ZDNet's top 7 business tech trends of 2014

The 2014 innovation march in business tech included 3D printing advances, Apple mojo, big changes at Microsoft, and the wearables explosion. ZDNet's top editors break it down.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief

In 2014, smartphones and tablets became a little more boring but a lot more widespread. Wearable computing got a lot more real. Information security got a lot more dangerous. And entrepreneurship became a lot more appealing.

Those are a few of the top trends we touch on in our 2014 wrap-up. ZDNet's lead editors -- Larry Dignan, Steve Ranger, Chris Duckett, and I -- put our heads together and came up with the developments that made the biggest impact this year. We also had an eye on the developments that are likely to continue to have an impact in 2015. We came up with seven big ones, and here they are.

1. Apple gets its mojo back (maybe innovation too)

[Larry Dignan]

Apple's 2014 combined some innovation with a game of catch-up on the phablet front, a big push into the enterprise and scale. Lots of scale.

But perhaps 2014 will be best remembered for Apple's preannouncement of its Apple Watch, which aims to position the company more as a fashion brand and define smartwatches. Here's the set-up for Apple: Smart watches have been in the market for a while, but the products have been raw. You could argue that consumers are basically beta testers for half-ass products.

That backdrop is perfect for Apple. Apple in early 2015 will come out with an Apple Watch that won't be perfect, but will be fashionable. Apple's approach to apps is also worth watching on the small screen. And the Apple Watch business model is a thing of beauty: The real money will be made on the bands. Can you really get by without two bands?

For sure, the Apple Watch is a 2015 event. In the meantime, here's a look at the moving parts for Apple's 2014:

2. Security and privacy get scarier, or do they?

[Chris Duckett]

If the year has done anything, it has proven that whatever platform you have chosen, there's an exploit for your platform that was almost impossible to defend against. It was truly the year that everyone's security took a hit.

When combined with last year's knowledge that the data stored by large US computing vendors was tapped and used by the NSA in its mass surveillance, there is finally the impetus to do something about increasing encryption for the common user.

Encryption and an interest in keeping one's data safe in transit and at rest is no longer the domain of the paranoid early adopter, it's starting to enter the mainstream.

The simple reason for this is that the future of computing is a battle for your personal information, and chances are that the next time your personal information appears on the internet, it is unlikely to be as a result of a breach of personal property, but because a large cloud company failed to secure their infrastructure or manage their processes properly.

Yet as the same time, technology has not slowed down its encroachment on everyday life, it is only a matter of time until we see the first widespread attack on smart homes and internet of things devices, and likes of Apple and Google do not want to be company that made it possible.

While it is a shame that the fear of embarrassment and lost sales, rather than some higher purpose, is driving the security improvements, the end result is that the regular user should be in a much safer place next year. The good news for Joe Average is that this will occur with minimal effort on their part, thanks to initiatives like removing the ineffectual SSLv3 from web browsers. And no matter how we get there and improve security, it is better than the status quo remaining.

It will not be smooth sailing and nice thoughts though, the big breaches will still have the power to astound and astonish, just ask Sony.

3. Microsoft changes course

[Steve Ranger]

Microsoft is a technology supertanker navigating through iceberg-filled seas. Some of those icebergs: the rise of tablets and smartphones, the decline of the PC, the shift to the cloud. So how has new skipper Satya Nadella managed to plot a course through these troubled waters?

The first thing that's worth noting is the change in how Microsoft talks about itself. There's been a shift away from 'devices and services' (Steve Ballmer's take on what Microsoft was really about) to Nadella's vision of a 'mobile-first, cloud-first' company. He's also been promoting the idea of Microsoft as a company that wants to reinvent the concept of productivity: all of which is about as boring as corporate rhetoric can get, you might think.

But what Nadella has actually done is begin a quiet, subtle remaking of Microsoft: while his public pronouncements seem rather modest, the consequences of them are anything but.

'Mobile first' means finally releasing Office for iPad and developing the soon-to-be-released Office for Android, a huge break with the old way of doing things.

'Cloud first' means Azure and Office 365 as core products for Microsoft alongside Windows (and moves like unlimited cloud storage for Office 365 users show how neatly these different products can fit together).

All of this portrays a Microsoft that recognises it is operating in a new world, where the PC is no longer the default computing choice, and where it has to behave as 'challenger' rather than assume it can dominate.

None of this means that there isn't still plenty to do: the outlook for PCs remains very uncertain. While tablets haven't quite taken over the world as many expected, the PC is no longer the centre of our computing experience and that's a big challenge to Microsoft. That's especially so as Windows tablets are still underperforming with consumers: we'll have to wait until after Christmas to see whether the decision to slash the cost of Windows licences for makers of small devices has paid off.

On the devices side, while Office is appearing on more platforms, Windows Phone is at best number three in a two horse race, even with Nokia's smartphone business onboard. Meanwhile Surface hasn't made anywhere near the breakthrough that the company was hoping for. Much of course depends on Windows 10 next year, which needs to shine where Windows 8 underwhelmed.

And for all this change, there's also a sense that this year Microsoft has been thinking hard and consolidating rather than surging ahead in search of the next big thing (especially if compare it to Google, with its self-driving cars and AI research, Apple pushing hard into wearables and payments.)

So far Nadella has done a smart job of steering Microsoft past the biggest obstacles, but next year must be about setting a new course, and setting the agenda again.

4. Startups and entrepreneurship get hot

[Jason Hiner]

While tech jobs remain in high demand if you have the right skills, many tech workers have learned to live with uncertainty. The industry changes so quickly that today's hot skills will be tomorrow's layoff targets.

Tech professionals need maximum adaptability. While keeping up with the latest technologies is key and getting trained in the latest stuff is lucrative, you can't get too fixated on a certain technology or skillset. You need a mix of in-demand skills, project management capabilities, and street sense -- if you want to maximize your value and keep your career moving in the right direction.

Interestingly enough, that kind of versatility also makes for good entrepreneurs. And as companies thin out their IT departments and do more outsourcing and contracting of tech talent, that can open the door for technologists to go out on their own and launch their own businesses as consultants, or take their skills and launch their own tech startups.

We've seen the demand for content around startups and entrepreneurship take off, that's why we launched much broader coverage of startups in 2014 on our sister site TechRepublic, where you can now find creation stories of tech startups, profiles of founders, and tutorials to guide you in launching your own startup.

All of this has important implications for the future of work. In my spare time, I'm also co-authoring a book called Follow the Geeks that explores this theme by putting the spotlight on 10 digital entrepreneurs.

4. Hybrid data center emerges

[Larry Dignan]

Public cloud infrastructure providers---Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Google---raced in 2014 to not only cut prices, but to set up hardware partnerships and private interconnect efforts with hosting companies. Why? The hybrid cloud is the norm and will remain that way for the foreseeable future.

The catch is that server, router and storage gear sales will flatten and enterprise data center builds will decline over time as compute moves to the cloud. In other words, the data center is hybrid, but the mix between the cloud and hardware will shift over time. Advantage: Cloud. The big question is how long it will take for the scales to tip in the cloud's favor.

For companies like VMware, the goal is clear. Manage the hybrid data center and cloud. Hardware vendors such as IBM and HP will sell you hybrid architectures as a way to preserve sales today and move you to their clouds tomorrow. And hyperscale players will land a few workloads now, play the hybrid game and ultimately expand wallet share.

Add it up and 2014 was the year for the hybrid cloud. Something tells me that by 2016 or so the hybrid cloud will be seen very differently as CXOs and IT decision makers think cloud first.

6. 3D printing leaps ahead

[Larry Dignan]

HP in 2014 either delivered the mother of all preannouncements or plotted a better course that'll revamp 3D printing.

Unfortunately, you probably won't know how it all turned out until 2017.

In October, HP outlined plans to move into 3D printing with 2015 focusing on building an ecosystem with a full-blown launch in the second half of 2016. Like other 3D printing makers, HP is focusing on the enterprise first. And why not? That's where the money is.

The big question here is whether HP can make a splash into 3D printing possibly two years from now. Ramon Pastor, vice president and general manager of HP's large format printing unit, acknowledged that the company is announcing its entry early. But HP's technology is unique to the market and the bet is that the company can create an open ecosystem ahead of general availability. Details such as design software integration and sales strategy need to be worked out.

Watching this 3D printing race is going to be interesting. According to Gartner, 3D printing in the enterprise has gone mainstream and will be strategic in 2015. Sales for these 3D printers are large and the margins are even larger. HP is hoping to disrupt the market share enjoyed by the likes of Stratasys and 3D Systems.

In 2014, the 3D printing market set a base that'll result in growth for years to come. We'll see how HP stays relevant as it builds its ecosystem in the year ahead. More: 3D printers shipments to double each year until 2018's $13.4bn market | 3D printing turns strategic in 2015, says Gartner | HP's big split: Five reasons it's a good move | Research: 60 percent of enterprises are using or evaluating 3D printing | 3D printing's great mystery: Where's HP?

7. Internet of Things and wearables arrive

[Jason Hiner]

Perhaps the most talked about trend of 2014 was wearable computing, led by the massive anticipation and hype around the Apple Watch. Google, Samsung, Motorola, Sony, Pebble, and many others also made bold moves in wearable computing in 2014, but the category is still finding it's way. It's still very early days.

Half of adopters quit using their wearables within a few months, as reported on TechRepublic. And many of the techies we talk to are still sitting on sidelines and waiting to see the smartwatch or activity tracker or smart glasses that will be worth the trouble of integrating another device into their lives.

Still, expect 2015 to be the year that consumers adopt wearables in big numbers, businesses start taking advantage of them as an opportunity, and companies start developing policies for how employees can use them at work.

In one sense, we should also think about wearables as a subset of a much larger trend -- the Internet of Things. IoT grabbed a lot of attention as a consumer play in 2014, especially around the connected home. Google bought Nest for $3.2 billion in February, putting the connected home and the consumer IoT market on the map.

However, IoT has already been a much larger trend in the business world during the past two years and we have covered it extensively on both ZDNet and TechRepublic. We did a special feature on it in January 2013, just as the IoT market was taking off in a big way.

And, we still hold with the primary analysis that we made almost two years ago -- the primary play for IoT is big data. It's about placing sensors throughout the world and gathering data that can be evaluated and enable better decision-making, and eventually even automation. However, the business world is still struggling to store, capture, process, and make sense of all this data -- and that remains one of the IT world's greatest challenges heading into 2015.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As 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.

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