Since the mobile revolution of the mid-2000s, the technology industry tends to move so fast that “what’s ahead this year” articles have become almost impossible to write, if not outright obsolete. There’s probably a startup in Durham right now working on the technology for better predicting technology. And if there’s not, there probably should be.

Lucky for Triangle readers and tech fans, this region is at the forefront of many of these technologies—neck deep in the intellectual center of many of the coolest changes coming to the tech world. And 2016 is looking to be an exciting year for both creators and consumers. Let’s take a look at the five big developments that will shape our digital world this year.

1. Will virtual reality finally take off?

A buddy of mine who knows I report on technology asked me last week if he should get a 4K TV, and if Ultra HD (UHD) and 4K technology was really worth it. I told him it didn’t matter, because until the content for UHD and 4K has gone mainstream, who cares how good the technology is? A Blu-Ray player doesn’t do much good if you don’t own any Blu-Rays, or if no one owns Blu-Rays.

I met with Alex Grau last week (a principle engineer at Total Cinema 360 and a major VR consultant throughout the Triangle) and this was essentially his thought on the virtual reality arc: the technology is already there (we’ve reported on cutting-edge virtual reality technologies like Wearality and Impulsonic at ExitEvent), most popularly in the form of HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. But it’s going to take a solid year or two before the content these devices will display become commonplace, and for the most talented content creators to start making software and creative exclusively for the virtual reality world. In fact, Alex says the major worry in the VR startup world right now is how to find funding for the next 18 months while this transition takes place.

Expect in 2016 to see the first mainstream and everyday content make its way over to virtual reality, and by the end of the year we might see this new world take off.

2. Net Neutrality laws are in place, will they pass their first test?

Last February, the FCC passed laws widely known as “net neutrality” that classified wired internet from ISPs like Comcast and Time Warner Cable as Title II common carriers, making them more or less subject to the same type of regulation as phone providers. (The move widely stemmed from a dispute between Comcast and Netflix over connection fees, since Netflix had taken over about a third of web traffic during peak Netflix & Chill hours as ExitEvent explains here.)

The laws are intended to keep the web free and open to companies of all shapes and sizes, and in theory to protect the lowly startups that wouldn’t be able to compete with say, Facebook, in a price/access war to the Internet. But, the big question mark of course is how the law will actually be applied.

We’re likely going to find out in 2016. T-Mobile might be the first to push the boundaries with its “Binge On” plan, which gives subscribers free broadband data for major OTTs like HULU and Netflix. Net neutrality advocates argue this is breaking the rules in a sort of reverse way, as there’s no way startup companies would get similar free lanes like the aforementioned major services like HULU and Netflix. Will the FCC step in and fight for the spirit of the law? We shall see.

3. Is this the year software breaks out of the Macintosh-Windows duopoly?

Chromebooks, Android, iOS and the like continue to chip away at the bi-partisan world of two and only two operating systems that have defined computing for the last 30 years. Steve Job’s apps were the first major domino, but even they have been locked into an Android vs. iOS battle for supremacy since the late-2000s.

That might be starting to change. Apps now need to transverse Google, Microsoft and Apple’s app stores at the very least (The Verge discusses Netflix’s attempt to do this with its Windows 10 app) and even the massive programs of yesteryear like Microsoft Office’s Word and Adobe Creative Suite’s Photoshop are facing major competition with faster (and often free) apps like Google Docs and Pixlr. Adobe has slashed prices on its online subscription-only Photoshop web app in an attempt to get ahead of the curve here.

The writing on the wall is clear, but no one is quite sure how it will play out. Will the software world continue to fragment into more and more operating systems, or will application software reach a level of sophistication that transcends operating systems in general? Will the web browser become the new operating system? 2016 will offer clues.

4. Could 2016 finally be the year of the un-carrier?

There’s a reason carriers like Sprint and Verizon are slashing rates on data (even offering unlimited plans) and AT&T has just ended two-year contracts all together. Why? Not only are customers demanding more options, but they’re even heading for alternative providers that don’t require long contracts or locked-in phones.

Google’s ProjectFi (used by your correspondent here) is an incredibly cool service that uses a combination of WiFi and T-Mobile/Sprint towers and, gasp, only makes you pay for the exact amount of data that you use! Republic Wireless is another similar brand. Based in Raleigh, it rents hardware from major providers and uses WiFi calling for the rest. As unlocked phones and contract-free plans become the norm, expect the four-player world of AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile to continue to crumble (and for those providers themselves to offer “cooler” alternatives that they own).

This is happening with wired Internet service as well as traditional ISPs. Google Fiber is scaring Time Warner Cable and AT&T in the Triangle into upping their broadband games, and Internet providers of all kinds are realizing that the “last mile” (the portion of the Internet historically controlled by only a few huge companies) is finally up for grabs.

This is only going to benefit consumers, and 2016 could be a huge year for competitors to make gains, and for consumers to cut their bills.

5. Will encryption and security issues hit critical mass?

There are almost too many topics and debates here to even discuss, but 2016 will no doubt be a turning point in the future of web security and privacy, both from a legal standpoint and for the business and startup communities that depend on metadata and how users are willing to share that information.

Governments worldwide are currently deciding what type of privacy and snooping they’re willing to engage in and tolerate, and the major fulcrum could be whether or not companies like Google and Apple agree to allowing “backdoors” into their products. It’s mathematically impossible for a perfectly safe web to exist sans some government or security oversight, so who will win? The snoopers or the snoopies? We’ll find out in the coming months. 

It’s going to be an interesting year to say the least.