For all the tumult and turmoil that 2021 brought us, some in tech still had a banner year.
From a steady giant, to a history-making whistleblower, to a wounded-but-still-kicking behemoth, here are Data Sheet’s picks for the tech world’s top five winners of 2021:
It’s been a quiet year for the Google parent. A modest antitrust fine here. A little internal strife there. But otherwise, Alphabet just kept chugging along in 2021, to great success.
The company posted three blockbuster quarters to start the year, buoyed by strong Google and YouTube ad revenue. While competitors took hard hits from Apple’s privacy reforms that blocked companies from profiting off personal data collected from customers’ iPhones, Alphabet and its desktop-centered ad business thrived.
The company’s stock jumped 67% year-to-date, best among the five-largest tech companies by a wide margin and more than double the S&P 500. Alphabet will enter the new year with oodles of momentum, propelled by a fantastic 2021.
Consider 2021 as the year that blockchain went mainstream, with cryptocurrency and NFTs blasting into the public sphere and private sector.
The global crypto market cap nearly tripled this year to $2.2 trillion, according to CoinMarketCap, while The New York Times reported that venture capitalists have poured about $27 billion into crypto and blockchain companies in 2021. Non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, took off, propelled by the stunning $69 million sale of a Beeple artwork in March. And Web3, the budding, blockchain-based evolution of the Internet, emerged a bit.
Uncertainty remains about the future of blockchain, particularly given the volatility of crypto and lawmakers’ growing interest in regulation. But the digital future has arrived.
History could show 2021 as the year of Frances Haugen—or she could prove a mere footnote.
The Facebook whistleblower aired all manner of dirty laundry against her former employer, galvanizing policymakers, privacy advocates, and parents of Instagram-addicted kids. She became not just a cause célèbre, but a measured voice on how to curb the excesses of social media at a critical juncture in its development.
Time will tell whether Haugen helped bring about new regulations, and whether any government-imposed rules ultimately prove positive. At a minimum, nobody got us talking more than Frances this year.
After years of unfettered mergers and market consolidation, the tide started turning on Big Tech in 2021.
European regulations ramped up their crackdown down on Amazon, Google, Facebook, and others, levying billions in fines. President Joe Biden chose Lina Khan and Jonathan Kanter, two staunch critics of the nation’s largest tech companies, to lead key agencies responsible for upholding market competition laws. The United Kingdom and Federal Trade Commission launched trendsetting antitrust cases against Facebook and Nvidia, respectively.
It all sets the stage for bigger showdowns between Silicon Valley and regulations in 2022 and beyond.
Nothing seemed to go right for the former Facebook this year. The company’s platform helped foment the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump insurrectionists. Apple’s privacy rule changes cut into advertising profits. A whistleblower exposed damning research and information about the harm caused by Facebook and Instagram. Pundits endlessly chortled at a ham-fisted renaming and pivot to the nebulous metaverse.
So how could Meta be a winner?
Because it survived. Despite the spate of negative headlines, Meta still saw solid growth in revenue, operating income, and daily active users. Its stock price is up 22% year-to-date, better than Amazon and Netflix and only modestly behind Apple. Meanwhile, rivals TikTok, Snapchat, and Twitter didn’t take much advantage of the ailing giant, and blustery American lawmakers made little progress on regulating social media companies.
Meta faces a litany of challenges headed into 2022, particularly if European policymakers continue on their current path toward reform. But for now, battered Meta remains a heavyweight fighter.
Want to send thoughts or suggestions for Data Sheet? Drop me a line here.
A big deal in health tech? Software giant Oracle and electronic medical records developer Cerner are discussing an acquisition that could approach $30 billion, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday, citing people familiar with the talks. The deal, if completed, would mark Oracle’s most expensive corporate purchase in its 44-year history. The acquisition would give Oracle a larger footprint in the healthcare field, where the company already sells technology to insurers, providers, and health systems. Cerner shares jumped 12% in early-morning trading, while Oracle’s stock price fell 5%.
Meta hits the ‘block’ button. Facebook plans to notify about 48,000 users that so-called surveillance-for-hire companies have tried to access their accounts as part of schemes to launch hacking missions. Facebook parent Meta said Thursday that the company is cracking down on seven companies spanning four countries, banning them from platforms and deactivating about 1,500 of their accounts. Those subject to surveillance included human rights activists, dissidents, journalists, and family members of government critics, according to Meta. Two companies targeted by Meta’s actions denied breaking any laws.
Georgia on their mind. California-based electric-vehicle manufacturer Rivian announced plans Thursday to spend $5 billion on its second manufacturing plant, this one just outside of Atlanta. The disclosure comes one month after Rivian produced the year’s biggest IPO, despite the fact that the company has only produced several hundred vehicles to date. Rivian shares sank 10% in late-morning trading after the upstart reported that it expects to fall “a few hundred vehicles short” of its goal to produce 1,200 vehicles this year.
The final word on Holmes. Closing arguments began Thursday in the trial of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, who faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted on 11 fraud-related charges, The Associated Press reported. Prosecutors continued to paint Holmes as a con artist who deceived business partners, investors, and patients by making false claims about her company’s blood-testing technology. Holmes’ defense lawyer countered that Holmes’ mismanagement didn’t constitute a crime and pinned blame for Theranos’ downfall on Holmes’ abusive ex-romantic and business partner, Sunny Balwani, who has denied those allegations. Closing arguments are expected to conclude Friday.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
The Web3 future looks murky. Like a lot of tech-minded folks, New York Times columnist Kara Swisher has a few questions about Web3, the nascent effort to build a new, blockchain-based iteration of the Internet. What, exactly, would Web3 look like? Who is creating it? Who will seize power from it? Swisher asked her Twitterverse for some clarity on the future of Web3, and the answers could leave you just as confused. Still, the responses provide interesting insight into the diverse outlooks on the boom-or-bust nature of Web3.
From the article:
We’ll have to hope that Web3 doesn’t follow the pattern of Web1 and Web2. That is, grotesque hype, real utility and then the abuses by Big Tech companies that trade our privacy for free maps, email, dating apps and other goodies. Yeah, we’ve all become cheap dates for the current crop of internet kingpins.
So, when it comes to Web3, I have to hope that it pans out differently and am maintaining a hope as I did at the start of the internet age in the 1990s, when the possibilities seemed endless.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
NFTs are now worth more than Nissan and Domino’s Pizza, by Chris Morris
After crypto’s big year, 2022 promises to be a wild and fascinating ride, by Rey Mashayekhi
How TikTok became Gen Z’s favorite career coach, by Felicia Hou
How PE firm Blackstone used an unorthodox pitch to land the $1.2 billion Spanx deal—and keeps turning female founders into billionaires, by Emma Hinchliffe
Peloton pulls its Chris Noth ad after assault allegations, by Mark Gurman and Bloomberg
Facebook, WhatsApp, AWS: How to prevent the software outages that threaten the services we rely on, by Courtney Nash
BEFORE YOU GO
Do better than a pair of socks. Today is our last Data Sheet before Christmas (we’re set to return Jan. 3), and I’d be remiss if I didn’t send you off with advice for a last-second gift idea. This year’s hot stocking non-stuffers for any kind of loved one—artist, investor, sports fan, fashionista—are crypto and non-fungible tokens. They’re hip, they’re plentiful, and they don’t require elbowing obnoxious mall shoppers. They are, however, a little tricky to obtain for novices, so here’s our how-to guide. A happy holiday and merry Christmas to all. Thanks for reading, and see you in 2022.
This is the web version of Data Sheet, a daily newsletter on the business of tech. Sign up to get it delivered free to your inbox.