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Coronavirus turns phone launches into surreal experiences

Commentary: COVID-19 precautions have derailed most daily activities, except for phone launches.

The 2019 Mate 30 launch was the last big Huawei event to go ahead exactly as planned.
Sven Hoppe/picture alliance via Getty Images
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Exactly one year ago, I was sitting in one of many cavernous halls in a Paris convention center watching Huawei CEO Richard Yu unveil the P30 Pro flagship phone. 

It was very much a typical tech launch event. Dramatic lighting and booming music elicited a mood of anticipation as a packed room of journalists, fans and industry partners who had traveled from all over the world waited for a glimpse of the P30. Following Yu's keynote, journalists and Huawei executives mingled, shaking hands and chatting in close quarters. The P30 Pro made the rounds for everyone to play with.

Fast forward a year, and I'm covering the launch of the P30's successor -- the P40 Pro -- from my silent but well-lit home office while I wear fluffy slippers and my cat Toulouse peers over the top of my laptop screen. 

The dichotomy between the two events and the surreal world I find myself in today wasn't lost on me. A year ago, I would've been right in the thick of that scrum, chatting up executives and elbowing my way to get my hands on a phone. Today, just the thought of being in a room with other people with the product being passed around gives me palpitations.

While Huawei launched the product with a livestream, complete with Yu making his keynote amid faint applause, the shadow of the pandemic loomed large. With everyone engrossed in seemingly nothing but coronavirus news, it felt fruitless to talk about the arrival of a new phone. The P40 Pro is an intriguing device, and under usual circumstances, there would be plenty to say about it. 

But in today's world, would anyone want to listen?

Huawei's event was the highest-profile product launch since the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping through countries around the world, forcing governments to lock down communities and ban mass gatherings. At the time of writing, there have been almost 466,000 confirmed cases worldwide of the virus, and over 21,000 deaths.

Ever since the MWC trade show was canceled last month, it's been one lackluster reaction after another to all the tech launches that have taken place, no matter how great the device is on paper. Journalists and analysts I've spoken with have been underwhelmed by the debuts.

The P40 launch followed a similar, albeit smaller-scale, debut of HMD's Nokia 8.3 phone just last week. It came and went with little fanfare. 

Now playing: Watch this: Huawei P40 Pro and Plus first impressions: CNET editors...

It felt extremely weird in an almost out-of-body way to be logging onto Huawei's livestream while simultaneously publishing other stories about the impact of the coronavirus content and worrying about my family members working in the health care service. Trying to muster up the usual levels of excitement I have around such events would have been inauthentic and perhaps even inappropriate.

From here, I can't touch the new phones Huawei announced or admire the almost bezel-less displays with my own eyes. I can't, as we make a point of doing at CNET, try to capture a sense of the prevailing mood at the launch event in my writing. I can't, in good conscience, tell people that this is the news story they should be caring about above all others.

I know that I'm incredibly fortunate to still be able to do my job under these conditions at all, and I don't blame the companies for pressing ahead with their launches as planned. They're doing everything they can to keep their staff employed and ensure they're able to meet the demand for their products.

But I don't think it would be right to let this moment pass without acknowledging the disconnect between launching new consumer tech products and the ongoing medical catastrophe facing the world.

In a group interview following the keynote, I asked Yu if the situation felt equally surreal to him. China felt "safe" now, he said, with people increasingly going back to work. He also expressed his company's commitment to honoring the loyalty of its customers by making sure it delivered the P40 as expected.

It was a very on-brand response, but no one on that Zoom call, which under usual circumstances would have been a roundtable meeting in person, could pretend that anything about the situation was normal. 

And yet within the weirdness, there's a glimmer of hope. Product launches are pretty much the only thing in my life not totally derailed by the coronavirus right now. Perhaps they're not thriving, but at least they're surviving. And for that bit of normalcy, I'm grateful.