The COVID-19 pandemic has delivered a mixture of blessings and curses to the tech world. Some companies such as those specializing in videoconferencing turned out to be saviors, making it possible for society to function — and occasionally thrive — while working at a distance. Others, however, like dev shops that build theatrical lighting control systems, have faced a world where demand for their services have dropped precipitously, sometimes to zero.
While it’s a bit early to know which shifts in usage and IT tactics will remain permanent, we can glean which companies are thriving now and are likely to continue doing so even after the pandemic fades.
One of the biggest shifts will be for those who work in offices, already a big part of the tech economy. Many companies are already reporting that they won’t return to requiring employees to report to the office each workday. They are embracing remote work, signaling that it will be the new normal. The savings of time and real estate are too large to ignore. Hybrid schedules — in which people meet in person several times per week, month, or quarter — will also be part of an experimental workplace mix.
Here is a look at which technology categories and strategies have benefitted by the shifts caused by the COVID-19 crisis, and which are likely to be rethought post-pandemic.
Winner: Videoconferencing — and its ecosystem
The big winner is still easy to spot: Demand for videoconferencing tools has skyrocketed as meetings and classroom sessions have moved online. But it’s not just the few major platforms that are benefitting, as the virtual meeting boom has attracted satellite projects tuned for smaller niches. Zoom, for example, has an app marketplace with specialized extensions for industries such as finance, education, customer services, and more than a dozen other categories. There are similar software projects built around Microsoft Teams and Google Meet as well.
High-profile systems aren’t the only ones. Open source tools such as Jitsi enable anyone to host their own videoconferencing system, either to save money or increase security. There are even options to offload the hosting work to others with Jitsi as a Service (JaaS).
Moreover, having to see all your colleagues in little grids on your laptop has been a boon for cloud service providers as well. Videoconferencing is spinning up more and more cloud machines to meet demands that rise and fall with school and office schedules. Especially useful are machines with high-powered GPUs that are ideal for generating thumbnail-size versions of the video streams on the fly.
Loser: Office management tools
Dozens of software and hardware packages designed to simplify the day in physical offices are taking a hit. As long as vast portions of the workforce are working from home, there will be much less demand for enterprise software for tasks such as scheduling conference rooms. The same goes for hardware products like those tiny tablets by conference room doors that announce who has the room reserved. A surprisingly large number of products use physical proximity sensors to detect RFID chips in badges to control access or track usage of office tools such as copiers. Tools built around detecting and herding people using physical presence won’t be a priority at least for workforces that don’t return to the office en masse.
Winner: Collaboration software
Office tools that enable people to work collaboratively on documents or presentations are more valuable than ever. Face-to-face meetings in which someone stops by a cubicle or calls staff into a conference room to spread out some paper on a table almost entirely null and void. All of that dueling has moved online, so demand (and tolerance) for online whiteboards and collaboration tools that facilitate working at a distance has risen significantly. And now that the genie is out of the bottle, and many companies are reconsidering their remote work strategies even after a return to the office, expect the demand to stick for some time.
And here, much like with videoconferencing, there are ancillary marketplaces for tools that may also benefit from the surge. Zoho, Salesforce, Google, Microsoft and almost every other online collaboration tool supports a marketplace where third parties can offer extensions that add functionality to the platforms.
Loser: Face-to-face software
Not every part of the video software business is booming. Companies that specialize in creating tricked-out conference rooms that support videoconferencing aren’t going to find much demand, although the smart ones will pivot to the home market where they can help people add swish lighting and high-quality microphones to their home offices.
There are hundreds of other projects that support people who meet in person. Conferences often ship their own apps so attendees know which talk is in which room. Large format printers deliver big, sprawling physical copies that work well pinned to the walls or spread out on a table where people gather around. The dev and design shops built around these ecosystems will be taking a hit for some time.
When the lockdowns began, IT departments didn’t have much time to support everyone who was going to be sent home to work remotely. Companies that made the smoothest transitions were those that embraced lightweight enterprise architectures that encouraged or even required workers to bring their own hardware.
The philosophy was first mainly among newer companies and smaller, more agile startups that don’t want to invest the time or personnel into maintaining a big collection of company-owned machines. They built their enterprise data services to be open to the general internet so anyone could log in from any browser. Yes, this increased some of the dangers and made some attacks easier, but it also forced the developers to confront these threats instead of relying on firewalls and physical access to stop the bad guys.
Loser: Corporate hardware
The company-owned machines aren’t going to disappear, and many companies need to continue to ship laptops to the workers’ homes. But the heavy desktops and huge monitors are going to be much less popular when workers need to leave the office — and they very well might be rethought even when they return.
There are some who think companies will still want to maintain ownership over the machines employees use just for simplicity. Will developers of an in-house application want to support every old browser installed on a dusty old laptop an employee digs out from under their kid’s bed? Does the accounting department want to be running corporate spending through machines that are also used by kids for classes or late-night game sessions?
Virtual private networks, firewalls and spending a bit more for dedicated hardware can be cheaper than supporting some virus-addled PC that hasn’t been updated since the Bush administration. And to make matters worse, fewer homes have any PC. Many people have stopped buying home PCs because their phones and tablets are more than adequate for basic tasks.
Winner: Zero Trust
When computer security teams started looking at the new decentralized environment, they saw danger everywhere. This level of supreme paranoia has crystalized into the buzzword “zero trust,” which means security teams have given up establishing a perimeter or creating any area where they might relax.
The zero-trust world means rethinking many internal applications so that they work appropriately when run from a coffee shop or someone’s kitchen. Any packets that head out into the network will be encrypted and authenticated.
Loser: Search engines
While people look for information on the internet for many reasons, some of the most valuable words for the search engines involve travel and active socializing. People in new spaces need more help. People at home tend to be more settled. If they search, it’s not for new places and restaurants, two categories that pay a premium for ad clicks. In June, Google’s revenues dropped reflecting this change. The company’s revenue jumped back, bolstered by its cloud products.
Winner: Gamified socializing
People still need to exercise and they love to compete. Companies such as Peleton and Echelon boomed by bringing the intensity of gym classes to people who are stuck at home. Others such as Tonal, Weela or Mirror are developing app and hardware that deliver coaching for weight training and stretching. Now that people have discovered the convenience, these distributed athletic experiences are going to keep attracting users who don’t have time to hit the gym.
Loser: Software for in-person events
Will people return to exercising together when the pandemic is over? The software for tracking membership, monthly bills and gym visits depends on it. Will people return to large athletic events like city-wide running races? Another collection of software companies track runners, flag cheaters and report their times. Others create tools for organizing conferences, fairs, and other large gatherings. All of these software tools depend on people returning to meeting together, something that must now compete with all of the digital alternatives.
Moreover, specialized software offerings that support in-person gatherings are suffering. Companies that build software for theatrical lighting or sound systems, for instance, aren’t going to be selling many new packages until theaters work themselves out of debt. The ad kiosks meant to capture the eye of someone walking through a lobby aren’t going to be seen by many for some time. There’s an entire ecosystem of RFID chip tools built for theme parks and other entertainment environments, and they only work when the chip is physically near. All of these areas and many similar niches are going to need to wait for the world to get more comfortable with gathering in person, and for the businesses that buy them to have the necessary budget to invest.
Winner: Cocooning software
Some platforms such as Disney Plus or Hulu are perfect to entertain everyone who is stuck at home each evening. Others such as newspapers and books are perfect for readers. Generally, subscription services that offer unlimited access to any of these have done well in lockdown. If you’re in a niche where reaching your customers at home with new apps or services is a business-worthy endeavor, it’s high time to explore.
Moreover, niche players in these areas will also thrive. Do you handle MPEG-4 conversion for the cloud? With Hollywood production shut down and people burning through more video than ever, subscription services are hungry for any content that might be interesting. Old movies, old shows and maybe even old commercials all need to be converted. So it’s not just Netflix and Disney who are winning here, but also the dozens of support companies in their corner of the software ecosystem.
The old vision of a sphere of personal privacy is quickly disappearing. Washington State wanted restaurants that reopen to keep track of customers’ names and addresses. The major phone companies are experimenting with developing tools that track who meets whom during the day in case one person gets sick. Privacy has always been a flexible ideal in constant negotiation between a world dominated by central control and a forgetful space that gave bad actors plenty of freedom to hide their tracks. Now that the stakes are higher during a pandemic, the balance is rapidly shifting away from the individual.
The way the cloud expanded to absorb the demand from video conferencing and collaboration software is a true testament to the vision that built this elastic pool of computational resources. While some cloud companies have warned that some instances may not be immediately available, and some spot prices have been a bit higher, for the most part spot prices have stayed much lower than on-demand costs. The cloud has largely delivered when society needed it most, and enterprises are accelerating and ramping up their adoption in the wake of the crisis.
Some reasons to keep machines on premises still make sense. The bill for steady computing is often much lower, and there’s something ensuring about the idea of being able to walk down the hall to the server room. But when your employees are off campus, there’s less of a distinction between the cloud’s data center across the country and your company’s server room back at the office. The best you can do is “ping” both machines.
There are deeper wrinkles. Many companies stick lightweight server rooms in the windowless storage space. Landlords don’t rent buildings that are 100 percent corner-office space. They usually mix in some worthless space even interns refuse to occupy. If you add in incentives like budget-priced electricity that some towns offer, stashing old machines in the corner of your building can be very cheap. In the winter, they even help heat the building. Of course, all of these advantages disappear if companies give up their leases on big buildings and instead downsize, asking large portions of their workforces to work from home.
Did your team have a conference room with walls covered with Gantt charts for a waterfall model for development so you can hit a delivery date in 24 months? Have you blocked out said war room for weekly or even daily progress meetings? Surprise. That was yesterday’s plan. Today, we’re shifting to working at home. You may still need to build huge charts and aim for delivery dates for two or three years in the future, but you’ll need to think quickly and adjust in minutes. Elaborate models set in concrete won’t work these days.
Loser: Modeling and past data
Two of the biggest buzzwords in the tech hype machine have been “artificial intelligence” and “machine learning” — automated tools for turning data about the past into models to predict the future. Thanks to the pandemic, the lockdown, the drastic shifts in habits and activities, not to mention the ensuing economic fallout, everyone putting these technologies to work is faced with a data modeling challenge, as so much has changed. All of the big data lakes and warehouses are filled with numbers based on how the world worked before the pandemic hit, but this data can’t help us figure out what’s coming next. We can’t use the data from third quarter 2019 or 2018 to predict the third quarter of 2020 because so many things are different. And everyone hopes that 2021 will be nothing like 2020. No one knows what the future will bring, but the odds are that it won’t be much like what we’ve seen.