Thought Starters: Chinese digital media, iPhone’s dominance, Holacracy and Europe’s lagging digital innovation

The following is a look through articles, research and opinion pieces highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in, with an emphasis on technology.

We are seeing Chinese businesses increasingly innovate and excel, providing business models that set themselves apart from businesses in the West. Digital media and communications have been a particularly fertile ground illustrated by the following table which illustrates how diversified the revenue streams of Tencent and YY are compared to their American counterparts:

Tencent Facebook YY and Youtube Monetisation

Apple is carving an increasingly dominant place in the world’s smartphone marketplace in terms of market share and profit. Some critics have questioned whether Apple can continue this growth trajectory, but Ben Thompson provides a strong defence for why we’re not likely to see this train derailing in the near future:

Smartphone Marketshare

Closely tied to the issue of smartphone ownership is the penetration of different mobile browsers. Here again Akamai’s figures point to Apple’s Mobile Safari browser dominating globally:

Global Mobile Browser Share

Roger D. Hodge looks at the ups and downs of Zappos’ introduction of the Holacracy system for self-organisation. It’s a long article but provides a valuable window into the challenges (and some of the opportunities) of introducing radical organisational change:

Zappos' Models of Organisation

As we embed the internet in an more aspects of  our lives, countries’ digital readiness provides an increasingly important measure of future economic health. Tufts University created the Digital Evolution Index to measure the building of digital capacity and many European countries don’t come out particularly well according to Bhaskar Chakravorti and Ravi Shankar Chaturvedi:

Digital Evolution Index

One digital innovation with its roots in Europe is the blockchain platform Ethereum (although there’s definitely an argument for it being a global project). Vinay Gupta provides a valuable look at the development of blockchain and smart contracts within the wider context of the evolution of databases and the internet.

Christina Farr looks at the rise and fall of the home cleaning service Homejoy, providing important lessons for startups aiming for growth at all costs.

A lot of media attention has focused on the rapid rise in San Francisco property prices, so it’s interesting to see UBS’ comparison of how overvalued the city’s real estate is compared to other leading cities:

Global Real Estate Bubble Index

Eric Jaffe’s analysis of trends in working hours over the last 130 years points to a downward trend – lets hope that we see this trend continue without leaving us all unemployed:

Annual Hours of Work

The featured image is a mural in Covilhã, Portugal by Pantonio and published in StreetArtNews.

Thought Starters: innovation, unicorns and a critical look at the sharing economy

The following is a look through articles, research and opinion pieces highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in, with an emphasis on technology.

Matt Ridley focuses on the forces that drive innovation forward, describing it as a more organic and chaotic environment that isn’t something that governments can readily turn on or off:

“The implications of this new way of seeing technology—as an autonomous, evolving entity that continues to progress whoever is in charge—are startling. People are pawns in a process. We ride rather than drive the innovation wave. Technology will find its inventors, rather than vice versa. Short of bumping off half the population, there is little that we can do to stop it from happening, and even that might not work.”

Activate provide a valuable look at the intersection of media and technology, focusing on the evolution of media usage, mobile messaging, audio, television and mobile apps. Good overview of how the landscape is likely to evolve over the next year:

Benedict Evans and Steven Sinofsky explore how smartphones represent the latest format in computers evolution, expanding technologies reach and ask what might be next in this cycle:

Wall Street Journal’s data visualisation (click through for the interactive version) makes apparent the massive growth in valuation of various venture funded startups over the last two years…exciting but also scarey:

Companies valued at $1 billion or more by venture-capital firms

The rapid growth of various unicorns has not come without its critics. Airbnb has accelerated the process of gentrification as property developers shift their focus from local residents to visiting tourists in markets already dealing with shortages of affordable housing. Steven Hill states:

“In a tight housing market, rent-controlled apartments are prey for what we might call “slamlords,” who promote condo conversions or renovations that would justify massive rent increases. Airbnb provides another layer—a powerful financial incentive as well as a technique for landlords to convert their apartment buildings into tourist hotels.”

Zeynep Tufekci looks more broadly at startups associated with the ‘sharing economy’, characterising them as fueling a growing gap  between the winners and losers in our current labour market:

“It sounds great, except for the ugly reality which lurks under the proliferation of “uber for…”s: the calcification of the two-tiered system between the overworked who need and can afford the “uber for…”s and the underpaid who are stuck in its 1099 economy of unstable, low wages.”

For the moment, the impact of the “gig economy” might be overstated. Figures from America’s Bureau of Labour Statistics points to self employment as actually decreasing in recent years (although that’s not to say this trend will continue):

The Self Employment Rate in the US

The majority of developed market economies are facing the challenge of an aging population as fertility rates decline so it’s interesting to look at those countries with large young populations with China and India standing out. A closer look at the statistics by John Poole reveals some more unsettling truths with China “missing” about 24 million girls between the ages of 0 and 19:

Half the world's teens live in these 7 countries
Countries with the largest teen populations

Climate change is reshaping our planet and forcing many indigenous ecosystems to adapt with a negative impact on our planet’s biodiversity. The effect on countries’ economies is more of a mixed bag according to Marshall Burke, Sol Hsiang, Ted Miguel’s forecast with winners and losers (click on the map for more detailed information). Whether such modelling can accurately accommodate all the different consequences of climate change remains to be seen:

Economic Impact of Climate Change on the World

The featured image is a mural by Italian artist Tellas in Shoreditch, London and published in StreetArtNews.

Thought Starters: looking critically at mobile apps, venture capital, how Volkswagen ***ked up and the decline of pornography

The following is a look through articles, research and opinion pieces highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in, with an emphasis on technology.

Consumers are spending more of their time on their smartphones in mobile apps which inevitably leads many media owners to see the development of their own as a means of increasing consumer engagement. Priya Ganapati warns that this approach is flawed in many cases with the development of mobile web offering providing a much better use of resources:

“Apps aren’t magical universes. They are part of a platform that is not viral, resource-hungry and hard to grow. So why not bet on the mobile web instead?”

Sam Altman and Paul Graham look critically at the financial fundamentals of startups in a market where valuations don’t necessarily match up with future prospects:

“Here’s a common way startups die. They make something moderately appealing and have decent initial growth. They raise their first round fairly easily because the founders seem smart and the idea sounds plausible. But because the product is only moderately appealing, growth is ok but not great. The founders convince themselves that hiring a bunch of people is the way to boost growth. Their investors agree. But (because the product is only moderately appealing) the growth never comes. Now they’re rapidly running out of runway. They hope further investment will save them. But because they have high expenses and slow growth, they’re now unappealing to investors. They’re unable to raise more, and the company dies.”

Also looking at the startup universe is Ben Thompson who points to less successful venture capitalists as being increasingly squeezed between angel investors below and more traditional investors above:

“So it is with venture capital: once startup funding requirements were reduced, the superior information and the willingness to hustle of angels and incubators earned the trust of the big companies of tomorrow, reducing more and more venture capitalists to dumb money hardly worth the 20% premium. The inputs to the Silicon Valley system have been changed, and we’re only now seeing the effects, and that should be a cautionary tale for just about everyone who thinks they and their industry are safe from the Internet’s impact.”

Matt Roskoff contrasts the falling prices of consumer electronic hardware with the rising price of television and radio services:

Prices for Electronic Goods and Services

Paul Kedrosky suggests that the Volkswagen emissions scandal may have been the result of cultural norms within the engineering department rather than a deliberate move on the automotive manufacturers management:

“It is still possible, of course, that we will learn that the engineers were under orders from management to beat the tests by any means necessary, but based on what we now know, that seems implausible. It’s more likely that the scandal is the product of an engineering organization that evolved its technologies in a way that subtly and stealthily, even organically, subverted the rules.”

Credit Suisse in their annual Global Wealth Report looks at the current spread of financial wealth across countries and regions including the disparities between the wealthy and the poor:

Global Wealth Pyramid

We are seeing a broader array of jobs affected by technology, as smarter systems enable more technically complex tasks to be automated. MIT Professor David Autor looks at the costs and benefits of these changes, suggesting that the opportunities will outweigh the threats if societies ameliorate the negative effects with education, taxation and transfer programmes.

The migrants pouring into Europe has focused largely on the plight of refugees fleeing civil war in Syria. What Alex Tabarrok points to is that by focusing on the plight of refugees, we fail to acknowledge the benefits that more open borders would provide both to people trapped in less developed societies and to global society as a whole:

“Closed borders are one of the world’s greatest moral failings but the opening of borders is the world’s greatest economic opportunity. The grandest moral revolutions in history—the abolition of slavery, the securing of religious freedom, the recognition of the rights of women—yielded a world in which virtually everyone was better off. They also demonstrated that the fears that had perpetuated these injustices were unfounded. Similarly, a planet unscarred by iron curtains is not only a world of greater equality and justice. It is a world unafraid of itself.”

Pornography has been getting plenty of column inches lately thanks to Playboy’s announcement that it will no longer be publishing full nudity, reflecting falling profitability of ‘legitimate’ operators (no tears shed here). Whilst the industry has long been pointed to as technological leader, recent changes mean that the sector is becoming something of a technological laggard according to Cade Metz:

“With the rise of mobile devices and platforms from the likes of Apple and Google, not to mention the proliferation of free videos on YouTube-like porn sites, the adult industry is in a bind. Money is hard to come by, and as the industry struggles to find new revenue streams, it’s facing extra competition from mainstream social media. Its very identity is being stolen as the world evolves both technologically and culturally.”

Another area where technology has changed the balance of power is music where we’ve seen a democratisation of the tools of production. Art Tavana looks at GarageBand’s role as a stepping stone for many budding musicians looking to get their music out and about.

If you find yourself in London between now and the start of January, I’d definitely recommend visiting Ann Veronica Janssens’ yellowbluepink installation at the Wellcome Collection. A great exercise in disorientation:

The featured image is the SatOne mural Insomnia in Mannheim, Germany and published in Graffuturism.

Thought Starters: potential for micropayments, notifications and a closer look at WeWork

The following is a look through articles, infographics and opinion pieces highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in, with an emphasis on technology.

As the online media sector grapples with the impact of ad blockers on their business model, we’re likely to see growing interest in micropayments. Frédéric Filloux profiles Dutch platform Blendle and how their business model takes a collaborative approach with media operators:

“Blendle benefits from exceptionally favorable trade winds. The traditional advertising model is crumbling under the pressure of programmatic buying and of the pervasiveness of adblockers. In addition, Blendle also takes advantage of limitations in paywall models that mostly target the heavy, affluent users segment, but exclude the younger audiences that are Blendle’s main target (today two-third of Blendle users are under 35). From the legacy media perspective, this makes the paid-by-the-article system more attractive than ever.”

Figures from comScore in the US point to mobile and tablet app usage following the power law with a few apps monopolising consumers’ attention:Time spent per app

John Borthwick profiles the role of notifications as the smartphone becomes the centre of our digital lives:

“Right now we are witnessing another round of unbundling as the notification screen becomes the primary interface for mobile computing. It’s easy to get fixated with notifications as a feature — they are a feature for an app. But they are also part of this broader unbundling cycle and they are part of an architectural shift from pull to a push. It’s an interesting time.”

Steve Cheney looks at how Apple has used its expertise in microchips to carve out a competitive advantage in smartphones with potential to do the same in other market categories.

WeWork is positioning itself more as disruptive tech startup rather than traditional property company as a means of buttressing its market valuation. Nitasha Tiku takes a closer look and asks whether the company is really that different from more traditional commercial property providers:

“These slides show how easy it is to create a good-looking growth curve — not just for WeWork, but for all of its peers in the current tech climate. “You put together a model. It spits out whatever it spits out based on the inputs,” Sussman told BuzzFeed News. “I always say, ‘If you gave David Copperfield or Harry Potter Microsoft Excel, they could do even more amazing magic.’” The basis for WeWork’s five-year forecasts, he said, all rests on its assumptions. “Key metrics like membership growth, pricing, and square footage leased drive the whole model. Change those inputs and everything changes.” Input in, pivot out.”

On the topic of startups and their respective valuations, the following slide provides an interesting look at how Slack is miles ahead in terms of the value of each customer according to L2:

Valuations per user

Having grown up (at least initially) with the printed word, it’s fascinating to see the growth of YouTube as an information channel for the under 55s according to Ofcom research:

Sources used when looking for information online

The Pew Research Center has released figures looking at how social media usage has changed over the last 10 years. No great revelations but an interesting window into how usage has grown and how it does (or doesn’t) vary by age, gender, education and income:

Social Media vs Income

Corporate taxation (or the lack thereof) continues to pop up in the headlines with Facebook apparently paying out just £4,327 in tax UK despite giving out £35m in staff bonuses according to a Guardian report. Among the tricks of the trade are the use of offshore shore bases which The Economist highlights with FDI inflows:

FDI inflows as percentage of GDP

Using figures from the American Community Survey, the United States Census Bureau points to women overtaking men in having a bachelor degree or higher in the US (although pay equity looks much further off):

Comparison of Gender vs Tertiary Qualification in US

Whilst Britain’s role in Europe may be in question with talk of Brexit, English becomes increasingly dominant among languages taught in primary schools in the European Union according to the Pew Research Center:

Growing dominance of English language in Europe

The featured image is Dark Perimeter / Basic Primary Shapes by the Argentinian artist Elian Chali for Nuit Blanche in Brussels and published in StreetArtNews.

Thought Starters: Facebook keeps on developing, augmented reality and a declining Saudi Arabia

The following is a look through articles, infographics and opinion pieces highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in, with an emphasis on technology:

As mentioned in the last Thought Starters column, ad blockers pose a serious challenge to the online media industry which has traditionally relied on giving away content in return for providing eyeballs for online advertising. Ben Bajarin puts the case for native advertising and sponsored content as a potential panacea for the industry’s problems.

Whilst the media industry’s confidence has taken something of hit with all the talk of ad blockers, at least comScore’s figures from the US point to a growing appetite for content online driven by growth in mobile consumption:

Average Monthy Audience Across Digital Mobile and Desktop

Quartz profiles research by Helani Galpaya into consumers’ use of internet in the developing world. Among the findings are a considerable proportion of users didn’t see access to Facebook as being part of the internet and the inevitable disparity between the revenues Facebook receives from developed and developing world consumers:

Internet users and Facebook users per 100 people

Speaking of Facebook, the social network has been busy. October has seen the launch of the brand awareness optimization tool enabling marketers to understand audiences that have spent more time watching campaigns on Facebook, providing a more nuanced view than simply counting Likes.  Facebook has also expanded what consumers can do with their profiles which includes using animated GIFs for their profile photos, allowing people to be a little more expressive with how they present themselves:

Gil Dibner’s quarterly roundup of the European venture capital sector provides a valuable look at where money is going in the region’s startup sector:

Andreessen Horowitz General Partner and WealthFront co founder Jeff Jordan looks at why startups need to singlemindedly focus on growth if they’re to succeed and need to quickly adjust course when growth stalls:

Why? Because the unexpected slowing of growth in a “growth” business presents an existential risk to the company. Growth rates over a company’s history tend to move only one way over time (down); even in hypergrowth companies, growth rates tend to fall to earth … which is why I’ve referred to this effect as “gravity.”

Once gravity takes hold, it’s very hard to reaccelerate the growth of the business. Slowing growth portends a strong possibility that the company will never again experience prior levels of growth going forward.

The last ten years has seen a lot of talk about the experience economy as consumers look to define themselves increasingly by what they do (rather than what they own). This presents a real opportunity for a platform that could bring the right events to consumers’ attention but Hugh Malkin provides a valuable look at why this problem hasn’t been ‘solved’ yet.

Norman Chan’s coverage of the Oculus Connect 2 conference provides a valuable window into developments in the virtual reality sector. Oculus’ Medium platform was among the more mesmerising developments that caught my attention:

A recent holiday where I ran out of reading material had me temporarily reassessing whether a Kindle would be a smart purchase. Given my own thoughts, it was interesting to read Craig Mod’s review of his own digital reading habits which are seeing no shortage of articles being read on mobile devices but a disenchantment with digital books:

As our hardware has grown more powerful and our screens more capable, our book-reading software has largely stagnated

Saudi Arabia presents an interesting case study of the resource curse where an abundance of natural resources delays the need to address structural problems within society. Nafeez Ahmed points out that Saudis won’t be able to put their head in the sand for too much longer as its oil exports fail to keep up with its expanding population:

Like many of its neighbours, such deep-rooted structural realities mean that Saudi Arabia is indeed on the brink of protracted state failure, a process likely to take-off in the next few years, becoming truly obvious well within a decade.

Urban sprawl typically leads to growing dependence on the car but think tank Sustainable Prosperity point out some of the other costs associated with less compact urban forms:

Urban vs Suburban

It was disheartening to hear about the mass shooting at a community college in Roseburg, Oregon. Unfortunately Google Trends results point to Americans’ limited attention span when it comes to the issue of guns and gun control (at least until the next tragic shooting):

Relative Google search interest in recent mass shootings

The AOI World Illustration Awards exhibition is on at Somerset House. Among the pieces that caught my eye were Oliver Kugler’s portraits of Syrian Refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan. Beautiful work and very topical:


The featured image is Legacy by Alexey Luka for the Cibus in Fabula project in Milan.