To put it simply, 2020 was tough. More than ever, this year we turned to our personal technology to find peace of mind, stay healthy, and connect with the people we care about.
Video chat apps like Webex and Google Meet became important work tools. After fitness studios closed, virtual training apps like Peloton turned into indispensable products. Electric bikes and scooters, once a source of frustration, found their moment when people looked for alternatives to public transport and drove hailstones.
Even so, there were many technologies that let us down.
Some of Amazon's devices, like the ring security cameras, turned out to be rather scary than useful. Delivery apps with hidden markups have continued to drive takeaway order prices higher. A new type of smartphone with a foldable screen was a gimmick. For now, at least, this was 5G, the next generation cellular technology that doesn't live up to its hype of delivering incredibly fast speeds.
Over the past few years I've been reviewing the technology that has improved a lot and the technology that has yet to be fixed. Here were the ups and downs in 2020.
Tech that was fixed
"Can you hear me now?"
Before the pandemic, many of us hated holding meetings over video calling. The video and audio quality was often grainy and laggy, and a lot of people didn't know to mute their microphones when they weren't talking.
In the early stages of the pandemic, Zoom made headlines for good and bad reasons. Hundreds of millions of us desperate to keep in touch with friends and colleagues have signed up for video conferencing service to virtualize our office meetings, classrooms, happy hours, and yoga sessions. However, as zoom became more popular, we discovered many security flaws that allowed trolls to gain “zoom bombs” or unauthorized access to people's video sessions, among other things.
Zoom's mistakes had a silver lining: stronger alternatives were needed.
In the past year, many video conferencing apps have improved a lot. Google has made a huge improvement in Meet, making it possible to video chat with hundreds of attendees. Microsoft and Cisco are also redesigning their video chat products Teams and Webex. Zoom, which is still under review, has fixed some of its security issues.
At this rate, many of us will likely continue to use video conferencing for many of our tasks even after life has returned to normal.
While wearable devices like Fitbits and Apple Watch have been popular for years, many of their uses are still emerging. Counting steps becomes tedious. Sleep tracking with wearables is inaccurate, and the data can add to your anxiety and keep you up at night. It's also unclear whether the new Apple Watch's blood oxygen monitoring feature will be useful.
With our gyms closed, we had to find ways to stay in shape at home.
Peloton, known for selling expensive exercise bikes and treadmills, received widespread attention. The guided training videos, which do not require peloton hardware, are so well produced that they make a strong substitute for a real trainer. Apple released a copycat this month: Fitness +, a subscription service exclusively available to Apple Watch owners that features videos that are just as high quality as Peloton's.
This year marked a turning point for health technology: we get access to products that can actually make us healthier. This is not a gimmick.
Before 2020, electric scooters often provoked hostility. Tech companies like Bird flooded the city streets with e-scooters that people could rent through apps. However, the cities were not prepared for regulations for the two-wheelers. As a result, many people drove and parked them illegally on sidewalks, putting pedestrians and people with disabilities at risk.
This year things have changed. Some states like California and New York now have regulations that keep the scooters safe. And after government officials stopped commuters from using public transport to get to work earlier in the pandemic, electric bikes and scooters found their moment. Many of us have found that electric two-wheelers are a pleasure to drive and environmentally friendly. Most importantly, they keep people away from cars.
The only downside is that high quality e-bikes were in such demand that if you could find one in stock, you'd be lucky.
Economy & Economy
Dec. 22, 2020, 6:42 p.m. ET
Technology that needed to be repaired
Scary Amazon gadgets
You would think that an artificially intelligent drone flying around your house to record video is something out of an Orwellian science fiction movie. But Amazon introduced it as a real product that says a lot about its product philosophy. Technology isn't necessarily bad at what it does, but it lacks empathy.
The drone is unlikely to be released until 2021, but we can see the scary factor in some of Amazon's gadgets this year. Best known, Ring, the Amazon-owned company that makes surveillance cameras including internet-connected doorbells, came under fire over several scandals, including one that involved four employees who inappropriately viewed customers' videos.
More recently, Amazon released Halo, its fitness tracking wristband that took creepy to a new level. It has a tiny microphone that overhears your conversations to tell you how your mood sounds to other people. (For me, the Halo reported that I was disgusted and irritated when I talked to my wife about what a bad idea the product was.) There is also an app that takes photos of your half-naked body to show your body fat measure I found this to be a very negative motivational tool for getting fit.
Amazon has done better before. The Kindle is still the most beautiful product for reading digital books. Let's hope the new devices are part of a temporary experiment and not a permanent trend.
On the one hand, delivery apps like Uber Eats, DoorDash, and Postmates are convenient to use, and we've relied heavily on them this year. On the other hand, many apps surprise us with hidden service fees.
In an analysis earlier this year, I found that most provisioning apps tried to hide markup by aggregating their service fees and taxes into a single line item. The prices of many menu items were also increased in apps compared to the prices of the restaurant. In the most egregious example, I found that the price of ordering two Subway sandwiches at Uber Eats was $ 25.25, 91 percent more than what you would pay at the restaurant.
In the end, it's better to order takeaway the old fashioned way: pick up the phone and call the restaurant directly.
This year, phone manufacturers like Samsung, Motorola, and Huawei have promoted what are known as foldable smartphones that can be folded or unfolded to reduce or enlarge the screen size.
For this benefit, you get the following tradeoffs: the devices cost more than $ 1,300, the display technology is fragile, and the hinges used to fold it eventually break. Over time, foldable phones also become a chore to use: before you can use the phone, you need to open it up and scan your fingerprint or face.
Foldables are a reinvention of an old idea. They work like the clamshell phones from the 90s and early years. But has anyone asked about clamshell phones to make a comeback? I find it hard to think of anyone.
Have you heard that 5G is super fast? Probably because phone companies spent millions of dollars marketing next generation wireless technology.
Unfortunately, the reality of 5G is more complicated. The technology can be faster than its predecessor 4G, but with many limitations.
There are two main flavors of 5G: one that is extremely fast – fast enough to download a movie in a few seconds – and another that is only progressively faster than 4G.
For the past two years, phone providers like AT&T and Verizon have boasted ultra-fast speeds. However, they were less transparent about the technical limitations. The fast version of 5G travels short distances and has problems penetrating walls. For the foreseeable future, we will only get such a connection in outdoor areas such as parks, not in our offices or apartments.
Right now, the less exciting taste of 5G is the one we'll get in most of the country, and it's inconsistent. In my tests, 5G was twice as fast as 4G at best. More often, 5G was just as fast as 4G – and sometimes it was slower.
New cellular technologies always take time to mature, but network operators have over-promised what the technology will deliver today. Let's hope it gets better in 2021.