Taking too long? Close loading screen.
Connect with us

Business

Gadgets Were on the Way Out. Then 2020 Happened.

Published

on

Gadgets were supposed to be over. Smartphones, tablets and smartwatches cannibalized the weaker devices around them, including cameras, music players, navigation units, fitness trackers and gaming devices. The few tech products that broke through the noise of crowdfunding sites and the crowded field of start-ups were quickly commoditized and undercut on Amazon.

The stores that dealt in gadgetry — Circuit City, RadioShack, Best Buy — had gone out of business or become glum warehouses for no-fun products. In 2016, my colleague Farhad Manjoo declared a “gadget apocalypse.”

“For 30 or 40 years, through recessions and war, through stability and revolutions, they were always there,” he wrote. Soon, to the horror of enthusiasts and mere consumerists alike, they might converge into a bland rectangularity.

For now, at least, it appears the gadget apocalypse has been averted, due in part to threats of actual apocalypse. Seven months of shattered plans, lockdowns and rapidly improvised new normals have converted jaded consumers around the world into frantic gadget freaks, each grasping for items that, in their chaotic disparity, tell the story of a strange, dark year: pulse oximeters, the iPhone 12, HEPA air filters, infrared thermometers, bare-minimum tablets and laptops for schooling, the PlayStation 5 (pre-order), ring lights, miniature freezers, home networking equipment, and noise canceling headphones.

Image“Thermometer guns” are now coveted by businesses and households alike.
Credit…Carter Johnston for The New York Times

Elements of this gadget boom are more 2002 than 2020. When’s the last time you went comparison shopping for a webcam? How are you enjoying that new inkjet printer? And yet it evokes 2200 as well. Did you expect to spend your summer trying to figure out if an air purifier made by a Bluetooth speaker company was going to be sufficient to clear the atmosphere in your isolation pod on an increasingly hostile planet?

One striking detail of this gadget boom is that the horsemen of the once-inevitable gadget apocalypse have slowed to a trot. Gartner, the research firm and consultancy, estimated that smartphone sales fell by 20 percent in the second quarter of the year, when much of the world was dealing with severe and increasing Covid-19 caseloads and economies in steep decline. There are new game consoles on the horizon, but they’re not yet out; the breakout device in the gaming industry was also the most gadgety of its peers — the three-year-old Nintendo Switch.

Before 2020, many popular consumer electronics were receding into the background, more vital and useful than ever but purchased, wielded and discarded with a sense of routine, rather than novelty. In this way, smartphones are like cars: first, obnoxiously out of place; then, ubiquitous and yet more demanding; finally, taken for granted and made invisible, despite remaking the world around them in increasingly ambitious ways.

The ways in which people buy gadgets, too, have become less distinct and more infrastructural. Product review sites where readers might have compared wireless headphones are recommending, a few links over, home blood oxygen monitoring equipment. A style and language developed by an enthusiast consumer culture is stretching to accommodate new needs. (For a family stretching to get their kids set up for remote learning, “The Best Laptops” is less relevant than “How to Shop for a Used Laptop or Desktop PC.”)

Credit…Celeste Noche for The New York Times

Nowhere are the disparate experiences of the pandemic gadget boom more obvious than on Amazon, which has mutated from the “everything store” into a global product distribution utility. Wednesday’s selection of featured Prime Day sales seemed COVID-aware: cheap childproof tablets, noise-canceling headphones, an Instant Pot and countless items to furnish a long-haul home office.

The generic Amazon brand, once an accused enemy of gadgetry, is now its accomplice. Companies with forgettable names making forgettable products — brands created to sell low-margin batteries, cables and Bluetooth speakers — have grown into miniature Amazon conglomerates. Smoked-out Californians logging onto Amazon earlier this might have encountered a well-reviewed option from TaoTronics, which just a few years ago was known almost exclusively for its bargain-basement wireless earbuds (come winter, the brand sells space heaters and therapy lamps, too). Anker, which made its name selling portable batteries on Amazon, would now like to sell you a projector, so that you might open a small movie theater in your home, as the big screens in your town shut down, maybe for good.

The pandemic gadget boom is a story of both new needs fulfilled and old desires restored. Buying noise canceling headphones is, of course, a consumerist treat, setting aside the new circumstances that made them feel necessary — the construction downstairs, the baby 20 feet away, the spouse simultaneously trapped in a video meeting. You can feel the faintest muscle memory activate when you comparison shop for a gadget of a type you’ve never purchased before, even if that gadget is — judging by back orders and top listings on Amazon as the winter creeps closer — a S.A.D. lamp or an outdoor radiator.

Credit…Jake Michaels for The New York Times

This gadget boom will end like every other — with a bunch of little-used and rapidly obsolete junk stowed away in closets and landfills around the globe — but it won’t inspire much nostalgia. This isn’t spontaneous mass hobbyism or a slide into decadence. It’s a cornered populace spending what they can in hopes that some novel invention will stave off disaster, or even just gloom.

The gadgets that were so recently on their way out were of a different variety, and purchased under different circumstances. Gadget consumption has long been portrayed as an interface with some part of the future: options on a shelf from which you can select how, when, or if you want to engage with whatever is coming next. This was always a pleasant illusion, and it’s one the pandemic has made impossible to sustain.

In this brutally unexpected year, the luckiest were buying their way through hard times, sustained by the hope that another purchase might fix a new problem, momentarily re-empowered, if only by tapping another “Confirm” button, and buoyed by the simple, shameful pleasure of acquisition. The rest were coping, meeting sudden demands or simply trying to stay safe, whatever the cost.

Pandemic gadgets don’t bother to lie about being the next big thing. They do not even claim to be a way to catch up with the next big thing. Their guaranteed future obsolescence — perhaps the defining characteristic of a gadget — isn’t something to hide, because when it come to pass, it won’t be a disappointment. It will be a relief.

Source

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Business

The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

Published

on

The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

Source

Continue Reading

Business

Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

Published

on

The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

Source

Continue Reading

Business

Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

Published

on

As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

Source

Continue Reading

Trending