A perspective on big IT trends for 2021

While it may seem like a bit of a fool’s errand to try and make predictions after a year that absolutely no one expected, there seem to be some interesting trends emerging across the tech world that will likely have an important impact in 2021. So, in the spirit of trying to make some sense of the chaos—and with the full acknowledgement that, once again, almost anything could happen—here’s my take on trends in a few specific areas, including cloud computing, work-from-home, semiconductors and connectivity, that I think could prove to be important this year.

In 2021, I expect to see a number of different variations on this hybrid concept—some of which are continuations of trends that have already started and others that are new. What ties many of them together is the fact that they are typically driven by very specific real-world needs that have only become apparent after the use of the baseline elements led to the discovery of limitations or flaws that initially weren’t readily apparent. And just as in the biological world, where the concept of hybrids originated, there is the possibility for a nearly limitless variety of combinations, each designed to meet very specific needs. In other words, many more opportunities, but the possibility for much more confusion as well.

This relates directly to the second big-picture theme I expect to see play out this year—an increased degree of customization and specialization.

As the tech industry matures and its impact reaches even further into business and society, an obvious step in this maturation process is creating products and services that are more uniquely suited to a wider variety of specific applications. General purpose approaches are giving way to tailored solutions, designed to meet the particular needs of organizations, industries, individuals, and environments. The end result, once again, is a significantly wider array of choices, which creates more opportunities for a bigger group of vendors to create relevant products, but also creates the potential for more complexity and confusion in the marketplace. I’d argue that we’re there already, but I have a feeling it will get worse this year.

“Hybrid Cloud, of course, will continue to be the cloud computing methodology that gains the most amount of attention from a product development, product marketing, and actual implementation perspective in 2021.”

Looking at specific tech-based hybrid implementations, Hybrid Cloud, of course, will continue to be the cloud computing methodology that gains the most amount of attention from a product development, product marketing, and actual implementation perspective in 2021.

By tying together some of the characteristics and benefits of the public cloud, along with the tangible, practical benefits of onsite computing hardware, many variations of hybrid cloud are proving to be a good real-world fit to the demands of modern IT departments.

In 2021, we’ll likely see even more variations on the hybrid cloud theme, with industry-specific and other customized solutions coming to the fore. Yes, general-purpose cloud tools can be beneficial to many, but the unique demands of different industries, company sizes, regulatory environments, and other variations are driving an explosion in new offerings.

“Hybrid work environments that incorporate tools, capabilities, and processes that allow both local and remote workers to effectively collaborate will also become the norm”

In the workplace, hybrid work environments that incorporate tools, capabilities, and processes that allow both local and remote workers to effectively collaborate will also become the norm. This topic garnered a great deal of conversation last year, but it won’t be until later this year that we actually see it getting put into practice.

The full implications of what hybrid work will entail and the specific products and services it will require are still being determined—the lessons from real-world experience will undoubtedly provide insights that are hard to imagine now. What is clear even now, however, is that companies are going to need to further adapt to this new reality and make adjustments.

Concepts like hot-desking, “hoteling”, and other new types of work models are certainly going to be part of these plans, but we will likely see other variations as well. Importantly, none of these solutions are likely to meet all the specific needs of different organizations, so I expect to see many different options and for several of them to be successful. It’s definitely not one-size fits all when it comes to hybrid work tools—even, and especially, with videoconferencing and collaboration platforms.

One obvious implication of hybrid work is that the transition to notebook PCs for virtually all types of workers seems nearly inevitable, and the opportunity for new types of easy to connect and share PC peripherals that work with those laptops will be important as well.

From a semiconductor perspective, look for dramatic growth in hybrid chip architectures, as well as a huge jump in the development of custom chips—particularly various types of application-specific accelerators, such as AI processors. Last year saw the debut of a growing number of custom silicon parts from companies like Apple and Amazon, whose primary focus is not semiconductors, and I expect that trend to continue this year.

From a semiconductor perspective, look for dramatic growth in hybrid chip architectures, as well as a huge jump in the development of custom chips.

In addition, the rise of chiplet-based designs from more traditional semiconductor vendors like Intel and AMD—where multiple separate pieces of silicon are combined into a single finished part—will also lead to more flexible, customizable types of chips in 2021.

Hybrid semiconductor design can also refer to the combination of chip elements made from different “process nodes”, or manufacturing sizes, that are packaged together in clever ways.

This move to disaggregate different components from a single, massive chip design is arguably being led by Intel, as they’ve both recognized the limitations in pursuing that strategy, while simultaneously developing interesting new chip-stacking and other intra-chip connection and packaging technologies that make it possible. In 2021, I expect these more flexible types of hybrid designs will enable things like parts from multiple different vendors, manufactured in different places to be combined into a single, highly efficient, highly customized chip.

Finally, a less obvious implementation of hybrid technologies is likely to occur in connectivity, particularly around 5G and more advanced forms of WiFi. While some have argued that these two technologies are competitive—particularly with the expected appearance of more mid-band 5G later this year in the US along with the enormous swath of 6 GHz frequencies that WiFi 6E brings to the table—the more likely scenario is that the two will serve to complement one another.

As we all learned firsthand in 2020, virtually nothing is more important than stable, fast wireless connectivity, regardless of where you are located and what type of work (or play) you are doing. As a result, efforts to increase the stability and availability of these connections is going to receive a great deal of focus.

“Imagine, for example, the ability to leverage 5G and WiFi connections simultaneously to increase the speed and reliability of a wireless link”

Of course, by themselves, cellular and WiFi signals are completely independent, but what I expect to see in 2021 is targeted development efforts at the software, hardware, and even chip level to get these technologies to work together more efficiently in a hybrid model. Imagine, for example, the ability to leverage 5G and WiFi connections simultaneously to increase the speed and reliability of a wireless link. In addition, the ability to automatically and seamlessly switch between the two technologies in the event of congestion, or other problems, with one type of connection versus another would also increase the value of both of them. In order to make this happen, there will need to be more devices that include the latest flavors of both technologies, and I expect that to be a key trend for 2021 as well.

Ultimately, I’d argue that a key theme for tech trends in 2021 will be specialization. At a high level, this means more of the advances in tech will likely be seen as more incremental than truly innovative, because many of them will be refinements to existing products and services. Sure, there’s always the possibility for a completely unanticipated major breakthrough—if we take away anything from 2020 it should be to prepare for the unexpected—but it feels to me like this isn’t the year for that. Instead, I expect the tech industry to take a step back, survey what they have to offer, make important refinements and improvements to those offerings, and prep themselves for bigger innovations in the years to follow. Note that this isn’t an indictment of the industry and its capabilities, nor is it a bad thing. As many of us learned last year, sometimes the time to think and reflect can give us a clearer view of what’s needed to come.