From Zoom to VR, the tech winners and losers of 2020
Story and photos by AP
WE streamed, we Zoomed, we ordered groceries and houseplants online, we created virtual villages while navigating laptop shortages to work and learn from home. In many ways, 2020's pandemic-induced isolation threw our dependence on technology into overdrive, snipping away at our real-life connections while bringing digital relationships to the fore. But for every life-changing Zoom, there was at least one soon-forgotten Quibi. Here’s a look at the year’s tech winners and losers. *** Virtual Reality U.S. TikTok ban LOSERS As the world adjusted to a new stuck-at-home reality, the pandemic could have been virtual reality’s chance to offer an escape. With the use of special headsets and accouterments like gloves, the technology lets people interact with a 360 degree view of a three-dimensional environment, seemingly a good fit for people stuck indoors. But people turned to easier-to-use software and games that they already had. Few rushed to spend hundreds of dollars on a clunky new headset or tried to learn the ropes of virtual reality meeting software. And no VR games broke into the mainstream. So virtual reality, on the verge of success for decades, missed its moment, again. It was the year of labels on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and even TikTok. Ahead of the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential vote, the companies promised to clamp down on election misinformation, including baseless charges of fraud and candidates’ premature declarations of victory. And the most visible part 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. But many experts said that while the labels made it appear that the companies were taking action, ”at the end of the day it proved to be pretty ineffective,” as Jennifer Grygiel a professor at Syracuse University and social media expert, put it. While India outlawed the popular video sharing app, in the U.S. TikTok appears close to riding out Donald Trump’s term without the president succeeding in his efforts to ban it. Earlier this month, a federal judge blocked a potential ban. It was the latest legal defeat for the administration in its efforts to wrest the app from its Chinese owners. In October, another federal judge postponed a shutdown scheduled for November. Meanwhile, a government deadline for TikTok’s parent, ByteDance to complete a deal that would have Oracle and Walmart invest in TikTok has also passed, with the status of the deal unclear. While President-elect Joe Biden has said TikTok is a concern, it’s not clear what his administration will carry on the Trump administration’s attempts at a ban. *** Social media election labels WINNERS Nintendo Switch Even in a year heralding splashy new consoles from Xbox and PlayStation, the Nintendo Switch was the console that could. Launched in 2017, the Switch became a fast seller. That was helped by the launch of the handled Switch Lite in September 2019. In March, it became hard to find a Switch as people searched for ways to be entertained inside their homes. Boosting its popularity was the release of island-simulation game “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” which debuted March 20 and has now sold a cumulative 26 million units globally, according to Nintendo. According to the NPD Group, during the first 11 months of 2020, Nintendo Switch sold 6.92 million units in the U.S. It has been the best-selling console in units sold for 24 consecutive months, a record. Zoom All video conferencing software from Microsoft Teams to WebEx thrived during the abrupt shift of tens of millions of people to remote working and schooling during pandemic. But only one became a verb. Zoom Video Communications was a relatively unheralded company before the pandemic hit, but its ease of use let to wide adoption during the pandemic. There were some growing pains, including lax security that lead to “Zoom bombing” breaches early on. The company revamped its security and remains one of the popular platforms to host remote meetings and classes. 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 became indispensable during a pandemic that kept millions of workers and students at home. The outbreak initially stymied production because PC makers weren’t able to get the parts they needed from overseas factories that shut down during the early stages of the health crisis. Those closures contributed to a steep decline in sales during the first three months of the year. PC makers But it has been boom times ever since. The July-September period was particularly robust, with PC shipments in the U.S. surging 11% from the same time in 2019—the industry’s biggest quarterly sales increase in a decade, according to the research firm Gartner. *** Big Tech JURY’S OUT Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google did well financially, with each company’s stock price and profit up 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 are breathing down each company’s neck and that’s unlikely to ease up in 2021. Google faces an antitrust lawsuit from the Department of Justice. And Facebook has been hit by one from the Federal Trade Commission along with nearly every U.S. state that seeks to split it off from WhatsApp and Instagram. More cases could follow. Congressional investigators spent months digging into the actions of Apple and Amazon in addition to Facebook and Google, and called the CEOs of all four companies to testify.