1. Facebook morphs into Meta: A study in changing the narrative
2021 was a rough year for Facebook, not only did the social network face a regulatory reckoning in various countries, it had to fend off more whistleblowers, PR firestorms, and Congressional inquiries than in recent years.
Facebook’s woes came to a head in October, when a consortium of 17 US news organizations published a series of stories—collectively called "The Facebook Papers"—that resulted in an incendiary takedown on Facebook’s involvement in skewing elections, its role in human rights abuses, and the potential harm to children.
Beleaguered at every turn, Facebook decided to change the narrative in November by suddenly announcing a rebrand. Meta became the parent company overseeing metaverse products and services, and Facebook remains the legacy social network product. Mark Zuckerberg stayed at the helm as Meta’s CEO. Meta quickly excised the tainted Facebook branding from all its properties and replaced it with Meta as it pushed the conversation toward its “metaverse.”
Weirdly enough, the plot worked. Not only did Facebook and its many problems suddenly vanish from the news cycle, the technology industry as a whole pivoted heavily toward defining their own strategy for the metaverse, or whatever AR/VR platform they had in the works.
Facebook, which started the year as a villain in various tech imbroglios, ended the year as Meta, the visionary company bravely leading the charge to the mixed-reality future. This is the biggest tech flex of all.
2. Clubhouse’s stratospheric rise and precipitous fall
Much like Zoom, Clubhouse was considered to be a breakout app of the pandemic. As millions faced forced lockdowns due to the early COVID-19 surges months away from any vaccine availability, the invite-only social audio app exploded in popularity despite being initially an iPhone-only experience.
But then something unexpected happened.
Much like a comet, Clubhouse’s unprecedented popularity suddenly completely fizzled. Clubhouse had 10.6 million installs in February 2021, but by March there were only 2.9 million installs, and then in April only 873,000 global downloads, indicating a sharp drop in adoption.
It’s initial lack of Android access, the conversation-only format, and the snobby invitation-only model that gave Clubhouse an air of exclusivity were also the same reasons it quickly fell out of favor. Now, Clubhouse seems to have lost steam, even as various apps and services have co-opted its social audio model.
3. Amazon uses Echo smart speakers, Ring doorbells to share customers’ Wi-Fi networks without user permission
Amazon, which dominates the smart speaker market, flipped the switch in June 2021 and turned 60 million user devices into an open Wi-Fi mesh network for its Sidewalk project.
Amazon Sidewalk turned existing Echo smart speakers, Ring doorbells, and security cameras into Sidewalk bridges to amplify and share Wi-Fi signals. Devices were set to join these networks by default, putting the onus on end users to opt out by June 8 when the service launched.
Amazon’s rationale for enabling Sidewalk: it can maintain Wi-Fi connections to smart home devices and Tile trackers even if individual ISPs fail. Consider that Amazon sold these devices with dormant features and didn’t require consent from users before it turned their devices into hotspots, and you can understand why the move triggered privacy concerns.
The kicker? Amazon users who tried to opt out of the rollout were dismayed to find out they were opted in again without consent. Millions of users unaware of this development, or lacking the knowledge to opt out, were unwittingly participating in Sidewalk, whether they wanted to or not.
4, Salesforce buys Slack, but what happens next?
Salesforce completed its $27.7 billion acquisition of business collaboration tool Slack in July. Under new ownership, Slack continued to be run independently, but the hope was that the service would be deeply integrated into Salesforce, resulting in a “Digital HQ” initiative where it could serve as a conduit for 150,000 Salesforce customers.
Salesforce and Slack seemed like strange bedfellows, and many questioned how the CRM giant and the trendy instant messaging app would fit together.
Slack users loved the service because of its simplicity and ease of use, but as popular as it was, Slack really needed to be acquired to hyperscale and be more competitive. Integrating Salesforce’s Customer 360 and its mix of marketing, commerce service, and IT features might have sounded good on paper, but it will be a massive multi-year undertaking.
Merging parts of disparate solutions like Salesforce and Slack is a delicate and risky task. Not only do integrations need to work seamlessly without affecting core features, the risk of alienating customers who are loyal to each product or service is high.
5. Microsoft continued to try making dual-screen phones
Microsoft’s history with smartphones is complicated, to say the least. The company was once an innovator with Windows Phone, bringing PC-connectivity and apps on mobile devices while BlackBerry was still making pagers.
Microsoft later bought Nokia for $7 billion in 2013, but its efforts to eke out a third platform to combat Apple and Android imploded, resulting in the firing of 7,000 employees.
The whole Windows Phone fiasco should have been enough to distance Microsoft from its mobile aspirations, but the temptation was too strong.
Microsoft’s Surface Duo 2, the successor to its poorly received dual-screen Android-powered device, remains an oddity in the smartphone market. The $1,500 device was positioned as a productivity tool for bringing together the best of Android and Microsoft, but even with the latest software updates, it’s still considered “multiple generations” away from being ready for the mainstream.
The biggest problem with the Surface Duo? It was a subset of an even smaller niche in dual-screen smartphones, a market that has been dominated by Samsung, which has multiple products in its second- and third-generation models.
Developers haven’t embraced dual-screen devices, which has led to few apps that can take advantage of the expensive hardware. So why is Microsoft persistently making the Surface Duo? Mostly because it can, which is a strange tech flex.
Big Tech will continue to grow and evolve in 2022, and in the process there will be mergers, acquisitions, and strange product strategies that could seem weird or oddly revolutionary.
The pandemic will continue to be a factor in disrupting how people connect, create, and work, but great adversity usually fuels great innovation, even when the world doesn’t seem ready for it.