Tech's leaps, limps and likes: The 7 trends that defined 2017

ZDNet's top editors from across the globe postulate on a year that the technology industry lost some luster, but kept rolling out new disruptions anyway.

With 2017 almost in the record books, it's worth a review of the main topics as well as what we learned from them. Here's a look at the seven trends identified by ZDNet editors and a crib sheet to the broader video discussion.

1. The year of Alexa

At CES 2017, Amazon's Alexa platform dominated the headlines as the voice assistant was embedded in more devices. Later in the year, Amazon rolled out a bevy of Echo devices for every price point and use case. And by time Amazon Web Services and its re:Invent developers conference rolled around in November, Alexa was a dominant platform that now is being used in business scenarios. Simply put, AWS and Alexa have left rivals in the dust with market share, mind share and developer support.

Add it up and it's was an eventful year for Alexa where the digital assistant may not have been the smartest in the world, but she sure got around. Now that Alexa is everywhere it's highly likely that all the data and input she's absorbing will only make her smarter. If voice is the new user interface, that UI may just be named Alexa.

ZDNet: The future of digital will be human-centric and voice will reign supreme | TechRepublic: Cheat sheet: Alexa for Business | Amazon AI: The smart person's guide | How to become an Alexa developer: The smart person's guide |

2. Facebook, and the backlash against tech

It's easy to characterize the 2016 election in the US and the Brexit vote in the UK as a general backlash against globalization and the technology world. But, the reports that Russian hackers exploited Facebook and other social media platforms to sow doubt and dissention among US voters is arguably an even stronger indictment against the tech industry.

The Senate hearings that dragged Facebook, Google, and Twitter to Washington to testify about how this kind of manipulation and tampering was allowed to happen was the nadir in a rough year for Facebook. The social network has been blamed throughout 2017 as the platform that's most responsible for propagating "fake news." Zuckerberg and company have been scrambling all year to put new policies, moderators, and algorithms in place to fix the problems and win back trust.

As a result, Zuckerberg launched a new manifesto for Facebook. The mission is to "bring the world closer together." Facebook at its press holiday party in New York outlined its role in the community and its many social good case studies, while aiming to dispel notions that its technologies--social media and Oculus--are isolating. Indeed, Facebook can be used for both good and evil, but one thing is certain: The more powerful the social network becomes the more it'll be on the hot seat.

ZDNet: Video: Facebook handing content creators more tools, higher profile in wake of fake news blitz | Facebook's plan to throw humans at security, manipulation issue won't work, equates to indictment on AI progress

TechRepublic: Video: The social mechanics of bots and fake news | Video: Why technology alone won't save us from fake news | Extra, extra! That fake news story might come with malware | Help me AI, you're my only hope: Tech giants to Senate on Russian election meddling

3. The leaks are coming from the inside

For most of the year, it looked like a return to the world of widespread malware worms would be the defining cybersecurity incident of the year, as the ransom pair of WannaCry and Petya laid waste to some of the world's biggest companies.

Perhaps in terms of a single impact on a community, Equifax's $88 million data breach -- which hit almost half of all adult Americans thanks due to an inability to apply a Struts patch -- would seem definitive.

By the end of 2017, though, a proper winner had emerged, and it was everywhere: Open S3 buckets.

Ransomware: An executive guide to one of the biggest menaces on the web

Throughout the year, a spate of data leakages has occurred due to the discovery of data left sitting on world-viewable servers. For instance, Accenture left its keys to the kingdom exposed on four servers; Verizon had 14 million subscriber records sitting unprotected on Amazon S3; Australia's national broadcaster was found wanting when customer details and 1,800 daily MySQL database backups were exposed; even the NSA left 100 gigabytes of data sitting on S3 unprotected.

Rather than always peering outside the organization for the source of a data leak, too often the source was sitting within, or was contracted to, the IT department.

"I always start from the point of view, your biggest threat is the insider threat," security advisor and former Telstra CISO Mike Burgess told ZDNet in November.

We would do well to heed his advice in 2018.

4. iPhone X: The future of the smartphone?

I just can't stand any more black slab smartphones, and in 2018 we may finally see the back of them. Considering that most people (wisely) wrap their smartphones in a protective case it's all but impossible to tell devices apart now. That's a problem for smartphone makers because it's hard for their model to stand out when all handsets look the same.

That's why curved smartphones will start their march towards the mainstream this year. They might not offer a huge amount of additional utility, but they are the first step towards foldable devices, which will allow you to carry a much bigger screen in your pocket (even if those are still a way off). If curved screens become popular, that's going to give Samsung, which has made much of the early running, a big boost.

After the iPhone X: Predicting the future of the smartphone | iPhone X: Sorry Apple, but I just can't face using Face ID | CNET iPhone X review

In contrast it's going to be a quiet year for Apple: after the big reveal of the iPhone X the 2018 devices are likely to be modest evolution rather than evolution. And vendors will also continue to push smartphone virtual reality and augmented reality and consumers will continue to ignore it.

iPhone X cheat sheets

5. Windows 10 S ...

Microsoft's narrative no longer revolves around Windows. Let's get real: Microsoft is all about cloud (Azure), Office and enterprise software ranging from Dynamics to Skype for Business and HoloLens. Windows who?!? Nevertheless, Microsoft rolled out the Windows 10 Creator's Update and more importantly Windows S. Windows S is designed for ARM-powered PCs and represents a leap for Microsoft. Qualcomm is more than happy to go along for the ride with its Snapdragon processor.

Qualcomm and Microsoft rolled out Microsoft Windows S-powered hardware with partners Asus and HP. The core pitch is that these devices will run long and be always connected via LTE. For Microsoft, Windows S may represent the future of PCs, a more secure model and mainstream emulation. Now the next question revolves around whether Windows S devices sell.

6. Raspberry Pi: Long live the hobbyist

One of the most heartening trends this year has been the continued enthusiasm for making. This year the Raspberry Pi sales hit 15 million - an incredible number considering the team behind it only ever expected to sell 1,000. The desire to tinker and create was at the heart of the PC revolution (think of the Apple 1 assembled in Steve Jobs' garage) long before PCs became sealed boxes that you meddle with at your peril.

Devices like the Pi and its many, many imitators have brought back the energy and creativity that hardware has been missing for a long time. As well as being simple good fun, devices like the Pi help to democratize technology again at a time when Big Tech is increasingly seen as arrogant and aloof.

What is the Raspberry Pi 3? Everything you need to know about the tiny, low-cost computer | Raspberry Pi supercomputer: Los Alamos to use 10,000 tiny boards to test software | TechRepublic: Raspberry Pi gift guide: The best choices for Christmas 2017 | Raspberry Pi 4: A specs wishlist for the next $35 computer

If the next generation understands what underpins the digital services that we all use, because they have a better idea of hardware and software engineering thanks to tinkering with maker boards and more, that will make them smarter and more demanding users, too.

Top 12 Raspberry Pi alternatives

7. It's all AI now

As far as trends go, it's hard to argue that Artificial Intelligence was the hottest one of the year. AI was virtually everywhere, and supposedly integrated into virtually everything. As with previous hot trends like cloud and big data, you must be skeptical about a lot of things that are getting labeled "AI" these days. Many of them are what we used to simply call "algorithms" or "coding" or "math."

In Beijing and Paris--two of the hottest new startup ecosystems--when you talk to VCs, accelerators, and entrepreneurs, about half of all the startups claim to be AI startups. Whether they are working on a grocery delivery service or handheld drones that are trying to reinvent the selfie, it's all AI because that's the best way to get funded.

Five tech jobs that AI and automation will make radically more efficient | The great data science hope: Machine learning can cure your terrible data hygiene | AI and jobs: Where humans are better than algorithms, and vice versa | Software automation policy guidelines(Tech Pro Research)

Just to put this in perspective, analysts predict that companies will invest about $50 million in AI by 2020. That compares to $200 billion that will be invested in big data analytics and $1.3 trillion in the Internet of Things. So, while AI may be the most important and the most influential topic in IoT--and one that touches a lot of other areas--it's not necessarily where businesses and IT departments are investing the most money.

Biggest tech fails of 2017


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 the US.

Previously on Monday Morning Opener:

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