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Has the way we work changed for good?

By Patrick Moorhead | Forbes

I recently sat down with my friend and fellow analyst Daniel Newman, of Futurum Research, for a podcast discussion on some of the technology trends we expect to accelerate in the post-corona world. In addition to the tragic human cost, the global pandemic has changed many aspects of our lives and disrupted industries across the world. When an incident this large and disruptive occurs, it leaves an indelible mark on the people who live through it – not to mention on industry and society as a whole.

I wanted to share some of my thoughts on what that will look like specifically in terms of the tech industry, which has, in many ways, impressed me with its ability to step up and meet the challenges of the last few months. When all’s said and done, I believe many companies and trends will only continue to accelerate.

Everything WFH and collaborative

Perhaps the apparent change in the status quo is the sudden surge in those who work from home and collaborate remotely due to the quarantine. I’ve spent plenty of time over the last week taking Zoom, the videoconferencing company, to task. Though the virus has been very good for Zoom’s business, it’s landed in some hot water for making false claims about end-to-end encryption (which it does not feature in any true sense of the word), “zoombombing” (in which trolls jump onto non-password protected Zoom calls and screen share lewd content) and the revelation of controversial data-mining features feeding data to LinkedIn and Facebook.

Luckily for those of us who prioritize secure communications, Zoom is not the only video conferencing tool on the market who has seen its star rise. Cisco Webex has seen a huge surge in usage, as has Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts and Meet. I think we can also expect to see 5G PCs grow in popularity as more and more people desire its high bandwidth and low latency to drive their productivity while working remotely. While more and more employers have embraced letting their employees work from home in the last several years, I think COVID-19 could represent a real paradigm shift after the immediate danger recedes. After what basically amounts to the biggest work from home experiment the world has ever seen, I expect many will not be eager to return to the office.

Additionally, some employers who may have been dragging their feet on WFH will now see that it is possible. Also moving forward, I believe most companies will need to have an explicit “pandemic plan,” with the capability to get around 95% percent of their workforce out of the office and working remotely if need be. An interesting side effect, though, maybe the deceleration of the so-called “open offices” that have become widespread and a return to cubicles – for the sake of hygiene and limiting the spread of pathogens throughout the workplace.

Hybrid and multi-cloud

I also think that long-term the virus will accelerate the need for organizations to adopt a hybrid or multi-cloud strategy. Employees, as well as customers, are all over the place right now – they’re working from home, shopping from home, selling online, etc. To handle these fluctuations in traffic, organizations need the most flexible infrastructure they can find.

You can tell the ones who are self-hosting their collaboration because their connections are usually slow and choppy. This is not going to be sustainable. I also believe that, as part of an organization's pandemic plan, it needs to be able to store not just its data in different places (multiple clouds, on-prem), but also its applications. This way, if there’s a breakdown on one cloud you can simply access your resources on a different one. It’s all about ensuring availability, continuity, scalability and disaster recovery. The companies that will benefit from this will be the usual suspects – HPE, Dell Technologies, Lenovo and Cisco, as well as the cloud providers like AWS, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud Platform. IBM, who has a public cloud and a private cloud, should see opportunity as well.

Smart cities, 5G, edge, IoT

The third area I wanted to talk about revolves around how we connect the world around us – the potential of smart cities, 5G and edge IoT to grow in response to COVID-19. While this might sound like multiple different sectors, the fact of the matter is that these areas, for the most part, depend on each other to function. These interconnected technologies are actually poised to go through some interesting if not controversial growth in the coming years as a result of coronavirus. The government may soon have the technology to not only perform facial recognition scans in public places but to determine, based on body temperature, who is likely to be carrying the virus. This will certainly raise a lot of big brother privacy questions, but as we’ve seen before, the American people are sometimes willing to make compromises on civil liberties in exchange for perceived safety or for the sake of the economy.

I believe that we have the technology, such as smart cities, edge IoT and computer vision, to really help us mitigate future outbreaks – the question is whether or not the people go for it. We got the Patriot Act after 9/11, so it’s not impossible. On the flip side, these technologies promise to improve things like traffic control, or smart electrical grids that don’t use unnecessary power, autonomous driving, etc.

Supercomputing and quantum

Another area that I think will be accelerated by the current pandemic (and honestly already has been) is that of supercomputing and quantum technology. These technologies are capable of taking the world’s largest data sets and mining them to solve the world’s largest problems. With our current “largest problem,” many see supercomputing’s potential to hasten medical research, perform faster causality analyses and speed up testing and trials for desperately sought-after vaccines.

I think we’re going to see a lot more governments, corporations and organizations throwing big money at HPC in the years to come, in the interest of heading off the next major pandemic that threatens us. Many major tech companies, including the likes of AWS, Intel, IBM, HPE, Microsoft, NVIDIA and AMD have already come together to form consortiums to accelerate this research. Quantum computing, while not universally applicable, could help solve some problems magnitudes faster than even supercomputing. Likely researchers will employ some combination of classical and quantum computing to tackle problems like quickly identifying drug compounds.

VDI/streaming and SaaS apps

VDI streaming and SaaS also stand to grow as a result of all of this. These things are different-but-related, since both involve apps running somewhere else – not always in your enterprise or where the end-user is. Picture this (it shouldn’t be difficult): the next pandemic hits, and there are 50 million people who suddenly, immediately need to work from home. One way to manage this is to give everyone a full PC set-up with a corporate application on it, so they can take their desktop and run it at their house through a VPN. Another way to do it is to give everyone a Chromebook, or really any device at all, and set them up on VDI, giving them virtual access to their entire desktop workspace.

For organizations who only need their employees to access a single app, versus their entire workspace, there are streaming solutions like Amazon AppStream and Workspace. Quite similar to that concept is SaaS, or Software-as-a-Service, made popular by companies like Salesforce, Oracle, SAP and Zoho.

In short, I believe the fallout from COVID-19 illustrates the need to be able to run applications, including corporate ones, in places other than where your users are (since most of them could be stuck at home in quarantine). It significantly improves user experience to be able to access your work interface, in a similar way, on multiple devices. Additionally, I think many businesses are realizing that, outside of their core competencies, they don’t want to deal with hosting their own applications. If embracing SaaS solutions has the potential to take some of the burden off of IT departments (which I believe it does), I believe more and more organizations are going to put the foot down on the accelerator in that direction.

Supply chain and manufacturing

Lastly, I wanted to talk about supply chain and manufacturing, and how that will be affected. Most of our goods – almost all of our electronics, medical equipment, clothes and more – are made in China, where manufacturers benefit from low costs and, particularly in tech, proximity to other parts of the supply chain. I believe the cost-benefits calculus is going to be changing as a result of the current crisis. On both sides of the aisle, it’s hard to imagine any politician advocating for making more things in China in their platform.

Instead, I believe we’ll see new manufacturing hotspots emerge in places like Canada and South America. While Apple seems to be staying in Asia for the time being, it has already moved some of its manufacturing out of China and into Malaysia and Indonesia. India is also being heavily explored as an option by many companies. In some of these regions, I think we’ll also see more and more robotics and automation in manufacturing to combat the low labor costs.

Wrapping up

We are certainly living in interesting times, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that things will never be the same again afterward. Long term, COVID-19 is going to change the way we work, the way our cities run, the infrastructure we choose to power our data centers, the way we think about supply chains and manufacturing and so much more that we couldn’t possibly predict. It’s going to be fascinating.