The 2020 Stratechery Year in Review

By Ben Thompson

From the beginning of Stratechery I have posited that writing about tech is a way to write about everything, given the way in which the Internet is affecting every part of society. The pandemic of 2020 has put this thesis on steroids: the lasting impact of COVID will be not entirely new ways of living, but rather the dramatic acceleration of trends that were already in place, particularly those enabled by technology. This includes real world issues like working-from-home, and new digital questions raised by the sheer quantity of information, much of it wrong, but some very right.

A drawing of The Implication of More Information

Stratechery explored all of these issues this year, in both 44 Weekly Articles and 141 Daily Updates (including 18 Daily Update Interviews).

This was also an exciting year for new product launches: in February Stratechery launched The Stratechery Podcast which lets you consume Stratechery in your favorite podcast player. Then, in May, I launched Dithering, a thrice-weekly 15 minute podcast, with Daring Fireball‘s John Gruber.

iTunes is only a directory

Today, as per tradition, I summarize the most popular and most important posts of the year on Stratechery.

You can find previous years here: 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013

Here is the 2020 list.

The Five Most-Viewed Articles

The five most-viewed articles on Stratechery according to page views:

  1. The TikTok War — How TikTok exposed Facebook’s blindspot, thanks to its Chinese roots, and why those Chinese roots make TikTok a genuine concern. See also this Daily Update comparing TikTok to Quibi, and this Daily Update about how the TikTok ban went wrong.
  2. The End of OS X — OS X is retired, but fortunately, its legacy appears to live on in macOS 11.0.
  3. The Anti-Amazon Alliance — Google Shopping is changing its model, suggesting Google is joining the Anti-Amazon Alliance; 3rd-party merchants should do the same.
  4. India, Jio, and the Four Internets — There are four Internets: China versus the U.S., and the E.U. and India. India’s potential new model rests on Jio. See also this Daily Update about how Jio’s success shows why Facebook Free Basics was the wrong approach.
  5. The Slack Social Network — Slack lost to Microsoft head-to-head, but has shifted to a horizontal strategy that the vertically-oriented Microsoft can’t match. See also this Daily Update about Salesforce’s acquisition of Slack.

A drawing of The Four Internets

Coronavirus and Information

The dominant story of 2020 was obviously COVID, but what was particularly interesting from a tech perspective were the debates about surfacing new information while battling misinformation. Notably, the first four articles were a sort of miniseries published in March; the final article discussed the same issues in the context of the election.

  • Zero Trust Information — Zero Trust Networking is security with Internet assumptions; there is tremendous value if we apply the same approach to information.
  • Defining Information — In a follow-up to Zero Trust Information, exploring the four types of information and how their value changes with time.
  • Compaq and Coronavirus — Compaq’s descent from a company of action to a brand is a frightening parable for the the West’s focus on talk over action.
  • Unmasking Twitter — Twitter has a new policy to listen to experts about what content to limit; what happens, though, when experts are wrong?
  • Twitter, Responsibility, and Accountability — Twitter has a new policy to listen to experts about what content to limit; what happens, though, when experts are wrong?

A drawing of Utility Versus Interest on Social Media

The Big Picture

These are the articles where writing about tech means writing about the world broadly; this has never been more true than in 2020, particularly given that we are at The End of the Beginning.

  • The End of the Beginning — The beginning of technology was about the shift from batched computing in one place to continuous computing everywhere. That era of paradigm changes may be over, which means the real changes are only beginning. See also this Daily Update which discussed The End of the Beginning in the context of Carlota Perez’s Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital.
  • Coronavirus Clarity — The coronavirus crisis is making clear just how powerful tech companies are; hopefully this leads to a much more productive conversation about how that power should be utilized or regulated. See also How Tech Can Build, about Marc Andreessen’s seminal essay.
  • Chips and Geopolitics — TSMC showed the power of modularization, and now they are core to the U.S. national security strategy. See also this Daily Update about TSMC, Intel, and U.S. national security.
  • Dust in the Light — The Internet ends gatekeepers and increases transparency, which has world-altering effects — both good and bad.
  • Social Networking 2.0 — Facebook and Twitter represent the v1 of Social Networking; it’s a bad copy of the analog world, whereas v2 is something unique to digital, and a lot more promising. See also this Daily Update about how Facebook failed to build a social media platform.

A drawing of The Evolution of Computing

Niches and Direct-to-Consumer

While Stratechery frequently discusses Aggregation Theory, a major focus in 2020 were companies and platforms that go direct-to-consumer by focusing on niches.

  • Email Addresses and Razor Blades — The fate of Harry’s and other DTC companies, particularly relative to companies like Credit Karma, highlight how the Internet elevates the importance of demand over supply.
  • Platforms in an Aggregator World — Facebook Shops are good for Shopify merchants, but bad for Shopify; the answer is to push more into the real world. See also the afore-linked The Anti-Amazon Alliance.
  • Never-Ending Niches — The Internet changed how media competes to focus and quality, but quality is defined by your niche.
  • Disney and Integrators Versus Aggregators — Disney’s reorganization reinforces their integrated strategy; there is a lot to learn for anyone competing with Aggregators.
  • The Idea Adoption Curve — Mapping the technology adoption curve to ideas gives insights as to which business models work on which parts of the addressable market.

A drawing of Every Niche Competes on its Own Terms

Antitrust, Regulation, and the App Store

One month after writing Aggregation Theory I noted that regulation was inevitable; that inevitable moment arrived in a big way in 2020, with Congressional hearings, reports, and multiple antitrust lawsuits. Apple also received unprecedented attention for its control of the App Store; both were big topics on Stratechery:

A drawing of Apple's Leverage of Control of Payment Processing

Five Companies

Stratechery had its usual focus on specific companies and the evolution of their strategies in 2020. In addition to the afore-linked India, Jio, and the Four Internets:

  • Visa, Plaid, Networks, and Jobs — The history of credit cards helps explain why Plaid is valuable to Visa, and how Visa can make it significantly better. See also this Daily Update about the Justice Department’s lawsuit to block the Visa-Plaid acquisition.
  • Apple, ARM, and Intel explained how Apple ended up replacing Intel chips with their own ARM chips, which is a core part of Apple’s Shifting Differentiation to superior hardware integrated with exclusive software. See also this Daily Update about Intel’s ongoing struggles.
  • Nvidia’s Integration Dreams — Nvidia’s acquisition of ARM only makes sense from a financial perspective, unless you buy Jensen Huang’s datacenter dreams.
  • 2020 Bundles — The state of bundles in 2020: Netflix, Disney, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple. Plus, Microsoft’s purchase of ZeniMax. See also this Daily Update with more about Microsoft’s ZeniMax purchase, and this Daily Update that explains how Microsoft’s Xbox strategy is dramatically different from Sony’s PS5 strategy.
  • Stripe: Platform of Platforms — Stripe’s announcement of Treasury — banking-as-a-service — manifests the breadth of the company’s ambition.

A drawing of The Visa Network

Stratechery Interviews

Thanks to the launch of the Stratechery Daily Update Podcast I devoted more Daily Updates this year to interviews, including:

A drawing of Platform of Platforms

The Year in Daily Updates

Fifteen of my favorite Daily Updates:

A drawing of Ben's Communities

I am so grateful to the Stratechery (and Dithering!) subscribers that make it possible for me to do this as a job. I wish all of you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, and I’m looking forward to a great 2021!