Making enduring digital decisions in a time of uncertainty


12/29/2020 2:00 PM

Technology Analysis Opinion

For the digital industry, 2021 is shaping up to be one hell of a rollercoaster ride.

If you’d rather take it smiling than screaming, here are two changes you should be thinking about and three smart choices that will help your digital business succeed.

Will we turn the tide on climate change? Will the third-party cookie finally crumble? Will Daniel Craig’s last hurrah as James Bond (No Time To Die) ever find Any Time To Release?

As we turn the page to 2021, it seems that nothing is certain. The only honest answer to these and a boatload of other questions we’re all asking ourselves right now is: Who the heck knows. And you can call bullsh*t on anyone who tries to tell you otherwise.

With so much unclear, it’s tricky to tell the difference between a good decision and a terrible one. The best you can do is to understand the changes happening around you and the choices that are in your power to make.

Here goes…


Change #1: Regulators are flexing their muscles

The final weeks of 2020 have seen the EU Commission announce new priorities for the digital market and the UK CMA take a bolder regulatory approach to promote fairer competition.

It’s clear that regulation will be a key theme of 2021. This will mean setbacks to mergers and acquisitions. It might even lead to the breakup of Big Tech companies. We could be entering a world where app stores and web browsers are split apart from Apple and Google, or where the advertising economy is shaken up like a snow globe.

For digital business leaders, all this uncertainty is pretty confusing. Do you invest in apps in an app store? Or invest on the open web? Or wait and do nothing until it pans out? As regulators finally catch up with digital in 2021, these aren’t hypothetical questions anymore – they’re very real.


Change #2: There’s a battle for the web (and you’re in it)

The open web is no longer the nice, safe place it used to be – it’s become the primary battleground for the future digital marketplace. The weapon of choice? Control. Divergent moves are already being made. Some of them more hostile than the lovely corporate narratives would have you believe.

Why did Apple remove third party cookies from its browser? Because the feature is vital for smaller players to collaborate and compete at scale. And it’s understandable. The company’s primary duty is to make money for its shareholders. It’s a poster child for capitalist success.

Meanwhile, Google is applying similar tactics with its own set of motives, as highlighted in the Texas vs Google (10 US States) filing on 16th December 2020:

Google has an appetite for total dominance, and its latest ambition is to transform the free and open architecture of the internet. Google’s plan is to create a walled garden around the internet in which it controls websites and mobile applications... Texas vs Google
Given the extraordinary information Google has on every consumer, the threat of withholding that information from publishers forecloses competition... Google is able to use this massive information advantage strategically to harm any publisher who refuses to use its intermediaries… Texas vs Google
...The planned elimination of third-party cookies from Google’s dominant browser, Chrome, is also justified on privacy grounds, but the effect is to increase information asymmetries between Google and its competitors. Texas vs Google

If Texas, along with 10 other US states, proves that

Google coordinates with its competitors on the quality metric of privacy – one might call it privacy fixing... Texas vs Google

then the ramifications for the entire digital industry will be enormous.

Read this summary analysis on Texas vs Google if you want to know more.

Right now, these companies are unrestrained. Why wouldn’t they make aggressive moves to devalue the open web in favor of their own products and economic interests?

Then we have emerging integrated technologies – from AI, to smart speakers, to payments solutions – all blurring the lines and inserting these corporate gatekeepers more deeply into people’s lives.

The thing to realize here is that your choices matter. Are your digital marketing dollars unwittingly perpetuating the industry’s problems? If everything changes, are your development choices going to leave you dancing to someone else’s tune?


Choice #1: Keep your options open

If we’ve learned any lesson from our years in the digital industry, it’s this: keep control of the factors that affect your success.

Now is not a good time to make big bets on any particular technology platform. In the past, it’s been easy to choose Google because it’s Google, or Facebook because it’s Facebook. These aren’t such straightforward choices to make anymore.

In 2021, wind back from platform dependence. Wherever possible, use flexible technologies that leave you in control – not at the mercy of a given browser or app.

At 51Degrees, we set ourselves (and our web design agency) the challenge to create a high performing, beautiful looking website without any browser-controlled features. No database. No JavaScript. Lots of open source and Git. Perfect-100 scores on Google PageSpeed Insights.

And we succeeded!

Swapping a front-end development approach for a back-end one may be the right choice for your business, too. Then again, it may not. The important thing is to weigh up all your options in light of this uncertain future – and keep an open mind.

Choice #2: Consider your environmental impact

Climate change will be high on the international agenda in 2021. In November, the UK hosts the COP26 summit to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Addressing these challenges will take every ounce of our collective digital innovation. What’s your part to play? Maybe it’s a product strategy geared around the sharing economy, making it easier for consumers to choose less resource-intensive lifestyles. Perhaps it’s design and development choices that suck less energy from digital devices and data centers.

For example, the industry has been brilliant at adjusting to the need for accessibility on the web. Good agencies and technology teams get it. They automatically think about how best to implement best practice like ARIA or alt text for screen readers.

Now it’s up to all of us to apply the same mindset to environmental impacts. If you’re commissioning a team to create your next app or website, why not make climate-consciousness part of your brief? Because you know what they say: don’t ask, don’t get.


Choice #3: Protect your interests

Apple, Google, and Facebook executives are not losing sleep over your business. Regulators understand that digital governance needs reform.

We’ve already talked about specific ways you can protect your business’s interests – and joining the W3C is another one of these. If you don’t join them directly, join a trade body. If you’re part of a trade body, make sure they join the W3C. Make sure your voice and a thousand others are heard.

2021 looks set to be a bumpy ride for the digital industry. But it’s also a moment in history when we can make a real impact. Let’s talk about the issues that matter and make our voices heard. We’re in it together. Strap in tight!