The 5 biggest tech trends of 2016: ZDNet editors sound off

The cloud continued its march, the cybersecurity game changed, Apple sputtered, government cuts faced the music, and the PC zombie reanimated. Learn why 2016 was beautiful and terrible in tech.

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Image: Sarah Tew/CNET

Every week, we sound off on the most important technology trends in our Monday Morning Opener. Looking back on 2016, we've identified the five tectonic plate shifts that have made the biggest impact on the industry and our readers who use these tools to drive the progress of the planet.

So, without further ado, here are the five big tech trends of 2016 according to ZDNet's global editorial board:

1. Cybersecurity: Data breaches accelerate

It's almost a cop out to declare 2016 the year of the data breach since you could say something similar each year since 2000 or so. But 2016 brought maturity to data breaches and a marketplace where attacks from years ago still deliver value for cybercriminals. Yahoo closed out the year by disclosing 1 billion accounts were breached and that incident was separate from a previous attack that compromised 500 million folks. Yahoo takes the cybersecurity whipping boy prize for 2016.

What we've learned is that yesterday's data breach can resurface and be remixed into new security headaches years later. It's almost like data breaches are like sitcoms that have make money in syndication. Consider:

Meanwhile, data from older attacks resurfaced again. Just ask LinkedIn.

SEE: Cyberwar and the Future of Cybersecurity (ZDNet and TechRepublic special report)

Distributed denial of service attacks also regained momentum. Dyn, a managed DNS service, was hit with a DDoS that ultimately turned out to be an attack that revolved around using Internet of things devices as a weapon.

The one common theme that always remains is that humans are the weakest link in the security food chain even as the attacks become a bit more creative.

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Photos: These were the biggest hacks, leaks and data breaches of 2016

Image: Spencer Platt, Getty Images

2. Cloud: AWS built on its lead as cloud providers mature

What was most interesting about the Amazon Web Services re:Invent powwow was how far the company has come in landing enterprise customers as well as all-in bets on its infrastructure as a service. Not that the rest of the field was standing still, but AWS easily became Amazon's most profitable business. Amazon is basically an enterprise cloud company that engages in e-commerce for giggles (at least based on the bottom line).

But the cloud sector had a bevy of other developments worth noting:

  • Google is clearly betting on artificial intelligence and machine learning as its primary differentiator. Machine learning and AI will be the cloud driver for all the major players.
  • Microsoft Azure is gaining hybrid momentum and has embraced open source and technologies like Docker at a clip that continues to surprise.
  • And IBM is building out its platform as a service efforts to ultimately tie them to Watson.

On other fronts, Oracle's cloud business grew at a rapid clip and will expand more via the acquisition of NetSuite. Salesforce rolled out Einstein, an effort to infuse its services with artificial intelligence.

When we look back at 2016 the inflection point of the cloud will be obvious. Earlier this decade we talked a lot about the cloud. Today, cloud services will fade to the background as the primary way to build enterprise architecture. The revolution will continue, but move more to the background. Sound familiar? Think Linux. Linux made a big splash and wound up being in every data center--once we stopped yapping about it.

3. Apple: Can't get out of its own way

We can't help but look at 2016 as a year of Apple sliding back toward mediocrity--despite the fact that it remains the most profitable company in tech and the most valuable business in the world. Nevertheless, it did little to dispel our long-term skepticism about the company as its competitors continue to gain ground and Apple shows few signs of opening new markets or finding its next big thing.

The greatest indictment against Apple may be its sheer number of frayed edges. For a company that now has over 100,000 employees, the lack of focus is beginning to show. Its iCloud services remain second class behind Google, Microsoft, and Amazon. The latest Apple Watch still fails to live up to Apple's design prowess. Its new laptops continue to tax the loyalty of power users. Its flagship iWork suite is one of several crusty software relics that continue to lag on the Mac. The iPad Pro line still leaves us scratching our heads about who it's actually for.

The company's biggest bright spot in 2016 was the success of the iPhone 7, which exceeded expectations. Still, it's important to remember that Apple spent most of the year lowering expectations ahead of the launch of the latest iPhone in September. And, both interest and sales were artificially bolstered by Samsung's epic fail with the Galaxy Note7.

Despite the iPhone 7 turning into a win, overall iPhone sales decelerated in 2016 as high-quality, low-cost Android devices siphoned off demand in China. Since the iPhone makes up roughly 70% of Apple's revenue, that's the biggest danger sign of the year in Cupertino. In 2017, Apple has a lot of cleanup work to do across board--especially in software and services--and it needs to hit a homerun with the 10-year anniversary iPhone.

4. The PC: Dead like vinyl records

Microsoft's Surface Pro and Surface Studio, Apple's MacBook with Touch Bar, various gymnastic Yoga devices from Lenovo; after years in the doldrums, the PC is suddenly interesting again.

A few years back it looked like tablets and smartphones would drive the PC into extinction. And that might still be true: PC shipments are sliding and there's little likelihood that they will leap back up again. And even worse, voice-powered digital assistants packed into new devices like the Amazon Echo are also taking on the jobs that PCs used to do in the home. Business users will remain PC loyalists--they're the people who need to type or write or draw and so the PC is evolving to suit them better. That means lower volumes, higher prices and better design than ever before.

In future, the PC will be more of a niche device, and unexpectedly all the cooler for it. Perhaps PCs will go the same way as vinyl records--spurned by the majority and loved by the hipster connoisseur.

5. Governments: The underfunded giants are at risk in tech

As we look back at the OPM hack of 2015, it was not a one-off, and instead signalled a new normal in the state of affairs for governments handling technology.

For as much as concerned citizens may fear Facebook sweeping up all personal information put into its systems, it is yet to surpass the treasure trove of data compiled by governments, and you have no choice but to hand over that personal information for their safekeeping.

While governments are looking to appear innovative with big data projects to defeat slumlords, or want to "uberify" buses, there remain legacy systems and underfunded departments struggling to keep pace.

Years of budget cuts to public agencies in jurisdictions the world over have led to institutional knowledge and capability disappearing in droves--ironically at a time when governments need to be smarter than ever.

The Australian Census debacle stands tall as an example of an agency trying to deal with a dismal budget, a multinational vendor with bad plans in the shape of IBM, and a structural inability to change its ways.

To cap off 2016, Australia's version of the IRS, the Australian Taxation Office was victim to a two-day outage thanks to its HPE storage arrays falling over.

Until governments start to refund agencies to handle IT and protect their data properly, there will be a cavalcade of governmental security and infrastructure bungles that should serve as a warning to the private sector on what not to do.

And these are only the mishaps and problems we know about.

ZDNet Monday Morning Opener

The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

Previously on Monday Morning Opener:

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