There are many reasons why I do my best to avoid making technology predictions. Here’s one: So much of what’s interesting about this industry is so very unpredictable.
For instance, if you’d told me at the start of 2011 that HP would release an ambitious tablet and then kill it six weeks later – and would also fire its CEO after eleven months and flirt with exiting the PC business — I’d never have believed you. But it did.
That’s not to say that it’s impossible to prep yourself for the year to come. In fact, we already know about quite a few products, technologies, and trends that will impact how small businesses use tech in 2012. Herewith, some thoughts about half-a-dozen of them.
WINDOWS 8: THE EARLY DAYS
No mincing of words necessary: Microsoft’s Windows 8, which should show up in mid-to-late 2012, is the most radical rethinking of Windows since version 1.0 debuted in 1985. Existing Windows programs will still run. But Microsoft will aim to wean users off of traditional apps and onto software that uses the new Metro user interface, a touch-centric, tablet-friendly approach to productivity that has little in common with Windows as we’ve known it. (It doesn’t even have windows.)
There’s no scenario in which Windows 8 becomes a de facto small-business standard during 2012. It’s just too dramatic a departure from previous versions. But even if you tend to upgrade operating systems on your own leisurely schedule, as most companies do, it’ll be smart to monitor the reactions of the early adopters who get Windows 8 right away.
WINDOWS XP: THE (POSSIBLY) FINAL DAYS
Windows 8 is shockingly new; Windows XP is shockingly old. Much to Microsoft’s chagrin, the decade-old software refuses to die, especially in the corporate world.
Lots of companies that (wisely) avoided Windows Vista have either migrated to the generally pleasing Windows 7 or plan to do so in 2012. I think that’s an excellent idea, if for no other reason than because Windows 7 is far safer than XP. But with Windows 8′s release within sight, those who choose to hold onto XP just a little bit longer could end up kicking the upgrade can into 2013. (Microsoft says it’s absolutely, positively ending support for Windows XP on August 4th, 2014.)
ULTRABOOKS: THE THIN CROWD
In the era of smartphones and tablets, there’s no longer anything inherently sexy about PCs. Chip behemoth Intel is working hard to amp up the excitement level with a concept it calls the Ultrabook. Roughly inspired by Apple’s MacBook Air, Ultrabooks are Windows laptops that emphasize sleekness and long battery life over raw computing power. They typically weigh around 3 pounds, sport 13″ displays, and skip the optical drive. Often, they use solid-state storage instead of a hard disk.
Ultrabooks are already available from companies such as Acer, Asus, and Toshiba, starting at around $900; look for lots more of them, from all major manufacturers, in 2012. Intel’s so excited about the idea that it’s investing hundreds of millions of dollars in it. I like it myself. Historically, though, PC buyers have tended to favor bigger screens and more features over pure portability, so I’m not assuming that Ultrabooks will be a smash hit.
TABLETS: BEYOND THE IPAD?
For all the talk of a “tablet market,” the category has consisted so far of one blockbuster — Apple’s iPad — and a profusion of mostly lackluster also-rans.
Many small companies have already embraced the iPad, for applications ranging from the mundane to the ingenious; mine has become my most-used piece of business equipment. Still, as a lover of competition, I’m rooting for other hardware makers to come up with plausible iPad alternatives. In 2012, we’ll see the first models that run Google’s ambitious Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, as well as ones that use Windows 8. None of the new arrivals are going to knock the iPad out of its dominant spot, but I hope they’re good enough to merit your consideration.
CLOUD COMPUTING: THE NEXT GENERATION
The best and worst thing about cloud computing is that it’s an endlessly flexible concept rather than anything specific. What it is, really, is anything that relates to storing applications and/or data on the Internet, a phenomenon that will continue to evolve in 2012.
I’m particularly interested in the ongoing battle between Microsoft Office and Google Apps. There will be a new version of Office in 2012, and with it a new version of the software-and-cloud hybrid known as Office 365. Google will presumably keep on claiming that scads of major organizations are dumping Office for its Google Apps Web-based suite; Microsoft will probably maintain that hardly anybody is doing that.