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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.