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We work, learn, keep in touch and are entertained through screens. But it is not easy for the companies that make these devices. And that makes our virtual lives scarier and less fulfilling than they could be.
It has been true for years that it has been difficult for many companies to make money selling smartphones, PCs, TVs, streaming TV boxes like Roku, and video game consoles. It takes a lot of expertise and money to manufacture complex electronics efficiently, and it is a constant battle to beat the competition on price and get customers’ attention.
The momentum creates two avenues for consumer electronics that many of us rely on. One of them is gigantic corporations taking over and displacing everyone else. The other way is for companies to become greedy monsters. In any case, it’s not great for us.
It was hardly a slip up for most of us, but last week Korean electronics giant LG said it could stop manufacturing smartphones. LG has long been one of the top phone sellers in the world. Now it is not. LG made a lot of mistakes and rivals like Apple, Samsung and Huawei have overtaken it.
But it is also true that there is no room for relative minnows in many consumer electronics categories. Not so long ago there were many companies making smartphones, PCs, and some other categories of devices like fitness wearables. HTC gave up smartphones. Sony has mostly thrown PCs overboard. Do you remember Jawbone? Dead. Fitbit is now owned by Google. These gadget categories and more only accommodate whales.
Consolidation is natural when a product goes from being hot novelty to mainstream. I promise I am not nostalgic for old smartphone companies. (Well, maybe I still have foggy eyes for Palm.) But I know we lose something when companies with fresh ideas in gadgets stand little chance and don’t even bother to try.
And my bigger concern is that the difficulty of making it in hardware is causing gadget vendors to do happy things to us.
Popular brands of televisions track what we see and report it to companies trying to sell us new cars or credit cards. (Yeah, it’s gross.) Part of the reason for this is that selling personal information is purely a profit, while selling a television is definitely not a profit. Roku doesn’t make his real money selling his gizmos that connect our TVs to streaming apps either, but rather from his side appearances, including his tons of information about what we see to sell ads.
You can think of these consumer electronics companies as Facebook, which is also selling us the screens. I don’t know about you, but that makes me less affectionate about my marathon sessions of Cobra Kai.
Microsoft announced a sharp increase in the price of its Xbox online video game subscriptions a few days ago – and then quickly resumed it. The price hike was a bony move, but it also reflected the harsh reality: selling Xbox video game consoles brings Microsoft relatively little profits. Add-ons like online subscriptions are more profitable.
Business & Economy
Jan. 25, 2021, 12:59 p.m. ET
I don’t want to exaggerate what is happening. There are still many new ideas in some areas of consumer electronics. Don’t shed tears for Apple and its piles of money. But mostly hardware is difficult. And that makes it difficult for us at a time when we need our devices more than ever.
TIP OF THE WEEK
Three essential apps for every smartphone
Brian X. Chen, the personal technology columnist for the New York Times, explains the top apps that need to be downloaded now.
The most downloaded apps today include TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, and Netflix. Some of the staples that every smartphone needs have been omitted from the most popular lists. Here are my top 3:
1. A password manager. As a rule of thumb, any password you use should be unique and complex. But it’s impossible to do that and remember them all.
Password management apps like 1Password and LastPass solve this problem. They allow you to store all of your passwords in a digital vault that can be unlocked with a master password. In other words, all you have to do is remember one password. The apps also include tools to automatically generate complex passwords for you.
2. An ad blocker. Many online ads are loaded with scripts that collect your personal information and drain your phone’s battery. Some even contain links to malware. Until the advertising industry has found a better way, the best thing to do is to use an ad blocker app like 1Blocker to prevent ads from loading in the web browser.
Some see ad blockers as problematic as they can be a drag on website revenue. However, many apps allow users to choose their preferred websites and unblock those ads. (For Android users: Google does not allow ad blockers to be downloaded through the App Store. To install the apps, you must use a method called sideloading.)
3. An encrypted messaging app. Our online conversations shouldn’t be anyone’s business. Therefore, encrypted messaging is critical.
Here’s how it works: When you send a message, it is encrypted so that it cannot be deciphered by anyone but the intended recipient.
If someone else, including a government agency, wants to see your messages, no one – including the app provider itself – can get access to the unencrypted messages. Signal has been my preferred encrypted messaging app for years because of its great privacy measures.
Before we go …
The biggest union efforts on Amazon: Workers at a company warehouse in Alabama are due to vote next month on whether to unionize. My colleagues Michael Corkery and Karen Weise explain what both Amazon and some of its employees want and how this union campaign is linked to poultry processing plant workers.
Get more kids online fast: New York officials said it was “impossible” to quickly install Wi-Fi in homeless shelters for students to take online classes. Some shelter operators have proven they are wrong with imperfect but working internet equipment, writes Andy Newman of The Times.
Black, deaf and extremely online: On TikTok and other apps, young people draw attention to the Black American Sign Language, a variant of ASL that scientists say has long been overlooked, writes my colleague Allyson Waller.
Baby owls! In a bucket! Don’t miss the little ones who need a nudge on the rump. (Many thanks to my colleague Sandra E. Garcia for tweeting.)
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