Something is going to happen in the tech industry in next several years that will surprise us. It will shock us. And the whole industry will make a left turn.
It may be a product. It may be a technology. It may be a new company. We've seen it happen over and over again with developments from the integrated circuit to the Macintosh computer to the web browser to the Google search engine. Often, innovation comes from unexpected places.
But, there are also developments we see gathering long before they ever become an industry standard or a dominating force. Right now, there are three of these forces that are preparing to define both the tech industry and society over the next 10 years.
1. Here comes everything
Virtually everything is getting connected to the cloud, including plenty of things that make us wonder. Don't be surprised if we soon see internet-connected tattoos that you can change the colors with an app from your smartphone. That's how outrageous and ubiquitous it's all getting.
Of course, there are plenty of far more useful examples of what the Internet of Things (IoT) can do, and a lot more coming. It's going to change the way we interact with our homes, our offices, our cars, our gardens, our pets, and our kids. In business, it's going to fuel a new wave of automation, eliminate even menial labor jobs, and create tons of new jobs for data scientists and engineers to take all of the data collected by IoT and turn it into useful insights and automated processes.
A decade from now, the next generation of kids is going to be asking their parents to tell them stories about the time when the internet was something you mostly visited with a piece of a software, rather than something that silently connected almost everything.
Don't forget — as TechRepublic and ZDNet predicted in our first in-depth report about IoT in January 2013 — that IoT is essentially about the data. It's one of the primary pillars of big data. It's the one that's going to have the biggest impact on the future because it touches virtually every industry and almost every aspect of the economy.
Take a good look at the user interfaces of today. A decade from now, they are going to be antiques that will be so unfamiliar that we may even regard them with the kind of nostalgia we reserve for things like vinyl records. They will be odd relics of a more rigid era.
Today's interfaces are all about being as simple as possible in order to work for as many different people as possible. The next generation of user interfaces will be just the opposite — massively complex algorithms that will be enormously personalized. It's going to change computing. It's going to change commerce. It's going to change the way we interact with government, education, healthcare, banks, and more.
In 10 years, user interfaces will be obsessed with meeting your individual needs. And, it won't ask you what your needs are and you won't usually tell it. It's going to anticipate them for you, based on the mountain of data it knows about you. As creepy as that sounds, once it's here it's going to make things so much faster and more convenient that it will change user expectations forever. Many UIs that aren't customized will feel rigid and outdated. You will see the things that matter to you, the data you need will seek you out, and the UI itself will automatically adapt to your patterns and preferences.
This sea change is beginning to come to life in a few very simple ways with things like Google Now, which sounded very creepy when it was first introduced but has turned out to be useful enough that many Google users love it and now depend on it (here's what I wrote about it two years ago). So, micro-personalization is coming. It's going to scare you. You're probably going to love it. And, it's going to change your businesses and completely reset user expectations.
A larger question is what will it mean for society? If for example, you go to a news site and it surfaces articles that are most likely to jive with your ideological views, and thus reinforces them and doesn't show you conflicting points of view. Mass culture is a powerful unifying force in society, but it often suppresses and diminishes minority viewpoints Micro-personalization could have the opposite effect. This is a larger question for another article, but worth considering as part of this topic.
3. The energy challenge
The Internet of Things and micro-personalization are both powered by big data. The third trend is power itself.
Energy is arguably the biggest challenge society faces over the next 50 years. It underlies almost everything in technology and innovation. And while we are getting more efficient in the ways we use power, the demand for it is increasing at a voracious rate — especially for electricity, which of course powers information technology.
"Electricity demand is increasing twice as fast as overall energy use and is likely to rise by more than two-thirds [from] 2011 to 2035," according the the World Nuclear Association.
The demand for clean, sustainable energy — solar, hydro, wind, etc. — is especially strong, as the world tries to wean itself off of unsustainable, ecologically harmful fossil fuels. Two of the biggest challenges that are holding back clean energy are storage and transmission. The current power grid is not designed to optimize this kind of power.
That's where the emerging field of cleantech comes in. While it's technology that is driving much of the increased demand for energy, it's also technology that is being called upon to help solve the looming energy challenges by tackling the storage and transmission problems. Part of that involves creating a "smart grid" (or microgrids) — a more sophisticated electrical grid that can handle renewable energy — but it also includes other things like water management, waste management, alternative transportation systems, sustainable design, creating new energy efficiencies, and more. There's even the newly emerging field of cleantech-as-a-service that could help connect some of the disparate parts of the cleantech ecosystem.
This is likely to be one of the most robust sectors of the tech industry in the years ahead because it's tackling such a huge and universally-applicable problem. If we fail to figure out the energy challenges, it will limit future innovation and — in the worst case scenario — even lead to energy rations and international conflicts. So, the technology world is practically destined to rally around the problem. Cloud computing, big data, IoT, security, mobile devices, and other aspects of the tech sector will be put to use to help solve the energy challenge.
Jason Hiner has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Jason Hiner is Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about how technology is changing the way we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.