The past year seems to have been one of the most evolutionary years in tech history, as our phones and computers got lighter, thinner, and smarter in so many ways. As we say goodbye to 2012, we spoke with some of the tech industry's top gurus to see which technology trends they think have been the most interesting or influential this year.
For analyst Charles King, who works with information-technology research firm Pund-IT, the top three tech trends of the year were Cloud Computing, Big Data, and Bring Your Own Device, better known now as BYOD . Analysts Laura DiDio, Ross Rubin and Al Hilwa concur in part, and also chimed in with their take on other emerging trends, ranging from enterprise mobility to smart technology for the home.
For anyone still unfamiliar with the concept, "cloud computing" refers to the use of computing resources over the Internet or other networks. It's been called the next step in the Internet's evolution. Actually, the "cloud" in cloud computing doesn't exist in reality. Instead, it refers to the practice of using a cloud-shaped symbol in network diagrams to represent all the hardware and software that users can access remotely via their computer or other devices like tablets and smartphones.
Cloud computing, King said, "seems to be gaining increasing definition, both in the way companies and consumers are using it, and also in the maturity of related services and solutions." In fact, the cloud has forever changed the way people work, by enabling them to access company programs and data from home or virtually anywhere. Of course, Internet access was the first step in that direction, many years ago. But, cloud computing takes remote access a step further by giving employees and other workers access to secure files and enterprise applications, allowing collaboration from afar.
The more people talk about Big Data, King mused, "the more confusion seems to result." This is partly because vendors are trying to reposition the discussion to benefit their own offerings, he said.
In basic terms, Big Data refers to the massively large or complex databases that companies and government agencies need to manage, manipulate, analyze and store. Proper handling of such large databases requires secure systems with more powerful processors and data analytics programs that can crunch data efficiently with minimal wait times.
While large databases are nothing new, many vendors have jumped on the Big Data wagon this year in particular, with software-as-a-service solutions, cloud computing offerings, and more powerful servers and data storage hardware.
Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)
Long-time tech-industry analyst Laura DiDio of Information Technology Intelligence Consulting agrees with King about BYOD being one of the most important tech trends of 2012. She points to tablet computers -- which are even easier than laptops to transport -- for their role in this emerging trend. In fact, the ability to bring your own device to work became so prevalent in 2012, she says, it's getting harder to separate where consumer technology ends and business technology begins.
King points out that, while BYOD moved from an emerging trend to an established practice in 2012, it also helped reveal problems in end-point management and security . IT departments struggled throughout the year with providing easy yet secure access to corporate networks and enterprise applications. In response, mobile device management (MDM) became especially important, with big players like AT&T jumping in to offer security solutions.
Next-Gen Personal Tech
When Ross Rubin, principal analyst with Reticle Research, looks back at notable tech trends of 2012, he points to the year's smaller tablet PCs, more powerful smartphones with larger screens, and new kinds of hybrid notebook/tablet configurations driven by Windows 8.
In less visible arenas, Rubin points to more fitness monitoring devices, many "now in their second generation," and Net connectivity showing up in more and more product categories.
Imagine light bulbs -- not the fixtures, the bulbs themselves -- that can talk to the Net via Wi-Fi and be controlled by smartphones. Applications are still under development, but could include better power management of light bulbs, controlled color variations, and light bulbs connected to security systems.
DiDio also sees a trend in 2012 of energy management systems being implement in home networks. "It's been a small trend until recently," she said, adding that telephone carriers are now seeing the opportunity and getting involved.
Application Developer Trends
Al Hilwa, director of application development software research at IDC, sees three major trends emerging in 2012 for developers. One trend involves the evolution of application platforms. Hilwa talks about "the battle of ecosystems of content and services."
What does that mean? The success of various computing platforms, whether we're talking PCs, tablets or smartphones, isn't just about the apps or the hardware itself. Platform success is also highly dependent these days on the content that the device can deliver -- from music and games to videos and books.
Content delivery is becoming more important, Hilwa said, as the center of gravity of information technology continues to move from the enterprise to consumers, and computing tools move toward being primarily used for content consumption.
Of course, business users still need devices that are optimized for business use -- running standard productivity programs like Microsoft Office, as well as efficient services for email, database management, contact management, accounting, etc.
A second trend Hilwa notes is that enterprise mobility has been "taking off" as mobile apps have noticeably entered the enterprise. Companies have begun to let "tablets inside the firewall, often purchased and not necessarily BYOD," he said, and, they have "started to invest seriously in application development."
He's referring to the fact that many businesses now have their workers using tablets with customized programs. For example, consider how sales reps in Apple stores now use their handheld iPad tablets as point-of-sale devices.
Hilwa also points to the growing economy of development tools vendors who want to satisfy the "write-once, run almost everywhere" goals that are increasingly present in businesses.
Mainstreaming of the Cloud
His third big trend brings us back to cloud computing and the "realization that enterprises will move to the cloud once much of the impedance mismatch between what happens inside and outside the firewall is reduced." In other words, business users want to be able to work as efficiently from home or on the road (outside the network firewall), as they can at the office (behind the firewall).
This trend toward cloud computing and complete remote access is exemplified, Hilwa noted, by Platform-as-a-Service vendors providing a "more diverse set of programming languages than just Ruby," as well as virtual machines, private cloud platforms, and hybrid arrangements.
Hilwa concludes that all of this points to "the mainstreaming of the cloud," where the cloud is meeting the requirements of the enterprise and not vice versa.
Top Tech Trends for You
Which tech trends influenced your life and your work in 2012? Did you add a tablet to your arsenal of tech gadgets to bridge the gap between your PC and your smartphone, or maybe just for fun? Were you able to start working from home thanks to cloud computing? Or did life get easier because of BYOD -- now being able to bring your devices to work to continue working on a project you started at home?