Thought Starters: Google I/O, property puzzle in England and rates of innovation

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to review and highlight some of the more important or interesting research and opinions that I’ve read over the last week or so. This edition looks at Google and Apple at a crossroads, England’s property market and questions over the rate of innovation among other things:

Whilst many technological and social indicators point to the lead that Western Europe and North America has over the developing world, there are cases where incumbent infrastructure slows down the introduction of new technologies. An example of this from  the World Economic Forum is the lead Sub-Saharan Africa has in mobile money accounts, aided by the lack of traditional financial services infrastructure:

Sub-Saharan Africa has worlds largest share of mobile money accounts

Interesting benchmark figures from Pew Research on the use of online services by the American population. There’s obviously plenty of opportunity for growth still across many different categories:

72% of Americans have used some type of shared or on-demand online services

Google I/O developer conference happened on Wednesday which saw the launch of new virtual reality, mobile messaging, smart home and virtual assistant platforms and updates for Android, Android Wear and Android Auto. It’s worth checking out The Verge’s coverage of the leading announcements if you’re wanting more details on what to expect in the coming months.

Ben Thompson has an interesting follow on to the conference pointing to Google’s technical process but also suggesting that other factors at play are likely to hamper the organisation’s success:

The problem is that as much as Google may be ahead, the company is also on the clock: every interaction with Siri, every signal sent to Facebook, every command answered by Alexa, is one that is not only not captured by Google but also one that is captured by its competitors. Yes, it is likely Apple, Facebook, and Amazon are all behind Google when it comes to machine learning and artificial intelligence — hugely so, in many cases — but it is not a fair fight. Google’s competitors, by virtue of owning the customer, need only be good enough, and they will get better. Google has a far higher bar to clear — it is asking users and in come cases their networks to not only change their behavior but willingly introduce more friction into their lives — and its technology will have to be special indeed to replicate the company’s original success as a business.

Another company that’s had a strong run but for which the future is harder to anticipate is Apple. Marco Arment has been a valuable commentator and proponent of Apple and its broader ecosystem and his concerns about Apple’s long term health should definitely be taken seriously:

But if Google’s right, it won’t be enough to buy Siri’s creators again or partner with Yelp for another few years. If Apple needs strong AI and big-data services in the next decade to remain competitive, they need to have already been developing that talent and those assets, in-house, extensively, for years. They need to be a big-data-services company. Their big-data AI services need to be far better, smarter, and more reliable than they are. And I just don’t see that happening.

As a venture capitalist, David Pakman has a vested interest in a more entrepreneurial music ecosystem. That being said, I do believe he has a strong point talking about how major record labels are squeezing some of the innovation out of the music sector:

In my mind, it would have been in the long-term best interests of the recorded music business to enable the widespread success of thousands of companies, each paying fair but not bone-crushing royalties back to labels, artists and publishers. But the high royalty rates imposed upon startups, even after clear signs over the past 19 years that the strategy killed companies, prevented a healthy ecosystem from emerging. It’s a bed the music industry made for itself, and now it is left to lie in it.

Whilst there’s a been a lot of talk about the polarisation of incomes in the West, research from Walter Frick points to a similar polarisation in corporate performance with leading firms galloping ahead of everyone else:

The gap between the most productive firms and the rest is growing

Donald Trump’s nomination for the Republican party is pretty much a given now, and I’m glad to see more and more commentators coming out to express their opposition to his candidacy. Robert Kagan’s is definitely among the more eloquent, let’s just hope the US population listens to reason:

And the source of allegiance? We’re supposed to believe that Trump’s support stems from economic stagnation or dislocation. Maybe some of it does. But what Trump offers his followers are not economic remedies — his proposals change daily. What he offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence. His incoherent and contradictory utterances have one thing in common: They provoke and play on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger. His public discourse consists of attacking or ridiculing a wide range of “others” — Muslims, Hispanics, women, Chinese, Mexicans, Europeans, Arabs, immigrants, refugees — whom he depicts either as threats or as objects of derision. His program, such as it is, consists chiefly of promises to get tough with foreigners and people of nonwhite complexion. He will deport them, bar them, get them to knuckle under, make them pay up or make them shut up.

The UK referendum on whether the country chooses to leave the European Union is fast approaching leading to some scaremongering  from the pro Brexit camp.  Providing a rather different perspective is research from Philippe Legrain who points out the economic benefits potentially provided by the influx of refugees to Europe:

Refugees who arrived in Europe last year could repay spending on them almost twice over within just five years, according to one of the first in-depth investigations into the impact incomers have on host communities.

Refugees will create more jobs, increase demand for services and products, and fill gaps in European workforces – while their wages will help fund dwindling pensions pots and public finances, says Philippe Legrain, a former economic adviser to the president of the European commission.

Over the following decade, England’s population rose by 4.1m while its housing stock rose by only 1.7m, something which any economist will tell you is going to cause some problems. This shortage is exacerbated by disparities between local authorities as The Economist recently mapped (click through for the interactive version):

Housing stock v demand

A further indication of the overheated nature of certain parts of the UK housing sector can be seen in the fact that the average first time buyer in London now earns £85k and has a deposit of £123k according to the ONS figures:

London First Time Buyers

Frans de Waal has taken a critical look at economics, pointing to its vision of the self interested human being rather different from how societies developed or currently operate:

Economists should reread the work of their father figure, Adam Smith, who saw society as a huge machine. Its wheels are polished by virtue, whereas vice causes them to grate. The machine just won’t run smoothly without a strong community sense in every citizen. Smith saw honesty, morality, sympathy and justice as essential companions to the invisible hand of the market. His views were based on our being a social species, born in a community with responsibilities towards the community.

There’s been a lot of debate over the rate of innovation, with the naysayers  attitudes illustrated by Peter Thiel’s infamous statement “We were promised flying cars and we got 140 characters.” Neil Irwin has looked at the big inventions over the last 150 years, and suggests the nature of what is being invented might have changed but the pace of innovation hasn’t:
In short, the sheer number of ways a person can be in touch with others, and consume information or entertainment, has exploded, and the price has collapsed.

This is the area in which human life has changed the most in the last 46 years. We live and travel much as we did in 1970. We eat more variety of foods. Products of all types keep getting a little safer, a little more efficient, a little better designed.

But the real revolution of recent decades is in the supercomputer most people keep in their pocket. And how that stacks up against the advances of yesteryear is the great question of whether an era of innovation remains underway, or has slowed way down.

One innovation I am expecting to see much more of in the coming years is augmented reality with its fusing of the virtual and real life. Keiichi Matsuda provides a rather dystopian view of the world we might face in years to come:

The featured image is from eko.

Thought Starters: social media, Apple, banking and changes to employment and income

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to review and highlight some of the more important or interesting research and opinions that I’ve read over the last week or so. This edition looks at the competing social media platforms and their roles, whether Apple can innovate, banking and its relationship with fintech and changes in employment and income among other things. 

Robinson Meyer revisits Reid Hoffman’s look at social networks and the parallels he draws between them and the seven deadly sins:

“Social networks do best when they tap into one of the seven deadly sins,” the LinkedIn co-founder and venture capitalist said. “Zynga is sloth. LinkedIn is greed. With Facebook, it’s vanity, and how people choose to present themselves to their friends.”

Research from Social Fresh, Firebrand Group and Simply Measured points to Facebook being comfortably ahead of other social media platforms in terms of ROI:

Social Media Platforms that Produce the Best ROI According to Social Media Marketers Worldwide March 2016

Whilst Snapchat is making growing inroads among younger audiences in the US, Instagram for the moment is proving a more popular medium for advertisers according to L2 Think Tank’s research:

Snapchat vs Instagram Adoption Among Brands Worldwide by Industry

Twitter recently reclassified its mobile app as a news service rather than social media in Apple’s App Store. Pew Research’s recent findings point to how the services have a different relationship with news content with Facebook driving more traffic whilst users referred by Twitter typically spending more time with the visited content:

On cellphones more visits come from Facebook

Given the increasingly important role that Facebook plays in distributing content, it’s no surprise that commentators cried foul when Gizmodo reported that Facebook was suppressing conservative news. A more careful reading of the news by Tyler Cowen and Ben Thompson suggests this isn’t quite as significant as the headlines suggest:

This, then, is the deep irony of this controversy: Facebook is receiving a huge amount of criticism for allegedly biasing the news via the empowerment of a team of human curators to make editorial decisions, as opposed to relying on what was previously thought to be an algorithm; it is an algorithm, though — the algorithm that powers the News Feed, with the goal of driving engagement — that is arguably doing more damage to our politics than the most biased human editor ever could. The fact of the matter is that, on the part of Facebook people actually see — the News Feed, not Trending News — conservatives see conservative stories, and liberals see liberal ones; the middle of the road is as hard to find as a viable business model for journalism (these things are not disconnected).

James Allworth profiles Apple’s business strategy and suggests that the company’s success is one of the key things holding the company back:

And it appears that Apple has fallen into exactly the same trap. Rather than start anew — with a beginner’s mind—what the above reveals to me is that they’ve tried to take the last paradigm and just jam it into the new one. The old has bled into the new. The result, at least as it stands now: just like Microsoft did, Apple knows what needs to be built — a phone-disrupting device. It’s just that they can’t bring themselves to let go of the past in order to do the job properly.

Whilst the Apple Watch hasn’t proved the breakthrough success for Apple that the iPhone provided, Neil Cybart’s analysis of Apple’s R&D expenditure points to something big coming soon:

Apple R&D Expense (Annual)

At the more nascent end of the technology ecosystem, Jared Friedman’s analysis of applicants to the Y Combinator programme provides a valuable window into the type of startups we’re likely to see more of in the very near future. Think more apps, SAAS businesses and platforms based on messaging, Slack and virtual reality among other things:

Messaging & Communications

For those of you working in startups looking to improve your product and people management, you’d be well advised to read Mike Davidson’s account of life as Vice President of Design at Twitter. He covers a lot of ground so I’m not going to try and summarise it, but it’s well worth checking out.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a more nuts and bolts approach to improving your digital presence, Nick Kolenda’s 125 easy tweaks provides a good starting point, even if you don’t agree with everything he has to say.

The banking sector won no popularity contests over the last  9 years with its practices fueling the global financial crisis. James Surowiecki reviews moves to reform the sector suggesting improvements have been made but there’s still some way to go:

Of course, there’s much about Wall Street that Dodd-Frank has not changed. Bankers still make absurd amounts of money. Hedge-fund and private-equity managers still benefit from the carried-interest tax loophole. The big banks, though smaller, are still too big. “If you wanted financial reform to radically downsize the financial sector, or thought it was going to make a major dent in income inequality, you’re bound to be disappointed,” Konczal says. And Dodd-Frank’s work is still unfinished: many of the rules it authorized have yet to be written, and the banks are lobbying to have them written in their favor. As Ziegler told me, “The progress that’s been made is precarious. It can be unravelled.” But precarious progress is progress. Regulation involves a constant struggle to keep rules in place and to enforce the ones that are there. Dodd-Frank shows that that struggle is not necessarily a futile one: sometimes government really does regulate business, and not the other way around.

In Fintech circles there’s a lot of talk about the power of startups to disrupt the banking sector but Josh Constine suggests that these startups may actually strengthen rather than undermine your relationship with your bank:

But what many of these startups have in common is that they all rely on connecting to your existing bank to fund your accounts with them or receive money. Rather than shun the startups, the incumbents have built bridges to let you hook fintech products into your bank accounts.

The result is that while banking is changing rapidly, you might be more reluctant to change which bank you use, according to several fintech founders and VCs I spoke to.

There’s been increasingly vociferous discussions  about the impact that automation will have on employment over the long term. Josh Zumbrun’s analysis of US figures provides an indication of where things are heading.  Employment among knowledge workers and non-routine manual workers is proving much less susceptible to automation and is showing much stronger rates of growth compared to employment with routinised workflows:

The Rise of the Knowledge Worker

Pew Research figures point to the polarisation of wealth in American society as not simply coming from growing income and assets among the wealthiest but also due to the relative decline of the country’s middle-income households:

The middle class is shrinking nearly everywhere

Ed Hawkins’ data visualisation of climate over the last 150 years provides a valuable reminder that now is not the time for us all to put our heads in the sand:

Global temperature change (1850-2016)

Elisabeth Zerofsky’s profile of Marine Le Pen provides a reminder of the growing tide of nationalism in European politics and attempts to try provide a more “palatable” face on a movement that was previously at the fringe of European politics.

I am keen to hear your thoughts any of the above, whether you vehemently agree or disagree, so please don’t hesitate to use the comments field.

The featured image is a MOMO piece commissioned by the City of Sydney.

Thought Starters: ubiquitous smartphones, post-PC and universal basic income

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to review and highlight some of the more important or interesting research and opinions that I’ve read over the last week or so. This edition looks at the transition from a PC to a smartphone-dominated world, the story behind financial results from Apple and Facebook, the growth of Sci-Hub and a closer look at the universal basic income model among other things:

Benedict Evans profiles the increasingly ubiquitous smartphone and how the mobile market is changing as the technology becomes increasingly commodified:

Smartphones have unique scale for tech

Steven Sinofsky moves to an iPad Pro for his daily computing requirements and shares his experiences. As the PC loses its hegemony, raises new challenges and opportunities for businesses and entrepreneurs:

The shift to this new form factor and new platform will bring with it cultural changes that take advantage of what are perceived as disadvantages. As makers, being early is essential, otherwise you are late.

For more on the topic of post-PC world, I’d suggest reading Paul Thurrott’s reluctant forecast of the demise of Microsoft’s Windows and Steven Sinofsky and Benedict Evans rounding out their thoughts on the a16z podcast:

The release of quarterly results has provided a valuable window into the ups and downs of some of the world’s tech giants. Neil Cybart’s analysis of Apple’s financial results suggests we’ve reached peak iPhone, with sales hit by longer upgrade cycles and fewer easy growth opportunities:

iPhone Unit Sales Growth (trailing 12 months)

Apple CEO Tim Cook has emphasised the company’s service offerings in recent announcements. It’s worth having a read of Ben Thompson’s analysis of this move as the company looks to avoid being typecast as simply a maker of beautiful devices:

With regards to the iPhone, it’s hard to see its record revenues and profits ever being surpassed by another product, by Apple or anyone else: it is in many respects the perfect device from a business perspective, and given that whatever replaces it will likely be significantly less dependent on a physical interface and even more dependent on the cloud (which will help commoditize the hardware), it will likely be sold for much less and with much smaller profit margins.

Facebook had more joy with its financial results growing monthly and daily active users and mobile’s share of traffic although growing presence in developing markets is dragging down its average revenue per user. Whilst recent research suggests that people might be increasingly wary of sharing their personal thoughts on Facebook, the social network maintains a strong role as onramp to many consumers’ digital world as Will Oremus comments:

The company has reinvented itself in two distinct ways. First, Facebook as a platform has been quietly evolving into something different than a social network—something less personal, but no less useful. Second, Facebook as a company has been furiously hedging its bets on the future of technology and social media, to the point that it is no longer properly described as merely a social network—no more than Alphabet (né Google) is properly described as a search website.

So what has the Facebook app and site become, if not a social network? The answer is rather obvious when you watch how people use it. It has become a personalized portal to the online world.

Whilst tech unicorns have typically avoided the scrutiny of the stock market by staying private, analysis of sales of ping-pong tables in Silicon Valley suggest that venture capital funding might not be as free flowing as it once was:

Sales of ping-pong tables to companies at a Silicon Valley store correlate with venture-capital deals made during the same quarter.

Whilst we’re on the subject of startups, it’s worth reading Chris Dixon’s call for entrepreneurs to look broadly to better understand future threats and opportunities, namechecking automation of logistics, apps, video and voice services:

Think of the internet economic loop as a model train track. Positions in front of you can redirect traffic around you. Positions after you can build new tracks that bypass you. New technologies come along (which often look toy-like and unthreatening at first) that create entirely new tracks that render the previous tracks obsolete.

The American IAB has released research tracking consumers’ use of smartphones and tablets when shopping, pointing to the ways different age categories use their devices. This providing both a threat and an opportunity for traditional bricks and mortar retailers:

Smartphone as Shopping Assistant

John Bohannon profiles the growth of Sci-Hub which offers users a means of accessing copyrighted academic research regardless of whether people have the necessary institutional resources. The service provides a valuable source for researchers in less well-funded institutions, but usage statistics suggest that users include plenty of people with the necessary credentials and are simply looking for more user-friendly alternatives:

Server log data for the website Sci-Hub from September 2015 through February 2015

With predictions of automation threatening employment across an increasingly broad spectrum of jobs, there’s been growing calls for the introduction of universal basic income. This would essentially provide a guaranteed income to all regardless of employment status and has gained an interesting collection of supporters from both ends of the political spectrum. It’s something I am expecting to hear a lot more about in the coming months and you get an introduction to the concept from Tim Harford (shorter version), Andrew Flowers (longer version) and the Freakonomics team (podcast version).

The featured image is a Nerone mural from Bordeaux, France published in ekosystem.