This week, a company I never think about scooped up another one I had forgotten existed. It was a reminder that we shouldn’t underestimate the boring.
One of those companies is called Poly, and if you know what it does, gold star to you. It makes gadgets like telephone headsets for corporate call centers and speaker gizmos for office conference calls.
This stuff is not exactly cool, but it can be useful, and Poly is nicely profitable and valuable enough to sell for $1.7 billion.
The buyer, HP Inc., makes a lot of money selling fleets of computers and hulking printers to businesses. It’s a snooze that has made HP worth close to $40 billion, or about eight times the value of WeWork, a company that was thrilling and also nearly ran out of money and died in 2019.
Products for cubicle dwellers may not be the whiz-bang miracles that we imagine from Silicon Valley, but the world runs on boring technology that boring organizations need in order to do boring but important things. Many of the companies that sell this technology make rivers of cash, even if only five humans are capable of explaining what, for example, the software giant SAP makes.
My mission is to take a few minutes to help us appreciate the dullness that makes the world go ’round.
I don’t know what technology my employer uses to process my paychecks. Most of us will never see the Amazon computer servers that fire Netflix to our TVs. The U.S. health care system largely relies on patient records from a software company called Epic. You might not know what Oracle is, but you have probably indirectly interacted with one of its databases if you have bought anything online.
We’ll never write a valentine to that kind of boring software, but we need it to function. The dull stuff can also make what we do better, like enable telemedicine calls or help us check whether diapers are in stock before we drive to the store.
A lot of technology designed for businesses stinks or is stuck in the past, but it’s the nuts and bolts of everything. Companies that make dull technology for organizations will probably last longer than the dozens of Doritos-on-demand start-ups. And it’s a gold mine. Businesses and governments are expected to spend about $4.5 trillion on technology this year. Some of the world’s most valuable technology companies, like Microsoft, SAP, Adobe, Oracle, Salesforce and ServiceNow, are boring.
Boring isn’t just lucrative. It can also be a political asset. Facebook can’t buy a pack of chewing gum without government regulators suspecting that the company is plotting to cause global tooth decay. And when it tries to buy any company, every antitrust alarm bell goes off.
Yet in January, Microsoft announced a nearly $70 billion acquisition of the video game titan Activision Blizzard. Regulators could still block the takeover, but Microsoft can try partly because of its identity as the least contentious of the tech superpowers. Microsoft has more revenue and is worth far more than Facebook’s parent company, Meta. But it mostly makes products businesses use to do things like crunch data and not, say, communication tools that have been abused to spread conspiracy theories.
Mark Gorenberg has devoted his professional life to snooze technology. In the late 1980s, he worked at Sun Microsystems, whose technology like Unix and Java lingers on in nearly every single piece of current technology. Gorenberg described Sun as “very boring but it powered everything.”
Since then, Gorenberg has worked for investment firms that specialize in backing young companies that sell basically unglamorous technology to businesses.
He told me that many of the so-called enterprise tech companies have not been the most cutting-edge. But he is betting that the dull sector will become a hotbed of exciting inventions.
Gorenberg is talking about innovations like the technology Microsoft recently released that essentially helps software write itself. His investment firm, Zetta Venture Partners, backs a start-up that scans records of car crashes to conduct insurance claims assessments and another that spots potential network failures before they take down the internet.
He’s talking about a future where boring technology remains essential but has a bit of the wow, too.
If this technology can be a little exciting and also help all of us, great. But there will always be a bedrock of boring tech that touches our lives and the world — even if we never know that it exists.
Want better cellphone calls at home? Try this.
Brian X. Chen, the consumer technology columnist at The New York Times, suggests what to try if calls on your smartphone sound awful or drop when you’re at home.
Many of us experience spotty cellphone calls at home. It can help to use Wi-Fi calling, which routes a telephone call over your internet connection. That often gives us more reliable and better quality phone calls than funneling them over our local telephone networks, particularly if we don’t live right next to a cell tower.
Typically, smartphones don’t use Wi-Fi calling automatically, so here’s how to turn this feature on.
On iPhones: Open the Settings app, choose the option for Phone, select Wi-Fi calling, tap the bar to flip the feature to on, and fill in some details about where you live. (This helps law enforcement locate you in the event that you dial 9-1-1.)
On Android phones, the settings for Wi-Fi calling may vary but try this: Open the Phone app, tap the option for more, then select Settings. Pick the option labeled Calls and tap Wi-Fi calling.
One caveat: This won’t be a great option if your Wi-Fi at home is spotty. Here’s my past column on fixing Wi-Fi problems at home.
Before we go …
Yikes: Hackers forged what appeared to be emergency requests from law enforcement officials for several internet companies to hand over information about their users. Apple and Facebook were fooled by the demands last year, Bloomberg News reported, and provided information like addresses and phone numbers that was then used for harassment campaigns. (A subscription may be required.)
Maybe you’ve noticed that almost all of Facebook is Reels videos: Vox’s Recode publication reports that Facebook’s efforts to push those bite-size videos in our feeds means Reels represented 11 out of 20 of Facebook’s most-viewed posts in the U.S. during the last three months of 2021. And a bunch of Reels are anonymous, reposted videos from TikTok or kind of spammy, Vox wrote.
Related from On Tech: Facebook will make you love Reels.
The long hangover when countries block websites: After Turkey banned Wikipedia in 2017, it took years of legal challenges to get the online encyclopedia back up. The Washington Post reported that the struggles for Wikipedia might be a glimpse at the future for Facebook, Twitter and other sites that have been banned in Russia. (A subscription may be required.)
Related: A young woman in Michigan, Annie Rauwerda, is compiling some of Wikipedia’s weirdest pages. One example: The entry for “The Most Unwanted Song,” a novelty tune from the 1990s.
Hugs to this. (It’s not boring.)
A flamingo known by its leg tag, No. 492, escaped from a Kansas zoo in 2005 (on Independence Day). My colleague Daniel Victor hilariously details No. 492’s life on the run for the past 17 years and the people who were surprised to spot a flamingo in Texas.
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