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Working from home, online grocery shopping, cord cutting: What coronavirus trends will stick

May 1, 2020, 1:18 PM UTC

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There was a joke going around on Twitter recently to the effect of, hey, I have an invention to make us safer when we go back to work. For every worker, put up four walls, put a desk and chair inside, and at the entrance have a swinging door that can be closed.

It made me laugh because I remember those dear old days when I had my own office. During the Internet magazine bubble, I even had one with a coffee table and a couch.

The shift from the days when many office workers had their own space to today’s open floor plans and unassigned cubicles happened in fits and starts. It accelerated in hard economic times when companies could justify cutting beloved perks as a way to stave off more draconian measures like cutting jobs.

During the pandemic, so much has changed so fast, but how many of the changes will stick?

You could see the vast changes from that microscopic coronavirus all across tech earnings this week.

At Apple, CEO Tim Cook explained that sales of laptops and iPads were higher, while phone upgrades and purchases of smartwatches and AirPods were lower. Intel and AMD saw a surge in PC chip sales plus server chips going to ever-busier cloud computing providers. Intel’s sales to cloud customers jumped 53% from a year ago. Amazon, Google, and Microsoft all saw strong cloud revenue growth.

Cord cutting has been going on for years, but Netflix never gained 16 million customers in one quarter before. This week, we also learned that over 400,000 Comcast cable TV customers dropped service in the first quarter, more than the number in all of 2018 and more than half as many as last year.

But not every change will be permanent. Online grocery shopping has skyrocketed, but I’m willing to bet customer satisfaction has not. Driving in cars, and car accidents, have dropped dramatically, but Americans still love the open road. And there’s a huge amount of forced online learning going on, but I don’t think that’s teaching people that it works.

The best call I had this week was with Callie Field, who runs T-Mobile’s customer care unit. She had to set up 12,000 call center staff to work from home (with desktop computers, not laptops) in just a few weeks. “In the past, I had the idea that children playing in the background, or dogs barking, or the laundry going off, was not the way you do customer service—that’s not professional,” she told me. “Now our ideas on what’s professional and what’s acceptable are changing.”

Changing big time. Have a safe and refreshing weekend.

Aaron Pressman

@ampressman

aaron.pressman@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

If you're so smart, then tell me why are you still so afraid? As one analyst put it about Apple and Amazon's earnings: Do the numbers even matter? At Apple, revenue increased 1% to $58.3 billion, far better than analysts expected. But Apple's stock price, previously unchanged on the year after a wild ride, lost 3% in pre-market trading on Friday. Likewise, Amazon's first quarter sales increased 26% to $75.5 billion, better than expected. But its stock, previously up 34% in 2020, fell 6%. In both cases, warnings from executives about the poor outlook for the rest of the year spooked investors. 

Doing it to ourselves. The dot org domain is saved! The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which oversees the Internet's domain name registration system, decided to cancel the $1 billion sale of the registry to private equity firm Ethos Capital. The sale had been criticized by many Internet users and the attorney general of California.

My instructor was Mr. Langley and he taught me to sing a song.  The experts at OpenAI have a new program they'd like to share. Jukebox is a totally new way for computers to generate music. The program "compresses audio to a discrete space, using a quantization-based approach." Whatever you say. This one is "in the style of" Katy Perry. I think Katy's job is safe for a while longer.

Too many notes. While we wait for our A.I. to write some catchier pop tunes, we'll be able to get much better sound and video out of our computers soon. The spec for USB4 was announced Thursday and it will support not just 8K but 16K displays. Expect USB4-equipped PCs next year.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

In my list of tech that might help in future pandemics, I included virtual reality. Truly immersive VR gatherings could help people stay home. But it's not happening yet, and Magic Leap, a leading startup in the field, just made dramatic job cuts. New York Times columnist Kevin Roose tried some current tech and wrote on why VR seems to be missing its opportunity.

Part of the problem for virtual reality enthusiasts is that much of what a V.R. headset offers can be found in other places. Fortnite, for example, has become a venue for concerts and other large virtual gatherings. (A concert by the hip-hop artist Travis Scott last week drew more than 12 million viewers.) Animal Crossing, a whimsical Nintendo Switch game, has become a surprise quarantine hit. Millions of people are using Zoom and other video-chat apps to hold virtual game nights, cocktail parties and yoga classes on their laptops and phones, without the need for special hardware.

These experiences aren’t fully immersive, in the same way that virtual reality is. But they may not need to be. After all, the breakout moment for augmented reality — V.R.’s chiller, more pragmatic cousin, which involves projecting digital objects onto physical spaces — wasn’t fancy Magic Leap goggles or Hololens gadgets, but a Snapchat filter that let you turn yourself into a dancing hot dog. We are creatures of habit, and it may be that people simply prefer virtual experiences that don’t require them to strap an expensive computer to their forehead.

FOR YOUR WEEKEND READING PLEASURE

A few long reads that I came across this week:

Marie Kondo cleaned house. Now she wants to fix your whole life (Fast Company)

The millennial doyenne of decluttering is poised to build the next lifestyle empire. But will it spark joy?

The Nude Selfie Is Now High Art (New York Times)

It has become an act of resilience in isolation, a way to seduce without touch.

The Crash of the $8.5 Billion Global Flower Trade (Bloomberg Businessweek)

As people everywhere cancel events and big cut-flower orders, the ripples reach into Dutch auction halls and Kenyan rose fields.

The Man Who Thought Too Fast (The New Yorker)

Frank Ramsey—a philosopher, economist, and mathematician—was one of the greatest minds of the last century. Have we caught up with him yet?

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

How the CEO of Chegg believes COVID-19 will change higher education for good By Nicole Goodkind

Samsung, Nationwide, and GE just invested in A.I. startup Nexar By Jonathan Vanian

Here’s who is winning (and losing) during Q1 earnings seasons so far By Anne Sraders

What is WeWork worth now? By Lucinda Shen

Gift ideas for new graduates and young professionals By Rachel King

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. There is a 50% discount for our loyal readers if you use this link to sign up. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)

BEFORE YOU GO

I did not turn 68 on Wednesday—a bit less. But famed tech prognosticator Kevin Kelly did (on Tuesday) and he has 68 pieces of advice for the rest of us. I liked:

"There is no limit on better. Talent is distributed unfairly, but there is no limit on how much we can improve what we start with."

Maybe this weekend is a time for us all to make our own lists.

Aaron Pressman

@ampressman

aaron.pressman@fortune.com