If not Facebook, then what?

A story that caught my eye this week was about a Princeton University study that predicted Facebook would lose around 80 per cent of its users by 2017.

The study compared Facebook to a contagious epidemic that grows, peaks and then fades out as people become immune.

It’s an interesting way to look at it, but Facebook is not a disease or sickness that snares unwilling participants. It’s an online application that people use because they want to.

Princeton researchers cited a decline in Google searches for “Facebook” since 2012 to help make their case that the social network is already declining in popularity.

Facebook hit back, using what it said was a similar methodology to humourously conclude that Princeton will lose half of its students by 2018 and all of them by 2021, not to mention that the world’s air supply will run out by 2060.

The Princeton study was lacking some basis in reality. That’s not to say its conclusion was necessarily wrong, even though the evidence used to get there was flawed. Facebook’s decline could be even more severe and swift than predicted.

Then again, Facebook’s user base could double or triple in the coming years. Its last earnings report said it had 1.19 billion monthly active users. That still leaves an untapped global market of about six billion people.

Things change quickly in the online world, and in technology in general. Every once in a while you might be watching a TV rerun or a movie that’s a few years old. You watch it with the mindset that the plot unfolding could be something happening right now, until you see someone take out a flip phone and all of a sudden you’re feeling nostalgic about 2005.

Quite a few things from the digital age have come and gone, or at least retreated into obscurity — from floppy disks, DOS, and dial-up Internet, to WordPerfect and Myspace. Some have speculated BlackBerry will soon join them.

In the last half-decade or so, social networks and smartphones have become part of people’s lifestyles, while the online viewing of TV shows and movies has broadcasters and television-service providers trying to figure out how to respond. Making the content available through broadcasters’ own online platforms is one option, as noted in our story this week on “stacking” rights (for subscribers only).

Some of those technological items omnipresent in our lives right now will no doubt disappear in the coming years. But somewhere around the bend is the next online obsession that either replaces or joins Facebook, or another pocket-sized gadget that will hold our attention and keep us psychologically cut off from all that surrounds us.

There are hints of what the next wave of technology may bring, but we can’t say for sure what the next big thing is until it is the big thing. The Internet of everything, where machines rather than people start connecting to the web in a major way, is often cited as a trend that’s well underway. Wearable computing devices, ranging from glasses to wristwatches, is another. Automobiles that are increasingly connected to the web are also becoming a thing. Ever hear of HD Radio? We have.

This sets the stage for an exciting time in human history. Some or all of the above-listed things might truly transform our lives, or developments might stall for a number of reasons, not the least of which is if someone decides there’s no money to be made from them.

But somewhere lurking in the background is a technological breakthrough we won’t even see coming, which could change the world — or just bring us hours upon hours of mind-numbing fun.

We’ll try to warn you ahead of time.

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Wireless game not yet over

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a lifelong Toronto Maple Leafs fan, it’s that you never know how a game will end until the final buzzer sounds.

Those commenting on Canada’s wireless industry this week would be well served to heed that lesson.

When Wind Mobile withdrew on Monday from Industry Canada’s 700 MHz spectrum auction, we heard commentators say that the new-entrant wireless carrier couldn’t survive without the coveted low-frequency airwaves, and that the federal government’s desire to see a strong fourth wireless competitor in each region of the country is dead.

The near consensus opinion was that incumbents BCE Inc., Rogers Communications Inc. and Telus Corp. had scored a big victory.

But as in an NHL hockey game, Canada’s wireless industry has a number of talented players, and sometimes the player who’s least expected to score can pot the big goal that changes the course of a game.

With all the moving parts in Canada’s wireless regulation these days, there may yet be opportunity for them to do so.

By Tuesday afternoon, mass media and other commentators had picked up on a note released last Friday by Scotiabank analyst Jeff Fan, in which he reported that Quebecor Inc.’s Videotron subsidiary had signed a non-disclosure agreement with Mobilicity — another new entrant that is currently up for sale as part of a bankruptcy proceeding — and could be considering expanding its wireless operations outside its home province of Quebec.

Just like that, Quebecor seemed like a possible cure to the government’s wireless woes.

The truth is, of course, that Canada’s wireless industry is in a sort of intermission at the moment, as everyone waits to see who gets spectrum in the 700 MHz auction, and who ends up with Mobilicity (and possibly Wind as well).

The third period hasn’t even yet begun, and it’s far too early to declare victory or defeat for most of the players involved.

Quebecor could still find it too expensive to purchase Mobilicity, or to acquire whatever 700 MHz spectrum licences it may deem required to launch a broader, more national wireless service. Conversely, it could also discover that it has more than enough money to buy a national block of the best 700 MHz airwaves, especially in the absence of other competitors.

Wind could also still win the battle for Mobilicity, and could use its AWS spectrum — which typically overlaps with its own — to build an LTE network that could allow it to better compete against the incumbents. Wind could then take part in the 2500 MHz auction next year and try to buy up any unsold 700 MHz blocks, although likely not until questions about its ownership have been resolved.

Other players like Feenix Wireless Inc., Novus Wireless Inc. or Atlantic Canada’s Bragg Communications Inc. could also still surprise everyone and emerge from the 700 MHz auction with key airwaves that allow them to launch their own wireless networks, or in Bragg’s case to expand into new service territories.

The point is, we just don’t know.

Much like myself, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a self-proclaimed Maple Leafs fan, and was likely watching last spring when the “boys in blue” completed one of the worst collapses in sports playoff history, losing to the Boston Bruins in a so-called elimination game after leading by three goals with only 11 minutes left.

His wireless plan — up against the odds just as the Bruins were — still has time to recover.

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