Gartner released its 2021 technology trends this month. I love these lists, though I must confess they’re often pretty repetitive. I appreciate the creativity that goes into renaming old trends and naming new ones with exotic descriptions that are sometimes a little hard to decipher. But I also always wonder where these lists come from. Other organizations have lists. I have mine and you have yours. I guess it’s sort of like religion: the right one depends on your perspective.
So here’s Gartner’s list for 2021:
- Internet of Behaviors
- Total Experience
- Privacy-Enhancing Computation
- Distributed Cloud
- Anywhere Operations
- Cybersecurity Mesh
- Intelligent Composable Business
- AI Engineering
Let’s look at the trends in some detail. (I ignore the “predictions” part of the trends report since it’s impossible to predict something that might happen in 2025 versus 2027, or the exact percentage of companies that will participate in the trend.)
The Easy Ones
It’s easy to point to privacy, cloud, cybersecurity and AI as trends, since they’ve been trends for a decade or more. We could also add mobility and remote access – “anywhere operations” – to the easy list. These days “total experience” is also a pretty obvious technology trend. We could add “hyperautomation” to the easy list, especially when we consider the evolving marriage between IOT and AI and its staying power (it was on last year’s list).
Gartner likes to embellish some of these old trends with new names. A great example of this is the spin on business intelligence (BI), which is now “Intelligent Composable Business.” Sure, BI has evolved, but a whole new name?
The Weird Ones
The “Internet of Behaviors,” which comes complete with “digital dust” is an unnecessarily weird trend, which is already well-tagged as “digital surveillance.” “Digital dust”? I love it, but I’m not sure if the metaphor is descriptive enough to make the point that data about what we do, where we go, how we behave and who we are is collected with increased frequency. But we already knew that. It’s also weird to describe privacy as “privacy-enhancing computation.” What does that mean? When the definition turns to homomorphic encryption (HE) – “a form of encryption allowing one to perform calculations on encrypted data without decrypting it first” – it gets practical:
“Homomorphic encryption can be used for privacy-preserving outsourced storage and computation. This allows data to be encrypted and out-sourced to commercial cloud environments for processing, all while encrypted. In highly regulated industries, such as health care, homomorphic encryption can be used to enable new services by removing privacy barriers inhibiting data sharing.”
HE also creates new encrypted revenue streams. “Privacy-enhancing computation” could be described simply as privacy methods which today include “machine learning, differential privacy, homomorphic encryption, secure multiparty computation, zero-knowledge proofs, private set intersection and private information retrieval.” But every time Gartner or anyone neologizes, they confuse the audience.
The Forgotten Ones
Where is digital surveillance? Why call it the “Internet of Behavior”? It’s surveillance, pure and simple and there are ton of sources that describe it perfectly. All of the digital toys we use to make our lives more comfortable and professionally productive are simultaneously watching us. This is a huge issue that receives far too little attention, including from Gartner and the other research organizations. Where is 3D manufacturing? Why doesn’t it make these lists? Is it not impacting consumer goods, aerospace, industrial goods, 3D printing and healthcare? Where is low code-no/code “programming”? Why isn’t democratization still a big story? And what about the profound impact GitHub is having on the development community? What about telepresence technologies including augmented and virtual reality, simulcast rendering and immersion? Should “explainable” and ethical AI be on the list? What about regulatory trends? What do they look like?
What about negative trends? Should Gartner and others identify those? What’s happening with ERP applications? Will the bloom come off the digital transformation rose? Will Agile crash and burn? What about technology oligarchies? Will they collapse under their own weight, or increase their market and pricing power? Will there be more antitrust suits filed by the Department of Justice beyond the just filed Google case? Will blockchain – a favorite last year – continue its deployment? Where is cryptocurrency? PayPal is now “allowing people to buy, hold and sell digital currency on its site and applications.” Is this a trend?
I like these annual lists. They force us to assess accuracy and validity. But – as I wrote regarding the 2020 trends – “some of the trends are getting a little old … sometimes it feels like Gartner struggles to find trends with legs, and when it can’t, it retreats to renaming some of its older ones (or trends fairly obvious in the industry).” So are the trends useful? Sure. It’s important step back, catch one’s breath, and assess what a leading industry research organization believes are the top 10 technology trends. Anything that makes us think about prevailing trends and trajectories is healthy and useful, even if we reject the velocity or even the existence of the trends. The bottom line is not who’s right or wrong, but the value we derive from all of the trends lists.