As technology changes, the roles the key actors play changes with it. The feted Institute of Engineering and Technology hosted analysts from CCS Insight, who gave wide-ranging predictions on the state of the enterprise technology ecosystem – with the biggest cloud players featuring heavily in future trends.
The yearly jamboree has taken on something of a life of its own, with press headlines regularly questioning some of the more outlandish claims the company has made – only for CCS to be more often than not proved right. CEO Shaun Collins, who insisted his opening speech was not just a 'greatest hits' package, went through the reel, including Three making a move for O2 – later ruled out by the European Commission – and Google acquiring Motorola.
The industry tends to talk about AI, blockchain and IoT all independently – but we believe this misses the bigger picture
This time around, for enterprise heads, there was plenty of focus on both the emerging technologies generating buzzword bingo cards and the largest companies with a stranglehold on the ecosystem. These companies are defined by CCS as the 'agenda setters', with eight members in total; from the West, Alphabet, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft; from the East, Alibaba and Tencent; and in a category of its own, SoftBank, considering its continued spending spree on emerging players.
Martin Garner, senior vice president, spent the first half of his session grappling with the catch-all term 'digital transformation'. What does it actually mean? What results are coming from it? It would appear those pushing the term to its utmost don't really know themselves. Garner emailed Microsoft asking for a flavour on what benefits customers were getting. Microsoft's PR team responded a week later saying they had no numbers they could share.
With this in mind, Garner guesstimated. If 10% of companies were involved in digital transformation initiatives, then there would need to be a 10% efficiency gain to make an official dent – something measureable in the economy. The problem is, we're a little way off that.
Enter, stage left, three heroic figures; artificial intelligence, blockchain, and the Internet of Things. As this publication has variously noted, seeing these technologies outside of their silos will unlock various insights. This was therefore the first prediction CCS put out: AI, blockchain and IoT will become highly interdependent technologies by 2021. "The industry tends to talk about it all independently, but we believe this misses the bigger picture," said Geoff Blaber, VP research Americas.
AI will be the core to understanding insights from data and releasing its value, while blockchain will help establish trust and security. But there is another, more unsung hero. "Connectivity is the big piece here," said Blaber," that ensures you can move that data as intelligently and as seamlessly as possible."
Blockchain was a particularly interesting touchpoint. "There is ridiculous, ridiculous levels of hype around blockchain," said Blaber, "but that doesn't mean it doesn't have significant value." Take Walmart and mangoes as an example. Thanks to a China-based partnership announced last December, the retail giant has taken the process of getting all stakeholders aligned – from farm to factory to supplier – down from seven days to just over two seconds.
Cloud and blockchain will certainly combine – in terms of the hypervendors, that is. All major cloud service providers deploy blockchain commercially by the end of 2019, the analyst firm predicted. It's interesting to note here how reticent Amazon Web Services (AWS) was to initially make its move. At last November’s re:Invent many announcements were made – but blockchain was not one of them. The company would only say it was ‘intrigued’ by what its customers would do there. Six months after, AWS launched blockchain network templates.
Lots of services are being punted out to test the water – but the next 12 months, CCS argued, will see major releases. "Blockchain is essentially relevant to any industry or any transaction that needs to be securely documented," added Blaber.
That was not the most eye-catching potential change however – although it must be noted the upcoming remains only potential. Nick McQuire, VP enterprise at CCS Insight, had the arguably unenviable task of explaining quantum computing; as he put it, one of the most difficult things that humans have ever attempted. Put simply, quantum is a significant improvement on classical computing. It is not so much computing in 0s and 1s, but more 'stateless’, sub-atomic particles existing – albeit very briefly and inconsistently in this context today – in more than one state.
Here's the double-take. Classical computers would take one billion years to break encryptions such as RSA. According to Microsoft, with a product they are looking to put together in 2019, it could be broken in 100 seconds.
"It's no longer in the exclusive realm of crap science fiction films," joked McQuire as a slide of Quantum Leap came up – which he admitted seemed a little harsh on the film. "Quantum is going to being quite a number of significant security concerns into the security ecosystem overall – encryption is going to be strengthened to defend against attacks from quantum computers.
"Those that are interested in cloud are going to differentiate themselves around quantum," McQuire added. "The size of customer workloads is doubling every year as more and more organisations go to cloud – it's a tremendous strain on the resource that is there, particularly silicon. We think quantum over time is going to solve a lot of this strain."
When it came to artificial intelligence, CCS argued the big cloud vendors would again be a part of the action. By 2020, the company predicted, cloud service providers would expand from general purpose AI to business-specific applications.
Putting products together around voice, chatbots, video, and so forth, McQuire argued, is all well and good – but what do industries really want? Yes, the call centre is where we've seen things happen, but what about predictive maintenance in manufacturing, fraud detection in finance, and demand forecasting and dynamic pricing in retail? The agenda setters will put together pre-built products to address these challenges, he added.
Underpinning the vast majority of this is the concept of trust. The overriding theme of the sessions was around steering the data-driven economy, but of course not all data is created equal as Facebook found out after the Cambridge Analytica scandal – a topic oft-referenced by the analysts.
This formed the basis of another prediction: trust would be the most important source of competition among cloud service providers in 2019. The example given was around Walmart's beef with AWS, covered in chapter and verse by this publication. Earlier this year, to the surprise of not many, the retail giant went all-in with Microsoft.
Those that are interested in cloud are going to differentiate themselves around quantum
"The likes of Amazon, Alibaba, Facebook, Google and Microsoft recognise the importance of winning customers' trust to set them apart from rivals, prompting a focus on greater transparency, compliance efforts and above all investment in security," the company wrote.
So back to the agenda setters. This is the agenda they should be setting, but may they be usurped? McQuire sounded a cautionary note with his closing analysis – and it is to the East we turn.
China's relationship with Tencent in terms of its citizen services has caused eyebrows to be raised – not least with the bombshell story around 'spy chips' being inserted into Chinese business computers comprehensively dismissed by Apple and Amazon. But the link between technology and government is one to look at. "What we're starting to see from those geographies is very significant long-term planning and billions of investment in the very technologies the agenda setters are competing on," said McQuire.
"In 12 to 18 months, it may not just be the companies themselves disruptive to this community, but governments themselves. It may just mean there is an arms race emerging at a national level."
Do you agree with these CCS Insight predictions? Let us know in the comments.
Interested in hearing industry leaders discuss subjects like this and sharing their use-cases? Attend the co-located IoT Tech Expo, Blockchain Expo, AI & Big Data Expo and Cyber Security & Cloud Expo World Series with upcoming events in Silicon Valley, London and Amsterdam and explore the future of enterprise technology.