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 human relationships—for better or for worse.
The march of technology also came with this puzzling reality: Hardly any iPhone-era technology was an unqualified success.
I’d argue that only one consumer Internet company in the smartphone age has emerged as a clear winner in terms of popularity and financial viability: Meta, with its Facebook and Instagram apps.
(The company was founded in 2004, but I chalk it up to the iPhone age because Facebook really took off when smartphones did.)
Every other iPhone-era consumer internet company gets a failing grade due to relatively small user base, 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 Tuesday. In addition, Meta has contributed to serious problems in our world.
I know it sounds funny. In the last 15 years, technology has won everything. How can there be so few tech companies that we can be pretty sure they’ll survive into middle age?
I will spend the rest of this newsletter giving my opinion. Feel free to agree with me or shout (respectfully!) at [email protected]
First, I’m taking a big leap to exclude Google’s web search, e-mail, from my assessment. shopping sites like Amazon and Alibaba, and streaming video on Netflix. They are probably the long-term winners of technology, but they belong to the first generation of the Internet. I also don’t count the technologies that are commonly used by companies. I’m only looking at consumer companies that were small or unborn when smartphones first entered our pockets and were then boosted in popularity by those little supercomputers.
Beyond the Meta, the hottest programs of the last 15 years have giant stars.
Billions of people use YouTube, but it’s not a great business for its size and influence. YouTube might not exist today if Google hadn’t bought the video site in 2006, a year before the iPhone.
Twitter is influential, but not as widely used and a persistent underachiever. Snapchat is a hotbed of creative online ideas, mercilessly copied by Meta and others. However, it can continue and has not proven to be a competent company. Uber and Spotify are two examples of good technology that are bad companies. They are consistently unprofitable, and some astute tech watchers believe these business models simply won’t work.
E-commerce fads come and go. Apps like WeChat and Meituan that are ubiquitous in China will probably never go global. TikTok – We’ll see if its popularity continues, if it manages to consistently monetize, and if worries about its Chinese ownership haunt the app forever.
Will these stars of the iPhone era still be around 10 years from now, or will they go the way of Yahoo and Myspace? (For Gen Z readers, Yahoo and Myspace were popular sites not too long ago.)
It stays with the Meta. Again, the company has problems, but so far it has repeatedly adapted to people’s rapidly changing online habits. The company is also very, very, very good at making money. Still.
You can’t be a winner if you can’t monetize popularity and bring people to your program as their tastes change. Very few companies have been able to consistently do both over the past decade.
How come we have so much technology and so few winning tech companies?
It may be that the nature of innovation simply leaves room for error. In previous eras of technology, only one or a few long-lasting companies emerged. Microsoft and Apple were the big winners in moving 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.
And if you look not just at technology that people use, but just at technology for business, there have been more winners in the last 15 years. Cloud computing, short for digital tasks performed over the Internet rather than on specialized computers owned by people or companies, has reimagined Internet services and enterprise technologies. Cloud computing has also made many tech companies richer, including Amazon, Microsoft and Salesforce.
It’s possible that emerging inventions in artificial intelligence, driverless cars, and technologies that further blur the lines between the virtual and real worlds could create many thriving tech companies. However, in the technological reality that exists today, this has not happened.
The internet and smartphones have changed the world. And the medium was more durable and powerful than any single part of it.
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Before we go…
Technology is still rich. There are also anxiety lines. Google and Microsoft report slower revenue growth than in 2021 were companies. 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 companies build online stores, said it overestimated how much people would stick to the e-commerce habits they learned during the pandemic. On Wednesday, its financial results were dire, and Shopify said it would lay off 10 percent of its workforce.
To read more from DealBook.
Technology is making ASL language change even faster: My colleague Amanda Morris has written about how video calls, smartphones, and social media have helped accelerate the transformation of American Sign Language. The evolution, including tighter signs that fit on a small smartphone screen, has sometimes created a rift between generations of deaf culture, she wrote.
Say goodbye to “oof”: This is the sound you hear when a character dies in the Roblox virtual world. However, Roblox said on Tuesday that its signature sound had been removed due to a “licensing issue,” video game news website Kotaku reported. Roblox fans have started an online campaign to bring back the oof.
Hugs for this one
A food festival in Halifax, Nova Scotia features a very strange oyster mascot named Pearl. The mascot oyster shell costume has at least 13 eyes and crimson lips. I love it.
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