While it’s arguable if Gary Shapiro, the CEO of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), has the most access to industry information (and his job is to analyze it), he would certainly be on the top 10 of anyone’s list. As a nonprofit, CTA is essentially owned by its member businesses, which profit from sharing information, as well as participating in the Consumer Electronics Show. The last show, in January 2020 in Las Vegas, drew over 175,000 attendees and 4,000 exhibitors.
TechRepublic spoke with Shapiro, along with other key executives, to discuss what he and they were seeing now during the coronavirus pandemic, along with what that might mean for tech devices and careers.
SEE: Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)
Tech industry trends
It’s Steve Koenig, VP of market research for CTA, who acknowledges the new reality. “There’s no shortage of narratives about America shutting down and life at a standstill. And while that may be true in other sectors, as we have no sports right now, we are still growing food and there are still deliveries happening. The economy is moving at a slower pace. Even Jimmy Fallon is doing ‘The Tonight Show’ from his home. Life is continuing and tech in many ways is the reason for that.”
According to Koenig, the recent surveys indicate about half of the member companies faced measurable disruption because of COVID-19. The focus of those companies in mid-March was on the health and welfare of their employees, shifting to building the capability to telecommuting. At the same time, his most revealing comments were on the source of the disruption for computer equipment—disruption in factories in China.
For data, Koenig points to the seasonal return rates of Chinese workers from holiday. In simple terms, when holidays ended in China at the end of January, the workers did not go back to work. As of our late-March interview, Koenig was seeing a 75% return rate. Given a few days to restart the factors, and 30-40 days to ship containers to the USA, that means electronics should be back in stock by late April or early May.
From Koenig’s comments it is also possible to infer a timeline. If China went from locked-down to 75% returns in a month and a half, then other developed nations could expect a similar time—though the measures China took to contain the disease may have been different, and some people question the accuracy of their data.
New innovations driven by demand
Shapiro points out that in many ways, it is the tech industry that is keeping America working. “Twenty years ago, I don’t know what I would be doing right now,” he said. “Probably making a lot of phone calls, I guess.”
Shapiro points to technology like Zoom and RingCentral as enabling the telecommuting revolution, and expects demands for IT support to only increase in the near term.
“There is a startup called Germ Falcon that uses a robot to kill everything using ultraviolet light. It doesn’t miss spots, let me put it that way.” Shapiro adds that “Robotics companies are stepping up, going places humans don’t want to go. In terms of crowdsourcing, the tech industry can be doing things with this data; I saw a cyber contest involving solving these problems with AI and algorithms.”
In terms of recovery, Shapiro sees this more like a time-limited event, perhaps a recession. “I’ve lived through a few recessions; we’ll be looking at this a year from now and see how we survived it. Life will go back to normal at some point, the only question is when. Events will come back.”
Future of in-person events
Unlike O’Reilly media, which recently canceled its in-person line of business, CTA is not willing to turn the lights out just yet. While leaders have canceled two shows in June, the next Consumer Electronics Show, scheduled for January 2021 in Las Vegas, is still scheduled.
Part of that may be the timeframe involved; another piece may be the physicality of devices. Where software is intangible, consumer devices are tactile. People like to touch, experiment with, and hear devices. Watching a live stream just isn’t quite the same thing, and no one yet seems to be able to recreate the experience of an expo floor online.
Balancing this with the sheer number of people in a small space, and Koenig’s comments about virtual events, and we start to see a future that is in the middle between the extremes of expected-in-person last month and all-virtual meetings, all the time.
Shapiro is quick to point out that that is how he sees the world right now. “We made some major decisions that seemed agonizing to make and so far they seem,” then he laughs, “Today those decisions just seem obvious.” He goes on to add: “So that’s where we are. It’s an unusual time. I’m sure that in the next six months time will prove about one third to half of what I said is totally absurd and ridiculous.”
At least he’s honest.