Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: The Year in Review

As we close out 2011, in many ways the world looks very different than it did a year ago. From political upheavals in the Middle East, a cooling economy in China, an ongoing debt crisis in Europe, and the deaths of several of the world's most odious characters, the world has not seen such a transformative year since the end of the Cold War in 1991. Although we could have seen glimmers of all of these things a year ago, most of these changes were difficult to predict. My friend Nassim Nicholas Taleb might call them “Black Swan Events.”

Since this blog is primarily about futurism, I feel that I should go back and examine the predictions I have made for 2011 to hold myself accountable. With some predictions it is not always obvious whether they are correct or incorrect. Furthermore, self-evaluations tend to be a bit biased, and some futurists have the unfortunate tendency to go to absurd contortions to avoid admitting mistakes. In this post I will try my best to avoid that, but will rely on my readers to keep me honest.

By 2011 – Near-field communication comes equipped in many new smartphones. Mobile payments become even more popular in the developing world, and makes inroads in Europe and the United States. (Jan. 2011)

Mostly correct

As of the end of 2011, some of the most prominent smartphones come with NFC chips, including Samsung's Galaxy series, Google's Nexus series, and Blackberry's Bold series, although in some cases the NFC chip is an add-on rather than a standard feature of the phone. Conspicuously absent from this list is Apple's iPhone, which does not yet have NFC. In September 2011, Google released Google Wallet, a mobile payment application for smartphones which uses near-field communication. As of now it is only available on Google's Nexus S phone, although Google is working with handset manufacturers to incorporate Google Wallet into other Android phones.

This year also marked the growth of Fundamo, a mobile payment system that now operates in over 40 developing countries, and its subsequent acquisition by Visa. The mobile payment industry is somewhat unusual in that the developing world is actually far ahead of developed countries on this technology.

In Europe and the US, progress has been more slow than I anticipated on the mobile payment front, although as I stated last year, we would only be seeing the first glimpses of it in 2011, rather than its widespread adoption. One of the pioneers of this in the US has been Starbucks. The coffee chain has ported Starbucks cards onto Apple and Blackberry smartphones, and customers are able to pay their bill simply by swiping their phone over a scanner. Look for similar technologies to pop up in other businesses in 2012, although I still think it will be a couple more years before it goes mainstream in the United States.

By 2011 – Internet-equipped televisions or add-ons will become popular. (Jan. 2011)

Mostly wrong

I'm going to count this one as a miss. Although internet-equipped televisions and add-ons are commercially available, they are by no means popular yet. Google TV proved to be a very expensive flop for Google, with many cable companies explicitly blocking their web content from playing on Google TV. The biggest barrier to widespread adoption of smart televisions is no longer technological, it is economic. Unless laws are enacted to prevent content providers from discriminating against platforms like Google TV, we may be waiting for several years before economic circumstances will cause the content providers to relent.

Some of the smaller add-ons, such as Boxee and Roku, have proven much more commercially successful than smart televisions have. However, they are much more limited in what they can do.

By 2011 – At least 75% of countries improve their score on the Human Development Index compared to 2010, with the biggest improvements in developing countries. (Jan. 2011)


Although you would never know it from media reports, 2011 was a year of widespread economic success nearly everywhere in the world. My prediction that at least 75% of countries would be better off was actually quite conservative. 93% of countries improved their level of human wellbeing, as measured by the Human Development Index. The biggest winner of the year was Ghana, one of Africa's best-governed nations. The biggest loser was war-torn Libya. Of the 183 countries evaluated, 171 improved their wellbeing, 6 spent the year treading water, and another 6 lost ground. These unlucky countries were mostly located where you would expect them to be: debt-ravaged Europe and the turbulent Greater Middle East. Nearly everywhere else, people ended the year better off than they started.

By 2011 – There will be a major shakeup (or a total implosion) in the top leadership of North Korea and/or Iran. (Jan. 2011)

Mostly correct

The “and/or” is what made this prediction correct. I thought this was going to be a miss, but with two weeks to spare before the end of the year, Kim Jong-il of North Korea did me (and the rest of the world) a favor by dying. At this point it's too soon to speculate how North Korea's government will change following the leader's death. His heir, Kim Jong-un, is unlikely to be able to wield total power like his father.

Surprisingly, Iran has been relatively stable this year. With all the simmering anger in Iran following the aborted 2009 election protests, it seemed likely that Iran would emulate its Arab neighbors in protesting its government. Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, reportedly has terminal leukemia, but there does not seem to have been any major leadership changes despite a year of palace intrigue. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spent much of the spring boycotting his official duties amidst a very ugly public spat with the Supreme Leader, who clearly does not trust Ahmadinejad any longer.

By 2011 – Tablet computers account for at least 13% of the US personal computer market. The market will become competitive with several new tablets seriously challenging Apple’s iPad. (Jan. 2011)


The first sentence is undeniably correct; the most recent estimates I can find for 2011 indicate that tablets accounted for about 17% of the PC market this year.

The tablet market is certainly more competitive now than it was a year ago, but most of the Android tablets continue to disappoint. The sole exception is Amazon's Kindle Fire, which has been an instant hit. It doesn't exactly “challenge Apple's iPad” as I predicted, because the two tablets are aimed at very different markets: the Kindle Fire is priced at $199, whereas even the cheapest iPad will cost $499.

By 2011 – Gaming (led by Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect) will begin to become gesture-based, rather than controller-based. (Jan. 2011)


Many games have been created for Xbox Kinect which rely exclusively on gestures. This technology is especially useful for exercise and sports-related games. Look for it to continue to expand in the coming years.

By 2011 – The migration of computer files from the hard drive to the cloud will begin in earnest, as people become more willing to allow third-parties to store all of the content on their computers via the internet. (Jan. 2011)


The big winners of the race to the cloud are Amazon, Verizon (Terremark), and IBM. The file hosting service Dropbox, which enables consumers to store their files in Amazon's cloud and easily work with files on multiple computers, has been one of the year's blockbuster startups. Some estimates indicate that it now has over 50 million users.

By 2011 – Voice Over IP services, such as Skype, become popular on smartphones, thus portending the eventual demise of traditional voice-telephone services. (Jan. 2011)


Voice Over IP services have not yet caught on on smartphones. I think my error in this prediction was that I underestimated the difficulty of using Voice Over IP on 3G smartphones (I confess that I hadn't actually tried it on my own 3G phone at the time I wrote this prediction). 3G phones tend to be too slow to get good reception on an internet call, resulting in garbled and spotty transmission. Even people with 4G phones will be hindered unless the person they are calling also uses a 4G phone (or their computer). Until 4G smartphones become ubiquitous - which should happen within the next few years - traditional voice telephony will probably remain the dominant method of making calls.

By 2011 – At least one company offers genome sequencing for $1,000 or less (Jul. 2010)

Mostly wrong

I thought that attaching a specific dollar figure to this prediction would make it easy to evaluate and leave little room for interpretation, but I overlooked the fact that there are different kinds of genome sequencing. The price point is different, depending on how thorough one wants the analysis to be. At the lower end of the spectrum, Google-affiliated startup 23AndMe offers basic genotyping for $159, which includes a DNA analysis of a person's ancestry and their likelihood of acquiring various diseases with a clear genetic component. However, this service is not very robust. “Full genome sequencing” is considerably more expensive. The leading company for full genome sequencing, Illumina Technologies, currently charges $5,000 (or $4,000 for bulk orders). This is a price cut of more than 50% since this time last year, but we'll have to wait a while longer for the elusive $1,000 genome.

By my count, that's 5 correct or mostly correct, 1 somewhat correct, and 3 wrong or mostly wrong. I think that's a decent record, and it will be the benchmark I try to beat for my 2012 predictions, which I will be posting in the next few days. I am also interested to hear from my readers if I was too easy or harsh in grading my own predictions. Do you think I erred in any of my self-evaluations of my predictions? If so, which ones and why?

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