For example: Zoom Video, the company whose video conferencing service has become a verb in the past 18 months, said on Sunday that it would spend roughly $15 billion to buy a company called Five9 that makes software for businesses’ customer service call centers. As my DealBook newsletter colleagues put it, Zoom is making a $15 billion bet on phone calls.
There are two ways of interpreting Zoom’s splurge. The first is that the company is operating from a position of strength. More than a year of people hooked on Zooming (or Microsoft Team’ing, or Google Meet’ing) has given the company the financial firepower to make bets on a new area of growth. This read is basically that Zoom doesn’t need to hold back and plan for a situation in which people stop relying completely on online video for work, school, doctor visits and family get-togethers.
Another interpretation is that Zoom believes our COVID-era behavioural changes are fleeting and the company needs to play defense. If Zoom is worried that people will gravitate away from screens, it needs to hedge its bets by stretching into different fields like customer service.
The reality is that both of those reads on this acquisition are probably true. Zoom believes that some of our online video habits are durable, but also that we won’t stay as glued to our gadgets as we were in 2020. If we drift back haltingly to hugging friends and hunching over computers at our work desks — and as Zoom’s competition heats up — the company needs to branch into different services to keep growing.
I also don’t want to read too much into one corporate acquisition. But I don’t want to ignore its deeper meaning. Zoom is just an app, yes, but its corporate decisions reflect a mood and beliefs about what might happen to all of us.
For many months, people who care about corporate finance have stressed over how the habits and attitudes we adopted during the pandemic might stick around. They’re trying to predict profit margins and stock prices for companies like Zoom, Uber and Amazon, but it’s also more than that. Assessing what might happen to those companies is really about trying to gauge how much we have changed because of the pandemic and the ripple effects of even small behavioural alterations on our hometowns, schools, where we choose to live, transportation planning, the role of women in families and our relationships.
Corporations like Zoom function as canaries in the coal mine of what post-COVID life might look like. Maybe the chief executive of the salad company Sweetgreen can’t really know how much downtown offices will return to a pre-COVID staffing levels, but how the company spends its money is a bet that office life will return more or less to what it was in 2019.
We have profoundly been changed by the coronavirus in a million big and small ways. But we don’t yet know exactly what that means. All that companies like Zoom and the rest of us can do is make educated guesses about the future, and prepare to be proved at least a little bit wrong.
Ovide is a tech writer with NYT
The New York Times