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Technology trends in 2016: A bluffer's guide

Predicting technology trends for the coming year is a game for fools played all over the world on an annual basis. Often it involves more art – the abstract, indecipherable stuff – than science, and just as often it generates more heat than light. Sometimes numbers are invoked by pundits as a digital prop for guesstimations: a classic case of the drunkard using the lamppost more for support than for illumination. But as some cliché-fancying old fool once said, this is a time of the year for looking back… so let’s do what s/he said.

Internet of Things security. That strange grasping/rasping sound you can hear is security vendors rubbing their leathery hands in anticipation of panic over perceived threats emanating from home automation systems, wearable tech, transport management systems – you name it. Since the web went worldwide and created a welter of opportunities for bad guys, security vendors have never had it so good – and now they spy another wave. It’s a fair bet that the sensation-hungry media will go along with the charade and complaisant governments might follow. Cue standards groups and ‘just-in-case’ defensive spending – loads of it.

Twitter to be sold. Twitter is the Java of the web age: everybody uses it but the maker can’t figure out how to make real money from it. For a social network that is ubiquitous, Twitter’s owners have done some pretty awful things to it. Look at that awful login page with some fanboy pic taken with a cheap smartphone. Nasty. Look at the new features that take Twitter a step back every time. Nasty. Look at the clunky attempts to monetise. Nasty.

And now Twitter is under the control of a CEO who just took another company, Square, public. That makes for a rare phenomenon: a firm with a part-time CEO. Now think to yourself, why don’t more companies have a part-time CEO? Because it’s not a very smart idea. But, but, but… the only positive I can see from this odd situation is that it’s a short-term fix and that Twitter decision-makers want to sell the company.

And it’s surely obvious that Twitter, like YouTube before it, begs to sit alongside other properties owned by companies with a track record of turning traffic into profit. So Google, Facebook, whoever: come and grab this while it’s still fairly warm and while users keep tweeting.

Machines replacing service jobs. Jerry Kaplan’s terrific book Humans Need Not Apply is a guide to a world - past, present and future - where machines do things better than us (unless you’re a bot reading this, of course, in which case ‘where machines do things better than them’). Kaplan talks about the algorithms that, for example, are used in high-frequency trading, or the robots that stalk warehouses, moving crates at many times the speed and at a fraction of the costs we mere mortals are capable of.

But you don’t have to look too far to see interesting new examples. One of the most discussed new restaurants in London this year is Rex & Mariano, (currently shuttered but promised to re-open soon). This is a place where you serve yourself seafood from iPads. It’s owned by a fishmonger and a fish importer – a sort of piscine version of Dell in the elegance of its direct model.

Plate delivery aside, only basic assembly and back-office tasks are done by flesh-and-blood human beings. As globalisation takes its inexorable effect you can see more jobs going, well, the way of all flesh, as we learn to serve ourselves via machines and pay digitally rather than with cash. It’s an ongoing process but the time is ripe for it to go into overdrive.

Personal assistants that go way beyond Siri. When it comes to digital assistants we’re really only just getting started. Once we learn to see the value of giving away more personal information and once the machines can tap larger databases to anticipate our likely needs, personal assistants will become Jeeves-like experts that know us better than we know ourselves.

As Google, Amazon, Apple and others get more grains of information in their siloes they can become our agenda organisers, travel bookers, gift buyers. They will virtually pack umbrellas in our bags, dress us with an appropriate outfit for the weather and schedule, point us in the right direction of a morning and provide us with alternative transport routes because the 8.30 from Twickenham to London Waterloo is running in a four-car ultra-short formation – AGAIN.

Siri and its rivals are weak today but the need is so urgent for something better that 2016 might well be the year when assistants that go further.

Drone strikes causing collateral damage in friendly fire. Plans to use drones in logistics are advancing so fast that it’s hard to imagine there won’t be a smattering of accidents as George the warehouseman in Depot 4 gets a painful haircut from a low-flying device carrying bit parts to Depot 5.

Microsoft bounces back. My strong sense is that Microsoft under Satya Nadella is a company with its mojo rebooted. It’s amazing to see what companies can do when employees are confident and allowed to try bold things rather than just focusing on the old cash cows - and if Nadella ever doubts himself he can look to Apple and Google for examples. What of other bellwethers? IBM, HP and Symantec appear set for a period of retrenchment while Dell-EMC will take multiple years to settle down and figure out – if it goes ahead.

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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