Even with the global economy reeling from a pandemic-induced recession and businesses filing for bankruptcy, tech’s largest companies are laying the groundwork for a future where they will be bigger and more powerful than ever
Other technology giants are engaging in similar behaviour. Apple has bought at least four companies this year and released a new iPhone. Microsoft has purchased three cloud computing businesses. Amazon is in talks to acquire an autonomous vehicle start-up, has leased more airplanes for delivery and has hired an additional 175,000 people since March. Google has unveiled new messaging and video features.
Even with the global economy reeling from a pandemic-induced recession and dozens of businesses filing for bankruptcy, tech’s largest companies — still wildly profitable and flush with billions of dollars from years of corporate dominance — are laying the groundwork for a future where they will be bigger and more powerful than ever. Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft are aggressively placing new bets as the coronavirus pandemic has made them near-essential services, with people turning to them to shop online, entertain themselves and stay in touch with loved ones. The skyrocketing use has given the companies new fuel to invest as other industries retrench.
The expansion is unfolding as lawmakers and regulators in Washington and Europe are sounding the alarm over the tech giants’ concentration of power and how that may have hurt competitors and led to other issues, such as spreading disinformation. This past week, European Union officials were preparing antitrust charges against Amazon for using its e-commerce dominance to box out smaller rivals, while Britain began an inquiry into Facebook’s purchase of the GIF company.
Some of the tech behemoths have made little secret of their intention to forge ahead in a recession that has put more than 44 mn Americans out of work and that officials warn will be protracted. “I’ve always believed that in times of economic downturn, the right thing to do is keep investing in building the future,” Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, said in an investor call last month. “When the world changes quickly, people have new needs, and there are more new things to build.”
In doubling down on growth in a time of economic pain, the largest tech companies are continuing a pattern. In previous recessions, those that invested while the economy was at its most vulnerable often emerged stronger. In the 1990s, IBM used a recession to reorient itself from a hardware company into a software and services company. Google and Facebook both rose out of the dot-com bust about 20 years ago.
Apple, whose iPhones now dominate their market, doubled its R&D budget for two years during the downturn in the early 2000s. That led the company, which nearly went bankrupt in the late 1990s, to create its iPod music player and iTunes music store — and eventually the iPhone, the App Store and an unbridled growth streak, said Jenny Chatman, a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. Ranjan Roy, a tech commentator for The Margins, an internet industry blog, said it was clear that the tech behemoths were unafraid to get more aggressive now and that the power they were accruing should give people pause. “Without any pushback from regulators, big tech companies would almost unquestionably come out of the pandemic more powerful,” he said. “So many additional parts of our daily lives are becoming dependent on their products, or they could just buy or copy the services they don’t yet deliver.” Still, the companies are taking risks by spending in an uncertain period, said John Paul Rollert, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “To double and even triple down when the casino is on fire is a remarkable move, because they may not even be able to cash in their chips later on,” he said.
Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, which declined to or did not respond to requests for comment, have plenty of cash. Combined, they are sitting atop about $557 bn, enabling them to maintain a pace of acquisitions and investments similar to last year’s, when the economy was humming, according to a tally of financial disclosures. They have been among the top corporate spenders on research and development for most of the past decade, according to the accounting firm PwC.
The companies have ramped up their activity since March, when shelter-in-place orders began. As Amazon, Facebook and others adapted to their employees working from home, they experienced a spike in use. Messaging and other teleconferencing software soared in popularity. That created opportunities. Microsoft, for one, started promoting its Teams video-conferencing service, which allows people to talk and collaborate online. Microsoft also snapped up three cloud computing companies in the past few months — Affirmed Networks, Metaswitch Networks and Softomotive — to offer more technology to businesses.
Google, too, updated products that people can use to work from home. In April, it said that its video chat service, Google Meet, would be easily available inside people’s Gmail windows and free to anyone with a Google account. It also said it would start making listings in its shopping search results mostly free, instead of having merchants pay for all their products to appear in the results, to bolster e-commerce searches. Last month, Facebook bought the GIF company Giphy for an estimated $400 mn. Giphy is to be integrated with Instagram, the photo-sharing app owned by Facebook. And last week, the social network invested millions in Gojek. Based in Jakarta, Indonesia, Gojek makes an app for digital payments, transportation and other services that is used by more than 170 mn people in Southeast Asia. Facebook is now working on the new venture fund, which will help it spot new popular apps.
— Mike Isaac is a technology reporter with NYT© 2020
The New York Times