Predictions 2017: Cloud gets edgy, AI invades enterprise, voice takes off and M&A explodes

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As if 2016 weren’t volatile enough for the technology industry, the coming year is likely to be even more interesting, thanks to everything from an unpredictable new U.S. president to a confluence of trends ranging from artificial intelligence to virtual reality to the continued rise of the cloud. This is the latest in a series of predictions by SiliconANGLE’s staff on what’s coming in 2017 in enterprise and emerging technologies and tech at large.

Data gravity will bring cloud computing back down to Earth

One of the dirty little secrets of cloud computing is that it doesn’t always work well for data-intensive applications. That’s because the massive amounts of data companies are able to collect and process today is almost literally heavy: Limited bandwidth make it slow and expensive to move data from remote locations to central data centers.

That will become even more apparent this year as Internet of Things devices from sensors, cameras and myriad other Internet-connected devices produces even more enormous amounts of data that need to be processed in real time, such as self-driving cars that need to know in a split-second how to swerve to avoid hitting someone. This is why even Amazon Web Services, the leading public cloud provider, in late 2016 introduced two complementary technologies that acknowledge the situation: software called Greengrass that’s intended to allow offline operations and local processing of data on the fly without requiring cloud services and Snowmobile, a 45-foot container truck that literally moves up to 10 petabytes of data to Amazon for ingestion into AWS.

As a result, the “edges” of networks will draw more computing from central servers in the public clouds out to devices in far-flung locations. “You’re not going to move most data to the center,” said Peter Burris, head of research at SiliconANGLE Media, which publishes SiliconANGLE. “You’re going to move the cloud to the edge.” Don’t get me wrong: Cloud computing is still only just starting for the vast majority of large enterprises, and it has a long run ahead of it. But it will become clearer this year that cloud computing isn’t just a rerun of mainframe or client-server computing, and it will require much more flexible networks.

Artificial intelligence will go from experimental to mainstream in the enterprise

We’re all using artificial intelligence technologies every day, even if we don’t know it. Voice and speech recognition, language translation and other tasks that depend squarely on deep learning and other AI technologies now work well enough that most of us, not just Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg with his own Jarvis AI assistant, are using them every day almost without thinking.

Now those technologies are going to move quickly into mainstream enterprise computing. It’s no accident that three of the largest cloud and enterprise computing providers are also three of the leading developers and users of AI. That means AI is rapidly becoming not only a critical set of services for cloud computing, but a potential differentiator among the cloud giants. So they have an incentive to push it hard into the enterprise.

But the challenge will be to bring AI capabilities, which are most useful in real-time applications, from the cloud to the edge, notes Deepu Talla, vice president and general manager of Nvidia Corp.’s Tegra mobile processor chips. That’s likely to bring AI to many more applications from security systems to industrial robots.

Voice will start to kill the primacy of the screen in computing

Amazon's Echo dot smart speaker (Photo courtesy of Amazon.com)

Amazon’s Echo dot smart speaker (Photo courtesy of Amazon.com)

The iconic image of computing today is still someone staring at a screen, even if that screen is more frequently on a smartphone rather than on a desk or a lap. That will change in a big way in the coming year.

There are now more than 6 million homes with one of Amazon’s Echo voice-driven speakers. Google followed late last year with its rival Home device, after years of improving voice searches to the point that they’re demonstrably far easier to do on a mobile phone than tapping out text. Gartner predicts that by next year, a third of our interactions with technology will be via voice, and comScore Inc. says that by 2020, half of all searches will be by voice.

I’m betting all that will happen sooner than that. The main obstacle is not so much technology but social norms: It still feels a bit odd to speak to a phone or a device when other people are nearby without seeming like you’re talking to yourself. But people used to feel the same way about others who talked to an unseen phone as they walked down the street. Now it’s normal behavior. Soon, so will uttering commands to any device close enough to hear them.

There will be an unprecedented boom in tech mergers and acquisitions

The past year certainly saw plenty of acquisitions in technology, topped by Dell’s record $65 billion acquisition of EMC Corp. and Microsoft Corp.’s $26 billion purchase of LinkedIn Corp. Salesforce.com, Oracle Corp., Broadcom Ltd., Symantec Corp. and more joined in. So did a wide array of traditional companies such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and General Motors Co. looking to add tech startup talent and energy.

But even 2016’s blockbuster year for mergers and acquisitions is likely to be surpassed in 2017. Cash-rich established companies still need to join the 21st century, a multi-year glut of startups means many will run out of money and, most of all, tens of billions of dollars of overseas cash could soon be burning a hole in the pockets of large tech companies such as Apple Inc. and Intel Corp. President-elect Donald Trump has pledged to change tax laws to make it more worthwhile for those companies to repatriate that cash without getting a huge tax haircut.

“It could be one of the bigger tech buying cycles we’ve ever experienced,” Doug Gourlay, a former longtime executive at Cisco Systems Inc. and Arista Networks Inc., told SiliconANGLE Media co-Chief Executive John Furrier on a recent podcast. That could reset the tech industry’s competitive landscape, making big companies even more dominant than before.

Photo courtesy of Google