Column Gartner is an odd fish. A very big odd fish, making some $4bn a year out of its 16,000 souls beavering away in its shiny belly. It acts as soothsayer to the troubled monarchs of industry and whichever of their courtiers can afford a subscription to its reports.
The company has an admirably sustainable business model that comes close to the fabled circular supply chain. It gets its raw material from confidential conversations with its paying clients, mixes that data up in its giant cauldron of proprietary analytics, and then sells it back to them and their peers. Rinse and repeat. It has considerable influence on the market with its Magic Quadrants of who's in and who's out, and as these people tend to be those clients again, we have to take it on trust that no undue influence comes attached to large cheques. Which, of course, we do.
But what if sceptical types want to check? Gartner has branched out from its initial IT focus to providing research and advice to all aspects of business – customer care, legal, HR, you name it. Perhaps we can use some analytics of our own to judge the priorities it offers. The words "strategy" and "strategic" occur nearly 200,000 times on its website; "ethics" just 3,600. But that's an unfair comparison as most of the latter references are to "data ethics"; the other sort, the ones at the core of your company, score just 460 – that's a 438:1 ratio, the square root of strategy.
Well, never mind – you can't sell what nobody's buying. If our analytics don't work, let's take the other leaf out of Gartner's book and do some research. Gartner is known for its Hype Cycles, where it takes particular technologies and places them on a sentiment curve that reflects how exciting an idea is versus its actual adoption into Clan Useful.
This year in networks we find that AIOps, where computers look at their own bits, is in, while network observability, where humans do it, is out. Proof that anything's hyper with AI in the name. And then there's zero trust network access, which "improves user experience" and is an "adolescent" technology. ZTNA certainly has many of the sullen, whiny, repetitive annoyances of adolescence, but as parents will testify, "improving user experience" is not on the list. Gartner is comfortable with contradiction.
But the real test comes from history, so let's repair to this list of all of Gartner's Emerging Technology Hype Cycles from 2000 to 2015, and see whether Madame Garty sayeth sooth. It's not really fair to go back to 2000 and its Webtops, Jini, and micropayments – although Java as "fully mature" is culpable. Skulking in the corner – quantum computing. Bless.
So let's nip over to 2016, a mere five years ago. It thinks Virtual Reality is the bee's knees, but frankly any diagram that starts off with Smart Dust, 4G printing (what?), and General Purpose Machine Intelligence is an Iain M Banks outline rather than cogent analysis. It looked bonkers five years ago, it looks doubly so now. But then we have 802.11ax, which is a good call but as insightful as saying Apple will sell some phones, and, oh yes, quantum computing. Bless.
As you scan up and down, you realise it's mostly a lottery. 2002 is bizarrely on the money, with "personal digital assistant phones", VPNs, location sensing and the like outnumbering the nanotech and the fuel cells. There are patterns: earlier Hype Cycles love "Activity Streams", whatever they were, and quantum computing seems to crop up about one year in two. Bless. Oh, if search engines or ARM chips or OLEDs are in there anywhere, I missed them. Whatever happened to that Google thing, anyway?
Hype Cycles are science fiction, in the way they reflect the biases and hopes and uncertainties of the present much as stories about the future always do. Like science fiction, they're not much good at actual prediction – which real science fiction rarely pretends to.
What do Hype Cycles tell us about Gartner and its true nature? The clue's in the name; Gartner absorbs the reportage and opinion about how well corporate portals are doing this year, slaps them in or not, and the result gets reported in the press with more or less reaction. Which is duly noted, and fed back into the next time, all the while carrying the name of Gartner through the media with a strong whiff of broad, deep tech mastery. When you find out what Activity Streams are, perhaps we can have a go at getting them into the 2022 edition.
Here's a prediction for you: Hype Cycles will be really interesting as historic documents, not about the actual state and adoption of technology but as a marker of the stories told about it, the rise and fall of belief somewhat decoupled from reality. Gartner would do well to appoint a proper historian, and perhaps a proper ethicist, in recognition of some of the truths about itself that never appear in a PowerPoint deck. The world is ready for a bit less flannel. ®