small scale person running in front of a large sculptural wall
PHOTO: Verne Ho

2018 has been a remarkable year for technology, with progress (and setbacks) being made across many areas. So rather than hazard some predictions for 2019 on my own, I asked some of my colleagues in our Chief Technology Office to weigh in on next year’s prognostication. There are so many areas to discuss — both from a macro trend and a technology trend perspective — that I will forego a lengthy introduction and get right to it.

Macro Trends for 2019

China emerges as a full-blown tech superpower

America is no longer alone at the top of the mountain. Some examples:

  • According to Mark Meeker, China today is home to nine of the biggest high-tech companies in the world (compared to 11 in the US), thanks to the sheer size of the domestic Chinese market.
  • According to CB Insights, last year China issued six times as many patents in areas related to deep learning as the US. China may already be in a leading position, thanks to massive government investment and vast amounts of training data unavailable to the West.

Social networks continue to be manipulated for political and economic gain

Cambridge Analytica’s influence on the US 2016 elections was only the beginning. Expect to see many more instances of such shadowy manipulations. We’re only now beginning to understand the power of social media to alter the course of human history (e.g., inciting violence in Sri Lanka), but we don’t yet understand how to control it. Expect continued momentum for federal regulation of social media companies, which continue to demonstrate that they’re incapable of regulating themselves. The latest examples:

  • Gizmodo reports, according to a New York Times article, that Facebook gives advertisers phone numbers that users have provided solely for security reasons.
  • Google failed to publicly disclose a security bug in its now defunct Google+ social network. According to The Wall Street Journal, this was done at least in part to avoid additional regulatory scrutiny.

Related Article: Data Privacy Regulations: Marketing Symptom, Setback and Solution

Digital transformation becomes table stakes

Almost every organization now realizes that to survive they must expand their digital channels and provide digital transparency to their customers. No wonder the World Economic Forum estimates that the overall economic value of digital transformation to business and society will top $100 trillion by 2025. As organizations struggle to expand, the most promising growth opportunities they can access involve grabbing market share of rapidly expanding digital markets. In these digital transformation projects, it’s not content or technology that’s king, it’s the User Experience.

Cyber security continues to spring leaks

2019 will be yet another tough year in which we learn of major breaches to personal and financial data. At this point the “black hat” hackers far outnumber the “white hat” data protectors and have technology that is at least as good, so the battle continues to be an unfair fight.

  • IoT will exacerbate security issues, because every new device (car, pacemaker, smart TV) is vulnerable.
  • The growing availability of quantum computing in 2019 makes things even worse: Security systems based on traditional public key encryption will begin to crumble, because the hard mathematical problems they’re based on become easy problems for quantum computers.

Related Article: Quantum Computing Brings Potential and Risk to the Enterprise

Smart cities continue to influence urban environments

From crowd-sourced information about parking availability, to street lamps that can detect the depth of snow on roads, to smart electrical grids that can predict and prepare for consumption surges: all of these will involve sharing data between different city grids infrastructures, combined with data from smartphone users who will become vital sources of data in the smart city network.

Automotive continues to be the focus of waves of innovation

This innovation can be seen in areas like driver safety and vehicle maintenance. The Holy Grail of self-driving cars will not happen in 2019, because humans do not yet have enough confidence to hand over the wheel to a robot. But it will become reality in some niches within a few years, e.g., for driving freight trucks on long haul routes.

Related Article: Connected Car Experiences in 2019: Exploring the Possibilities

The fully automated retail store will not yet be widely available in 2019

Amazon Go, Amazon's automated grocery store, eliminated the need for cashiers and was hailed as a major step towards a frictionless buying experience. While the store itself has proven successful, the current cost of this technology puts it out of the reach of any other retailer. In 2019, we may see more pilots of this technology, but widespread adoption will have to wait until the cost of the cameras, sensors and associated computing resources decrease.

Technology Trends

2019 will be a breakthrough year for Machine Learning (ML)

A perfect storm is forming that will carry ML firmly into the mainstream, bringing the promise of Industry 4.0 benefits closer to medium-sized companies. Algorithmic breakthroughs are happening at an incredible pace, with almost daily innovations and new problem-solving techniques. ML is rapidly being introduced as a component of almost every software product category, and Digital Assistants and chatbots have become table stakes.

But there will be some impediments to the spread of ML, including a shortage of skilled ML engineers, and transparency will continue to be an issue.

Related Article: Re:Invent Shows Amazon Is Accelerating Its Efforts in AI

Big Data becomes just plain data

Big data has succeeded in changing the way we analyze data. The number of competing technologies has coalesced into a few winners (e.g., Spark, HBase, Cassandra) that every computer science graduate knows. The recent merger of Cloudera and Hortonworks indicates that Hadoop has gone from an exciting breakthrough technology to just plumbing. Big data innovation in 2019 will come from:

  • Innovation in data formats — The emergence of database engines that give the illusion of a relational database while working on data in flat files.
  • Data quality — AI-based products like Tamr, Paxata and Informatica CLAIRE, that automatically detect and fix outlier values, duplicate records, etc., continue to gain acceptance as the only way to cope with data quality at scale.

Blockchain (distributed ledger) gains modest traction in the enterprise

Blockchain has been an over-hyped technology in search of a problem for several years, as it has been mis-applied to problems where a central database provides a far better solution. In 2019 we will see the launch of blockchain-based solutions for environments where a distributed non-centralized ledger is the best solution, such as supply chain management.

This will be nothing like the predicted tsunami, and that’s fine. Blockchain will find its rightful place as a useful technology in specific use cases.

Related Article: Blockchain Will Stall Until It Finds Its Killer App

IoT continues its quiet success

Although IoT has sometimes been declared a flop, it continues its steady deployment, as data collection and analysis becomes more and more ambient, just part of the environment, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing. Think about all the IoT devices that surround you right now, from your smart phone to your sports watch to your home thermostat. These devices will continue to provide massive amounts of data that fuel AI discoveries.

Cloud becomes the norm, even for laggards

Resistance to the cloud will fade in 2019, as there are no more good excuses (security? reliability?), and lots of good reasons (price, scalability) to take the leap. Other cloud trends for 2019:

  • Amazon continues to lead, with significant gains by Microsoft. Google manages becomes relevant for enterprise cloud, thanks to some well-placed partnerships with companies like PayPal.
  • Hybrid cloud becomes the norm, with enterprises using multiple cloud vendors to reduce dependence on one vendor, and to protect sensitive data. The lack of a good management solution (“a single pane of glass”) for hybrid cloud continues to be an inhibitor.
  • Serverless becomes the norm for most Cloud apps, because it can dramatically lower the cost.

Related Article: What Ignite 2018 Signaled for Microsoft and the Future of the Cloud Wars

Data infrastructure problems reach the breaking point for many enterprises

Most companies need to extract value from their data in order to compete, but many companies find that technical debt in their data infrastructure is paralyzing them. Many of them will reach the breaking point in 2019 and begin the long-deferred process of platform modernization. Unfortunately, the longer this modernization has been deferred, the more expensive it is, and the harder it is to perform while keeping the lights on during the transition.

Mixed Reality has its breakout year (maybe)

Is this the year it becomes practical? Perhaps Magic Leap will finally be able to ship a reasonably priced headset that enables virtual reality overlaid on physical reality. Perhaps Microsoft will release a new version of HoloLens that will be a game changer. In any case, when mixed reality pops, it will spread fast.

Automation continues to take hold in the enterprise

More and more organizations will launch robotic process automation (RPA) initiatives to identify mindless manual tasks that can be automated at the user interface level, with no programming or database work required. These projects have low cost and fast ROI, so they will continue to proliferate.

GDPR has a late wave of initiatives

Many companies mistakenly thought this regulation just required them to reword contracts. As authorities slap large fines on the first few violators, enterprises wake up to the fact that GDPR compliance requires not just lawyers but also technical work, e.g., reformatting their data storage so sensitive information can be stored separately in a more secure environment, developing a system to automatically handle customer requests for full disclosure of how their data has been handled. The result will be a late wave of IT work in 2019 to achieve GDPR compliance.

Software Development technologies continue to evolve

Progressive web apps (PWAs) gain momentum. A PWA is a website or a set of web pages that look and act like native mobile apps or conventional apps. PWAs provide the benefits of a mobile experience along with the features of browser technology. These apps are less complex to develop and maintain as compared to conventional mobile apps.