So much tech  So few winners.

So much tech So few winners.

We know that in the 15 years since the iPhone came out, technology has seeped into every corner of our lives. Technology has changed politics, industry, leisure, culture and the way people relate to each other – for better or for worse.

The advance of technology has also brought this puzzling reality with it: Hardly any technology of the iPhone era was an unqualified success.

I would argue that only one consumer internet company has emerged as the clear winner in terms of popularity and financial vigor in the smartphone age: Meta, with its Facebook and Instagram apps.

(The company was founded in 2004, but I classify it as the iPhone era because Facebook really took off when smartphones emerged.)

Every other consumer internet company of the iPhone era gets an incomplete grade because of relatively low user base, questionable finances, uncertain growth prospects, risk of death, or all of that. And even Meta worries she may not stay healthy, as my colleague Mike Isaac wrote on Tuesday. Also, Meta has contributed to some serious problems in our world.

I know that sounds ridiculous. In the last 15 years, technology has won everything. How can there be so few tech companies that we can be reasonably confident of surviving into middle age?

I will spend the rest of this newsletter making my arguments. Feel free to agree or (respectfully!) yell at [email protected]

First, I’m taking a big leap by excluding Google web search, e-commerce sites like Amazon and Alibaba, and streaming video from Netflix from my review. They’re probably longtime tech winners, but they’re part of the first generation of the internet. I also don’t count the technology that is mainly used by companies. I only look at consumer companies that were toddlers or not yet born when smartphones first entered our pockets, and whose popularity was then supercharged by these little supercomputers.

Beyond meta, the hottest apps of the last 15 years have huge asterisks.

Billions of people use YouTube, but it’s not a great business for its size and influence. It’s possible YouTube wouldn’t exist today if Google hadn’t bought the video site in 2006, the year before the iPhone came out.

Twitter is influential but not as widespread and a chronic underachiever. A hotbed of creative ideas online, Snapchat has been relentlessly copied by Meta and others. But it might not last, and it hasn’t proved it’s a competent company. Uber and Spotify are two examples of good technology doing bad business. They don’t generate consistent profits, and some astute tech watchers believe these business models just won’t work.

Ecommerce fads come and go. Ubiquitous apps in China like WeChat and Meituan will likely never go global. TikTok – we’ll see if its popularity lasts, if it can consistently monetize, and if worries about its Chinese ownership haunt the app forever.

Will these iPhone-era stars still be around 10 years from now, or will they go the way of Yahoo and Myspace? (For Generation Z readers, Yahoo and Myspace were popular sites not so long ago.)

That leaves us with meta. Again, the company struggles, but it has so far made multiple adjustments to people’s rapidly changing online habits. The company is also very, very, very good at making money. Until now.

You can’t be a winner if you can’t turn popularity into cash and keep people hooked to an app when their tastes change. Very few companies have been able to consistently implement both in the last ten years.

How come we have so much technology and so few successful technology companies?

It’s possible that the nature of innovation just leaves a lot of roadkill behind. In previous eras of technology, perhaps only one or a few enduring companies emerged. Microsoft and Apple have been the big winners in bringing computers into people’s homes. Google, Amazon and Netflix were stars of the first generation of the web. There have been many other technologies and tech companies that have been forgotten along the way.

And if you look beyond the technologies people are using to those for business, the last 15 years have produced more winners. Cloud computing—an acronym for digital tasks performed over the Internet rather than on people’s or businesses’ specialized computers—has reshaped Internet services and enterprise technology. Cloud computing has also made many tech companies rich(er) including Amazon, Microsoft, and Salesforce.

It’s possible that emerging inventions in artificial intelligence, driverless cars, and technologies that further blur the lines between the virtual and real worlds could spawn many thriving tech companies. But that has not happened in today’s technical reality.

The internet and smartphones were world-changing revolutions. And the medium was more enduring and powerful than any part of it.

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  • Tech is still rich. There are also worry lines. Google and Microsoft reported slower revenue growth than the companies in a crazy 2021. However, my colleagues reported that companies are mostly confident they can stay healthy as they face a bleak economic outlook and other issues.

    counterpoint: Shopify, which helps companies set up online stores, said it overestimated how much people would cling to the e-commerce habits they learned during the pandemic. Financial results released Wednesday were terrible, and Shopify said it was laying off 10 percent of its employees.

    Read more from DealBook.

  • Tech changes the language for ASL even faster: My colleague Amanda Morris has written about how video calling, smartphones, and social media have helped accelerate changes in American Sign Language. The developments — including stricter signs that fit on a small smartphone screen — have sometimes created a generational divide in deaf culture, she wrote.

  • Farewell to “uff”: This is the sound when a character dies in the Roblox virtual world. But Roblox said Tuesday that its signature sound was removed because of a “licensing issue,” video game news site Kotaku reported. Roblox fans launched an online campaign to bring back the “Oof”.

A food festival in Halifax, Nova Scotia features a deeply odd oyster mascot named Pearl. The mascot oyster shell costume has at least 13 eyes and dark red lips. I love it.


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