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Tech’s Year of Contemplative Thinking

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. 

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