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The Top 10 Digital Transformation Trends Of 2020: A Post COVID-19 Assessment
by Daniel Newman | August 19, 2020

Around this time last year, I made my annual digital transformation trends predictions. Here we are, a year later, still dealing with a global pandemic that has upended literally every industry. While I am currently working on a new list of digital transformation trends for 2021, I thought we should look back at my 2020 predictions and explore where we are now. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw technology accelerate a breakneck pace. With the shifts it brought upon so many companies, I thought now was a good time to consider how COVID-19 impacted the biggest digital transformation trends I had slated for 2020.

COVID-19 Pushing 5G Forward Faster

Even a year ago, it was clear that everyone across the globe wanted faster connectivity, both at home and in the workplace. COVID-19 only intensified this demand as workers left their offices in well-connected areas for at-home offices in the sprawling suburbs and beyond. We need better networks to keep everyone connected. The good news: deployment is forging ahead, despite the virus. Many telcos are on track to deliver or exceed their 5G implementation goals. In May, Verizon launched a virtual lab to test 5G deployments and rolled out 5G coverage across San Diego, CA. In China, 5G deployments are happening so rapidly that Ericsson had to up their 5G enrollment goal, for the year. Concurrently, Qualcomm announced in its most recent earnings that over 60% of devices shipped that quarter were 5G.

Here are a few more stats on 5G announced during the same Qualcomm earnings call:

  • There are 380 Operators currently investing in 5G
  • 80 Operators in 35+ countries have already launched commercial 5G services
  • 45+ OEMs have launched or announced 5G devices.

Additionally, the technology is already being put to work in China and other places too. Chinese hospitals are using robots powered by 5G to monitor user temperatures and other health applications. We’ve also seen a handful of mobile phones rollout over the past year ready for 5G connectivity. Apple is rumored to be releasing its 5G iPhone later this year or perhaps more likely in 2021.

What is clear is that 5G was not slowed at all by COVID-19 and will only continue to boom in the coming months. 2021 should be a massive year for 5G technology.

WiFi 6 — Still Coming Soon

Last year, I predicted that 5G and WiFi 6 working in concert will create the perfect end-to-end combination of ultra-fast connectivity for home and office. I also said we could expect download speeds up to 3x faster than were achievable with WiFi 5. So, where did we end up? In April, the FCC unanimously voted to open the new band of spectrum to devices that can accommodate it, which means we don’t exactly know how well it will work. The first devices equipped to handle WiFi 6 are expected to rollout later this year. And it can’t come soon enough.

Analytics Prove a Competitive Advantage — Still

Companies who aren’t heavily invested in analytics in 2020 probably won’t be in business in 2021. I stand by that prediction that I made last year. Using big data and analytics has always been on a steady growth trajectory and then COVID-19 exploded and made the need for data even greater. Companies and institutions like Johns Hopkins and SAS created COVID-19 health dashboards that compiled data from a myriad of sources to help governments and businesses make decisions to protect citizens, employees, and other stakeholders.

Now, as businesses are in re-opening phases, we are using data and analytics for contact tracing and to help make other decisions in the workplace. There have been recent announcements from several big tech companies including Microsoft, HPE, Oracle, Cisco and Salesforce focusing on developing data driven tools to help bring employees back to work safely — some even offering it for free to its customers.
The need for data to make all business decisions has grown, but this year, we saw data analytics being used in real time to make critical business and life-saving decisions, and I am certain it won’t stop there. I expect massive continued investment from companies into data and analytics capabilities that power faster, leaner and smarter organizations in the wake of 2020’s Global Pandemic and economic strains.

AI and Machine Learning – Powering Businesses Through the Pandemic

As data continues to grow exponentially, data without technology to analyze it, is useless. AI and machine learning have exploded in recent months as businesses turned to the technology to gain insights into their data. Last year when IT Ops and Security company Splunk announced its “Data to Everything” campaign, I thought it may have been a bit bold, but given the current circumstances, that is exactly what we need. All data to be captured, managed, enriched and visualized in rapid succession —some real foresight there.

I also said last year that the value of AI and machine learning to data analytics can be distilled into three separate value propositions: speed, scale, and convenience. All three have been realized in the last few months. We are likely going to see continued exponential growth in power as the virus continues to spread.

This has been backed by massive investment as we have seen AI infused into more and more of what we do. Cloud providers like Google, IBM, Microsoft and AWS are pouring investment into offering acceleration in the cloud. Chipmakers like NVIDIA and Intel are building GPUs and CPUs that can boost training and learning from data — and more and more drive targeted recommendations and accurate conversational AI. This is also being expanded out to the edge where AI is helping to accommodate the masses of data from IoT. As we try to make sense of more data to keep people, schools and workplaces safe, AI and ML will continue to be a shining star.

Blockchain – Necessary for the Fight

I predicted that 2020 could’ve been the true rise to blockchain outside of cryptocurrency and for the most part, I think we are seeing that happen. In April, the Department of Homeland Security named blockchain an essential technology for fighting COVID-19 and repairing our broken economy. Supply chains across the globe were impacted by the virus. Blockchain, if deployed correctly, has the potential to fix damaged supply chains by processing and verifying transactions quickly. This could be the perfect catalyst for making blockchain a necessary technology moving forward.

RPA/IPA Will See More Growth Post-COVID

If there’s one thing that can help keep a company moving when employees are unable to be physically present in the office, it’s RPA and its smarter relative IPA (Intelligent Process Automation). Even as coronavirus passes, we’ll see more and more companies looking to offload as many tasks as they can to ensure that business runs smoothly once the next global disruption occurs. This isn’t so much about displacement of work as it is about up-leveling and automating the mundane — of course companies will be required to discern this important detail.

This is what is driving the RPA and IPA space. With heavy hitters like Microsoft and Amazon playing in this space and a group of focused challenges in companies like Pega, Automation Anywhere, and UiPath, there is a lot of investment now in seeing software driven automation meet the cloud and accelerate with the help of AI. Reports show a compound annual growth rate of nearly 30 percent for RPA in the forecast period through 2026, but you don’t need to be a data scientist to see that businesses worldwide can only benefit from shifting as much to scale-able robot shoulders as possible now that uncertainty will taint our market for years to come.

Conversational AI is Here to Answer Questions

I started alluding to this above (see #4) and when I wrote the trends last year, I said that I believed we’d see at least some form of conversational AI become useful in 2020. Granted it happened in a way I didn’t see coming, but it happened, nonetheless. During the coronavirus shutdown, one thing that took a major hit for all companies was customer service. One way to solve that: a highly trained army of conversational AI bots ready to answer customer questions and keep their worlds moving — even as your customer service team is out of service. This technology has the attention of the world’s largest tech companies. From voice-controlled video collaboration to your personal assistant on your mobile device to the chatbot helping you with online shopping. At its 2020 GTC Conference, NVIDIA CEO Jensen Huang made a massive bet on conversational AI with the launch of its Jarvis framework, by bringing latency in conversational AI to as little as 3ms while providing the possibility for things like 3D, Eye Contact and Lip Reading.

Indeed, even beyond distributing important health information, conversational AI will continue to see increased development as companies realize they simply don’t have the human bandwidth to keep their customers informed and satisfied during a global emergency. And this will spill well beyond the response—as businesses see how fast and accurate conversational AI is becoming, we will see more and more.

Always Connected PCs (ACPCs) Starting to Prove Their Value

Last year, I predicted that as we are always connected, we will need our devices to always be connected too. Look at how true that turned out to be. Demand for laptops has soared during the pandemic, and companies like Lenovo and Samsung (two I predicted last year) rolled out a few different ACPC models to meet demand. Qualcomm, which works with ARM to supply one of the ACPC chip variants, even sought to help the shortage and offered ACPCs to students in need in the San Diego area. While I think of all the trends, this one still has some room to grow, I do believe the need for ACPCs will continue to grow as more and more people discover their value.

Beyond those mentioned, there are more and more OEMs and Chipmakers like Intel and AMD looking at always connected PCs or similar to deliver constant connectivity using mobile LTE and 5G. This, in the wake of so many working at home and needing good reliable connectivity could become a real important means to providing fast, battery friendly, always connected laptops for workers, students and anyone else that may not have the same access to an office, a school or the local coffee shop.

Connected Vehicles, Drones and Other Technologies Expand

Last year, I thought for sure that 2020 would be the year we’d move closer to connected cities and autonomous vehicles. Thanks to the pandemic, we are seeing an expansion in how governments collect data for contact tracing. Apps with APIs from Google and Apple are being used — with great success — in countries in Europe. This technology, while only used for the virus right now, could probably be tweaked and put into use for other smart city uses.

Connected cars might not have been a priority during the pandemic, but car companies are still making headlines and moving the technology forward. Last month, Mercedes and NVIDIA announced a partnership that would put NVIDIA computers in cars by 2024. This is only one of dozens of examples—Tesla, of course has been a big story of the year, as its cars and its wild new truck design have sold healthily despite the economic uncertainty.

And the best part of being connected? The car would update over the air like our phones and other devices do now. These moves might be small, but the impact could be great on the industry as we move into 2021.

Technology Adjacent Trends Did Take Center Stage in 2020

My final prediction last year was actually like a 3 for 1. I predicted that XaaS (everything as a service), UX/CX (User/Customer Experience), and digital privacy would dominate discussions around digital transformation and that has definitely been the case. The XaaS market has grown in the last few months as companies had to buy the technologies needed to keep employees connected. And since the work-from-home experiment has largely been successful, I predict this market will only continue to expand as legacy systems are either eliminated or put into a consumption like model.

The focus on UX/CX has continued to drive business investments in digital transformation as companies eliminated unnecessary spending and focused more on retaining customers. Technologies like some of the ones I listed above (5G, conversational AI) have provided value to companies already. I see more of this in the future as spending returns more to normal.

Finally, digital privacy has seen top billing in a lot of conversations recently as contact tracing has emerged the world over. But beyond the virus, we are still seeing calls for greater control over personal data and more protection for consumers from big tech companies who harness and sell data for money. I believe digital privacy will remain a top priority for years to come until there is greater transparency.

In Closing

Overall, COVID-19, if anything, made things move faster. Most of these trends will continue to grow in the future as COVID-19 continues to spread. We are seeing firsthand how a lot of these can help us stay connected and stay healthy, so I don’t see them going away or changing any time soon. But as we are continually pushed to our limits, I believe that more companies will discover better ways to use these technologies and I can’t wait to see where we can go.

Futurum Research provides industry research and analysis. These columns are for educational purposes only and should not be considered in any way investment advice.

The original version of this article was first published on Forbes.

Daniel Newman