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Saying goodbye to 2020

The IT Pro team reflects on a year that taught us the true meaning of "disruption"

It’s been quite the year. Predictions made at the end of 2019 as to what would be the biggest and most important stories of 2020 have almost entirely been blown out of the water.

COVID-19 is, of course, the biggest event of the year – one that’s very much outstayed its welcome – and is worthy of analysis in the context of the changes it has made to the IT and business landscape. That’s why we’ve published a separate full analysis of just this, to give it the attention and space it deserves.

In this article, the IT Pro team reflects on the other important stories of the year. Watch out for our thoughts on what 2021 will hold, which will be published on 1 January 2021.

Adam Shepherd, reviews editor

2020 has been a somewhat bruising year for Intel but, in contrast to most other companies, it actually has had little to do with COVID-19. AMD, which spent most of the 2010s as an also-ran in the shadow of Intel’s dominance, has finally found a few teeth, and this year saw it developing into a bit of a juggernaut. I predicted last year that Intel needed to do something to prevent the company gaining even more ground, but so far none of Intel’s strategies seem to have paid off.

AMD has quietly been increasing its foothold in the data centre market with its Epyc chips (which have graced an ever-increasing number of blue-chip servers over the last 12 months) and its Threadripper desktop processors continue to astonish for high-end workstations and gaming PCs. On top of that, its recent Zen 2 laptop chips have been giving Intel a sound thrashing in terms of both value and performance.

Intel has thus far managed to cling to its position as market leader in the processor space, which I suspect is more thanks to its long-standing relationships with OEMs than it is to the relative quality of its chips. After AMD’s recent performance, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if that started to change.

AMD isn’t the only thing Intel has to worry about, either. Arm has been attracting more and more attention from silicon manufacturers looking to use its architecture to build their own chips. Qualcomm has notably started ramping up its development of Snapdragon processors for laptop devices, and Microsoft is putting work into making sure they’re better-supported by Windows.

This might not be enough to make Intel start worrying just yet, but the latter half of this year saw an altogether more significant development in the form of Apple’s M1 processor. This newly-launched chip is custom-designed by Apple, and built on ARM. It’s the first time the company has used a non-Intel processor in its personal computers since 2006, and represents the loss of a major client for Intel.

One of the year’s other major stories (as Jane touches on shortly), was Arm’s acquisition by Nvidia. So, the fact that two of its major competitors in the chip design space are joining forces will doubtless have raised some red flags for Intel. In particular, Nvidia is strongly interested in data centre hardware, and will likely be pushing its new acquisition further into that area - eating into even more of Intel’s comfortable hold.

That said, Intel is a large company, with a lot of market power, a sizable R&D budget and a rich history so don’t expect it to go quietly. However, the tag-team of AMD and an Nvidia-backed Arm makes for a tough fight. If Intel wants to stay at the top of the pack, it had better come out swinging in 2021.

Bobby Hellard, staff writer

Microsoft pulled off one of the biggest upsets in tech when it was selected as the winner of the US government’s Joint Enterprise Defence Infrastructure (JEDI) contract in 2019, out-manoeuvring rival AWS. Unfortunately, Satya Nadella and co have been unable to celebrate the victory, let alone begin work, amid an intense ongoing legal dispute that has carried through to 2020.

AWS was believed to be a shoo-in for the project, which itself caused controversy with other bidders, such as Oracle, who claimed it was biased. In an ironic twist to the story, it would be AWS that would ultimately cry bias when the contract went to a rival firm.

In February, federal judge Patricia Cambell-Smith halted Microsoft’s work on the project following legal action by AWS against the Department of Justice. The cloud giant cited a number of issues that it felt suggested the bidding process had been improperly evaluated. There were even claims that a sour relationship between Amazon boss Jeff Bezos and then US President Donald Trump had influenced the decision.

Ultimately, however, the only problem found in the bidding was a price scenario put forward by Microsoft. This was deemed not ‘technically feasible’ by the US Federal Court of Claims, but not enough to reverse the result of the bidding. AWS has continued to contest the decision and there is a feeling it may crop up again in 2021.

Carly Page, news editor

The smartphone market has had one hell of a year. Back in March, it suffered the “biggest ever fall” in the history of the industry, with even the biggest names manufacturers - Apple and Samsung - warning that sales of their flagship devices wouldn’t meet expectations.

Since then, however, the industry has gone from strength to strength, and 2020 has seen some of the most exciting smartphone launches - and drama - in years.

Naturally, at the top of the list is the iPhone 12, a smartphone that looks set to fuel the adoption of 5G across the globe. Shown off at a virtual event in October, the iPhone 12 is Apple’s first smartphone to deliver support for the high-speed connectivity, with the company boasting that it can reach speeds of up to 4Gbps - even in densely populated areas. According to early figures, sales of the iPhone 12 have already exceeded the iPhone 11.

Samsung, too, has made strides since earlier in the year. The company launched its most feature-packed flagship to date in the form of the Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G, and it even took another stab at the foldable phone with the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2. These big moves are clearly paying off for the company, too; in the third-quarter, Samsung increased smartphone sales by 50% to achieve a record-breaking £45.4 billion in revenue.

Another company made an unexpected comeback later in the year. In August, BlackBerry announced that it would be returning to the ever-competitive smartphone market with a new Android device that boasts the classic physical keyboard that fuelled the company’s early success. It remains to be seen whether this comeback is successful, but perhaps we hailed the death of the business smartphone too early.

Not every OEM has bounced back since March, though. While it remains buoyant in China, Huawei continues to suffer as a result of the US sanctions that were first imposed in 2019. These sanctions, which mean the company can’t do business with US companies such as Google and Qualcomm, is starting to hit the company’s market share; while it was named the number one smartphone manufacturer, a slowdown in growth since has seen Samsung reclaim the top spot. These sanctions have also made their way over the pond, with the UK government demanding that Huawei is stripped from the UK’s 5G network.

Dale Walker, deputy editor

Who remembers bemoaning 2019 as if it was the worst year on record and waiting excitedly for 2020 to arrive to reset our lives? What I wouldn’t give for the biggest news of the year to be a Game of Thrones finale, smaller Quality Street tins, and a crap Cats remake.

2020 was a bad one, let’s leave it at that, but what we all need now is a reason to be cheerful - and there’s nothing we Brits love more than something going horribly wrong, especially when it involves the government.

While the pandemic has kept most other news stories out of the headlines, you may have missed the almost weekly displays of ineptitude coming from our elected officials - which is a shame, because there were some stonkers this year.

To be absolutely fair to them, not every cock-up was preventable. The brief resurgence of the Millennium bug, which resulted in a Home Office system having a 101 year old man registered instead as a toddler, is best chalked up to an unfortunate but hilarious happenstance.

What isn’t so innocent is spending £500 million on a new state-of-the-art satellite system designed to replace the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation network after Brexit, only to find that the technology isn’t able to provide GPS. What appears to have happened here is that some overzealous lobbyists have managed to convince some very eager and impressionable government officials to buy into a tech that they either didn’t know much about, or failed to vet sufficiently.

That’s my favourite of the bunch, but it’s by no means the worst.

In January, Brexit talks were almost derailed when the government was accused of copying data from the Schengen Information System – illegally, I might add. In April, MPs danced around the idea of using Zoom, something which was quickly abandoned when the Prime Minister accidentally leaked meeting details on Twitter. A month later, the saga that would become the UK’s attempt at creating a contact tracing app began, which included trying to create a strong, independent, UK alternative to the rest of Europe, only to U-turn when it became clear that whatever they had built was incompatible with Apple devices - only the single biggest smartphone brand in the UK.

This is not to mention the admission that the NHS track and trace system was in breach of GDPR, the Prime Minister’s dubious and widely criticised goal of rolling out gigabit broadband across the nation by 2025, and the whole A-level algorithm fiasco that could have caused lasting damage to the prospects of an entire generation of schoolchildren.

2020 will always be remembered for the coronavirus but, as incredible as these examples are, they help serve as a reminder. A reminder that our elected officials clearly have no clue when it comes to technology and how it interacts with our daily lives, and while the pandemic has, is, and will continue to drown out other stories, it would be dangerous to let these blunders sink beneath the waves.

Jane McCallion, features editor

This year started off with a continuation of the Xerox/HP takeover drama. Despite its best efforts to rebuff Xerox, HP faced a hostile takeover and the early part of this year was littered with reports of “guerilla tactics” and the buying up of public stocks. As HP turned down an increased offer from Xerox and set about buying back stocks itself, it looked like this was going to be one of the most exciting M&A stories for quite a while.

Come April, though, that was all over thanks to the “macroeconomic and market turmoil caused by COVID-19”. And thus ended a story I thought I’d be following for quite some time. In fact, given the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic, I thought we might be in for a quiet year on the M&A scene as organisations battened down the hatches and hoped for the best.

More fool me. Within months we’d see something far more significant: Nvidia’s acquisition of Arm. I’m hesitant to say this was a bigger deal than Dell’s acquisition of EMC in 2015/16, as it’s nowhere near as wide ranging, and the agreed price ($40 billion) is some $20 billion less, not accounting for inflation. Yet it’s arguably more impactful; the news that Softbank was planning to sell the Cambridge-based chipmaker came just weeks after Apple announced it would be abandoning Intel chips in its Macs in favour of Arm-based ones. In the sphere of mobile devices, Arm-designed processors power 95% of the world’s smartphones. As expressed by Arm co-founder Jermann Hauser, the concern is that unlike Softbank, Nvidia will not maintain the chipmaker’s long-held industry neutrality.

Arm, meanwhile, says it will “keep the firewalls up between the two companies relative to confidentiality” and that it “[won’t] give any early access to Nvidia”. How that pans out in reality remains to be seen.

Elsewhere, there was much excitement about IBM “splitting in two” a la HP and HPE. Fundamentally, though, it’s not as significant as that. As I wrote at the time, rather than being a 50/50 split, this is a case of spinning off a non-core business unit and, to use an industry cliché, becoming “laser-focused” on its real growth areas – AI and cloud – as well as its traditional infrastructure business. The split won't be complete until the end of 2021, though, so it’ll probably be the end of 2022 before we see what this will really mean for the industry. Hopefully that gives those involved enough time to come up with a more inspiring name than the placeholder, “NewCo”.

Finally, squeaking across the line just before the end of the year, we have Salesforce’s acquisition of Slack for a whopping $27.7 billion – the most expensive deal of the cloud CMS firm’s history. As I write, it’s a bit early to know where this acquisition is leading, other than Slack becoming the new interface for Salesforce Customer 360. Will Slack customers not yet subscribed to Salesforce be obliged to do so once the acquisition is complete? What does this really mean for Salesforce’s rivalry with Microsoft? Any answer to these questions is unlikely to be forthcoming before the new year.

Justin Cupler, managing editor,

Big tech had a big year in 2020, but not in the way it intended. While everyone worldwide battled the COVID-19 pandemic, big tech also caught the US government's crosshairs on multiple fronts.

One of the biggest debates centred on section 230 and the immunities it provides tech giants like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google and others. The critical components of Section 230 protect big tech from lawsuits based on illegal or harmful posts users put on their sites, as well as from censorship lawsuits for moderating content deemed inappropriate.

The attention on Section 230 came from both sides of the aisle, as Democrats and Republicans aimed to modify the protections to force big tech's hand. Though Democrats and Republicans miraculously agreed on the need for an update to Section 230, there was a stark contrast in why and how they wanted the protections changed.

Soon-to-be-former President Donald Trump and his Republican colleagues in Congress threw out theories that Facebook and Twitter were using Section 230 protections to silence right-wing voices through shadow banning and other content moderation. Based on these claims, Trump et al. aim to strip Section 230 altogether, leaving big tech with greatly-reduced legal protections. 

This would open big tech corporations up to lawsuits based on user-generated content and expose them to censorship lawsuits if they moderated hateful, illegal or misleading user-generated content. With no protections from either side, this could potentially lead to a massive shakeup in how social media works.

Unlike the Republican hand-grenade approach to Section 230, Democrats want to take a scalpel approach and carve out the user-generated content protections big tech hides behind but leave in the protections against censorship lawsuits. The goal would be to force big tech to take more responsibility in moderating hateful, illegal and fake content.

With Joe Biden’s presidential election all but in the bag – ironically winning with the same division of electoral college votes as Trump did in 2016 – will Section 230 be in the hands of the Democrats? To put it in social media terms, it's complicated.  

The reason things will remain muddy is the control of Congress, which includes both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Once a bill passes the House or Senate, it heads to the other chamber for a second vote. If it passes both chambers, it goes to the President for signature into law. In order to pass bills at will, a party needs control of both the House and Senate. Otherwise, they must negotiate and agree to bipartisan terms, which hasn't been their strong suit since the Democrats took control of the House in 2018.

In the 2020 election, Democrats lost seven House seats but maintained the 218-seat majority needed to pass bills with party-line voting.

Democrats have picked up one Senate seat so far in the 2020 election, but they still have only 48 of the 51-seat majority needed to pass bills freely. However, there are still two runoff elections for Georgia's open senate seats on January 5, 2021, as the first elections were too close to determine a legal winner. These runoff elections will determine control of the Senate.

If Democrats win both runoff elections – one seems a likely Democrat win, but the other will be a tight battle – there will be a 50-50 tie in the Senate. If the Senate ties when voting on a bill, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would vote to break it, essentially giving the Democrats full control of Congress and the ability to adjust Section 230 to their liking. If the Democrats can't win both runoff elections, the Senate will remain in Republican control, necessitating bipartisan cooperation.

Given Democrats and Republicans have a mutual interest in Section 230, which was on display in the bipartisan PACT Act in June, there may be a middle ground upon which they can meet. But following a testy election season, there will be a lot of fence-mending required to pass a bipartisan bill.

Section 230’s future now depends on Georgia's runoff elections, and it'll be a hot topic we'll keep an eye on in 2021.

Keumars Afifi-Sabet, staff writer

While much of 2020 might have filled us with reasons to be dreary, one potential silver lining was the resilience shown in the public sector, which managed to push on with digital transformation projects in the face of significant turbulence.

Indeed, there are countless examples of success stories from universities to local government, with the Rail Delivery Group, for example, using this opportunity to break down the barriers to data sharing, and Staffordshire University kickstarting an automation drive. With the public sector known for being so lumbered with legacy tech and a slow pace of change, these developments should certainly provide these organisations with a much-needed foundation to build on in the coming months.

Unfortunately, we’ve also seen the uglier side of the same coin, in the form of the UK government’s stumbling approach to fighting the spread of COVID-19. While we can ruminate ad infinitum on the failings of government ministers, a less obvious but equally disturbing development is the way in which the government flagrantly ignored data protection laws in developing its track and trace system. These are times of crisis, of course, but the manic way in which contact tracing was handled inevitably led to GDPR violations and breaches, albeit on a small scale.

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It’s this lax approach to the rules that has a number of data rights groups spooked, particularly when the UK’s own data watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), has been criticised for its lax approach to enforcement during the pandemic. Although the ICO would certainly argue it’s remained as active as ever, there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. Fines for GDPR violations have been slashed, for example, while the organisation also declined to act on “systemic” violations across the Adtech industry, according to the Open Rights Group, closing its investigation in recent weeks. As a result, the data regulator now faces legal action in the hope of “stopping the ICO sweeping the most difficult cases under the carpet”.

It will be interesting to see how long the ICO will take this lenient attitude to data enforcement, particularly in the face of political pressure and a return to some degree of normality.

Maggie Holland, group editor and editorial director

Wow. What a year 2020 has been. And while the majority - if not all - of us will be thoroughly pleased to see the back of it, the past 12 months have also offered glimmers of hope and change. Technology, in particular, has been a hero of the piece in many ways. 

Rewind back to January and there were still many companies paying nothing more than lip service to the idea of agile, flexible, or remote working. Yes, they’d let you work from home if you had an ‘excuse’ such as childcare, feeling unwell or a doctor’s appointment, but it was rare that simply preferring to work from home was considered an acceptable reason.

My oh my, how things have changed. 

For the best part of a year, the majority of the working world has engaged in history’s biggest and best WFH experiment. And, while it’s hard to paint a house, police the streets or drive a bus from the comfort of your living room, for the majority of office-based employees, we’ve proved it works. We’ve collectively shown we can actually be more productive if we’re not wasting hours commuting, only to run from meeting room to meeting room once in ‘the office.’ We’ve demonstrated - and who would have thunk it - that we can actually be trusted to do the job without being watched over!

We have technology to thank for this monumental shift in how and where we work. Internet connectivity and access to cloud-based applications, systems, and tools have meant that, now, work really is what we do, rather than a place we go. And this realisation isn’t something that will simply be rolled back when COVID-19 becomes a distant memory. Employers far and wide have learned that, by empowering people to work where and how suits them best, it actually benefits them, too. 

This is a shift that will truly level the playing field for those based outside London (or even the UK), for people with disabilities or care commitments, or those who simply do their best work away from the distractions of a busy work environment. Opening up to a greater range of potential working styles is an advantage for everyone, regardless of your preference.

For some people, their ideal pattern may still be a physical office or working space, which is just fine - many people have survived rather than thrived during this period of remote working, and nobody’s seeking to impose home working on those that prefer to go into the office. However, many of the big-name tech companies, such as Facebook, Google, and Microsoft have already promised to make their current WFH arrangements permanent, or at least consider offering the choice as an option going forward, and that’s a good thing for everyone. 

While I can’t wait to see the rest of the IT Pro team in the flesh once all this is over, I can’t say I’m as excited by the thought of being reunited with my old commute. Thankfully, the precedent set over the last 12 months means that (for the most part) we’re all free to come in if and when it makes sense to do so and work from anywhere the rest of the time. So with any luck, I’ll be writing my 2021 end-of-year roundup from my new ‘office’ in Hawaii.

Sabina Weston, staff writer

The majority of 2020 was dominated by rather chilly relations between the United States and China, and the frost was certainly felt across the UK’s tech sector.

The year started off with US delegates deeming the UK’s decision to use Huawei for 5G infrastructure as "nothing short of madness", and it was expected to only get worse when the Chinese tech giant was granted a "limited" role in the network. In July, following months of back-and-forths, the UK government made a dramatic U-turn, announcing there would be a ban on the purchase of Huawei equipment for 5G infrastructure by the end of the year, with all existing equipment to be removed by 2027.

At the time, a Huawei spokesperson said that the company’s “future in the UK” had “become politicised”, adding that the ban was linked to “US trade policy and not security”.

However, a report by the NCSC published in October found otherwise. According to the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC), a group belonging to Huawei but directed by the NCSC, the Chinese tech giant failed to comply with “its own secure coding guidelines” during a 2019 incident, which likely led to a vulnerability "of national significance”.

Weeks later, in an attempt to boost the UK’s security, the government introduced the Telecommunications Security Bill, which could see telecommunications companies fined up to £100,000 a day, or 10% of their revenues, if they are found to be striking deals with Huawei.

As one would expect, the developments had a substantial impact on the UK’s network infrastructure. In fact, a recent report found that, despite the UK being an early leader in 5G rollouts, its 5G coverage in the country is currently at only around 30%.

However, this doesn’t distract from the fact that a company which started the year as the world’s biggest provider of 5G equipment, used by three of the UK biggest telecoms, has had its European and American standing eviscerated. That said, 2020 has probably been one of the most testing years for the majority of companies, but how many can say that they managed to survive COVID-19 and trade war with the United States at the same time?

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