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9 big tech questions for 2021

Image: Adnen Kadri / Protocol
9 big tech questions for 2021

Good morning and welcome back to your regularly scheduled programming! Vacation, we hardly knew ye. This Monday, a look at the biggest questions tech is asking itself in 2021.

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The Big Story

The questions tech is asking in 2021

New Year's resolutions are for suckers. So rather than get into all the ways tech should be better in 2021, or try to make lots of specific predictions after a year in which basically nobody could have guessed anything, let's do something slightly different.

As we kick off the year, I wanted to share some questions we here at Source Code are thinking most about this year. Most of them are also questions that tech leaders are (or should be) asking themselves and their teams. All are tough to answer, but will be crucial to figuring out what the tech world, and life in general, looks like in 2021.

  • How big should Big Tech be? It's unlikely that any tech company's getting broken up this year, but questions about economic and cultural power will still dominate the industry. Even the conversations could change the way tech companies approach acquisitions and partnerships, which will change the types and numbers of companies that get funded. Can the big companies keep getting bigger, or will even the threat of regulation cause them to start trimming?
  • Who will write the rules for the tech industry? The future of the sector won't be decided by the tweets about Section 230, or in angry antitrust hearings. It'll be decided by rooms full of lobbyists, executives and Biden-administration government officials. Who gets to be in those rooms, and what they choose to fight for, will ultimately be what matters.
  • What should public-private partnerships look like? Whether it's NASA and SpaceX, the Treasury Department and Square, Palantir and ICE, or Projects Maven and JEDI, the tech industry and the government continue to work together. But how those deals should work, how they should be talked about, and what happens when governments get access to bleeding edge (and largely unregulated) tech will continue to be a challenge.
  • Where is everybody going? Like, geographically? Austin, sure. Miami, at least a little. Utah? Singapore? Or maybe everyone's just going to move back to SF this summer. As companies figure out compensation, office plans, hiring strategies and workplace culture, understanding where everyone is — and where they'll be going forward — matters an awful lot.
  • What does work look like now? Related to the location question, but not the same thing. I've talked to a lot of tech execs over the last few months who are trying to figure out what a hybrid workforce looks like, with some people in the office and some at home. Everyone's rethinking the tools they use, the hours they keep, the ways they measure productivity and success.
  • What's never going back to normal? Ordering groceries online: here to stay. Zoom Christmas: hopefully a one-time thing. As tech companies look to the next few years, the question of what sticks post-pandemic is going to be crucial. (A few I've been hearing a lot about: virtual health care, banking by app, ecommerce in everything.)
  • Who really controls the internet? The fights between developers and Apple's App Store review team are not going away. Neither are the questions about what it means that Chromium, which Google doesn't own but basically controls, is the dominant tech for web browsers. Meanwhile, there's been an uptick in open-source software, as developers try to build an internet even they can't screw up. Who wins?
  • What do we want from content moderation? It's always election season somewhere. And the eternal tension between content moderation and free speech, and transparency versus privacy, continues to invite a lot of bluster and not a lot of concrete answers. This could (and should) be the year we start to think through the real, and complicated, trade offs.
  • Where's the metaverse? The next big computing platforms won't be new devices, but new worlds built for people to spend their time in. Minecraft, Roblox and Fortnite are the earliest versions of those worlds. But maybe Apple will say something about its AR glasses. Maybe Niantic will release a full-world AR system. Or maybe Snap will get there first. Whatever happens, there's an entirely new economy being created, with riches for anyone who figures it out.

These aren't the only questions we're looking at this year, and surely 2021 has plenty of surprises in store. But it's a start for us, and hopefully for you too.

I'd love to know what else is on your mind early this year, too — send me your best questions! I'm david@protocol.com, or just reply to this email.

Bitcoin

To the moon

There are only two types of people who talk about Bitcoin, it often seems: The bulls, who think the currency will reshape governments and change the world forever, and the bears, who think it's more or less not worth thinking about.

Right now, it's good to be a Bitcoin Bull. Yesterday, on the 12th anniversary of the first-ever mined Bitcoin, its price passed $30,000. Now, people are saying the price could quadruple this year, and that the "Bitcoin is a scam" crowd is getting ever quieter. (Though they're a bit like the Tesla shorts, in that you can believe they'll be back the minute the price goes down — like it did briefly this morning, when it fell to just below $30,000 again.)

  • What's different this time round? Banks, governments, and financial-services companies are all starting to care about Bitcoin, which goes a long way toward legitimizing the currency. One analyst cited "institutions FOMO buying" as the reason for the recent spike, and a reason to not expect a correction anytime soon.
  • All this movement seems to be cementing Coinbase's spot as the crypto wallet of choice, too, especially for those large institutional investors. The biggest Bitcoin moves, for the biggest prices, seem to be happening on Coinbase.

It's not just Bitcoin, either. Ethereum, which a lot of smart people have said will ultimately be far more consequential, is also rising sharply. While there's plenty of crypto chaos to come, 2021 might just be the year a couple of currencies become mainstream. Which means all your HODLing friends are going to be totally insufferable.

People Are Talking

Here's one for the crypto bears: Dogecoin, which is both still a joke and still a thing, has more than doubled since adult star Angela White tweeted this with a semi-NSFW pic:

  • "Been HODLing my $Doge since 2014. MUCH PATIENCE. TO THE MOON."

And Chris Sacca had some advice for anyone investing in stocks over the last 12 months:

  • "To everyone who got into trading stocks this year, I have a little hard truth for you: You're not actually that good at it. You just caught a wild bull market. Take some money off the table."

The SolarWinds hack just keeps looking worse, Sen. Mark Warner said:

  • "This is looking much, much worse than I first feared. The size of it keeps expanding. It's clear the United States government missed it. And if FireEye had not come forward, I'm not sure we would be fully aware of it to this day."

A MESSAGE FROM INTUIT

Intuit A MESSAGE FROM INTUIT

Virtualized service business models previously on the horizon waiting for consumer habits to catch up have accelerated at break-neck speed. And consumers are tapping their feet, waiting for more. Now, think about the dilemma that consumers are faced with going into this tax season. Because of the pandemic, many tax situations seem more complex and are sparking questions never before imagined.

Read more

Coming This Week

A lot of political chaos, mostly. The Georgia runoffs are tomorrow, and the Electoral College votes will be counted on Wednesday. If the last couple of days have been any indication, it's going to get crazy.

The SolarWinds story is just going to keep moving. It continues to get bigger, and worse, and is one you're going to want to keep an eye on.

In Other News

  • Jack Ma might be missing. He's reportedly not been seen in over two months, and failed to appear in the finale of his African entrepreneur talent show.
  • More than 225 Google workers formed a union. The Alphabet Workers Union was planned in secret before officially being announced Monday.
  • Rob Leathern has left Facebook. He was Facebook's head of advertising integrity, and told colleagues he would now "work on consumer privacy beyond just ads and social media."
  • A U.K. judge ruled against Julian Assange's extradition. Though she said his work with Chelsea Manning went beyond investigative journalism, she said the risk of him committing suicide in the U.S. was too high.
  • The NYSE said it would delist China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom in response to November's executive order, which placed restrictions on military-linked Chinese companies. Hong Kong-listed shares of the companies fell on the news, and China said it would take "necessary measures" in response to the delisting.
  • Tencent games were briefly removed from Huawei's app store, reportedly due to a revenue sharing dispute. Huawei wanted 50% of Tencent's sales, Reuters reports. It's unclear if a deal was reached, though Tencent games were reinstated to the store.
  • Roku is in talks to buy Quibi's catalog, The Wall Street Journal reports. The shows would presumably bolster the Roku Channel's content base.
  • A Pinduoduo employee collapsed and died, reportedly rekindling debate over China's 996 work culture. The employee, in her early 20s, collapsed while walking home with colleagues.

One More Thing

Rat's life for us, little Remy

I know, we already talked about "Ratatouille: The TikTok Musical," but if you haven't watched it yet, you really need to. It's even more fun, and even more internetty, than I expected. It's also only available for on-demand viewing until 7 p.m. tonight, which means it has that rarest of internet things: scarcity. You don't want to be the one who didn't get to see it, and hey, it's for a good cause! The whole thing lasts just shy of an hour, too. Oh, and once you're done, check out this excellent oral history of the project.

A MESSAGE FROM INTUIT

Intuit A MESSAGE FROM INTUIT

Virtualized service business models previously on the horizon waiting for consumer habits to catch up have accelerated at break-neck speed. And consumers are tapping their feet, waiting for more. Now, think about the dilemma that consumers are faced with going into this tax season. Because of the pandemic, many tax situations seem more complex and are sparking questions never before imagined.

Read more

Today's Source Code was written by David Pierce, with help from Anna Kramer and Shakeel Hashim. Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to david@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.

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