6 bold tech predictions: Fact or fantasy?

Our experts give a reality check to some provocative analyst forecasts about the future of technology and IT departments

IT has been a transformational — even revolutionary — force in government, business and society. But the clues that can foreshadow seismic shifts are often buried in the bland market reports that are the staple of the tech industry, such as the surging sales of a particular type of microprocessor or one software application becoming more popular at the expense of another.

But every so often, industry analysts and observers share a vision of the future that grabs our attention. Below are six such predictions made in the past year. They conjure a slice of reality significantly different from the one in which we live and work today.

What are we to make of these bold prognostications? Are they the self-interested ruminations of people peddling market research reports? Or do they depict a future that government technology executives are also preparing for?

We asked a couple of experts to tell us whether they think the predictions are valid for the government sector. Our reality checkers are David Fletcher, Utah's chief technology officer, and Art Fritzson, a senior vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton.

1. One out of five businesses will own no IT assets by 2012, Gartner analysts predict. They say several interrelated trends are driving the movement toward decreased IT hardware assets. That includes virtualization, cloud-enabled services, and employees using their own desktop and laptop PCs on enterprise networks.

Fletcher: Virtualization and cloud services are both critically important trends for government and will result in major reductions in the number of hardware assets — servers, in particular — managed by government. Meanwhile, the number of virtual assets should climb significantly. Many governments will remain reluctant to support personal devices due to security and privacy issues related to government-held data.

Fritzson: I think the government will adopt a model that focuses on a platform of managed and shared services at the subagency level, but maybe not as quickly as 2012. There are long-term support and acquisition cycles (read: momentum) that will take longer to overcome. But the pressures are enormous to do this. And, in somewhat of a contrast to the private sector, I think we might see the server-side assets go first, before desktops/laptops.

2. Seventy-five percent or more of jobs in stand-alone IT departments will disappear by 2015, according to the Corporate Executive Board. Some of the responsibilities of the lost jobs will have moved to external providers or migrated to mission-focused roles in other departments.

Fletcher: Government IT departments are still largely decentralized in 2010. A growing trend in centralization of government IT will result in an increase in the size of central IT shops even though there will be a net decrease in total IT staffing numbers as central IT becomes more efficient and more services move to the cloud. Technologists who can help organize, understand and use data will continue to be in demand by government.

Fritzson: Those agencies that have continued to outsource most of these jobs (i.e. to government contractors) will stay on this track and experience cost savings most quickly. However, agencies that have insourced these functions to government employees are unlikely to see those positions go away, due to government personnel rules and related issues. Even where jobs aren’t cut, there will be changes, such as an increase in data, information, analytics and intelligence-related positions.

3. One trillion devices will be connected to the Internet by 2013, said Cisco Systems CTO Padmasree Warrior at a conference earlier this year. Added to the current base of about 35 billion devices will be an explosion in remote sensors and new mobile devices, creating huge opportunities for new applications.

Fletcher: Mobile devices will expand greatly in government, particularly smart phones and pad devices. Some devices, such as the desktop phone, will begin to disappear. IP-enabled cameras, health sensors, transportation and weather sensors, smart grids, fleet vehicles, and robotic equipment are among the millions of devices and systems that government will want connected to its networks.

Fritzson: This is already happening — and at an accelerating pace. We see novel uses of cell phones in government applications for remote data entry, sensing and collection in health care, transportation, defense and intelligence, among others. I think the public sector will keep pace with or exceed the private sector but in different areas. Against all of this, we can be certain the issues of privacy, bandwidth management and data storage will play increasingly critical roles.

4. The government can save $1 trillion in 10 years by harnessing certain proven technologies, says the Technology CEO Council. The feds can achieve those savings by consolidating data centers and implementing other IT efficiency measures, using analytic software to root out fraud in spending and entitlement programs and streamlining government procurement.

Fletcher: Virtualization and cloud computing make data center consolidation a must. Savings opportunities are significant, as are opportunities to improve security, performance and business continuity. This is a trend that is already moving forward and will continue to gain momentum. Business intelligence means a lot more than graphs and charts. It’s about making use of massive volumes of data to improve real-time operations. All levels of government cannot ignore these opportunities.

Fritzson: It is very possible to achieve enormous savings in some of these areas if — and it’s a big if — we can produce effective solutions in privacy and security in a consolidated or cloud-like environment. Concerns about security and privacy, because of the potential for legal and political exposure, might be a bigger drag on government adoption than in the private sector. Ultimately, it might come down more to shifting costs and priorities than cutting spending.

5. One in four personal computing devices sold will be tablets by 2015, Forrester analysts predict.

Fletcher: There is fast-growing interest in government for tablet devices and a tremendous market potential, particularly for mobile workers and executives. Virtual desktop technology will add functionality to the tablet, further adding to its utility. There will be a huge growth in the app market environments, and government will jump on board, both for enterprise and public-facing services. This increase in apps will make such devices even more desirable as productivity enhancers. Forrester’s prediction looks conservative.

Fritzson: I think that estimate might be low if we’re talking about the combined tablet and laptop market. In that market, I think tablets will have a bigger impact. On the other hand, if we include smart phones as personal computing devices, I think we’ll continue to see a blurring of lines between tablets and smart phones, making it harder to count using today’s interpretation. I don’t see much difference between the public and private sectors on this one.

6. Data will grow by 800 percent in the next five years, according to Gartner analysts. Eighty percent of it will be the unstructured variety, such as text and media files. That can be the most challenging kind to manage and use.

Fletcher: Technology will make unstructured data more manageable than ever before, but technology also makes such data easier to create. Eight hundred percent growth seems plausible, and that trend will apply to government as well. Much of the data will be public, and government will need to find ways to ensure privacy and security while addressing the growing demand for open data.

Fritzson: This estimate feels low to me. Machine-readable data will likely grow faster than Moore’s Law — i.e. it will probably more than double every year. I agree that text and media will dominate even as new technologies emerge, such as automated tagging and cloud-scale storage and manipulation, to make it easier to manage and use. The vastly increased use of government-operated sensing devices — for example, unmanned aerial vehicles in defense and civil applications — will only serve to accelerate these trends.

Box: Readers Chime In

We asked our website visitors what they thought about these predictions. Here are some of their comments.

"One out of five businesses will own no IT assets by 2012." Well, forget virtualization and enterprise networks then [because] those require IT assets. Must be employees using personally owned equipment connecting directly to cloud services (4G?). "Seventy-five percent or more of jobs in stand-alone IT departments will go away by 2015." Hmm, in less than five years? All that restructuring. And employee training. And with huge growth predicted in tech. Call me skeptical.
oregon

These forecasts are in the right direction but may be understated. Technology enables explosive growth and new opportunities to excel. As for individual forecasts, I have been buying tablet PCs as gifts for family members.
Anonymous

The first two may fall short due to security concerns. The one about government savings is about the potential. I think [the current] mindset will prevent us from reaping that potential savings. I believe that if it weren't for [that] mindset the government would be doing more with much less today. I thought the Bush administration would champion this in the name of more efficient government. They didn't. I thought the Obama administration would champion this. They won't because of their union mindset.
M Reston

Given that clouds don't meet many federal IT security requirements, I don't see many government IT programs using commercial clouds.
Tom

Where are the flying cars? They promised me flying cars!
Anonymous

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