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The COVID-19 virus is testing the solidity of all parts of society, the tech industry included. Five key developments are worth paying attention to.
An ecommerce boom that will quickly go bust
People are buying some things en masse while avoiding other products altogether. Stock markets aren’t a great indication in times of panic, but falling share prices of giants like Amazon and Alibaba mean the short-term outlook isn’t good for ecommerce as a whole.
Most of the problems come from supply chain issues. Customers can buy online but getting those goods to a warehouse and then to the customer requires a sophisticated physical supply chain, which is breaking down. Factory workers in China are staying home and international shipping is slowing, just to give two prominent problems caused by COVID-19.
Automation in production, delivery, and shipping are in the works. A self-driving truck could take goods to a warehouse from a highly automated factory requiring little human touch. A drone could take the package from the warehouse to the customer, who, of course, would have made the purchase online.
But we’re not there yet.
The COVID-19 epidemic shows just how old-school supply chains still are.
Hospitals have tested service robots to perform necessary tasks without human contact, but these are only first steps. Technologies such as these still require years of testing before going mainstream. The fits and starts of the autonomous vehicle industry show just how hard automation can be.
An online marketing industry with little to sell
For similar reasons, marketing and advertising are hurting, even the more modern online kind. Though there are exceptions such as seeing a car in VR online, buying it online, and then getting it delivered to your home.
Supply chains problems mean it’s hard to sell even when people want to buy. And that means marketers are less interested in spending money on any kind of advertising, including the online kind.
Then there is the worst kind of marketing – the kind that preys on fear and misinformation. Though this shows the dark side of large social networks and other platforms for mass communication online, it also shows their promise.
The World Health Organization (WHO) even put a short film on TikTok recently to inform users of COVID-19 basics. Nobody danced or sang in the video, which shows a disappointing lack of audience research on the part of the WHO. Despite this, over a million users have watched and liked the video.
Social distancing gives digital communication technology a boost
Most stocks have fallen dramatically due to the coronavirus epidemic. Slack and Zoom are notable exceptions. Zoom is up 71% since the beginning of the year and Slack is up 17%. Over the same period, the NASDAQ is down 4% and the S&P 500 fell 7%.
Both companies offer tools that allow remote work and collaboration between remote teams. Or for interaction between students and teachers.
Even if Alibaba’s ecommerce operations are suffering, its DingTalk app is thriving. It was the most downloaded iOS app in early February, as both students and workers used it to study and work remotely.
Testing the possibilities and limitations of remote work and education
Remote work was already a trend that is now going into overdrive as governments and companies put in place social distancing measures – policies designed to minimize physical interaction between people. The results of this involuntary experiment will matter. Researchers will be paying attention to productivity gains or losses and the effect on students’ results. We’re also seeing just how much even remote work depends on some people going to a warehouse or factory to take care of the physical work still required in most businesses.
New tech still largely depends on old tech
New technology in the light of coronavirus seems more human and vulnerable than we’ve been hearing recently. Important parts of modern societies still heavily rely on people physically going somewhere and doing something. That will be true for the near future. That said, the epidemic shows just how much the flexibility offered by new technology could be useful for creating more resilient schools, companies, and societies.
For now, all we can do is focus on staying healthy while dealing with the system we have. But if you are stuck at home, maybe you can finally catch up on all those streaming services you pay for, but never have time to watch. At least that one bit of new tech is 100 percent ready for this moment in history.