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.
Offshore players: Keep an eye on companies such as Indias Wipro, which at $900 million in sales will continue to be a top beneficiary of outsourcing in 2004. And dont overlook Chinas Legend Computer, which is contemplating how to focus the design and manufacturing skills it has honed in the Chinese market on realms outside its national borders.
Services built on the infrastructure: In 2003, we saw companies such as Salesforce.com and NetSuite prosper not because they were the first to think of new ways to deliver business applications as services, but because all the infrastructure pieces were finally in place to deliver those services. The further expansion of the worldwide network, with better security, augurs in favor of another strong year. The addition of proof that you can build successful companies using the global network opens the way for 2004 to be the year of the technology service company.
The use of services over the network can take many forms: outsourcing previously U.S.-based software operations, migrating business applications to the Web services arena or using new services that are being built on the expanding wireless network. Id be willing to bet that nearly every company with a substantial technology infrastructure will run some part of those operations outside the companys walls in 2004.
The next 12 months hold the promise of technology being used in companies to provide real benefits to the customers, investors, employees and owners of those companies.
The dot-com bubble showed us what happens when technology is deployed without purpose. The subsequent three-year implosion in tech spending showed us how much we can do without and how to make more efficient use of what we have. In 2004, we should see new technologies deployed with a sense of business purpose—and with the prospect that the promise of competitive advantage through technology will be kept.
Editor in Chief Eric Lundquist can be reached at [email protected].