July 25, 2021

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IT Pro’s 2021 predictions | IT PRO

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2021 – a futuristic sounding year and one we’ll mostly be glad to reach after everything that happened in 2020, from infernos burning in Australia and floods in Indonesia during the early months, to the interminable crisis that is the COVID-19 pandemic.

Doubtless coronavirus will still be affecting our lives for some months to come in 2021, but there are other trends to watch and events to talk about as we roll into the new year. The team at IT Pro has come together to put forward its predictions for 2021.

Adam Shepherd, reviews and community editor

At the start of this year, Brexit was set to be the biggest story of 2020. However, instead, it has largely slipped from the popular consciousness amidst all the ‘excitement’ of the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic

As I write this in mid-December, it looks like the UK is no closer to establishing a deal with the EU, and there is still widespread confusion around a number of key issues. Barring any significant developments over the next two weeks, by the time you’re reading this, the transition period will be complete and we will have left the EU.

What that actually means in practice is anyone’s guess, and much of 2021 will doubtless be spent figuring that out and dealing with the ramifications. One issue which is going to be crucial for many businesses is the impact Brexit will have on data transfer rules. While the UK has pledged to match the GDPR rules with its own framework via the Data Protection Act 2018, it’s currently unclear whether the UK’s exit from the bloc will necessitate changes in how cross-border data sharing works. In particular, those with data or applications hosted in EU-based cloud regions or colo data centres could have to repatriate these workloads in order to remain compliant.

Before anyone starts patting themselves on the back for leaving their infrastructure on-prem, it’s important to consider that the new rules around importing, exporting and shipping goods may lead to problems for these organisations, too. With most of the blue-chip providers producing and distributing their wares from outside the UK, customers and MSPs alike run the risk of having supply lines affected by import delays, customs backlogs and increased fees or tariffs  when procuring data centre hardware.

Talent is another key issue for organisations; a significant portion of the UK’s tech workforce comes from Europe, and the prospect of a market pool with fewer data scientists, software engineers and security professionals – all of which are in reasonably high demand as it is – is a troubling one. It may be that we’ll see companies falling back on the collaboration systems they’ve rolled out in response to COVID, and offering EU-based tech talent a fully-remote job; alternatively, 2021 could see a huge surge in up-skilling as organisations train up new tech workers on the job.

Either way, it should come as no surprise that once the immediate threat of COVID-19 fades, it will be Brexit that truly dominates 2021 as the country’s primary business concern. This year has been characterised more than anything else by uncertainty, and as companies look to prepare for Brexit, clarity and certainty will be needed more than ever before.

Bobby Hellard, staff writer

At some point in 2021, we might have the chance to attend technology conferences in person, after a year of virtual ones. However, no events are likely to take place in the first few months of the year, and the first few that commit to a physical venue will almost certainly be drastically different from what we remember. But, it will be a nice change from video presentations and prerecorded panels.

The most likely candidate for the first in-person event in Europe is Mobile World Congress (MWC), which has been moved from its usual spot in February to June. The director-general of GSMA, Mats Granryd, has suggested it will need to use a bigger space in Barcelona and that it won’t have the normal 100,000 plus attendance.

I don’t think I’m alone in getting slightly excited about attending an event in the flesh. No one misses jet lag, or queues, or passport control, but there’s a lot more to face-to-face interactions and exploring events that can’t be captured over video. Chance meetings that reveal unknown opportunities are more likely to come as you mingle with other attendees – I can’t say that I’ve done much networking via Zoom since March.

If remote working is here to stay, the chance to get out of your home office and experience a new city could do wonders. A big tech event can replace “video-call fatigue” with some exercise and life-affirming experiences.

Carly Page, news editor

Remote working looks set to become continue into 2021, and for some companies it will become the norm; Dropbox, Microsoft and Twitter have all announced that staff will be given the option to work from home remotely on a permanent basis, while many other companies have sped up their digital transformation plans in order to enable a flexible working environment beyond the pandemic.

While communications software such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom has enabled us to work from home more efficiently, the hardware we use has also never been more important. With this in mind, it’s likely that PC makers will step up their game in 2021 as a result of the increased reliance we’ve all placed on our devices in 2020.

The PC market, which has already seen unprecedented growth as a result of the pandemic, will undoubtedly make strides to cater to the mass shift to remote working in the year ahead. WAN integration in laptops, for example, could become commonplace in order to guarantee more reliable connections and better video conferencing meetings, while the latter could also see laptop makers integrating more impressive camera and microphone hardware.

It’s likely OEMs will double-down on security too as employees continue to work on less-secure home networks; Microsoft, for example, recently debuted its Pluton security processor that promises to revolutionise PC security by housing sensitive data inside the chip.

PCs will also become more powerful and efficient as we head into 2021. Indeed, AMD looks set to debut its first 5nm CPUs, while Intel will showcase its Rocket Lake-S desktop chips aimed at high-performance desktop machines and users craving power for the most demanding tasks.

Dale Walker, deputy editor

For the past year, the vast majority of UK office staff have been working from home. The current working dynamic was predicated on the idea that it was just a temporary fix – a necessary evil that we would all need to endure to ensure we could return to the office before long.

However, over the past few months, big business has shrugged off its initial reluctance and is now actively encouraging employees to work remotely, seeing the benefits and cost savings ahead. Perhaps this was always on the cards – industry was just waiting for someone to make the leap first.

This new attitude to remote work is problematic for a number of reasons, but chief among these is the fact that this was never meant to be a permanent change. We’ve already heard a number of reports that employees have yet to receive any kind of cyber security or risk awareness training while working from home, and given most had little time to prepare for the change, it’s fair to say that many employees are working outside of the company firewall, or using some twisted amalgamation of company VPNs and personal networks. Businesses will have seen how well employees have adapted to this change and there’s a danger that reduced operational costs and complacency are obfuscating the fact that they are infinitely more vulnerable now than they were at the start of the year.

Home networks, especially those with smart devices attached, are notorious for having weak cyber security. It’s taken years for the IoT industry to commit to basic security standards like unique default passwords for devices, and even then only after the intervention of the courts. In a matter of months, however, the argument for stronger home security has taken on a far more urgent dynamic. That is, once hackers know that the majority of business will likely be conducted at home, over networks that employers may have little control over, it will only be a matter of time before home networks find themselves on the frontline of the war against cyber crime. There’s every chance that some of the worst security incidents and data breaches of our time will happen under this arrangement.

It’s a fairly bleak prediction, but this sudden foray into the realms of industry-wide remote work may end swiftly next year in a short, sharp, shock.

Jane McCallion, features editor

Has Silicon Valley lost its lustre? Two of the biggest names in tech, HPE and Oracle, both announced in December they were pulling themselves out of California’s tech gravity well and moving nearly 2000 miles away to Texas speaks volumes. The Valley is expensive and, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the opportunity to network, find funding and bounce ideas around – the primary reasons organisations have set up shop there in the first place – has evaporated. If you can be as innovative and successful elsewhere, then why wouldn’t you move?

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As for the choice of location for the new HPE and Oracle headquarters, Texas already held an appeal for both companies. HPE had a foothold in several places in the state, including Houston – its new home town – for a number of years and Oracle first opened its Austin facility, complete with on-site accommodation for employees, in 2018. The area also already has a thriving tech scene: Cision, Cloudflare, AT&T, and a little company called Dell Technologies are all based there.

So, in 2021 more tech firms will abandon California – or at least the Bay Area? I would say it’s eminently possible, but largely depends on what incentives local governments can offer to would-be new corporate residents. Some of these are, frankly, obscene and I hope that we don’t see a new splurge of desperate mayors and governors in a bidding war to get a big name to their city irrespective of whether it may be economically damaging or not (naming no names). But others can be mutually beneficial.

Any talk of the death of Silicon Valley is grossly exaggerated. Afterall, it costs money to relocate, both in terms of real estate and providing monetary support for workers who up sticks and move with the business or a golden goodbye for those who choose not to. But I can’t help but feel it’s going to be a quieter place.

Justin Cupler, US managing editor

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a mass shift to remote working as companies aimed to stay open while adhering to mandatory and voluntary lockdowns.

There are now glimmers of hope that the pandemic is nearing its end, as vaccines have shown 90-95% success rates in trials. Assuming these trials prove accurate in broader testing and COVID-19’s eradication is on the horizon, will remote working continue into a COVID-free 2021 and beyond?

Despite Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella warning that permanent remote work isn’t a long-term solution because it lacks that in-person interaction, many big tech companies have shifted to remote-first working arrangements for at least parts of their staff. These companies include big names, like DropboxFacebookOpenText and Twitter.

Even Microsoft went against its CEO’s warnings and offered some employees the option of full-time remote work. Google is one of the few big tech holdouts, but it plans to keep employees remote through July 2021 at least.

As big tech continues to wade its way through remote working and reap its benefits – such as nationwide recruiting, reduced spending and increased agility – more smaller companies may see the light (as well as the new-found competition for local employees) and follow suit.

We also couldn’t be in a better position technologically for mass remote working, with advancements like gigabit broadband, 5G wireless internet and more video conferencing and productivity tools than we care to count.

Even IDC, the masters of data crunching, see the remote-work trend continuing well beyond 2021. IDC’s research found that 90% of US companies expect more employees to work from home moving forward.  

One key concern in the shift to remote work, however, has been privacy and security. While there have been and will continue to be upticks in cyber attacks amid the shift to mass remote working, these will likely involve industries traditionally lacking the latest and greatest cyber security tech. However, 68% of companies plan to increase cyber security spending in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, indicating organizations have become more aware of its importance. As that awareness continues rising, the success rate of cyber attacks may fall, leading to more comfort in the switch to remote work.

With big tech embracing remote work, the advancements in remote-friendly technology and cyber security spending on the rise, we expect remote work to continue growing in 2021 and beyond.

Keumars Afifi-Sabet, staff writer

Going back years, there’s been no end of predictions that “next year might finally be the year that cryptocurrencies go mainstream”. There are still many hurdles to overcome, especially yoyo-like price fluctuations, but 2021 might actually be the year that digital coins like Bitcoin and Ethereum are adopted on a widespread basis. More and more companies have begun rolling out accessible tools and services that customers can use to buy or sell goods and services using digital tokens.

PayPal, for instance, has already launched a service that allows customers to trade and exchange a number of cryptocurrencies using their existing digital wallets, Facebook, too, has rejigged its embattled Libra coin ahead of a touted January 2021 launch. Although you can argue Bitcoin entered the mainstream years ago, this never translated to the level of mass adoption needed for a cryptocurrency to become a viable payment method, and it’s largely remained a speculative asset for investors. While the value of cryptocurrencies fluctuate too easily, it’s also too inaccessible.

PayPal and Facebook, on the other hand, are as mainstream as you can get. In the case of Libra – a stablecoin tied to the US dollar – there’s every chance consumers will flock to the digital currency once it passes regulatory hurdles, and (if) its value proves to be stable.

While Facebook’s involvement might, fairly or unfairly, will be a cause for concern among privacy advocates, there’s every chance that PayPal’s project gets more people involved – giving more weight to the dream of making blockchain-powered digital tokens a viable currency. 

I can certainly say I’d be tempted to dabble if it becomes as accessible as we should expect. But it could very well become a fleeting gimmick that I get bored of quickly, rather than something that could replace my bank account.

Maggie Holland, editorial director

It’s fair to say that the last 12 months have been somewhat eventful! Who could have possibly imagined the lockdowns and enforced remote working that were to come when we started the year with our NYE parties and resolutions about things we planned to change?

As a result, the key word I think that will stay with us into 2021 and beyond is ‘change.’ Traditional barriers and objections to remote working, for example, no longer exist. People have – en masse – proved the business case for remote working so having to have that conversation with your boss as to why you need to WFH should no longer be needed. 

But, if there is one thing the tech world is best at, it’s adapting to a changing situation. We’ve moved from the legacy of gigantic mainframe computers and a reliance on in-house hardware to the somewhat comedic ‘mobile’ phones of the 80s, all the way to a time where robots and AI systems are a common business tool and we can store a ridiculous amount of information on a chip the size of a fingernail.

With that in mind, my prediction for 2021 is that, collectively, we will use the year to push for much-needed change across the board.

Rather than just paying lip service to the idea, job opportunities will truly open up to the best people for the job, whoever and wherever they are. Walls will come down and inclusivity will increase. People with social anxiety or other conditions – be they physical or mental – will no longer be pressured to either conform or be excluded. 

Those with caring commitments – whether it’s a child, parent, relative, or just oneself – will no longer have to feel they need to explain themselves, or feel conflicted between their lives in and outside of work. At the very least, they will hopefully feel they can more freely express themselves.

So, as I look to 2021 and beyond, I do so with hope. With hope that the world – personally and professionally – cannot possibly be as awful as 2020 turned out to be and also with an acknowledgement that technology and human kindness has kept us going this year. It’s a powerful combination indeed – and long may it continue. 

Sabina Weston, staff writer

While 2020 was all about 5G – its infrastructure, predicted coverage, and new record speeds – 2021 is going to be the year of 6G.

Yes, this might be a rather wild prediction, given that the UK’s 5G rollout is currently lagging behind other European countries with just 30% coverage, and Apple has only just released their first 5G-supported iPhone.

However, with Nokia expected to launch Europe’s first official research initiative into 6G on 1 January 2021, we are likely to receive some interesting updates into how the technology could be used. The Hexa-6 research project is already being studied by the Finnish tech giant’s industrial research arm Bell Labs and is expected to last until mid-2023.

Unfortunately, this won’t mean we’ll be able to benefit from 6G anytime soon. According to Nokia, 6G systems are likely to follow the typical 10-year cycle between mobile network generations, estimating its commercial launch to take place sometime before 2030. This means that we might have to keep relying on 5G for the next decade or so.

Nevertheless, the Hexa-6 research project, which is funded by the European Commission as part of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, is a big step for Europe’s tech development and it will be interesting to see where it leads. Let’s just hope that Brexit won’t diminish the UK’s chances of benefiting from such achievements.

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