Science fiction novels and films have long predicted 2021 – some, better than others. We have to admit that Alfonso Cuarón's 2006 adaptation of P.D. James' novel Children of Men got a lot more right than the one other masterpiece set in 2021, the 1995 Keanu Reeves thriller Johnny Mnemonic, which posited that Keanu Reeves' brain had the storage capacity of a mid-range iPhone.
But, thanks to the hundreds of tech experts that we've polled for the most likely trends of 2021, we can deliver a huge range of educated predictions about how the tech industry will evolve in the new year.
Unsurprisingly, expected advances in AI and financial technology (fintech) were common responses. Both types of tech are fast-growing, and their impacts will be felt across a gamut of industries. But, the experts dug into far more for our wide-ranging 2021 round of fortune-telling. Due for a great year in 2021 are solar tech, speech tech, and electric vehicles. Due for a hectic one? Cybersecurity.
Here are our 12 takeaways on everything from the death of the corporate headquarters to the rise of the billion-dollar ransomware heist.
- Ecommerce expansion drives a faster, more secure internet
- AI becomes human
- Remote work is here to stay
- …which will kill the corporate headquarters
- But we'll see a remote-work-powered speech tech boom!
- … but more remote work means more phishing attacks
- And the US government further abandons victims of identity theft
- Ransomware attacks will accelerate
- Oh, and the business world will change permanently
- We'll actually care a tiny bit about climate change
- 2020 wasn't 5G's breakout year — and 2021 won't be either
- Solar PV tech will smash records, though
Chart from SeekingAlpha, using data from ShawSpring Research, Bank of America, U.S. Department of Commerce
Ecommerce leapt forward in 2020 after the pandemic cramped everyone's ability to step outside their front door. The percentage of retail sales that were ecommerce jumped from 16% to 27% across the first few months of the shutdowns. And when that much infrastructure changes, it doesn't go back.
“Consumers adapted very quickly and formed new habits with online shopping that they won’t want to change,” notes Ethan McAfee, although as the founder and CEO at Amazon-as-a-service partner Amify we have to admit he has some skin in the game.
But others agree, and some highlight other types of ecommerce-adjacent tech that may crop up in 2021.
“Remote and virtual shopping assistants and membership-based services will likely change the way small businesses continue to develop online,” says Dima Peteva, Brand & Culture Director at SiteGround. “To contrast the physical shopper's experience, lots of brands have switched to virtual assistance, where you can actually book a video call with an agent and look around the store and browse their collections.”
One big ecommerce growing pain to expect? Website accessibility. “I predict more retailers will adopt strategies and solutions to make their digital content accessible to their underrepresented customers,” says David Moradi, CEO at AudioEye. If an ecommerce platform doesn't keep those who are blind, hard of hearing, epileptic or dyslexic at the top of their mind during every step of development, they're asking for legal action.
Websites will also have to up their security and their website speed, Peteva adds: “In order for most things to happen online, live-streaming and website servers will need to continue to become faster and faster, to accommodate a high-amount of traffic.” A bolstered consumer interest on ecommerce will be a problem for anyone who doesn't boost security, with Macy's $195,000 data breach settlement from last June serving as a cautionary tale.
See our guide to the best ecommerce website builders
Mark Gazit, CEO of ThetaRay, holds that AI is headed towards a new generation, one that makes it more human then ever, with the equivalent of common sense or gut feelings: Artificial Intuition, the ability to make accurate deductions from partial information.
“Historically, algorithms were more about machine learning and neural networks. We are now seeing more and more machines that are self-contained and can teach and train themselves in a way that is remarkably similar to the subconscious part of the human brain. In other words, algorithms used to mimic the analytic part of the brain; now they are mimicking the largest, most powerful, and most intriguing part of the human brain, which we call common sense, gut feelings, and intuition.”
If that sounds too science fictional for you, maybe Deon Nicholas, the founder of Forethought, can help break it down. He also thinks the direction of AI development will make a big change, and calls the next paradigm shift in AI “Natural Language Understanding” (NLU).
This branch of AI research enables direct human-computer interaction by designing software to process full sentences. It'll replace “computer vision,” the type of AI that has dominated all of tech since about 2014, and brought us the self-driving car.
“If computer vision allows AI to see,” says Nicholas, “NLU allows it to read, learn, and speak. This is one of the most defining issues of our time, with NLU now moving on a similar curve as computer vision did years ago.”
We're no experts, but we do know one thing; self-driving cars aren't doing that great despite years of hype, and responding by restarting AI from scratch is at least a promising move. And this time, let's all try to make the new AI less biased against women and minorities.
Sure, working from home has seen a huge and unexpected boost in 2020, but that's clearly due to the pandemic. Once it's safe to return to normal, we'll either find that the shift to remote work was a permanent sea-change or we'll find the tide going right back out.
But an original survey out from payroll and HR startup OnPay indicates that the change will hold. Their recent survey found that 65% of small businesses say they plan to support a form of work from home option after the pandemic end — a number up 21% from the start of 2020.
“Working from home is usually much more feasible for tech workers than employees in other industries,” OnPay marketer Elliott Brown says, “so we predict tech will see smaller offices, more working from home, and an increase in geographically distributed teams.”
For tech companies, this might mean a shift towards a more nimble, remote-friendly IT team.
“One of our key learnings, reflecting back on the past 10 months,” says Align Technology Senior Vice President Sreelakshmi Kolli, “is that the digital mindset is critical in keeping an organization resilient in times of crisis.” Key to this are “small, empowered IT teams that are able to control the backlog, technology and releases, and deliver exceptional solutions to customers.”
Business leaders will definitely be making some tough return-to-work choices in the near future. Organizations that make the shift to a hybrid work model on a cultural level (not just within their IT team) will be best positioned to succeed in 2021, and will offer more flexibility to their employees in the process.
With a hybrid work environment comes the need to invest in systems that support employees' home-based productivity — Check out Tech.co's guide to the top recommended remote desktop software over here.
Daniel Chait, CEO and Co-founder of Greenhouse Software, notes one aspect of the remote work shift: Companies have already put in the effort to change their company cultures by changing schedules, finding new meeting formats, and purchasing new remote-friendly tools. They've also began to “realize the savings of not having physical offices.” Vivian Welsh, chief people officer at Veeva Systems, builds out the prediction further:
“Companies will maintain physical office spaces throughout the country; HQ will become ‘just another office' and employers will encourage a ‘Work Anywhere' policy that lets employees choose where they want to work. Whatever works best for them – office, home or a home/hub hybrid approach,” says Welsh.
In other words, the big shift in remote work will crown new winners and new losers. In the former category is the idea of a physical homebase. So who wins?
Since most companies will be continuing remote work through 2021, there will be a renaissance in speech tech, the catch-all term for technology that revolves around the spoken word, from auto-transcription to speech recognition APIs to audio-first communication platforms.
“The urgent shift to remote work has forced companies to quickly adapt, with most meetings, sales presentations, HR conversations, and more now taking place over video conferencing,” says Deepgram founder Scott Stephenson. “As a result, we’ve seen more organizations invest in speech recognition software to transcribe conversations, identify insights and trends, and unlock value for the business.”
Stephenson predicts a growing number of enterprises will allocate greater budgets towards voice-enabled agent and customer facing experiences. As the speech tech space gets heartier, software providers will start competing in order to get the last word (pun intended, I'm so sorry).
Distributed workforce dynamics might be easier on workers' schedules, but office workers are like gazelles: Separate them from the herd and they're easier to pick off. (This is pretty much the only way they're like gazelles.)
Kowsik Guruswamy, CTO at Menlo Security, notes that we saw an uptick in social engineering and impersonation attacks soon after lockdowns began.
“This is only going to increase next year,” Guruswamy says, “especially in larger organizations where the distributed workforce have yet to meet many of their colleagues in person. Prior to the era of remote work, you could walk to a person’s desk and ask them for clarification before assuming an email is legitimate. Now that convenience is gone, leaving an opening for hackers to take advantage as more companies remain remote.”
The growing ease with which bad actors can trick and hack a growing remote workforce is a recipe for a brand-new crop of hackers. After all, 2021's graduating class will be entering a workforce in which entry level jobs are frozen, and they'll need to put food on the table, too.
Ironically, job-seekers are a group vulnerable to attacks too, says Jon Perez, Director of Emerging Threats & Detection Research at IronNet, since malicious actors always target the most vulnerable groups and demographics. The one other potential vector for phishing attacks is the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
Finally, a tip of the hat to Thom Langford, a Gigaom analyst who offered what feels like the best bet out of all the predictions in this article: “Nothing really changes; phishing will still be the number one cause of cybercrime as humans remain the number one vulnerability that criminals attack.”
See our guide to the best antivirus software for business
The U.S. government has already cut resources that once flowed to the victims of financial and identity crime, dropping its total crime victim services from $3.7 billion in 2018 to $1.9 billion today, and even the majority of those funds in prosecutors offices and police departments. The Indentity Theft Resource Center believes that trend will continue across the next 12 months.
“Discretionary grants awarded to victim services organizations dropped from $311 million in 2019 to $144 million in 2020, the service notes. “Funds to programs that support victims of financial crimes, including identity crimes and compromises, cybercrime and scams/fraud have been reduced to $0.”
That's not great news when paired with our prediction about the surge in phishing attacks. But the reign of 2021 cybercrime could get even worse.
Bad news for every CISO hoping their 2021 will go smoothly, because they can expect a sharp rise in ransomware attacks, both from ransomware-as-a-service hackers and from nation states. This prediction comes from Michael Rezek, VP of cybersecurity strategy at network performance analytics company Accedian (although he was echoed by many other expert respondents this year).
“With the COVID-19 pandemic surging around the world,” Rezek says, “ransomware attacks are likely to continue well into 2021, with nation-state organizations increasingly targeting hospitals, state and local governments, and healthcare researchers.”
What's the solution? Looking critically at network detection & response solutions (NDR), as well as endpoint security approaches. Smaller companies won't have the resources, so they should stick with managed security services such as managed defense and response. Employees will need to be educated on the risks, and even simple cybersecurity practices like updating passwords can help.
Need better password practices? Check out Tech.co's top recommended password managers.
Still, companies should figure out now how to deal with a potential ransomware attack, understanding that the criminal teams tend to move laterally through an organization when they attack, looking for more data to heist.
Vanessa Pegueros, Chief Trust and Security Officer at OneLogin, notes that prime targets include businesses, schools, healthcare facilities and the government.
“SonicWall Capture Labs has detected a 40% increase in ransomware attacks over the first 3 quarters of 2020. At this current rate with the average cost of a ransomware attack ranging from 700 thousand to 1.4 million US dollars, the total cost of these attacks could be almost doubled from 2019 to 2020,” says Pegueros.
Total ransomware damages rose from $11.5B to $20B across 2020, with 56% of organizations falling victim, and the attacks will only keep growing in the new year.
Remote work is just one of the permanent changes the business world will see due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is expected to last well into 2021.
Wizeline‘s Bismarck Lepe believes that global economies will be all right, but calls out three major industries that will never be their old selves again: commercial real estate, business travel and traditional retail.
“It’s unlikely that these industries will ever fully bounce back to the same levels or percentage of total spend,” Lepe says of the structural changes.
But it's not all bad news: “Industries like leisure travel, ecommerce, residential real estate and communication, on the other hand, will thrive in the wake of a vaccine, particularly as the broad shift to ‘work from anywhere' has become the new paradigm.”
But enough about business. How's the delicate climate of our only habitable planet doing?
Microsoft's Carbon Negative Plan for 2030
Ah, incremental change. We'll see more of it from world leaders in 2021, assuming it's visible to the naked eye.
Bennett Cohen, Partner at Piva Capital, notes that 2020 has already seen some feints towards climate-consciousness, with some of the biggest companies (Amazon, Microsoft, Shell, BP), and the biggest economies (China, Japan, South Korea) all announcing net zero climate targets.
“In 2021, we will witness action on climate change at a pace never seen before due to rising action across many levels of the global economy. With a crystal-clear market signal, climate-conscious venture capital investment will rise toward all-time peaks,” Cohen says.
One tidbit of evidence includes the rise of the electric vehicle, which is poised to go mainstream in 2021, with new electric trucks and SUVs out from GM and Ford.
Piva Capital investor Maria Buitron also points out the push to decarbonize industrial sectors including cement and concrete, steel, aluminium, and chemicals. There's still a chance this is more big-tech corporate greenwashing, however, which I why I'm so hesitant to call this good news: I've been burned before.
5G has been ‘almost here' for so long that even our 2020 tech trend prediction article warned that 5G wasn't arriving as fast as we'd hoped. For 2021, the prognosis is much the same, according to Bismarck Lepe, founder and CEO at Wizeline. But this upcoming year may well mark an evolution for 5G, even if it's decidedly not a revolution.
“The combination of 5G and SpaceX’s Starlink will continue to accelerate the progression of 5G business models and applications,” he says, “creating more digital opportunities. The percentage of computing power will also increase to over 30% in 2021 compared to 15% a few years ago. This increase will make it more practical for businesses to create new data-oriented applications.”
In another sign of 5G's slow-motion takeover, we'll see a big rise in 5G trial initiatives by enterprises across 2021, says EdgeQ CEO Vinay Ravuri, particularly in manufacturing, energy and surveillance, “to enable mission-critical applications that require low latency.”
Consumer headsets might be the most visible evidence of 5G's growth to the average person, but enterprise companies will increasingly dip their toes into the technology.
We'll end on a positive note. Solar photovoltaic (PV) technology will have a record-breaking year both in the US and globally, argues Joshua M. Pearce, Ph.D., of Michigan Technological University. This is genuinely great news, and Pearce backs it up with the facts:
“PV costs have dropped so far that the vast majority of households, businesses and even utilities can profit by installing PV. We did a study last year that showed everyone — even in cold and cloudy Michigan would save money installing solar — period,” says Pearce.
Plus, a new study coming out in 2021 shows the value of solar is “higher than the net metering rate throughout the US. This means it benefits everyone the more solar is distributed on the grid.”
A new, more energy-efficient solar cells, called a “black silicon” cell, can absorb even more solar energy and is poised to further tip the industry towards success. The solar industry already employs five times more workers than the coal industry, and 2021 looks like a great year for solar.