2020: The Year of Living Digitally

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Tom Leighton

Tom Leighton, CEO and Co-Founder of Akamai

By Tom Leighton, CEO and Co-Founder, Akamai

When we look back on 2020 to gauge how the global pandemic changed our lives, one obvious impact is the acceleration towards a digital lifestyle.

Back in March, when the spread of COVID forced people to shelter in place  -- and spend a lot more time working remotely, conducting video conferencing, e-commerce, e-learning, telemedicine, streaming video and playing video games -- we saw a year’s worth of internet traffic growth happen almost overnight.

It’s fair to say that in 2020, the kind of digital transformation that previously would have taken years has been compressed into a matter of months. To keep up, organizations whose digital experiences we help make fast, reliable and secure are adapting to the new environment. Many of them believe there will be no going back to business as usual before COVID. They expect that the new normal, or some form of it, is here to stay.

Take remote work. In March, our company with more than 7,500 employees worldwide went to a nearly 100 percent remote workforce within 10 days. Video conferencing has worked well for us for the most part. We’ve saved on business travel, but we have invested more in new tools to support remote work. The key indicators of employee performance that we can measure indicate that our productivity is higher than it was before. And nobody misses a long commute through heavy traffic.

After five months of working remotely, many of our employees tell us they would prefer to work from home permanently after COVID is behind us. We expect some employees will still come into the office post-COVID, but on any given day, the majority could be working from somewhere else. I would bet the future will be the same for other companies that can operate this way successfully.      

When it comes to e-commerce, the volume of online transactions that we secure for our customers has grown dramatically. E-commerce represented 14% of worldwide retail sales last year and was forecast to grow to 16% in 2020 before COVID struck. Now, with so many brick and mortar businesses closed for long periods, I wouldn’t be surprised if e-commerce has doubled along with internet traffic. By the time COVID is under control, many consumers will have adopted new online shopping habits that could become permanent, such as buying a greater percentage of groceries online.

The travel and hospitality industries are hurting more than any sector of the economy. No doubt, we’ll see a shakeout of weaker businesses by the time the dust settles. Of course, all the pent up demand to go somewhere away from home, if only to a restaurant or a movie theater just for a night out, will draw many consumers back eventually.  But most of our travel and hospitality customers project that their businesses won’t be back to the way they were before for many years, if ever.  Business travel, in particular, may never get back to pre-COVID levels since video conferencing has become an acceptable alternative to in-person meetings with customers and clients.  Our virtual customer conferences that we have held online this year have drawn more attendees than last year’s in-person events, and with much less cost. 

Entertainment, education and health are also now online at a scale that was unthinkable only recently.  Disney’s September 4 streaming video release of this year’s blockbuster Mulan, the live action movie, is just one prominent example of a media business adapting with agility to the new reality.

For many years, I’ve taught a class at MIT on discrete math for computer science to hundreds of students in a large lecture hall. This year, the class and most all teaching at the college level has moved online. While parents might prefer to see their younger children learn in school, online classrooms are up and running. Ditto for online consultations with doctors. Telemedicine has been anticipated for years, but it took COVID to force widespread adoption and bring the slow-to-change health care industry into the 21st century.

Of course, there are downsides to every advance. Most organizations transform digitally without fully preparing new cybersecurity practices. Securing a remote workforce, or stopping visitors to your website from getting infected by malware attached to third-party generated content, require adoption of new security tools. Attackers have already been working remotely for years and know where the gaps and vulnerabilities lie. Where internet traffic has doubled this year due to COVID, some forms of cyber attacks are up more than five times the levels seen in 2019.

Another major concern is the digital divide. Now that we are relying on the Internet for learning, health, work, and really just about everything, it becomes even more important that we urgently address the large disparities that exist in connectivity among various communities.  Otherwise, the disparities that already exist to varying degrees in education, health, and income will become even greater.  We need better connectivity for households that don’t have it, a public commitment to digital infrastructure as bold as the Tennessee Valley Authority, which delivered electricity to Appalachia during FDR’s New Deal.

For internet users in metropolitan areas, the buildout of 5G wireless networks in the coming years will enable very fast, high quality communications at the last mile of the internet. Building more capacity for online content delivery, edge computing and security capabilities at the edge of the internet will in turn enable billions of connected devices to perform new functions for us via the Internet of Things. Nobody can imagine all of the innovative new applications that will result, just as few of us could have foreseen the rise of social networking after the advent of broadband 20 years ago.

COVID has changed a lot this year. In time, we may well look back on 2020 as the year when our lives became irreversibly digital.

Tom Leighton is CEO and co-founder of Akamai (AKAM). Akamai’s intelligent edge platform surrounds everything, from the enterprise to the cloud, so customers and their businesses can be fast, smart, and secure.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @TomLeightonAKAM
Akamai on Twitter: @Akamai

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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