Apr 24, 2020 - Technology

Coronavirus rewrites tech's product plans

Illustration of 1s and 0s falling slowly through an hourglass.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Despite the tech industry's relative health during the pandemic, tech product roadmaps and schedules have been revisited, shaken up and in some cases completely rewritten thanks to the coronavirus.

What's happening: Both giants and startups are trying to focus on projects that are doable, relevant and critical. Those that don't meet any of these criteria are likely to fall by the wayside.

The big picture: Although tech may be the best-positioned industry of all for an era of remote work, and companies in Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area were among the first to send workers home, the industry is hardly immune to this crisis' impact.

It's still too early to know the full impact, but early casualties have already begun to surface.

Video game development, as a whole, has been dramatically slowed, as noted by the New York Times.

  • Despite huge demand, the industry depends on developers being able to work in close collaboration, in central environments with tons of computing power.
  • Sony, for example, is delaying the original May release of its highly anticipated "The Last of Us: Part II."

This is surely just the start. In a recent interview with Axios, Box CEO Aaron Levie said he made the call several weeks ago that the coronavirus' impact would be much greater than initially assumed.

  • "This is probably going to alter our entire year in terms of product strategy," he said, adding that he expected the rest of his peers were reaching the same conclusion.

Between the lines: Here are some of the factors that lead to products being scrapped or delayed.

  • Supply chain issues: The tech industry, especially hardware, evolved as a creature of the global economy, with design in one country and manufacturing in another. That approach was complicated by U.S.-China tensions before COVID-19, but the halt to international travel has made it even harder for companies to transition their designs into production.
  • Offices closed: Yes, many people can do most of their jobs remotely. But some key tasks are handled in labs that are better suited to rapid prototyping and collaborative creation.
  • Looming layoffs: Many startups are already announcing job cuts, while even giants like Google say they are slowing hiring. And job cuts have an impact beyond the workers who are cut, diverting management attention and increasing anxiety and distraction for the entire workforce.
  • Shrinking budgets: Tech companies aren't just trying to do more with less people, but they are also trying to do things more cheaply. For many startups, it's about saving precious cash, while even large public companies are looking to make the bottom line better (or less bad) for Wall Street.
  • It's a pandemic: As has been frequently noted, but not always fully internalized, this crisis isn't just a matter of working from home. It's people trying to get work done while tending to their own health and their family's — often adding homeschool teacher and caregiver to their other job duties.
  • Lower demand for many products: While there is renewed interest in tech for the home office and living room, other categories are likely to take a major hit. GoPro is one iconic example here: It's hard to imagine many people who can barely leave the house opting to spend on a new action camera. The company has already announced both layoffs and a shift to direct selling in an effort to remain viable.

Yes, but: Overall product output will probably slow, but some efforts are being accelerated.

  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that today at 11 am PT he will show off a number of new product updates he says will "help everyone feel more connected with each other even while we're apart."

Some categories are getting a boost as their approach is well suited to the coronavirus reality.

  • Remote work: Products like Zoom, Slack and Microsoft Teams, among others, are having a moment, and companies are pushing hard to add requested features, beef up security and increase performance amid a spike in adoption.
  • Public cloud: The industry was already shifting from company-run servers to sharing resources from providers like Amazon's AWS and Microsoft's Azure, but companies are looking to speed up that transition as they realize how much harder it is to run your own servers when the office is closed. Cloud providers, meanwhile, are trying to keep up with increased demand.
  • Telemedicine: Tech had long sought to make more inroads in healthcare, but has long been stymied by heavy regulation and a payment system designed only around in-person visits. The pandemic has forced everything from primary care office visits to mental health appointments to physical therapy sessions to move digital.
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