Before we break into 2009 and consider what the future may offer, it is worthwhile looking back to review the year that passed. So I’ll do that right now, in real time.
2008 was a signature year of change - and not just in politics and economics. The changes in technology and the technology market were many and various, and some were profound. Here are the ones that I suspect were the most important.
The GPU and the CPU: The GPU (graphics processing unit) is in the process of usurping the CPU on client computers and access devices (but not servers where a GPU has no relevance). This is bringing Intel into direct competition with Nvidia (NASDAQ:NVDA). (see What is a GPU and Why is it Important?)
Why important: This is causing a genuine divergence in the computer market between PCs and other “client access devices” and server computers. In all probability, they will no longer follow parallel paths. Additionally, this is shaking up the chip market, with NVIDIA threatening Intel’s (NASDAQ:INTC) hegemony.
The evolution of the CPU, by other means: There are other disruptive developments occurring in chip technology. They include HP’s (NYSE:HPQ) recent announcement of the memristor (a new on-chip component that will change the architecture of the cpu itself) and advances in using graphine, which promises chips that run 100x faster than now. Both show sufficient promise to suggest they could have an early impact on the industry.
Why important: The CPU is the engine that pulls everything else. If the cpu changes in a significant way, then everything else is affected sooner or later.
Flash Memory gets faster and cheaper. Flash memory is falling in price fast (it used to be 100x the cost of disk a few years ago, now it’s 8x and falling) and the speed differential is increasing. Flash speeds overtook disk speeds recently.
Why important: Flash takes less space, consumes less power and has no moving parts. The age of the spinning disk is coming to an end - and yet most of the applications we run are engineered for spinning disk. So it is likely that this will provoke a consequential revolution in database software.
Note: USB is now updated to USB 3.0, which will be 10x faster USB 2.0. So thumb drives are here to stay, probably in a big way.
Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) triumphant. In 2008 the Apple Mac ceased to be a niche platform. Its commercial success was boosted by the remarkable success of the iPhone. In my last posting on PC market share (see Apple Market Share: The Sound of Breaking Windows) I noted that, without even trying, Apple is now making in-roads into the business market on the desktop.
Why important: The Windows monopoly has been broken and is unlikely to be re-established. The market has grown beyond the point of Apple being just a niche vendor and the market is diversifying.
Note also: The appearance and popularity of netbooks (sub-notebooks). They are also undermining the Windows (NASDAQ:MSFT) monopoly by forcing the price of Windows down.
The iPhone revolution. While we’re on the subject of Apple, we need to hail the success of the App store. It is transforming the mobile market - and all Apple has done is to implement it’s end-to-end iTunes music model to sell software. It has had the effect of turning the iPhone into (optionally) a games device.
Why important: It’s not just the fact that it’s good for Apple’s business, although it is - notice how quickly Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (with Android) and RIM (RIMM) followed suit. What it demonstrates clearly is that the mobile carriers are ultimately in deep trouble. They have no value to add beyond temporary and (in the long term) trivial capabilities like SMS. They own the railroad track but not the trains and they don’t even have a monopoly on the railroad track.
Google Chrome. Google entered the browser business by releasing Google Chrome, thus challenging the dominance of Mozilla (FireFox), Microsoft (IE) and the aspiring Apple (Safari).
Why important: It was important because Chrome wasn’t just another browser. Google Chrome treats each individual tab as a separate session (if one fails, the others don’t suddenly fail). It may be accidental, but this is an acknowledgment that the browser is “the desktop of the cloud.” The gradual realization of this and the merging of cloud desktop with client desktop will change computing. (For more on this read Why Google Chrome Will Dominate.)
Note also: The emergence of new cloud-facing development products such as Microsoft SilverLight and Adobe (NASDAQ:ADBE) Air.
Social networks blossom. Social networks continued to hit the news in 2008 as Twitter sprouted up from almost nowhere and Facebook grew like bamboo in the spring. If anything is going to challenge Google, and it could be that nothing actually will, then it is likely to emerge from the social networking space - Facebook being the current possible contender. (See Ten Reasons Why Twitter Rocks for information on Twitter)
Why important: It’s the social networks that are actually introducing the applications that telecomms companies should have been building and introducing. They are eating the telco’s lunch. The telecom industry spent over a century building infrastructure, but never devoted much time to building applications. Now it has completely lost control of the communications applications market.
Note also: The rise of developer ecosystems around successful social networks. A developer ecosystem can be a very valuable thing - go ask Microsoft.
The emergence powerful network switches. I’m referring to the introduction of hugely powerful switches by both Brocade (NASDAQ:BRCD) and Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO), which have the potential to turn networks into manageable virtual resource spaces. (read The Server Vendors v Cisco: Is This A New Technology War? for more details)
Why important: This could impact the IT industry in many ways. One possibility is that it will undermine the strategic position of hardware vendors IBM, HP, DELL at al. However technically it makes it far more feasible to treat a corporate network as a single resource space that is deployed (i.e. provisioned with resources) dynamically.
The cloud rises. In 2008, “the cloud” went mainstream with a large number of software vendors adding the “extra sales channel” of the cloud to their marketing efforts. What began with SalesForce.com (NYSE:CRM) and Google (with some contribution from Oracle (NASDAQ:ORCL)) is now becoming a genuinely new channel.
Why important: As most people have noted, cloud computing is destined to prosper in the recession. (For more detail read Everything as a Service: The Growth of Cloud Computing) for more information.
All virtualization all the time. Virtualization is the direct outcome of decades of Moore’s Law and it is becoming ubiquitous. The server, the desktop, the laptop, both the OS and apps and even the client personalization layer is getting virtualized, and so is the network. (Click on virtualization links for links to several articles on virtualization.)
Why important: This is extremely disruptive in many ways; to software licensing models, to vendor stability, to data center management and to data center costs. The opportunity exists to cut costs and optimize the use of computer resources, but it will not be achieved easily. The IT network is gradually becoming one very large virtual mainframe - which is fine, but right now it has no management software.