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The Technology 202: Here are the winners and losers in the tech industry in 2020

with Tonya Riley

Programming note: The Technology 202 will be taking a break for the holidays. Tomorrow is our last day of publication, and we'll return to your inboxes on Monday, Jan. 4. We hope you and your families have a wonderful holiday season and happy new year.

2020 was the year tech became undeniably essential. 

The coronavirus pandemic transformed our lives — and made us more reliant on tech than ever before. The pandemic disrupted the industry in unprecedented ways that could have lasting consequences on how people work, gather and entertain. 

Here are the tech industry's winners and losers:

The Winners Club: 
Amazon and other e-commerce sites saw business boom as online shopping surged.

Amazon’s empire extended as foot traffic dwindled to malls and physical stores. The company seized on the opportunity to expand its logistics network to more directly compete with UPS and FedEx. And it embarked on a hiring spree unprecedented in modern history, adding more than 400,000 employees in ten months. 

(Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) 

The boom in e-commerce also bolstered other retailers with strong online operations, including Walmart and Target. And even smaller players including Etsy, eBay and Shopify saw a pandemic-related boost in sales.. 

The trade-off: The pandemic accelerated the decline of traditional retail, as major department stores and brands saw business evaporate. Lord and Taylor, one of the country's oldest department store chains, is gong out of business, and other stores including Brooks Brothers, Neiman Marcus and J.C. Penney have gone bankrupt. 

Disney Plus, HBO Max and other streaming services kept people sane while they stayed home. 

Analysts were skeptical that a host of new streaming services would find their footing, especially in a market where Netflix and Hulu were already performing strongly. But if there was ever a year when the public clamored for more options as they channel surfed, it came when a global pandemic confined everyone to their couches. Already, Disney Plus has more than 86 milion subscribers, approaching half of Netflix's massive subscriber base in just over a year. 

The trade-off: Movie theaters and film houses might not ever recover. The pandemic forced a shift in how movies were released that could extend even after people get vaccines. In a major shift, Warner Bros. moved to debut all its 2021 movies – including highly anticipated titles such as "Dune,” “In the Heights” and “The Matrix 4" – on HBO Max the same day they premier in theaters. 

Zoom transformed homes into offices, schools, happy hours and even wedding venues. 

Zoom was the breakout app of the pandemic, as lives shifted online thanks to widespread stay-at-home orders and limits on in-person gatherings. An app many Americans had never even heard of before March was suddenly a lifeline. 

The company has continued to see its ranks of free users surge, especially as it removes its time limits for free calls on holidays. And the company reported in its recent earnings call it is seeing usage surge among businesses. The company had 433,700 customers with more than 10 employees as of Nov. 30, a 485 percent spike from the year before.

FaceTime, Google Meet, Facebook Live, Slack and other services that bolstered our homebody lifestyles saw similar boosts. 

The trade-off: Even as Zoom helped us stay connected, we all lost the benefits of in-person contact. Muted microphones, unstable Internet connections and grainy grids were reminders the tech industry still hasn’t developed a suitable substitute for gathering in person. 

Airbnb still came out on top. 

Airbnb had a rough spring, as travel restrictions and government-imposed shutdowns blew up the travel industry. But the rental company found its footing and ultimately had the largest tech IPO of the year. Airbnb's darkest period came in April, when bookings dropped more than 72 percent from the previous year, Rachel Lerman reported. The company, however, rebounded more quickly than other travel operations, in part because its platform allows greater flexibility. Hosts adopted new deep cleaning standards and opened their homes to longer stays. 

The trade-off: The company laid off a quarter of its employees during this rough patch, and they largely missed out on the big IPO payday. The company also had no plan to hire those employees back after the pandemic. 

Food-delivery companies surged in popularity. 

With restaurants shuttered, people turned to Doordash, UberEats and other food delivery apps in record numbers. Doordash even managed to gain a narrow profit in one quarter this year – a surprise in an industry that many were skeptical of because it was known to heavily burn cash. 

The trade-off: Restaurants around the country are closing their doors as the delivery companies dominate – suggesting dining will forever be transformed by the pandemic. 

Amazon warehouse workers, Uber drivers, content moderators and other contract workers suffered as their employers expanded. 

2020 exposed the growing chasm between white-collar tech workers and the shadow workforces that power some of the worlds largest companies. Many engineers and other corporate tech employees enjoyed some of the most flexible work-from-home arrangements, and benefits such as bonuses, during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Amazon reported nearly 20,000 of its employees, largely working in warehouses, contracted covid-19. Content moderators had to deal with a surge in harmful content related to the 2020 election and the coronavirus, and in many instances risked their health and reported to an office while other full-time social media employees worked from home. As demand for Uber and Lyft rides dried up, drivers saw began to understand how precarious their jobs and financial protections actually were.

Meanwhile, Uber, Lyft and other tech companies scored a key victory as California voters passed Proposition 22 a blow to efforts to reclassify gig workers as full-time employees. 

Mark Zuckerberg had another rough year. 

Hating Facebook was one of the few issues that united the political parties this year. 

Zuckerberg was hauled in front of Congress multiple times — testifying on issues ranging from antitrust concerns and the company's handling of content during the 2020 election.  And his company was just hit with a pair antitrust lawsuits, which set the stage for the courts to force the tech giant to divest from Instagram and WhatsApp. 

Travel booking sites were suddenly unnecessary. 

TripAdvisor, Expedia and others werent prepared for the sudden drop-off in global travel that decimated their businesses. That created a difficult market for a host of travel sites travelers once relied on to book trips. 

Quibi's demise.

This one hardly needs an explanation. The bite-size content maker had one of the most spectacular flameouts in Silicon Valley history after raising billions in venture capital and forming partnerships with high-profile celebrities. Its founders blamed the pandemic for its failure, saying it was designed for short breaks on the go. The company announced it was shutting down in October.

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Texas and nine other states filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google targeting its advertising business.

The lawsuit alleges the tech giant suppressed competition to dominate the lucrative targeted advertising market, Tony Romm reports. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) and other Republican attorneys general filed the suit in a Texas federal court.

The case is the latest in a growing number of legal challenges against Googles hold over the online advertising and search industries.

The Justice Department filed a lawsuit in October alleging Google’s contracts with cellphone companies like Apple to be the default search engine are exclusionary and reinforce Google’s dominance. Paxton and AGs from 10 other states signed on to that suit. A separate group of Democratic and Republican attorneys general could file as soon as today a much broader lawsuit expected to accuse Google of changing its search engine to disadvantage specialized search rivals like TripAdvisor and Yelp.

Twitter will remove or label misinformation about coronavirus vaccines. 

Starting next week, the company may require users to remove tweets that make false claims. Those include vaccine-related conspiracy theories, debunked claims about the impact of vaccines, or assertions the vaccine isnt necessary, the company announced in a blog post. Twitter may also begin labeling tweets spreading unsubstantiated claims about vaccines starting early next year. The policy builds on Twitters guidelines requiring the removal of  virus misinformation.

The social media company follows YouTube and Facebook in announcing more-stringent policies to specifically address misinformation surrounding coronavirus vaccines, which started to roll out this week across the country. Facebook announced earlier this month it would remove false claims about vaccines. YouTube said in October it would remove videos spreading misinformation about vaccines.

Facebook says Apple’s changes to its advertising policies will hurt small business.
Since 2008, the App Store has dominated how Apple device owners discover and pay for apps and services. Now regulators and competitors are fighting back. (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

The social media giant claimed that its research shows that Apples changes limiting personalized ads could reduce small-business sales by 60 percent, Reed Albergotti reports

“We believe Apple is behaving anti-competitively by using their control of the App Store to benefit their bottom line at the expense of app developers and small businesses,” Dan Levy, Facebooks vice president for ads and business products, said during a call Wednesday.

Facebook said in an August blog post that the change could drive it to stop offering its own off-platform ad network to developers, though the company has not taken that step yet.

The claims pile on to mounting allegations from competitors that Apple has acted anti-competitively toward businesses that rely on its products. Facebook also said it would provide supporting documents for an Epic Games lawsuit against Apple. The “Fortnite” maker sued Apple after it removed the game from the App Store for offering an alternative payment mechanism. 

Apple has dismissed Facebooks allegations, saying that the changes were introduced to shore up user privacy.

In fact, the current data arms race primarily benefits big businesses with big data sets,” Jane Horvath, Apple’s senior director of global privacy, wrote in a letter to human rights groups last month. Apple spokesman Fred Sainz declined to comment on Facebook’s allegations.

Rant and rave

It’s not 2020 unless youve made a hype video for taking on Big Tech before you actually do it.

And we cant forget this:

Workforce report

The National Labor Relations Board ruled that Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama can move forward with a unionization vote. 

The decision is a blow to the e-commerce giant, which has resisted unionization among its employees, Jay Greene reports.

Amazon tried to block the election by arguing that the bargaining unit at the Bessemer, Ala., warehouse was far larger than the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union had stated in claiming that the union had enough support to move forward.

The labor board disagreed. It will hold a hearing on Friday to negotiate a union election despite Amazon’s request to push the hearing to January. If the company and the union agree on terms of the election, the board will cancel the hearing. 

The drive comes as the coronavirus pandemic has increased scrutiny of Amazon’s safety practices for workers.

Amazon spokeswoman Heather Knox said the companys warehouses are safe and that the union doesn’t represent “the majority of our employees’ views.” Knox declined to comment on the upcoming union vote.

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