We know that in the 15 years since the iPhone went on sale, technology has seeped into every crevice of our lives. Technology has changed politics, industry, recreation, culture, and how people interact with each other—for better and for worse.
The march of technology has also come with this perplexing reality: Almost no iPhone-era technology has had unqualified success.
I’d say only one smartphone-age consumer internet company 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 when smartphones did.)
Every other consumer Internet company of the iPhone era receives incomplete valuations due to relatively small numbers of users, questionable finances, uncertain growth prospects, risk of death, or all of the above. And Matt even worries that he might not be healthy, as my colleague Mike Isaacs wrote on Tuesday. Also, meta has contributed to serious problems in our world.
I know this sounds ridiculous. In the last 15 years, technology has won everything. How can there be so many tech companies that we can be relatively certain that they will reach middle age?
I’m going to spend the rest of this newsletter doing my thing. Feel free to disagree or shout (respectfully!) email@example.com.
First, I’m taking the leap to exclude Google web search, e-commerce sites like Amazon and Alibaba, and Netflix streaming video from my estimation. They are probably the long-term tech winners, but they belong to the first generation of the Internet. I’m also not counting technology that is primarily used by businesses. I’m only looking at consumer companies that were still babies or not yet born when smartphones first hit our pockets and whose popularity was then boosted by supercomputers.
Beyond Meta, the hottest apps of the last 15 years have giant stars.
Billions of people use YouTube, but it’s not a big business in terms of 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 came out.
Twitter is influential, but it is not widely used and is a chronic underachiever. Snapchat is a hotbed of creative online ideas and has been relentlessly copied by Meta and others. But it may not last and prove that it is a competent company. Uber and Spotify are two examples of good technology that are bad businesses. They don’t consistently generate profits, and some smart tech watchers believe these business models simply won’t work.
Fads in e-commerce come and go. Ubiquitous apps 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 its Chinese ownership haunt the app forever.
Will they be the stars of the iPhone era 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.)
Which leaves us with Meta. Again, the company has its share of problems, but it has repeatedly adapted to people’s rapidly changing online habits so far. The company is also very, very, very good at making money. Yet.
You can’t be a winner without the ability to monetize popularity and get people hooked on your app as their tastes change. Over the past decade, very few companies have been able to do both consistently.
How come we have so much technology and so many winning tech companies?
It is possible that the nature of innovation simply leaves many avenues. In previous eras of technology, only one or a few long-term companies may have emerged. Microsoft and Apple were the 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 tech companies that were forgotten along the way.
And if you look beyond the technology people use for business, the past 15 years have seen more winners. Cloud computing — shorthand for digital tasks performed over the Internet rather than on specialized computers owned by people or companies — updated Internet services and corporate technology. Cloud computing has also made many tech companies rich, including Amazon, Microsoft and Salesforce.
It’s possible that new inventions in artificial intelligence, driverless cars, and technology that further blurs the lines between the virtual and real worlds could spawn many thriving tech companies. But this has not happened in the technological reality that exists today.
The Internet and smartphones were a world revolution. And the media was more durable and powerful than any part of it.
If you haven’t already received this newsletter in your inbox, Please register here.
before we go…
The technique is still rich. There are also lines of concern. Google and Microsoft reported slower revenue growth than the companies had in 2021. But my colleagues said companies were largely confident they would be healthy as they faced a bleak economic outlook and other headwinds.
Counterpoint: Shopify, which helps businesses set up online stores, said it overestimated the e-commerce habits people learned 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.
Tech makes language changes even faster for ASL: My colleague Amanda Morris has written about how video calls, smartphones, and social media have helped accelerate changes in American Sign Language. Evolutions — including tighter signs that fit on smaller smartphone screens — have sometimes created a generational divide in deaf culture, she writes.
bye “oof”: This is the sound when a character dies in the virtual world of Roblox. But Roblox said Tuesday that its signature sound has been removed due to a “licensing issue,” video game news site Kotaku reported. Roblox fans have started an online campaign to bring Oof back.
A food festival in Halifax, Nova Scotia, features a deeply strange oyster mascot named Pearl. The mascot oyster shell costume has at least 13 eyes and dark red lips. I love.
We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you’d like to learn. You can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you haven’t already received this newsletter in your inbox, Please register here. You can also read Past On Tech columns.