Join us for a live conversation about tech and the coronavirus. Today at 4 p.m. Eastern time, my Times Opinion colleague Charlie Warzel and I are hosting a conference call to talk about the use of smartphone location data to fight the coronavirus and other aspects of using technology in this pandemic. Lend us your ears, and ask your burning questions. You can RSVP here.
This sure feels like a strange time for Apple to release a new iPhone. But here’s a hard truth: Our habits show that new phones are irrelevant to most of us — in a pandemic or otherwise.
Brian X. Chen, a New York Times personal technology writer, wrote about Apple’s plan to release a new version of the iPhone SE next week. That’s the four-year-old model with a relatively small screen and a relatively low price of $399 and up in the United States.
This iPhone model hasn’t been a blockbuster, but it’s a nice option for some people. Apple and other companies are likely to keep releasing more fresh smartphone models this year, perhaps with some pandemic-related delays.
Conditions aren’t ideal for selling stuff. American consumer spending in March fell at the fastest rate in the nearly three decades the government has tracked the data. Many stores around the world, including Apple’s and other cellphone retailers’, are closed. Millions of newly unemployed people don’t have spare money, and Americans are shifting what they are buying. Groceries and streaming video, yes. Electronics, no.
Apple probably had this latest model ready to go before the pandemic hit — and sure, why not give it a go? The honest truth is, it’s impossible to predict if and when our buying habits will return to normal.
New smartphones have been a tough sell for some time. People in the United States and many other countries are waiting longer to replace their phones — for Americans, it’s more than three years on average.
Pick your favorite explanation for this phenomenon. Many people don’t want to pay the going rate of $1,000 or more for phones with all the bells and whistles. To some people, even the features that are supposed to be exciting feel blah.
The best explanation for the smartphone sales malaise is a simple one: This is what happens when products go from new and novel to normal.
Products get more reliable and resilient as they become mass market, and new models don’t feel so different from the old. Apart from the die-hards, most people lose interest in the latest and greatest. The hot new thing feels…fine.
In Brian’s assessment of last fall’s iPhone models, he said there was no rush to buy a new phone if your current one is less than a few years old. (Yes, a professional tech reviewer suggested you might NOT need to buy something.)
The shift from wow to shrug happened with cars, personal computers and televisions. More than a decade after modern smartphones hit the market, we’ve lost our zing for those pocket computers, too. Until economic conditions stabilize, our zing will probably be even less zingy than normal.
A smartphone is now a refrigerator. We need it, but we don’t replace our current model when a new ice-making feature comes out. This is not great for companies with shiny new phones to sell. For the rest of us, it’s fine.
When old tech really is a problem
A three-year-old smartphone is great. Broken government technology that’s failing struggling people is not.
My colleagues have written about the Small Business Administration’s online application system melting down with loan requests from businesses applying for help. A Lyft driver in New York was told to fax his pay stubs to the unemployment office. There are unprecedented demands right now. But, wow, this is a bad look for government technology when it’s needed most.
The problem isn’t necessarily the age of the technology used by government organizations. It’s the upkeep.
The hidden secret of the internet is that behind the scenes, there are Sputnik-era computers doing chores like handling your credit card payment on Amazon and filling your online travel reservations. That 60-year-old computer programming language that New Jersey’s governor talked about? It works, as long as there are people to keep it up-to-date.
The problem with many government and even corporate technology is the lack of money and care for upkeep. Chris O’Malley, the chief executive of Compuware, which works on old tech, told me there’s a mentality that tech systems are something you set up once and they’re done. Nope. If it ain’t broke, it still needs fixing.
Before we go …
When “less bad” is good. Businesses are cutting back on advertisements. Others are nervous about their ads appearing in a Facebook feed next to grim news. That dynamic is likely to hurt Google and Facebook, which make most of their money from selling ads, my Times colleagues write. Still, the tech titans will probably hold up better than other companies reliant on advertising.
We need baby ducks right now: In our doom times, people are gravitating to news websites and social media accounts featuring happy tales like a police officer guiding ducklings, the Times reporter Taylor Lorenz writes. (A shameless plug to stick around for the end of this newsletter.)
Another idea to bridge America’s digital divide: Thomas L. Friedman, the Times Opinion columnist, talks up a proposal for federal loans and regulatory changes to help rural communities and cooperatives build fast internet networks. Expanding online access would encourage more inventions like the robotic poultry coop cleaners he found in Minnesota. Yesterday, I wrote about another plan to make fast internet available to more people.
Stick to the basics. Brian, in another article, said the pandemic has made it clear what technology is essential in our personal lives, and what is neat but frivolous.
Hugs to this
Pete Wells, a restaurant critic for The Times, writes a lovely appreciation of this six-hour video of sheep at a California vineyard. They are mostly sitting, bleating or munching grass. The monotony is strangely soothing.