Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Our post-coronavirus future: 7 ways the tech and services industry could be transformed

Will the pandemic blow away every tech business assumption we've ever held, from 5G and bandwidth to legacy tech and the cloud? Here's one thing I expect: The rise of the phablet.

I have to confess: I have been having some difficulty writing about day-to-day technology subjects while the world holds its breath and is effectively at a standstill.

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I put on a good face, I still am hopeful. I want to marvel at and feel encouraged by the announcements of new products and services, and new developments from our usual group of leaders in our industry. But at the same time, I have to be realistic -- there will be job losses. There will be substantial, perhaps irreversible economic damage. And there will also be losses of life. 

For now, we hold tight. We sequester and isolate in our homes. For those of us who can still work, we attempt to function remotely, to concentrate on our jobs in the face of extreme adversity. We don't know how long we are going to be in this situation -- it could be weeks, it could be many months. The recession itself could last years. It is going to be a long and challenging road ahead.

Sitting at home all day long, reading the daily news grind, as well as the technology trades, has given me a lot of alone time with my grey matter to ponder the fate of our industry and our way of life. While we are still in very much the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, I have had some time to think about what the potential long-term impacts of this watershed event will have on our industry and also society as a whole. 

All of these should be treated as a thought experiment -- and while I hope these are extreme predictions, I wanted to get them down on paper so we could at least discuss them openly.

5G on pause

Yes, the nation's wireless and broadband infrastructure needs to be modernized. Almost certainly, the 4G LTE infrastructure we had for supporting a heavily mobile workforce and society was approaching its limits in its ability to handle increased capacity and the demands of modern mobile applications. 

However, whatever grand plans we thought America's telecom giants had for rolling out national 5G infrastructure is almost certainly now on indefinite hold given the substantial economic slowdown that is going to occur. It is also unlikely emergency funds from our government will be used to pay for network expansion when other needs are pressing, with potentially up to 30% of the US population facing unemployment.

With so many people in self-isolation for what could be as long as 18 months under some estimates, and with a possible long-term shift towards home-based work for a large segment of the population, large-scale deployment of public 5G access points is likely to be curtailed. This hold on further investment will especially apply for the millimeter-wave (mmWave) component of most telecom upgrade plans. 

That being said, I anticipate that Sub-6 deployments installed as in-place upgrades on 4G LTE towers will proceed, as Sub-6 will still be easier to maintain in the long term. However, as things stand now, 5G mmWave access point deployments in urban environments are most likely going to be tactical, not strategic, to deploy fixed broadband access to those who need it the most.

Bandwidth is a precious resource to be conserved and not squandered

With a large segment of the population confined to their homes having to consume bandwidth, the internet free-for-all we have enjoyed to date is all but done. Emergency legislation or an executive order needs to be enacted to limit video content streaming to 720p across all content services, such as from Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV, Disney+, YouTube, and other providers.

Traffic prioritization and shaping need to be put in place for core business applications during prime hours, which includes video conferencing for business and personal use. This would effectively be the opposite of net neutrality, as an emergency measure. 

Internet video streaming traffic should be prioritized for essential news providers, and the government should provide incentives for them to broadcast their content (and for home-bound citizens to consume it) over-the-air (OTA) so that additional bandwidth can be freed up. Remember the antenna and devices with built-in tuners? It may be an appropriate time to shift some programming back to the airwaves, and even bring back the DVR, so that programming can be transferred to devices during off-hours when networks aren't saturated.

4G LTE infrastructure should not be employed for personal use in situations where Cable/DSL and Wi-Fi VoIP broadband is available. It should instead be prioritized for emergency and law enforcement services regardless of the access to the AWS-3 spectrum that has now been freed up for temporary use to US cellular providers.

While edge caching and content delivery networks (CDNs) can be used to mitigate some of these issues, the telecoms almost certainly never capacity tested for a scenario where such a large amount of people are confined to their homes for such long periods. Therefore, distributed content caching and peered content using local storage located on devices in residences within neighborhoods using "mesh" network scenarios and the use of protocols such as BitTorrent may need to be employed on platforms such as Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, et cetera. 

As with an expected slowdown on 5G deployments, fiber and other infrastructure improvements are also likely to be put on hold in certain parts of the country. So if you don't have access to gigabit fiber now, you probably won't be getting it for a while. 

Cloud as critical supporting infrastructure for the crisis and beyond

Cloud capacity, especially from the hyperscale vendors -- Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google Compute, Oracle Cloud, Alibaba Cloud, and IBM Cloud -- is what is going to get us through this storm. With a remote, home-based workforce, remote desktop technologies will be essential until native born-in-the-cloud applications can run core business functions. Legacy vertical industry Windows client-server apps are problematic and will need to be refactored and rewritten entirely for PaaS, or SaaS. This will occur using enabling technologies such as containerization and microservices because VMs and IaaS are computationally very expensive. 

At the same time, containerized remote Windows desktops will be a significant revenue driver for hyperscale cloud providers, and I see Microsoft accelerating Windows 10X development for Azure and Azure Stack, rather than for endpoint device use. I also believe this watershed event will also eventually get us Mac or iOS apps in the cloud using massive Arm clusters. It will happen as a by-product of when Mac OS and iOS are eventually re-architected, and it will occur almost certainly via a partnership with IBM or Microsoft. To that end, as it relates to Azure and Redmond's ability to develop software for iOS and Mac rapidly, I believe Apple will finally bury its hatchet with Microsoft due to synergies that only an existential industry crisis like this can bring clarity to.

Rethinking priorities in the personal and business computing form factor

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If more people are spending time at home, then the notion of smartphones as primary content consumption and communications device also needs to be re-evaluated. A six-inch or larger phablet, or something akin to a 10" iPad, Android, or Windows Arm tablet for most use cases, makes a lot more sense than something which is designed to be pocketable. Additionally, expensive laptops and convertibles no longer make sense for the majority of end-users if the workforce is no longer mobile and commuting to work. In essence, desk work is better accomplished with a full-sized monitor, keyboard, and mouse.

If the desktop is going to be increasingly cloud-deployed, then it makes a lot more sense for the home worker to be equipped with an inexpensive, solid-state, zero-configuration thin client terminal that uses bandwidth-conserving, encrypted session protocols than an expensive PC asset. PCs require IT support and more complex provisioning overhead, two things that will now be in short supply and difficult to implement with a mostly remote workforce.

Microsoft should also be shifting its priorities from the Surface line of products -- especially the expensive Surface Duo and Surface Neo which few organizations and end-users will be able to afford -- to an Azure-optimized, cloud-provisioned terminal device that can be connected to any monitor(s), mouse, and keyboard. An Azure desktop service should be priced accordingly with the device for both consumers as well as corporations with volume commercial cloud agreements.

Having to do more with less and holding on to legacy technology

Given that personal expenses on technology are likely to be curtailed for an extended period, the reality is we may be holding on to our legacy devices much longer than we thought we would. For that reason, measures need to be taken to extend the useful life of technology such as older PCs (such as those that cannot upgrade to newer versions of Windows 10) with secure, lightweight operating systems such as Google Chrome OS in order to mitigate the possibility of malware and other compromises and exploits. It is also more critical than ever that emergency legislation is put in place that calls for severe penalties for companies that engage in any form of IoT abandonment.

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Apple already has its ecosystem under control, and has an excellent official five-year software support policy for iOS and also, the Mac (although some systems are viable for much longer). Microsoft, also, has five years of support for its devices. But for Android, Google needs to immediately lock down its OEM ecosystem and force them to commit to Android One, and a five-year support and update period by which the company centrally updates the OS and all components. All carrier agreements that give telcos the luxury of doing updates on their timeframes should be nullified. 

All legacy Android phones should immediately be firmware unlocked by all OEMs -- at risk of losing their partnerships and Google Play for noncompliance. An effort needs to be started at the AOSP so that as many legacy Android devices as possible can be updated to the latest clean and secure Android build as the hardware will allow. For devices that cannot run Android 9 or 10, another possibility would be to deploy Tizen to older generation Samsung and other participating hardware. Tizen could also be used as a license-free thin client platform for remote desktop terminals, and inexpensive tablets, as well. 

Centralization of retail and food distribution

While delivery is going to be an increasingly important way to get food and other perishable goods, it may not be economically practical to do at a larger scale and in the longer term. With as many as 75% of all restaurants having to close due to economic losses incurred from the COVID-19 crisis, it may be necessary or more efficient to have a centralized or a consolidated distribution of food and other goods in major population centers. 

In addition to local delivery services, we may also need to have local, drive-in pickup centers for groceries and get our cooked food out of giant "ghost kitchen" food prep centers. Drop-off and pickup areas will become increasingly important in new retail space design as well as retrofits, where possible.

Ideally, this would employ minimal customer contact using automated systems to bring the products and food to your vehicle using app-based ordering. Your Chinese food, sushi, fried chicken and pizza would come out of the same facility regardless of virtual brand. I could see Amazon and other well-capitalized big retailers such as Walmart and Costco establishing leadership in this space, using affiliate provider business models. 

One unforeseen benefit of this: fast food companies such as McDonald's, Burger King, and Taco Bell (no, Demolition Man was not supposed to be a training film) may also need to alter their menus to sell more nutritionally balanced and appealing meals in order to stay competitive with what large-scale prep centers may offer.  

But we need to be also prepared for the sad eventuality that due to economic realities, a large amount of public retail space, such as shopping malls and entertainment venues like movie theaters, will also permanently close. 

A pivot from privacy concerns to the logistics of safety and social distancing enablement

Previous privacy concerns about revealing our whereabouts and tracking for the sake of convenience will give way to how best to service a population with a demand for goods and services while still maintaining social distancing requirements.

Instead of using your favorite mapping application on your mobile device to tell you about traffic jams and to navigate to where your favorite restaurant or retail business is, there will be a likely shift towards using big data, machine learning, and crowdsourcing to facilitate social distancing and minimize large gatherings. A lot of this will be applied to logistics so that access to goods and services, and public places will be scheduled to minimize crowds, using real-time data from smartphones, wearable devices, and vehicles. 

With a home-based work population, the regular, 9 to 5 business days are likely to shift to more flexible working days, and a more significant segment of the workforce is expected to become "night people" and have off-hours and rest during the daytime while others are working. This may also necessitate 24/7 operations for businesses that traditionally did not operate this way, such as for supermarkets, takeout food businesses, and for the aforementioned centralized food distribution and preparation centers. All of these will require enabling technologies for logistics management to serve a population that will always be awake and in need of goods and services at all times will be essential.

What aspects of the tech and services industries do you expect to see change as a result of COVID-19? Talk Back and Let Me Know.