Robin Bloor presents his personal views on this year's technology drivers.
Will we ever get a grip on spam? Will Linux finally take off? I believe it will. At the end of 2003 I looked back at the highlights of the year. It is now time to look forward to where IT managers will be spending their budgets over the next 12 months.
A strong trend is the growth of open source software, and 2004 will probably be the year that Linux makes its breakthrough as a desktop operating system for PC users. I expect that Linux on the PC will start to become a viable alternative to Windows for business users.
At the moment Linux has 3% to 4% of the PC market and its share could double this year among business users.
I also expect to see the emergence of "appliance" PC devices. The power delivered by PC processors is so great and inexpensive that it is quite easy to assemble a low-cost limited package that bundles office software, a browser and e-mail for business users.
Another popular but rarely mentioned product in the open source market is MySQL. There are an estimated four million users worldwide - including big name companies such as Yahoo, Cisco, Lucent, Motorola and Google. MySQL is estimated to have a 20% share of the database market and there are about 27,000 downloads of the software per day. It is on the verge of being taken seriously as an alternative to Oracle, DB2 and Microsoft SQL Server in enterprise database applications.
Oracle and IBM will be far less enthusiastic about MySQL than they have been about Linux, but I doubt that it can be stopped.
The starting grid
A notable trend in 2003 was the move to utility computing and this will continue. EMC's purchase of VMWare just before Christmas was a clear indication that EMC is leaping on to this well-populated bandwagon.
IBM has validated the utility computing model by winning big contracts on the back of it, so it is difficult to imagine that the technology will not continue to gain momentum. The driving force behind it is the excess of computer power now available to users.
The chip industry has obeyed Moore's Law over decades and we have got to the point where the way we deploy computers and software makes no sense. Companies are obliged to buy ever more storage because of a need to cater for an increasing amount of stored data. But what they do not need is more processing power (or memory): they need efficient ways to use it. For this reason, in 2004 we can expect grid computing to flower and Dell - a company that so far has ignored the trend - to join in.
From a technology perspective, web services is maturing, with software companies such as IBM, Microsoft, BEA and Progress all offering respectable technology. Also, some of the security concerns about web services are being addressed. Nevertheless, the vision of software negotiating with software is still a long way off.
Peer-to-peer software is an unavoidable part of this trend, although it has had little impact so far outside of music downloads. Businesses will likely make more use of voice over IP in 2004 on the back of its growing success in the US - this is peer-to-peer by any reasonable definition. In the long run, all communications applications will be peer-to-peer.
Also in the area of communications, 2004 will be the year of RSS (Really Simple Syndication). This technology allows websites to push URLs and headlines at users in a controllable way. There is a need for aggregated information services, and RSS fulfils the need better than e-mail ever will. RSS has already won the hearts and minds of the geek community. Watch it take off in 2004.
I believe the IT security malaise will begin to come under control in 2004. One of the reasons for this is that the level of security threats is too high to ignore and legislation in the US (Sarbanes-Oxley and HIPAA, in particular) combined with the Basel II Accord in the financial sector has freed up IT budgets in many organisations.
Microsoft, whose Windows operating system is all too often the source of security breaches, realised in 2003 that it needs to do a lot better, so it is seriously investing in this area. To add to this, IT security technology is both improving and getting cheaper. Users can expect the combination of these things to reduce the IT security problem, but not to eradicate it.
The demise of spam
In 2004, we should see another business irritant, spam, melt away. The EU legislation has been framed well enough to stop it in Europe and although US legislation was subject to a gradual watering down by marketing lobbyists, it forces the spammers either towards illegal activity or providing enough information to allow their e-mails to be blocked. According to US reports - nearly all the world's spam operations are in the US - the spammers are not making money. The spammer's business model is now in trouble.
The final trend that I think is worthy of comment is the gradual merging of computing and the entertainment industry. Music downloads, streaming media, broadband, games machines, HDTV (high-definition television) and video editing are all part of this. Both Apple and Microsoft see this as an infant market that will become huge and I agree with them. There is a revolution in the offing here and we can expect major developments soon - this year hopefully. It is difficult to see how it will affect business computing, but it will.
Robin Bloor is chief executive of Bloor Research