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FROM AMAZON TO ZOOM: THE WINNERS OF 2020

TBC

2020 was a year most of us were glad to see the back off. For years, we had joked about our “2020 vision” – where we’d like to see ourselves at the start of a new decade; what we hoped to achieve. Spending month after month in various stages of lockdown, keeping our distance from friends and family members, and panic buying toilet roll was not what we’d envisaged.


Thankfully we found new ways to keep ourselves entertained, with a little help from something called the internet.

It’s not surprising, then, that the “winners” of 2020 were internet-based companies, and more specifically those with a strong enough infrastructure to bear the weight of the world’s boredom.


Aleksandra Wisniewska and Tim Bradshaw’s Financial Times article provides many useful insights into how 2020 changed the way we use technology:


“The surge in broadband traffic in March and April was so extreme that some video services, such as YouTube, were forced to downgrade streaming resolution to preserve bandwidth - an unprecedented move.


“Even after lockdowns began to ease in some parts of the world, online activity - where internet access was available - remained elevated, and the second uptick in November was almost as large as that of the spring.”


Dating app usage – Tinder, in particular - surged during lockdown, whilst Facebook continued to dominate with close to 3 billion sessions per week worldwide, with stablemates WhatsApp and Instagram in second and third respectively.


The laughing-crying emoji held the top spot on Twitter for the third year running, Donald Trump was the most tweeted about person, and Tiger King was super popular on Netflix. It really was an annus horribilis, whichever way you look at it…


The article is brimming with insights, from DoorDash’s most ordered food items (chicken fingers and French fries, if you’re wondering…) to fitness and wellness apps.


Time and time again, the statistics depict how seriously we rely on technology. When faced with lengthy periods of isolation from the outside world, we turn to technology in our droves. Sure, you may have dedicated a few weekends to perfecting that Banana Bread recipe, but I bet at least some of your utensils were purchased from Amazon. Likewise, that skipping rope to replace gym sessions, or the paddling pool to cool down in on those hot summer nights…


Rupert Neate, wealth correspondent for The Guardian, reported in February:


“Amazon’s UK sales soared by 51% last year to a record $26.5bn (£19.4bn) as people trapped at home due to the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns turned to the internet retailing giant to buy items unavailable in closed high street stores and to keep them entertained…


“The £19.5bn that UK customers spent at Amazon in 2020 is roughly double the takings at Marks & Spencer, the 137-year-old retailer, and underlines how the Covid-19 pandemic is revolutionising the way we shop and threatening the future of the high street.”


The “big getting bigger” isn’t surprising. Little-known Zoom, by contrast, took everyone by surprise…


The now-ubiquitous video conferencing platform became part of our daily routine as the reality of lockdown sunk in. There’d be no more chats around the watercooler on a Monday morning, team huddles to discuss sales strategies, quiz nights down the pub or family get-togethers. Not in-person, anyhow. Instead, we relied on the platform so heavily that ‘Zoom fatigue’ became a thing – a topic that would later be explored by the National Geographic, Harvard Business Review and TED, amongst others.


Back in April 2020, the Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, published a column for The Philadelphia Inquirer on how language can adapt with “surprising rapidity”. Barg wrote:


Zoom, verb: to video-chat via a web application with college roommates, childhood friends, your sister’s ex-boyfriend’s yoga teacher’s cat. Most Americans have gone from never having heard of Zoom to verbing it regularly. Keep it capitalized, but come back to me if we’re still social distancing six months from now. We’ll see if it’s reached google status by then.


Well, it’s more than six months on and it’s safe to say zoom has reached “google status”. But how did it reach such heady heights? Especially with competitors like Microsoft to contend with.

An article from Wired identifies several reasons why Skype – the brand you used to think of for video conferencing – failed to take advantage of the “biggest potential use case for its product in human history”. It details how Microsoft – who acquired Skype for $8.5 billion in May 2011 – “doubled down on trying to make it compete with everyday communication apps, while sacrificing the thing that made it most useful: reliable video calling.”


The article continues:


“At the same time, alternatives were quietly gaining ground, providing the same features for free and without some of the more tangential trinkets. While Skype stagnated and even regressed, others like Zoom started adding relevant features and firming up the quality of calls to result in fewer dropped lines.”


When the pandemic hit, users voted for Zoom’s speed and reliability with their feet – trampling Skype in the process.


Companies with a strong digital-first strategy were the first to thrive during the pandemic, and those without were left playing catch up. A survey by McKinsey & Company – published in October 2020 – found that responses to COVID-19 have sped up the adoption of digital technologies by several years.

The introduction reads:


“In just a few months’ time, the COVID-19 crisis has brought about years of change in the way companies in all sectors and regions do business. According to a new McKinsey Global Survey of executives, their companies have accelerated the digitization of their customer and supply-chain interactions and of their internal operations by three to four years. And the share of digital or digitally enabled products in their portfolios has accelerated by a shocking seven years.”


It’s clear, then, that the pandemic not only impacted businesses in terms of brand recognition, revenue and the like, but how companies do business. The continuation of home-working past the UK’s so-called “Freedom Day” is a prime example. 


Companies that had previously been averse to remote working, were forced to transform their operations at pace or risk being left behind – and employees liked it.


The report concludes:


“The notion of a tipping point for technology adoption or digital disruption isn’t new, but the survey data suggest that the COVID-19 crisis is a tipping point of historic proportions - and that more changes will be required as the economic and human situation evolves. The results also show that some significant lessons can be drawn from the steps organizations have already taken. 


"One is the importance of learning, both tactically, in the process of making specific changes to businesses (which technologies to execute, and how), and organizationally (how to manage change at a pace that far exceeds that of prior experiences). Both types of learning will be critical going forward, since the pace of change is not likely to slow down.”


Whether the COVID-19 crisis proves to be a “tipping point of historic proportions” remains to be seen, but one thing looks certain: that damn laughing-crying emoji isn’t going away anytime soon…