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We are working, learning, staying in touch and being entertained through screens. But the companies that make those devices don’t have it easy. And that makes our virtual lives creepier and less fulfilling than they could be.
It’s been true for years that for many companies, it’s tough to make money from selling smartphones, personal computers, television sets, streaming TV boxes like Roku and video game consoles. It takes a lot of expertise and cash to efficiently make complex electronics, and it’s a constant fight to beat competitors on price and catch shoppers’ attention.
The dynamic creates two paths for the consumer electronics that many of us rely on. One is for gigantic companies to take over and crowd out everyone else. The other path is for companies to become money grubbing monsters. Either way, it’s not great for us.
It was barely a blip for most of us, but last week the Korean electronics giant LG said it might stop making smartphones. LG was for a long time one of the top phone sellers in the world. Now it’s not. LG made many mistakes, and rivals like Apple, Samsung and Huawei overtook it.
But it’s also true that there’s no room for relative minnows in many categories of consumer electronics. Not too long ago, there were still lots of companies making smartphones, PCs and some other categories of devices like fitness wearables. HTC gave up on smartphones. Sony mostly ditched PCs. Remember Jawbone? Dead. Fitbit is owned by Google now. These gadget categories and more only have room for whales.
Consolidation is natural when any product goes from the hot new thing to mainstream. I promise you that I’m not nostalgic for old smartphone companies. (Well, maybe I’m still misty-eyed for Palm.) But I know that we lose something when companies with fresh ideas in gadgets have little chance and don’t bother to even try.
And my bigger worry is that the difficulties of making it in hardware are nudging gadget sellers to do yucky things to us.
Popular brands of TV sets keep track of what we’re watching and report it to companies that want to sell us new cars or credit cards. (Yeah, it’s gross.) One reason they do it is that selling personal information is pure profit, whereas selling you a TV set is definitely not. Roku also makes its real money not from selling its gizmos that connect our TVs to streaming apps, but from its side gigs including its troves of information about what we watch that it uses to sell ads.
You can think of these consumer electronics companies as basically Facebook that happens to sell us the screens, too. I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel less affectionate about my marathon sessions of “Cobra Kai.”
Microsoft a few days ago announced — and then quickly backtracked on — a steep price increase for its Xbox online video game subscriptions. The price increase was a bone-headed move, but it also reflected the harsh reality: Selling Xbox video game consoles generates relatively slim profits for Microsoft. Add-ons like online subscriptions are more profitable.
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I don’t want to exaggerate what’s happening. In some areas of consumer electronics, there are still plenty of new ideas flourishing. Don’t shed any tears for Apple and its piles of cash. But mostly, hardware is hard. And that makes things tougher on us, too, at a time when we need our gadgets more than ever.
TIP OF THE WEEK
Three must-have apps for every smartphone
Brian X. Chen, the personal technology columnist for The New York Times, tells us the essential apps to download now.
The most downloaded apps today include TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and Netflix. Left off the most popular lists are a few staples that every smartphone needs. Here are my top three:
1. A password manager. The rule of thumb is that each 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 let you store all your passwords in a digital vault that can be unlocked with one master password. In other words, you only need to memorize 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 suck up your phone battery; some even contain links to malware. Until the ad industry comes up with a better way, our best bet is using an ad blocking app like 1Blocker to prevent ads from loading in the web browser.
Some see ad blockers as problematic because they can drain revenue from websites. But many of the apps let people select their favorite sites and unblock those ads. (For Android users: Google doesn’t allow ad blockers to be downloaded through its app store. To install the apps you will need to use a method known as sideloading.)
3. An encrypted messaging app. Our online conversations should be no one else’s business. That makes encrypted messaging crucial.
Here’s how it works: When you send a message, it becomes scrambled so that it is indecipherable to anyone but the intended recipient.
If anyone else, including a government agency, wants to see your messages, no one — including the app provider itself — can get access to the unscrambled messages. For years, my favorite encrypted messaging app has been Signal because of its excellent privacy safeguards.
Before we go …
The largest unionization effort at Amazon: Workers at a company warehouse in Alabama are scheduled to vote next month on whether to unionize. My colleagues Michael Corkery and Karen Weise detail what both Amazon and some of its employees want, and how this union campaign is connected to poultry processing plant workers.
Getting more children online fast: New York officials said it would be “impossible” to quickly install Wi-Fi in homeless shelters for students to participate in online classes. Some shelter operators have proved them wrong with imperfect but functional internet gear, The Times’s Andy Newman writes.
Black, deaf and extremely online: On TikTok and other apps, young people are drawing attention to Black American Sign Language, a variation of ASL that scholars say has long been overlooked, writes my colleague Allyson Waller.
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