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By Antonio Regalado

During 2013, stock prices of technology firms raced upward, acquisitions of companies hit a 14-year high, more startups went public than at any time since the dot-com boom, and enthusiastic expectations for the transformative power of technologies like drones and consumer 3-D printing started to defy practical reality.

So by year’s end, it was natural to question whether there is a new tech bubble forming. In November, the Wall Street Journal and other outlets reported that Snapchat, the profitless, two-year-old social media startup with a smartphone app for sending messages that quickly disappear, had rejected a $3 billion acquisition offer.

But while there may be a bubble in social media, a truer reading of the year in the technology business was that it was one of haves and have-nots. Although fast-changing technology brought huge benefits to the companies able to take advantage of it, many struggled to keep pace. And in some areas, like energy technology, a frayed fabric for funding innovation offered small support for the sort of breakthroughs that society needs much more than a new photo app.

Globally, the fastest change is being propelled by mobile computers, whose spread marks a fundamental shift in the world’s main computing platforms and is minting winners as well as losers with astonishing speed. During the year, Microsoft announced new leadership, Nokia sold its phone business to Microsoft, BlackBerry edged nearer to bankruptcy, and Intel struggled with declining market share because it sells few chips for smartphones. More broadly, the lifespan of all large companies may be getting shorter due to technological change.

The effort to keep pace wasn’t restricted to companies. Regions from Beijing to Las Vegas to Israel also compete, and none want to be left out of the tech boom. They all see a handsome economic future at the cutting edge of technology. But getting there isn’t easy. Very few cities are able to create the critical mass needed to become an innovation hotbed. And regional advantages can also be lost. During 2013, the city of Detroit, once the world’s most dynamic industrial center, filed for bankruptcy.

That doesn’t mean automotive innovation is over. Far from it. The year’s most celebrated technology CEO was Elon Musk, whose company Tesla Motors sold more than $1 billion worth of its pricey electric vehicles. Tesla has developed an innovative approach to batteries and to charging electric cars that gives them a much longer range and makes them more practical. Competitor Fisker, which tried to market a car that was more about good looks than the best technology, eventually filed for bankruptcy.

protesters outside Google bus

Occupy Google: Activists in San Francisco block a shuttle bus taking employees to the company’s headquarters in Silicon Valley.

Talk of a technology bubble is loudest around social media. In that field, entrepreneurs can, with historically low investments and some luck, quickly reach historically large audiences. Consider that the size of Facebook’s audience is about the same as that of the televised Olympics, until recently the world’s largest media event. Vivek Wadwha, who wrote for us about why Silicon Valley is so exceptional, is one skeptic. He thinks newer companies like Snapchat and Twitter, which raised about $1.8 billion in an IPO this year, are part of a “bubble that will no doubt burst and hurt the tech sector.” He says the reason is that these companies have unreliable revenue and no great technological advantage over competitors.

That is a bold prediction. Facebook during 2013 defied doubters who believed the shift to mobile browsing would dry up its ad revenues. In fact, MIT Technology Review was first to report that Facebook had solved its problem on mobile by boldly running big ads that users didn’t seem to mind. Over the year, the company’s once battered stock recovered.

At Harvard Business School, venture capital expert Josh Lerner says this industry has also been cleaved into winners and losers. Some funds raised more than a billion dollars in 2013 to invest in startups. But amid generally poor returns, many others have disappeared or been sidelined, with what Lerner calls “dramatic implications for entrepreneurs.” For every hot social media startup, there’s a score of companies, he says, for whom the “the diminished pool of active venture capitalists has meant that raising money is considerably harder.” New strategies for fundraising, like online crowd investing, only partly offset these changes.

Energy technology is a case in point. Startups working on renewable energy are hurting after their own boom of a few years back turned to bust. So many solar and battery companies have gone out of business that we spent time this year writing about just how notable the survivors are. Investors who once predicted they’d solve climate change have gone quiet. Instead, the latest talk is how projects might be financed with donations from celebrities like actor Will Smith. These aren’t businesses, in other words, but charity cases. 

The theme of haves and have-nots touches everyone. MIT Technology Review’s most widely read business story of 2013, How Technology Is Destroying Jobs, looked at the debate over whether technology is automating middle-class white-collar jobs out of existence. If so, we’re headed for a dismal future in which productivity keeps rising but employment doesn’t, creating a new class of have-nots, the “technologically unemployed.”

Meanwhile, those who’ve mastered automation are minting billionaire fortunes and savoring world-conquering ambitions. Amazon, led by CEO Jeff Bezos, has used technology to dominate e-commerce to such a degree that its sales now equal those of its 12 largest online competitors combined. During 2013, Google, rolling in cash from its own automated ads, seemed to believe that no market was beyond its influence as it announced a series of technology “moonshots” in new areas. The company launched Project Loon, an experiment to create an balloon-borne wireless network, funded a company to cure aging, and then went on a robot buying spree, for an as yet unknown project.

We should credit Google for seeing a glass over-brimming with opportunity. But the rapid pace of technology, and the way it concentrates wealth and resources, is also something to worry about. In a piece of organized theater, protesters during December began blocking the private buses that ferry Google employees from gentrifying San Francisco neighborhoods to its Googleplex headquarters. Windows were broken. Threats were made. The protesters were angry about rising rents and evictions in their neighborhoods. They are have-nots, left out of technology’s bubble of success.

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Credits: Illustration by Tibor Kárpáti, Photo courtesy of cjmartin | Flickr

Tagged: Computing, Business, Communications, Web, Google, Twitter, venture capital, mobile computing, Tesla, jobs, Snapchat, employment

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