Once upon a time—25 years ago—the computing industry made money the old fashioned way: charging for hardware, charging for software. Physical products with price tags. Hyper-competition initiated by the Internet threw out that stale business model and started giving almost everything away for free. After a little reflection, it became clear that even the new economics demanded that something of value be made somewhere and it was: data. So the industry started scraping data from all its customers. A few companies were upfront about this; most were not. But as consumers, we were so dazzled by our new toys we didn’t really care. And data had never been used against us—so what harm could it possibly do? Phones didn’t look or act like privacy-invaders and data thieves and they generously fed our narcissism with endless information about the lives we led which had become too busy for us to notice them ourselves.
So now what? Like every other kind of business, high tech companies must now decide whose side they’re on. Do they continue to extract our data and use it for, and with, anything they want, without informing us, without our having any kind of recourse? Do they, in other words, simply decide we always were gullible chumps and always will be, so passivity equals consent?
2017 marks the year at which the tech industry starts to look like everyone else: facing the choice between business at its most rapacious or its most responsible.
If the industry bifurcates into Exploiters (grab the data and be damned) and Servants, then the latter will create real opportunity by providing their customers with a fair shake: if you let us gather your data, we will pay you for it and let you know what we’re doing with it. We offer the allure of a true deal, from which both sides benefit. Will a few bold souls decide that there is money to be paid and loyalty built by treating their customers with respect? As consumers become more data savvy, who will be the early pioneers of a decent contract, coupled with good service, the Four Seasons of high tech?
For every tech business, their license to operate will depend on the quality and transparency of the deal—and the capacity to deliver on it securely and safely. That means that security will now move out of specialized markets into the mainstream. Once again, real opportunity will lie with those companies who offer customers protection from hackers and the prolific, profligate distribution of their data. This isn’t—and never has been—an issue for governments only. But as the scale of hackers’ ambitions grows, so does their profile, making even the most besotted online or mobile user alert to the degree to which we are sitting ducks: giving our money and our data in return for no reliable security at all. Here is a chance to offer the market something that matters, in stark contrast to the gimmicky gizmos—speakers you can talk to, heating systems that listen, the idiotic online refrigerator—that denoted the abject failure of serious innovation last year.
If you’re in the mood for wild optimism, you might even imagine that 2017 marks the year at which the tech industry starts to look like everyone else: facing the choice between business at its most rapacious or its most responsible. Who wins? Nobody knows.
READ MORE ABOUT THE COMING YEAR…