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Predicting technology trends is no easy assignment

Picture of Duncan Stewart Keynote speaker at Centennial Learns

Think young people don’t read books anymore? Think again.

“Girl Online sells 20 times more copies in print than it does in e-book sales,” explained Duncan Stewart, Director of Technology, Media and Telecommunications Research for Deloitte Canada, at a recent presentation at Centennial College. 

It’s a significant number because Zoe Sugg, the author of the bestselling novel, is a popular fashion and beauty vlogger and Internet personality based in the U.K. She is best known for her Zoella channel on YouTube, which attracts millions of subscribers. So why would her printed book vastly outsell digital copies, given her audience?

That’s just one of the things that keeps Stewart up at night, contemplating today’s rapidly changing technology and how it impacts the people who interact with it. He noted that while young people continue to consume digital content in escalating quantities, they also appreciate the tactile qualities of holding a book.

“Something this good deserves to be read in print,” Stewart’s daughter said to him when asked why she was toting around an old copy of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Research has shown that we retain what we read on paper better than we remember the same content on a tablet or computer screen, Stewart explained. 

Stewart is a globally recognized speaker and expert on the forecasting of consumer and commercial technology, as well as media and telecommunications trends. Working worldwide and across all industries, Duncan advises clients on the impact of new and existing technology, and demographic and regulatory changes to their business strategies.

When Google Glass arrived last year, he predicted sales would be a disappointing 4 million units – a pessimistic forecast rejected by many. In reality, only 40,000 units were sold to consumers. Stewart did note, however, that wearable technology is finding its way into workplaces with specific enterprise functions that companies will find indispensible. Incidentally, wearable technology related to healthcare is something Centennial College is actively researching.

There’s no separating a teenager from his or her smartphone, but Stewart remarked that when students are asked what their next planned technology purchase is, it’s not a phone, but a new laptop computer. He explained that even young people could appreciate the difference between devices for content consumption and those intended for content creation.

“You can’t write a 2,500-word essay on a smartphone,” he reminded his audience of Centennial professors and administrators. Some 1.35 billion smartphones will be sold in 2015, but 1 billion of those will be purchased by people who are simply trading their phone for something with a bigger screen or better camera.

The prevalence of mobile devices is cutting into television viewing in a big way, said Stewart. Almost 50 million Americans watch an average of just 18 minutes of TV daily, many of them young and college-educated.

“Youth don’t have the media habits that they used to. They’re watching 25 per cent less TV than three years ago, the steepest decline in the industry,” Stewart said. Sports broadcasts remain the lone holdout; fans young and old continue to watch major-league sports on TV, though they don’t always have the patience to sit through a four-hour NFL game (that’s why broadcasts are shifting cross-platform to mobile devices).

“Phablets,” or smartphones with large display screens, are growing exponentially in sales, particularly in countries such as India and China where a smartphone may be the only digital device in a household, so it has to do everything. Stewart noted that giant phones were not even on the radar a year ago – indicative of how quickly things are changing.

Change is the one constant in the technology field, which is why Stewart, who is based in Toronto, travels the world to make sense of the latest trends and draw insights. Among other things, he sees high-tech commercial drones doing a lot of remarkable work in industry both cheaply and quickly, and the Internet of Things (IoT) being a major trend in homes soon.

So why, exactly, are teenagers drawn to books when they’re so deeply immersed in digital technology? Stewart smiled broadly when he answered, but he was adamant the response is accurate: “They love the smell of books.”