What’s Next In Tech? Some Obvious Changes, Plus The Ultimately Most Significant Unknowables

By | December 23, 2015

This column previously appeared in Forbes.


The annual deluge of year-end predictions is as predictable as the winter solstice and about as dispiriting. Ironically for such a dynamic industry, those in the tech world are among the most predictable. That’s because most technology predictions extrapolate existing trends. Granted, most ‘experts’ will throw in a couple outliers, the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass that no one will remember if incorrect, but will be endlessly flogged for self-promotion if it pans out, but these are just hedges against the main bets.

Most technology prediction pieces are so trite, formulaic and unoriginal that, like listicles and ad-infested slide shows, it’s a wonder they still attract readers. But click magnets they are and like most click magnets, yearly prediction lists are a waste of time. The reason is perfectly encapsulated in that famous Donald Rumsfeld quote about the state of wartime intelligence (emphasis added),

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

For technology, I would amend the last sentence to close with “the important ones.” Prediction lists invariably focus on the easy stuff, the things we know we know, by just offering logical extrapolations of existing technology. Yet, it’s that last category of unknown unknowns that ultimately prove to be the most significant technology events. For example, who predicted the nexus of mobile apps, location-aware smartphones, sophisticated backend software and a ready workforce of underemployed people would yield ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft and the resulting disruption of the taxi and soon delivery business? Or who thought that a low-level NSA contractor would release a trove of top secret documents detailing expansive government surveillance programs and end up galvanizing the tech world towards the pervasive use of encrypted communications and data storage?

These two examples illustrate characteristics of events that prove the most significant in the tech world. The sharing economy typifies what can happen when the maturation of many different technology threads enables a creative business to fuse them into an innovative new product or service. Independently, each component is evolving on a relatively predictable path, however they become revolutionary when crystallized into something entirely new and unforeseen. Indeed, going further back in time, the smartphone itself embodies this creative fusion and of processing, telephony, networking, memory and high-resolution touch-sensitive displays into a handheld package. That such a pocketable device could displace the PC for an ever increasing number of activities, device displacement that has upended an entire industry, was laughable a dozen years ago when a ‘smart’ phone was a glorified PDA.

The second, Snowden example illustrates an exogenous shock that catalyzes a flurry of technology activity and innovation in response. Historically, these have often come in times of war. For example, the Manhattan Project in World War II or the DARPA-funded Internet during the Cold War. However, sometimes it’s when a ‘known unknown’ suddenly becomes known. For example, everyone knew that AWS was the dominant cloud platform, but until this year, when Amazon began breaking out AWS revenues and profits, no one outside the company knew how big or how successful. Indeed, the conventional wisdom had it that AWS was a money losing proposition that existed primarily to defray the costs of Amazon’s own sizable infrastructure needs. When Amazon finally broke out AWS in its earnings reports and it became apparent how big, profitable and fast-growing AWS actually is, the news shocked the industry and likely fueled both panic and competitive juices among other cloud services and hardware vendors.

As you’re reading yet another prediction piece stating the obvious, like IoT will be a key business strategy for increased revenue and efficiency, VR will make its way to enterprise applications, cyber security will shift from detection to prevention or predictive analytics will reshape how companies develop and market products just remember that in hindsight, almost none of these will prove to be the most significant and disruptive to enterprise IT. One unexpected hack of an IoT system that destroys a big company’s manufacturing line or predictive software that runs amok and automatically starves someone’s supply chain during a key shopping season costing millions of dollars and unhappy customers can do more to shape technology’s future than all the sage advice from high-paid research firms and consultants.

Here’s wishing everyone a skeptical new year.