Tech trends: Winners and losers as changing attitudes shift policies in North America

2018 was an interesting year for IT in North America, but 2019 could easily trump it.

As I write this, the FAANGs are wobbling. Recent stock market jitters have led to - or been led by - significant fluctuations in the prices of shares in Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google. What once seemed an unstoppable upward trend in stock value has, well, stopped. Paused, anyway. Arguably reversed. Whatever happens next is going to be interesting to watch, just maybe from a safe distance.

This sudden change in the fortunes of the poster-firms for big tech wasn't widely predicted, except perhaps by those who've kept a close eye on recent global monetary policy tightening, itself a delayed legacy of the 2007 financial crash.

This serves to demonstrate the futility of long-term predictions. It's not enough to focus on one area, as shocks can come from almost anywhere. Sure, analysts might point to falling iThing sales or Alphabet/Google's perceived loss of focus, or the effect of cloud-fatigue on Amazon, or Facebook repeatedly showing itself to be a privacy-compromising data-slurper, or Netflix burning through ludicrous amounts of money to win new customers. Such pontifications may or may not be valid, but they're largely irrelevant. When cheap credit dries up, whole economies change direction. That's now happening, and it's anyone's guess for how long.

So anything written about IT trends in 2019 must be taken with a pinch of salt - a large one. The last Trends article I wrote about the US is here. In it were such predictions as the increasing confrontation of corporate culture by those who deem themselves to be unfairly discriminated against. That's certainly come to pass, and the trend continues. Large corporations are treading ever more warily as they struggle to be (or be seen to be) equal and inclusive to everyone they employ or consider employing.

I also suggested that the automation of workplace practices and jobs would continue apace, which has happened and continues to do so. Natural Language Processing has come on in leaps and bounds, in terms of both voice recognition and translation. These are likely to be growth areas in 2019 because they represent two of the most successful facets of AI in everyday use.

Donald Trump continued to up-end US politics in 2018, albeit not precisely in the way his supporters or detractors might have expected. Silicon Valley's general disapproval of Trump is well-known, but the boundaries between personal and corporate politics shifted in 2018, with social media firms 'taking a stand' against those whose views they perceived to be politically unacceptable. In a country with freedom of speech enshrined in fundamental law, this has already caused concern and conflict. Expect more heated debate about the political role of social media platforms in 2019, but probably not much action - at least not yet.

Although not strictly IT-focused, Elon Musk has continued to keep Tesla in the headlines for mostly the wrong reasons. More broadly, self-driving cars look as far away now as they did a year ago, if not more so in some respects due to a handful of high-profile accidents. Expect more of the same in 2019. Whatever the companies involved may say, self-driving car technology isn't ready yet, and won't be until it passes the three hurdles of technological capability, regulatory approval and public acceptance. The third of those hurdles may well be the hardest to clear.

GDPR continues to affect US and Canadian firms, in fact any companies that deal with EU customer data. Some of them still haven't realized it, but the screw is slowly tightening. Faced with a choice between the effort of compliance and giving up a tranche of their revenue from personal profiling, some companies may choose the path of least resistance and simply block their online presence from European access. Unthinkable just a few years ago, such action now comes across as just another aspect of the general trend away from globalization and towards protectionism. There will be winners and losers from this shift in political dogma; for now, it's unclear who they'll be.

Blockchain was a big buzzword in 2018, but was conspicuous by its absence from my predictions last year. With scattered exceptions, it has remained a buzzword rather than a fundamental new business tool. It still has potential but the gloss is fading, in part related to the ongoing decline in cryptocurrency values and real-world usage (not to mention their phenomenal energy requirements). Like any other wonderful new technology, Blockchain isn't the panacea it has been touted as being. Expect it to drift a little further away from prominence in 2019, with fewer blockchain-driven IPOs and even fewer evangelists for its value to business.

I'll round off with quantum computing. As someone with a physics degree, I love the idea of quantum computing. I also love the idea that anyone believes it will have any widespread business utility within the next decade. That particular cat will remain well and truly dead in 2019.