In 2020, the global pandemic illuminated and reinforced the value of the cloud, driving adoption, and accelerating digital transformation worldwide in order to meet new market and customer demands. How will this continue to make an impact in 2021? Keep reading this article for my top technology trends to watch in 2021.
Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
Every year since the early 1990s has been proclaimed as the year of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and/or Machine Learning (ML). After many stops and starts, easy to use cloud services have brought AI/ML to business over the last few years at an accelerated pace. While we have all seen too much AI/ML-washing in new product and service announcements, we are also beginning to see it have a real business impact. 2021 will only accelerate this trend.
AI/ML will be further integrated into business processes to support improved data management, business innovation, and customer outcomes. The industries that I think will reap the greatest benefits from AI/ML in the near future will be healthcare, financial services, retail, technology, and manufacturing, with faster and more precise patient care, automated billing and investment recommendations, streamlined shopping experiences, and more.
One indication of this is the major AI and ML announcements from major cloud providers. At re:Invent 2020, AWS announced more than 17 AI and ML related features, including SageMaker Clarify, which helps customers detect bias in machine learning models and increase transparency by helping explain model behavior to stakeholders and customers.
There is also a surge in high growth startups (e.g. DataRobot) that are pioneering full lifecycle ML tooling for business. In short, this is meant to help ease the adoption of machine learning. Microsoft also announced several enhancements to their Azure Machine Learning product line at their Ignite conference. Google also put significant focus on AI and Machine Learning operations (MLOps) during their eight week-long virtual user conference, including Vizier, which auto tunes the hyperparameters of your model to get the best output and AI Platform Notebooks, a managed data science lab.
Finally after nearly three decades of this next year being “The Year of AI/ML,” its promise is finally living up to expectations.
Remote work and collaboration
Prior to this year, remote work was largely the exception. Statistics show that before the pandemic, only 17% of U.S. employees worked from home five days or more each week, which increased to 44% during the pandemic. Although many employees are starting to return to work in person, businesses recognize employees’ desire to work remotely at least part of the time, and see the potential for significant cost savings that can be achieved by digitizing meetings and conferences, or cutting down on office space.
It's clear now that even as vaccines rollout, COVID-19 infection rates decline, and offices begin to open, we will never return to the model of work we had before the pandemic. Remote work is here to stay, which means collaboration and connection technology will continue to play a significant role in our everyday lives. These technologies range from web conferencing (e.g. Zoom, WebEx, Google Meet) to project management (e.g. Trello, Asana, Wrike), corporate communication (e.g. Slack, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts), and many more.
Given this, remote workforce security will be one of the biggest imperatives for all organizations in 2021. Most businesses will have to make changes to operations and product functionality to remediate and prevent security risks. For example, at the onset of COVID-19, the number of Zoom users spiked tremendously, alongside the number of security issues (e.g. “Zoom bombing”). As a result, Zoom made changes to some of its policies and shifted engineering resources to focus on security and safety. However a challenge for Zoom, and all businesses, will be how to optimize for security without compromising user experience, service quality, or product performance.
Additionally, as the world slowly begins to return to normal and employees have the freedom to work from anywhere (coffee shops, libraries, etc.), expect that employees could increasingly be vulnerable to attacks via less secure wireless networks. Hackers are likely to seize on the opportunity of many remote workers to attempt man-in-the-middle attacks or take advantage of networks using older encryption methods. Be prepared to up your endpoint security measures as soon as employees are able to work in places other than their homes.
For families with children in school and students at University, it’s no surprise that online education or “e-learning” spiked in popularity this past year. Following the outbreak of COVID-19, more than one-half of in-person education programs were postponed or canceled around the world. The pandemic helped accelerate digital adoption and maturity, as many institutions and individuals were largely unfamiliar with or entirely new to digital technologies.
Even as students head back to the classrooms, I expect blended learning programs and completely digital offerings to play a bigger role in 2021 and beyond. This is true for commonly known education settings such as schools and universities, but also in other settings such as workforce training, self and professional development, and hobbies and recreational activities.
With a spotlight on edtech and e-learning platforms, many vendors have stepped up to the challenge and rapidly evolved during the pandemic. Both the long-established vendors in the space such as Instructure, Google Learning, and Coursera, and the newer players such as Outschool, Boddle Learning, and SeeSaw, faced immense scaling challenges as nearly the entire world moved to remote learning simultaneously. Across the spectrum, companies have stepped up to the challenge of offering engaging, reliable, and easy-to-use platforms that will change the shape of education and employee training for years to come.
Telehealth and telemedicine
Following the theme of remote working and at-home alternatives, the telehealth industry saw increased demand in 2020, enabling patients to receive care, referrals, and prescriptions from the safety of their homes.
Technology plays a critical role in the success of telehealth and medicine programs—ensuring the safety of patient medical records, facilitating private virtual meetings, supporting clinical decisions, managing remote patient monitoring, driving clinical trials, etc.
Even technology companies and venture capitalists that haven’t taken a large interest in the healthcare space before are now investing. In fact, venture capital funding for telemedicine companies surged in the first quarter of 2020 to $788 million. Organizations will be taking advantage of these funds to deliver improved results in telemedicine and telehealth services in 2021.
Augmented reality and virtual reality
Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have gradually become a normal part of our lives over the past several years, most popularly in the entertainment and gaming industries (anyone exploring with the new Oculus Quest 2?). In 2021, I expect AR/VR to have bigger impacts in the corporate, healthcare, travel, and retail industries as well, with even greater promise five to ten years down the line.
It’s always interesting to see how the global technology industry is evolving in order to help influence our own technologies and solutions. For additional insights, see our whitepaper, How 2020 Changed the Way We Use the Cloud, which evaluates actual cloud spend data and trends among nearly 500 CloudHealth customers worldwide from January through September 2020. Based on this data, we can understand how different businesses used the public cloud in response to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And stay tuned to the CloudHealth blog, where I'll be following up with an article on the cloud market trends to watch in 2021, including my predictions for the ongoing cloud race among leading cloud providers.