The word of the year is ‘Uncertainty’
More than two years after Pandemic Times debuted, the technology is more popular, more powerful, and richer than it was before. Where is it?
This year – and especially the last few weeks – has complicated what was a fairly straightforward understanding of where most of the tech industry and America’s digital superstars are.
On several occasions over the past year or so, my colleagues and I have written that tech is the clear winner in the bizarre pandemic economy. People and businesses needed what tech companies were selling, and this increased reliance allowed tech stars to grow faster and become far more profitable than Silicon Valley nerds could have imagined. Crazy dollars. A+.
Now I think this note should be revised to incomplete. Some of the trends of 2020 and 2021 – including more work, shopping, product marketing, entertainment and socializing online – have started to recede. With hindsight, it is unclear how much of a blow the digital boom of those years was and how much of an acceleration of lasting technological transformations was.
This uncertainty, along with inflation and weakening economies, makes it difficult to understand what’s happening in technology today or even assess the past two years. We may be on the cusp of a great moment for technology or the start of a tough time for its products and finances. Let me repeat what should be the mantra of 2022: nobody knows anything.
Some tech leaders exude confidence in their future, while others ooze anxiety. It’s almost as if they live in two separate realities. And maybe they do.
In one area is the land of Big Tech, with emperors like Microsoft, Google, Amazon (maybe), Apple (maybe) and a few others in fortresses looking down on us.
Google and Microsoft’s revenue continued to rise from what appeared to be their unsustainable huge digital advertising and software sales in 2021. Both companies said this week they were happy with their outlook, but also warned of problems to come.
On Tuesday, Google executives said the word “uncertainty” or some variation of it 13 times during a conference call with investors. The company said it would start to become evident in 2023 that Google was slowing down hiring. Planning a spending plan so many months in advance is a sign that the company does not expect to ride out what could be a US recession and other global issues.
Several winners of the scariest phase of the pandemic are also struggling, wondering if their heady days of 2020 were partly a mirage.
Netflix lost subscribers in the United States and Canada for two quarters. This has led some experts to doubt that online streaming as a whole can grow as quickly and lucratively as optimists thought. Snap, which owns the Snapchat app, saw its fortunes and usage skyrocket in 2020 before reverting to what it was before: a low-thumb company with an uncertain future.
Shopify, whose software helps in-person businesses set up online storefronts, said this week it believed the pandemic had no lasting effect on people switching from in-person purchases to the internet. If Shopify is right, the whole idea that the pandemic has accelerated a shift in shopping habits will implode. It will have been a temporary blood sugar.
Amazon wasn’t as blunt, but the company admitted it had overestimated how quickly e-commerce sales would grow and cut some expenses. (Amazon and Apple release quarterly financial results later Thursday.)
And Meta… phew. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a company go so quickly from bluster to a clumsy Mr. Magoo.
The company’s revenue has plummeted for the first time and its Instagram app is experiencing an identity crisis. But I can’t say if this is the beginning of the end for Meta as a dominant digital power or a temporary lull due to a combination of inflation, Apple’s privacy changes, and ugliness compared to pandemic-related increases in ad sales and once-reported profits. Meta’s annual revenue is almost double what it was at this point in 2019. This is not (yet) a sign of a company in permanent decline.
As the United States and other major economies weaken, it’s possible that digital superstars will take advantage of this moment of uncertainty to expand into new areas and expand their dominance. It’s also possible that even the giants won’t be able to stay strong if their lucrative markets, which include high-end smartphones, online advertising, e-commerce and enterprise software, grow more slowly over the next few years or contract.
Is the technology winning or not? Can I take a long vacation and come back to this question in 2023?
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.