When I think about the things that held the planet together in 2020, it was digital experiences delivered over wireless connectivity that made remote things local.
While heroes like doctors, nurses, first responders, teachers, and other essential personnel bore the brunt of the COVID-19 response, billions of people around the world found themselves cut off from society. In order to keep people safe, we were physically isolated from each other. Far beyond the six feet of social distancing, most of humanity weathered the storm from their homes.
And then little by little, old things we took for granted, combined with new things many had never heard of, pulled the world together. Let’s take a look at the technologies and trends that made the biggest impact in 2020 and where they’re headed in 2021:
The global Internet infrastructure from which everything else is built is an undeniable hero of the pandemic. This highly-distributed network designed to withstand a nuclear attack performed admirably as usage by people, machines, critical infrastructure, hospitals, and businesses skyrocketed. Like the air we breathe, this primary facilitator of connected, digital experiences is indispensable to our modern society. Unfortunately, the Internet is also home to a growing cyberwar and security will be the biggest concern as we move into 2021 and beyond. It goes without saying that the Internet is one of the world’s most critical utilities along with water, electricity, and the farm-to-table supply chain of food.
People are mobile and they stay connected through their smartphones, tablets, in cars and airplanes, on laptops, and other devices. Just like the Internet, the cellular infrastructure has remained exceptionally resilient to enable communications and digital experiences delivered via native apps and the web. Indoor wireless connectivity continues to be dominated by WiFi at home and all those empty offices. Moving into 2021, the continued rollout of 5G around the world will give cellular endpoints dramatic increases in data capacity and WiFi-like speeds. Additionally, private 5G networks will challenge WiFi as a formidable indoor option, but WiFi 6E with increased capacity and speed won’t give up without a fight. All of these developments are good for consumers who need to stay connected from anywhere like never before.
With many people stuck at home in 2020, web conferencing technology took the place of traveling to other locations to meet people or receive education. This technology isn’t new and includes familiar players like GoToMeeting, Skype, WebEx, Google Hangouts/Meet, BlueJeans, FaceTime, and others. Before COVID, these platforms enjoyed success, but most people preferred to fly on airplanes to meet customers and attend conferences while students hopped on the bus to go to school. In 2020, “necessity is the mother of invention” took hold and the use of Zoom and Teams skyrocketed as airplanes sat on the ground while business offices and schools remained empty. These two platforms further increased their stickiness by increasing the number of visible people and adding features like breakout rooms to meet the demands of businesses, virtual conference organizers, and school teachers. Despite the rollout of the vaccine, COVID won’t be extinguished overnight and these platforms will remain strong through the first half of 2021 as organizations rethink where and when people work and learn. There’s way too many players in this space so look for some consolidation.
“Stay at home” orders and closed businesses gave e-commerce platforms a dramatic boost in 2020 as they took the place of shopping at stores or going to malls. Amazon soared to even higher heights, Walmart upped their game, Etsy brought the artsy, and thousands of Shopify sites delivered the goods. Speaking of delivery, the empty city streets became home to fleets FedEx, Amazon, UPS, and DHL trucks bringing packages to your front doorstep. Many retail employees traded-in working at customer-facing stores for working in a distribution centers as long as they could outperform robots. Even though people are looking forward to hanging out at malls in 2021, the e-commerce, distribution center, delivery truck trinity is here to stay. This ball was already in motion and got a rocket boost from COVID. This market will stay hot in the first half of 2021 and then cool a bit in the second half.
The COVID pandemic really took a toll on restaurants in the 2020, with many of them going out of business permanently. Those that survived had to pivot to digital and other ways of doing business. High-end steakhouses started making burgers on grills in the parking lot, while takeout pizzerias discovered they finally had the best business model. Having a drive-thru lane was definitely one of the keys to success in a world without waiters, busboys, and hosts. “Front of house” was shut down, but the “back of house” still had a pulse. Adding mobile web and native apps that allowed customers to easily order from operating “ghost kitchens” and pay with credit cards or Apple/Google/Samsung Pay enabled many restaurants to survive. A combination of curbside pickup and delivery from the likes of DoorDash, Uber Eats, Postmates, Instacart and Grubhub made this business model work. A surge in digital marketing also took place where many restaurants learned the importance of maintaining a relationship with their loyal customers via connected mobile devices. For the most part, 2021 has restauranteurs hoping for 100% in-person dining, but a new business model that looks a lot like catering + digital + physical delivery is something that has legs.
The Internet of Things
At its very essence, IoT is all about remotely knowing the state of a device or environmental system along with being able to remotely control some of those machines. COVID forced people to work, learn, and meet remotely and this same trend applied to the industrial world. The need to remotely operate industrial equipment or an entire “lights out” factory became an urgent imperative in order to keep workers safe. This is yet another case where the pandemic dramatically accelerated digital transformation. Connecting everything via APIs, modeling entities as digital twins, and having software bots bring everything to life with analytics has become an ROI game-changer for companies trying to survive in a free-falling economy. Despite massive employee layoffs and furloughs, jobs and tasks still have to be accomplished, and business leaders will look to IoT-fueled automation to keep their companies running and drive economic gains in 2021.
Closed movie theaters, football stadiums, bowling alleys, and other sources of entertainment left most people sitting at home watching TV in 2020. This turned into a dream come true for streaming entertainment companies like Netflix, Apple TV+, Disney+, HBO Max, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Youtube TV, and others. That said, Quibi and Facebook Watch didn’t make it. The idea of binge-watching shows during the weekend turned into binge-watching every season of every show almost every day. Delivering all these streams over the Internet via apps has made it easy to get hooked. Multiplayer video games fall in this category as well and represent an even larger market than the film industry. Gamers socially distanced as they played each other from their locked-down homes. The rise of cloud gaming combined with the rollout of low-latency 5G and Edge computing will give gamers true mobility in 2021. On the other hand, the video streaming market has too many players and looks ripe for consolidation in 2021 as people escape the living room once the vaccine is broadly deployed.
With doctors and nurses working around the clock as hospitals and clinics were stretched to the limit, it became increasingly difficult for non-COVID patients to receive the healthcare they needed. This unfortunate situation gave tele-medicine the shot in the arm (no pun intended) it needed. The combination of healthcare professionals delivering healthcare digitally over widespread connectivity helped those in need. This was especially important in rural areas that lacked the healthcare capacity of cities. Concurrently, the Internet of Things is making deeper inroads into delivering the health of a person to healthcare professionals via wearable technology. Connected healthcare has a bright future that will accelerate in 2021 as high-bandwidth 5G provides coverage to more of the population to facilitate virtual visits to the doctor from anywhere.
Working and Living
As companies and governments told their employees to work from home, it gave people time to rethink their living and working situation. Lots of people living in previously hip, urban, high-rise buildings found themselves residing in not-so-cool, hollowed-out ghost towns comprised of boarded-up windows and closed bars and cafés. Others began to question why they were living in areas with expensive real estate and high taxes when they not longer had to be close to the office. This led to a 2020 COVID exodus out of pricey apartments/condos downtown to cheaper homes in distant suburbs as well as the move from pricey areas like Silicon Valley to cheaper destinations like Texas. Since you were stuck in your home, having a larger house with a home office, fast broadband, and a back yard became the most important thing. Looking ahead to 2021, a hybrid model of work-from-home plus occasionally going into the office is here to stay as employees will no longer tolerate sitting in traffic two hours a day just to sit in a cubicle in a skyscraper. The digital transformation of how and where we work has truly accelerated.
Data and Advanced Analytics
Data has shown itself to be one of the world’s most important assets during the time of COVID. Petabytes of data has continuously streamed-in from all over the world letting us know the number of cases, the growth or decline of infections, hospitalizations, contact-tracing, free ICU beds, temperature checks, deaths, and hotspots of infection. Some of this data has been reported manually while lots of other sources are fully automated from machines. Capturing, storing, organizing, modeling and analyzing this big data has elevated the importance of cloud and edge computing, global-scale databases, advanced analytics software, and the growing importance of machine learning. This is a trend that was already taking place in business and now has a giant spotlight on it due to its global importance. There’s no stopping the data + advanced analytics juggernaut in 2021 and beyond.
2020 was one of the worst years in human history and the loss of life was just heartbreaking. People, businesses, and our education system had to become resourceful to survive. This resourcefulness amplified the importance of delivering connected, digital experiences to make previously remote things into local ones. Cheers to 2021 and the hope for a brighter day for all of humanity.