Gadgets were supposed to be over by now.
Smartphones, tablets and smartwatches cannibalized the weaker devices around them, including cameras, music players, navigation units, fitness trackers and gaming devices. The few tech products that broke through the noise of crowdfunding sites and the crowded field of startups were quickly commoditized and undercut on Amazon.
Industry analysts were predicting a "gadget apocalypse."
For now, at least, it appears the gadget apocalypse has been averted, due in part to threats of actual apocalypse. Seven months of shattered plans, lockdowns and rapidly improvised new normals have converted jaded consumers around the world into frantic gadget freaks, each grasping for items that, in their chaotic disparity, tell the story of a strange, dark year: pulse oximeters, HEPA air filters, infrared thermometers, tablets and laptops for schooling, ring lights, miniature freezers, home networking equipment so more than one person can work from home at a time and noise canceling headphones for when your spouse is on a conference call in the next room.
One striking detail of this gadget boom is that the horsemen of the once-inevitable gadget apocalypse have slowed to a trot. Gartner, the research firm and consultancy, estimated that smartphone sales fell by 20% in the second quarter of the year, when much of the world was dealing with severe and increasing COVID-19 caseloads and economies in steep decline. There are new game consoles on the horizon, but they're not yet out; the breakout device in the gaming industry was the most gadgety of its peers — the three-year-old Nintendo Switch.
Before 2020, many popular consumer electronics were receding into the background, more vital and useful than ever but purchased, wielded and discarded with a sense of routine, rather than novelty. In this way, the history of smartphones is like that of cars — taken for granted and made invisible, despite remaking the world around them in increasingly ambitious ways.
The ways in which people buy gadgets, too, have become less distinct and more infrastructural. Product review sites where readers might have compared wireless headphones a few months ago now are recommending home blood oxygen monitoring equipment. A style and language developed by an enthusiast consumer culture is stretching to accommodate new needs. For a family stretching to get their kids set up for remote learning, "The Best Laptops" is less relevant than "How to Shop for a Used Laptop."
Nowhere are the disparate experiences of the pandemic gadget boom more obvious than on Amazon. The generic Amazon brand, once an accused enemy of gadgetry, is now its accomplice. Companies with forgettable names making forgettable products — brands created to sell low-margin batteries, cables and Bluetooth speakers — have grown into miniature Amazon conglomerates.
The gadgets that were so recently on their way out were of a different variety and were purchased under different circumstances. Gadget consumption has long been portrayed as an interface with some part of the future. This was always just a pleasant illusion, and it's one the pandemic has made impossible to sustain.
In this brutally unexpected year, the luckiest were buying their way through hard times, sustained by the hope that another purchase might fix a new problem, momentarily re-empowered, if only by tapping another "Confirm" button, and buoyed by the simple, shameful pleasure of acquisition. The rest were coping, meeting sudden demands or simply trying to stay safe, whatever the cost.
Pandemic gadgets don't bother to lie about being the next big thing. They do not even claim to be a way to catch up with the next big thing. Their guaranteed future obsolescence — perhaps the defining characteristic of a gadget — isn't something to hide, because when it come to pass, it won't be a disappointment. It will be a relief.