5 disruptive technologies to track in 2017

Savvy tech execs are keeping these cutting-edge developments on their radar screens.

Computerworld Tech Forecast 2017 - Disruptive Technologies to Track in 2017

Digital transformation is sparking change on many fronts, which means IT professionals have a lot to tackle as they head into 2017. As part of this march toward IT-driven reinvention, tech leaders are keeping watch on several emerging technologies that they believe will be catalysts for long-term innovation.

The 196 IT professionals participating in Computerworld's Tech Forecast 2017 survey zeroed in on the internet of things (IoT), self-service IT, mobile payments, artificial intelligence and next-generation Wi-Fi as some of the technologies that have the most potential to disrupt their businesses.

Here's a look at those emerging areas, with insight on how tech leaders are gearing up to respond in the year ahead.

1. IoT/M2M/telematics

Pundits project that upwards of 26 billion devices will be connected to the IoT by 2020, and that more than half of new business processes and systems will involve IoT functionality in some way by then. Currently, corporate IT shops seem to be taking a measured approach, pursuing pilot projects in lieu of full-out deployments -- a strategy that seems prudent in light of incidents like the device-driven DDoS attack in October that knocked out a significant portion of the internet.

In Computerworld's Forecast 2017 survey, 20% of the respondents said elements of the infrastructure supporting the emerging ecosystem of interconnected devices -- IoT technologies, machine-to-machine (M2M) systems and telematics -- collectively constitute the No. 1 area of new spending. And 20% separately said this category looms as the disruptive technology most likely to impact their organizations over the next three to five years.

That said, only 13% of the respondents said that they're currently beta-testing or piloting IoT projects, though 24% either have projects underway or expect to launch one in 2017.

Even before the DDoS incident, Douglas Davis, information systems coordinator at Monical's Pizza, said he had serious reservations about the security implications of IoT technologies. In particular, he worries about the possibility of tampering with freezers and ovens, which are critical for day-to-day operations and sales at the Bradley, Ill.-based company's 60-plus pizza shops, located in several Midwestern college towns. "When you talk about IoT, I'm a firm believer that the more things you connect to the internet, the more things can be messed with," he says.

Computerworld - Tech Forecast 2017 - Fact and Figures for the Year Ahead [slide-05] Computerworld

Security issues aside, the benefits of IoT are still nebulous, says John Lauderbach, vice president of IT at Boston supermarket chain Roche Bros. Lauderbach says he sees huge potential in the idea of leveraging sensors to monitor everything from how long shoppers linger at a particular display to the impact of greenhouse gases on operations -- eventually. "I don't know too many doing anything with IoT yet, but it's certainly coming," he says. "It will help us be less reactive and more proactive."

2. Self-service IT

Business users, empowered by easy-to-deploy cloud services and easy-to-use consumer technologies, are marching to the beat of their own drum, increasingly mustering control over technology deployments without oversight from IT.

Instead of fighting such efforts, IT groups should look at the rise of so-called shadow IT as an opportunity to offload some mundane work so they can focus on more strategic initiatives. Deploying tools that help business users help themselves can free up IT staffers to work on other things.

Some 22% of the respondents to our Forecast 2017 survey said self-service IT was the most disruptive technology for their business, an indication that IT organizations are starting to catch on and factor self-service IT capabilities into their long-term plans.

At the Washington State Department of Corrections, self-service capabilities have improved the 185-person IT staff's ability to effectively cover all of the support needs of the agency's 9,500 corrections officers, staffers, contractors and volunteers. The IT help desk is now able to handle all of the calls it receives -- somewhere between 400 and 600 daily, the majority related to password resets and account access -- thanks to a service management platform and a knowledge base portal that enable users to resolve common issues on their own, according to systems and applications supervisor Michelle Greene.

The reconfigured self-service portal accepts emails from users, automatically inserts default topics in the subject line (such as "Reset my password in SAP-GUI") and replies with relevant data from the knowledge base. "It provides an instant convenience as well as coverage during the 24-hours-a-day/seven-days-a-week schedule kept by correctional staff," says Greene. "This improves the overall productivity of our IT staff as customers can help themselves, while freeing up IT professionals to tackle more complex issues affecting public safety."

3. Mobile payments

As the smartphone morphs from a communications tool into a lifestyle device, companies that sell things to people are starting to embrace mobile payments as a prerequisite for doing business, especially if they're courting millennials and consumers in urban areas.

According to research from the Pew Charitable Trusts, nearly seven in 10 U.S. adults own smartphones, and owning a smartphone is the most common catalyst for adopting some form of mobile payment. Of people already using a mobile payment tool, 72% are millennials or Gen Xers, and most are more likely to live in metropolitan areas, have bank accounts and be college-educated, according to the Pew research. Younger people see value in mobile payments for a variety of reasons, from convenience to their desire to cash in on incentives and rewards offers.

For organizations selling products to that demographic, mobile payment tools have inched up on the IT project priority list. In the Computerworld Forecast 2017 survey, 20% of the respondents cited mobile payments as the most disruptive technology on their dockets moving forward.

Monical's Pizza has already adopted mobile payments, driven by demand from its college student customers. In addition to letting customers use a number of mobile payment options, including Apple Pay and Google Wallet, the chain is also investigating using mobile apps to help customers manage gift cards and to drive sales to individual stores with e-incentives.

"The reality is you have to be able to take the guest's payment in whatever form they wish to offer it," says Davis. "In our case, being in so many college towns, we have to accept mobile pay."

4. Artificial intelligence

Once the stuff of summer blockbuster movies and science fiction novels, artificial intelligence and knowledge-based systems are creeping into the enterprise courtesy of emerging technologies like the IoT and big data, and they're popularized by high-profile initiatives like some of the projects IBM has undertaken with its Watson platform.

A recent study by Stanford University took a look at how A.I. and smart technologies will impact life in 2030 across eight categories, from employment to healthcare and transportation. Among its conclusions: A.I. will drive advances in autonomous vehicles and aerial delivery drones that will change both travel and city living; in healthcare, smart sensors will serve as lifelines for patients, helping to monitor vital signs and collect data about blood pressure, glucose levels and much more.

Accordingly, in the Computerworld Forecast 2017 survey, 19% of respondents said they viewed A.I. and knowledge-based systems as the most disruptive technology on the horizon over the next few years.

In the business sector, companies are exploring how to fold A.I. and machine learning into mainstream enterprise and automation applications -- mostly through the use of predictive analytics. It's still early days, however, despite the potential for A.I. to raise the bar and bring efficiencies to customer service, business operations and even cybersecurity.

At Roche Bros., Lauderbach says the supermarket chain has no specific near-term plans for A.I., but he sees huge potential for the technology to transform the company's operations. He says A.I. could be tapped to optimize and reduce myriad costs related to network bandwidth or energy use and, when used in concert with robots, it could improve mundane tasks like checking prices and verifying compliance with vendors' planograms -- schematic representations of how shelves should be stocked. "These are really boring tasks that robots can do famously," he says. "It's coming."

5. Next-generation Wi-Fi

The vision for a connected universe of smart homes, wearables, cars and everything in between has set the stage for a new iteration of Wi-Fi technology, one that's specifically designed to support the low-power, long-range requirements of IoT applications.

An emerging wireless protocol known as Wi-Fi HaLow, which is based on the still developing IEEE 802.11ah standard and is championed by the Wi-Fi Alliance, promises to double the range of standard Wi-Fi connections and leverage the 900MHz part of the spectrum to break through obstacles like walls and cover long distances to deliver power-efficient connectivity.

In addition to featuring numerous security and interoperability enhancements, HaLow is also said to be capable of supporting thousands of devices per access point, making it easier for municipal officials, businesses and individuals to track all the possible connected endpoints.

Although Wi-Fi HaLow is still in its infancy and certified products are not expected until 2018, IT organizations are already feeling the heat to get next-generation Wi-Fi road maps in place. In the Computerworld Forecast 2017 survey, 18% of the respondents cited next-generation Wi-Fi as the most disruptive technology they will have to deal with over the next three to five years.

Mott Community College (MCC), in Flint, Mich., plans to ease its way into the new technology one step at a time. The college just completed an upgrade to its existing Wi-Fi network, integrating beacons and Google maps to support a new interactive campus map application, and more upgrades are on the horizon.

Campus safety will be a priority next year and beyond, and future iterations of Wi-Fi will play a role in efforts to improve safety. "With all of the school shootings going on everywhere, we're upgrading and improving our security cameras . . . and Wi-Fi is tied to that," says Cheryl Shelton, MCC's CTO. "We're spending a lot of time on campus safety."

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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