“Nothing changes, on New Year’s Day,” sang U2 many years ago. This piece of self-evident wisdom doesn’t stop the world of tech punditry from excitedly making hyperbolic forecasts at the start of every year on the assumption that opening up their new wall calendar will magically change the fortunes of the sector.
The technology development cycle will roll on during 2019 much as it did during 2018 and every year before. The stuff people got excited about last year will be pretty much the same stuff they get excited about this year.
Likewise, the challenges faced by IT leaders when they left for their Christmas holidays will not miraculously have shifted to something else by the time they return from their seasonal excesses. Maybe their budget might be a little higher this year, as CEOs increasingly accept they need to invest in digital and innovation to stay competitive. Just ask the failing high street retailers who were sure they could keep up against the convenience and popularity of internet shopping.
So putting aside the tech predictions, let’s think ahead. What might be the things we’re talking about in December, when we look back on the year? Here are five areas we think will be key influences:
Obviously. One reason why it’s difficult to predict anything for 2019 is that the UK doesn’t even know where it will be come April. Anything from sunlit uplands, to no-deal disaster, or business as usual remains a possibility. Even the UK tech sector is still arguing about what it wants. It’s certain though, that the subsequent nine months of the year will be determined by what happens in Westminster in the first three months.
It was inevitable there would be a backlash against Big Tech at some point. As the capabilities of technology overtake the cultural capability of society to absorb the pace of change, society will rebel. It’s happened before – notably the dot com boom and bust either side of the new millennium. The anger is directed at the likes of Facebook, Google, Amazon and others for now. Governments have to come to terms with the new landscape of privacy and data protection, and stop trying to pigeonhole tech firms into existing regulatory regimes. Tech needs regulation but it needs to be new approaches for the digital age.
Pretty much every major data breach makes front-page headlines these days, and leads radio and TV news bulletins. Think Marriott, Dixons Carphone, British Airways, Facebook – the list goes on. Of all the old issues that are still new issues, cyber security is the biggest. But have any of these high-profile breaches actually changed anything? For all the inconvenience caused to people affected by such incidents, nothing has happened yet to cause a real public backlash to the degree that it forces companies to do better. Maybe the first GDPR fines might change that. But the public mostly sees security like they do insurance – a necessary evil. That won’t last – before long there’s going to be a security incident that causes widespread economic damage to people’s lives. The worry is that security weaknesses won’t be fully addressed until the real dangers are demonstrated on a large scale.
Already this month, the British Chambers of Commerce has warned that 81% of manufacturers and 70% of service firms are struggling to recruit the skilled staff they need. Last month, the Trade Union Congress called on the government to create a million new high tech and manufacturing jobs by 2030. Skills shortages are real, as are the fears they will become even worse after Brexit with the loss of freedom of movement and stricter immigration policies. It’s going to be a tough year for anyone needing more IT staff to support growth. This is perhaps the single biggest issue facing the UK’s digital economy – if we don’t have the talent, we won’t have global leadership. Again, it’s hard to see how this will be solved without a radically different approach from the government.
There’s an easy way to work out which technologies will be the ones to watch over the next 12 months – over any 12 months, frankly. So many people say the pace of change in tech is amazing these days. Actually, it’s no different to how it’s always been. The pace of invention hasn’t changed much at all. What’s happened is that commoditisation of technology is affecting more and more areas of our everyday life and work, so it feels like things are changing faster. The key is to watch what technologies are about to become commoditised – not which ones are emerging on the scene, many of which may never reach commodity status. Once a tech becomes a commodity, that’s when it takes off and changes things. The internet, smartphones, cloud, big data – all are examples of tech becoming cheap enough, powerful enough and scalable enough to become increasingly ubiquitous. What’s next? Basic forms of artificial intelligence (AI) are the most likely – process automation, simple machine learning, for example. More advanced AI as a commodity is still a way off. Blockchain? No – nowhere near commoditisation yet. Internet of things? Nearly there. Don’t expect any surprises here for 2019.