From Zoom to Quibi, here are the tech winners and losers of 2020

From Zoom to Quibi, here are the tech winners and losers of 2020
A man walks past a logo of Japan’s Nintendo Co. at a Nintendo store in Tokyo on Nov. 5, 2020. (File/AFP)
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Updated 29 December 2020

From Zoom to Quibi, here are the tech winners and losers of 2020

From Zoom to Quibi, here are the tech winners and losers of 2020
  • As the pandemic forced many of us to stay home, some businesses cashed in on our growing reliance on technology — but others missed the boat

We streamed. We Zoomed. We ordered groceries and houseplants online. We created virtual villages, while navigating laptop shortages so that we could work and learn from home.

In many ways, the pandemic-induced isolation so many of us experienced during 2020 pushed our dependence on technology into overdrive, chipping away at real-life connections while bringing digital relationships to the fore.

But for every life-changing Zoom, there was at least one quickly forgotten Quibi. Here, then, is our round up of the year’s big winners and losers in the tech world.

LOSERS:

Virtual Reality

As the world adjusted to a new, stuck-at-home reality, the pandemic could have been a chance for virtual reality (VR) to offer an escape. Through the use of special headsets and other accouterments, such as gloves, the technology allows users to interact with a 360-degree view of a three-dimensional environment — which would seem to be a good fit for people stuck indoors.

Instead, people turned for escapism to the easier-to-use software and games they already had access to. Few rushed to spend hundreds of dollars on a clunky new headset or attempted to get to grips with the technology for hosting VR meetings. No VR games broke into the mainstream.

And so virtual reality, which has been on the verge of success for decades, missed its moment yet again.

Social media election labels

It was the year of labels on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and even TikTok. Ahead of the Nov. 3 US presidential vote, social-media companies promised to clamp down on election misinformation, including baseless allegations of fraud and premature declarations of victory. The most visible aspect of this was the bevy of labels applied to tweets, posts, photos and videos.

“Some or all of the content shared in this Tweet is disputed and might be misleading about an election or other civic process,” read one typical label applied to a tweet by President Donald Trump.

However many experts said that while the labels made it appear as if the companies were taking action, they served little purpose.

“At the end of the day it proved to be pretty ineffective,” said Jennifer Grygiel, a professor at Syracuse University and an expert on social media.

Quibi

Less than a year ago, a flashy Super Bowl advert posed an intriguing question: “What’s a Quibi?” Many people may still be scratching their heads.

Short-form video-streaming platform Quibi — the name was short for “quick bites” — raised $1.75 billion from investors, including major Hollywood players such as Disney, NBCUniversal and Viacom.

Yet the service struggled to reach viewers; short videos abound on the internet and the coronavirus pandemic kept many people at home where they could binge watch movies and entire runs of TV series. Quibi announced it was shutting down in October, just a few months after its April launch.

Uber and Lyft

Fresh from their initial public offerings the year before, and still struggling to show they can be profitable, the ride-hailing services were clobbered by the pandemic as people stopped going out and hunkered down at home. In May, Uber laid off 3,700 people, or about 14 percent of its workforce. Lyft also announced job cuts.

But there are signs of hope. After significantly reducing costs by restructuring during the second quarter, Lyft last month said it expects to record its first profitable quarter at the end of 2021.

The companies also scored a major victory in California where the public voted to pass Proposition 22, which grants the businesses, and some others, an exception to a law that would have classified their drivers as employees, rather than independent contractors. Had Proposition 22 failed, analysts warned that the resultant expenses would have pummeled Lyft and Uber in the nation’s most populous state.

US TikTok ban

While India has outlawed the popular video-sharing app, in the US TikTok is close to riding out the end of President Donald Trump’s term without him succeeding in his efforts to ban it.

This month a federal judge blocked another attempt to introduce the ban. It was the latest legal defeat for the administration in its efforts to wrest control of the app from its Chinese owners; in October, another federal judge postponed a shutdown scheduled for November.

Meanwhile, a government-set deadline for TikTok’s parent, ByteDance, to complete a deal under which Oracle and Walmart would have invested in TikTok also passed, with the current status of the agreement unclear.

While President-elect Joe Biden has stated that TikTok is a concern, it is not clear whether his administration will persist with attempts to introduce a ban.

WINNERS:

Nintendo Switch

Even in a year that heralded the arrival of new Xbox and PlayStation consoles, the Nintendo Switch proved still to be the little console that could.

Launched in 2017 it became a fast seller, and its success was further boosted by the launch of the Switch Lite in September 2019. In March this year it became hard to find a Switch in stores as people searched for new ways to entertain themselves and their families at home.

The release of island-simulation game “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” only added to its popularity. It debuted on March 20, just as the pandemic was starting to affect the world, and has sold 26 million units globally, Nintendo says.

According to market-research company the NPD Group, Nintendo sold 6.92 million Switches in the US in the first 11 months of 2020. It has been the best-selling console, in terms of units sold, for 24 consecutive months, which is a record.

Zoom

All types of video-conferencing software, including Microsoft Teams and Cisco Webex, thrived during the abrupt shift in employment as tens of millions of people switched to remote working and learning during the pandemic. But only one became a verb.

Zoom Video Communications was a relatively little-known company before the pandemic hit but the ease of use of its software led to swift and widespread adoption during the pandemic. There were some growing pains, including initially lax security that lead to “Zoom bombing” breaches early on. But the company quickly revamped its security protocols and is now one of the popular platforms for hosting remote meetings and classes.

Ransomware purveyors

The ransomware scourge — in which criminals hold data hostage by scrambling it until victims pay up — reached epic proportions in 2020, dovetailing terribly with the COVID-19 plague.

In some cases, the combined effects were tragic. In Germany, for example, a patient turned away from an emergency room in a hospital where the IT system had been paralyzed by a ransomware attack died while on the way to another hospital.

In the US, the number of attacks on healthcare facilities is on track to nearly double from 50 in 2019. Attacks on state and local governments are up by about 50 percent to more than 150. Even schools were hit by attacks that shut down remote learning for students in a number of states, including Baltimore and Las Vegas.

Cybersecurity firm Emsisoft estimates the total cost of ransomware attacks this year in the US alone to be more than $9 billion, in terms of ransoms paid and the costs of downtime and recovery.

PC makers

After beginning the year grappling with exasperating delays in their supply chains, the personal computer industry found itself scrambling to keep up with surging demand for machines that suddenly became indispensable during a pandemic that forced millions of employees and students to work from home.

The outbreak initially stymied production because PC makers were not able to get the parts they needed from overseas factories that had shut down during the early stages of the health crisis. This contributed to a steep decline in sales in the first three months of the year — but it has been boom time ever since.

The period from July to September was particularly robust, with PC shipments in the US surging by 11 percent compared with the same period in 2019. It was the industry’s biggest quarterly sales increase in a decade, according to research firm Gartner.

E-commerce

The biggest business of the bunch, Amazon, is one of the few that thrived during the pandemic. Shoppers turned to it in droves to order groceries, essential supplies and any number of other items online, which helped the company report record revenues and profits between April and June — despite having to spend $4 billion on cleaning supplies and to pay workers more overtime and bonuses.

But it was not only Amazon that cashed in. The pandemic accelerated a wider move toward online shopping, which is a trend experts expect to continue even after vaccines allow people to resume their normal daily lives.

And thanks in part to some shoppers making a conscious effort to support small businesses, Adobe Analytics said online sales at smaller US retailers were up by 349 percent on Thanksgiving and Black Friday this year.

Meanwhile, Shopify said sales at the more than 1 million businesses that use its platform to build their websites increased to $2.4 billion on Black Friday, a 75 percent rise compared with a year ago.

THE JURY’S OUT:

Big Tech

Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google did well financially, with each company’s stock price and profit rising considerably since the start of the year. They gained users, rolled out new products and features and kept on hiring even as other companies and industries faced significant cuts.

But not all is well in the world of “Big Tech.” Regulators have been breathing down the necks of the companies and this pressure is unlikely to ease in 2021.

Google faces an antitrust lawsuit filed by the US Department of Justice, for example. And Facebook has been hit by one from the Federal Trade Commission, along with nearly every US state, that seeks to split it off from WhatsApp and Instagram.

More cases could follow, after congressional investigators spent months digging into the actions of Apple and Amazon, in addition to Facebook and Google, and called on the CEOs of all four companies to testify before them.


Unilever releases new podcast series for International Women’s Day

Unilever releases new podcast series for International Women’s Day
Updated 08 March 2021

Unilever releases new podcast series for International Women’s Day

Unilever releases new podcast series for International Women’s Day
  • New miniseries tells the stories of six Saudi women

DUBAI: Unilever’s Miraa has partnered with regional podcast network Finyal Media to release a six-episode podcast series titled “A Breath, a Step, a Mirror” for International Women’s Day.

Miraa is an Arabic-only regional publication for, by and about Arab women, focusing on health, beauty and lifestyle.

The podcast series delves into the lives of six women from Saudi Arabia who write a letter to a younger version of themselves.

“With the launch of our new podcast, our hope is that the personal and intimate stories and growth journeys of our hosts inspire more women to look beyond their challenges and rise above judgments to pursue their growth and goals,” said Sonia Kapoor, senior content manager at Unilever and Miraa.

From encouraging their younger selves to break free of rigid molds to wishing they had had the confidence to be themselves instead of trying to please others, these women tell stories that are a reflection of their journeys and a chance to explore what they might have done differently.

“We look forward to women across the region having the chance to listen to the series, and we hope these stories will help other young Arab women to grow in confidence and reach their true potential as we mark another International Women’s Day,” added Leila Hamadeh, co-founder and CEO of Finyal Media.

The first season, produced in collaboration with Lux, was released in the first week of March, with more seasons expected throughout the year.

The series is available on all podcasting platforms, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Anghami, Deezer and Spotify.


Lebanon’s Salameh to sue Bloomberg after US denies talk of sanctioning him

Lebanon’s Salameh to sue Bloomberg after US denies talk of sanctioning him
Updated 06 March 2021

Lebanon’s Salameh to sue Bloomberg after US denies talk of sanctioning him

Lebanon’s Salameh to sue Bloomberg after US denies talk of sanctioning him
  • Bloomberg published news that the Biden administration was considering sanctions against the central bank governor
  • Both Salemeh and the US State department deny the claim

LONDON: Lebanese Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh announced on Friday that he will be taking legal action against Bloomberg after it published an article claiming that the US is considering sanctioning him, a move the US State Department denies.

“We have seen reports about possible sanctions of Riad Salameh. They are untrue,” a State Department spokesperson told Arab News.

Last week, Bloomberg published news that the Biden administration was considering sanctions against the central bank governor, a claim both Salemeh and the US State department deny.

An investigation into possible money laundering and embezzlement has been opened by Swiss authorities.

Salemeh, his brother and assistant were also being probed over multimillion-dollar transfers out of the country at a time when Lebanese citizens were allowed minimum withdrawal amounts from their bank accounts.

The country’s currency hit 10,000 Lebanese pounds to one US dollar on Wednesday, an unprecedented mark that sparked a resurgence of protests that have been hampered by the coronavirus pandemic.

Lebanon witnessed nationwide protests in October 2018 calling for the end of widespread corruption and worsening economic conditions that have since seen more than half the population living below the poverty line.

The country’s current economic and financial crisis has been largely blamed on Salemeh due to his long tenure, having headed the central bank for 28 years after assuming control in 1993.


Why the world needs to take deepfakes seriously

Why the  world needs to take deepfakes seriously
Updated 06 March 2021

Why the world needs to take deepfakes seriously

Why the  world needs to take deepfakes seriously
  • Report highlights danger Artificial Intelligence can pose; warns of danger to politics, media 

LONDON: In 1938, American filmmaker Orson Welles’ narration of H.G. Wells’ alien invasion novel “The War of the Worlds” caused panic and pandemonium for listeners in the US who believed the tale to be a public broadcast by the government.

The next day, headlines across newspapers read “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact.” Historical research, however, suggested that the actual panic itself was overstated by the media, as the broadcast itself had few listeners.
Fast-forward to 2021 with the long arms of social media and the internet, what would happen if a video showing US President Joe Biden sitting in the Oval Office announcing that he will be striking Iran imminently were to appear? Or if a video showing French President Emmanuel Macron crassly insulting Muslims surfaced?
Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology, called deep learning, which generates images of fake events, known as deepfakes, allows for the creation of a moving image that looks and sounds exactly like Biden or Macron, but isn’t them, to speak and say whatever the creator wants, with most observers unable to tell if it is fake.

“Even before deep fakes, social media has platforms, and the different services have led to some threats on users in our region, especially women and other vulnerable communities,” Mohamed Najem, executive director of SMEX, a digital-rights organization focusing on Arabic-speaking countries, told Arab News.
“Deep fakes bring more serious threats to the aforementioned groups, especially if (criminals) want to destroy someone’s reputation — women, especially, are at risk, with them having gained more freedom within different conservative communities, which could see them suffer real damage” he added.

Recently, a series of very convincing TikTok videos showing Actor Tom Cruise doing multiple activities has left millions confused as to whether or not it really is the famous actor. Other known deepfakes show former US President Barack Obama calling his successor Donald Trump a “dipsh*t” and Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaking about stealing users’ private data.
According to a report published last year by University College London (UCL), deepfakes rank as the most serious AI crime threat.
“As the capabilities of AI-based technologies expand, so too has their potential for criminal exploitation. To adequately prepare for possible AI threats, we need to identify what these threats might be, and how they may impact our lives,” author Lewis Griffin stated in the report.

Crimes in the digital realm can be easily shared, repeated, and even sold, allowing criminal techniques to be marketed.

Among the most serious concerns posed by fake content such as deepfakes is that, as they are so difficult to identify, they could be used for all manner of dubious purposes, ranging from discrediting a politician or a public figure to blackmail.
“Unlike many traditional crimes, crimes in the digital realm can be easily shared, repeated, and even sold, allowing criminal techniques to be marketed and for crime to be provided as a service. This means criminals may be able to outsource the more challenging aspects of their AI-based crime,” co-author Dr. Matthew Caldwell stated in the report.
To make matters worse, the rise in convincing deepfakes could in turn play a major role in discrediting major news institutions.
“If even a small fraction of visual evidence is proven to be convincing fakes, it becomes much easier to discredit genuine evidence, undermining criminal investigation and the credibility of political and social institutions that rely on trustworthy communications,” the report stated.
“Social media platforms need to understand the threats and act on them. Unfortunately there is no trust in governments in our region to do the right thing; my assumption is that they will use this to restrict more speech and criminalize it, which will lead to more closure of civic spaces,” Najem said.
The UCL report goes on to note that awareness and changes in people’s behaviors toward the spread and creation of these videos might be the only effective line of defense. While so far many of the videos popping up on social media are fun — of politicians singing and dancing, say, or Nicholas Cage’s face on Wonder Woman’s body — things may take a sharper, darker turn soon.


Lebanese media outlet Sawt Beirut International launches English-language edition

Sawt Beirut International wants to reach larger audience abroad through its website, mobile app. (Supplied)
Sawt Beirut International wants to reach larger audience abroad through its website, mobile app. (Supplied)
Updated 05 March 2021

Lebanese media outlet Sawt Beirut International launches English-language edition

Sawt Beirut International wants to reach larger audience abroad through its website, mobile app. (Supplied)
  • Sawt Beirut International wants to reach larger audience abroad through its website, mobile app

LONDON: Sawt Beirut International (SBI) launched an English-language edition of its news website with the aim of reaching the Lebanese diaspora abroad.

“The English-language website will take Lebanon and Beirut’s voice to all the Lebanese diaspora living in Europe or the US,” SBI Chariman and CEO Jerry Maher told Arab News. “It’s for those who can speak Arabic but can’t read Arabic.”

SBI is a Lebanese media outlet that is on a mission to fight corruption and hold accountable the country’s politicians.

“We can share with them the pains the country is going through and allow them to take part in the change that is coming. We want them to be part of the next phase of Lebanon and understand all that is going on in the country.”

The English-language website will also be coupled with a mobile app, similar to the Arabic version. Maher says SBI is planning a French and Spanish version in the future.

“We are focusing on political, economic and social issues on the news website so Lebanese abroad will know exactly what is going on in the country, where the problem is and how they can help solve it,” the SBI founder said.

Maher said the new website will include a “stories” feature similar to other social-media outlets like Facebook and Instagram.


YouTube cancels Myanmar military-run channels, pulls videos

YouTube cancels Myanmar military-run channels, pulls videos
Updated 05 March 2021

YouTube cancels Myanmar military-run channels, pulls videos

YouTube cancels Myanmar military-run channels, pulls videos
  • The company said it was monitoring the situation for any content that might violate its rules
  • YouTube said it had terminated around 20 channels and removed over 160 videos in the past couple months

BANGKOK: YouTube has removed five channels run by Myanmar’s military for violating its community guidelines and terms of service.
The company said Friday that it terminated channels of broadcasters Myawaddy Media, MRTV, WD Online Broadcasting, MWD Variety and MWD Myanmar. The decision follows a Feb. 1 military coup that ousted the country’s elected government, provoking massive public protests.
“We have terminated a number of channels and removed several videos from YouTube in accordance with our community guidelines and applicable laws,” YouTube said in an emailed statement.
The company said it was monitoring the situation for any content that might violate its rules.
YouTube said it had terminated around 20 channels and removed over 160 videos in the past couple months for violating its policies regarding hate speech and harassment, spam and deceptive practices, violent or graphic content policy and violations of its terms of service.
In December, it pulled 34 channels as part of an investigation into content uploaded in a coordinated influence campaign. That campaign uploaded content about elections in Myanmar, regional conflicts and news related to the US, China and Malaysia, the company said.
The decision by YouTube followed Facebook’s earlier announcement that it had removed all Myanmar military-linked pages from its site and from Instagram, which it also owns.