Opinion: Zoom's boom pokes holes in the big-tech 'Borg' narrative


  • Apple
  • Friday, 05 Jun 2020

In the Covid-19 era many upstarts – such as video-conferencing software maker Zoom Video Communications Inc – are emphatically winning even as the tech giants try to squash them. — Pixabay

One of the most feared antagonists in the Star Trek universe is the seemingly unstoppable alien species called the Borg. These cybernetic aliens travel the galaxy, conquering and assimilating everything in their path while greeting each new victim with the catch-phrase, "Resistance is futile.”

In many ways, the prevailing narrative around Big Tech is similar to this sci-fi series villain story line. Pundits often cite how the technology giants’ vast financial resources and R&D budgets will lead to an inexorable march to control more and more of the economy. And sure, on the surface it makes sense. Apple Inc and Google-parent Alphabet Inc sport net cash balances of roughly US$100bil (RM427bil) each and dominate their respective markets, generating vast profit streams from smartphones and search engine. Together with Facebook Inc, Netflix Inc and Microsoft Corp, these behemoths also reign over the stock market with their ballooning valuations. How can any smaller company hope to compete against such power in the current difficult environment?

The reality paints a much less daunting picture. It turns out that the Covid-19 era has led to an explosion of innovation and rapid growth for dozens of smaller technology companies. Many of these upstarts – from video-conferencing software maker Zoom Video Communications Inc to cloud-computing firm Datadog Inc – are emphatically winning even as the tech giants try to squash them. And they’re doing it in many cases by simply making a better product and having a laser focus on it.

There’s a flaw in the concept that Big Tech can easily expand into new markets by leveraging the power of their core businesses. The reason is all companies – big or small – have finite top-tier engineering talent. And of course, companies tend to put their best people on their most important profit-making segments, versus any peripheral new markets, opening the door for the upstart specialists to thrive.

Earlier this year, I wrote how corporations were flocking to software vendors such as Zoom for solutions on how to get the job done at a time when their employees were forced to work from home amid lockdown restrictions. Since then, Big Tech has taken particular aim at the software company as they sought to push their own video-conferencing tools. Last month, Google added a large, blue "Add Google Meet video conferencing” button any time a Google Calendar user tries to add an appointment, while its Gmail accounts with its billion-plus user base also conspicuously have Google Meet in the lower left corner at all times. Microsoft, meantime, has sought to capitalise on early security concerns with Zoom to promote its Teams product.

Despite the aggressive moves, you couldn’t see any negative impact in Zoom’s results. Late June 2, the upstart posted April-quarter sales results that crushed Wall Street estimates. The company posted first-quarter revenue of US$328mil, up 169% from a year earlier, versus the US$203mil Bloomberg consensus. It also projected a sales range of US$495mil to US$500mil for the current quarter, more than double the US$222mil analyst estimate. Zoom shares climbed 5% on June 3, adding to year-to-date gains that already topped 200%.

That’s just Zoom. There are plethora of cloud software names –including monitoring analytics provider Datadog and user authentication company Okta, Inc – that are also seeing surging demand for their services and the soaring stock prices to match. These companies are building out comprehensive offerings and stronger leadership positions in their respective categories that will be harder to displace as they grow in stature. And it’s still early innings on the growth curve for many of these firms.

The move to cloud-computing is a seminal paradigm shift similar in scope to the transition to mobile smartphones nearly a decade ago. Gartner said the world-wide enterprise technology market was US$3.7tril last year. Even if the economy contracts, it will be a large market, with lots of room for fast-growing companies to make meaningful share gains as spending shifts toward new technologies. "The trends of digital transformation and cloud migration remain very much intact over the long term and may even be accelerated or amplified, ” Datadog CEO Olivier Pomel said during his May earning call with investors.

Another recent example of Big Tech’s failure is Amazon.com Inc’s foray into gaming. After years of development, the e-commerce giant released its first big-budget video game Crucible last month to much fanfare, even advertising the title on the front page of its website. It was meant to be the Amazon’s beachhead into the large attractive gaming market. It didn’t go well. To illustrate, just a couple weeks after its launch Crucible has precipitously fallen in the Twitch charts, a key indicator of gamer engagement, to roughly 100 viewers or barely in the top 500 titles. It turned out to be a complete flop, even as Epic Games Inc’s Fortnite remains a fan favourite.

Despite the worries over Big Tech’s growing dominance, the flip side may actually be the bigger risk. Last month, I wrote how other retailers appear to be taking advantage of Amazon’s service troubles to make incursions, which has allowed them to grow their e-commerce businesses at triple-digit rates. In social media, the short-video platform TikTok has also surged in popularity. Last week, Bloomberg News reported TikTok’s parent ByteDance Ltd.’s revenue for last year more than doubled to more than US$17bil from US$7.4bil in 2018, a level of sales nearly triple that of Twitter Inc and Snap Inc combined. Incredibly, if TikTok continues its current growth trajectory, it has the potential to surpass some of Facebook’s key platforms within a few years. And speaking of Facebook, its latest big push into e-commerce space, Facebook Shops, relies in great deal on a partnership with online-store software maker Shopify Inc and its extensive array of commerce tools for small businesses.

History shows the tech industry’s reputation for disruption is unmatched. And if it is any guide, investors shouldn’t overlook or underestimate the industry’s up-and-comers, even in – or should I say, especially in – times like these.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tae Kim is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. He previously covered technology for Barron's, following an earlier career as an equity analyst. – Bloomberg

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