The word of the year is ‘Uncertainty’

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More than two years into Pandemic Times, technology is more popular, stronger and richer than it was before. Or is it?

This year — and particularly the past few weeks — have complicated what was a fairly straightforward understanding of how most of the tech industry and America’s superstar digital companies were faring.

Repeatedly over the past year or so, my colleagues and I have written that tech was the unquestioned winner of the oddball pandemic economy. People and businesses needed what tech companies were selling, and that increased reliance made tech stars grow faster and become far more profitable than Silicon Valley nerds could have imagined. Bonkers dollars. A+.

Now I think that grade should be revised to an incomplete. Some of the trends of 2020 and 2021 — including more work, shopping, product marketing, entertainment and socializing shifting online — have started to backslide. With hindsight, it’s unclear now how much of the digital surge of those years was a blip and how much was an acceleration of lasting tech transformations.

That uncertainty, along with inflation and weakening economies, make it tough to figure out what is happening in tech today or even assess the past couple of years. We may be on the cusp of a great time for tech or the beginning of a rough patch for its products and finances. Let me repeat what should be the mantra of 2022: No one knows anything.

Some tech executives are mostly exuding confidence about their futures, while others are oozing anxiety sweat. It’s almost as if they live in two separate realities. And maybe they do.

In one realm is the land of Big Tech, with emperors like Microsoft, Google, Amazon (maybe), Apple (maybe) and a few others in fortresses looking down on us pipsqueaks.

Revenue at Google and Microsoft continued to go up from what seemed to be their unsustainably huge sales of digital advertising and software in 2021. Both companies this week said they felt good about their prospects but also warned of troubles ahead.

On Tuesday, Google executives said the word “uncertainty” or a variation of it 13 times in a conference call with investors. The company said it would start to be obvious in 2023 that Google is slowing hiring. Planning a spending diet so many months in advance is a sign that the company doesn’t expect to breeze past what might be a recession in the United States and other global problems.

Several winners of the pandemic’s scariest phase are also struggling, calling into question whether their heady days of 2020 were partly a mirage.

Netflix has lost subscribers in the United States and Canada for two quarters. That has made some experts doubt whether online streaming overall can grow as large, as fast and as lucrative as optimists believed. Snap, which owns the Snapchat app, saw its fortunes and usage soar in 2020 before reverting to what it was before: a not-very-successful company with an uncertain future.

Shopify, whose software helps in-person businesses set up online storefronts, said this week that it believed the pandemic had no lasting effect on people shifting from in-person shopping to the internet. If Shopify is right, the whole idea that the pandemic turbocharged a change in shopping habits will implode. It will have been a temporary sugar high.

Amazon has not been quite so direct, but the company has acknowledged that it overestimated how quickly e-commerce sales would grow and is slashing some spending. (Amazon and Apple disclose quarterly financial results later Thursday.)

And Meta … phew. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a company switch so quickly from swagger to a bumbling Mr. Magoo.

The company’s revenue has fallen for the first time, and its Instagram app is having an identity crisis. But I can’t say if this is the beginning of the end of Meta as a dominant digital power or a temporary lull owing to a combination of inflation, privacy changes made by Apple, and ugliness compared with the pandemic-related upswings in ad sales and profits it once reported. Meta’s yearly revenue is nearly double what it was at this point in 2019. That is not a sign (yet) of a company in permanent decline.

With the United States and other big economies growing weaker, it’s possible that digital superstars will use this moment of uncertainty to muscle into new areas and extend their dominance. It’s also possible that even giants can’t stay strong if their lucrative markets, which include premium smartphones, online advertising, e-commerce and corporate software, grow more slowly in the next few years or shrink.

Is tech winning or not? Can I take a long vacation and revisit this question in 2023?

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.





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