Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: The Future of IT: A Strategic Guide

Analysing the analysts: Predicting emerging technologies

Gartner has been identifying emerging technologies and placing them on its Hype Cycle diagram for two decades. We examine the entries from the last dozen years to see how the analyst firm's predictions have fared.

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Most CIOs have their hands full keeping their organizations' day-to-day operations running, and often lack the time to keep fully up to speed on new technologies that might, in time, have a significant impact on their businesses. That's why analyst reports — notably, Gartner's annual Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies — are valuable resources, providing regular snapshots of important developments in the early stages of the technology life cycle.

But how have these annual bulletins from the front line of tech actually performed over the years? After all, technology does not always follow an orderly path from the R&D lab to mainstream adoption, and the twists and turns involved can sometimes catch out even the most assiduous observer.

We decided to take a detailed look at the emerging technologies flagged by Gartner between 2003 and 2014 — a 12-year period encompassing a great deal of economic and technological change. So which ones made it to maturity, which ones were stillborn, and which ones are still gestating?

Hype Cycle 101

First, a quick refresher on the Hype Cycle itself. Introduced in 1995, the Hype Cycle (which is not, in fact, a cycle as such) is an idealised model of a typical technology's progress from a Technology Trigger (TT), through a period of increasing visibility to a Peak of Inflated Expectations (PoIE), where negative coverage based on first-generation products precipitates a slide into the Trough of Disillusionment (ToD). This is followed by a slower recovery, on the back of second-generation and subsequent products, up the Slope of Enlightenment (SoE) to the Plateau of Productivity (PoP), where at least 30 percent of the technology's target audience has adopted it (or is planning to):

gartner-hs-explain
Typical market events during phases of the Hype Cycle. The timelines for pilot schemes and deployments refer to technologically aggressive (Type A), moderately aggressive (Type B) and conservative (Type C) enterprises. Image: Gartner

The position of a technology on the Hype Cycle reflects the collective judgement of Gartner's analysts, rather than the analysis of specific data — although, of course, a vast amount of research data informs those analyst judgements. Here's the most recent (2014) Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies:

ghs-2014
The Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, 2014. Image: Gartner

Right now, Gartner judges the most-hyped emerging technologies to be the Internet of Things and Natural-Language Question Answering. The overarching message of the Hype Cycle for enterprises is pretty straightforward: don't invest in a technology just because it's 'in', and equally, don't ignore a technology just because it's currently failing to live up to its early promise.

Inevitably, many once-'hot' technologies don't make it through the standard Hype Cycle, for various reasons: they can subsumed by other technologies, or split into multiple subcategories; they can cycle through periods of hype and disillusionment; or they can become stalled in a particular phase — and even suffer obsolescence and extinction without ever reaching mainstream adoption.

For CIOs and enterprise technology strategists, the trick is to be aware of potentially important new technologies as early as possible, so that timely pilot schemes can be implemented, leading to early adoption that will give the business a competitive advantage.

Hype Cycles for Emerging Technologies 2003-2014

We looked back over the last twelve years'-worth of Hype Cycles for Emerging Technologies, logging entries for 192 different technologies mentioned between 2003 and 2014. Some, such as cloud computing and big data, are now well known and widely implemented; others, like folksonomies and neurobusiness, probably remain unfamiliar to many people.

Out of the 192 emerging technologies flagged by Gartner between 2003 and 2014, just 11 (5.7%) had reached the Plateau of Productivity, while 28 (14.6%) had made it to the Slope of Enlightenment by 2014. That leaves 79.7 percent that failed to progress beyond the Technology Trigger (24.5%), Peak of Inflated Expectations (24%) or Trough of Disillusionment (31.2%) stages.

Of course, these figures include some recent technologies that may well mature in future, so to get a more representative picture we looked at those first mentioned between 2003 and 2008 (the first 6 of the 12 years examined). As might be expected, by 2014 a bigger percentage had made it to the PoP (7.4%) and a smaller proportion had failed to progress beyond the TT (20.4%) by 2014; still, 21.3 percent were last heard of at the PoIE stage, 37 percent remained mired in the ToD and 13.9 percent were still negotiating the SoE:

ghs-1
Data source: Gartner

Perhaps it's not surprising that, over the years, some technologies temporarily shine brightly in analysts' viewfinders, only to subsequently disappear from the radar. The ZigBee specification for low-power wireless mesh networking is a good example: developed in the late 1990s and built on the low-level IEEE 802.15.4 standard, which was ratified in 2004, ZigBee debuted in the 2003 Hype Cycle in the Technology Trigger section, never to reappear. However, while it may not have achieved the ubiquity of Bluetooth (another 2.4GHz technology), ZigBee is still very much around, having found a niche in a range of vertical markets. The much-hyped Internet of Things — currently atop the Peak of Inflated Expectations — may well prove a shot in the arm for ZigBee.

Wireless mesh sensor networks have been a stalwart of the Hype Cycles over the years. Along with Augmented Reality, 'Mesh Networks: Sensor' appears in 10 out of the 12 years we analysed:

ghs-2
Colour coding: blue = Technology Trigger; orange = Peak of Inflated Expectations; red = Trough of Disillusionment; green= Slope of Enlightenment; purple = Plateau of Productivity.

Despite the continuing enthusiasm of Gartner analysts for augmented reality and mesh sensor networks, neither technology has yet made it beyond the Trough of Disillusionment. Electronic Paper (also referred to in earlier years as 'e-paper' or 'digital paper') fares better, getting eight mentions while progressing smoothly from Technology Trigger in 2003 to the Slope of Enlightenment, where it was last seen in 2010.

Among the other technologies mentioned in six or more of the twelve years studied, two — Quantum Computing (7) and Human Augmentation (6) — remain at the TT stage. Perhaps Gartner's faith in these technologies will one day be rewarded with progress through the Hype Cycle, where we also find: Mobile Robots (7), 3D Printing (6) and Speech-to-Speech Translation (6) at the PoIE; Cloud Computing (7) in the ToD (alongside Augmented Reality and Mesh Networks); Idea Management (6), Tablet PCs (6) and Wikis (6) climbing the SoE (along with Electronic Paper); and Location-Aware Applications (7) and Speech Recognition (6) on the PoP.

Even after repeated mentions in the Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, there's clearly no guarantee that a technology will actually achieve widespread adoption — something that CIOs should bear in mind when examining these reports.

The 'Nexus of Forces'

Today, businesses are undergoing profound transformation along four now-familiar technology axes (which Gartner calls the Nexus of Forces): cloud computing, mobility, big-data analytics and social networking. It's instructive to compare the histories of these technologies in the Hype Cycle with their trajectories on Google Trends (with BYOD used as a proxy for mobility). Generally, the analyst firm is ahead of the wider population of internet searchers, which is as it should be:

Cloud computing

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Hype Cycle position compared to interest over time, as indexed by Google searches. Data: Gartner, Google Trends

Mobility (BYOD)

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Data: Gartner, Google Trends

Big data

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Data: Gartner, Google Trends

Social networking

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Data: Gartner, Google Trends

From hype to reality

So, which emerging technologies do CIOs need to keep an eye on right now? Assuming that those climbing the Slope of Enlightenment and those at the Plateau of Productivity are already reasonably well known, the contenders are likely to come from those that have negotiated the Technology Trigger phase and reached the hyped-up Peak of Inflated Expectations. In this chart, we've listed them in order of frequency mentioned, given the more recent entrants (post-2008) a darker shade, and noted the year that the technology first achieved PoIE status in parentheses:

ghc-poie
Data source: Gartner

Technologies that get multiple (>2) mentions and have entered the Hype Cycle in recent years (2009 or later) include: Natural-Language Question Answering, the Internet of Things, Autonomous Vehicles, Wireless Power, Complex-Event Processing, Social Analytics, Private Cloud Computing, Wearable User Interfaces, Consumer 3D Printing and NFC Payment. The most recent single-mention entrants to the PoIE are: Smart Advisors, Cryptocurrencies and Data Science.

To use a horse-racing analogy, these are the fancied runners, and we can certainly envisage most of them making it to the finishing post of the Plateau of Productivity.

Conclusion

It's fun to play with the Hype Cycle statistics, and generally speaking Gartner does a good job of flagging up significant emerging technologies. However, over the years there has also been plenty of intermittently fashionable noise, as well as underlying themes that rumble on without coming to fruition. In the end, there's probably no reliable short-cut: know your business, read widely and make the relevant connections.

Gartner isn't the only analyst firm looking at the future of IT, of course. As we put the finishing touches to this article, Forrester published a report entitled The Top Emerging Technologies Through 2020 — The CIO Perspective. The report's findings are summarised in this infographic, which assigns 15 emerging technologies to one group of 'business solution innovations' and three groups of innovations at the platform level:

forrester-tech-2020
Image: Forrester

Finally, it's almost impossible to resist speculating on what the technology landscape may look like in a decade or so. By then, the cloud will have become a basic, and largely software-defined, utility; mobile computing will have expanded to include all manner of wearables and 'implantables'; the Internet of Things will be well established in a wide range of areas (notably smart cities, smart buildings and agriculture); and data science will have matured, with brain-like processors and other cognitive computing technologies able to help humans make sense of the resulting 'big' data. Robots of various kinds will almost certainly be involved.

In this world of pervasive computing and increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence, one thing is certain: issues surrounding privacy and information security will be more important than ever.

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