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No one could have predicted where 2020 would take us: The last six months alone have produced more digital transformation than the last decade, with every transformation effort already underway finding itself accelerated, and at scale. While many of my digital transformation predictions from a year ago benefited from this shift, others were displaced by more urgent needs, like 24/7 secure and reliable connectivity. What does this mean for 2021? Will core technologies like AI and data analytics still dominate headlines, or will we see newer, previously emerging technologies take the lead? Only time will tell, but here are my top ten digital transformation predictions for 2021.
5G Will Finally Go Mainstream – For Real This Time!
We have been hearing about the benefits of 5G for years now, but it wasn’t until remote work, videoconferencing, and digital collaboration became core parts of our lives this year that the need for reliable connectivity and more bandwidth became a real, concrete benefit that we could all wrap our heads around. Our reliance on phones, tablets, and other devices – including an ever growing number of IoT sensors – highlights the need for the multi-lane superhighway that telecommunications companies already knew we would need. Today, businesses cannot afford to be disconnected, and 5G deployments have become a vital part of the solution. As we collectively continue to work and manage school from our homes, the value of 5G will become increasingly mainstream in 2021.
Though initially the pandemic interrupted work on new 5G network deployments earlier this year, these efforts have resumed, and large markets like China are already on target to meet their deployment goals for 2020. Meanwhile, every major handset manufacturer in the world – from Samsung and Apple to Xiaomi and Motorola – is already (or soon to be) releasing 5G phones in virtually every price-point tier, with Qualcomm — arguably the leader in 5G technology — helping make 5G affordable to as many smartphone users as possible next year.
We have already seen an explosion of Customer Data Platforms (CDP) in the last few months — and with good reason. Fragmented data from multiple sources can be notoriously difficult to organize, which obviously isn’t ideal for companies that rely on timely, well-curated data to operate optimally. IBM estimates that co-called “bad data” already costs U.S. businesses roughly $3 trillion annually, so addressing this challenge has become a priority for organizations of all sizes. CDPs help solve this problem by collecting data from all available sources, organizing it, tagging it, and making it usable for anyone who needs access to it. Companies like Adobe, SAP, Oracle, Treasure Data and Microsoft are already heavily invested in providing the market with powerful new CDPs. I’ve also watched new entrants like Segment and ActionIQ impress with new CDP services taking unique approaches to solve the challenge of gaining the coveted 360 customer view. Now that business operations have become somewhat more fragmented, in part because of new work-from-home operational models, but also because of the continuing acceleration of data collection across an ever-expanding ecosystem of touchpoints, CDPs will become especially relevant in 2021.
Hybrid Cloud Declared the Winning Enterprise Architecture
We have known for a while that businesses are increasingly moving toward a hybrid cloud infrastructure. From SaaS applications and on-prem solutions to a mix of public and private clouds, hybrid cloud strategies help organizations strike the right balance for their unique cloud infrastructure needs. Over the past year, we have seen major investments in hybrid from large public cloud providers like AWS, Azure, Google, IBM and Oracle. We are also seeing OEMs like HPE, Dell (VMware) and Cisco increasing investment in building tools that enable simpler connectivity between on-premises datacenters and cloud. These investments are all about meeting the customer where they are at the moment. Addressing the challenges of exponential data growth, while also being proactive on issues like privacy, security and compliance. The modernized approach to hybrid cloud is expanding from traditional IT to support industrial applications as well. For instance, Honeywell, has built its Forge IoT platform using an open source and hybrid cloud approach so the industrial data it manages can more seamlessly integrate with traditional cloud datacenters, applications and workloads.
Hybrid cloud would have been on my list for 2021 even without the pandemic, but if nothing else, the widespread, sudden disruptions caused by the coronavirus have highlighted the value of having as agile and adaptable a cloud infrastructure as you can—especially as we are seeing companies around the world expedite investments in cloud to enable faster change in moments of uncertainty and disruption like we faced in 2020.
Cybersecurity Gets a Jolt
Despite never losing their importance philosophically, cybersecurity had fallen off my list of critical tech trends last year, but with the pandemic, cybersecurity has become very relevant again. Hackers have exploited the coronavirus pandemic to expand their campaigns of attacks against businesses worldwide. A 238 percent rise in attacks on banks, and a 600 percent increase in attacks on cloud servers was observed from January to April 2020 alone. With fewer employees working onsite on the same secure network, it is imperative that companies shore up their networks and upgrade their cybersecurity strategies, and expand them to home networks and mobile work-from-home devices.
I believe that AI and Machine Learning will be important for this trend as we will see the continued increase in attempted nefarious activities require more sophisticated tools and algorithms to fish out. This will prove to be a big opportunity for the likes of Fortinet and Cisco in areas like firewalls and intrusion detection as well as companies like Splunk and IBM for security identify and event management (SIEM). Microsoft, is another company that has poured resources into security in areas like active directory, software and cloud. There are many companies playing in this space, but I expect software, cloud and hardware makers to all be amplifying efforts to make their products and services more secure to deal with certain growth in threats that we have seen throughout 2020.
Privacy and Confidential Computing Gains Momentum
Another approach to shoring up cybersecurity, particularly when addressing communications and data privacy, is confidential computing. The idea of confidential computing is to encrypt the entire computing process, not just the data, creating additional layers of security around sensitive information. Google, Microsoft, IBM, Alibaba, and VMware are helping develop new protocols and best practices by way of the Confidential Computing Consortium. The tech is still in a state of relative infancy, but we should begin to see confidential computing slide into the mainstream in 2021.
Headless Tech Disrupts Industries
It sounds scary, but all “headless tech” means is that businesses are now able to separate their front-end presentation layer from their back-end data functionality to create custom shopping experiences. This can be as simple as telling your Amazon Alexa to replenish your favorite coffee or being able to make instant purchases off of social media. So, why is that so important? In short, people are doing a lot more of this type of commerce. Research shows that 86 percent of businesses say their customer acquisition costs have increased in the last 24 months. This means two things: The first is that organizations need to maximize the ROI of their net new customer acquisition costs. The second is that it is more important than ever to also focus on customer development and retention. By moving beyond the omnichannel experience to connect everything from warehouses to storefronts to online services, companies 2021 could become more efficient, more streamlined, and possibly get a leg up on competitors if they adopt it a little faster than they do.
Work from Home Outlasts COVID-19
Workers have been clamoring for increased work flexibility for a long time, and a company deciding to allow remote work at scale was usually radical enough to warrant a headline or two. This year that all went out the window when working from home was suddenly the only viable option for many companies, especially in areas with strict coronavirus lockdowns. Even as economies slowly reopen and employees are finally allowed to return to work, companies will continue to be tasked with protecting employees from possible outbreak resurgences. Many big tech companies like Google and Facebook have extended already their work from home policies through or for parts of 2021. Even smaller companies are keeping this newfound flexibility as an operational option.
Part of what made this possible has been the rapid deployment and development of smart work from home technologies. Sure, we have heard a lot about Zoom, Webex and Microsoft Teams. Those platforms have seen explosive growth in use and development to make them both easier and more secure. However, we have seen significant growth in the deployment of WFH devices, which has led to growing PC sales as well as investment in new secure connectivity like SD-WAN at scale to offer improved connectivity to the office as well as flexibility that VPN isn’t as well suited for. Now that companies have better equipped employees with tools and technology to be more productive despite physical distance, we will see remnants of this for the next few years at least, and maybe beyond as this trend already had momentum pre-2020.
Another unintended consequence of this will be population migration. As more people work from home and are enabled to do so on a continuous basis, we will likely see migration from larger cities to more cost of living friendly locales. This migration will drive greater investment in connectivity in suburban and rural areas, which will enable even greater productivity in these less densely populated communities.
The coronavirus pandemic caught most companies off-guard, but it also proved that work can still happen effectively with remote employees, and sometimes can result in improvements in productivity and lower operational costs. This is why I suspect that 2021 will not see companies rushing to return to pre-COVID onsite work models.
AI Democratized at Scale
The coronavirus pandemic triggered an acceleration in the democratization of AI and data. Virtually overnight, companies, governments, and other agencies found themselves needing to work together to create a faster solution to stop the spread of the virus. Data, AI, and machine learning were the tools that they naturally turned to. The work that was begun in 2020 will continue into 2021, and will likely expand to a breadth of pressing opportunities that these types of groups are now uniquely equipped to tackle, like solving global and market problems faster, better, and at scale.
While many feel that AI is something of a “Future” trend. It is very much a part of our every day lives. Impacting what we see on social media to movies recommended on Netflix or products that are suggested when we are shopping on Amazon. As computing power continues to be more affordable and the cloud enables access to this computing power as well as software and frameworks, more and more companies will be able to benefit from AI. With major chipmakers like NVIDIA, Arm, Intel, Qualcomm, and AMD continuing to innovate on semiconductors that power AI and then deploying their CPUs, GPUs, FPGAs and ASICs (Forms of chips) to the cloud, companies can either gain access to this hardware and software directly or through third party applications that further simplify and democratize AI.
The proliferation of AI will impact our lives from how we shop, to what we eat, how we hire and what we do for entertainment. It will be powered by masses of data that use powerful computing capabilities. AI will continue to require monitoring to make sure we use it for positive purposes and this will be a joint effort of government and industry, but no doubt its use continues to grow rapidly and we will see this scale even faster now that resources are becoming less expensive and more available to businesses around the globe.
Device Form Factors Become Interesting Again
Remember the flip phone? It is making a comeback. With a new focus on being always connected, customers want devices that are lighter, smaller, more connected than before, but also versatile. Instead of carrying several devices, users are increasingly interested in hybrid devices like the Microsoft Surface Duo and the Samsung Galaxy Fold 2 that can double as phones or as tablets, and can fold and unfold depending on their needs. 2021 will see the return of folding smart phones, only these will be able to provide the same high quality and connectivity as non-folding phones. Aside from fitting more snugly in a pocket, the idea is also to allow phone form factors to unfold into small tablets when a user needs a bigger screen, then fold back into a smaller form factor for storage or basic phone use. Devices like the Galaxy Fold 2 are taking off, for instance, now that companies have made folding screens tougher and more reliable. Will this change all of our devices? Definitely not, but 2021 should see a lot more folding and unfolding devices challenging the flat screen status quo.
Aside from folding and multi-screen devices, we are also going to see the always connected PC (ACPC – one of my big 2020 trends) gain more momentum. These lightweight, powerful notebooks are equipped with full connectivity via 5G and/or LTE. Powered by Windows on ARM or Intel certified Project Athena CPUs that incorporate modem connectivity, users are able to connect on their laptops the same way we do on our cell phones. This gives the remote and work from home another reliable means to connectivity. This started gaining momentum last year, but I still believe pervasive 5G is key to seeing this trend take off. Notebook manufacturers that embrace this trend, like Lenovo, HP, Dell and Samsung will all benefit as always connected notebooks continue to grow in adoption.
Quantum Moves to Mainstream
Quantum computing may not be on your radar yet, but we have seen unprecedented growth in this field, in great part thanks to IBM and Honeywell, among others. Partnerships like Splunk and Quantum Computing Inc., Honeywell and Microsoft, and AWS and IonQ are also spurring continuous growth in the field. Quantum computing has been at the forefront of pandemic efforts to manage the spread of the disease, as well as the development of therapeutics and possible vaccines. We will likely see more use cases in other industries as people realize the power that quantum computing has to offer: the ability to easily query, monitor, analyze, and act on data at scale, from any source at any time.
Independent of traditional computing, Quantum still has some ways to go before becoming widely adopted, but the partnerships I mentioned above are bringing Quantum Computing and traditional computing closer together so applications can be run in familiar computing environments. I’ve seen this demonstrated by Zapata Computing using the Honeywell Quantum machine. It is powerful and exciting to see this trend gain momentum.
The Coronavirus epidemic has changed both the trajectory and the velocity of digital transformation, and will likely continue to do so into 2021. The trendlines and new priorities facing organizations of all sizes that we observed in 2020 will inform the focus, decisions, and technology investments that drive the list of digital transformation strategies that will define 2021, and hopefully the recovery from the Coronavirus pandemic.
So what did I miss? Should blockchain or autonomous vehicles be listed ahead of some of these trends? What else will drive the discussion in 2021? A big year ahead, hopefully one with better health and stability, but either way it is coming fast and digital transformation will continue to be the focus of organizations around the globe.
The original version of this article was first published on Forbes.