2014s Biggest Trends: The World Gets Smart, Proximity Gets Closer, and Facebook Turns 10

Murph 2014 FBDavid Murphy:
10 Years of Facebook

In an industry as fast-moving and volatile as this one, the idea of picking out one theme that has characterised the last 12 months is a challenging one. We’ve seen the continued rise of programmatic and native, a plethora of wearable tech, and numerous attempts to solve the cross-screen attribution issue.

But amidst all the noise, one company stands out from the pack for me for what it’s done in mobile in 2014, and that’s Facebook, which turned 10 in February, and bought itself a large stack of presents in the form of billion-dollar acquisitions.

Sure, other companies have spent – Google bought more than 30 companies in 2014, most notably Nest for $3.2bn (£2bn) and DeepMind for $242m. Yahoo was also active, snapping up Flurry for $200m and BrightRoll for $640m, as well as MessageMe and CoolIris. Even Apple spent $3bn on Beats.

By contrast, Facebook has been relatively reserved in terms of the number of companies it has bought, but on the other hand, incredibly ballsy in terms of what it has bought and how much it was prepared to pay for them. The purchase price for ProtoGeo, the company behind the Moves app, was not disclosed – but $2bn for Oculus Rift and $19bn for WhatsApp were both massive statements of intent from Facebook, so much so that some people thought that Zuckerberg and co had finally lost the plot.

In fact, Zuckerberg was merely showing that Facebook would do whatever it takes – and costs – to stay relevant and dominant. In 2012, that meant spending $1bn to buy Instagram, a company with one product and around a dozen employees, but which had come to dominate the image-sharing world in a way that Facebook couldn’t ignore.

No one saw the Oculus deal coming, but Zuckerberg put it down to looking at what would be the next big thing after mobile, deciding it could well be virtual reality and that Facebook wanted to dominate this too. As for WhatsApp, it was simply a company that had developed a better messaging platform than Facebook, was strong in mobile, and particularly strong in emerging markets.

In the meantime, Facebook showed during 2014 that whatever else is round the corner, it has its eyes firmly on the mobile ball. The number of monthly Mobile Active Users topped 1bn for the first time and then kept on growing, and mobile’s share of Facebook’s total advertising revenues rose from zero in February 2012, to 66 per cent by the time the company had announced its Q3 results in October.

For all its riches of course, Facebook still faces challenges on numerous fronts, not least data privacy, falling teenage user numbers, and the increasing use of social networks to disseminate some pretty unedifying content. What 2014 showed, however, is that when something bigger or better than Facebook emerges from a Silicon Valley garage, Zuckerberg and his team know how to deal with it – even if, as often as not, that means buying it.

Alex 2014 SMartAlex Spencer:
Smart Everything

When we did our Trends of the Year post for 2013 last December, I picked out wearables as my top trend of 2013. This year, though, it became obvious that our watches and glasses going smart is just the tip of the connected iceberg.

The scene was set right at the start of the year. Kicking off the tech year, as always, was CES – and seemingly every other announcement came prefixed with the term smart. Smart beds, smart washing machines, even a smart bowl from Intel. A month later, walking the cavernous halls of MWC, I slipped on a pair of Bluetooth-connected gloves, fiddled with the dashboard of Fords connected car, and tried on more pairs of smart glasses than Ive ever owned regular ones.

Between the two events – less than a week after CES wrapped up, in fact – Google announced that it had paid $3.2bn (£2bn) to acquire Nest Labs. The smart everything revolution was officially under way.

Nest currently makes two products: a smart thermostat which can be controlled from a smartphone or set to program itself automatically based on the user’s schedule, and the Nest Protect, a combined smoke and carbon monoxide alarm which be monitored via an app.

Google wasnt the only major mobile player to jump into the connected home and wearables markets this year. Samsung made a smart home acquisition of its own in August, buying SmartThings for a reported $200m. Amazon launched Echo, an always on connected speaker which responds to voice commands.

Meanwhile, Apple made two major moves, with iOS 8s introduction of HomeKit and HealthKit, which bring controls and monitoring for smart home and wearable devices respectively under a single roof – plus the long-awaited Apple Watch, due in early 2015.

On the horizon are smartwatches, smart glasses, smart homes, smart cars, even smart cities – something well be investigating in more detail in the new year. Still, thats the horizon, and I have to attach the same caveat as I did for wearables last year.

The various connected device markets still lack any impressive user figures or real success stories you could point to. All momentum in the market is on the side of companies, not consumers, jumping on the bandwagon. That could still change with the release of the Apple Watch, but theres certainly the danger of smart becoming an empty buzzword.

These devices also come with a host of challenges for marketers. Just look at the amount of controversy provoked by the news that Google was preparing to serve ads to smart homes, cars and watches, which led to an immediate retraction from Nest. That said, theres no shortage of ideas – speaking to Just Eats mobile product lead Matt Hobbs earlier this year, he suggested everything from empty fridge notifications to “mood lighting for eating a curry” – and its often rising to a challenge that creates the best marketing campaigns.

Tim 2014 ProximityTim Maytom:
Proximity Draws Closer

When Apple announced its iBeacon solution in 2013, I doubt even its own experts could have predicted the avalanche of beacon-related plans that would be announced over the next 18 months. 2014 has seen Bluetooth Low-Energy beacons move from a futuristic concept to a technology that can be found in corner shops, sports stadiums and even inside bottle caps.

Beacons are the latest evolution in location-tracking, a journey that began almost as soon as we started carrying mobile phones around. It feels like every new technology finds a way to draw a tighter bead on consumers, from GPS-enabled geo-fencing placing you within a given city, to beacons that know when you’ve reached the end of a supermarket aisle. Location targeting is one of the greatest strengths mobile technology has when it comes to marketing, and this year has seen it adopted by more companies than ever.

Retailers have led the charge with proximity tech, with brands from Harrods to Argos finding ways to integrate the technology into displays, point-of-sale and beyond. Iconeme equipped House of Fraser, Hawes & Curtis and Bentalls with beacon-equipped mannequins, while French chain Comptoir Des Cotonniers deployed PowaTag’s beacons across the country to create virtual stores in taxis, at billboards and within magazines.

Some chains have gone even bigger with their proximity plans, with both Sainsbury’s and Target planning features for their apps that enable in-store navigation for customers. Research by Boston Retail Partners that suggests that within five years, 75 per cent of shops will be able to identify customers automatically thanks to proximity technology don’t seem as far-fetched as it might have done even a year ago.

However, it’s not just retailers that have been looking to bridge the gap between the physical and digital worlds. Sports stadiums are increasingly deploying beacon networks and venue wi-fi to connect with fans on match day, while hotels and airports are using proximity tech to guide people through their travel arrangements and make their journeys easier.

Cultural attractions have got in the game too, with galleries, zoos, casinos and museums looking to enrich visitors’ experiences and engage a digital-savvy audience, while perhaps the biggest leap has been made with entire cities deploying proximity tech to engage with tourists, give access to information and increase footfall for local stores.

These large-scale installations haven’t been without their critics, with questions raised about privacy, data use, security and the commodification of public space, but no one can deny that they move us closer to the vision of a mobile experience that is both globally connected and hyper-local.