We streamed, we Zoomed, we ordered groceries and houseplants online, we created virtual villages while navigating laptop shortages to work and learn from home. When it comes to technology, 2020 was a year like no other.
Here are the year’s tech winners and losers:
— Virtual Reality
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.
— Social media election labels
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.
Less than a year ago, Quibi launched a splashy Super Bowl ad that posed the question “What’s a Quibi?” People may still be scratching their heads.
Quibi, short for “quick bites,” raised $1.75 billion from investors including major Hollywood players Disney, NBCUniversal and Viacom.
But the service struggled to reach viewers, as short videos abound on the internet and the coronavirus pandemic kept many people at home. It announced it was shutting down in October, just months after its April launch.
— Uber and Lyft
Fresh off of 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 in 2020, as people stopped taking cars and huddled down at home.
In May, Uber laid off 3,700 people, or about 14% of its workforce. Lyft also announced job cuts.
But there are some signs of hope. After significantly reducing costs by restructuring in the second quarter, Lyft said last month it expects to have its first profitable quarter at the end of 2021. And the companies scored a major victory in California, where voters passed Proposition 22, granting them an others an exception to a law that sought to classify their drivers as employees, an expense that analysts thought would have pummeled their business in the nation’s most populous state.
— U.S. TikTok ban
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.
— 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.
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.
— Ransomware purveyors
The ransomware scourge — in which criminals hold data hostage by scrambling it until victims pay up — reached epic dimensions in 2020, dovetailing terribly with the COVID-19 plague. In Germany, a patient turned away from the emergency room of a hospital whose IT system was paralyzed by an attack died on the way to another hospital.
In the U.S., the number of attacks on healthcare facilities was on track to nearly double from 50 in 2019. Attacks on state and local governments were up about 50% to more than 150. Even grammar schools have been hit — shutting down remote learning for students from Baltimore to Las Vegas.
Cybersecurity firm Emsisoft estimates the cost of U.S. ransomware attacks in the U.S. alone this year at more than $9 billion between ransoms paid and downtime/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 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. 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.
The biggest of the bunch, Amazon, is one of the few companies that has thrived during the coronavirus outbreak. People have turned to it to order groceries, supplies and other items online, helping the company bring in record revenue and profits between April and June. That came even though it had to spend $4 billion on cleaning supplies and to pay workers overtime and bonuses.
But it’s not just Amazon. The pandemic is accelerating the move to online shopping, a trend experts expect to say even after vaccines allow the world to resume normal lives. And thanks in part to shoppers consciously supporting small businesses, Adobe Analytics says online sales at smaller U.S. retailers were up 349% on Thanksgiving and Black Friday. At the more than 1 million businesses that use Shopify to build their websites, sales rose 75% from a year ago to $2.4 billion on Black Friday, according to Shopify.
— Big Tech
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.