CIO Folder: Megatrends and movements

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14 September 2016 | 0

Things move on in our world of IT. Inexorably. Just more slowly than the hype would suggest. In fact, sometimes the hype cycle has to go around the block again because real life has failed to keep up. A great example of a development that has come around more than most is 3D—in the cinema, video and virtual reality. In fact, VR seems to have the best prospects at the moment, although it is perhaps more likely to involve games than narrative fiction.

Mobile technology is similar but different because the hype cycle has been rotating around new technology rather than mobility itself. Once mobile went digital the rest has been about delivery, platforms, devices and so on. The Great Leap Forward came in the last century with the first 2G service in Finland in 1991, so we’re actually in the 25th anniversary year. The industry has improved everything, from screens to data speeds to applications/apps.

In ICT terms, it is more than arguable that ‘mobility’ should not be singled out as a headline category, joined in the fashionable four megatrends by Big Data, Social and Cloud. Mobile technology is absolutely normal, and fundamental to modern Western life. We should take it for granted. Households, students and OAPs and most workers have daily lives based on two screens—the bigger one, probably a laptop or tablet, and the handheld.

“It is hard to escape the idea that there is more than a touch of the ephemeral, the faddish and the passing fancy about most social media or at least current applications and activities and styles”

You can certainly deal with email and messaging on a smart phone screen, even watch video if you are that way inclined. But any sustained task or entertainment, spreadsheet or Star Wars, demands a larger screen, say from 254 mm (10”) up to the current market max of 508 mm (20”). The point to be hammered home however, is that ‘mobile’ is an attribute of a device and cannot any longer be given the distinction of something that drives the market. The market drives it.

Next: how can Big Data be a dated concept? It is just over a decade old (betcha a lot of people are surprised by that) and has been dominating headline hype in the past few years. It is also catchy, in a way that most generally accepted ICT terms are definitely not. By and large, we know what we mean. The trouble is that it is a misnomer. We know we have multiple masses of data and that we are generating more at a geometric rate of progression. But that is not the issue—or if it is, it is as a challenge to our storage systems.

The challenge of enormous volumes of data is how to make use of it. How to find the useful information and patterns that are concealed or buried in it. Or indeed whether to bother, a basic question often overlooked. So the category, Big Issue and possibly the greatest opportunity so far for IT and Mankind is Analytics. Whether the data that rapidly developing art and science is applied to is ginormous or just the size of a retail chain’s PoS data or a social welfare client base is beside the point. Analytics can be valuably applied to almost any volume of data. We now have the computing power to tackle the biggest data stores, and certainly that is an area where huge progress has been made recently.

We also have desktop applications which can happily do smart analytics on business data at an SME level. That started with standard reports and important ratios (e.g. sales to gross profit) which are still bedrock information for any business regardless of the fancier stuff that came along in recent years. Then we evolved to business intelligence and then more recently, in big enterprises, big data

But where analytics can make the most enormous contributions to human knowledge and decision making is in areas quite different from the simple volumes of data. Multiple types of data, with very different characteristics, can be combined. Most of it is unstructured, something we are only beginning to develop systems to cope with. Private and specialist data—take personal financial or health records as a cautionary example about which we understand the restrictions—can be analysed in the context of larger public data from credit rating statistics to air quality records. This is where the human skills and experience of data scientists and specialist domain experts can cross-fertilise with emerging fields like machine learning and our Artificial Intelligence aspirations. We are already sitting on top of Big Data but we are barely ascending the foothills of analytics in all its glorious splendour.

Social media: Hmm! There has been a universal rush to positive judgement on the value of social media, and there is no doubt of the general utility for the purposes of consumer marketing. Digital social has replaced the old notion of physical presence (and of pen pals) and word of mouth promotion. A lot of us might prefer the real world, but a probably equal proportion happily mix the two without bothering too much about the transitions.

But it is hard to escape the idea that there is more than a touch of the ephemeral, the faddish and the passing fancy about most social media or at least current applications and activities and styles. Style is probably a key notion, in fact, because elements of social media pass in and out of fashion. Who remembers Bebo?

The point is that Social Media is now, if not exactly passé, a whole bazaar of sites and apps and communications—mostly run to suit the requirements of the consumer marketeers and vendors at this stage. So as an online market sector it continues to thrive and will probably continue to do so but as one of the Four Big Megatrends it is rather less than ground breaking. There is certainly frequent innovation, in all fairness. But it is almost all in the content and the cutes of the sites and the connections, not in the technology. Certainly that whole set of communities is worth harvesting for marketing insights and trends. But how is that so much different from traditional market research, opinion polling and the like? Just because it is done digitally does not make it a new stream of technology.

That brings us to cloud. Or ‘The Cloud’. More realistically, these days we are talking about clouds, thoroughly plural and with a growing taxonomy of shapes and shades that almost matches the stratus, cirrus and nimbus of the metaphor’s origins. We need a better term but essentially cloud computing and related services are central, server-based computing with network access by Internet. It has evolved into an ecosystem of public, private, hybrid and of course specialist services capable of being invoked or linked in to any of those on demand.

In the beginning it looked like the industry was bending over backwards to avoid a term like ‘Internet computing’, although that would have fitted perfectly well. As the divergences and variations began to arrive, the Internet flavouring seemed a bit off for a while. Today, when we are firmly adding the Internet of Things to the mix maybe it’s time to go back to Internet or Web computing as our umbrella term.

But to be fair, this cloud computing lark is still deserving of its place at the head of The Megatrend Parade. It is where we are realising our visions of extremely powerful computing, taking rich data from multiple sources and streams and adding to the sum of human knowledge. Or helping us to make the best decisions yet in business and government and most of the sciences. It may not lead us to conquer war, pestilence and famine but it might help.

So for what it is worth, this column is voting for just two serious and significant ubertrends: analytics powered by web computing.


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