The hunt for the big tech product of 2013

Posted by Rob Enderle

This week kicks off the annual year-long hunt for the Big Tech Product of 2013. Fortunately, we already have some rather auspicious contenders.  

One more product will likely be identified at CES next week and we’ll undoubtedly see a wave of them in the last quarter. Let’s look back at why finding the best product of 2012 was so difficult and then look ahead to the race for the win in 2013.

2012:  Kind of a Mess

My personal favorite product of 2012 was the Nokia Lumia 920, and it clearly made the list of top products for a lot of folks, but to really hit the market en masse it needed to end the negative speculation on Nokia’s survival, which it unfortunately didn’t do.

In terms of sales, the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy III were superior contenders, although Samsung remains mired in the mud of endless litigation and, in the end, Apple is still the more powerful company.  

Tablets didn’t provide much clarity either. Indeed, you could argue that the Microsoft Surface was the most aggressively designed, while the new iPad is the most beautiful. Still, neither device managed to lead the market, whereas the Kindle Fire seemed to hit where everyone, other than Apple fans, wanted to be.

With most of the Windows 8 hardware products delayed due to massive touch screen shortages that supposedly resulted from late orders, the Lenovo and Dell XPS 12 Duo stood out. Nevertheless, both were overshadowed by products that should have, but were not, released and the above noted Surface tablet. 

In the end, 2012 was kind of a confused year likely leaving many wishing for the Steve Jobs’ Apple Years, or the old Sony, RIM, Motorola, or Palm each of which clearly had leading products in the Walkman, RaZR, Palm Pilot, and iPhone/iPad/iPod periods. We are clearly in a time when Apple is declining in leadership and the race is on between Samsung, Google, Lenovo, HTC, and even Microsoft to fill the gap. The result? A bit of confusion. 

2013 Confusion Squared?

Frankly, I’m not sure I see it getting much better in 2013. Apple is clearly on a path to cycle products more quickly to sustain and grow revenues but I have my doubts whether people will be willing to buy iProducts even more rapidly. At some point they may rightly see this as an Apple Tax and call enough. Then again, Apple isn’t exactly alone as the TV vendors are once again going to try and get you to buy their sets far more quickly than the 8 year cycle we lived with before HD and 3D came out. 

Let’s look at the likely contenders.

Apple/Intel TV 

Two companies are fighting to revolutionize TV and make it much more of an on-demand service. Both are currently running into major and related content difficulties because the content owners don’t appear to want to mess with the status quo. Disney is probably the exception here, as it has been unusually aggressive and successful in this area.  

But an HD content service tied to new hardware like the current music paradigm could be very powerful - and the race is on to see which industry heavyweight can figure out a way through content licensing first. Be aware that Intel and Apple do partner, so the two could jointly release a product benefiting both. In fact, given the difficulties, this might be the wiser path, at least initially.

Google Phone X

Google is looking to revolutionize the smartphone and has a skunk works product on the way known as the X Phone, which is designed to shake up the relatively static handset market.

Remember, Google acquired Motorola and a lot of ex-Apple/Palm folks are now either working at Mountain View or consulting with them or one of their partners. So yes, Google could upset the apple cart here and do something truly amazing. Their first Nexus phones were actually very popular even though they were mostly engineering mules and their current Nexus line is very competitive, so they are on a short list of companies that could surprise.

Microsoft Phone

True, this may feel like a bad joke given what happened with the Zune and the Kin phone.  But the Surface Tablet was actually nicely done and Kinect was both revolutionary and successfully attached to the Xbox. You don't typically think of Microsoft as taking the necessary risks or funding marketing at a level needed to do this, but Redmond clearly did so with the above-mentioned products, while their marketing funding is at unprecedented levels for Windows 8 and Windows Phone. So yes, Microsoft could also provide a surprise here.

Samsung OLED TV

One of the big pushes in 2013 will be for Ultra HD or 4K TVs and Samsung is providing some variety by taking orders for its unique 55” OLED TV. LG will beat Samsung to market but their set, at over $10K, is just not affordable. While there are too many TV vendors chasing 4K for any one of them to stand out at year end, OLED at a price that is more affordable is in Samsung’s sights and OLED (which combines the color performance of Plasma with the brightness of LCD) is not only incredibly thin the colors are simply amazing to look at. I think the (still) relative high price of this product initially will initially prevent it from dominating, but it could serve to further consolidate Samsung’s leadership in the segment.  

Amazon Kindle Fire Outdoor

This is full speculation as I haven’t even heard a hint of such a potential product. But the issue for Amazon is that it has a lot of customers who love the Kindle ePaper reader because it works better outside and has amazingly long battery life, and even more Kindle Fire HD customers who read and like multimedia but suffer through outdoor glare.  

Both devices are subsidized meaning, unlike Apple, Amazon doesn’t want someone to buy both (which is what a lot of us do). Amazon is on a Razor/Blade model and since they lose money on their “razors” or readers they want one to rule them all. There are technologies like Qualcomm’s Mira that could play here but I expect this will be a high priority problem for Amazon to solve, and if they solve it, they could have a tablet that eclipses everyone else’s. 

RIM 10

I’ve had a look at the new RIM platform and I think it offers lots of potential for the right device - particularly since Android is experiencing massive security issues, and Apple appears to be off their game at the moment. Another platform could rise, and given RIM’s clear advantage for work and security, if they can just get adequate on entertainment, I think the company has a shot, albeit a long one, at taking the market by storm in 2013. 

Remember, RIM actually has better odds than Apple did with the first iPhone because they aren’t entering a new market and already start with a loyal phone following. Finally, their integration with cars should be unprecedented at a time when it is becoming a clear differentiator - thanks to their new OS which is used heavily in vehicles today.  

Wrapping Up:

Odds favor a personal device, if only because they are what has been driving the market for much of the last decade. TVs haven’t really stood out since the Sony Trinitron decades ago. Still, I do think an OLED set, if Samsung could get to the right price, might change this. The odds also favor a company other than Apple having the leading product and either Google or Microsoft, if they don’t have the leading product, could be the king maker here.   

The two companies I’d watch the closest are Samsung and Lenovo, as both have their eyes on taking the market and both are taking increasingly big risks. Lenovo with the Intel-based phone (not in the US which is why I didn’t list it) and Samsung with the OLED TV.  

How about you, what product do you think might be seen at the end of 2013 as the best of the year?