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There couldn't be smartphones in billions of pockets today if the phone companies had their way.
Now they stand in the way of progress again.
The typical sales season for smartphones began with the launch of new iPhone models this week. What is different in 2020 is that when buying a new phone, Americans are struggling to access the next generation of cellular networks known as 5G.
The message is: 5G = Good! Fast! Get it now!
Reality: It's not that good or that fast right now and most people in the US don't need to get it right now.
Americans should resent that Marketing Blather is gaining clarity about 5G. I fear people will waste their money on half-hearted technology and become disillusioned with 5G's potential for improving lives.
My message to US phone companies: Communicate more effectively over 5G or walk away.
I've seen these problems before. Before the iPhone, we had clunky mobile devices for years, and phone companies like AT&T deserved a lot of debt.
Phone companies dictated almost everything about flip phones and early smartphones, including what they did, how they looked, and how fast they were. People had to put up with lousy phone company software to surf the Internet or download songs and ringtones. (Do you remember ringtones ?!) It stank.
One of the iPhone's secrets to success is that Apple simply said no to all of this. Apple's then CEO Steve Jobs gave wireless companies an ultimatum: Stay away from any decision about the iPhone or lose the chance of selling a potential blockbuster.
Apple found its way, the iPhone was finally a success, and phone companies got rich with it alongside Apple.
Telephone companies eventually played an important role in making smartphones affordable, useful, and available around the world. One lesson from that crucial beginning, however, was that phone companies had to get out of hand before any new technology caught on.
I'm getting bad 2000s vibes from what's happening to smartphones now.
My colleague Brian X. Chen wrote about 5G Marketing Hot Air. This wireless standard should theoretically allow us to download videos or buy things on our phones in the blink of an eye. At some point, the fast wireless speeds could make it easier for cars without drivers to navigate city streets safely and more surgeons to make it easier for them to remotely control patients.
However, 5G is currently unavailable in many places in the US, and for most people it's not a significant improvement in speed either – if any faster. Telephone companies are mostly unaware of this.
Once you've decided on a new smartphone, it makes sense to buy a smartphone that works on 5G cellular networks. Most Americans shouldn't buy a new phone just for 5G, however. (People in other countries: this may not apply to you.)
Given Apple's history, I was disappointed that Apple repeated the confusion about 5G when it launched new iPhones this week. Jobs' successor, Tim Cook, left the boss of Verizon Hype 5G. Cook said 5G is "super fast". It is! If you're under exactly the right light pole on that one block in Chicago.
These 5G cellular networks will soon be getting better. However, I worry that in the meantime, Americans will become cynical about the potential of the networks. And when it does, it is mostly the fault of the phone companies.
How will the pandemic change the way food is grown and purchased?
At a Times Talk event this week on how the pandemic is changing our food system, two technologically relevant topics were addressed: a shift to online grocery shopping and the growth of vertical farms, highly mechanized and often tiny laboratories for indoor products nearby population centers. (You can see a replay of the event here.)
Greg Lehmkuhl of Lineage Logistics, which transports fresh and frozen groceries around the world, believed that many people who shop more online during the pandemic will stick to this habit when the virus risk subsides.
Lehmkuhl says grocery sellers with the most money to invest in new grocery ordering systems and shipping methods – think Amazon, Walmart, and other large stores – will do better than retailers with fewer resources.
And he said the changes in the way Americans shop for groceries have led grocery sellers to make major adjustments, including setting up more mini-stores, not for shopping, but for putting together grocery orders for home delivery.
Sara Menker, founder and managing director of farming software company Gro Intelligence, said vertical farming is an efficient and less wasteful way to grow some products like leafy vegetables, but in many cases not a viable alternative to traditional farming.
"There is only a subset of food that can still grow on a vertical farm," said Menker. Vertical farms usually can't grow staples like rice or corn, she said. And while prices have come down as people are better able to grow food on vertical farms, farms are unlikely to be viable everywhere.
"It will work in some markets, not in others because it is still too expensive," said Menker.
Before we go …
First take a breath. Be skeptical. Brian X. Chen has a helpful guide on how to identify and hopefully not disclose false or emotionally manipulative information we see online. Among the tips: Stick to a handful of news sources you trust and check your own facts.
Related Topics: Following Facebook and Twitter, YouTube announced it was taking steps to block videos related to QAnon, the sprawling conspiracy theory community that campaigns for child-eating cabal to control powerful institutions, my colleague Kevin Roose reported.
A political accusation sparked a backlash from social media companies: Facebook and Twitter restricted access to a New York Post report based on unverified material about Joe Biden, my colleagues reported. The company's actions sparked strong reactions from Republicans who accused social media platforms of censoring them.
I panicked buying multiple computer cables for some reason: My colleague John Herrman writes that a brutal year 2020 got people to play freaks – whether they wanted to or not. People have scoured the internet for scarce school laptops, noise-canceling headphones, video game systems, and (swallow) pulse oximeters to help them get through tough times.
Really what day is it today? Nobody knows. Even this TV news anchor.
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