2021 outlook: Here are the technologies, questions that will matter

While 2020 was the year that companies had to get up to speed with digital, what will 2021 hold? Our global editors take a swing at the coming 12 months.

In 2020, businesses had to be digital or die. Digital transformation drove technology projects, remote work and education became the norm due to the COVID-19 pandemic and building block technologies such as cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and machine learning accelerated. 

Bret Taylor, president and chief operating officer of Salesforce, summed the current state of business clearly: "Your business is digital or you don't have a business."

While 2021 holds promise for business technology there will be multiple unknowns ahead. Consider:

  • What does the new normal for work look like and how does collaboration develop?
  • How do corporations utilize technologies to maintain culture?
  • Will technology projects be managed differently going forward?
  • What will be the impact of edge computing, 5G, cloud and automation on industries?

We don't have all the answers, but certainly have a few working theories to test via our editorial leaders around the world. 

Building on the digital transformation rush of 2020

Larry Dignan

Following a disruptive 2020 that ushered in the rapid digitization of businesses, a move to remote work and digital transformation acceleration perhaps the biggest question for 2021 is this: What sticks?

Clearly, the new normal for work and collaboration will emerge. Look for collaboration technologies to advance, more attention to hybrid work arrangements and business continuity staples such as cloud computing to remain. Doubt that work will become more remote? Don't. There are too many economic benefits to remote work. Companies save on commercial real estate, recruit in more places, and maintain productivity. 

My guess is that PC vendors as well as new alliances are going to innovate their way to a new normal for work. We already know what needs solving: Experiences where people are typically present in a room. Think labs, think prototyping and think innovating on the flow. Perhaps 2021 brings a more developed augmented and virtual reality playbook for enterprises. 

Here are some other 2021 technologies that may move to center stage. 

  • Quantum computing. The industry developed well in 2020 and 2021 will bring more mainstream adoption. What's missing is the application stack to go with quantum computing, which will be consumed via the cloud. There will also be a new pecking order among vendors as quantum computing takes hold

  • 3D printing/additive manufacturing. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed significant gaps in the supply chain and the need to be nimble with manufacturing. 3D printing did advance with metal, new materials and a bevy of industry-specific use cases in 2020, but wasn't able to solve supply chain issues completely. In addition, 3D printing companies took a hit since their customers struggled the most during the pandemic. Look for 2021 to feature more investing in additive manufacturing and the potential to personalize products at scale. 

  • The move to multi-cloud accelerates. Enterprises that were cloud-first fared the best during the COVID-19 pandemic and every company is planning on multi-cloud deployments. What's going to be interesting is whether customers will trust a hyperscaler to manage multiple clouds. My hunch is that existing data center players will likely become the single pane of glass to other cloud resources. 

  • Automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Workflows are being automated at a rapid clip. If 2020 highlighted the need for more automation, 2021 will bring real deployments. Simply put, AI, machine learning and robotics process automation will be conducting more work. The big question is whether these technologies will be governed well. 

  • Workplace safety software will need reinvention after a year. Companies like ServiceNow and Salesforce essentially created workplace safety as a software category within months. Today, workplace safety tools are managing workers, health, COVID-19 testing and pandemic navigation. However, a COVID-19 vaccine is going to change that equation. Salesforce has already used Work.com to manage vaccine distribution. What does this category of software become this time next year?

Image: Service NSW

2021: The year of scanning QR codes until a vaccine arrives

Chris Duckett

For much of the past decade, if you wanted to make a quick joke about a technology that failed to find its niche, it was QR codes.

Remember the payment system Walmart was creating that used QR codes? Oh, how we laughed. When Microsoft placed them on the blue screen of death? The jokes wrote themselves.

Elsewhere in the ZDNet archives live classic lines such as: QR codes need to avoid being passed off as a fad; and stop trying to make QR codes happen. Both of those articles are from 2012, which shows the resistance the codes have faced from the start.

If we take a western view of things -- where the standard is to conveniently forget that Asia never really got off the QR ride -- by 2019, QR codes were nothing more than an annoyance on billboard advertising.

Did the Android camera scan QR codes? "Who cares! No one uses those things!" would be the standard response this time last year.

Then the pandemic hit and QR codes gained a new lease on life.

In places that have managed COVID-19 to a better extent than others -- places like Australia, Singapore, and New Zealand -- QR codes are everywhere, and everyone scans them because those governments have mandated for citizens to use them to check-in at venues and restaurants.

Speaking from experience during the cursed year of 2020, digital systems are superior for individuals for a single reason -- prudence says for a virus that could be spread by droplets lingering on objects, such as pens and paper -- a contactless system negates that risk. While for health authorities, digital systems create a single source of truth to query if a positive case is found at a premise while contact tracing, and a database in the cloud is much less likely to be torn, lost, or covered in beer.

If 2020 was the year QR codes bounced back, 2021 will be the year of its massive usage as more countries hopefully get on top of the pandemic, and begin to open up as well. For those countries already approaching something like what normal used to be, until a vaccine reaches them, QR codes will be a standard of everyday life.

Those strange little squares have gone from annoyances to being potential lifesavers very quickly, and they are likely to stay with us through 2021.

A little COVID postscript: For the longest time, the standard Android camera app from Google did not scan QR codes by default when a user opened it. Users were pushed to using Lens for scanning codes. That changed during the pandemic, thankfully, otherwise there could have been a lot of confused people.

Unsurprisingly, Samsung's camera has supported QR codes for some time.

Dissatisfied female executive scolding employees for bad work at meeting
Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Bosses could clamp down on work from home gains 

Steve Ranger 

2021 is when the boss will finally make working from home better (or ruin it totally)
One pretty obvious change we'll see to business life next year: working remotely and from home will become standard, even once vaccines have hopefully made life almost normal again.
It's going to be very hard for any boss to insist that staff can only work from the office when those workers have spent the last year demonstrating very clearly that they can work from home at least as well as they can from the office.
The best organisations and the best managers will think a lot more about how they can make best use of office space in future. Working from home keeps us productive but may have made us less creative; that means the office should become a place to encourage interaction and creativity, not somewhere to jam drones into cubicles.
The office should be place to engage teams with new projects and new ideas, which they can then continue to develop wherever is most appropriate for them.
That means smaller offices, less desks, more meeting spaces. Bringing that balance back will make teams happier and more creative, while leaving them the chance to be productive at home away from all the exciting distractions.
But not all bosses are going to learn this lesson. The lesson that many other managers will decide to learn instead is that while working remotely is ok, what would make it much better would be constant surveillance of everything staff do during their day.
Expect to see lots of managers investing in tools to track remote work, to make sure that you are actually working hard for all those hours you are at home. These tools will turn your spare bedroom into part of the productivity panopticon -- and in many cases will simply erode trust and make staff feel like they are being spied on.  

So really the question will become, in 2021 what kind of business -- and what kind of boss -- do you really want to be?

Security: The new normal of 2021

Bill Detwiler

As my colleagues have discussed above, 2021 will be heavily shaped by the events of 2020, and when it comes to security both the COVID-19 pandemic and the SolarWinds attack will have lasting effects.

As companies accelerated digital transformation efforts and rushed to embrace new technologies like cloud, automation, mobile payments, everything-as-a-service, AI and 5G, the security risk also rose as attackers increased their efforts to exploit any system weaknesses. For example, cyber-attacks on cloud systems jumped 250% from 2019 to 2020. We can expect this trend to continue in 2021.

Likewise, the pandemic was a tipping point in the trend of remote work. Corporate offices around the globe shut down, and millions of employees began working from home for the first time. Some workers will return to offices in 2021 as COVID-19 vaccination efforts ramp up. However, the reopening will be slow and for many workers a hybrid model (working mostly remote and spending less time in an office) will be the new normal. Cyber attackers were quick to target remote workers. Ransomware attacks jumped significantly in the first half of 2020, phishing email rates increased, and attacks against mobile devices often used for remote work were also up. The rate of attacks against remote workers is likely to increase in 2021. IT organizations and remote workers alike will need to remain vigilant and follow best practices for securely working from home.

Unsurprisingly, IT leaders are adjusting their budgets to address both remote work and security. According to TechRepublic's 2021 IT budget survey, 26% of respondents said that they will be spending more on remote technology to allow employees to work from home and 22% percent said that network and internet security were a high priority.

Then there's perhaps the most consequential cyber attack in the past decade--the supply chain attack on SolarWinds that gave attackers back door access to as many as 18,000 systems around the world, including several U.S. government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), State Department, Treasury Department, Commerce Department and National Institutes of Health (NIH). Supply chain attacks aren't new. The scope and scale of the SolarWinds attack as well the targets however, make it particularly troubling. And then, there's the attacker.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attributed the attack to Russia in an interview on Friday. "This was a very significant effort, and I think it's the case that now we can say pretty clearly that it was the Russians that engaged in this activity," said the secretary. Pompeo was the first Trump administration official to publicly blame the Russian Federation for the attack. The Kremlin has denied involvement.

The U.S. government is no stranger to cyber attacks and breaches have happened in the past, but this one feels different.

U.S. lawmakers, such as Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), unnamed government officials and former members of the current administration have raised alarm bells about the incident, and many have called for a response, which could already be underway. Media outlets, including NPR and CNN, have reported that the U.S. State Department will close the consulate in Vladivostok, Russia, and suspend operations at the consulate in Yekaterinburg.

In 2021, there will be increased scrutiny on the cybersecurity practices of companies that provide software and services to the U.S. government and for critical infrastructure. It's also likely there will be calls for new legislation and regulation around mandatory cybersecurity requirements for said products and a rethink around the consumerization of IT.

Regardless of what happens, it's clear that things need to change--a fact that's not lost on the incoming U.S. presidential administration.

On Thursday, President-elect Joe Biden issued a statement on the attack and his administration's approach to cybersecurity saying: "I want to be clear: my administration will make cybersecurity a top priority at every level of government - and we will make dealing with this breach a top priority from the moment we take office." Biden also saying: "Our adversaries should know that, as president, I will not stand idly by in the face of cyber assaults on our nation."


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 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm 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 North America.


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