2015: Faster Forward
The consensus from the industry tech pundits in the last few years about the major ICT trends has focussed firmly on Big Data, Social Media, Mobility and Cloud. At this stage that is all a bit ho-hum. But a more significant criticism would be that these are thoroughly fuzzy categories that sound meaningful at first but tend to melt away when the lens focusses a bit more light. Big Data is just one of those hype terms. Yes, the challenges — and the resources to tackle them — arose first in trying to make sense of massive volumes of data. But the real technology advance is data analytics, with the cliché (because it is true) that Volume has to be balanced with the other two Vs — Velocity and Variety.
Mobility: another marketing hype term driven by the handheld revolution, given huge impetus by smart phones and likely to expand further through smart watches and other wearables. But the underlier is simply ubiquitous computing. We need an ‘A’ term, like Anything, Anywhere, Any time on Any device: Four As, perhaps, echoing the Five Nines of an earlier time in telecommunications.
Cloud: still almost unchallenged as the worst metaphor in the history of technology (think of ‘cloud infrastructure’ and shudder) it was always a way of avoiding anything remotely resembling Internet Computing. In most respects it is still Server-Based Computing, just writ very large. In any event, the time has long come to talk of ‘Clouds’ because we have public, private, hybrid and umpteen possible combinations. We now understand also that even global services have geography, with both latency in performance and security in data to be considered by potential users.
We also, very importantly, have discovered that cloud computing has generated new technical challenges in its own right and is by no means always less expensive than traditional on-premise solutions. On the other hand, the sheer strengths of what we still (alas) call cloud computing in processing power, scalability, flexibility and on-demand provision will ensure its central position and growth across all ICT activity for the foreseeable future.
Social Media: the unstoppable tide shows no sign of abating. But from the point of view of ICT, the clues are in the actual term. This is a new set of informal media and it is a global social phenomenon. It is hugely significant in many ways and certainly for ICT. But bluntly, we are confusing the use of social media content by marketers and others with technology — it is like confusing the screen with the content.
On the other hand, the potential value of social media for marketing, politics, protest and subversion — and keeping in touch with actual friends — is a major driver of possibly the most significant single field of advance in ICT: Data Analytics. Social media is essentially individual self-publishing, so scanning and analysing patterns is not all that different from similar exercises in text analysis of traditional published media. What is important to the marketplace, of course, is that the result is based on the self-revealed and therefore very accurate behaviour and consumption patterns of millions of individuals. Understanding the punters is the simple marketing imperative and a compelling business case for investment in analytics tools.
Data analytics is in many ways a perfect ICT convergence, with the collection and storage of exploding volumes of data coinciding with the greater processing power in the latest generation of hardware (and collectively in the cloud) to make sense of it all. Analytics should certainly be separated from Big Data, not least because niches of ‘small data’ will become increasingly important. Personal and family data, for instance, could span everything from household budgets to health and education records to appliance guarantees or even Christmas present lists. A modest gigabyte could probably cover all of that and more. In-car logging and diagnostics, similarly, would certainly be small data. Although when all vehicles ‘call home’ to the manufacturer the result would certainly be some valuable big data for usage pattern recognition and future vehicle and component design.
The salient point is that we have crossed the threshold of a new era which has analytics everywhere and in every aspect of life. Just as relational databases changed the architecture and performance of many types of software, future applications will be built on architectures with inherent analytics. Why would the next generation of ERP or CRM not be based on analytics engines? In many ways that is what CRM and xRM were originally for. Yes, they aim to enhance the customer experience and all that. But the primary business goal has always been to collect usable information about those customers.