We know that in the 15 years since the iPhone came out, technology has seeped into every crevice of our lives. Technology has reshaped politics, industries, leisure, culture and people’s interrelationships – for better and for worse.
The advance of technology has also been accompanied by this puzzling reality: Hardly any technology from the iPhone era has been an unqualified success.
I would argue that only one consumer internet company of the smartphone era has emerged as an undisputed winner in popularity and financial vitality: 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 did.)
Every other iPhone-era consumer internet company gets an incomplete grade because of relatively small numbers of users, questionable finances, uncertain growth prospects, risk of death, or all of the above. And even Meta fears it might not stay healthy, as my colleague Mike Isaac wrote on Tuesday. Also, Meta has contributed to some serious problems in our world.
I know this sounds ridiculous. In the past 15 years, tech has won everything. How can there be so few tech companies that we can be relatively confident will last into middle age?
I will spend the rest of this newsletter on my speech. Feel free to agree or shout (respectfully!) at ontech@CBNewz.
First, I take a big leap to exclude Google web searches, ecommerce sites like Amazon and Alibaba, and streaming video from Netflix from my review. They are probably long-term tech winners, but they belong to the first generation of the Internet. I also don’t count the technology that is mainly used by companies. I’m just looking at consumer companies that were toddlers or not yet born when smartphones first hit our wallets and whose popularity was then boosted by those little supercomputers.
Besides Meta, the most popular apps of the past 15 years have giant stars.
Billions of people use YouTube, but it’s not a big company for its size and influence. It’s possible that 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 it is not widely used and is a chronic underachiever. Snapchat is a hotbed of creative ideas online and has been relentlessly copied by Meta and others. But it can’t last long, and it hasn’t proven to be a proficient company. Uber and Spotify are two examples of good technologies that are bad companies. They don’t consistently generate profits, and some astute tech watchers believe those business models just won’t work.
Trends in e-commerce come and go. Ubiquitous apps in China like WeChat and Meituan will probably never go global. TikTok – we’ll see if its popularity continues, if it can consistently make money, and if concerns about its Chinese ownership will haunt the app forever.
Will these iPhone-era stars still be around in 10 years, or will they go the way of Yahoo and Myspace? (For Gen Z readers, Yahoo and Myspace were popular websites not long ago.)
That leaves us with Meta. Again, the company has issues, but it has adapted to people’s rapidly changing online habits several times so far. The company is also very, very, very good at making money. so far.
You can’t be a winner without the ability to monetize popularity and keep people glued to an app as their tastes change. Very few companies have been able to do both consistently in the past decade.
How is it possible that we have so much technology and so few winning technology companies?
It’s possible that the nature of innovation simply leaves a lot of roadkill behind. In earlier eras of technology, perhaps only one or a few sustainable companies emerged. Microsoft and Apple were the big winners of the shift from computers to people’s homes. Google, Amazon and Netflix were stars of the first-generation internet. There were many other technologies and technology companies that have been forgotten along the way.
And if you look beyond the technologies people use to those for businesses, the last 15 years have seen more winners. Cloud computing — short for digital tasks performed over the Internet rather than on specialized computers owned by people or companies — has remade Internet services and business 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 technology that further blur the lines between the virtual and real worlds could yield many thriving tech companies. But that has not happened in the technical reality that exists today.
The internet and smartphones were world-changing revolutions. And the medium has been more durable and powerful than any part of it.
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Before we go…
Tech is still rich. There are also lines of concern. Google and Microsoft reported slower revenue growth than the companies had in a crazy 2021. But my colleagues reported that the companies were mostly confident they could stay healthy as they faced a declining economic outlook and other issues.
Counterpoint: Shopify, which helps businesses set up online stores, said it overestimated how many people would stick to the e-commerce habits they learned during the pandemic. The financial results released on Wednesday were dire, with Shopify saying it would lay off 10 percent of its staff.
Read more from DealBook.
Tech is changing language even faster for ASL: My colleague Amanda Morris wrote about how video calling, smartphones and social media have accelerated changes in American sign language. The evolutions — including tighter characters that fit into a tiny smartphone screen — have sometimes caused a rift between generations of Deaf culture, she wrote.
Farewell to “phew”: That’s the sound when a character dies in the virtual world of Roblox. But Roblox said Tuesday that the signature sound had been removed due to a “license issue,” video game news site Kotaku reported. Roblox fans started an online campaign to bring back the “oof”.
Hug for this
A food festival in Halifax, Nova Scotia has a very strange oyster mascot called Pearl. The oyster shell mascot costume has at least 13 eyes and dark red lips. I love it.
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