It’s an ill wind that blows no one any good. True, the coronavirus pandemic is destroying large swathes of the economy. In particular, small businesses are being clobbered. Some kinds of businesses, such as hotels and restaurants, are in even more hot water. But some smaller technology models have gotten a huge boost from the pandemic, while others, although already big, have jumped in popularity.
So, while acknowledging there’s been a lot of losers, there have been winners as well. Let’s take a close look at them.
First, two existing giants of the economy, ecommerce and videoconferencing, have seen explosive growth.
We all know ecommerce is big. But, even so, traditional retail still has 70% of the market. That may be changing.
In Amazon’s first quarterly report for 2020, Amazon sales revenues came to $77.5 billion. That beat expectations and puts Amazon’s sales well on the way to a new annual high.
It’s not just Amazon that’s profiting. According to Salesforce‘s latest “Global Shopping Index” the number of unique digital shoppers rose 40% year-over-year (YoY). Brian Solis, Salesforce global innovation evangelist, reported that since we’ve been sheltering at home, “Home goods experienced a huge 51% YoY surge. Active apparel and toys and games followed with 31% and 34% YoY growth respectively. At the same time, between March 10 and March 20, digital spending on essential goods (food, personal care, etc.) spiraled upwards by an incredible 200%.”
Meghan Stabler, VP of global product marketing at BigCommerce, an ecommerce Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), said of their 60,000+ ecommerce merchants, their YoY growth shot up to an average of 76.4% from March 22 until now. In the most recent week, Gross Merchandise Volume (GMV) sales was 171% more than the average in January and February, before the lockdowns.”
Allison Auclair, vice president of ecommerce product management at Oracle NetSuite, added, “With our customers, we’ve seen online order volumes more than double compared to the same period last year. The number of unique shoppers has nearly doubled, indicating that retailers are both retaining existing customers and finding opportunities to reach new ones.
And, how much of an ecommerce boost is this in terms of Internet traffic? Imperva, a network security company, has similar volumes of traffic normally reserved for the peak period around Black Friday and Cyber Monday, found, “retail traffic reaching Black Friday volume. During March and April, Imperva saw 30 billion requests in a week.”
Some analysts don’t see us going back to brick-and-mortar stores. Capgemini Research Institute consumer survey found that of the 59% of consumers who shopped primarily at physical stores before COVID-19 hit, only 24% expected to return to shopping locally.
That doesn’t necessarily spell the end for main street brick-and-mortar stories. Marc Gorlin, founder and CEO of Roadie, a crowdsourced delivery service, has found some retailers doing well “using their bricks-and-mortar stores as warehouses and partnering with delivery companies. From February to April, over a two-month period, our large retail customers saw increases in weekly deliveries ranging from 151% to 1,456%. In under two months, for a mix of new and existing customers, we’ve launched same-day delivery from 3,067 new store locations across the US.”
For years, we’ve been saying ecommerce would overtake physical store commerce. Thanks to the pandemic that’s finally happening.
A few months ago, if you’d say “Let’s Zoom.” You’d get a blank look. That was then. This is now.
Today, Zoom has become a verb and the poster-child for the rise of videoconferencing from a narrow business niche to the broad, universal business meeting technology.
Zoom, according to LearnBonds, a financial news site, is the leading US videoconferencing company with 42.8% market share. Its growth has been remarkable. “Zoom was used by over 300 million people in daily meetings globally last month, up by 30 times compared to December 2019.”
It’s not just Zoom. All videoconferencing has shown enormous growth. According to App Annie, a site that tracks mobile apps, “Business apps topped 62 million downloads across iOS and Google Play during the week of March 14 worldwide, its biggest week ever. This was up 45% from the week prior — the highest growth among any category — and up 90% from the weekly average of business app downloads in 2019.” Most of these were videoconferencing apps. While Zoom led the way, there was also Google Meet and Microsoft Teams also saw significant gains.
How much of a pace?
Sam Maley, head of growth at UK IT consultancy Bailey & Associates, said that while Zoom, “has seen an enormous surge.” Skype’s use also grew by over 100%, and it still has by far the largest daily user-base at around 59 million, compared to Zoom’s 4.3 million.
“However,” Maley continued, “Skype is used for many things besides work — so it’s not necessarily the best comparison. In contrast, Zoom is primarily used for work meetings, and we can really see the growth of videoconferencing by comparing the number of daily active users to daily meeting participants.
He doesn’t see this videoconferencing declining as the world passes the epidemic’s peak,” I don’t think we’ll see this trend reverse anytime soon. Workplaces have been growing more geographically diverse for a few decades now. A post-COVID world is likely to see significantly reduced travel for some time still. So, I think we’ll see limited travel being made up for by continued use of videoconferencing apps.”
The exact numbers for each videoconferencing platform varies depending on who’s counting. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said that Teams usage is now up to 75 million daily active users, a jump of 70%. Zoom, in the meantime, claims to have 300-million daily Zoom meeting participants. Google Meet is now up to 3 million daily users. Cisco reports its videoconferencing app Webex registered a record 324 million attendees in March. What they all have in common, though, is high-double-figure growth month-after-month.
Videoconferencing has become mainstream. With many companies expecting their staff to work from home for months to come, videoconferencing is the future of business meetings.
Next, let’s look at technologies that, while they were on their way up, hadn’t really taken off until the pandemic hit.
Telehealth and telemedicine
Alfred Poor, a health tech futurist, sees the coronavirus as having given telehealth a “kick in the pants. For health tech, the virus crisis has been a catalyst rather than an initiating force. In the case of health tech, the crisis has only accelerated changes that were well underway before it struck.”
Poor continued, “Thanks to the pandemic, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) and insurance companies have expanded the reimbursement for telehealth services. While some of these may be on an emergency basis, it is difficult to see how they will put this genie back in the bottle. Patients are experiencing the convenience of not having to travel to a doctor’s office or other clinical setting and then sit in a waiting room with other sick patients. Doctors can ‘see’ patients more efficiently. It all saves time and money for everyone involved.”
A related issue is that of remote patient monitoring. Poor added, “Again, this was well on its way prior to the pandemic, especially for patients recently discharged from a hospital or those with a chronic condition. Remote monitoring makes it possible to identify problems well in advance of the condition reaching a crisis level. Early detection and treatment saves time and money for all involved (including the insurance companies) and results in better outcomes overall.”
This is all being helped along by “connected home health devices include weight scales and blood pressure monitors, But, affordable kits also make it possible to take routine physical measurements in the home so that healthcare professionals can have a more thorough exam remotely than just a simple phone call or video chat.”
This change may have come just in time. Fear of coronavirus has, according to Luma Health, a technology-oriented health company, caused over half (58%) of primary care patients to cancel their appointments. Cancellation rates have increased in some areas of the country by over 100%.
Another reason why telehealth is picking up is that it’s more affordable for medical practices. Luma observed, “Medicare coverage has been expanded to pay providers for virtual appointments during the COVID-19 crisis, ensuring providers can leverage telehealth to make needed care accessible to patients.”
Nancy Reardon, chief strategy and product officer at Maestro Health, a health plan management company, added, “While many providers, commercial insurers and health plans already offer telehealth options, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) TeleHealth Program and expansion of telehealth services covered by Medicare, commercial insurers and health plans allow more patients to gain access to these services.” This, in turn, means “Phone calls, health-monitoring devices and video consultations enable us to receive care from the comfort of our own homes and take control of our own mental and physical well-being. Just like technology should be an enabler of better service not a replacement of a person, telemedicine is an enabler of better patient care not a replacement for a primary care physician/team or a specialist.”
Taqee Khaled, director of strategy at Nerdery, a digital business consultancy, is convinced that the virus has made telehealth the future of healthcare. “The brutal market truth is telehealth has become table stakes overnight — and it’s never going back. Executives who were skeptical about investments in telehealth services and infrastructure are behind the 8-ball, while those who were early adopters are poised to get the most return on investment (ROI).
Khaled continued, “This means that for those with that head start, they need to think about the role of telehealth in every single clinical care pathway under their umbrella of services. Not just, for example, primary care, or COVID-19 triage, ear infections, strep, pink eye, etc. Think, instead, about preparatory and followup support for complex care encounters — map them out and start implementing them. Think: ‘Can we prep and followup with all of our total knee replacement patients through video visits? Maybe not — but if we don’t attempt it, we’ll never know.’”
So, what does all this mean in terms of adoption? Dr. Robert Mittendorff, a partner specializing in healthcare for the investment firm Norwest Venture Partners, said, “telemedicine visits have surged by 50% over pre-pandemic levels. Early studies have shown that patients report a high degree of satisfaction with telemedicine visits, and many actually find telemedicine more accessible than traditional methods of care. Healthcare providers have also reported that they find telemedicine more cost-effective.”
InCrowd, a market research firm to the life science industry, surveyed physicians and found 87% of US frontline-treating physicians’ facilities were implementing telehealth, while 77% see them continuing to use telemedicine once the pandemic is history.
Looking ahead, Forrester Research analysts expect patients nationwide to book over 200 million telemedicine visits in 2020. That’s up from the 36 million visits originally projected. They also anticipate up to 900 million standalone COVID-19-related visits. Telemedicine companies. like doxy.me, are also reporting tremendous growth. This business went from averaging 230,000 calls per month to nearly 6 million calls; a growth of nearly 2,500%.”
What happens next? No one’s saying telehealth is going to make routine in-office medical visits as rare as doctor home visits, but it is going to fundamentally change how we see doctors.
Who’d thought we’d see a day when we didn’t want to touch a credit-card scanner? Well, thanks to the virus, we now look at every scanner as a potential source of infection. It’s time for a change.
While contactless payment systems such as Apple Pay and Google Pay have proved popular outside of the US, Ted Rossman, an industry analyst at CreditCards.com, said in late 2019, “They’re still in their infancy in the US. However, with major credit card issuers and metropolitan transit authorities jumping on the bandwagon, that’s about to change.” Little did he know what the coronavirus would do to accelerate its adoption.
With cash coming under fire as a possible coronavirus transmitter, people have become worried about handling paper money, according to Jordan McKee, research director for customer experience and commerce at 451 Research.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that telehealth is one of the businesses embracing contactless payment. Bird Blitch, co-founder and CEO at healthcare payment technology company Patientco, said, “Contactless payments were on the rise even before COVID-19 hit. But now, health systems should see them as essential. Not only are patient preferences shifting to a more consumer-style model, but the risks associated with shared payment devices are too great.”
Blitch added that one emerging payment alternative to contactless payment’s Near Field Communication (NFC) technology is “text-to-pay, which essentially turns people’s own devices into Point of Sale (PoS) systems. This achieves two very important goals: it reduces the spread of germs, and improves and simplifies the patient experience.”
The trend to use contactless is expected to stick around. A RTI Research consumer survey from March 20 to 23 found 30% of respondents have started using contactless payment methods since the COVID-19 outbreak started, Of those new users, 70% expect to continue to use the method. Peter Reville, director, primary research services at Mercator Advisory Group, isn’t sure it will be that high, but he does expect to see “a net gain of 10% new users as a result of their experiences during these troubled times.”
Although 3D printing has been used in the industry for years, it has been best known as a nerdy hobby. Then along came the pandemic and everything changed. Suddenly all those hobbyist 3D printers were valuable mini-factories for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
Christina Perla, cofounder and CEO at Makelab, a 3D printing services company, explained, “Due to the crisis, 3D printing is touching the lives of people who might not have otherwise interacted with 3D printing. I’m hoping this inspires more engineering in varying industries to use 3D printing if they have not already, and I hope this helps 3D printing be seen as more than just ‘maker-y’ or ‘nerdy’ and shows people that it really is a useful tool for prototyping and manufacturing.”
Perla continued, “3D printing has seen exponential growth over the last couple of months. My company, Makelab, along with many other 3D printing companies, shifted our focus in recent months to help fill shortages in masks, face shields and other safety gear. Manufacturing PPE using 3D printing meant that it could be done relatively quickly, especially at a time when there was such a high demand. The beauty of 3D printing is that it’s a flexible, agile supply chain – making 3D printing PPE for COVID-19 the perfect use-case.”
It’s not just smaller companies, which have seen their 3D fortunes grow rapidly. HP reports that since March, the company and its partners have produced well over 2.3 million 3D-printed parts using its 3D printing technology to help combat COVID-19. Together, with large US-based customers like SmileDirectClub and Superfeet and production partners like Fathom, Forecast 3D, Go Proto and Avid Product Development, they’re producing face masks, face shields, mask adjusters, nasal swabs, hands-free door openers and respirator parts.
But, as handy as 3D manufacturing has proven for addressing PPE shortages, others aren’t so sure that this will represent a sea-change in 3D’s role in manufacturing. Sarah Boisvert, a digital fabrication expert and author of “The New Collar Workforce,” a boon on the skills needed for smart manufacturing, said, “3D Printing is ideal for quick turnaround in a locally distributed manufacturing model. But 3D printing is slow and consequently, expensive.”
Therefore, Boisvert continued, “As demand returns to a more normal expectation of price, we are seeing prices of 3D printing PPE’s drop seriously. While many areas are looking to strengthen local supply chains, 3D printing may not be the way to go as it can’t compete economically with other high-volume production methods.”
That said, high-end 3D printers will play a role. “It will be production 3D printers, like those from NEXA3D or HP, that will be able to produce at high levels that are cost-competitive,” Boisvert concluded.
Say hello to the paperless office
One of my very first articles in 1987 was on the paperless office. Technologists have been predicting it for decades, but it never gets here. That may well now be changing as our offices spread from office buildings to our homes.
Craig Peasley, Adobe‘s director of marketing, points out that, according to an Adobe study “32% of all documents used today are still paper-based.” Other studies suggest we’re not even that far along. A recent IDC paper found, “Knowledge workers create 23 paper-based documents per week compared with 21 electronic documents per week.”
But, Peasley pointed out, “Manual workflows are a big challenge for businesses and other organizations working from home, especially signing contracts, budgets and grants that were typically paper forms and printouts.” Obviously, “This won’t work when people aren’t in the office or face-to-face. Digital solutions like e-signatures can keep teams productive and connected with their colleagues and customers.”
Peasley cited the example of Utah, which enabled e-signatures for over 2,500 users during a 30-day period. Thanks to this, over 5,000 documents were routed with e-signatures during that time, with each transaction averaging minutes to complete. Transactions, which used to take days or weeks with paper now were only taking minutes.
It’s not just the government bidding paper adieu. Rob Garcia, chief strategy officer with the mortgage company SnapFi, said, “Since the pandemic started, online loan applications have increased 2x while mortgage consultations on the phone or over zoom have nearly tripled.”
Garcia continued, “By providing e-signature functionality as well as a secure mortgage hub in the cloud that allows customers to upload, review and sign mortgage documents, 93.22% of our customers have migrated entirely to take advantage of our fully digital platform over the course of 3 years, from about only 34.2% in 2017.”
When it comes to final documents, where documents must be signed by a notary, SnapFi has turned to online notary services. It’s been highly successful. “Since implementing Remote Online Notarization and same-day Mobile Notary,” said Garcia, “our production has increased by 43.5%, attracting primarily homeowners in high-risk groups and investors who own real estate away from where they currently live seeking to minimize exposure to the virus while completing the transaction entirely online.”
Looking ahead, Garcia believes, “Fully digital mortgages are here to stay.”
Law offices too are going paperless now in a great hurry. Meyer Mechanic, co-founder and COO of legal tech company Vaultie, a leader in the e-notary and digital identity space, provides “a digital signature tool specifically geared towards lawyers and notaries.”
In particular, Mechanic observed, “E-notary has grown substantially in the last two months, so has any legal tech that helps lawyers work remotely. Lawyers and regulators who had traditionally avoided innovation, partially due to their business models, and partially because of the ‘it’s not broken’ mentality, have had to adopt 10 years’ worth of innovation in 10 days, just to continue to operate.” In part, this is happening because numerous states have passed emergency bills or issued emergency orders legalizing the use of e-notaries.
But, how much of a change has there really been? Mechanic reports “our users (lawyers and notaries) have gone up 20x since the start of the pandemic, and our transactions have grown by about as much.”
Some law firms have seen a very mixed bag of business trends from the pandemic. David Reischer, attorney and CEO of LegalAdvice.com, confessed, “The bad is that our law firm and pro bono practice has completely shut down. The coronavirus has prevented our law clinic from admitting new clients to consult with an attorney at our physical office located in midtown NYC.”
But, “The good is that many new clients are still able to be serviced on our online web portal LegalAdvice.com. The coronavirus has expedited the already well-established trend, even before the outbreak, of clients becoming more comfortable with asking legal questions online to get advice from an attorney.”
If it were up to us, we’d probably still be using paper for another generation. But, with office work now being done from home for the foreseeable future, the paperless office is finally on its way.
What does it all mean? I see certain clear themes.
First, remote work is the future. Many of us are going to be working from home for months to come. Some of us may never work in an office building again. Almost all the technology changes are making it easier to work from home.
We’re also going to be spending a lot less time in retail stores and doctor offices. Errands, as well as work, are going virtual.
For better or worse, this means we’ll all be spending more time on our own rather than in groups. This will be an introvert’s dream come true, but it will be an extrovert’s nightmare.
The one technology I’m not sure will go mainstream from the pandemic is 3D printing. Yes, it’s been very useful, and it will be more popular than ever, but it’s simply more expensive than mass-market manufacturing.
As for the other technologies, though, get to know them. You’re going to be using them a lot from here-on-out. The new normal will be much more remote and virtual than the old normal.