By this time next year, I'll probably be writing this story with a second-generation media tablet-- either an update to my Apple iPad or some Android-based device that proves even more efficient for the task at hand. So, it shouldn't surprise you to hear that our second annual list of technology trends is headed up by our prediction that more of you will be relying on your own tablet and smartphone as a serious business tool by the end of December 2011.
Actually, if I get up my nerve, we'll probably produce this article as a video montage, complete with live quotes from the IT solution providers interviewed for insight. That's because the accelerating adoption of video as a business tool is another grassroots trend that we plan to follow closely. But I'm not quite ready for my close-up, yet.
What can solution providers expect as the recession lifts and businesses begin to invest in technology again? Market research firm Gartner Inc. believes there are four different forces shaping innovation and investment in information technology as the economy begins to grow again. They are:
- The information-centric organization: In other words, understanding the different methods that people are using to collaborate and share information, in many ways informed by social media and consumer technologies.
- Information as an asset or liability: This could refer to anything from carbon footprint information to patient medical records. The fact is that new methods and processes are emerging for how the world organizes, protects and archives information.
- Adaptive information infrastructure: In Gartner's eyes, this is about finding context and relationship among data sets and taking action on that data accordingly.
- Alternative delivery models: Especially cloud-delivered software and services, as well as "appliances" that allow for new applications and capabilities to be deployed quickly.
Within that framework, here are the five trends that are particularly relevant for IT solution providers, VARs, managed service providers and the rest of the high-technology channel during 2011.
Trend #1: Tablets and smartphones will become even more prolific.
Derek Downs, vice president of the VocalMash business unit of solution provider INX, in Houston, said the extent to which mobility has become engrained at most businesses -- no matter the size -- caught many solution providers by surprise. "Tablets and mobile have been more significant than we were anticipating," Downs said.
M.J. Shoer, president and virtual chief technology officer for Jenaly Technology Group Inc., a solution provider in Portsmouth, N.H., said his team is studying ways to better support devices such as the Apple iPad at the data center level, since many of the business support tools for the platform are still "not terribly robust."
Shoer said: "Mobility is going to be huge. It is deliverable right now, and it is quite supportable from our standpoint. We just need to develop the right managed services around this."
Another phenomenon that solution providers are watching closely: the practice of downloading software and applets from marketplaces, something that Apple helped pioneer with iPhone's AppStore. It is bringing that to the Macintosh operating system starting in early January 2011.
"So many people are comfortable with the idea of downloading applications from an online market," Downs said. "This consumer behavior is an area that has accelerated, and the concept of a marketplace for applications is changing the way that development is occurring and that applications are being bought."
Trend #2: Solution providers should embrace social media for their customers and their own internal use.
No matter how much you are inclined to fight it, social media is becoming a fact of life for some enterprise businesses. Twitter and Facebook -- and a generation of software called social enterprise software -- are becoming integrated into consumer outreach and, in some instances, are becoming accepted as new forms of employee collaboration.
"Companies are now having to look at social media because a next generation of employees is putting these tools to use," Downs said.
Even if you choose to ignore social media as a marketing tool for your own business, there is one really important reason to become acquainted with the various social media options: The interfaces they use are likely to become adopted, over time, for enterprise software applications.
"We have had this natural training that is occurring as far as new interface principles," Downs said. "People will continue to use what's efficient and put aside the rest."
Trend #3: Video technology will earn a starring role.
Like tablets, videoconferencing solutions gained momentum in 2010, and solution providers believe 2011 will be a breakthrough year for the category.
"Taking unified communications and moving it into the collaboration space is interesting and exciting," said Tim Hebert, CEO of Atrion Networking, an infrastructure integration company in Warwick, R.I.
Ensuring that a corporate network can handle real-time traffic without compromising other applications, such as email or backups, is one way that solution providers can profit, he said. Other consulting opportunities include ensuring that the interface and workflow design meets the unique needs of teams being asked to use this technology more regularly.
Two major factors drive customer interest. First, many companies are exploring ways to permanently reduce corporate travel. Second, there are more mid-priced options emerging in this product category.
"Video will be pretty big," said John Breakey, co-founder and CEO of Unis Lumin Inc., a solution provider in Oakville, Ont. "Its time has come. We are seeing more and more customers that want to deploy it, not just boardroom to boardroom but desktop to desktop."
Breakey said an interest in the desire to decrease travel expenses is definitely a factor, but, in addition, the pick-up reflects an emerging new style of management. One example: Unis Lumin was asked to help link 21 different district offices for a food distribution company that wants to promote better region-to-region collaboration. "It really helps improve the quality of the conversation," he said.
Trend #4: The cloud conversation will translate into heightened interest in converged data center solutions.
Many businesses are still leery of the cloud computing concept, but that doesn't mean they aren't asking questions. Indeed, many are studying ways that the infrastructure needs to deliver cloud services -- secure, virtualized servers, storage and networking – and how it applies to their own data centers.
"People are beginning to plan their cloud deployments and figure out what that means within their organization in terms of chargebacks, accounting and other financial benefits," noted Breakey. "Private cloud is really big."
Mike Thompson, president and CEO of Groupware Technology Inc., an IT services company in Campbell, Calif., said many companies equate the cloud with the new virtualized data center.
This is prompting interest in the converged data center messages trumpeted by Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard and IBM. Increasingly, solution providers that traditionally focused only on networking are beginning to extend into the server side through converged technologies.
"I believe in the converged infrastructure play. I see the data center moving in this direction, but users still want to be open. That's an interesting dilemma for solution providers to sort through," Thompson said.
Trend #5: Demand for data loss prevention solutions will intensify.
Disaster recovery solutions became more real over the past 12 months, and that trend will accelerate in 2011. In particular, solution providers said that companies will seek more discipline around the lifecycle of data.
"It has become more economical to use disk to disk," said Oli Thordarson, CEO of managed service provider Alvaka Networks in Irvine, Calif. "Tape is still expensive to maintain. This goes back to the maintenance involved. It is a management nightmare."
To be more specific, IT solution providers need to help businesses make appropriate decisions about where to archive their data and for how long, no matter what form that data takes -- whether it is text messages from an instant messaging conversation between client and financial services advisor or video seminar materials for training customer service representatives about a new product.
"It is becoming increasingly important for businesses to know that their partner is a trusted partner when it comes to secure data management," Thordarson said.
About the expert
Heather Clancy is an award-winning business journalist in the New York area with more than 20 years experience. Her articles have appeared in Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times. Clancy was previously editor at Computer Reseller News, a B2B trade publication covering news and trends about the high-tech channel.