In the Chinese horoscope, 2012 was the year of the black water dragon -- traditionally considered to be an unpredictable year, because people cannot see the dragon’s head and its tail at the same time.
Any black-water rafter will tell you as well that sailing through a dark cave on some more or less jerry-built conveyance could have equally variable results.
Life in the channel has certainly been volatile for most of this year, with distribution squeezed and insolvencies climbing right from the start. Then insolvencies went down again - although it seemed to only be because, according to recovery specialist R3, so many companies were shambling on as zombies, rather than actually showing signs of life.
Meanwhile, consumerisation and issues of compliance, cloud and the datacentre conspired to make channel companies struggle just that bit harder, after a succession of tough years.
It was also a year of law and disorder, characterised by the continuation of various interminable wars in the courts, including that “you copied me” one between Apple and Samsung and yet another Mark Hurd lawsuit.
This one was not about the harassment allegations from when he was chief executive of HP, but his eventual payout - long after he was accused, resigned and then exonerated. The case was eventually thrown out mid-year, and then a separate shareholder suit alleging his payout was excessive was tossed out of court in September.
HP itself set off something of a firestorm in November -- one that seems likely once again to be played out lengthily in the courts. Will Mystic Meg be able to ride to the rescue?
As we went to press, the vendor behemoth and Autonomy had been busy trading insults over who was to blame for the former’s not-so-profitable acquisition of the latter for some weeks, with an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office into “serious accounting issues” pending.
Nice work, if you can keep up. Perhaps we’re all in the wrong industry.
Elsewhere in vendorland, RIM and Nokia appeared to be finally entering some kind of death spiral, with neither the CrackBerry 10 nor the Lumia range quick enough off the shelves to outrun the leadership of iOS or Android in the mobility market.
Channel pundits have suggested that even the public sector has begun favouring consumer devices as part of its mobile strategy, built around Apple iPads, iPhones and Android smartphones.
Microsoft unveiled a swathe of pricing changes in June that appeared to be making partnership with Redmond more of a rich man’s game. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Steve Ballmer topped Forbes’ Worst CEO list a month beforehand.
However, the purveyor of Windows never waits long before embarking on a counter-strategy and this is the year that Windows 8, launched upon a (mostly) unsuspecting public in November, is tipped to push the vendor back into contention in a much more mobile world.
Microsoft, itself no stranger to channel controversy, did put in some extra miles at its World Partner Conference in July to convince resellers they remain beloved and central to its long-term, increasingly cloudy, plan. Cisco also stepped up its wooing of the channel this year.
Size does matter
Fewer squeaks were heard from the anti-piracy brigade, though, despite increasingly high-profile torrent closures and Pirate Party announcements. Perhaps the software vendors involved were exhausted after washing their hands of SOPA (sorry) - introduced to the US House of Representatives in October 2011 but put on ice in February following a tumult of protest around the world.
In security, the Flame attacks reignited debate over whether traditional antivirus has had its day, and compliance became an ever more pressing issue for customers.
What we found more interesting still was the rise of once relatively obscure names in the areas of big data and business analytics. It used to be all about expanding storage volumes, but now that many organisations have successfully arranged to store and even archive all this data, what exactly are they meant to do with it?
Companies such as Jaspersoft and Pentaho think they know the answer, and where the profits can be made. They appear to be gaining traction, reinvigorating both the at the time lacklustre BI market and the argument for open source -- alongside such big names as Oracle, IBM and SAP as well as that latest elephant in the room, Hadoop.
Braver third-party providers including Logicalis and Computacenter led the charge this year for the channel.
VARs -- Kelway, Softcat, 2e2, SCC and Insight, to name just a few -- continued to blaze a trail through the clouds in 2012, not least because a (slightly blurry) vision of G-Cloud opportunities for providers small as well as large is floating temptingly over the horizon.
Perhaps that’s why telecoms providers this year were keener to befriend the B2B channel -- although the Olympics failed to boost flexible working as much as hoped.
Much more is being asked of the channel. Worryingly, more voices have been heard asking whether channel partners are actually selling end users what they need or simply getting them to buy into the latest trends - in January, June and September, reports came in that partners were “mis-selling” to schools.
Furthermore, the perennial issue of skills development and retention showed no sign of going away. It might be argued that you can end up mis-selling if you do not have the expertise to work out the best customer solution.
However, in this case IT recruitment is continuing to suffer from its need to match the requirements of a fast-moving industry with many diverse and specific niche areas, with the skills of students who individually often cannot afford to be too specialised - especially early on in their careers.
Well, it’s not like there will be nothing to get on with next year. The trouble is that despite the ongoing lobbying of the Forum for Private Business and others, the banks are still not lending, and credit insurance may also be sliding off the radar for some channel companies.
Increasingly, there has been talk of the industry -- or even the government -- taking matters into its own hands, with discussion of self-insurance for the channel, and the coalition’s proposal of a £1bn business bank.
It has certainly been a busy and even a confusing year for many in the channel, with the economy fractionally up one minute and slightly down again the next, boosted in the middle by a small sporting event in the summer.
No doubt we have, despite our best efforts, barely scratched the surface of all the goings-on. Next Chinese New Year, commencing 10 February, is apparently the year of the black fire snake. We wonder what that might bring?
What was hot or not in 2012
*Big data analytics. A tricky problem to grasp all round, but one where customer organisations are sure to need ongoing specialised assistance from the channel, not least in choosing and integrating the right apps
*Tablets, tablets, tablets. Keep taking the tablets: we know you want to. End users want to anyway, and we all know now that if you can't beat ‘em, you might have to join ‘em. That's despite the hype about ultrabooks as well -- what happened to them, again?
*Social media. Everyone is talking on it and about it. Although we wonder where the revenues really are. Facebook IPO, anyone?
*Virtualisation. Anything that will save money and increase workplace flexibility is a winner. Even Microsoft has jumped aboard more seriously, taking on VMware this year with Windows Server 2012.
*Managed print services. By all accounts, MPS is finally proving a nice little earner for a range of print specialists and their partners.
* Cloud computing. Yes, really. It hasn't become as all-encompassing as many predicted, and the industry has actually become rather bored with the concept. Furthermore, many still want to know how exactly they'll preserve or increase their bottom line.
*If you have to ask if something is a success, you probably already know the answer. Well, we've been asking about virtualised desktop infrastructure (VDI) all year. Its time will surely come -- but the big successes still appear to be eluding many organisations.
*Unified comms. This has yet been another year where vendor after vendor has been trying to convince the channel to invest, with limited results.
*It's still not easy being green. This year, green issues appear to have slid off the agenda across a large part of the industry. Unless it means a chance to cut costs, of course.
*Audiovisual. A few years ago, IT resellers began looking more at this increasingly converged space. However, apart from a few notable exceptions, audiovisual has remained primarily the domain of specialists.
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