Not many people will be sad to see the back of 2020, bidding good riddance to 12 months that were dominated by a pandemic, political turmoil and protests in the streets.
In a year when so much of our work and personal lives were forced to go virtual and remote, however, technology deserves credit for keeping us productive, informed, entertained, educated — you name it. Here’s a look back at some of the biggest technology stories of 2020, from egos and IPOs to detours and disappointing apps.
A sharing economy shakeup
Wanna share a house, car or office? Millions of people did, until a global pandemic hit. In the early months of the COVID crisis, Airbnb and Uber both laid off about 25 per cent of their global staff. Lyft reduced its headcount by about 17 per cent. In its most recent earnings report, office-sharing startup WeWork said its quarterly revenue sank eight per cent while membership numbers fell 11 per cent.
Is this a permanent reckoning or a chance to pivot and rebound? It might be the latter. With home-sharing now viewed by some vacationers as a way to avoid crowded hotel restaurants and elevators, Airbnb’s IPO just raised $3.5 billion, with the shares closing almost 113 per cent higher than their debut price.
With indoor dining banned in many places, Uber’s food delivery division Uber Eats has gained traction with consumers whose only option is takeout. WeWork is launching a new pay-as-you-go rental app that could appeal to companies wary of long-term office leases in the WFH COVID era.
According to Colliers analysts, the number of co-working and flexible workspace locations across the U.S. could triple within the next five years as employers seek more affordable, adaptable ways to transition between WFH and huge corporate office towers with high rents and long commutes.
Elon Musk constantly makes headlines, but 2020 was an exceptionally big year for the founder of Tesla and SpaceX. He fathered a baby with Canadian singer Grimes, named their newborn an unpronounceable set of letters and numbers, endorsed Kanye West for U.S. president and was barred by NASA from his own Mars rocket launch after he tested positive for COVID-19.
Or did he? Musk tweeted to his 40 million followers that he’d had four COVID tests in one day. Two came back positive; two came back negative. Months earlier he’d reopened his Tesla factory in defiance of lockdown orders in California. He later moved his family of three to Texas, blasting California’s COVID restrictions as “fascist.”
Despite China’s safety recall of 50,000 Tesla vehicles and Musk’s move to halt all Tesla corporate communications except through Twitter and YouTube, Tesla’s stock was added to the S&P 500 this year. The shares hit an all-time high that vaulted Musk past Bill Gates into second place on the list of the richest people on this planet.
Musk still hopes to send people from this planet to Mars, despite Space X’s recent rocket launch test that literally went up (and immediately back down again) in flames.
Gates conspiracy theory
While 2016 gave us pizzagate, 2020 brought us … Gates-gate.
What’s worse than no longer being the second richest person in the world? If you’re Bill Gates, it’s being targeted by a bizarre online conspiracy theory. Although his charitable foundation has funded $10 billion in Third World vaccine programs over the past decade, this year Gates was accused of masterminding a plot to inject people with tracking microchips via COVID-19 vaccines.
Despite denials from Gates and numerous news outlets debunking the theory, one poll of U.S. voters found 44 per cent of Republicans, 24 per cent of independents and 19 per cent of Democrats believed the claims were true.
Tech giants under fire
One ordeal Bill Gates did survive was an epic anti-trust case against Microsoft, which was finally resolved in 2002.
Fast-forward to 2020, and other giant tech companies are facing allegations of everything from firing workplace safety whistleblowers (Amazon) and spreading dangerous misinformation about COVID-19 (Twitter, Facebook and YouTube) to killing the newspaper industry (Google and Facebook) and threatening democracy by disseminating fake news (Facebook and Twitter).
Kinda makes those old anti-trust monopoly charges look quaint, eh? It also highlights how much the role of technology has changed in our lives. Two decades ago, Microsoft faced scrutiny because Windows dominated the market. Today, tech giants are under fire for allegedly shifting what people believe, how they vote and how society collectively defines cornerstone concepts like truth, science and news.
Most disappointing app
Although COVID-19 phone apps have been launched by governments around the world, they haven’t really helped curb the virus outside of Asia. Why? First, in many jurisdictions, too few people have downloaded the apps to make a difference. Although one study suggests about 55 to 95 per cent of a population must use a COVID app for it to be effective, only five per cent of New Yorkers have downloaded that city’s app, for example.
Second, most of the COVID apps are designed to alert and notify, not track and trace. Some generate a code so people who test positive can anonymously inform their other close contacts via the app — but it’s not mandatory for them to do so. Plus, most apps don’t track whether a user who’s alerted to a possible exposure actually bothers to get tested or self-isolate.
Contrast that with Hong Kong. Anyone arriving from overseas is required to download a phone app and wear a geo-fencing wristband that alerts officials if their movements violate the two-week quarantine law. But where do we draw the line between containing a disease and running a surveillance state? It’s a messy, complicated issue pitting public health against individual rights like privacy and freedom of movement.
Tech story of the year
The biggest tech story of the year? When the entire world changed at a moment’s notice, technology kept us going. Thanks to cloud, Wi-Fi, broadband, collaboration apps and videoconferencing, we kept on working, even if it was from a kitchen table or unfinished basement.
In a year when we couldn’t just go anywhere, we could still venture online. And we did.
It’s where we attended business conferences and doctor’s appointments; ‘sent’ our kids to school, at least for a few months; streamed endless hours of movies and TV shows; fought epic gaming battles; ordered groceries, gifts and booze; tracked way too many packages; ‘visited’ sick and elderly relatives; said our final goodbyes to people we loved, sometimes right at the moment we lost them.
In 2020, our reality truly went virtual. We all submitted the most pressing IT ticket ever. And when it counted, tech came through.
Here’s to a healthier, easier, kinder year in 2021.