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The Year Ahead

When Life Returns to Normal, Not All Tech Companies Will Thrive

Months of remote work have shown the limits of some platforms.
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The past year has been grim, solitary, and deeply traumatic. For the tech industry it’s been all those things, plus hugely lucrative. Silicon Valley has long specialized in technologies that compete with face-to-face social interaction, and this year the competition disappeared. “The pandemic has allowed us to test hypotheses that we were considering but have never dared testing fully,” says Diego Comin, a professor of economics at Dartmouth University who studies technology adoption. “Remote learning, massive virtual conferencing, leisure that has a large digital component. Because we don’t have any other alternative now, we had to try them with a positive attitude.” The companies behind those technologies— Zoom, Slack, DoorDash, Netflix, and Amazon, to name a few—have seen business go nuts amid a broader economic meltdown. But at some point, maybe even this year, things will start going back to normal. What happens then is an enormous unknown for the industry. Which of these new tools will keep their value when human contact is no longer freighted with contagion and death? Here are a few hypotheses.

Transaction tools: Asked which pandemic-friendly technologies will prove particularly sticky, Patrick Walravens, a technology analyst at JMP Securities, mentions DocuSign, the leading software company for signing electronic contracts. Then he tells a story about picking up his Jeep from the repair shop: “So you get there, and they’re all wearing masks, and there’s great signage, and they cover your car seats with plastic wrap and disinfect your car.” But just as he’s almost out the door, Walravens is handed a pen and told to sign a piece of paper. “There’s so many places where we’re still touching grubby pens and pads and contracts,” he says, with evident disgust.