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What will happen in the tech industry in 2014?

For the last 20-plus years I have written an annual industry prediction column forecasting what I see happening in the PC and CE markets in the new year. I spend thousands of hours each year researching these industries and their products, get to see inside many of the labs of many companies, and peek into startups and garage shops all over the world. So, once again I’ve been looking into my crystal research ball, and here is what I believe is likely to happen in 2014.

Google will spin off Motorola

Google says it bought Motorola for the patents, but patents only go so far in allowing any company to keep its doors open. I believe that in 2014 Google will spin off Motorola as a dedicated company creating great products around Google IP, responsible for its own P&L. There are rumblings that Motorola has some stunning and innovative products in the works which it could use to become the branded arm for all Google's hardware-related devices. Having Google and Motorola products as basically the same is confusing to customers. Google will see it makes sense to use Motorola as its hardware arm and make it accountable on its own.

Apple will release a ground-breaking productivity device

The iPad has become a powerful productivity tool in its own right, even without much help from Apple. Apple does not have an enterprise sales group – it doesn't even have an enterprise services group. Yet iPads have become the dominant tablet in IT and enterprises around the world.

Naturally there is stiff competition for the hearts and minds of business users who want tablets coming from Microsoft, Google, and some of their partners. I can't imagine Apple sitting still and letting its competitors gain ground, so I believe it will create a unique, ground-breaking iPad-class product focused on business and productivity.

I have no clue about its design, although some think it might be what they call an "iPad Pro," while others think it could be some kind of convertible. I am not sure what it will be, but I suspect that whatever it is will be a surprise to us all.

I do have one prediction related to this, though: Whatever Apple releases in this category will have a major negative impact on traditional Windows laptop sales next year, so total sales of laptops could be off as much as 20-30 million units in 2014 compared with this year.

Smartphones and beacon-based sensors become a very big deal

2014 will be the year in which Bluetooth Low Energy beacons take off. Potential use cases include placing them around stadiums so they can communicate with smartphones and tablets to give you related info about game stats, deals from concession stands, and coupons for discounts on branded clothing.

They could also be used in stores so that as you pass an endcap (a display for a product placed at the end of an aisle) with a beacon on it, it sends a message to your smartphone announcing a deal on the product that expires within 30 minutes. Apple is leading the charge in this space with its iBeacon technology, but Microsoft and Google are also working on similar programs. Bluetooth Low Energy radios integrated into beacons and smart devices will start taking off next year.

Smartwatches die in 2014

All attempts at creating a smartwatch for the masses have failed. The ones on the market today (such as Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, pictured at the top of this article) only appeal to male geeks and ultra-early adopters, although as many as 1.5 million smartwatches may be sold in 2014. However, until someone masters the issue of elegant design matched with non-geeky technology, they will not be a product for the mass market. Next year will be another experimental year for smartwatches.

What will be hot are wearable health-related devices such as the NikeFuel Band, Fitbit, Jawbone UP, and Bluetooth-related health devices such as wireless blood pressure kits, wireless blood glucose testing kits, and so on. These will all see serious consumer interest next year. There will be a lot of exciting new products and health-related wearables coming to market in 2014 in the “Digital Health” category.

The PC market could actually grow in 2014

I know this sounds contradictory given my prediction that a new Apple product could have a negative impact on current Windows laptop demand next year. This discrepancy comes from a bit of a problem for us market researchers at the moment.

In the past, when we counted computers shipped we had two distinct categories. We used to count desktops and laptops separately but combine them in final totals. For example, we will sell about 300 million PCs in 2013. However, 67 per cent of these are laptops and the rest are what we call PCs, which includes all-in-ones, desktops, and so on. Now there's also 2-in-1 devices and convertibles. Are they tablets with keyboards, or are they laptops with touchscreens? At the moment most researchers are putting them in the laptop category. Since they have not been huge sellers yet, they have not had a dramatic impact on total PC sales in 2013.

IDC now says that overall PC sales will be down 10 per cent this year over last year. I believe we will see a stronger uptick in 2-in-1 devices and convertibles, and whatever Apple releases in a new design will probably also be counted as a laptop. If this is the case, the overall market for PCs, especially laptops, should stabilise or possibly even grow in 2014.