Say Hello to 2004

A sense of purpose is returning to IT.

Crystal-ball gazing is not an exact science. In fact, it is neither exact nor a science. But it is fun, especially a year later when your selective memory allows you to champion your correct calls and conveniently forget the misses. With that in mind, here are a few guesses, in several key categories, for 2004.

The big guys: Predicting the direction of vendors like IBM, Microsoft and Dell is a lot easier than in the past. These behemoths have learned that they need to lay out their product directions if they are going to keep their customers. While early disclosure of future products used to be frowned upon for chilling the marketplace, it is now widely and wisely encouraged to help customers meld their technology planning with vendor promises.

For Microsoft, the "Longhorn" operating system is the next big leap. Hewlett-Packard, meanwhile, will have to prove that being everything from a consumer electronics company to an enterprise systems vendor is the right business model. IBM will have to balance its push in services with the need to sell hardware and software. Id expect the big boys to make lots of little acquisitions to fill out product lines. Hewlett-Packard will have to spend at least another year digesting Compaq before it is ready for another acquisition of significant size.

The little guys: Remember when the technology marketplace was always fun because you could count on some small company with a good idea to suddenly emerge to catch the big vendors flat-footed? 2004 should be the year in which all those companies that went underground during the dot-com bust start to blossom. With the economy coming back, the IPO market looking promising and those big vendors chained to their promised upgrade cycles, I expect to see big leaps made by companies I havent heard from yet.

While it is impossible to provide a list here of all those newcomers, a good place to start would be the names of the 40 technology pioneers selected by the World Economic Forum for 2004. How many of those companies do you know? What would be the product or service your company needs right now that youd buy in a second? Maybe you should think about starting that company.

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