As is traditional at this time of year, thoughts turn from the year ahead; the days are getting longer, and new possibilities seem slightly less remote than they did before. For people in the tech industry, the beginning of a new year is a traditional opportunity to make some predictions about innovations likely to happen in the next 12 months, and I’m no different.
Ahead of my thoughts on the year ahead, I’d like to reflect on 2010. For me, 2010 has been a good year, in which I’ve moved to London, set up in business and have gained some great experiences working with some very smart people on bigger and better projects than I’ve worked on before. I’ve also been very lucky that a lot of my personal interests have become close to mainstream in the tech industry, which has given me a way to pay the bills and do things I enjoy at the same time.
What follows is a selection of technology areas that I think are likely to undergo some important changes in the coming year:
This is a huge problem area and none of the problems within it are easily solved, but the first step in solving a problem is admitting that it exists. 2010 has confronted the world with the evidence, and 2011 will be the year in which we start to admit that our current solutions don’t work. The Gawker hack, Firesheep and several other high-(and low-)profile incidents have made it clear that we’re just not safe relying on weak or non-existent encryption and weak password-based authentication. This should be obvious, and is obvious to many people, but I suspect that this belief is about to go mainstream. Most people rightly ignore scare stories about “hackers” stealing their personal data, but every year the risks get greater as we rely ever more on our outdated infrastructure to support rich digital interactions, and the scale of these risks will force people to take them seriously.
Personal Data Stores
The Personal Data Store is a concept which may help to address my previous point. A PDS provides a secure, trusted repository for personal data of all kinds, and mechanisms to allow selective access to this data to third parties. It replaces the current chaotic mess in which the personal data of individuals is frequently collected by stealth, stolen, traded or assumed incorrectly without the knowledge or control of the individual. With Personal Data Stores, we may have the chance to control who knows what about us, and on what terms we grant that knowledge. A PDS might serve as proof of identity, membership, ownership or certification, a means of managing “social graph” information and both personal and business relationship data, and a repository for the data and documents that we create in our daily lives, either as a by-product or a direct creative effort. And all of this could be done with greater security and control than available at present. Too good to be true? We might find out soon enough.
Bit of a broad topic, I admit, but education – particularly adult education – is ripe for change. In the UK, student tuition fees are likely to rise considerably, to the point where the assumption that a university education pays off – in narrow financial terms, at least – may no longer hold for a significant number of people (indeed, the the “graduate premium” is already negative for some). This should lead to increased demand for alternatives to university education, and this is probably a good thing. The great expansion of university education over the past decade has been a good thing too, but the challenge we’re facing now is to ensure that the education people receive is actually serving their interests. Too many people are graduating and finding that their qualifications are not taken seriously by employers, and some universities don’t seem to think that their role involves much more than giving students a basic grounding in a topic and a certificate at the end of it. To me, universities have to be places where people strive to break their personal boundaries and discover the boundaries of their field; anything less than that is a waste. University education cannot remain as the sole “acceptable” way of preparing oneself for professional work, and the neglect and stigmatisation of “vocational” study will hopefully be overcome by new modes of education that don’t require fees that reduce the return on investment to zero or below.
This is my wildcard pick. Surely everyone knows that Google has the search business sewn up, and Bing only keeps up some semblance of competition due to Microsoft’s willingness to keep funding it? This all seems pretty undeniably true. But the very lack of change in the search market could be a sign of stagnation. When it comes to Google, the question “what have you done for me lately?” yields answers that are not particularly impressive. The Android OS is nice, but it’s neither as polished as iOS or as open as MeeGo. Most of Google’s recent “innovations” have been expensive flops – technically interesting but lacking any vital spark of usefulness. Google is sitting on a massive pile of cash, and a lesser company might see that as a reason to pay out a hefty dividend to their shareholders. But not Google; they’ve made some acquisitions, but mostly they’re just sitting on it. Google now faces a challenge even more difficult than becoming #1 in the search market: what do you do when you’ve won, and everyone knows it? Microsoft faced this problem in the operating system market over a decade ago, and whilst they continue to turn an extremely healthy profit, nobody sees them as a vital force any more, and their operating system dominance continues mostly because of vendor lock-in rather than technical superiority. But if lock-in was easy for Microsoft to achieve in the OS market, it should be much more difficult to achieve in the search market. With cloud computing, the cost of competing with Google’s infrastructure is coming down, and the spread of new types of device and new types of search could easily provide opportunities for competitors to sneak in. Finally, I take the mere existence of Duck Duck Go to be evidence of the fact that it’s still possible for new “traditional” search engines to appear even as old ones finally die.
So, that’s my set of predictions for 2011. I could have made some easier ones – 2011 will see more Wikileaks clones, more open source software being adopted by enterprise heavyweights, more Scala and less Java – but those are hardly worth placing bets on. There are other notions which I hold more in hope than expectation – better politics, economic renaissance, Liverpool FC to start playing decent football again – and which therefore can’t really count as predictions. Overall, I’m optimistic about 2011, if only because I see in the continued progress of technology the possibility to solve more and greater problems. Here’s hoping it’s a good year for all!