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Not even 5G could rescue smartphone sales in 2020

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This was going to be the year of 5G. It was going to be the year the next-generation wireless technology helped reverse some troubling macro trends for the industry — or at the very least helped stem the bleeding some.

But the best laid plans, and all that. With about a week left in the year, I think it’s pretty safe to say that 2020 didn’t wind up the way the vast majority of us had hoped. It’s a list that certainly includes the lion’s share of smartphone makers. Look no further than a recent report published by Gartner to answer the question of just how bad 2020 was for smartphone sales.

It was so bad that a 5.7% global decline year-over-year for the third quarter constituted good news. In a normal year, that wouldn’t qualify as good news for too many industries outside of wax cylinder and asbestos sales. But there are few standards by which 2020 was a normal year, so now we’ll take some respite in the fact that a 5.7% drop was a considerably less pronounced drop than the ~20% we saw in Qs 1 and 2.

Some context before we get into the whys here. A thing that’s important to note up front is that mobile wasn’t one of those industries where everything was smooth sailing before everything got upended by a pandemic. In 2019 I wrote a not insignificant number of stories with headlines like “Smartphone sales expected to drop 2.5% globally this year” and “Smartphone sales declined again in Q2, surprising no one.” And even those stories were a continuation of trends from a year prior.

The reasons for the decline should be pretty familiar by now. For one thing, premium handsets got expensive, routinely topping out over $1,000. Related to that, phones have gotten good. Good news for consumers doesn’t necessarily translate to good news for manufacturers here, as upgrade cycles have slowed significantly from their traditional every two years (also an artifact of the carrier subscription model). Couple that with economic hardships, and you’ve got a recipe for slowed growth.

This March, I wrote an article titled “5G devices were less than 1% of US smartphone purchases in 2019.” There was, perhaps, a certain level of cognitive dissonance there, after many years of 5G hype. There are myriad factors at play here. First, there just weren’t a ton of different 5G models available in the States by year’s end. Second, network rollout was far from complete. And, of course, there was no 5G iPhone.

I concluded that piece by noting:

Of course, it remains to be seen how COVID-19 will impact sales. It seems safe to assume that, like every aspect of our lives, there will be a notable impact on the number of people buying expensive smartphones. Certainly things like smartphone purchases tend to lessen in importance in the face of something like a global pandemic.

In hindsight, the answer is “a lot.” I’ll be the first to admit that when I wrote those words on March 12, I had absolutely no notion of how bad it was about to get and how long it would last (hello month nine of lockdown). In the earliest days, the big issue globally was on the supply side. Asia (China specifically) was the first place to get hit and the epicenter of manufacturing buckled accordingly. Both China and its manufacturing were remarkably fast to get back online.

In the intervening months, demand has taken a massive hit. Once again, there are a number of reasons for this. For starters, people aren’t leaving their homes as much — and for that reason, the money they’ve allotted to electronics purchases has gone toward things like PCs, as they’ve shifted to a remote work set-up. The other big issue here is simple economics. So many people are out of work and so much has become uncertain that smartphones have once again been elevated to a kind of luxury status.

There are, however, reasons to be hopeful. It seems likely that 5G will eventually help right things — though it’s hard to say when. Likely much of that depends on how soon we’re able to return to “normal” in 2021. But for now, there’s some positive to be seen in early iPhone sales. After Apple went all in on 5G this year, the new handset (perhaps unsurprisingly) topped sales for all other 5G handsets for the month of October, according to analysts.

The company will offer a more complete picture (including the ever-important holiday sales) as part of its earnings report next month. For now, at least, it seems that thing are finally heading in the right direction. That trend will, hopefully, continue as the new year sees a number of Android launches.

Perhaps 2021 will be the year of 5G — because 2020 sure wasn’t.

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Facebook will pay $650 million to settle class action suit centered on Illinois privacy law

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Facebook was ordered to pay $650 million Friday for running afoul of an Illinois law designed to protect the state’s residents from invasive privacy practices.

That law, the Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), is a powerful state measure that’s tripped up tech companies in recent years. The suit against Facebook was first filed in 2015, alleging that Facebook’s practice of tagging people in photos using facial recognition without their consent violated state law.

1.6 million Illinois residents will receive at least $345 under the final settlement ruling in California federal court. The final number is $100 higher than the $550 million Facebook proposed in 2020, which a judge deemed inadequate. Facebook disabled the automatic facial recognition tagging features in 2019, making it opt-in instead and addressing some of the privacy criticisms echoed by the Illinois class action suit.

A cluster of lawsuits accused Microsoft, Google and Amazon of breaking the same law last year after Illinois residents’ faces were used to train their facial recognition systems without explicit consent.

The Illinois privacy law has tangled up some of tech’s giants, but BIPA has even more potential to impact smaller companies with questionable privacy practices. The controversial facial recognition software company Clearview AI now faces its own BIPA-based class action lawsuit in the state after the company failed to dodge the suit by pushing it out of state courts.

A $650 million settlement would be enough to crush any normal company, though Facebook can brush it off much like it did with the FTC’s record-setting $5 billion penalty in 2019. But the Illinois law isn’t without teeth. For Clearview, it was enough to make the company pull out of business in the state altogether.

The law can’t punish a behemoth like Facebook in the same way, but it is one piece in a regulatory puzzle that poses an increasing threat to the way tech’s data brokers have done business for years. With regulators at the federal, state and legislative level proposing aggressive measures to rein in tech, the landmark Illinois law provides a compelling framework that other states could copy and paste. And if big tech thinks navigating federal oversight will be a nightmare, a patchwork of aggressive state laws governing how tech companies do business on a state-by-state basis is an alternate regulatory future that could prove even less palatable.

 

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AWS reorganizes DeepRacer League to encourage more newbies

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AWS launched the DeepRacer League in 2018 as a fun way to teach developers machine learning, and it’s been building on the idea ever since. Today, it announced the latest league season with two divisions: Open and Pro.

As Marcia Villalba wrote in a blog post announcing the new league, “AWS DeepRacer is an autonomous 1/18th scale race car designed to test [reinforcement learning] models by racing virtually in the AWS DeepRacer console or physically on a track at AWS and customer events. AWS DeepRacer is for developers of all skill levels, even if you don’t have any ML experience. When learning RL using AWS DeepRacer, you can take part in the AWS DeepRacer League where you get experience with machine learning in a fun and competitive environment.”

While the company started these as in-person races with physical cars, the pandemic has forced them to make it a virtual event over the last year, but the new format seemed to be blocking out newcomers. Since the goal is to teach people about machine learning, getting new people involved is crucial to the company.

That’s why it created the Open League, which as the name suggests is open to anyone. You can test your skills and if you’re good enough, finishing in the top 10%, you can compete in the Pro division. Everyone competes for prizes as well such as vehicle customizations.

The top 16 in the Pro League each month race for a chance to go to the finals at AWS re:Invent in 2021, an event that may or may not be virtual, depending on where we are in the pandemic recovery.

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Free 30-day trial of Extra Crunch included with TC Sessions: Justice tickets

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TC Sessions: Justice is coming up on Wednesday, and we’ve decided to sweeten the deal for what’s included with your event pass. Buy your ticket now and you’ll get a free month of access to Extra Crunch, our membership program focused on founders and startup teams with exclusive articles published daily.

Extra Crunch unlocks access to our weekly investor surveys, private market analysis and in-depth interviews with experts on fundraising, growth, monetization and other core startup topics. Get feedback on your pitch deck through Extra Crunch Live, and stay informed with our members-only Extra Crunch newsletter. Other benefits include an improved TechCrunch.com experience and savings on software services from AWS, Crunchbase and more.

Learn more about Extra Crunch benefits here, and buy your TC Sessions: Justice tickets here.  

What is TC Sessions: Justice? 

TC Sessions: Justice is a single-day virtual event that explores diversity, equity and inclusion in tech, the gig worker experience, the justice system and more. We’ll host a series of interviews with key figures in the tech community. 

The event will take place March 3, and we’d love to have you join. 

View the event agenda here, and purchase tickets here

Once you buy your TC Sessions: Justice pass, you will be emailed a link and unique code you can use to claim the free month of Extra Crunch.

Already bought your TC Sessions: Justice ticket?

Existing pass holders will be emailed with information on how to claim the free month of Extra Crunch membership. All new ticket purchases will receive information over email immediately after the purchase is complete.

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We’re happy to extend a free month of access to existing users. Please contact extracrunch@techcrunch.com and mention that you are existing Extra Crunch members who bought a ticket to TC Sessions: Justice. 

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