Movers and Shakers in Tech in 2015 – Part 1

We are a week away from saying goodbye to 2015 and now would be a good time to look back at everything that happened in tech in 2015. This was an interesting year with a lot of interesting efforts from various tech behemoths and startups. Incumbents consolidated their respective positions of strength while upstarts continued to nibble away and disrupt traditional business models. In this two part article, I will cover what the big folks did to stay on top and also throw light on the new kids on the block for the year.

Before we take a look at everyone who did well, it might be worthwhile to look at stars that shone a little less brighter than anticipated in 2015. These are still well respected tech companies whose fortunes ebbed just a little bit as they tried to keep pace with everyone else.

Retooling, Recharging, Rebooting

There has been a lot of chatter in the Valley about what is going on with Dropbox. Dropbox recently announced the sunsetting of two of their experimental services – the Carousel photo app and Mailbox email app. As a user of both products, I was disappointed but not surprised. Carousel was never as fully functional as its competitors like Google Photos, Snapseed (also Google), and Apple’s own Photos app which has improved in the past year. Mailbox was a pioneer in helping manage emails (snoozing and scheduling emails was a really solid feature) with cross-platform sync. But the app had not seen any feature upgrade in the past several months, so it was no surprise that it was going away. As a user on my Mac and iOS devices, I will miss Mailbox.

Dropbox was also slow to see that consumer media storage was going to be incredibly cheap if not free (OneDrive, Flickr, Google Photos, Amazon Cloud Photos are all close to free) and its value proposition was in the enterprise, something Box has been aggressively courting since Day 1. But Dropbox has an incredibly good product and remarkable brand identity and that should help them in 2016.

For a long time, Evernote along with Dropbox was one of the most promising mature startups in the Valley. Over the last few years, Evernote embarked on a “do-it-all” approach that saw it build dedicated products for niche applications. All that has resulted in a bloated portfolio with a main product that has suffered from lack of focus. Evernote recently did a layoff and has also announced the sunsetting of a few of its niche applications like Clearly, Evernote for Pebble and Skitch on all platforms but Mac. Its founder and long time CEO, Phil Libin left the company earlier in the year.

Evernote’s core product has stagnated while Google (with Keep), Apple (with its revamped Notes) and startups like Quip have offered much of it for free and in some cases, more. This year will be the make or break year for Evernote- it remains to be seen if they can survive and possibly reinvent themselves for the next generation.

Samsung has had a rough year by a large conglomerate standards. Yes, their components business continues to thrive and they do sell smartphones by the tens of millions. But they are is starting to lose their identity rapidly. A few years ago, the Galaxy S was seen as the one real competitor to the iPhone while Asian countries were lapping up one of the dozen Samsung smartphones it sold in their country. All that changed when Apple launched the iPhone 6 and 6s. The larger displays seemed to kill the one real advantage Samsung had over iPhones. Coupled with the rapid ascent of Xiaomi, Huawei and a Moto powered Lenovo, Samsung has not had it this challenging in a while.

Samsung is betting big on IoT with its SmartThings division and continues to be bullish on smartwatches. The Galaxy S6 Edge was a surprise hit but Samsung needs more of those and fast. The smartphone business is littered with the corpses of Blackberry, Nokia and many more. Samsung would not want to be one of them, five years from now. With the right vision and its traditional strength in core components and electronics, Samsung can still produce truly standout products to compete and outsell the very best in the business.

Twitter is an interesting product in this category. With every election (including the upcoming one), and breaking news event, Twitter is growing from strength to strength as the place to get the latest. There is nothing else across the spectrum that brings up-to-the minute breaking news and a self-curated portal to some of the best content on the internet. But Twitter made the mistake of going after Facebook whose mission is vastly different. By setting itself to be compared against Facebook, Twitter kind of lost its way in the past few years in terms of building upon its core product. With its stock price at a historic low, there is only one way for Twitter to go- up.

In September 2014, AliBaba went public in the largest IPO ever, raising over $15 billion to compete in the global marketplace. 2015 has been an interesting year for Alibaba. There were rumors of the Chinese government questioning their business practices which affected their stock for much of the second half of the year. Alibaba continues to grow in China and has ambitions of global domination where it will face-off against incumbent e-commerce leader, Amazon. But for now, it will have to continue to build its business in China where there are a lot of competitors like Tencent, and Baidu and also stave off persistent rumors about its business model.

Good to Great

There is not much that has not been written about Slack. If there is one standout story of 2015, that would be Slack. From being just a promising company, they have truly captured the mindshare and attention of everyone this year with their simple product- a communications hub that offers the tantalizing prospect of reducing if not eliminating email altogether. Slack’s core product has resonated with companies, big and small, and they can only get bigger and better in 2016. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that Slack might be as ubiquitous as Outlook in your workplace within the next few years.

Everyone knows about Uber. The ambitious 6 year old company that has challenged the traditional taxi business across the world has pioneered the sharing economy for this generation. Uber has lofty goals and an even loftier valuation at over $60 billion. Uber has competitors across the world- Lyft in the US, Ola Cabs in India, and Didi Kuaidi in China. But Uber is still by far the Big Dog in the game and they show no signs of slowing down in 2016.

If one were to ask technologists a short list of the most promising businesses that are truly transformative, they would point to Slack, Uber and AirBnb. AirBnb has completely transformed the concept of lodging rentals. What started as a small website to look and list vacation homes and apartments for rent is now something corporations are using to book for their travelling executives. There is no greater testament to the explosive growth of Airbnb than seeing The hotel industry doing its best to halt its rapid growth.

Xiaomi is a little known company stateside that has revolutionized the consumer electronics space in China and parts of Asia and Latin America. They build and sell high quality and low cost smartphones and an assortment of electronics like fitness bands and routers. In the five years of their existence, they have rapidly grown to be the fourth largest smartphone company in the world (no little feat). Part-Amazon, part-Google, and part-Apple, they continue to enter markets across the world and disrupt incumbents while continuing to dominate in their home territory of China.

The Next Wave
Delivery Startups are showing a lot of promise led by PostMates, Instacart and DoorDash. VR and AR could soon be a big thing and the biggest player in the space, Oculus, is now a part of Facebook. The other big player, Magic Leap has raised a lot of money and is promising a mixed-reality experience unlike any other. Microsoft and Sony are also competing in the space while Samsung has chosen to partner with Oculus.
Pinterest is trying to monetize its popular pinboard app and is showing initial success while Snapchat is trying to figure out if it can monetize from its base of millions of teenagers. Just as the Chinese e-commerce space is exploding, India is catching up rapidly. With Amazon, Flipkart and Snapdeal fighting for the wallets of a huge middle class, India could be the site for the next big battle.

Coming Up

Coming soon in Part 2 of this article, we will look at the changing fortunes of the incumbents – Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon.