Global PC shipments set to drop 7% in 2020

New numbers from Canalys project a 7% drop in global PC sales, owing to financial strains. The category is one of countless impacted by the COVID-19-related shutdowns, but the group notes that the virus’s direct impact is mostly behind the industry, due to the rebounding of China’s supply chain.

A resulting global recession, on the other hand, is expected to continue to have a notable impact on the industry, moving forward. Simply put, people just don’t have the money to spend on upgraded devices.

Here in North America, the vertical is expected to take a 6% hit, as U.S. citizens have already filed 40 million unemployment claims since the pandemic’s start. The firm says it doesn’t expect a full recovery until 2020, when the category is expected to grow 4% from the year prior. Obviously these are projections. A lot can change in two years — particularly at the rate we’re going.

China and the broader Asia Pacific region experienced smaller declines and are expected to recover more quickly, owing to being at the front of the first wave and due to what appears to have been effective management of the crisis.

It’s also worth noting that the PC industry wasn’t as hard hit as the smartphone category. Manufacturers were able to slow the slide, owing to consumers and businesses purchasing equipment in order to upgrade home office set ups.

Tech companies mark Blackout Tuesday

Over the weekend, music industry execs Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang called on fellow industry members to protest police violence against black people by pausing operations for the day. The pair created the site and hashtag #theshowmustbepaused, which spread quickly throughout social media as people looked for a way to offer solidarity with nationwide and international protests.

The call has transformed in a larger movement, among individuals and companies seeking to respond to the killing of George Floyd and other black Americans at the hands of police.

“Tuesday, June 2 is meant to intentionally disrupt the work week,” the site explains. “It’s a day to take a beat for an honest, reflective and productive conversation about what actions we need to collectively take to support the Black community. The music industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. An industry that has profited predominantly from Black art. Our mission is to hold the industry at large, including major corporations + their partners who benefit from the efforts, struggles and successes of Black people accountable.”

Perhaps the most visible manifestation of the movement are the black squares that have begun to populate Instagram, Facebook and other social media sites. While evocative, the visual has been met with criticism of its own. In particular, some have taken issue with the presence of the squares accompanied by the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.

“Stop posting black squares under the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on Instagram,” writer Anthony James Williams noted on Twitter. “It is intentionally and unintentionally hiding critical information we are using on the ground and online.”

The chief concern is that a sea of black squares are drowning out much of social media’s use as both a lifeline for many on the ground, as well as a historical document of the protests. In many cases, the issue seems to be an unintentional hijacking of the feed.

Music-related tech companies have begun to embrace the movement, as well, days after many penned open letters about Lloyd’s death and subsequent protests. Yesterday, Spotify outlined changes for the 24-hour period. The list includes black logos and headers on a dozen or so playlists and podcasts, including Today’s Top Hits and RapCaviar. Some podcasts and playlists will also sport an 8:46 silent track, referencing the amount of time Floyd was suffocated.

Apple Music noted its own participation on Twitter. The service has canceled its Beat 1 radio schedule, in favor of one focused on black music. YouTube Music and Tidal also posted messages of solidarity on social media. The latter writes:

“We are heartbroken and furious at the murder of George Floyd and so many others, and fully support the Black community as it expresses its pain and anger. Recent events have only strengthened our resolve to loudly reject persistent racism and bigotry.”

Amazon Music also noted that it will not be posting to social today, in honor of the event. Amazon, notably, received pushback after its early messages of solidarity. The ACLU in particular took the company to task for its role in providing facial recognition technology to police departments. The conflict is certainly worth noting as corporations attempt to walk the line of solidarity and crass co-opting of social movements.

On Monday, 10 Viacom media outlets, including Comedy Central, MTV and CMT, marked the day with an eight-minute-and-46-second screen featuring the words “I Can’t Breathe,” accompanied by the sounds of struggle.

Sony postpones PlayStation 5 event, in order for ‘more important voices to be heard’

Sony’s planned June 4 PS5 event has been postponed indefinitely, as the U.S. grapples with widespread protests over the death of George Floyd. It’s understandably a difficult time to focus on video game launches, amid national and global unrest. 

The company noted via Twitter, “While we understand gamers worldwide are excited to see PS5 games, we do not feel that right now is a time to celebrate and for now, we want to stand back and allow more important voices to be heard.”

The event was set to unveil new titles for Sony’s next-gen console due out at the end of the year. It follows a recent similar event from Microsoft, as companies readjust their schedules in the wake of COVID-19 related cancelations of big gaming conferences like E3. Sony’s call to “stand back” follows similar comments from other tech giants, though so far the company has done so without specifically citing Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police or the subsequent protests.

The decision is — perhaps unsurprisingly — being met with mixed reactions from gamers. The complaints range from notes that gaming is a form of escapism from reality to…well, far more problematic suggestions from people upset about having to wait just a little longer before seeing some gaming trailers. As much as it may disappoint some people to say, however, there are, indeed, more important things than video games.

Tech companies respond to George Floyd’s death, ensuing protests and systematic racism

On Sunday, a fourth night of protests erupted around the country, spurred on by the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. The movement is a response to wide-ranging and systematic inequality that has seen a disproportionate number of black Americans suffer a similar fate, with Floyd’s desperate gasping “I can’t breathe” echoing Eric Garner’s death some six years prior.

Violence broke out over the weekend, with photos and videos emerging of bloodied protesters, bystanders and journalists tasked with covering the events. It takes a lot for an event to dominate headlines in a country suffering from far and away the world’s largest number of COVID-19 deaths, but wide scale movements in Minneapolis, New York, D.C., L.A., Chicago and beyond seem destined to remain top of mind in an already deeply divided nation.

Tech companies and CEOs have begun to weigh in on what amounts to a rather delicate topic for corporations not accustom to rocking the boat on these manner of social issues. Tim Cook, who has a history of publicly addressing social issues, said the company draws strength from its diversity. He also told staff that now is the time to listen,

This is a moment when many people may want nothing more than a return to normalcy, or to a status quo that is only comfortable if we avert our gaze from injustice. As difficult as it may be to admit, that desire is itself a sign of privilege. George Floyd’s death is shocking and tragic proof that we must aim far higher than a “normal” future, and build one that lives up to the highest ideals of equality and justice.

The Apple CEO says the company will be making unspecified donations to the Equal Justice Initiative and other non-profits. It will also be matching two-for-one on all employee donations for June.

Twitter, meanwhile, swapped its standard logo for a black and white version, adding a Black Lives Matter hashtag to its bio. Its diversity account Twitter Together offered the following statement (via tweet, naturally),

Racism does not adhere to social distancing. Amid the already growing fear and uncertainty around the pandemic, this week has again brought attention to something perhaps more pervasive: the long-standing racism and injustices faced by Black and Brown people on a daily basis.

Amazon also took to Twitter, offering the following statement,

The inequitable and brutal treatment of Black people in our country must stop. Together we stand in solidarity with the Black community — our employees, customers, and partners — in the fight against systematic racism and injustice.

AWS head Andy Jassy added on his own account,

*What* will it take for us to refuse to accept these unjust killings of black people? How many people must die, how many generations must endure, how much eyewitness video is required? What else do we need? We need better than what we’re getting from courts and political leaders.

Many were quick to condemn Amazon for perceived hypocrisy. Among the issues here are longstanding complaints over worker treatment, as well as Amazon Web Service’s technologies like facial recognition, which have been utilized by law enforcement.

The ACLU responded rather bluntly,

Cool tweet. Will you commit to stop selling face recognition surveillance technology that supercharges police abuse?

Amazon does not appear to have responded to this most recent question from the organization.

The pain of the last week reminds us how far our country has to go to give every person the freedom to live with dignity…

Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Sunday, May 31, 2020

Facebook’s response has also been a mixed bag. Staff have began vocal about their anger around Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to break with Twitter by leaving Trump’s “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” statement in tact. More recently, however, the CEO commitment $10 million to relevant non-profits, adding in a post,

To help in this fight, I know Facebook needs to do more to support equality and safety for the Black community through our platforms. As hard as it was to watch, I’m grateful that Darnella Frazier posted on Facebook her video of George Floyd’s murder because we all needed to see that. We need to know George Floyd’s name. But it’s clear Facebook also has more work to do to keep people safe and ensure our systems don’t amplify bias.

Remarks from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella posted to LinkedIn briefly touch upon the events in Minneapolis, as well as the recent problematic encounter in Central in which the police were called on birder Christian Cooper,

Our identity, our very existence is rooted in empowering everyone on the planet. So, therefore, it’s incumbent upon us to use our platforms, our resources, to drive that systemic change, right? That’s the real challenge here. It’s not just any one incident, but it’s all the things that have led to the incident that absolutely need to change.

Meanwhile, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel sent a lengthy letter to staff on Sunday, writing,

Of course, the same Founding Fathers who espoused the values of freedom, equality, and justice for all – were predominantly slave owners. Their powerful vision of a nation created by the people, for the people was built on a foundation of prejudice, injustice, and racism. Without addressing this rotten foundation and its ongoing failures to create opportunity for all, we are holding ourselves back from realizing our true capacity for human progress – and we will continue to fall short of the bold vision of freedom, equality, and justice for all.

Spiegel’s letter focuses on his work to understand the struggles as a “young, white, educated male [who] got really, really lucky,” as well as proposals for financial methods for addressing inequality. Specifically, he calls for the establishment of a non-partisan Commission on Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations, as well as an investment in housing, healthcare and education.

Global smartphone sales plummeted 20% in Q1, thanks to COVID-19

More dismal numbers confirm what we already knew: Q1 2020 was real rough for an already struggling smartphone category. Gartner’s latest report puts the global market at a 20.2% slide versus the same time last year, thanks in large part to fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Every single one of the global top-five manufactures saw large declines for the quarter, save for Xiaomi, which saw a slight uptick of 1.4%. The Chinese handset maker got a surprise bump, courtesy of international sales. Samsung and Huawei and Oppo all saw double-digit drop-offs at 22.7%, 27.3% and 19.1%, while Apple declined 8.2%. Other companies combined for a sizable 24.2% loss for Q1.

The reasons are ones we’ve gone over several times before, nearly all pertaining to the global pandemic. Chief among them are global stay at home orders and general economic uncertainly. Issues with the global supply chain have no doubt been a factor, as well, as Asia was the first to get hit with the virus.

All of this comes in addition to an already plateauing/declining smartphone market. Analysts had expected that the arrival of 5G would help stem the tide a bit — but, well, some stuff happened in there. Notably, Apple’s slide wasn’t as bad as it might have been thanks to a strong start to the year.

“If COVID-19 did not happen, the vendor would have likely seen its iPhone sales reached record level in the quarter. Supply chain disruptions and declining consumer spending put a halt to this positive trend in February,” Gartner’s Annette Zimmermann said in a release. “Apple’s ability to serve clients via its online stores and its production returning to near normal levels at the end of March helped recover some of the early positive momentum.”

Overall, I suspect that recovery won’t be instantaneous for the market. The future of COVID-19 still feels largely uncertain as countries have begun the process of reopening, and a pricey investment still may not be in the cards for many who are struggling to make ends meet. 

Director Ani Acopian breaks down her drone-shot video, ’A World Artists Love’

“A drone is a camera,” Ani Acopian begins simply. “And it can fly. It’s basically a flying super-camera! I’d love to see more film and TV productions embrace the nimble and magical nature of drones and use them for more than bird’s eye view establishing shots.”

The director’s video for London-based record label AWAL (Artists Without a Label) unfolds like a minute-long homage to the narrative potential of UAVs. It lifts off from a desk, flies out a sliding-glass window, up over the room, down a stairwell and through a car. There’s a restaurant, some skaters in an empty pool, a parking lot junk yard and a backyard pool party. It’s a bright, sun-shiny picture of Southern California in a time before social distancing turned us all into nocturnal weirdos.

The sequence is stitched together to give the appearance on long shot. That’s particularly the work of some editing magic, which pulled together a still-impressive five shots to create the final product. The result comes in no small part due to the flying of Robert McIntosh. The pilot, who had previously collaborated with director Spike Jonze on the 2012 skate video “Pretty Sweet,” custom built the drone.

Weighing in at 120 grams, it was built by removing the camera from a GoPro Hero 6. That, along with the associated wires, were transferred onto the body of a racing drone. The result was palm-sized and fragile, with a dismal battery life of around three to five minutes a go. But the tiny size also allowed for an extremely nimble flying camera capable of shooting 4K video. The drone was flown at a slow speed, with McIntosh piloting through a pair of FPV racing goggles, with radio guidance from director of photography, Eric Maloney.

Acopian says the nature of the shoot required a fair bit of improvisation on the part of the crew, particularly with some scene utilizing up to 60 extras. Each were given a specific action to perform, while the director sat far away, giving directions through a bullhorn, so as to not be picked up through the camera’s wide-angle lens.

“We weren’t able to rehearse with the cast or block out a flight path with the drone ahead of time,” she explains, “so the biggest challenge was showing up at a new location each morning and figuring out what the drone path, talent blocking and VFX markers would be, then rehearsing as much we could up until around two hours before sundown, at which point we had as many takes as we could fit into that two-hour window to nail the shot. If something wasn’t working, we changed it because otherwise we put the whole scene at risk of not happening.”

Each scene naturally required multiple takes — up to 15 in some cases. And yes, that fragile little drone did crash a few times — though it was mostly no worse for wear.

“There was one crash that gave us all a scare, which happened while filming the scene where a partygoer gets caked,” Acopian adds. “The actress took a step back, directly into the path of the flying drone, and the drone got caught in their hair and turned off. Luckily, she was chill with getting a little bit of her hair snipped off so we could get the drone out, and the guys were able to patch it up in about 20 minutes. Twenty minutes later we were shooting again and she took another cake to the face. A true hero.”

After the shoot, the video was processed through ReelSteady — stabilization software created by McIntosh, which was acquired by GoPro back in March. Then it was effects company Alpha Studios’ job to help stitch things together into one continuous shot.

“We originally wanted to make every transition completely seamless and hidden, but locations and logistics meant that we had to make most of our transitions stylized. We worked closely with Alpha Studios to plot out where one shot would end and where the preceding shot would begin,” producer Jeremiah Warren says. “Kaitlyn Yang, from Alpha Studios, was the on-set VFX supervisor and was key in helping us figure out these transition points that her team blended with VFX in post-production.”

The result is a lovely little glimpse into how drones can extend beyond the customary establishing shot and take a deeper storytelling role in the process.

“I know that the future for droning is very bright, and I anticipate that we’ll start to see drones used in ways that don’t immediately give away their ‘drone-ness,’ like to feign camera movements that would otherwise be difficult to achieve,” says Acopian. “You don’t have to be high to fly! Drones, especially FPV drones, have this fluidity to them that beautifully mirrors the way memories feel to me and I’m excited to see more people play with this to recreate the inner experience so many of us have in a new, relatable way.”

Echo Looks will cease functioning in July, as Amazon discontinues the camera

Introduced in mid-2017, the Look was one of the more obscure — and, honestly, kind of bizarre — entries in the Echo line. It was a small camera designed to take videos and selfies of its owner, using machine learning to help choose outfits.

No surprise, really, that it never caught fire. And now, three years after its introduction, it’s dead. First noted by Voicebot.ai, Amazon sent a letter to customers noting that the camera has been discontinued — what’s more, service is going to be completely shuttered in July.

Amazon confirmed the end of what seems to have amounted to an experiment and exercise in training a machine learning algorithm. The company tells TechCrunch:

When we introduced Echo Look three years ago, our goal was to train Alexa to become a style assistant as a novel way to apply AI and machine learning to fashion. With the help of our customers we evolved the service, enabling Alexa to give outfit advice and offer style recommendations. We’ve since moved Style by Alexa features into the Amazon Shopping app and to Alexa-enabled devices making them even more convenient and available to more Amazon customers. For that reason, we have decided it’s time to wind down Echo Look. Beginning July 24, 2020, both Echo Look and its app will no longer function. Customers will still be able to enjoy style advice from Alexa through the Amazon Shopping app and other Alexa-enabled devices. We look forward to continuing to support our customers and their style needs with Alexa.

Not a surprise, perhaps. But a bummer for those who spent the $200 on the product. For the looks of it, though, I don’t think the Look exactly caught the world on fire. It’s currently listed as the 51st best seller on Amazon’s list of Echo products. Honestly, there’s a decent chance this is the first time you’re hearing about it. Again, not surprising for what was always destined to be a niche addition to the Echo line.

Google’s latest experiment encourages social distancing through AR

Several months into this pandemic, you can no doubt already eyeball six feet/two meters with the best of them. But if you’re still having trouble — and happen to have an Android device handy — Google’s got you covered, I guess.

The latest project out of the company’s Experiments With Google collection, Sodar is a simple browser-based app that uses WebXR to offer a mobile augmented reality social distance. Visiting the site in Chrome on an Android handset will bring up the app. From there you’ll need to point your camera at the ground and move it around as the device recognizes the plane with a matrix of dots.

Move it up, and you’ll get a visual perimeter of two meters (that’s 6.6 feet for us imperial unit loving Americans) — the CDC-recommended length to help curb the spread of COVID-19. The organization also handily lists it as “about two arms’ length. The app is probably more clever than it is useful at this point. Perhaps some day in the future, if smart glasses ever really take off. A big if, of course. 

Meantime, holding a phone up to make sure you’re a proper distance away from your fellow human/disease vector is a bit less practical than good old fashioned common sense.

The Simpsons can now be watched in 4:3 aspect ratio on Disney+, as nature intended

The greatest comedy in television history became a part of the Disney family when the mega-corporation gobbled up Fox last year, like so many forbidden donuts. Beyond having to make nice with the cartoon mouse American’s family had so openly antagonized over the decades, the deal meant that The Simpsons would have a permanent home on the new Disney+ streaming service.

That meant all 30 seasons of the longest-running prime-time series would be available in one place — albeit with one major catch. Disney went ahead and “remastered” the series, an act that largely involved stretching older episodes from their native 4:3 aspect ratio to 16:9.

It was, understandably, enough to raise the ire of fans paying $7 a month to watch the beloved series. The resulting episodes looked distorted and important sight gags were lost to cropping. And The Simpsons without sight gags might as well be The Thompsons. There were annoyed grunts amid the fan base, and Disney backed slowly into the hedge.

The long-promised fix is finally here. Turns out it was easier said than done. Episodes will still pop up in the remastered aspect ratio by default, but clicking into the show description and “Details” from the main menu will let you toggle that off. The move will return the shows to 4:3 up to Season 20, when the show began to be natively produced in 16:9.

Amazon says it will offer full-time jobs to 125,000 temporary workers

In a blog post today, Amazon announced plans to offer permanent jobs to around 70% of the 175,000 temporary workers it brought on to meet demand amid a COVID-19-fueled surge. Initially filled as seasonal positions, the company will be transferring 125,000 people to full-time roles next month, as the pandemic-fueled push theoretically dies down.

Those roles will earn workers a minimum wage of $15 and hour (after pushback from lawmakers like Bernie Sanders) and access to some training programs designed to help them work their way up at the company. The full-time jobs will kick in the same month Amazon winds down its $2 an hour hazard pay for workers.

Amazon has been the subject of criticism for its handling of the COVID-19 crisis, including letters from senators and attorneys general aimed at getting a better picture of its worker health policies, along with numbers of employees who have been infected or died from the novel coronavirus.

Another asked the company to offer insight into why the company had fired a number of staff who had been vocally critical of its policies. Amazon has denied any wrong doing in all of this and insisted that COVID-19 rates among staff are lower than the general population.

This latest move comes amid the worst U.S. unemployment rate since the Great Depression. This week, an additional 2.1 million Americans applied for unemployment, bringing the total up to 41 million since the beginning of the pandemic. Economists are hopeful that reopening sectors of the country will help reverse those figures, assuming that such actions don’t lead to massive spikes in COVID-19 cases and deaths.