2021 Tech Predictions

It’s that time of the year again, when I make predictions for the upcoming year. As has become my tradition now for nigh-on a decade, I will first go back over last years' predictions, to see how well I called it (and keep me honest), then wax prophetic on what I think the new year has to offer us.

As per previous years, I’m giving myself either a +1 or a -1 based on a purely subjective and highly-biased evaluational criteria as to whether it actually happened (or in some cases at least started to happen before 31 Dec 2020 ended).

In 2020…

… I wrote a lot of stuff. (That always seems to happen when I do these.) Let’s start. I’ll include the full text of what I wrote in each bullet point first, then put the Result after it with whatever insights or comments seem relevant. (Arguably none of them are, but hey, it’s my set of predictions, so….)

2020 is the start of a new decade, and that usually means predictors and prophets and tech pundits and other folks who think they know a bunch of stuff try to convince you that this is the start of something entirely new. (It’s those kinds of folks who predicted flying cars and hoverboards, by the way.)

Let’s call out the really obvious thing NOBODY predicted: pandemic. COVID-19. Lockdown. Remote work for everybody. Absolutely nobody had that on their predictions BINGO card, and to pretend even remotely otherwise is disingenuous to say the least. This past year has been simultaneously the longest of our modern lives, and the most alone most of us have ever felt together. So many things just got wiped out by the necessary health-preservation tactics (masks, lockdown, etc) that the pandemic required.

So, with that out of the way, let’s begin.

I wrote….

  • Everybody is going to go ga-ga over 5G, and it won’t make a whit of difference. (0.6) Apparently, we have to go learn the Eight Fallacies of Distributed Computing all over again, again. On top of which, 5G is rumored to play havoc with weather prediction, so don’t expect this one to go through with the ease of the 3G or 4G upgrades. I suspect that this is going to face some major backlash, probably in 2021 or 2022, particularly if it gets deployed widely in 2020.” Result: 0 Um… yeah, we want ga-ga, but not in a good way; somehow, 5G was tagged by the various conspiracy-theorist-peddling QAnon’ers as being tied to all sorts of negative and nasty things, for reasons I cannot even begin to fathom. Mobile companies still tout it, but any sort of excitement–or discussion–we might have had about it got drowned in the demands for additional bandwidth as we all went remote, and then the inane conspiracy discussions. (Really? Bill Gates is going to use the vaccine to implant chips in your blood that will enable you to be controlled by 5G? Not even the wackiest sci-fi author would dare try to make this up.) I kinda got the “ga-ga” part right, but everything else was wrong. 0 points.

  • Quantum computing will be the next major hype machine. (0.6) From the “our blockchain cannot possibly be defeated by any crypto-cracking tool known to man,” we whiplash over to, “our quantum computing platform can crack any modern cryptography in seconds” without missing a beat. Quantum will be the Huge New Thing, and everybody will want to take a crack at the quintillions or whatever of CPU cycles that quantum computing represents… and like most of these kinds of hype waves, really, quantum computing will be useful in a small set of niche verticals, and useless to everybody else.” Result: 0 In the face of the pandemic, anything that wasn’t about remote work or communication got brutally shoved off to the side. Quantum computing might be the darling of the hype in 2021, but it certainly wasn’t in 2020.

  • Data privacy is going to start to separate from the larger “security” set of issues. (0.5) Companies are having to take “security” seriously, but there’s “serious” and then there’s “if we don’t do this we can’t do business anymore” serious. Data privacy will fall into that latter category, given the legal penalties that will face violators of GDPR and the new California laws. This means that tools and products (likely databases and its related ilk) will start advertising and promoting their “privacy-by-design” kinds of features, as a way of making it “easy” to implement privacy in your enterprise, big or small. But they won’t want to be held liable in the event of a general hack, so they’ll very carefully and clearly outline differences between “privacy” and the larger field of “security”.” Result: +1 At this point, any company that isn’t making deep inroads into trying to corral their data and control where it goes and who has access to it is the subject of investigation, and even Congress is starting to slide its Sauron-esque eye over the “Big Tech” companies. This is not a comfortable place for many companies to be, and its only going to get worse in 2021.

  • Kubernetes all the things… to whatever comes next. (0.4) Kubernetes has pretty much locked up the container world, which means that we will now start to see what peple are suggesting we need to do after Kubernetes, because the stack has to keep growing deeper, or else vendors have to start competing with something in the middle of the stack, which means having to get into a feature war or fight for standardization somehow, neither of which are proven routes to success.” Result: +1 Kubernetes has won, for whatever that means, in the War for Container Management. Now…. what next? Lots of companies are standardizing on Kubernetes, still, and we’re starting to see some inroads into the next big thing, but again, so much of this was derailed by a simple need to adjust to an entirely-work-from-home work shift that anything else beyond that was just postponed or buried.

  • The demand for “full-stack” developer unicorns will reach its peak. (0.7) Anybody who’s watching the job sites and LinkedIn listings can see that everybody wants a developer who knows a major enteprise language (Java, C#, etc), Docker, Kubernetes, SQL and NoSQL skills, JavaScript (preferably knowing Angular, React, or Vue, and possibly all three), HTML, CSS, XML, JSON, one of the major cloud platforms (AWS, Azure, or GCP, certificates from certification authorities in each of those preferred), and sometimes even more beyond that. Folks, that’s not a developer, that’s an entire IT department (thank you, Twitter meme), and at a certain point that bubble is going to burst. But not this year.” Result: +1 It’s definitely peaking, if it hasn’t already, as witnessed by the success of some companies (cough Netflix cough) that won’t hire anybody but full-stack developers, and senior developers at that. But the community has started to wise up to the idea that this is looking for needles in haystacks, and that you can actually get further with a full-stack team than a team of full-stacks.

  • New programming languages are going to start the R&D cycle on languages again. (0.6) They may be “service-oriented”, they may be something else, but languages like Ballerina, Jolie, and Dark are basically suggesting that there’s a new level of abstraction to be sought as a linguistic first-class citizen. Frankly, if you’ve been doing any sort of service development (micro- or otherwise), you’ve felt the costs and pain (in terms of complexity and the number of moving parts you have to track) of doing so. Cloud vendors are trying to suggest that “serverless” is the way to go, but in a lot of ways it just trades the complexity off to other ares of the app; a new paradigm is what’s needed, to bring the complexities back down to human-manageable levels.” Result: 0 Dark went under, but Ballerina and Jolie are still building some interest and momentum, and other new languages also look like they’re getting ready to start stepping into the light. The era of object dominance is coming to a close, probably by the end of this decade.

  • Automation will take an even stronger seat at the conceptual table. (0.7) “If I can’t find developers to do these things I need to get done,” fumes the CEO, “I’ll go out and find some tools that can do all that stuff without requiring them!” Automation, particularly that enabled by low-code or no-code tools, will begin to skyrocket as a desirable target, even though this will mean that non-developers will start doing developer-ish things, and before long, will run afoul of the same basic problems that always strike when non-developers start doing developer-ish things. (Truthfully, this is related to the programming languages issue; companies need better “technical agility” out of their IT departments, and right now, nothing is providing that. They will look for anything, no matter how outlandish or outrageous, to provide that, and in 2020 that pressure will really make itself felt.)” Result: +1 The whole “low-code” and “no-code” space is really beginning to make its presence felt, as IT departments are beginning to figure out how to use them within their larger enterprise fabric.

  • Ted will write another one of these in a year. (0.99; it should be a 1.0, but there‚Äôs always the chance that the whole country will undergo some kind of apocalypse, thanks to the orange buffoon who sits in the White House, that would keep me from writing this.)” Result: -1 Actually, I’m going to give myself a -1 on this, because it’s now the end of February before I got around to writing. Part of that is due to taking on a new role inside Quicken Loans in March of 2020, one which has completely absorbed every scrap of free time and attention I had. Additionally, a lot of the “writing time” I normally use was denied me–time on airplanes and in hotels. We’ll see how 2021 goes, I suppose.

2021 Predictions

We began the new year with chaos and tragedy, at least here in the United States. The Capitol Insurrection of 2021, fueled by blatantly-false claims of election fraud and whipped into a frenzy by a narcissist whose continued civic freedom depends on being “untouchable” by legal recourse, meant that a lot of us had things far, far more important than technology trends to worry about. It’s been a rough two months since then, as well, as we struggle to balance hopes for vaccines and coordinated federal response to this damnable virus against the mess that the year-plus of deliberate neglect from the previous US Adminstration created. It was hard on everyone, and in a lot of ways we all just want to “get back to normal” for whatever definition of “normal” you care to use. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re anywhere close to “normal” yet, though the massive rollout of vaccination programs will help, but I’ll get to that in a second. For now, let’s look at some predictions for 2021.

  • Conferences will begin to pick up in September. (Probability: 0.5) This is an important one to me, personally, because I miss going places and hanging out with friends and talking technology and trends and stuff. My thinking is that the vaccinations will reach a popular “critical mass” somewhere in June–which won’t be yet “herd immunity” but enough so that everyone can know somebody personally who’s been vaccinated and “nothing bad happened”–which would then mean that conferences will scramble to put something together as quickly as they can, but will still need a few momths' lead time. Other countries, who have been more aggressive to fight the virus, will be open sooner, but the US will lag, because we’d rather let people die while arguing “freedoms” than take the pragmatic route of eliminating the virus and then do the debates.

  • Remote (anything) is going to be a huge focus. (0.7) In 2020, we had to learn how to survive without driving anywhere or stepping inside other buildings. UberEats, DoorDash, GrubHub, all these “remote dining” experiences surged to the forefront of our mobile devices' home screens. Retailers figured out how to do “remote shopping”, enabling curbside or in-store pickups. Amazon, of course, saw a huge surge in use, but a surprising number of retailers took huge leaps to control their own remote distribution channel. Those that didn’t will quickly start to figure it out on their own–and Amazon may actually lose some market share as a result, as for years the principal thing Amazon did was provide that remote distribution channel. Before, when that was just one of several options, it wasn’t important enough to retailers to figure out–when it became their only option, though, they moved fast and slapped enough together to make it all work. In 2021, they’ll start to tune, improve, and perfect those channels, and Amazon will really need to start aggressively fighting against those new channels.

  • Amazon will get the Congressional eyeball. (0.5) Bezos already took a hit to his brand with the revelations of his infidelity to his wife, and Amazon’s most recent union-busting efforts just added to the bad PR. Amazon will start to get more and more scrutiny as different companies start looking for reasons to pull their goods out of the Amazonian warehouses and do the distribution themselves–and that will cause Amazon to get a little desperate lest its profit margins come down too far… and that in turn will trigger some undesirable behavior, followed by calls for inquiry and oversight.

  • Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies start drawing fire from unlikely places. (0.4) “Bitcoin consumes ‘more electricity than Argentina’, while just a year prior, it was Switzerland. And its carbon footprint is comparable to that of New Zealand. Whatever your thoughts about the viability of Bitcoin and other digitial currencies, the act of mining it is not only consuming ridiculous amounts of resources, that consumption is triggering wider ecological woes, and that’s going to draw fire from a lot of different corners of the landscape–particularly because for so many people, it’s just a weird geek-fan-whatever thing that doesn’t have any impact on the wider world. Sooner or later, some country is going to take a hard-line stance against it, and that will start the dominoes in a negative direction.

  • ‘AI’ and ‘machine learning’ are going to run into major backlash. (0.6) Amazon ran into ethical issues with its use of machine-learned models for interviewing and hiring, because they didn’t do the right amount of validation and verification of their models before putting them into production. Not a lot of companies are going to have the patience or AI-savvy to do that, either, and as a result, media backlash will start turning the shine of AI and machine learning into glare. By years' end, we may even see Congressional inquiry into the subject(s), under the umbrella of widespread investigation into “Big Tech”.

  • Any tech company that wants to compete will need to enable WFH on demand. (0.8) Look, this past year made it pretty obvious that anybody in the technology space can do their job from anyplace in the country–if not the world. Couple that with a continued insatiable demand for tech talent, and you are quickly setting up the model for a buyers' market when it comes to finding a job. “Hmm. You say your company needs me in the office, but this other company over there doesn’t need that. Why should I work for you and add wear and tear to the streets, my car, and my nerves?” Not to mention that when you can work-from-home, you can realistically work-from-anywhere, including your parents' place while the kids are out building snowmen with grandma and grandpa. Some companies will fight hard to bring people back to the office, but they’re going to be fighting an uphill battle, and may well lose out on some prime tech talent if they can’t figure out how to be flexible. On that same note, if a company cannot or will not embrace a culture of “remote first” to allow those in the building and those outside the building to work on the same, level, playing field, that company will find itself scooping up candidates from the bottom half of the talent pool.

  • Several voting systems to “secure the vote” will come out in the next two years. (0.7) You don’t have to believe Trump’s wild-eyed and clearly-debunked claims about election fraud to know that people are sensitive on the subject of voting. To the technology space, particularly the startup space, that just screams “I’m a market that demands disruption! Disrupt me!” and the VCs will happily toss billions of dollars at companies that promise to let you “vote from your smartphone” securely and safely. Most of these will crash and burn and take those billions down with them, but a few might make it out of beta and maybe even find some adoption in a few of the smaller states (Rhode Island would be my first target). Personally, I don’t think there’s a damn thing wrong with the system we have at the moment–but as with many things in the startup world, it’s not about fact, it’s about perception.

  • Social media spinoffs will proliferate. (0.6) Parler was just the beginning–now that we’ve proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that we really can’t get along together on a single social media platform, many groups will start flocking to social media platforms of their own choice, further polarizing the conversations there. It will have nothing to do with technology or security–it will have everything to do with humans' basic desire to be among people “just like me”. Ironically, Facebook and Instagram will be losing their stranglehold grip on the social media world just as they start feeling the ire of Congressional gaze, which will further their downward trend. These new platforms will have some space in which to grow and draw eyeballs–and unfortunately allow people to stew inside echo chambers even more.

  • Languages and platforms will march on, and no one will really care. (0.8) Anybody know what version of Java is the latest? C#? JavaScript? Fact is, most of the popular languages in use are in the tapering-off point of the “value gained per new feature” curve, and most of us have stopped paying attention to the feature list of new releases. Sure, you may have some pet feature of C# you’re waiting to see make it into the long-term-support (LTS) release, so your company can move to adopt that version of the language, but for the most part, whether that happens this year or next, it really makes little difference to your ship schedule. For the most part, now, knowing the latest features in these languages is about proving your knowledge and alpha-geek-ness, not about using them to solve actual business problems.

  • A collegiate and university education backlash is about to begin. (0.7) When the pandemic hit, all the schools went into lockdown, including the collegiate and university campuses that had for so many years told us that the thousands of dollars students spend there was for the “college experience”. When the “college experience” consists of Zoom calls from your home from professors who often couldn’t figure out how to use Zoom for the first half of the semester, delivering substandard content compared to courses from Udemy or Khan Academy, and exposing professorial misconduct (like the professor who chastised a hard-of-hearing student for ‘not paying attention’ during remote classes) for all the world to see, it’s really, really hard to understand why anyone would pay thousands of dollars per semsester for that privilege. Given how coding bootcamps can provide much of the tactical skills (but not the larger conceptual understanding–they’re trade schools, not universities, and let’s keep that clear) that employers are looking for in junior developers, why would I spend $50k to get that diploma from UC Riverside or Iowa State in four years? Colleges and universities are going to have to scramble to figure out how to keep from just doing “business as usual”, if they want to avoid a striking loss of registration numbers that will only get worse as the pandemic continues.

  • Resilience and failover will be the focus in the Ops-minded world. (0.7) The huge loads on servers from people staying at home and using digital channels caught a lot of companies by surprise, and they suffered outages as their predictive load models failed them utterly. In 2021, these companies will put a bunch of engineering into making sure they can handle the load, just in time to see the load start to draw back down as people start getting out of their homes more. Once the pandemic eases up enough to allow us to leave the house and dine safely anywhere in town, we won’t see that high-water mark of server load again for some time–but companies, like generals, love to prepare to fight the last war, and they will put a large investment of time, money, and thought into systems that can scale in time for the next pandemic (a hundred years from now).

There’s probably a few more I could toss off, but I think that’s probably enough to engender some discussion and guarantee a few sharp rocks half-heartedly tossed my way. Love to hear your thoughts in the Disqus comments at the bottom of the blog, and I wish all of you a safe and speedy recovery from the pandemic in which we find ourselves; mask up, wash up, and stick with the science, so that in time, we can all go back to living our best lives similarly to how we did it in 2019.