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Consumer tech is bracing for its first contraction in more than a decade

CTA says unemployment is hitting consumer spending — but there are some bright spots.

Netflix on a computer

CTA predicts that Netflix and other streaming services may actually benefit from consumers cutting down on spending and moving away from more-expensive cable bundles.

Photo: Gabby Jones/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Tech is in store for its first contraction since the 2009 financial crisis, according to new estimates from the Consumer Technology Association. The trade group predicts a 2.2% revenue decline in 2020 across hardware and services.

CTA's director of business intelligence, Rick Kowalski, told Protocol that there is no quick turn-around on the horizon. "This is a one- to two-year crisis from here on," he said. "Unemployment will be high, and consumer spending will be lower as a result of it." The group is even predicting declines in segments like laptop sales that should be booming as remote work and remote learning increases, hinting at challenges beyond the consumer market. "We are expecting businesses to also pull back on computing," Kowalski said.

The trade group predicts 2020 U.S. tech revenues to total $406.8 billion, 2.2% below 2019 totals. The crisis will accelerate some existing trends, including a shift from hardware to software and services, with streaming services and video games seeing a 14% year-over-year growth.

Subscription video services in particular will grow their revenue by 28%, with a slower growth for live TV services resulting in an overall revenue increase of 23% for streaming video, CTA projects. Netflix and other streaming services may actually benefit from consumers cutting down on spending and moving away from more expensive cable bundles. "It accelerates cord cutting," Kowalski said.

Sales and revenue for phones, on the other hand, are expected to decline by 6% year-over-year, and consumers are forecast to be buying fewer TVs this year as well (6% decline in units, 14% in revenue). Game console sales will likely get a boost from the introduction of new models, and wireless earbuds continue to see strong growth.

Some segments are being hurt by a downward pressure on prices. Smart home products are expected to see 12% growth in unit shipments but a 6% decrease in revenue. The same is true for connected health, which includes anything from fitness trackers to smart watches (units up 4% year-over-year, revenue down 4%). Kowalski specifically called out health monitors like connected thermometers as one area seeing 75% growth due to the pandemic. "The pandemic has brought a new awareness to connected health products," he said.

The CTA's forecast is based on shipment numbers observed during the first half of the year as well as other signals the trade group is getting from its members. Kowalski said he was confident in the numbers but admitted that there are still a lot of unknowns, including impending health restrictions and a possible second stimulus package. "This has been one of the more difficult years to try to forecast numbers for this industry," he admitted.

Correction: This story was updated at 8:50 a.m. to correct the spelling of Rick Kowalski's name.

People

Google’s trying to build a more inclusive, less chaotic future of work

Javier Soltero, the VP of Workspace at Google, said time management is everything.

With everyone working in new places, Google believes time management is everything.

Image: Google

Javier Soltero was still pretty new to the G Suite team when the pandemic hit. Pretty quickly, everything about Google's hugely popular suite of work tools seemed to change. (It's not even called G Suite anymore, but rather Workspace.) And Soltero had to both guide his team through a new way of working and help them build the tools to guide billions of Workspace users.

This week, Soltero and his team announced a number of new Workspace features designed to help people manage their time, collaborate and get stuff done more effectively. It offered new tools for frontline workers to communicate better, more hardware for hybrid meetings, lots of Assistant and Calendar features to make planning easier and a picture-in-picture mode so people could be on Meet calls without really having to pay attention.

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David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

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The future of computing at the edge: an interview with Intel’s Tom Lantzsch

An interview with Tom Lantzsch, SVP and GM, Internet of Things Group at Intel

An interview with Tom Lantzsch

Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corporation

Edge computing had been on the rise in the last 18 months – and accelerated amid the need for new applications to solve challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., thinks there are more innovations to come – and wants technology leaders to think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

In his role at Intel, Lantzsch leads the worldwide group of solutions architects across IoT market segments, including retail, banking, hospitality, education, industrial, transportation, smart cities and healthcare. And he's seen first-hand how artificial intelligence run at the edge can have a big impact on customers' success.

Protocol sat down with Lantzsch to talk about the challenges faced by companies seeking to move from the cloud to the edge; some of the surprising ways that Intel has found to help customers and the next big breakthrough in this space.

What are the biggest trends you are seeing with edge computing and IoT?

A few years ago, there was a notion that the edge was going to be a simplistic model, where we were going to have everything connected up into the cloud and all the compute was going to happen in the cloud. At Intel, we had a bit of a contrarian view. We thought much of the interesting compute was going to happen closer to where data was created. And we believed, at that time, that camera technology was going to be the driving force – that just the sheer amount of content that was created would be overwhelming to ship to the cloud – so we'd have to do compute at the edge. A few years later – that hypothesis is in action and we're seeing edge compute happen in a big way.

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Saul Hudson
Saul Hudson has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, especially in understanding and targeting messages in cutting-edge technologies. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, in helping companies to build passionate audiences and accelerate their growth. Hudson has reported from more than 30 countries, from war zones to boardrooms to presidential palaces. He has led multinational, multi-lingual teams and managed operations for hundreds of journalists. Hudson is a Managing Partner at Angle42, a strategic communications consultancy.
Power

Viewers like you: How PBS is adapting to the streaming age

The public broadcaster has had considerable success on YouTube and other digital platforms. Now, it is looking to revamp pledging.

PBS has begun to talk to ad-supported video services, including some that distribute programming via free 24/7 channels, to help it compete in the streaming age.

Image: PBS

If there were a playbook for the streaming wars, it might read something like this: Take your most valuable assets, slap a plus behind your most recognizable brand name, and start counting the money.

For PBS, things aren't quite that easy. While the public broadcaster has made some inroads in streaming, it has been slower to embrace digital business models than some of its commercial competitors. But that could change in the coming months. PBS is in discussions to bring its app to additional platforms, including a new crop of ad-supported video services, and has plans to turn smart TVs into donation machines that could ultimately make the old-fashioned pledge drive obsolete.

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Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

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Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Power

Cord cutting in 2020: Pay TV industry lost 5.5 million subscribers

Subscriber defections slowed toward the end of the year, but there's no end to cord cutting in sight.

The pay TV industry is undergoing a bit of a power shift.

Photo: Nicolas J Leclercq/Unsplash

The five biggest pay TV providers lost a combined 5.5 million subscribers in 2020, narrowly staying below the 5.8 million subscribers the companies collectively lost in 2019. Subscriber losses slowed a bit toward the end of the year, but pandemic-related cutbacks still hit the industry hard — and may have led to hundreds of thousands additional cancellations if not for industry-wide billing relief efforts.

The industry is undergoing a bit of a power shift, with pay TV subscribers switching from traditional operators like Comcast and AT&T to tech companies like Google and Hulu and their respective pay TV services. However, a closer look at pay TV trends suggests that these gains may be temporary, as so-called skinny bundles fall out of favor with consumers once operators are forced to increase their price tags to make up for ever-increasing network licensing costs.

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Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

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