some smartphones, usually older, less capable or less popular models, available for $99 or $49 or even free with a contract. But I expect to see better smartphones at lower prices in 2013, especially those running the dominant Android platform, and the handsome, but low-selling Windows Phone platform from Microsoft.

In addition, some companies are beginning to offer really cheap monthly plans. One example: Republic Wireless, which offers unlimited voice, text and data for $19 a month on a small, Android phone, the Motorola Defy XT, using older software that has been modified to make voice calls where possible over Wi-Fi instead of a costlier carrier network.

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The $700 Astell & Kern AK100 plays much higher fidelity digital music.
Costlier, Better Music Players

Audiophiles and recording artists have never much liked the compressed music files that now fill every iPod and smartphone. They complain that the richness of the original recording is lost because the song files are optimized for minimum space and download time, and because they are often made from CDs, not from the master studio tapes.

So in 2013, there will be a push to sell a new kind of portable music player that can handle high quality music. The Korean electronics company, iRiver, has introduced the Astell & Kern AK100, a $700 player that can play much higher fidelity digital music. The legendary rocker Neil Young is backing a second venture, Pono, which is doing something similar. In addition to the price, there’s another downside: The files can be 10 to 20 times as large as standard digital songs, so many fewer tracks fit in a given amount of memory.

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The Basis, part of the crop of new wristband monitors, measures resting heart rate.
Fitness and Health Monitors

In 2012, sensor-packed wristbands like the Nike+ FuelBand and the Jawbone Up were introduced to measure how many steps people take in a day, how well they sleep, and other indicators of health and fitness. I expect this trend to continue in 2013, in different forms and with more sophisticated sensors. One new product, the Basis, is a watch with sensors on the back that measures resting heart rate. All of these devices tie into mobile apps or Web-based dashboards to track progress and offer advice.

Internet-Controlled Everything

Another trend I expect to see in 2013 is an expansion of apps and devices that let people wirelessly control many everyday objects, from light bulbs to appliances, using low-powered networks and smartphones or tablets. And we’ll likely see more smart devices with such intelligence built in, similar to the Nest intelligent thermostat, which is Wi-Fi powered.

These are just a few of the trends likely to mark the consumer tech landscape in 2013. Others will also be prominent, most notably the continued reliance on the cloud, or remote servers, to store content and work collaboratively. One thing is sure: There are certain to be developments that will surprise us all, and can’t be forecast here.

Email Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.


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