Dec 23, 2020 - Technology

Frenetic tech giants' next trick: Learn patience and play a long game

Animated illustration of a loading computer icon on a wristwatch
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

In 2021, tech, an industry built on speedy change, is going to have to learn to wait.

The big picture: Every crisis tech faces — from the onslaught of antitrust litigation to the massive SolarWinds cyberattack to the pandemic's toll on health and the economy — has unfolded in slow motion and will take at least as long to resolve.

What's happening: Tech built its success on eliminating delays, from the late-20th-century dawn of personal computing's Moore's Law-driven exponential growth and the beginning of supercharged "internet time" to Facebook's "move fast and break things" ascent and Amazon's same-day delivery promises.

That magic is failing at this historical moment. Tech may have prospered as a lifeline to the homebound during a shelter-in-place year, but now the industry's legendary agility offers no short-cuts around the problems it confronts.

Fending off the monopoly-busters:

  • When the judge in the Department of Justice's lawsuit against Google estimated that the case would be likely to come to trial in 2023, you could hear the collective jaw-drop from industry leaders, critics and journalists alike.
  • 2023! Three years is a generation in tech. Who knows which of the media outlets covering this story will even be around then?
  • Yes, but: We knew that history shows tech antitrust cases take forever.
  • The question for Google and Facebook is whether fighting tooth and nail and stretching out the timelines of these cases further is the smart long-game move.
  • Company leaders may believe they're buying time for their companies to keep growing. But the last company to be in this position and take the trench-warfare approach, Microsoft, dragged out its ordeal only to become obsessed, distracted, and nearly paralyzed by the fight.
  • Microsoft won the battle in the end, only to lose industry initiative to a new generation of giants — led by Google and Facebook. Those companies are now betting they can escape the same fate.

Coping with the pandemic aftermath:

  • When coronavirus lockdowns first hit last March, the tech industry was able to leap in and ramp up videoconferencing, home delivery services, contact-tracing app development and other rapid adaptations to the new reality.
  • But the resolution of the crisis is happening on a much slower timeline. Surging virus infection and hospitalization rates, even as vaccine programs begin to kick into gear, slow recovery efforts and elude tech-based quick fixes.
  • Tech can help around the edges — for instance, with product that verify vaccination status — but there's little it can do to speed up the public-health timeline or economic recovery.

Cleaning up the SolarWinds cyberattack mess:

  • When government and industry systems are compromised as badly as appears to have happened in the Russia-linked SolarWinds hack, there's no quick fix.
  • You can patch the flaw that led to the initial breach, but when enemies have been freely roaming inside your network for months, rooting them out requires significant expenditure and deep patience.
  • In many cases, a "burn the system down and start fresh" strategy is the only way to guarantee that you've booted the intruders. There's no way to do that overnight.

Our thought bubble: Each of these crises demands resilience from companies, and resilience isn't something that tech's young giants have had much experience cultivating.

  • Some of them, like Facebook and Google, have never had to make massive cutbacks or tough choices in an economic downturn.
  • They're now at the corporate life-stage where painful compromises and slow adaptation are a lot more likely than continued massive growth.

The bottom line: Tech companies can't avoid slowing down and planning for the long horizon — all they can do is try to get good at it.

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