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Tech players emerge as public vs private boils over into 2016

After a hit-or-miss year of initial public offerings in the technology sector, the most likely candidates to go public in 2016 probably aren't who you'd think, according to a new report.

The not-so-sexy fields of analytics, data centers, security and application integration top a list of 531 companies most likely to enter the public markets next year, according to a new report by data and predictive analytics company CB Insights. Still, the report does highlight some well-known unicorns that could go public.

Topping the list of public market contenders are copy data virtualization company Actifio, integration platform MuleSoft, enterprise virtualization and storage company Nutanix, secure cloud company Okta, and subscription billing company Zuora. But household names like Buzzfeed, Airbnb, Uber and Snapchat also made the cut.

CB Insights ranked the companies based on scores from a technology called Mosaic, which uses "nontraditional public signals" such as customer signings, hiring activity, media sentiment, web traffic and mobile app data. The report also highlights which industries and venture capital firms are likely to shine when it comes to getting funding, and which venture capital firms are most likely to back them.

Internet companies comprise 64 percent of CB Insights' IPO pipeline companies, followed distantly by mobile, hardware, software and electronics companies. Among Internet companies, business intelligence, advertising, apparel, customer relationship management and security were dominant categories.

But the capital-intensive electronics sector is the most cash-rich field of companies on the list, with a roundtable of top investors in pipeline companies including SV Angel, Sequoia Capital, Andreessen Horowitz, Fidelity Investments and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Despite an unprecedented number of private technology companies reaching valuations over $1 billion, the 2016 forecast comes after a year of less-than-stellar starts for technology company IPOs.

Financial technology company Square, for instance, priced its IPO at 30 percent less than in a private fundraising round a year ago, and flash storage company PureStorage debuted for trading below its IPO price. In the third quarter of 2015, average IPO returns were negative for the first time since 2011, according to a report by Renaissance Capital.

"Twenty-fifteen was a surprise to the downside," Byron Deeter of Bessemer Venture Partners told CNBC Wednesday. "Fewest IPOs since 2008 — in the cloud industry in particular ... but we see more ahead for 2016. The pipeline is fantastic in terms of late-stage companies that are pre-IPO. There's a lot of discussion around companies like Dropbox, Stripe, DocuSign, Twilio, et cetera. We expect companies like that will make their debut in the coming quarters."

To be sure, there have been some bright spots to round out 2015. Square has since seen its stock price rise, and Australian business software maker Atlassian saw shares soar on its trading debut.

"Given the maturity of many of the companies in the pipeline, the uncertainty about private markets and the increasing calls by investors for companies to go public, we expect 2016 will see public market activity pick up," CB Insights' CEO and co-founder Anand Sanwal wrote in the report. "Given how bad 2015 was, the reality is it couldn't get worse."

There's certainly an appetite for technology sector stocks. Indeed, some already-public technology companies are flying high into the new year, technology analyst Mark Mahaney of RBC Capital Markets told CNBC.

Expedia, Alphabet and Amazon all saw their stock prices rise over 40 percent in 2015 to date, and Mahaney has them as top picks for 2016, as well.

"Google has the most identifiable catalyst in the space, given this new segment reporting we are going to see in about a month, " Mahaney said Thursday on CNBC's "Squawk Alley."

Mahaney honed in on LinkedIn's advertising and mobile app potential, and Expedia's acquisition of Orbitz as a catalyst for growth next year. In addition to commerce picks Alibaba and Amazon.

"LinkedIn is one where we've seen a bit of a positive correction in their talent solutions business," Mahaney said. "We think that's a locked and loaded. They have a price increase — we think revenue growth is very sustainable there."

Mahaney said he sees ad-tech and programmatic vendors such as Criteo and Rubicon Project as another big trend for the next year.

"You have not made money to date on the programmatic vendors," Mahaney said. "The way to play them in the public markets has really been Google and Facebook. Whether you can make it work in the small cap spaces is TBD ... so far, investors have avoided ad-tech like the plague. That might change this next year."

— CNBC's Reem Nasr and Jacob Pramuk contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Expedia is an investment banking client of RBC Capital Markets.