A rewind edition: boring big tech, the 2019 climate tipping points and China
Ephemeral Reviews, Essays and Opinions s°01.ep18 - 2019.12.31
Holiday season a great time to pause as...
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven - Ecclesiastes 3
We (very) often explain to young entrepreneurs joining the adventure that a fundraising happens most of the time at two moments in the year: just before Xmas or at the very end of July. These are two times of the year when people want to leave on vacation with a sense of accomplishment and this induces a rare synchronization of people and business achievements. At Wall Street, it even has a name. The Monday before Thanksgiving is Merger Monday, a day when corporate board members and bankers wrap up all the deals they’ve been working on so they can enjoy some turkey, football, and family time. We could believe modernity would abolish this need for synchronicity but it looks like the opposite is happening. We need rituals and there is still room for new ceremonials. Just think of mass successes like Singles Day in China or Black Friday in the rest of the World.
So let’s embrace our need for synchronicity and enjoy the last few hours of 2019 before we welcome 2020: we decided to offer you a special, Rewind-only edition of Stéréo.
Let’s take a last look back at this year!
(S) & (T)
Big tech is now officially boring, or at least definitely established. Product keynotes are nothing but a litany of underwhelming announcements, splashing game-changing acquisitions are sorely missed (no equivalent of the acquisitions of WhatsApp and Oculus VR by Facebook in 2014, or Whole Foods by Amazon in 2017), and unsexy Microsoft surged past the trillion-dollar market cap threshold to become the most valuable company. Embodiments of this state of affairs: famed designer Jony Ive left Apple in June after 27 years of good service, and Larry Page stepped down as CEO of Alphabet at the beginning of the month. (T)
Boring like winners at every count… with 2019 the 2010s are over, a decade when the so-called disruptors became “too-big-to-fail” giants, a new era in the development of capitalism, platform capitalism. But this is not only boring: more and more people are considering these digital platforms as nothing less than a threat to democracy. Platform capitalism is based on two-sided markets, and it is just like we are behaving like two-sided individuals, loving shopping on Amazon Prime, knowing everything thanks to Google, spending hours on Facebook social networks, all this thanks to our iPhones, but asking regulators and politicians to find a magic way to eradicate all their drawbacks and control the mind-blowing power we entrusted them. Platform capitalism comes with schizophrenic society. (S)
In contrast to our digital schizophrenia, climate is a subject of both individual and collective attention and 2019 will also be remembered as the year of the many climate tipping points: the growing threat of abrupt and irreversible climate changes must compel political and economic action on emissions. But if a consensus has been reached, the actions to be taken remain unclear if not adversarial. Just as an example, assuming more than one would be pollution, how many water bottles have you been offered this year? (S)
2019 was a good year for calling tech bullshit. We enjoyed a jaw-dropping HBO documentary about Theranos, a mind-blowing account of Uber’s inner workings during its rise, and many pieces about WeWork’ fall: eventually the behavior of its CEO (who claimed “Our mission is to elevate the world’s consciousness”), the defects in its governance and the shortcomings of its business model were highlighted, which led to its IPO cancellation and at last, to its takeover by its major shareholder SoftBank.
Lesson learned: a grandiose vision is not sufficient, neither is a ruthless or reckless execution. (T)
2019 marked the end of the "connected objects" startup category. Among the casualties: littleBits (small electronics modules to learn programming) was acquired, Anki (smart toy cars) shut down, so did pioneers of personal robotics Jibo and Keecker, French manufacturer Parrot ended its line of toy drones. Wearables maker Fitbit was acquired for an honorable $2.1bn by Google… but its share price was far from its IPO peak.
Of course, this doesn't mean that connected objects are no more, only that specialized players couldn't find substantial markets. The reality is probably that 90% of what you need is already in your pocket. (T)
This year - and since we started our Stéréo newsletter - we have been talking a lot about China. But a nation was even more spectacular and I blame myself for not having spent enough time on its mysteries: the United Kingdom. This special edition gives me an opportunity to correct this mistake while making a point that means a lot to me: novels are my favorite way to look at our world. We should all read Jonathan Coe’s Middle England to better understand the incomprehensible UK, a region yet civilized of a more and more incomprehensible world. (S)
In my humble opinion, the real estate / hospitality area was the most underrated this year. A few interesting companies are contributing to reshape cities - beyond the usual suspect Airbnb.
At the property scale, a flurry of apartment-hotels startups raised large fundraising rounds in 2019, including Domio, Blueground, and fresh unicorn Sonder. Those companies blur the lines by offering, for longer than a room stay but less a typical lease, the best of hotels and private homes: spacious places, fully furnished, with available concierge services.
Even more interesting, at the neighborhood scale, new players want to reinvent the way cities look: in Toronto, Sidewalk Labs (an Alphabet subsidiary) intends to demonstrate how public and private spaces can be made modular; in Tel Aviv, Berlin and Brooklyn, Venn invents sorts of archipelagoes of housing and shared spaces; in Arizona, Culdesac promises to create from scratch a car-free neighborhood: 1,000 people, 0 private cars. (T)
Underrated Tom? Where have you been in 2019, we have only been talking about real estate and hospitality with WeWork! But I will not yield and if the season is conducive to indigestion, there was certainly a WeWork heartburn in 2019: enough is enough, even for a retrospective. But if the fish rots from the head, we should pay attention to SoftBank, WeWork main shareholder as you mentioned above. At Fabernovel, we spent times recently to decipher the model of this keiretsu of modern times and more and more tongues of current or former workers are being loosened, describing SoftBank as an environment of sycophancy and harassment.
Softbank is also Uber’s main shareholder… Uber, the company where I personally believe the #metoo movement started, months before the Weinstein’s case and Alyssa Milano’s post on Twitter, with Susan Fowler, a computer scientist, reflecting on a very very strange year at Uber. If I had only two things to remember about these years, this will be first #MeToo and second WeWork. (S)
Youngsters usually define new use cases in tech, but I feel like in 2019 we collectively didn’t pay attention to those new norms and models. What a pity, because interesting developments were not lacking: video creation and sharing network TikTok was the 4th downloaded app in the world, P2P shopping app Depop reached 13m of (mostly) Gen Z users (and contributed to a revival of the 90s fashion), sports video network Overtime kept on redefining high school sports and stardom in the US, and esports became an official activity in the US high schools.
The future is already here… so we should stop looking the other way! (T)
Many pundits claimed this year that Netflix was becoming just another TV channel. But we shouldn’t forget that the entertainment platform is the champion of champions in the longest-running bull market in history: Netflix is the best-performing stock of the decade, delivering over a 4,000% return. One more achievement and a true symbol for the company which joined the S&P 500 in 2010, replacing The New York Times already. (S)
One of my favorite drawings of the 2010s, Control by Pawel Kuczynski.
First the smartphone changed - remember your Nokia! - then, over a decade, it changed us. (S)
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Copyright © 2019 Fabernovel, All rights reserved.
Edited by Stéphane Distinguin & Tom Morisse
Fabernovel is a talent company that creates digital products and services to support companies in their transformation and innovation trajectory.
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