Top Stories of ’21: Amazon, Microsoft, Meta, COVID, and what’s next for tech in Seattle and beyond

Looking at GeekWire’s most-read stories for 2021, this series of headlines stands out as a symbol of the past year, not just for Amazon but for the world at large.

  • March 31, 2021: Amazon updates remote work guidance, plans to ‘return to an office-centric culture as our baseline’
  • June 10, 2021: Amazon adjusts return-to-office guidance, says employees can work two days a week remotely
  • October 11, 2021: Amazon will leave remote work decisions to individual team leaders in new policy twist

In short, no one knew what was going on, or what to do. In the sports world, they would call it a rebuilding year, setting the stage for something better.

My colleague John Cook puts it more succinctly in our year-end podcast: “It sucked.”

Ed Lazowska
Ed Lazowska, University of Washington computer science professor. (UW Photo)

At least, that’s the view from two cynical journalists, which is why it was refreshing to have Ed Lazowska join us again for this year-end show. A professor at the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, Lazowska is a longtime Seattle tech leader, and an “inveterate optimist,” in his own words.

“Yeah, COVID has thrown us all kinds of loops,” he acknowledges, but then offers a few examples of a more upbeat way to look at this year’s list.

  • Amazon’s “remarkable year,” including its ability to scale up in response to COVID, the leadership transition to new CEO Andy Jassy, new leadership principles and the continued success of Amazon Web Services.
  • Microsoft continues to boom under the leadership of Satya Nadella, as Azure and cloud services fuel the company’s growth. “Microsoft is not just an incredibly capable company, but they’re the conscience of the tech industry,” under the policy leadership of President Brad Smith, Lazowska says.
  • In the meantime, biotech is gaining momentum in Seattle: “I think the interface between information technology and biotechnology is going to give us a real competitive advantage, because we’re very strong in biomedicine, and we’re very strong in computing. And there’s so much at that interface.”

That doesn’t even count the historic vaccine rollout, as reflected in this year’s top story: ‘I feel great’: Bill Gates shares photo of himself getting first dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

Even the second most-read story of the year was an upbeat, feel-good piece: Billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott marries Seattle science teacher.

Yes, there were setbacks for key players in business and tech. One that stands out on this year’s list is Zillow’s decision to close down its home-buying business, cutting 2,000 jobs in the process. Then there was Facebook’s decision to rename itself “Meta” amid a series of revelations demonstrating the company’s own knowledge of Facebook’s ill effects on society.

“But considering all the adversity,” he concludes, “this has been a pretty good year.”

Lazowska joins us to discuss those stories and many others from the past year on this episode of the GeekWire Podcast. We also look ahead to the upcoming year, and talk about a few key stories we’ll be watching.

As reported recently on GeekWire, several prominent tech leaders have been working to establish a series of UW professorships in Lazowska’s honor. Learn more about the initiative here.

Listen above, and subscribe to GeekWire in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or wherever you listen. Keep reading for the full list of top 100 stories.

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Produced and edited by Curt Milton. Theme music by Daniel L.K. Caldwell.

  • ‘I feel great’: Bill Gates shares photo of himself getting first dose of COVID-19 vaccine
  • Billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott marries Seattle science teacher
  • OceanGate sub makes first dive to Titanic wreck site and captures photos of debris
  • Zillow to shutter home buying business and lay off 2,000 employees as its big real estate bet falters
  • Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to step down this year, replaced by AWS chief Andy Jassy in stunning turn for tech giant
  • Jeff Bezos-backed startup Nautilus Biotechnology set to go public via SPAC at $900M valuation
  • Topgolf is officially bringing one of its high-tech sports and entertainment venues to Seattle area
  • Forget porch pirates, our Ring camera captured video of a cat escaping a coyote in Seattle
  • Watch the epic first-ever virtual Space Needle light show for New Year’s celebration in Seattle
  • Cargo ship stuck in Suez Canal shows up in a ‘Microsoft Flight Simulator’ fly-by
  • Bill and Melinda Gates announce decision to end marriage after 27 years
  • Microsoft 365 authentication issue causes Microsoft Teams and other services to go down
  • Amazon offers rare apology, says it will look for solutions to drivers peeing in bottles
  • Satya Nadella sells half his Microsoft stock, weeks before state implements capital gains tax
  • ‘Murder hornet’ nest cut from tree in Washington state; 1,500 developing insects found inside
  • Is the internet going to end? Signs around Seattle beg the question ahead of unique date, 12022021
  • Report: Bill Gates is largest owner of private farmland in U.S., with acreage across 18 states
  • Seattle teen entrepreneurs sell their health-tech startup and take a break from college
  • Reality check: Microsoft, David Bowie, Bill Gates, and a creepy video game called ‘Omikron’
  • Amazon adds two new leadership principles just days before Jeff Bezos steps down as CEO
  • Former Amazon exec Jeff Wilke on why he left, what it was like to work for Jeff Bezos, and more
  • See worthy: First look at Jeff Bezos’ reported $500M superyacht at Netherlands shipyard
  • Study of Microsoft employees shows how remote work puts productivity and innovation at risk
  • Seattle’s newest billionaire says tax talk will drive business away, claims Seattle freeze is ‘garbage’
  • Paul Allen superyacht Octopus finally sells after being listed for nearly $300M
  • The Gates split: While the money is outrageous, here’s why the divorce likely won’t be
  • Photos: Stunning Northern Lights dance over Seattle — here are tips for catching the next one
  • You got vaccinated. Now what? 7 things to know for your post-COVID vaccine behavior
  • Carpenters’ union halts work on Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Facebook expansions in Seattle area
  • NASA releases jaw-dropping video and audio from Mars, with an assist from AWS
  • Smart home startup Deako raises $12.5M, says its light switches are becoming ‘industry standard’
  • NFL passes on T-Mobile Super Bowl ad featuring Brady and Gronkowski and a bad connection
  • Biden calls out Amazon for not paying federal income tax: ‘I’m going to put an end to that’
  • Amazon adjusts return-to-office guidance, says employees can work two days a week remotely
  • Bill Gates says there are too many low-quality SPACs, but he’s firmly focused on the quality ones
  • Predicting weight loss: Study suggests gut bacteria may influence ability to shed pounds
  • Amazon updates remote work guidance, plans to ‘return to an office-centric culture as our baseline’
  • Jeff Bezos to hand over Amazon CEO role to Andy Jassy on July 5, anniversary of company’s creation
  • Chromebooks outsold Macs worldwide in 2020, cutting into Windows market share
  • AI-powered weed destroying startup harvests $27M round, farmers say laser-blasting machine saves time and cuts pesticide use
  • Why the sad face? Amazon driver leaving packages upside down as part of ‘No More Smiles’ protest
  • Expert skywatchers quickly solve Pacific Northwest’s meteor mystery
  • Gates Foundation reverses position on COVID vaccine patent protections after mounting pressure
  • MacKenzie Scott says ‘no dollar signs this time’ as she finds new value in philanthropy’s meaning
  • ‘I got a beer in 8 seconds’: Testing Amazon’s cashierless tech at an NHL game inside Climate Pledge Arena
  • Zillow Group will pay $500M to acquire home touring tech company ShowingTime
  • Cloud wars: Former Amazon Web Services leader Charlie Bell reportedly joins rival Microsoft
  • Eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine? Seattle techies create site that shows open appointments
  • Washington state tracks down another Asian giant hornet nest, with plans to eradicate it soon
  • ‘We are airborne!’ Stratolaunch sends the world’s biggest plane on second test flight
  • Internal memo: Key Amazon exec Jeff Blackburn officially leaving, hinting at new role elsewhere
  • An evening with Kindle Vella: First impressions of Amazon’s new attempt to reimagine reading
  • Amazon delays office return to January 2022 as rise of Delta variant thwarts corporate plans
  • Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to step down this year, replaced by AWS chief Andy Jassy
  • Flyhomes raises $150M as it expands across U.S. and aims to change the way people buy homes
  • We asked seven venture capitalists if the metaverse is the next big thing or just a lot of hype
  • JEDI news: Judge won’t dismiss Amazon’s claim that Trump interfered with $10B cloud contract
  • This is Amazon’s at-home COVID-19 test kit: We tried it and talked to a testing expert about it
  • John Oliver takes on COVID vaccine myths, and no, again, Bill Gates did not inject you with a microchip
  • Amazon plans to investigate discrimination within AWS after hundreds of employees sign petition
  • Amazon employees, bots or trolls? New Twitter bios emerge to speak out mostly against union effort
  • New COVID-19 prediction models forecast a potential fourth wave — and how to minimize it
  • Amazon Web Services posts record $13.5B in profits for 2020 in Andy Jassy’s AWS swan song
  • Bellevue’s boom: City’s tech industry is poised to eat Seattle’s lunch
  • Fraud allegations fly in dispute over brain-scanning tech made famous on Netflix’s ‘Making a Murderer’
  • The disappearing bathtub and OceanGate’s other tales of the Titanic’s rapid decay
  • Microsoft remote work study: Average length of workweek has increased 10% during pandemic
  • Remote work already changing Seattle permanently, tech worker survey indicates
  • Why this Seattle tech CEO pulled his company out of downtown, and isn’t returning anytime soon
  • Melinda French Gates on the ‘absurdity’ of extreme wealth and what she’s learned about real giving
  • Controversial capital gains tax spooks wealthy Washington residents as some unload their stocks
  • Curiosity brings out the crowds at opening of Amazon’s first full-size cashierless grocery store
  • Former AWS real estate managers, accused of taking millions in kickbacks, challenge Amazon’s motives amid FBI investigation
  • How an Alaskan fisherman saw potential for a sustainability startup in a mountain of crab shells
  • Amazon will leave remote work decisions to individual team leaders in new policy twist
  • Incoming Amazon CEO Andy Jassy on why remote work hurts innovation: ‘You don’t riff the same way’
  • Testing a new COVID-19 test: How T-cells beat antibodies in helping to detect past infections
  • Microsoft in standoff with Amazon over big hire, names Charlie Bell to lead ‘bold’ new security group
  • Moving in after Amazon backed out: Inside Rainier Square, Seattle’s new office and residential tower
  • Microsoft campus near Seattle will be used to administer COVID-19 vaccine
  • Washington lawmakers approve capital gains tax for the first time in state history
  • Melinda Gates reportedly consulted with divorce lawyers since 2019
  • Seattle startup Common Room emerges from stealth mode with $52M in funding
  • New ‘murder hornet’ nest located in Washington state as scientists again use tiny tracking tech
  • Ex-Amazon exec Jeff Blackburn leaves venture capital post after 5 weeks on job
  • Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s family donates $15M to Seattle Children’s Hospital
  • Amazon’s ‘New World’ game spreads hype, melts video cards in unexpectedly popular closed beta
  • Bill Gates predicts ‘very small numbers’ of COVID by end of 2022, takes heat for vaccine patent defense
  • Clap your mittens: Bernie Sanders makes his way to Seattle in meme that is taking over social media
  • Did you receive a ‘long-term care’ email from your employer? Here’s what it means to opt-in or opt-out
  • 27 years after death of Kurt Cobain, group uses AI software to create a ‘new’ Nirvana song
  • First ‘murder hornet’ of 2021 spotted in Washington state, 2 miles from where old nest was eradicated
  • Univ. of Washington researchers to test psilocybin in healthcare workers affected by pandemic
  • Amazon elevates two more execs to its senior leadership team under new CEO Andy Jassy
  • How Melinda French Gates has ‘transformational potential’ to boost equality in VC, tech and beyond
  • Fry’s Electronics shutting down all stores, ending 36 years as a big-box stop for tech enthusiasts
  • The Seattle startup scene is sizzling with record funding, hiring surge, 12 unicorns
  • Behind the recycling scenes at Ridwell: Seattle startup growing as fast as piles of plastic and more
  • Bezos Earth Fund pledges $1B to conserve land and sea in critical areas of the world
  • Washington state lawmakers target Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and other billionaires with wealth tax
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