Enterprise tech trends we'll see in 2011

While he doesn't have chicken bones, magic potions or divining sticks, Patrick Gray makes his best guesses for what we will see in technology in the coming months.

It's always fun to play grizzled-old seer and attempt to stare into the crystal ball and predict the future. While I don't have any chicken bones, magic potions, or divining sticks, here are my best guesses for what we will see in technology in the coming months.

"Tablet Mania" will continue, but not in the enterprise

Everywhere you look these last few months, another company is offering its take on the "iPad killer," and understandably so. When Apple can sell its device as fast as they can manufacture them, a raft of imitators with dollar signs in their eyes is bound to appear. While these devices are an interesting form factor, and at this point great content-consumption devices, I just don't see them making a huge impact in the enterprise, unless a couple of major shifts happen.

First off, we need to see a tablet that can be used to easily create content. Pecking away at the finicky onscreen keyboards of the current crop of tablets is something only a true tablet devotee can love. Furthermore, if you are like the average worker, you're not watching HD video or reading eBooks at work, but you're composing e-mails and documents, giving presentations, and doing that perennial boring thing known as "work."

Handwriting recognition, combined with a gesture-based operating system, seems to be a natural fit for these devices, but no vendor currently pulls this off well. If the average person in finance can make some quick pen-based edits on a spreadsheet, then finger tap her way to a website, we're making progress. Basically we need the ease of navigation found on the iPad, with the applications and pen capabilities of Windows.

The second shift is that we need new thinking in current collaboration software. For tablets to truly be useful in a corporate setting, I need to be able to easily share a document or supporting material with a roomful of tablets, allow each person to view and annotate their material, and then store the results in a format as natural as a paper notebook.

From a finance perspective, when many companies are providing a laptop and a smartphone, adding another $500+ device to the mix is going to be a tough sell. I do hope for some creative form factors that enable a tablet to act as a laptop replacement, combined with wireless keyboards, mice, and docking stations that allow a desktop or laptop experience when necessary and a pure tablet format when needed. While Microsoft tried to do this with TabletPC, most "convertibles" were clunky and costly. With so many players, keep an eye out for something compelling in 2011.

Location-based services make headway

Pundits have been predicting a groundswell of location-based services for a decade, but the tools are finally in place: ubiquitous GPS-enabled phones and more readiness for individuals to share their location. This will become important for B2C companies as the race to offer location-tailored advertising grows heated, but it also opens the door for more creativity in enterprise applications. Imagine a sales tool that has customer information waiting for the rep as he checks his phone before walking into a client, or targeted marketing campaigns that can price down to a city block. Be careful to make any initial location-based applications user-friendly and beneficial, rather than big brother-style tracking and monitoring tools.

Attack of the smartphones

If you haven't started supporting iPhones, Androids, and Windows Phone 7, in 2011 your hand will likely be forced. Thanks to Microsoft, all these devices can talk to the nearly ubiquitous Exchange mail server, and with employees far less receptive to having to carry a dedicated (and likely boring) work phone, people from the CEO down are going to want their smartphone integrated with enterprise services.

Seek to create a supportive and device-independent policy around allowing personal smartphones to access corporate email and other services. If you tie the policy to the device, you'll likely be creating a new one every three months.

Virtualization heats up

While more of an industry prediction, I don't think we'll see the three major players be able to survive in the long run in the virtualization space, and I predict price wars, especially targeted toward smaller companies, and perhaps one of the players acquiring another.

Virtualization will get easier to implement (even my tiny company is now on a virtual infrastructure), and ancillary players will make it amazingly simple to create, back up, and migrate servers to the point where applications tied to physical hardware will seem rather quaint.

"Cloud" gets grounded

My last cloud article generated quite a bit of commentary. Some thought that I oversimplified cloud computing or implied that it was not useful in any form. To clarify, there are many significant and useful cloud-based services, but conceptually and practically, they are the same as the decades of technologies that allowed third parties to take over various aspects of internal infrastructure.

In the coming year I predict that the hype surrounding the cloud will subside, and the best vendors will thrive while those with little more than a cloud "snake oil" pitch to their name will rapidly dwindle, all to the betterment of the industry at large. Simply saying "cloud" with breathless reverence will no longer impress your peers, CEO, or CFO, but the compelling financial benefits and increased service levels that can be accomplished though a savvy cloud implementation will.