The 5 trends that rocked business tech in 2015

The tectonic plates made big shifts in the enterprise IT world in 2015. ZDNet's lead editors across the US, UK, and Australia size up the year's most important tremors.

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Technology wove itself deeper into the DNA of every single business process in 2015. It remains the primary fuel powering virtually every business from the sole proprietorship to the gorillas of the Fortune 500. And since those are the fumes we breathe every day, our lead editors across the globe got together and broke down the five most important trends that shaped business technology in 2015.

1. Cloud matures, becomes first option [Larry Dignan]

As noted in ZDNet's December special report, the cloud is becoming the de facto standard delivery model for software and enterprise infrastructure. That fact shouldn't be that surprising given that 2015 will go down as a maturity year for the cloud. Among the key themes to consider as we put 2015 to bed:

  • The key infrastructure-as-a-service players solidified positions. Amazon Web Services disclosed its financials, remained the clear No. 1 choice, continued to roll out features at a breakneck pace and set up analytics and business intelligence tools that move it up the enterprise stack. Microsoft Azure also led the pack and made a series of machine learning and analytics moves that should pay dividends in the future. IBM continued to build its ecosystem and play the hybrid cloud game. And Google began to talk up the enterprise more.
  • Salesforce kept its leadership spot and began to set itself up as a customer relationship operating system. The addition of the Analytics Cloud highlights where Salesforce is going.
  • Cloud computing became more focused with the "industry cloud" players as well as a series of vertical plays.
  • Hybrid matters and all of the data center vendors are offering hooks into public compute resources.
  • Price is becoming less of a selling point for cloud computing. Yes, there will be price wars, but agility is the main win for customers. These customers also have to focus on cloud cost optimization as they blend their on-premise infrastructure, which will ultimately give way to services.

Add it up and most enterprise strategies will revolve around cloud first. As we exit 2015, the biggest question will revolve around whether the suite will win in the cloud. Oracle and SAP certainly are betting that way.

2. AI gains momentum, big questions emerge [Jason Hiner]

Artificial intelligence has been around for as long as computing--at least in concept--but it's momentum picked up in 2015, as did its broader awareness with the growing notoriety of products such as IBM Watson, Siri, Google Now, and Amazon Echo. Still, the most powerful uses of AI are happening behind the scenes in industries such as financial services, manufacturing, healthcare, and defense.

The acceleration of AI and robotics has brought one paramount question to the forefront: will they destroy more jobs than they create? There are a lot of different arguments and most of them tend to be pretty pessimistic, as people look into the future and wonder how many jobs will be left for humans to do and what that will mean for society. I have a different perspective, as I explained in my ZDNet editorial, When robots eliminate jobs, humans will find better things to do.

The other big question that spun to prominence in 2015 was whether AI and robots were a danger to destroy humanity--Terminator-style. Could life imitate art? Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Stephen Hawking were among the most outspoken critics of AI as an existential threat. In fact, Musk and Hawking were among over 100 tech and science leaders who signed an open letter in 2015 urging governments not to use AI in autonomous military systems.

At IdeaFestival 2015, Dr. Roman Yampolskiy--author of Artificial Superintelligence: a Futuristic Approach--provided a detailed assessment of the threat and recommended that we treat AI research maturely and systematically. He prescribed giving it the same level of scrutiny as we do for testing biological and chemical weapons or harming animals and children. That would require research review boards and funding reviews to make sure we don't move too quickly in creating things that could spiral out of control.

3. The war over encryption escalates [Chris Duckett]

It's been quite a year for those with an interest in security and privacy.

Twelve months ago, my native homeland was without a two-year warrantless data retention system, and also did not have to face the spectre of copyright holders being able to have web sites blocked from Australian eyes. How times change.

With the tide on surveilling citizenry still on the rise, leaders across the western world have moved into the land of wishful thinking and turned their attention to asking the tech industry for a mythological master encryption key which would allow governments to monitor communications of whichever "bad guys" they like.

Naturally, this harebrained scheme involves no consideration of any drawbacks or consequences of losing this master key. Nor does it consider the impossibility of such "magic mathematics" that would allow a scheme.

Nevertheless, ill-informed leaders make statements calling for the outlawing of encryption that cannot be decrypted by intelligence agencies at will.

It is important that the giants in the tech industry continue to push back against such demands, and stand firm on the realities of security, and mathematics.

4. Windows 10 and hybrids hailed as PC saviors [Steve Ranger]

Compared to the tremendously rocky reception received by Windows 8, Windows 10 has been generally well reviewed and early adoption has outpaced not just Windows 8 but also Windows 7. When it comes to consumers, that's not hugely surprising: for most of them the new operating system has been a free (and notably stress-free) download, so that Microsoft has made a success of a give-away is not that remarkable. But it's likely that enterprises will switch over to it faster than expected, making 2016 the year of the enterprise Windows 10 rollout.

But there are still challenges ahead: while Windows 10 is developing into a desktop success, Microsoft needs it to be more than that. Smartphones (and to an extent tablets) are where the big growth is, but Windows-powered handsets have failed to capture the imagination of consumers despite all Redmond's efforts.

Windows 10 hasn't done much to help struggling PC sales either: as a free upgrade it didn't generate a wave of new PC buying like previous versions. What's increasingly clear is that the PC is now just device among many we use each day. Sure, it might remain the default choice for business users but consumers have long since shifted to smartphones and tablets (even if they still have a PC sitting dusty and unloved in a corner). But 2016 will be the year that hybrid devices (think Surface Book) will hit the mainstream and could spark something of a revival: the PC might be down, but it's not out.

5. Merger mania: Does scale matter? [Larry Dignan]

In 2015, it was highly likely that one of your key vendors was either acquired or merged with a larger entity. Of course, there was the usual complement of tuck-in acquisitions as IT giants moved to fill out their cloud lineups, make product portfolios more complete and bring customers to their stacks.

But the main deal to ponder for 2015 was the combination of Dell and EMC. That deal reflects two mature technology giants that are combining scale to create what they hope will be a private cloud juggernaut. Dell and EMC will be able to offer complete building blocks for enterprises to build cloud and data centers.

Here's the catch: Dell and EMC will have scale and a lot of integration work ahead. Meanwhile, VMware's status as an enterprise juggernaut could become an open question now it'll be owned by a server vendor. This year, the EMC and Dell deal looked workable on a PowerPoint. Now the two companies will have to deliver the goods.

Another point to ponder: Many enterprise technology giants--Hewlett Packard, Citrix and IBM--are revamping portfolios, focusing their efforts and in the case of Hewlett-Packard splitting into HP Inc. and Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

What model is better for customers? That's a question for the ages. The tech pendulum shifts between small and nimble and scale. What side of the pendulum wins depends on the decade and thinking at the time. The jury on scaling down and scaling up via mergers and acquisitions was decidedly out.