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What’s Big In Tech?

Adam Oxford takes a look at the biggest trends in ICT today, and where smart companies are investing their time and money.
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For half a century, the world of computing and ICT has remained stubbornly obedient to a principle known as Moore’s Law. This well-known observation, which says the number of transistors on a chip will roughly double every two years, has held true for more than 50 years of exponential increases in computing power.

Moore’s Law was somewhat self-fulfilling. Named for the founder of Intel, it was also used as a benchmark for design innovation for that company to achieve. Unfortunately, in 2017, the physics of squeezing more components into smaller spaces means Moore’s Law is running out. So, chip designers are looking for new and improved ways of eking out more performance from silicon wafers that don’t involve shrinking transistors down much more.

As one key trend in ICT comes to an end, however, there others emerging, maturing and becoming more relevant to business. Here are the big subjects to keep an eye on today and in the near future.

1. AR & VR

Tech giants such as Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Autodesk are all investing heavily in augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) right now, vying for the future of displays in which alternate worlds are projected in front of your eyes. There are plenty of open toolkits for developing AR and VR applications, and all you need to run them is a mobile phone. But as software firm Thoughtworks warns in its TechRadar report, there are “significant challenges in the creation and delivery of VR and AR content, as the skills and capabilities lag behind the pace of hardware, particularly in the enterprise”. Either that means AR and VR aren’t quite ready for mainstream, or the savvy company that snaps up the talent now will have the competitive advantage.

2. Chatbots and conversational computing

We’re all familiar with the virtual assistants on our phones, whether it’s Apple’s Siri or Google Now. But context is key. A recent report looked at consumers in the US and UK and found that 98% of iPhone owners had used Siri at some point, but they didn’t use it regularly. The only place where smartphone owners said they consistently used Siri or Google Now was in the car, because they aid hands-free phone use while driving.

Virtual assistants work best where there’s context and a real need for their ability. Several South African companies are increasingly using chatbots to replace the old “automated voice routing” (AVR) systems we’re familiar with from call centres. The bank Absa, for example, allows people to transact using chatbots in Facebook and Twitter. Rather than going through the old “press one for balances” routine, you can simply ask the chatbot how much money you currently have, and would it mind purchasing airtime for your phone.

Other South African leaders in “conversational computing” include Praekelt. Historically a specialist in USSD development, Praekelt has been working with commercial and public-sector clients on making queries easier to answer, using natural language processing (NLP).

3. Product, not project

The twin mantras of “lean” and “agile” are now ubiquitous in technology teams, and they aren’t going anywhere. The thinking is that, by moving away from large, segregated ICT departments with developers on one side, Q&A on another and product managers somewhere in between, small, multitalented teams with specific goals produce better work, faster, and iterate and improve their products based on feedback more quickly too.

Analyst firm IDC reckons that, by 2019, 70% of ICT companies will have shifted their internal culture towards agile ways of working.

“Companies now favour product thinking over projects,” says Thoughtworks. “Tech companies are popularising the ‘you build it, you run it’ style of team autonomy, and we’re seeing the same product thinking applied to enterprise projects.”

4. Blockchain

The “blockchain” is an encrypted store of completed transactions, originally developed for the virtual currency Bitcoin. But recently it’s caught the eyes of banks, property firms and entrepreneurs as a way of storing and verifying all kinds of data. Blockchain is everywhere, from major financial firms to well-known South African entrepreneur Vinnie Lingham, who has recently launched a blockchain business designed to cut down on ID fraud.

“Blockchain and distributed-ledger concepts are gaining traction because they hold the promise of transforming industry operating models in industries such as music distribution, identity verification and title registry,” says  Gartner Fellow David Cearley.

5. Cloud migration

IDC thinks that, by 2020, 67% of all enterprise ICT infrastructure and software spending will be for cloud-based offerings. That’s 67% of all spending pushed into new, more efficient, convenient and powerful on-demand computing. Let’s face it, if your business hasn’t begun to migrate to the cloud by now, it probably never will.

6. Growth in cloud channel

In principle, the growth of cloud computing should kill off the traditional ICT channel of wholesalers and retailers. If you buy your virtual servers from Amazon, why do you need the historical economic infrastructure that was designed for getting physical computers from an importer to your datacentre?

IDC begs to differ, however, in its latest Futurescapes predictions. It believes that, by 2020, over 70% of cloud revenue will be mediated by channel partners, rather than bought direct from the source. Resellers that understand how to add value to the cloud and make it even more useful will win.

 7. The boardroom of the future

It’s hard to get excited about boardroom tech, but a small revolution is under way at some of South Africa’s largest firms as key meeting rooms are being transformed into interactive suites worthy of a bit part in Minority Report.

Grant Kruger from Samsung says he’s installed multiple touchscreens into boardrooms, which allow attendees to get out of their seats and interact with presentations, spreadsheets and other documents on the walls.

In the Samsung setup, a single laptop can drive three HD monitors, which can also be used for videoconferencing, and replace the static projector of old with more screen space, better picture quality and the ability to move content around while you talk. “We call it a ‘thinktank’ room,” he says. “We’re trying to make board meetings more interactive.”

8. Security

And finally, along with everyone else, we predict that security headaches will get worse before they get better. As more things get connected, so the weaknesses of the “internet of things” is exposed. From hackers breaking in to smart meters to the remote-control domination of hundreds of thousands of internet-connected video cameras, we’re starting to learn that, once it’s online, nothing is ever going to be 100% safe.

That’s why security experts are developing new philosophies around how to protect networks and IoT devices. Rather than focusing effort on keeping criminals out, the new philosophy is to minimise the damage once they get in (although it’s still pretty important to avoid this too). Encryption everywhere, even on internal networks, is a start, along with better multifactor methods for logging into systems. “Multilayered security and use of user and entity behaviour analytics will become a requirement for virtually every enterprise,” says Gartner.

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