7 Hot Technology Trends for 2011

By Jeff Vance

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It’s prediction time again. Looking back on last year’s prediction column, I had one of my best years (as far as predictions go anyway) yet.

Last year I forecast a continuingly troubled economy, slow growth for IT spending and a mostly jobless recovery. According to Gartner, enterprise IT spending grew by only 2.9 percent in 2010. According to a Forrester IT spending survey, the vast majority of CIOs, however, reported that their budgets didn’t grow at all from 2009 through 2010.

As for jobs, according to Moody’s Analytics, after losing more than 300,000 jobs in the depths of the recession, IT jobs grew by a substantial 15 percent in 2010 -- an impressive number, on the surface. Digging into the numbers, though, puts a damper on the optimism. Much of the growth is directly related to temporary stimulus money that is being used to build out broadband networks and much of the growth is confined to health-care IT, a sector that should continue to shine in 2011.

The TechServe Alliance sees things differently. According to TechServe, IT employment is up only 2.2 percent over 2009. TechServe said it is bullish on IT job growth, even though its report showed significant losses in such areas as data processing.

Since agencies like Moody’s and lobbying groups like TechServe played pivotal roles in the collapse in the first place, take the fact that they are “bullish” with a grain of salt. They get paid for their optimism. According to economists from the Conference Board and Brandeis University International Business School, the tech sector is adding jobs at an anemic pace and continues to shift many jobs overseas.

I should note, though, that plenty of economists believe that Q4 2010 and 2011 will show improvement in the tech sector, even though the sector appears to be in the early phase of a major structural realignment.

In one of the economy’s few bright spots, I predicted that smartphones would continue their rapid ascent, muscling out feature phones and even stealing market share from low-end laptops. IDC believes that by year's end, the smartphone market will have grown by 55 percent over 2009.

A year ago netbooks were popular, but I accurately foresaw that popularity as a fad with a short shelf life. The netbook’s appeal has been undercut by both smartphones and tablets, most notably the iPad, and they could even face pressure from thin clients in the enterprise.

Last year, I saw cloud security being a real rather than conceptual problem in 2010. This prediction is mixed. Enterprises continue to worry about cloud security, but cloud adoption continues to be strong, mostly in smaller companies, though. Meanwhile, many enterprises are side stepping the cloud security issue by cautiously adopting private clouds, and, if they use it at all, embracing the public cloud only for low-risk things, such as remote email access.

A few of my other predictions (IT security shifting to a risk-management approach, Windows 7 as the last big OS launch, the cloud forcing business to rethink the desktop) look promising but need more time before being accurately judged.

My one big miss last year was with social networking. Social networking continues to bedevil my predictions. Two years ago, I believed enterprises would try to put the brakes on social networking. Last year, I thought that enterprises would start to worry about things like social engineering attacks launched over sites like Facebook.

The risks of social-networking-based attacks are very real, but the attitude of the typical CIO seems to be that the benefits of social networking far outweigh the risks. In the short term, at least, they’re probably right.

So with 2010 out of the way, let’s look ahead to 2011.

7 Predictions for 2011

1. Governments will make noise about regulating the Internet but, other than Iran or China, they won’t - There has been plenty of fallout after WikiLeaks released a classified video of an airstrike in Baghdad, documents from the U.S. Department of Defense related to the war in Afghanistan and diplomatic cables.

One of the predictable reactions is a call to regulate the Internet. The UN is also considering creating a governing body to regulate the Internet. The UN effort is backed by the likes of China and Saudi Arabia, as well as less authoritarian nations such as Brazil and India. I don’t expect these efforts to go very far. The far right in this country already fears UN meddling in U.S. affairs, and anything like this would never get through the Congress.

If the Internet will be regulated in the U.S., it will be by a U.S. agency. Coincidentally, not long after the release of the diplomatic cables, the FCC voted on net neutrality. The initial regulations actually regulate Internet service providers, not the Internet itself. The FCC ruling prevents service providers from blocking various types of content, but allows them to offer tiered services. Taken as a whole, the FCC’s current decisions about net neutrality do very little to regulate the Internet.2. Facebook’s prominence will spark privacy concerns - One area that could spark some regulation, though, is privacy. As social networking continues to rise in importance, with Facebook now driving more traffic than Google, don’t be surprises if privacy concerns continue to ramp up.

A friend of mine just got engaged, mentioning this in her status, and, predictably, she began seeing all sorts of wedding-related ads on her Facebook page. Another friend complains that once he mentioned caring for his elderly parent, he ended up getting all sorts of eldercare spam.

Internet advertising and marketing firms have been optimizing their ability to send you targeted ads for years. While they are slapped on the wrist from time to time, their efforts mostly continue unimpeded.

However, the perception isn’t that Internet marketers are violating your privacy, but that the sites in league with them are. Now, sites like Facebook aren’t entirely to blame. If people don’t set their privacy settings properly, it’s pretty easy for spam spiders to scrape content. It’s also fairly easy for hackers to learn enough about you to steal your identity or launch targeted social engineering attacks (if you’re a big fish).

As Facebook cements its position as the social networking site in 2011, it won’t be long until Facebook (and other sites like LinkedIn) are pressured to do more to protect your privacy and thwart would-be spammers and hackers.

(And, yes, I’m hoping three times is the charm with social networking. We’ll see.)

3. State-sponsored attacks become more widespread - Security experts used to worry about sleep-deprived teenagers in their parent’s basements. Now, they must worry about state-sponsored attackers backed by the likes of China, Russia, Israel or even large organized crime syndicates.

One of the cables in the WikiLeaks diplomatic dump traced the Google attack of early 2009 to a source everyone expected already: China, specifically, a top Chinese propaganda minister. In the summer of 2010, the Stuxnet worm targeted the SCADA systems that control power plants, factories and the like. Although there isn’t a paper trail to prove this, most security insiders believe that the worm originated in Israel and was intended to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program.

According to security firm Imperva, North Korean cyber-spies have begun mimicking the hacker community, using botnets to attack U.S. government agencies.

Expect more state-sponsored cyber-attacks in 2011. And don’t be surprised if some of these originate in the U.S., which considered but dismissed a Stuxnet-type attack during the Iraq war on Iraqi infrastructure and which continues to use cyber-attacks to jam the communications of Iraqi insurgents and the Taliban.

4. Android becomes the new Windows - According to research from Gartner, the Android overtook the iPhone in 2010 to become the most popular smartphone platform in the U.S. and the third-most popular handset (behind Symbian and BlackBerry) in the world.

As Google continues to build out the Android Marketplace, and as it pushes both Android and Chrome into a variety of non-PC devices, Android looks like a good bet to be the Windows of the mobile world.

However, I expect that operating systems in general will become much less important over time. One of the major changes ushered in by smartphones is the importance of the app. In the next couple of years, devices will emerge that will be, essentially, limited-purpose app delivery devices. That’s pretty much what a Kindle is, after all, a connected device with a very specific function.

Android is well positioned to be the Windows of the post-PC era, but the real winners will be the developers of apps, like Facebook or game makers like Angry Birds, that people can’t live without.

5. Mobile and cloud conspire to drive IT crazy - By itself, cloud computing should make life easier for IT ... eventually. The key word being “eventually.” There will be plenty of fits and starts during the transition to cloud-based computing.

One thing that is worrying IT is high-octane smartphones made even more powerful with the cloud. Some security pros believe that smartphones will actually improve security, since users will be less likely to store sensitive data on them. However, if your organization doesn’t have easy remote access in place, don’t be surprised if users start migrating data to their own personal clouds, where they can then access it from whatever device they please.

Of course, this is a headache for IT -- especially since the freebie cloud services don’t offer the fine-grained security befitting enterprise computing. Microsoft, for instance, has been hyping its cloud storage service, SkyDrive. SkyDrive and Windows Live are supposed to make it easy for people and groups to store documents and collaborate via the cloud. The trouble is that SkyDrive’s sharing controls are blunt instruments, and, of course, data in SkyDrive is protected only by user names and passwords, which doesn’t pass muster in regulated industries like health care and financial services.

There have also been instances where employees have connected to their employers’ networks with their own personal smartphones only to later find that their employers have remote wiped their phones, removing everything -- company data and otherwise.

Companies will argue that it’s within their right to do this, especially when, say, an employee is terminated. However, consumer advocacy organizations and a few intrepid individuals may well push back. Legally, remotely wiping a device you do not own or subsidize is a gray area, but does IT really want to trade one headache, worries over data leakage, for another, the threat of a lawsuit? Either way, IT will grapple with issues such as these as the cloud and smartphones continue to invade the enterprise.6. Smart grids actually get smart - If you’ve followed tech trends even casually the past decade or so, you’ve been hearing about smart power grids for years. Nothing much has come of it. A recent New York Times story summed it up well: “A popular dictum from the power industry: if Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, could see how his technology had evolved over the last century, how would he react?” Of course, he’d be astonished.

I say if Thomas Edison, the pioneer of power distribution, were afforded the ability to time travel to today, how would he react? He’d shrug and say that nothing much has changed. In fact, the big news about technology and power grids this past year is how easy it is for hackers and malware like Stuxnet to undermine them.

“Some of the early attempts at smart grids didn’t work out so well,” said Deborah Magid, director of Software Strategy for IBM’s Venture Capital Group. “Standardization efforts are all over the map, and if you go to ten different utilities, you’ll find ten different IT infrastructures.” Just as each power plant has its own infrastructure, early smart grid efforts have evolved in a similar piecemeal, disconnected fashion.

Much of the disorder is due to the fact that the market is in such an early stage of development. The Obama administration has committed $4 billion for smart grid projects, and IBM, Cisco, Microsoft and others are all investing in the space. For IBM, its smart grid strategy is part of its larger “smart planet” strategy, which includes smart water metering, intelligent transport systems and even “smart buildings.”

In 2011, expect to see these several of these “smart” visions transform into realities.

7. 2011 is the year of the tablet - The iPad was the hot device this past year, and, predictably, this year’s CES convention was chock-full of newly launched tablets from Motorola, Asus, Dell and others. In fact, CES's Chief Economist, Shawn DuBravac, estimates that more than 100 new tablets were on display at CES this year.

“Today, 90 percent of individuals are accessing their computing infrastructure via PCs and 10 percent are accessing via a widely dispersed combination of virtual desktops, cloud PCs, zero clients and more. In less than 10 years, I expect that ratio to be reversed,” said Jeff McNaught, chief marketing and strategy officer for Wyse, a provider of cloud client computing solutions and thin clients.

McNaught points out that the last few years have seen several shifts in what is the hot, must-have consumer device of the moment, but there is one constant: none of them have been PCs. A few years ago the GPS was all the rage, followed by the iPhone and Android. Everyone was buzzing about the importance of netbooks in 2009 and then the iPad in 2010.

“Businesses and consumers have more choice than ever regarding how they access and manage their computing infrastructure. This choice is a direct result of a new generation of end point devices, and infrastructure advances in virtualization, cloud computing, and networking,” McNaught said.

The PC isn’t going to disappear, but its status as the go-to computing device for consumers and businesses is under siege.

That’s it for 2011. Be sure to come back next year to see how I did.

Based in Santa Monica, California, Jeff Vance is the founder of www.sandstormmedia.net, a copywriting and content marketing firm. He regularly contributes stories about emerging technologies to this publication and many others. If you have ideas for future stories, contact him at jeff@sandstormmedia.net or visit.