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Where is tech headed?

Ten burning questions on the future of the technology sector.

Each December, I poll our contributing editors about the future of the technology industry for the coming year. The best answers to my survey of 10 burning questions are posted below.

1. Will the tech economy rebound in 2003? Why?

Elizabeth Millard (EM): I think it depends on your definition of rebound. Some people think a rebound will entail the tech sector ballooning to a former bloated state of late ’90s/early ’00s prosperity. But it seems more likely to me that after the bubble popped, we found ourselves in a depressed condition that will eventually begin to right itself this year. Thus, a rebound will be nothing more than going back to an earlier point, before unsupportable business plans began determining where venture-capital money would go. Yes, I do think that this process will begin during the year, but that we won’t be significantly better for a while.

Nelson King (NK): Just as the soaring ’90s tempted corporations to grab the brass ring by expending lots of money on IT (especially for the Internet), the early ’00s are teaching them to be cautious, parsimonious, and demanding–especially of ROI. As the economy stumbles to right itself through 2003, there’s no reason to believe the learning curve will be less long.

Maggie Biggs (MB): That’s unlikely. If a recovery does begin, it will likely do so very late in 2003 or even into early 2004. There is no compelling technology advance that will yet pull the industry out of its slump. We have reached the end of the PC era, which is part of the reason for the current slump. Post-PC technologies need time to mature before we will see a recovery.

Michael Finley (MF): Yes, modestly. Pent-up demand will push growth. Obsolescence, which has diminished in recent years as a driver, will return in a big way for the sole reason that things are older. But there is not enough crackle in the pipeline–no killer app to tie great growth to.

Phil Davies (PD): The rebound will be measured, and relative. The tech economy won’t rebound to late-’90s levels; that period in tech history was a happy confluence of socio-economic and technological factors that isn’t likely to recur for many years, if ever. But we’ll see gains in certain sectors, such as IT security, wireless, storage area networking for business, and home networking. At some point, IT managers have to start investing in new technology to stay abreast of the competition.

2. What should be done to heal the telecommunications industry in the United States?

NK: Can the telecoms make money the old-fashioned way? So many of them used accounting tricks, speculative investment, and hype to appear to be profitable that actually offering something of value–and making a profit from it–may be difficult. But communications was and remains a cash cow. People need to communicate. With all the new options (wireless, Internet, etc.) they’re doing more communicating than ever. Those companies that tap into the stream and don’t attempt to become the next corporate Godzilla should find their way into respectable profitability in 2003.

MF: The collapse of companies like WorldCom had less to do with Sept. 11 or the dot-com bubble bursting than with the debt loads these companies took on when they came into being. The comparison would be to airlines. When these companies finally fail and are acquired for assets, they will be cheap again. Telecoms will get well at investors’ expense.

PD: The telecom industry won’t get well until broad economic recovery fuels renewed demand for data services and high bandwidth. There’s just too much unused fiber capacity out there, installed at ruinous expense by telecom companies seeking the shelter of Chapter 11. That said, government and the telecoms themselves can do much to position the industry for recovery once business and consumer demand picks up. Uncle Sam can keep a tight leash on the Baby Bells, restricting their access to long-distance markets so that they don’t totally dominate the landscape, thereby stifling innovation in voice and high-speed data services. And telecoms must find a cost-effective, efficient means of converging voice, Internet access, and video over a single IP pipe. IP convergence will open the door to advanced modes of communication as yet undreamed of. Only by offering CIOs and consumers powerful, flexible services that they’re willing to pay for will the industry pull itself out of its slough of despond.

3. What IT careers will grow in 2003? Why?

EM: Security looks to be the hottest area, because there are so many entry points for it-biometrics, intrusion detection, application security, etc. I think that the world feels very insecure right now, and people are extending their anxiety into the electronic realm as they fret about data and miscreants. Also, legislation like HIPAA, and some others that are pending, will force companies to think about security more often, and hence need more professionals to implement lockdown strategies.

NK: Whether or not Web services is the boom field of 2003, IT careers that meet the need for Web service-related skills in data integration, server management, and Web application development will do well. Contrary to common wisdom, the security field will not be a motherlode of employment. Despite the universal wringing of hands, few corporations are willing to put full-time employees into play. Security consultants will find short-term advantage, and that’s about it.

MB: DBA for DB2, Java developers, Linux administrators, and application integration specialists. DB2 use is growing; Java development continues; companies are implementing Linux to save money; and application integration skills continue to be in hot demand as companies try to leverage existing assets.

MF: Between the merger of the Homeland Security units, the war on terrorism, and HIPAA compliance, IT consulting services will be huge.

4. What emerging technologies stand the best chance of climbing out of the trough of disillusionment in 2003 (to use a Gartner term)? Why?

NK: Although barely a blip on the radar of reality, nanotechnology is already having an impact on computer hardware (in particular, storage). If there is any hype to be mined in 2003, it could very likely be from breakthroughs in nanotechnology research or even new products. Still, this is hardly a “best chance” for enthusiasm. There is nothing like the Internet or even e-commerce on the immediate horizon. More likely, 2003 will be another year of slowly gaining confidence and advantages from a mixture of existing technologies such as wireless, speech recognition, and Web services.

MB: Peer-to-peer wireless: Wireless development is rapidly maturing and gaining a foothold. It is now more viable as a business asset. Peer-to-peer will climb upward as it gains persistence and security improvements.

Dennis Sellers (DS): The products that plug into, as Apple puts it, the digital hub. The ability to make your own family movies, watch DVDs at home, and play video and computer games will be popular as home, family, and entertainment become havens of “security,” especially if there is war.

5. What emerging technologies are more than a year from being economical to implement (from an ROI perspective)? Why?

EM: The e-book is forever on the horizon, and I still think it will take even longer to emerge, because makers of these devices will have to change the perception of those in the marketplace. After all, those who would buy an e-book are probably dedicated readers, but they are also people who tend to fetishize books as objects, and so wouldn’t want to make the switch. An e-Catch-22.

NK: In general, wireless technologies need at least another year for the dust to settle on infrastructure (the broken telecoms) and for standards to emerge and solidify. Without some handle on rates and standards for the future, it will be hard to invest in wireless projects with confidence. Still, well-chosen wireless applications promise immediate ROI. The same can be said for Web services technology, where real-world projects with measurable ROI will be more numerous in 2003.

MB: Web services. Early adopters certainly are moving ahead with Web services, but the broader IT community sees little reason to adopt them given the current economic outlook and existing integration capabilities coupled with the fact that the standards are not yet clearly and completely defined.

6. If you could name one killer app waiting in the wings, what would it be? Why?

NK: Don’t I wish.

MB: Persistent peer-to-peer messaging. It will likely negate the need for us to use e-mail and could reduce the proliferation of viruses if implemented correctly.

MF: It’s still too early for nanotechnology, but it is real and it is coming.

DS: A really good, dependable Internet phone application. So far no one has gotten it quite right, in my opinion.

PD: That’s the problem; I don’t really see a killer app out there. The closest to it would be sales-force and field-tech automation using 3G phones. If companies could actually move significant amounts of text and graphics via smart phones and PDAs, the long-ballyhooed m-commerce era will have arrived.

7. What tech company will see the greatest growth in market share in 2003? Why?

EM: Microsoft, because Midas will not go gently into that good night.

NK: In some areas, such as PC sales, big changes in market share are not likely. Which is probably why one of the leaders, Dell, is pushing into other markets: printers, enterprise servers, and (as rumored) hand-held devices. Dell has the capacity to make a significant dent in any market it enters.

MB: Groove, Red Hat, and IBM. Groove because it is leading in the peer-to-peer space, Red Hat because it is providing a economic server and desktop alternative which is attractive to many companies, and IBM because it is pulling all the pieces together correctly to support enterprise settings that are struggling in the current economy.

DS: I think there will be two: Dell and Apple. They’re the only two [big] computer vendors making money right now. I think Dell’s lead and aggressiveness will continue to keep them atop the Wintel market. And I think Apple will appeal to lots of folks wanting to get out from under Microsoft’s thumb.

8. Will Lindows or Mac OS X 10.2 threaten Microsoft’s desktop dominance in 2003? Why or why not?

NK: A shifting of a few percent, one way or the other, will not constitute a change in the meaning of “dominance.” Through all the turmoil of the past two years, Microsoft’s cash-cow desktop OS and office products remain above 90 percent of the market. Also, believe it or not, Microsoft’s fortunes are on the upswing. The courtroom battles are waning. The security issues are being addressed (mostly). There will be new Microsoft products, some of them quite good. Whatever can be said about Microsoft, it knows how to remain competitive.

MB: Mac OS X will likely threaten the desktop dominance of Microsoft, but likely not Lindows. Bigger names, such as Red Hat and SuSE will provide some fierce competition as their desktop offerings have matured to the point where they now offer all the same functionality as a Windows desktop without the steep prices. In 2003, IT managers will begin to realize that they have desktop options now that are more cost effective and they will begin to act on this though it will take time to complete desktop roll outs.

DS: Both will do well and steal some of Microsoft’s desktop market, especially Mac OS X 10.2, as Apple is a known commodity (with a reputation bigger than its market share). However, no one will overtake Microsoft in the near future. The herd mentality will prevent that.

Joe DeRouen (JD): While Mac OS X 10.2 is arguably a superior product in terms of usability, Windows has a huge base of support in the form of the thousands of software packages, shareware, and freeware available to complement the OS. Most users are willing to tackle the learning curve of Windows in order to have access to more utilities, games, and productivity suites. Lindows, like all other flavors of Linux, will prove to be very popular with the anti-Microsoft crowd but will still only hold a very small niche in the market. Like it or not, Microsoft Windows has a strong foothold in the market and will continue to be the dominate the desktop in 2003.

PD: Are you kidding? The Redmond juggernaut rules the business desktop, with the exception of fashion-conscious advertising and graphic design firms. Lindows proselytizers and the dorky denizens of those cinema-verite Apple ads aren’t going to change that fact.

9. What server platform will emerge from 2003 as the best choice for small to medium-sized businesses? Why?

EM: Apple Xserve. It’s flexible, affordable, interoperable, plug-and-play, and has UNIX under the hood. Plus, Apple offers an unlimited user software license, which trounces many other server options, especially for small business.

NK: If Vegas made odds on server platforms, Linux would be the favorite. However, it’s unwise to make book against Microsoft. Small and medium-sized businesses may want the best bang for the buck (Linux) but are also intimidated by its technical demands. Not that Microsoft products are necessarily less demanding, but Microsoft fields an army of partners and certified engineers, backed by millions of dollars in advertising. This is an advantage that most purveyors of Linux will have difficulty matching.

MB: Linux (several flavors) and Apple Xserve. Both offer reasonable prices, good security, and reliability.

10. What Web services approach will take the early lead? Why?

EM: WebSphere should lead off, especially since Gates himself has expressed disappointment in Microsoft’s Web services. Also, with Linux so hot right now and IBM tricking out WebSphere in other ways like blending in Lotus collaboration software, Big Blue is determined to win, and it looks like they have a chance.

MB: .NET, due to Microsoft’s marketing dollars, but Web Services will quickly become a commodity item (much the same as application servers) and yet another tool in application integrators’ toolboxes. Web services are not the force needed to drive a new round of technical innovation.

Maggie Biggs, Phil Davies, Joe DeRouen, Michael Finley, Nelson King, and Dennis Sellers are contributing editors of ComputerUser. Elizabeth Millard is associate editor of ComputerUser and ComputerUser.com.

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