News roundup 2020: the biggest tech stories of the year

It's safe to say 2020 has been a year to forget! We look back at some of the biggest tech stories that everyone was talking about throughout the year, across all areas of the sphere.

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The virus that shall not be named

When you approach the average person on the street and ask them about what truly made 2020 a standout year, it's safe to say that only a minute percentage of those people would have anything overtly positive to say. 2020 was indeed a standout year, but definitely not in the kind of ways we were hoping it would be. While many of us had grand, in some cases life-affirming goals or transformative expectations for the start of the decade, in many, many cases, 2020 had other plans.

For the tech industry — frankly all industries — this year has spurred a series of rapid, foundational changes to the way we go about our business, with many of these having permanent ramifications for the enterprise IT day-to-day. As the pandemic tore through the majority of nations globally, forcing many of us out of our office environments and into our homes, CIOs and IT managers have had their work cut out for them as they have attempted to cater for this mass exodus. The tech companies were some of the most prolific here, with Google, Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple all announcing comprehensive working from home policies.

That's not to mention the range of other pertinent issues and shifting priorities that have become apparent, such as necessities around upskilling employees, pausing digital transformation projects, and even — across some industries — fighting for survival through digital innovation. Indeed, many companies were forced to announce layoffs, with firms like Airbnb terminating the employment of 25% of its workforce, while Uber let 14% go.

Looking specifically at the big IT-related news headlines, this year has been utterly characterised by COVID-19 and everything related to it. One of the big news stories this year has been around global efforts to perform digital contact tracing, with a wide range of nations around the world all giving this a go, with varying degrees of success. A lot of this hinged on whether those countries were using jointly-developed tracing technology from Apple and Google for their respective mobile operating systems.

While this tech was relatively privacy friendly as it focused on a decentralised (no centralised processing of personal information), Bluetooth powered methodology, it didn't fit the mantra of many countries, who wished to give their health authorities access to PII, in order to make tracing more effective. We were then stuck between a (privacy) rock, and an (effective tracing) hard place, with no real way to linger in the middle.

Countries like the United Kingdom, France, and Germany struggled with Apple and Google's stance, with the former initially rejecting the tech giant's model, before later abandoning that and switching to it. France even publicly urged the two companies to ease their restrictions on tracing, to no avail.

Away from contact tracing, one of the very immediate effects of the pandemic was the closure, rescheduling, or virtualisation of almost every single major in-person tech event since March. MWC was one of the first cabs off the rank here, announcing back in February that it wouldn't be going ahead after a series of vendor pull-outs. Since then, it is actually easier to list the events that did go ahead, rather than those that were cancelled. 

All in all, COVID-19 has been absolutely earth-shattering for many aspects of the industry and I, for one, hope it becomes something to merely think back on in 2021.

Mergers and acquisitions - Wrapped

While you might be forgiven for thinking that mergers and acquisitions would have mostly come to a halt in 2020, there were actually still some blockbuster tech-related M&A deals struck and finalised this year. Here are some of the notable tie-ups, sell-offs and enterprise gobbling that occurred this year.

Salesforce picks up the slack

While it might be a more recent acquisition, Salesforce's mammoth $27.7 billion all-stock acquisition of Slack is undoubtedly one of the most talked about buys of the year. It marks Salesforce's largest ever acquisition and is also the biggest software-focused acquisition since IBM snatched up Red Hat last year.

The deal will allow Salesforce to build out a more unified offering for its enterprise-level customers, with Slack providing a long-sought dedicated collaborative/social element to their product portfolio. It also packs somewhat of a competitive punch against Microsoft, whose Team's platform has been picking up a lot of steam over the course of the pandemic, partly due to it being bundled with its Microsoft 365 offering.

For Slack, the acquisition comes at what is really an opportune time, as the business comms firm – who has a bold goal of replacing email – has not been able to take advantage of the new (remote-working) normal, as its competitors have. In an interview with TechCrunch, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield said the tie up will allow a more integrated, seamless approach to internal enterprise communications, putting the Slack platform at the centre of Salesforce's fleshed out customer 365 offering.

Chip industry consolidates as AMD, Nvidia, and Marvell pick up rivals

As the world continues to become fused with digital services reliant upon IT infrastructure and processing power, semiconductors are becoming somewhat of a currency in this equation. While there was a lot of innovation on that front this year from a variety of vendors, there was also a bit of consolidation on the part of the companies producing those chips.

One of the most notable here was AMD's $35 billion purchase of Xilinx, which — for AMD — marked a more aggressive push into the data centre chip market, while intensifying competition with its long-time arch rival, Intel. The deal, which expected to close in 2021, will create a combined company with 13,000 engineers and a completely outsourced manufacturing strategy that largely relies on Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing (TSMC) as opposed to Intel's more internally-focused manufacturing methodology (which has struggled of late).

The same week AMD announced the Xilinx buy, chip-making giant Marvell also announced it was picking up smaller rival Inphi, which provides semiconductor components and optical subsystems to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). The $10 billion deal will create a combined company with an enterprise value of more than $40 billion, with hundreds of millions of dollars in market potential.

Although even this deal was dwarfed by news earlier in the year that Nvidia would be shelling out a massive $40 billion to buy British chip designer ARM from Softbank. While the deal is expected to face heavy scrutiny from competition regulators (with the deal not expected to close until possibly even 2022), the tie-up would make for a massive shift in the semi-conductor market, with ARM providing CPU architectures for some of the world's most prolific companies, including Apple and Qualcomm.

Xerox backs down on HP acquisition talks

While it's really quite hard to fault anyone for trying, Xerox's astounding and repeated attempts to buy larger rival HP was one of the standout M&A stories of last year, not least because of how futile the efforts eventually appeared to be.

Coming to the end of 2019 and into 2020, the acquisition was definitely still a major priority for Xerox who aggressively pursued a hostile takeover, much to HP's detest. The company upped its bid to $35 billion and hosted lucrative dinners for HP shareholders as a means to grease the wheels. Although it all came crashing down in March as Xerox—citing pandemic-related concerns — decided to abandon its takeover bid.

It is still possible that Xerox will once again raise the issue at HP's Spring 2021 shareholders' meeting, although given the state of the world at present, we're not holding our breath.

T-Mobile's Sprint merger finally closes

After what was perhaps one of 2019's most controversial tech-related M&A announcements from the perspective of US lawmakers, T-Mobile finally got the all clear to merge with Sprint, closing the deal on April 1st.

The tie-up received the go-ahead after a significant legal challenge from a group of state attorneys general — who were concerned about industry consolidation impacting competition and consumer pricing — was dismissed by a federal judge.

In his decision, Southern District of New York judge Victor Marrero rejected the States' argument, rather finding the merger would likely "enhance competition in the relevant markets to the benefit of all consumers."

Other big M&A announcements

While there are far too many tech-related M&A headlines to talk about in a comprehensive way in this article, here is a list of some of the other big tie-ups that occurred over the course of the year.

Twilio picks up Segment for $3.2 billion, Visa acquires Venmo-powering fintech Plaid for $5.3 billion before copping DoJ lawsuit, Dell confirms potential spinoff of VMware, Nvidia buys Israeli chip-designer Mellanox for $6.8 billion, Facebook expands into customer service tools with $1 billion Kustomer acquisition, Foursquare merges with location data firm Factual, private equity BMC picks up Compuware, Cisco buys networking services company ThousandEyes for $1 billion, US clears Intuit's $7 billion Credit Karma buy, Ericsson buys 5G networking specialist Cradlepoint for $1.1 billion, SAP acquires Emarsys to build out CX offering, HPE makes big SD-WAN play with Silver Peak acquisition, Insight Partners shells $5 billion for Swiss data management specialists Veeam, Microsoft pushes into 5G with acquisition of virtualised networking solutions provider Affirmed Networks, and SUSE acquires Kubernetes management platform Rancher Labs.

US takes on big tech

While it has traditionally been the EU that has come down the hardest against the power of the big technology companies, this year the United States has been the one piling on the most pressure. The country's House Judiciary Committee released its long-awaited big tech anti-trust report back in October, where it found "an alarming pattern of business practices that degrade competition and stifle innovation."

The report outlined a range of recommendations that would have a sweeping impact on the business practices of big tech companies, including nondiscrimination rules (making large firms offer equal terms to merchants on their platforms) and the barring of big tech competing in "adjacent lines of business" where they'd have an advantage. Republicans of the majority Democratic House had some hang ups about certain aspects of the report, although there was bipartisan agreement that big tech had become, well, too big.

The report preceded a series of senate hearings which involved bipartisan grillings of some of the biggest CEOs in tech. The Senate Commerce Committee spoke to CEOs Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, and Jack Dorsey in a partly fiery exchange towards the end of October, with both Republicans and Democrats taking issue with the executives over distinctly differing issues. The hearings were called to discuss section 230, a law that grants tech companies immunity from liability over the content posted on their platforms, while providing complete freedom in regard to how they choose to moderate content.

However, while the meat of section 230 was on the table, the headlines came as a result of the heated aspects of discussions. While Democrats were focused on the moderation of hate speech, Republicans — and in particular senator Ted Cruz — took issue with the social platforms' alleged censoring of conservative voices.

Cruz grilled Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey about its handling of a controversial New York Post article that raised allegations against Joe Biden's son, Hunter, as Twitter promptly restricted its circulation. Dorsey admitted his company had not properly informed users why the post was restricted (as, he says, it included materials sourced from hacking), but that didn't stop Cruz from shouting at him, "who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear?"

Perhaps the most intriguing development, though, happened quite recently, when Facebook found itself the target of a couple of huge antitrust lawsuits. The US launched two huge suits against the social media giant, calling for the company to be broken up over allegations it has used its dominant position to quash competitors. The suits have been described as having set the stage for what might be the biggest legal battles against a US company in decades. Google also found itself in a similar vat of hot water earlier in the year, as the Justice Department sued it over accusations of illegal monopoly.

Overall, it looks like 2021 is going to be an interesting year for big tech antitrust, although many are not expecting massive changes, at least in the immediate term.

US continues to hammer Huawei

While we definitely thought 2019 was a quite a bad year for Chinese tech giant Huawei, it seemed things really only went from bad to worse in 2020. The US has continued its hammering of the firm throughout the year, with perhaps its most damaging play being to restrict global semiconductor firms from selling any chips that contained US tech to Huawei.

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