We know that in the 15 years since the iPhone went on sale, technology has infiltrated every crevice of our lives. Technology has changed politics, industry, leisure, culture, and the way people interact—for better and for worse.
The march of technology also came with this puzzling reality: Hardly any iPhone-era technology was an unqualified success.
I would argue that only one consumer Internet company of the smartphone era has emerged as the clear winner in terms of popularity and financial viability: 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 with smartphones.)
Every other consumer internet company of the iPhone era is undervalued because of relatively small numbers of users, questionable finances, uncertain growth prospects, risk of death, or all of the above. And even Meta worries he might not stay healthy, as my colleague Mike Isaac wrote on Tuesday. Also, the Goal has caused some serious problems in our world.
I know it sounds funny. Over the past 15 years, technology has conquered everything. How can there be so few tech companies that we can be relatively certain will survive into middle age?
I’m going to spend the rest of this newsletter making my point. Feel free to disagree with me or shout (respectfully!) at [email protected]
First, I’m taking the big step of excluding Google web search, e-commerce sites like Amazon and Alibaba, and Netflix video streaming from my ranking. They are probably the long-term winners of technology, but they belong to the first generation of the Internet. I also don’t count technologies used primarily by businesses. I’m only looking at consumer companies that were babies or unborn when smartphones first entered our pockets, and whose popularity was then boosted by these little supercomputers.
Besides Meta, the most popular apps of the last 15 years have giant stars.
Billions of people use YouTube, but it’s not a very good business compared to its size and influence. It’s possible that YouTube wouldn’t exist today if Google hadn’t bought the video site in 2006, a year before the iPhone.
Twitter is influential, but it is not widely used and is a chronic failure. Snapchat is a hotbed of online creative ideas that has been relentlessly copied by Meta and others. But it may not last long, and it has not proven itself to be a competent company. Uber and Spotify are two examples of good technology that is bad business. They don’t generate sustainable profits, and some astute technology researchers believe that these business models simply won’t work.
Fads in e-commerce come and go. Apps that are ubiquitous 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 being owned by China will haunt the app forever.
Will these stars of the iPhone age emerge in 10 years, or will they go the way of Yahoo and Myspace? (For Gen Z readers, Yahoo and Myspace were popular websites not too long ago.)
That leaves us with Meta. Again, the company has problems, but it has adapted several times so far to people’s rapidly changing online habits. The company is also very, very, very good at making money. So far.
You can’t be a winner without being able to turn popularity into money and attract people to the program as their tastes change. Few companies have managed to do both consistently over the past decade.
How come we have so much technology and so few winning technology companies?
It’s possible that the nature of innovation simply leaves a lot of killing in its wake. In previous technological eras, only one or a few long-lasting companies may have emerged. Microsoft and Apple have become big winners from bringing computers into people’s homes. Google, Amazon and Netflix were the stars of the first generation of the Internet. There were many other technologies and technology companies that were forgotten along the way.
And if you look not only at the technologies that people use, but also at business technologies, more winners have been carved out in the last 15 years. Cloud computing—short for digital tasks that are performed over the Internet rather than on specialized computers owned by people or companies—has reshaped Internet services and enterprise technology. Cloud computing has also made many tech companies rich, including Amazon, Microsoft and Salesforce.
It’s possible that new inventions in artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, and technologies that further blur the lines between the virtual and real worlds could create many thriving tech companies. But this has not happened in the technological reality that exists today.
The internet and smartphones were a revolution that changed the world. And the medium was more enduring and powerful than any single part of it.
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Before we go…
Tech is still plentiful. There are also lines of concern. Google and Microsoft reported slower revenue growth than companies in a crazy 2021. But my colleagues reported that companies were mostly confident they could stay healthy as they faced a bleak economic outlook and other challenges.
Counterpoint: Shopify, which helps businesses set up online stores, said it has reassessed how much people will stick with the e-commerce habits they’ve developed during the pandemic. Its financial results, released on Wednesday, were dire, and Shopify said it would lay off 10 percent of its staff.
Read it more from DealBook.
Technology changes language to ASL even faster: My colleague Amanda Morris has written about how video calling, smartphones, and social media have helped accelerate changes in American Sign Language. The evolution — including tighter signs that fit on a small smartphone screen — has sometimes created a generational divide in deaf culture, she wrote.
Goodbye “ugh”: This is the sound when a character dies in the Roblox virtual world. But Roblox said Tuesday that its signature sound had been removed due to a “licensing issue,” video game site Kotaku reported. Roblox fans have started an online campaign to bring back the “ugh”.
Hugs to that
A food festival in Halifax, Nova Scotia, is featuring an extremely strange oyster mascot named Pearl. The oyster shell mascot costume has at least 13 eyes and dark red lips. I love it.
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