New Year decorations surrounded by pine boughs

2020 was truly a year unlike any other. The global coronavirus pandemic and US presidential election dominated headlines, which were dramatized further by social upheaval and other flashpoints. Technology also shared in the spotlight, as consumers and businesses relied heavily on ‘digital everything’ to work, shop, and connect through the pandemic. In our final post to this wild year, we take a look back at the biggest tech stories in the year that was, while also peeking at what’s to come in 2021.

One of 2020’s Most Utilized Technologies: Video Conferencing

The COVID-19 pandemic upended life as we know it around the globe. Sheltering-in-place, social distancing, and other new terms entered our collective lexicon as government mandates dictated people work from home and avoid traditional ways of socializing. Distance meant certain technologies exploded in popularity, including video conferencing tools – Zoom founder Eric Yuan’s net worth ballooned from $4 billion to $18 billion as his company’s stock soared over the course of the year.

But unprecedented growth also revealed unforeseen problems. As people flocked to video conferencing tools for work, education, and basic social interactions, a host of issues and lawsuits followed. “Zoombombings” – hijacking Zoom calls by outside parties – required developers to introduce password-protection and other security mechanisms for users; a Motherboard report revealed Zoom’s iOS app “was sending user analytics data to Facebook, even for Zoom users who did not have a Facebook account.” Investigations from other news outlets garnered high-profile attention, leading to a raft of lawsuits and orders from government bodies and businesses that discouraged or forbade staff from using the service.

Ultimately, however, video conferencing services rose to the challenge. Zoom repaired security issues, Google “made major upgrades” to its Google Meet, its video chat product, and Microsoft and Cisco greatly improved their offerings. Over the course of the past year, the services have been thoroughly integrated into the professional world and everyday life. Zoom grew its customer base (of companies with over 10 employees) by 485% from Q3 2019 to Q3 2020. It’s a change that seems permanent – or at least unlikely to change in the immediate future.

Tech’s Biggest Headwind: Antitrust Scrutiny

A trend towards greater scrutiny of Big Tech has been gathering steam in recent years, but 2020 saw the pressure ratchet-up further. The US Department of Justice sued “monopolist” Google in October for “anticompetitive and exclusionary practices in the search and search advertising markets” – a move that has been brewing for some time, despite internal concerns in September that the timeline was too aggressive for such an important case. The tail end of the year also saw the Federal Trade Commission and 46 state attorneys bring an antitrust suit against Facebook, while Apple made a policy shift regarding commissions on smaller developers in its App Store that appeared to be in response to the Supreme Court-approved antitrust suit they have been fighting for years.

Hurdles remain, however, to bring successful cases. Antitrust cases are typically unpredictable, protracted – the Justice Department’s lawsuit against Google “likely won’t go to trial until late 2023,” reports CNBC – and difficult to get right.

All the same, lawmakers have increasingly trained their gaze on the sector, and even 2020’s developments seem to be just the tip of the iceberg: Google has even more new lawsuits on their plate moving into 2021, with three being filed since the beginning of November. For its part, Big Tech remains mostly unbowed, with companies like Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple having “added more than $12 trillion to their combined market caps by November.” The giants of the technology sector keep growing, but they are more closely watched than ever before, and 2020 made clear that they no longer have a regulatory free pass.

Looking Ahead to 2021

As 2021 looms, pundits have begun to publish the tech stories to watch in the new year. It’s a varied slate: much-hyped technology like 5G wireless has been praised as the future, but the present leaves plenty to be desire as technical limitations mean the ultrafast version “travels short distances and has trouble penetrating walls.” The digital workplace remains ripe for innovation, and consulting giant Deloitte believes that data can drive that evolution. Autonomous vehicles may not have reached their potential yet, but companies remain committed to helping the technology become a functional reality. And the coronavirus vaccine – developed more quickly than any in history, using mRNA technology that has been in the works for two decades – is ready to be deployed in stages around the world.

2020 has been a year of unforeseen and unprecedented challenges, but it has also reinforced certain truisms. The world is now more connected than ever before; innovation abounds, and businesses and people have learned to quickly adapt to new circumstances using the tools at their disposal. Whatever happens in 2021, and whatever the world looks like, tech will play a pivotal role in shaping and augmenting that world.