Sign up to receive 5 free days of our daily summary for tech news.

Join us for just $10/month for our analysis of Facebook's new cryptocurrency announcement on 6/18.

Read this article for free.

Already a subscriber? Log in here

Something weird happened to tech companies in 2014. They became obsessed with what they want to be when they grow up.

Of course, tech giants have always been long-term thinkers. But 2014 saw a far deeper array of soul-searching than years past—and for good reason. Technology companies big and small are at a crossroads; they face greater opportunities from customers in new geographies and industries. Yet they also face greater competition that can come out of nowhere. The period of time when any one company can stay on top is quickly shrinking.

The mood breeds paranoia and a degree of reflection and redefinition that in some cases seems to border on an identity crisis. Take Google. The one thing that’s clear about the company is that it no longer sees itself as a search business. The online giant jettisoned a mobile phone company, acquired other hardware businesses, including Dropcam, wrestled to define Google 2.0 and literally aimed for the stars.

(News and narratives linked to in this piece were first reported in The Information.)

Facebook similarly sowed new seeds, spending billions to own WhatsApp while keeping it away from Google. The company staked a claim to virtual reality, a technology whose importance to the social network still seems like a stretch, and started pitching it to Hollywood. Amazon bought Twitch, a gaming company that the vast majority of its shoppers probably still haven’t heard of.

While executives publicly seemed very confident about these identity-changing bets, behind close doors, they were anxious. Executives struggled with how forcefully to push into new fields beyond their core areas of expertise and to determine who was friend vs. foe.

Google sparred privately with Samsung over the future of Android, while Facebook and Google tussled over new technologies related to artificial intelligence, satellites and ads.

With new developer tools, Twitter took aim at Facebook; meanwhile, media giants like Disney weighed whether to bet big on tech.

In some cases, there was more contemplation than action. Yahoo’s efforts to gain distribution for its mobile apps stalled. Apple took the wraps off the Apple Watch. But it continued to hit roadblocks in its quest to reinvent television and and push forward into the cloud.

Comcast, which is probably the only old-school TV distributor with the scale to compete head-to-head with Google, Apple and Facebook, plodded ahead slowly with plans for various Internet advertising and wireless services. But it’s been treading cautiously, partly due to an ongoing regulatory review over its deal to acquire Time Warner Cable.

New startups also struggled to define their boundaries, eager to branch into new businesses before someone else eats their lunch. Snapchat, in particular, continued to widen its ambitions.

In some ways, this soul-searching ratcheted up expectations for the deals and products that could be unleashed when companies finally show their cards.

But the contemplative mood doesn’t feel likely to change. It feels more like the new normal as tech companies enter a perpetual cycle of questioning what business they want to be in: hardware, software, services, ads, shopping, entertainment, autos, enterprise or all of the above.

It’s worth noting that the successful ones also face unprecedented leeway in charting a new course. With lots of capital and, in the case of Google and Facebook, founder control, they have unprecedented opportunities to go boldly into new businesses.

And they know they have no choice. The days when a tech company can “win” over the long term by owning one category like search or social are long gone. Technology advances continues to make it easy for consumers to change their habits quickly; what’s hot today definitely won’t be in a few years. Technological prowess is more easily built and more easily lost.

So to become the sort of long-term institutions they aspire to be, tech companies need advantages that span products and industries. That’s the kind of challenge likely to keep any executive up at night. 

What Is The Information?

Notes bb3aa5069205d702dda37fc71dc6f1c59df2310c4379304e9f1199f052af4884

Exclusive Articles

We broke it first. Receive original reporting you won't read anywhere else from the largest newsroom in tech.

Notebook b5103017ee163370a1667c9ce59ab0ef023875a17888105d26c185cadf31bb69

Daily news analysis

Every weeknight, we'll send you our reporters’ views on the day’s top tech news—distilled into one email.

Conference calls c9e664e8b96ee347d3e92b8309938f268422b9db98cfabca5c826fbb75054b23

Conference calls

Get access to our reporters and other top executives with monthly deep-dive calls into topics like startups and autonomous vehicles.

Events 499acedd16cffc41445edd76bfd302b2836c2a27419890f17130a6b10e2aa3df

Special Events

For no extra fee, get access to more than a dozen events yearly, from intimate dinners to larger gatherings with marquee speakers.

What else is included in my subscription?

Become a contributor

Share your views and find other subscribers by completing your profile. You’ll be listed in our contributor directory.

Slack community

Discuss topics and current events with our subscriber-only Slack group and share news about your company with other subscribers.

Annual Subscriber only benefits:

Org Charts

Access the only collection of tech company org charts. Our expanding database includes companies like Amazon, Snap, and Uber.

Crypto Newsletter

Our experts investigate the latest in the crypto world to keep you in-the-know about the movements of digital currencies.

Stay up to date on Silicon Valley

Sign up for Jessica Lessin’s (The Information’s CEO & Founder) free Saturday newsletter and also receive a complimentary week of our daily afternoon tech commentary email.

Already a subscriber? Log in here

Recent Articles


AI Hiring Frenzy Settles Down

By Kevin McLaughlin

Crypto Venture Capital

Venture Investors Remain Skittish

By Jon Victor

Autonomous Vehicles

SoftBank’s Ronen Says Self-Driving Market “Big Boys’ Game”

By Cory Weinberg, Aaron Tilley, and Kevin McLaughlin

Crypto Facebook

Eight Takeaways From Facebook’s Libra Cryptocurrency

By Jon Victor and Alex Heath

But the contemplative mood doesn’t feel likely to change. It feels more like the new normal as tech companies enter a perpetual cycle of questioning what business they want to be in.