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Here's where the big tech companies are taking us in 2017


This earnings season, the biggest tech companies clarified their paths forward over the next two years, and in the process explained what our tech future is going to look like.

For Apple, it's about doubling down on the services business to position itself for a time when the smartphone becomes redundant as a computing platform.

With augmented reality, virtual reality and the internet of things becoming more than buzzwords, Apple's future relies on recurring revenue from these shifts -- and that means services. Most of the Apple innovation debate centers around hardware -- the next great iPhone; an iWatch that does it all; Apple car; or perhaps a so-far un-thought of gadget. While that may still be a focus area for the company's research department, Tim Cook is now focused on doubling the services business over the next four years.

For Facebook, "It's more than just the big blue app," says Eric Sheridan, UBS tech analyst. The company is a portfolio of brands -- including Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram, Oculus, and the like -- and that's the way to value it.

And a big value driver of that value is video.

"I see video as a megatrend on the same order as mobile. That's why we're going to keep putting video first across our family of apps and making it easier for people to capture and share video in new ways." - Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO on the Q4 2016 earnings call.

BTIG's Rich Greenfield raises an important question: does this mean allowing users to upload and share more video or does this mean offering video entertainment to Facebook users? The latter idea is made more interesting by the fact that Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO, sits on Facebook's board.

Each path is a distinct strategy would take the company in different directions.

Meanwhile, the company's ad service business continues growing from strength to strength. Strategic buys including Instagram and Whatsapp helped diversify Facebook's geographical and demographical bets. As for monetization, Facebook has many untouched levers, including using bots enabled commerce within Messenger and Whatsapp. And of course, virtual reality:

"We're going to keep making big investments in VR content, and I'm excited about what's coming in 2017, from new games to more immersive educational experiences." - Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO on the Q4 2016 earnings call

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc., demonstrates an Oculus Rift virtual reality (VR) headset and Oculus Touch controllers as the gives a demonstration during the Oculus Connect 3 event in San Jose, California
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

For Microsoft, the pivot to the cloud,continues. Its commercial cloud business, which include cloud products -- Office 365 and Azure – grew by 95% year-over-year in the most recent quarter.

CEO Satya Nadella's strategic bets are paying off. Since Nadella's Feb 2014 arrival the stock's rallied 67%. Nadella's LinkedIn acquisition, further proof of his cloud-based services focus, continues integrating with the parent company with the announcement of Kevin Scott, former SVP of infrastructure at LinkedIn as its new CTO.

Another nod to Nadella's sound management and stewardship of the 41-year-old American icon is his recent appointment to Starbucks' board of directors at a time when founder and CEO Howard Schultz is stepping away.

For Amazon: The Amazon story has not changed: CEO Jeff Bezos continues building scale into the business through aggressive investments in Video, Fulfilment, Fresh, Alexa & India expansion.

In the short term this implies quarterly earnings misses while the long-term continues to brim with hope and possibility. With exposure to over a third of the world's digital customers, you'd be hard pressed to find a company with bigger ambitions.

For Alphabet: Google's parent company is betting its future on the power of artificial intelligence. Google looks at AI to drive its search, ad and computing capabilities.

This is going to have an effect on the Google experience for users: "Over time, the 10 blue search links will likely go away. That could cause a bump in the Google story in a few years, just like the shift from desktop to mobile had a near term negative impact," says Gene Munster, co-founder of Loup Ventures and a leading tech analyst.

"Computing is moving from a mobile-first to AI-first with more universal ambient and intelligent computing that you can interact with naturally, all made smarter by the progress we are making with machine learning. 2016 was the year that this became central to who we are as a company and the products that we built. We had more than .350 launches powered by machine learning across areas like search, maps, messaging and Google Play." Sundar Pichai, Google CEO on the Q4 earnings call