Ahead of the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show, tech firms see troubling signs

CES a year ago.
CES a year ago.
Image: AP Photo/John Locher
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On Sunday, roughly 200,000 exhibitors, buyers, and members of the media will begin descending on Las Vegas for the annual Consumer Electronics Show, or CES. Expect lots of 5G talk, autonomous vehicles, smart devices, robots, and many, many gadgets. CES is a time to celebrate our technological advances and dream of the future, but this year it will be difficult to ignore the present.

Looming largest is a company that doesn’t even attend CES: Apple. The iPhone maker stunned markets this week by slashing the revenue outlook for its crucial holiday quarter, sending its stock plummeting. Since shares peaked in October, Apple has lost more than $400 billion in market capitalization (paywall), or roughly one Facebook. It’s facing harsh questions about its ability to innovate and grow.

Most concerning is what the reduced forecast portends for everyone else. In a letter to investors, Apple CEO Tim Cook singled out China for buying fewer iPhones, thanks to a slowing economy and a trade war with the US. China has long been the center of growth for global businesses, and if the world’s largest consumer-device maker is struggling there, watch out.

All that CES optimism will also have to contend with the fact that our relationship with technology is changing. Executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google were hauled in front of government bodies last year to defend how they use and protect our data. The darlings of our digital economy are facing scrutiny like never before.

This should trouble the whole tech industry. Those smart speakers and fridges and bottle openers all want our data, too. We need to ask how much data is really needed and where it ultimately goes.

Technology will remain the world’s growth engine. It creates efficiencies, makes the world more accessible, and makes the once impossible possible. But we’re at a moment where we’re asking if we really need a new phone or TV that might only be marginally better than the one we have. And if we do need that new gadget, what’s the true cost?

This post was originally published in the weekend edition of the Quartz Daily Brief. Sign up for it here.