2020’s Hot Gadget Is the Computer

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Computers are like hammers. Lots of people own them and find them useful. Not many people have deep emotions about them. (To prove me wrong, please send me poems about your hammers.)

But one of the surprises in this not-normal year is how personal computers that had been zzzzzz for a long time have been the star gadgets of 2020.

That’s partly because the pandemic has forced people to spend more time at home in front of computer screens.

Computers, though, have also morphed to meet the moment, including the stripped-down Chromebook laptops popular for remote schooling and beefy PCs ideal for quarantine video gaming.

This year should give us renewed appreciation for the humble personal computer, and the ways in which the industry has changed to make the right tool for the right person.

With the reach now of smartphones, there’s no going back to the time when computers were the only digital device for most people — and in some countries they never were.

But one lesson from the enduring appeal of computers is that old technology doesn’t necessarily die. It can adapt.

The research firm IDC has predicted that this year’s sales of new personal computers and similar devices will increase a bit over last year because schools and workplaces that went remote prompted many people to buy computers. Partly because of our increased interest, some computers have been hard to find at times.

In 2021 and beyond, though, IDC expects new computer sales — which peaked in 2011 and have mostly trended down since then — will see a slow decline. (Smartphone sales have been inching down, too.)

The glum sales trends, however, mask some of the fresh thinking in computers the last few years.

The best example is how Google and its partners made Chromebook laptops cheap, simple and durable enough for kids, and controllable for administrators, to put computers into more classrooms than ever before. These devices — pushed along by Google’s sales tactics with schools — might be the most underappreciated new digital idea of the last decade.

We now also have more computing variety than ever, including PCs that double as tablets like the Microsoft Surface, stylish and ultra thin laptops, specialist machines for video game die-hards and PCs with always-on internet connections like smartphones. And Apple this week unveiled new Macs that promise to be zippier than many conventional computers.

Not all of these devices are hits, but the activity shows that there’s still innovation in a digital category that not long ago was mostly boring beige boxes. Desperation to avoid irrelevancy might have been the mother of reinvention in the computer industry.

At home, I have a laptop that is at least eight years old and works OK. I haven’t felt the need to replace it. But I’ve started using a virtual indoor cycling app, and the game looks blah on my tired Mac. Then my colleague Kevin Roose tweeted about his affection for a souped-up desktop he bought for web streaming.

I felt something that I hadn’t felt for a while. Envy. About a computer.

It is natural for people to get mad when prices go up. When a big company tinkers with prices, it’s a moment to ask whether it’s a sign of unrestrained power.

There was a lot of fury at Google on Wednesday when the company said that Google Photos, its digital photo saving service, would no longer have free and unlimited storage for new snapshots. After June 2021, avid photographers might eventually have to pay Google to stow photos. Apple already does this.

It was a classic bait-and-switch. Google offered something for free, got people hooked and then turned on the cash register. (It also has never really been free — Google uses our photos to train its software systems.)

On the one hand, it’s hard to complain when a company wants money to sustain a good product. But one of the big questions about technology superstars like Google is whether behavior that might seem inevitable and natural is instead a reflection of their unchecked power.

The antitrust scholar Dina Srinivasan published a provocative research paper last year that suggested Facebook had once been a stickler for protecting people’s data and privacy — at least while the company had competition. Once social media rivals like Myspace were irrelevant, Facebook could ignore objections to its harvesting of people’s personal information.

Srinivasan’s point was that Facebook’s data recklessness was an outgrowth of the company’s market power. I also wonder whether Google’s photos bait-and-switch is connected to its market power.

There used to be good digital photo storage apps that weren’t owned by giant companies, like Picturelife and Everpix. But it is tough to compete with free or mostly free alternatives from Google and Apple.

Even if people are angry enough now to ditch Google Photos, Google and Apple have squeezed out or killed many of the viable alternatives. Now those giants can mostly do what they want with their photo apps. (The tech writer Will Oremus at OneZero made a similar point.)

The worst thing is that we don’t know what good ideas in photo apps we might have missed, because few companies can compete with giants offering something for free. Even when it’s not free anymore.

  • The retreat to Parler: Since the U.S. election, millions of people have migrated to alternative social media and media sites like Parler, Rumble and Newsmax, my colleagues Mike Isaac and Kellen Browning report. It’s a reaction to a concern among some people that sites like Facebook and Twitter are biased against conservative voices.

  • When backlash about a baby panda tells you so much more: This isn’t just a story about the wildly popular K-pop group Blackpink and the internet fury the members incited in China by cuddling a baby panda. It’s also a tale of Chinese internet users who are “fiercely protective of the nation’s image and history” and of the challenges facing globally popular stars who run up against different countries’ norms, my colleague Yan Zhuang writes.

  • These digital cats are cute. Or terrifying? During this year’s Chinese online shopping holiday known as Singles’ Day, e-commerce websites are using digital games — including one in which players can spend hours feeding and dressing virtual cats and making them “popular” — to get people to shop more and lure in their friends, the tech publication Abacus reports.

Rey the African penguin (and her waddling strut) rule the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

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