Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to genomic nucleotide markers as genes. The Fool regrets the error.
We're ready to step forward into a new year. How will it unfold? That depends on whom you ask. This past year has been full of surprises, from Google's (NASDAQ: GOOGL ) Project Glass to the rise of 3-D printing's "maker movement" after nearly two decades of the technology's existence. Neither of these technologies had the impact on human life that the headlines promised, but 2013 is a new year, with the promise of new advancements.
What major technological developments will 2013 bring? Robot butlers and flying cars aren't on the horizon just yet, but there are some exciting -- and terrifying -- new trends that I think will capture the world's attention in the upcoming year. There were many to choose from, but the five that follow are going to be the most notable, in my opinion. Let's take a look at them now.
Wearable computing becomes the next high-tech status symbol
Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL ) iPhone quickly became an aspirational device for millions around the world after its 2007 release. After six generations in six years -- and a likely seventh in seven -- the classic device is starting to lose its cachet. This isn't to say that any other smartphone has replaced the iPhone as a status symbol. When it comes to computing, "cool" only takes you so far, and a smartphone doesn't mean much when the masses already have one.
The stage is set for wearable computing. No, I'm not talking about an iWatch, although that would certainly fit the bill if properly designed. Status demands visibility, and you can't get much more visible than Google's augmented-reality Project Glass eyewear, which will be available for select developers in early 2013. Although consumer models aren't anticipated before 2014, the public visibility of early Project Glass efforts should serve to build hype for this product in advance of the first sales.
Health-related wearable computing is also earning much greater cool cachet than the egg-shaped pedometers of years past. Nike's (NYSE: NKE ) Fuelband is part of the leading edge of consumer fitness technology, and as developers find more ways to incorporate the accelerometer-enabled band's Nike+ system into users' fitness lives, the users themselves should find more ways to show it off to their friends. A number of startups are also working on health devices, which should gain greater prominence as Obamacare takes hold across the country.
These are just a few examples of the potential wearable-computing devices that are set to capture the world's attention in 2013. Beyond Project Glass-like augmented vision and health-sensing body monitors, there are eclectic ideas like GPS-enabled shoes, a pendant-projector that reads gestures, and even electronic patches over (or even on) your skin. Thanks to a resurgence of interest in hardware development, innovation in this field should be faster, and more varied, than it has been in years past.
Mobile security steps out of the shadows
When was the last time you heard about a major hack directed at mobile devices? I had to search for such an instance, but I came up empty. The worst mobile security breaches you often hear about involve apps trying to get more information than they should, but this hasn't translated into a major event on the scale of website password grabs or network breaches. In 2012, one of the largest examples of mobile security failures came when a number of Android apps were modified with malicious code, infecting 250,000 phones. By comparison, the 2011 PlayStation Network hack compromised more than 77 million accounts.
The days of relative calm may be over now that more than 1 billion smartphones are in use worldwide. That number may double in the next three years, giving hackers as many mobile targets as PC targets for the first time. We store all sorts of personal data on our smartphones, and the link between a point of entry and financial resources is much narrower on a smartphone than it might be on a PC. Google's open market for apps makes it more vulnerable than the App Store, and 100,000 apps on the Google Play store could be considered suspicious right now.
Mobile security software is projected to grow markedly as a result, with 50% annual sales growth until 2014, by which point it will be a $2 billion market. AT&T (NYSE: T ) already plans to market a mobile security suite to its mobile customers in 2013, and the other carriers are likely to follow closely on its heels. Most major antivirus makers, including Intel's (NASDAQ: INTC ) McAfee, already offer mobile security software, often for free -- but many mobile users haven't considered the fact that their devices could be at risk. A big, bold hack in 2013 would be dangerous, but necessary, to wake people up to this threat.
The computer conquers the living room
Millions of people already use Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT ) Xbox 360, which offers a lot more than gaming for the entertainment-starved. However, it's still an entertainment device, as is Apple's TV box, and as are other similar devices. Computing is still largely a province of the PC, with the tablet used to add portable functionality rather than as a PC replacement.
That should change in 2013. Forget WebTV and other abortive efforts to bring low-end Internet service to the big screen. Gabe Newell, whose Valve Software is behind the industry-changing Steam digital distribution platform, anticipates living-room PC packages in 2013. Steam itself was recently modified with the "Big Picture " setting, designed specifically for a console-like experience on the TV, but that's just one part of the larger computer-as-TV trend. Instead of hunching over a desk to work, people can just as easily work on a high-definition big screen hooked up to a computer capable of doing all the same tasks as an Xbox, with the added benefit of real PC functionality.
Don't forget that the long-awaited next-gen Xbox consoles are supposedly coming in late 2013 as well. Microsoft's push to unify its devices around Windows 8 has already claimed the Xbox 360, but the Xbox version of Windows 8 thus far is only a minor extension of the system's existing functionality. Microsoft would miss a golden opportunity if it doesn't design the next Xbox to offer the full Windows experience from the ground up.
Big data leads to big health advancements
Part of this prediction ties in to my first prediction. If you can gather more data about your physical condition, then that data should be able to create better health solutions. More than 100 million wearable wireless health-monitoring devices are expected to sell by 2016, but the overall patient-monitoring device market is already worth more than $6 billion and is projected to reach $18 billion in sales by 2014. The reason is obvious -- such devices can save billions in health-care costs by providing better data in a more narrowly targeted way.
The other trend that feeds into this is the popularization of personal genomics. This past September, Life Technologies (UNKNOWN: LIFE.DL ) began shipping its Ion Proton sequencer, which, at a cost of $1,000 per sequence, has maintained the staggering rate of sequencing cost reductions seen over the past few years. Google-backed genomic start-up 23andme (named for the number of pairs of chromosomes in each human cell) recently gained enough funding to permanently drop the price of its screening service to $99 -- until the next reduction, at any rate. 23andme's tests are rudimentary by sequencing standards and analyze only a million markers out of 3 billion that are supposed to be the most likely markers for various inherited conditions. However, the company's genomic database surpassed 100,000 people a year and a half ago, and a goal of 2 million customers is within reach now that a test costs as much as a checkup. This much information, incomplete as it may be, can still provide a strong foundation from which to extract useful health benefits. It's Big Data for the human body.
There are already some drugs, such as Pfizer's (NYSE: PFE ) Xalkori, which use basic gene screens to find the segments of the population that benefit from an otherwise ineffective drug. The upcoming year should bring forth enough new health knowledge, through the analytics of many health monitors' outputs and of an increasingly diverse dataset of genomic information, to nudge medicine into a more targeted, personalized, and effective direction.
Solar power supplements the grid for millions
A year ago, I thought that solar panels would start a shift toward alternative energy that would kick in within five years. I may have been too conservative. A recent Economist article on Swanson's Law -- the Moore's Law of the solar industry -- showed that the cost per watt of a solar panel is projected to be just $0.74 in 2013. Swanson's Law is named after Richard Swanson, the founder of SunPower (NASDAQ: SPWR ) , which has an approximate cost per watt of $1.00 for its high-efficiency panels, according to my fellow Fool Travis Hoium's calculations. Swanson's Law predicts that the cost of solar cells drops by 20% every time global manufacturing capacity doubles.
More data from the Economist piece indicates that panel installation costs can run the total bill up to $4 per watt, compared with $3 per watt for coal and $1 per watt for natural gas . The kicker here is that installation efficiency continues to improve for solar, and its fuel is essentially free. The recent IPO of Elon Musk's SolarCity (NASDAQ: SCTY ) brings to market the only truly major panel installer in the United States, providing needed liquidity to expand and optimize its operations. Another solar startup, the still-private Twin Creeks, unveiled a new method of creating flexible solar cells via ion cannon bombardment in 2012 that promises to cut cell costs in half.
Subsidy or not, solar manufacturers are rapidly becoming competitive with traditional fuel sources in costlier markets. Coal and natural gas prices are both dawdling near multiyear lows right now, and it would be silly to expect these depressed rates to continue over the long term. Greater visibility and cost competitiveness should finally bring meaningful solar contributions to the American electrical system in the upcoming year. Once that happens, the industry should soar on the back of adoption made on pure cost savings alone, without the need for controversial government aid. I hesitate to say that every neighborhood will have at least one "solar house," but if the price is right, it's certainly possible.
Futuristically Foolish final thoughts
It didn't take long for ample evidence of my 2012 predictions to surface. I also expect to see these trends play out in real time over the coming year. There are bound to be some big surprises as well. Google caught me by surprise with Project Glass, and I fully expect something impressive to come along in 2013 that doesn't fit neatly into these predictions, but which nevertheless helps advance one or more of them. I'll be following these trends in the coming year and will make sure to report on any notable progress toward these goals as 2013 plays out.
Do you agree or disagree with these predictions? Do you have your own ideas? Let me know with a comment.
Investing in the Future
Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner’s tech-heavy stock picks have gained 122% in our Stock Advisor service since it launched in 2002. Those returns have beaten the market by more than 90%. David has managed to trounce the market by always being on the lookout for revolutionary stocks and recommending them before Wall Street catches on to their disruptive potential. If you're interested in how David discovers his winners, click here to get instant access to a personal tour behind David's Supernova service.