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Tech marches on, led by the consumer
By Nirm Shanbhag

As always, the technology in our lives continues to evolve unimpeded—despite global economic meltdowns, political unrest, and social revolution. The year ahead will find this sector rocketing forward while being buffeted by a number of game-changing trends.

“Cloud” fatigue
While virtualization, software-as-a-service, online storage and backups, and streaming media have been around for a long time, in the last few years, it has all become lumped together via a single term: the cloud. For most in the world of business, the term is hard to pin down, but still something important – something that must be achieved, much like “getting on the internet” was in the late ‘90s. For consumers, it’s equally ill defined. And while the concept of the cloud and the many services that are based on it—from FarmVille to, Office 365 to Dropbox—are tremendously valuable, the term’s overuse and lack of clear definition will leave us searching for a new, more specific description.

Workplaces of all sizes and shapes will continue to find themselves infiltrated by employees’ personal devices, whether it be smartphones, tablets, personal laptops, or external hard drives. The reality is that just as the idea of distinct work/life modes is rapidly disappearing, the same holds true for technology. At the same time, more and more companies are looking to offload IT systems from their balance sheets, both at the enterprise level (see the cloud) and individual user level (mobile phone plans, PC reimbursements, etc). Increasingly, traditional technology brands will need to find ways to connect with individual users on a more personal basis, potentially mixing things up and creating opportunities for those once viewed as being on the periphery of the category.

One word: security
WikiLeaks, credit card hacks, Carrier IQ. As our lives grow ever more digitized, the importance of computer security will grow in tandem. For companies, adopting stricter, more-encompassing security policies will become a key initiative for IT departments, especially in light of the widening array of devices in use. For consumers, the opportunity of living in the cloud will be tempered by the fear that comes from handing over so much personal and valuable information. This will create an opportunity for innovative brands to stand out by aligning themselves with safety and confidence.

In the past, companies such as Microsoft, Apple, IBM, and Adobe followed a cycle of product refresh that saw a new release of any particular software every two to four years. Things are very different today. While some still follow an expected cadence (fans all over the world know when the next anything is coming from Apple), many brands have shifted to more aggressive, fluid approaches. This means that products as varied as tablets, smartphones, and even operating systems are released as updates become available, not just when the calendar dictates it. As a result, consumers find themselves in a constant state of beta testing. By the time a product has all the bugs worked out, it’s no longer the latest and greatest. The side effect of this is that brands find they have greater permission to experiment, but are subject to the corresponding expectation that what they deliver is truly relevant and timely. Brands will do well to break away from their historic models and invite consumers to experiment with them.

Good-bye, productivity. Hello, experience.
For the past half a century, the value of technology has been to push the boundaries of productivity. And while business technology is still evaluated against this metric, in the world of consumer technology a tidal shift is underway. In 2012, expect to see people seeking out tech that delivers compelling experiences, not just features and functionality. Take RIM’s BlackBerry versus Microsoft’s Windows Phone. The former is in a death spiral while the other is a phoenix reborn on account of the singular focus on delivering a clear experience. Brands that deliver on this trend — even those that have fallen from the leaderboards as of late — will find themselves gaining traction amongst users looking for more than just getting more done.