These Are the Tech Giants That Won 2015
Running a business is tough. But for some, the chance that one can leave their mark on the world—or, as Steve Jobs famously put it, “make a dent in the universe”—is wildly alluring. A few even manage to pull it off.
In 2015, a few tech companies did more than make a dent. They showed that technology now defines the terms of business. Sure, they also made billions. But more significantly, they forced the rest of the world to reckon with the ways they reshaped the landscape.
Amazon Controls the Cloud
Amazon is a 21-year-old company. Isn’t that crazy? Yet, despite being old enough to legally drink, Amazon has continued to follow the startup mantra of “growth before profits.” Until 2015, that is. This year, Amazon reached a pivotal moment in its history. It began to turn a profit—consistently.
But the biggest reason for that growth wasn’t retail (though that business was a strong performer, too). It was Amazon’s cloud.
In April, for the first time, Amazon broke out its Amazon Web Services revenue and revealed a massive $4.6 billion business—with really good margins. Amazon pioneered the idea of providing instant access to computing power over the Internet when it introduced AWS about a decade ago. Now, many businesses and developers rent out access instead of setting up their own machines. That’s slowly eaten away at the businesses of a handful of entrenched tech giants—the so-called “walking dead” of tech. And while Amazon’s cloud is now facing challenges from similar services offered by the likes of Microsoft and Google, Jeff Bezos and company have established an enormous lead in a market that could be worth $191 billion by 2020.
Netflix Wins on Hollywood’s Terms
This year, Netflix became much more than a cord-cutting alternative to watching TV. The company first stepped into the realm of original content to challenge HBO’s premium fare when it acquired the high-profile House of Cards in 2011. But 2015 it really went all-in on original programming. Today, its portfolio includes documentaries, comedy specials, variety shows, original movies (ones that generate Oscar buzz), and drama series. Its slate now dwarfs the offerings of both Amazon and Hulu.
In short, Netflix is killing it. But what’s perhaps most interesting about the fact that Netflix is winning is that it’s not exactly winning at being a tech company—though it does rely on user data to engineer audience hits. It’s winning on TV and Hollywood’s terms. Netflix dominated the Golden Globes, SAG Awards and the Emmys this awards season. Along with critics, shareholders are also very pleased.
Instagram’s Out-of-this-World Success
Instagram, everyone’s favorite little social network, isn’t so little anymore.
The Facebook-owned company, now five years old, is still experiencing luxurious and steady growth. In 2015, it surpassed Twitter in its number of monthly active users: 400 million, versus Twitter’s 320 million. Twitter in general had a pretty rocky year, struggling to appeal to the mainstream and find better footing in the stock market.
Instagram, by contrast, appeals to just about everybody. Here’s something else that should scare Twitter: the image-based social network is getting damn good at news. Its straightforward feed of photos is often much simpler to decode than Twitter’s lightning-fast, text-based stream. At least one huge institution has recognized this: In July, Instagram scored a major coup when NASA decided to debut its first surface image of Pluto on the social network.
Uber Leaps the Regulatory Hurdles
Uber is now a global giant with billions in financing in its coffers. Its current reported valuation: $62.5 billion. That eye-popping figure sent Uber sailing past Xiaomi, last year’s most valuable startup, to become the single most valuable privately owned company in the world in 2015.
Not that the status came without hurdles. In California, a class-action lawsuit potentially involving hundreds of thousands of drivers is winding its way through the federal court system, challenging the ride-hail giant to make its drivers official Uber employees. Losing the suit could have immense impact on the so-called on-demand economy, which depends on the work of independent contractors. A jury trial is set for July next year.
Still, there’s no denying that Uber’s growth has been astronomical. It’s muscled its way into markets both in the US and abroad and run successful campaigns against regulators. The surest sign yet of its domination: its biggest rivals have come together in a global anti-Uber alliance.
Disney Sets the Rules
But this year, the old-media powerhouse was a winner in other, subtler ways, too. The company, with its many divisions and subsidiaries, often dictated the terms in every facet of media and entertainment, even in the world of upstarts where players like Netflix and Buzzfeed seem to dominate. ESPN, for instance, is the last major holdout in most households to cutting the cord completely. And from Marvel to Pixar to ABC, Disney’s cultural jewels know (almost) no bounds.
Still, Disney is starting to show signs that it is ready to embrace the future. It’s getting into apps, and has even signed a deal with its frenemy Netflix, where its films will start appearing next year. After all, while traditional media still holds a lot of power, consumers want great content served the way they want to watch it—and Disney understands this.
Facebook Video Explodes
Facebook wants to become your whole world. This mission was clear, especially in 2015. It was the year the company launched products like Instant Articles (news), digital storefronts (shopping), Facebook M (artificially intelligent personal assistance), and an expanded Messenger as a platform for services. The common thread running through all these efforts? You never have to leave Facebook to accomplish anything you wanted to do.
But perhaps its most surprising triumph has been in video. In 2015, Facebook suddenly encroached on YouTube’s turf as the place to watch Buzzfeed clips and Star Wars videos, serving up what the company says are billions of video views a day. That success came with some controversy, as heaps of videos were uploaded to Facebook in such a way that content creators couldn’t make money from them, something Facebook eventually addressed. Facebook, after all, isn’t one to get in Facebook’s way, especially when it comes to owning the world.
Apple’s Biggest Prize? China
Sure, Apple is doing great, but the reasons behind its greatness have changed year to year. Once, it was because Apple dominated music. Now, Apple’s winning because of its iPhones. And that’s largely thanks to trends in China.
Consider this: the smartphone market is becoming saturated. In 2015, for the first time, growth in the worldwide smartphone market sank to a single digit. In China, first-time buyers have all but disappeared, too—meaning the potential for growth is now mostly in premium phones, a category that Apple rules. In China, Apple saw a 99 percent revenue growth last quarter. And it has enormous market share all over the world (though it’s slipped from the No. 1 spot from time to time). Still, even if the company doesn’t sell all the phones, it makes all the money.
YouTube Pushes Into Music and Virtual Reality
YouTube is still by far the clear leader in online video. It’s the platform on which entire ecosystems have been built to support the creation of Internet videos—from viral video businesses to social media talent agencies. But that’s not exactly why we’re calling it a winner this year.
No, we have to give it to YouTube for pushing past its comfort zone in 2015, from finally launching a subscription service in YouTube Red (which really, could end up meaning a better YouTube for everyone), to lowering the bar of access to virtual reality (with a smart partnership with Google’s cheap Cardboard VR set). Even more intriguing, this year YouTube put its hat in the ring for streaming music. It arguably has more music content among all other players, even in an incredibly crowded field. Think about it: While Taylor Swift once readily pulled her stuff off of platforms like Spotify, she never made the same move on YouTube, because it’s still a way to reach 1 billion-plus users—and fans—all at once.
WhatsApp Offers a Window to the Web
There are lots of messaging services, including Facebook Messenger, Tango, Kik, and Snapchat, not to mention good old text messaging. But of all the messaging options out there, no one is winning messaging the way WhatsApp is winning—especially overseas. Even while the US media often has little to say about WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned service that Facebook spent $19 billion to buy last year, it’s used by more than 900 million people globally, in places like the Middle East and Africa—and all that with just 50 engineers on the team.
It’s hard to overstate how remarkable that is. For so many people around the world, WhatsApp brings the Internet to places that don’t have it. It acts as a kind of gateway to connectedness. And it’s how Facebook will dominate the world, infiltrating places that wouldn’t get access otherwise.
Atlassian Shows Tech Can Successfully IPO
Right before Atlassian went public, it was being touted as a referendum on the prospects of other “unicorns”—private tech companies with valuations of over a billion dollars that some were calling dubious. If the public market validated the billions it was supposedly worth when it was still private, the thinking went, maybe these unicorns actually deserved their labels.
Thankfully, Atlassian’s IPO went well. And yes, that was still a bellwether of sorts—but not for unicorns. The Australian company had been profitable for more than a decade, and mostly bootstrapped, meaning it didn’t have the piles of VC money many other startups, including Airbnb, Dropbox, and Snapchat, boast. Either way, Atlassian’s triumph over Wall Street expectations was a bright spot for tech IPOs, which should soothe at least some jumpy investors in the industry.
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