Thought Starters: venture capital’s global hubs, blockchains and Facebook’s ups and downs and Amazon as more than just a retailer (and we’re not talking about AWS)

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to look through the articles, research and opinion pieces I’ve read, highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in. This edition looks at the global hubs for venture capital, blockchains ups and downs, Facebook’s success and challenges and Amazon’s move from retailer to service provider among other trends and insights.

A profile of Martin Prosperity Institute points to the dominance the US has in venture capital with London ranking 7th among metropolitan centres:

Venture capital investment by metropolitan area

There’s been a lot of talk of the potential for blockchain technologies to upend the incumbents in the financial services sector, but the major banks are beginning to make themselves known. Tanaya Macheel profiles different blockchain based initiatives by some of the major American banks which includes attempts to patent innovations in a sector previously associated closely with open source technology:

Blocking off the Blockchain

Keeping on the blockchain theme, Timothy B. Lee profiles the growing pains that Bitcoin is experiencing as growing demand challenges the infrastructure of the technology as it currently stands:

The Bitcoin community is currently locked in a debate about whether to follow that same trajectory: whether to grow quickly at the cost of possibly becoming more centralized. The difference is that the way the Bitcoin network works means that early adopters have an effective veto over further growth. If a critical mass of Bitcoin stakeholders refuse to accept larger blocks, the Bitcoin network could be stuck with its current, limited capacity for years to come.

WhatsApp has done a great job of expanding its reach which has seen it recently pass the 1 billion user maker despite having only 57 engineers. What the mobile messaging platform has been less successful in doing is monetising its user base compared to Line and WeChat as Terence Lee reports although there are indications this is likely to change:

WhatsApp Statistics

Amazon is one organisation that has done a great job of monetising its platform, moving from a bare bones online retailer to a dominant player in retail providing a range of ecommerce related services to third parties (see illustration below). This ties in nicely with a recent Jan Dawson blog post where he stresses the need for providers to absorb as many activities as possible (eg Facebook) or alternatively be on as many domains as possible (eg Uber):

Amazon ecommerce value chain

An interesting recent development in Amazon’s strategy is its experiment with the opening of a physical store in Seattle with reports that they plan on rolling out 300 to 400 stores across the US in the future.

Tal Shachar with Liam Boluk point to the growing glut of content that consumers face across a range of media and with this comes the growing issue of discovery and opportunities for content curation. Sentiments further echoed in a recent post by Benedict Evans:

WeAreSocial have recently published the Digital in 2016 report, providing a range of digital benchmark statistics including internet, mobile internet, social media and mobile app usage along with a range of other indicators. Well worth bookmarking for future use:

It’s financial results season in the US with recent announcements from Apple, Alphabet and Facebook. One of the interesting points to emerge from Facebook’s results is how well the company has transitioned to a mobile first company since 2010 as Alice Truong reports:

Facebook's mobile users as percentage of all active users

Where Facebook has been less successful is in the launch of its Free Basics offering in India. The service looks to offer free access to limited selection of mobile optimised content to mobile users but has come into fierce opposition from net neutrality campaigners in India according to Lauren Smiley’s report:

Free Basics only serves a tiny Facebook-endorsed portion of the Internet to users for free — a “walled garden” as opponents call it — while users must pay to access anything else on the web. As Backchannel has been chronicling for some time, they see it as a violation of the principle of net neutrality, that all things on the internet should be treated the same to preserve competition: no faster data connection for deep-pocketed companies, no charging consumers for some sites but not others, no cordoning off slices of the internet by private companies.

Sometimes the internet doesn’t prove quite as virtual as you’d imagine. Dan Wang profiles the physical delivery of data to servers around the world by content delivery networks (CDNs) as a means of speeding up the delivery of content to internet users in a curious mix of the physical and the virtual:

So instead of using the Internet to transfer big pieces of data, companies have turned to the global freight network. High-traffic websites copy data onto hard drives (which are no bigger than what you’d use to back up your laptop), pack them into cardboard boxes, and then fly them around the world. They can be in a box in the belly of a passenger plane, right beside cartons full of iPhones.

Business Insider profiles the digital habits of American teens. Whilst the sample size of 60 is a far from representative sample, it does provide some interesting insights into the habits of younger consumers:

Most Important Social Networks Among Teens

Alexander J. Motyl warns of a Russian collapse, fueled by an economy hamstrung by its dependence on a declining petroleum market and a political system resistant to change and reform:

The problem for Putin—and for Russia—is that the political–economic system is resistant to change. Such a dysfunctional economy is sustainable only if it is controlled by a self-serving bureaucratic caste that places its own interests above those of the country. In turn, a deeply corrupt authoritarian system needs to have a dictator at its core, one who coordinates and balances elite interests and appetites. Putin’s innovation is to have transformed himself into a cult-like figure whose legitimacy depends on his seemingly boundless youth and vigor. Such leaders, though, eventually become victims of their own personality cult and, like Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Mussolini, do not leave office voluntarily. Russia is thus trapped between the Scylla of systemic decay and the Charybdis of systemic stasis. Under such conditions, Putin will draw increasingly on Russian chauvinism, imperialism, and ethnocentrism for legitimacy.

Ben Judah recently published This is London: Life and Death in the World Citytaking the approach of a foreign correspondent to reporting on the experience of immigrants in his home city.  His interview in London School of Economics’ lecture series is well worth a listen for anyone interested in the experience and impact of London’s many immigrant communities:

The featured image is a CT mural from Torino published in ekosystem.

Thought Starters: Google’s AMP, FANG, unicorns and the decline of the car

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to look through the articles, research and opinion pieces I’ve read, highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in. In this week’s edition we look at Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), FANG, unicorns, the decline of the car and smartphones in Myanmar among other things.

App Annie’s analysis of mobile app usage points to Google Play downloads continuing to exceed iOS downloads but Apple’s App Store revenues comfortably exceeding Google’s. Just bear in mind that Google Play doesn’t currently operate in China (although it has plans to) with the majority of Android handsets running on a version of the Android Open Source Platform (AOSP):

Annual Worldwide App Revenue

Instagram has seen a substantial drop in both follower growth and engagement levels according to Locowise figures. Whilst both figures were higher than for Facebook and Twitter, the social network is looking less and less like a free lunch:

Instagram Growth & Engagement Rates

As noted in the previous edition of Thought Starters, Google and Apple have competing visions of how content should be distributed with Apple taking an app centric view with the enabling of in app ad blocking and the launch of Apple News. Google on the other hand is putting its weight behind the open web which is no surprise given its reliance on search for a large proportion of its revenues. Google’s key initiatives has been the launch of Accelerated Mobile Pages which will improve load times and provide a better experience for mobile users than the current set up.  Frédéric Filloux comments :

Privately, Google people make no mystery of their intention to clean the advertising mess. They want to get rid of the invasive formats that, by ruining the user experience, contributed to the explosion of ad blockers and threatened a large segment of the digital economy. To that end, the AMP ecosystem is their weapon of choice

Ben Thompson draws parallels in the business strategies of Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google (FANG) pointing out how their stranglehold on a key access point has given them near insurmountable positions in the consumer economy:

None of the FANG companies created what most considered the most valuable pieces of their respective ecosystems; they simply made those pieces easier for consumers to access, so consumers increasingly discovered said pieces via the FANG home pages. And, given that Internet made distribution free, that meant the FANG companies were well on their way to having far more power and monetization potential than anyone realized.

Whilst there’s been a recent readjustment in the valuation of a number of tech startups, Spoke Intelligence and VB Profiles research calculates there’s still 208 startups that are worth more than $1bn and 21 worth more than $10bn:

Categorisation of startups with over a $1bn valuation

Europe has had some success with GP. Bullhound’s research pointing to 40 European startups reaching the $1bn valuation mark. Where the region falls short is in building these startups to the level of Facebook, Uber or Airbnb:

Cumulative Value of European unicorns

Adam Davidson looks at the phenomenon of corporations hoarding cash rather than using it to invest in acquisitions or return to shareholders:

Which leaves one last question: Why? The answer, perhaps, is that both the executives and the investors in these industries believe that something big is coming, but — this is crucial — they’re not sure what it will be.

Licensed drivers as a percentage of their age group

The automotive sector is beginning to enter a transition phase. New technologies are emerging (notably move to electric drive trains and self driving technologies) and consumers are beginning to think more in terms of transport solutions (eg Uber) rather than simply car ownership.

An interesting indication of change in the latter was a University of Michigan study of state driver’s licensing statistics that showed in the number of under 25 year olds applying for a driver’s license in the US.

Clive Thompson takes an interesting look at what the implications for cities where car ownership declines, aided by growing indifference to car use among the young and the growth of  ride sharing services.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that auto manufacturers are dead in the water. Automotive manufacturers are experimenting with service based models such as Ford’s FordPass and GM has recently made a large investment in Lyft. That being said, it wouldn’t surprise me if many of these firms increasingly get reduced to makers of commoditised hardware much like the PC manufacturers of today.

Tech in Asia figures point to the phenomenal growth in smartphone penetration in Myanmar (see below) as the country leapfrogs over the PC era. A useful complement to the Tech in Asia article is Craig Mod’s account of ethnographic research in Myanmar which looks at some of the fundamental differences in the way that smartphones and Facebook are used in developing countries:

Percentage of Myanmar population with cellular subscriptions

Consumers are spending more of their time with their smartphones, but the mobile user interface in its current form places limits (as well as advantages) in what users can do.  Scott Jenson looks at where mobile’s user experience falls short of the PC and provides some suggestions on how they could be addressed:

Most businesses still use desktops/laptops for the simple reason that people get more work done on them. If you say that “business use” no longer matters, you’re just confusing the new and old market effect. I’m not saying desktop will beat mobile. I’m also not saying we’ll have desktop computing forever. But there are nuanced differences between desktop UX and mobile UX, and they have important implications.

There’s more evidence of the shift in the global economy from emerging to developed world markets. Emerging markets experienced an estimated $735bn in net capital outflows last year with all but $59bn of that coming from China according to recently released figures from the Institute of International Finance:

Net capital flows to China

Timothy Taylor has pulled together data visualisations which allow readers to compare the relative strengths of different economies including this one from the How Much team:

The World's Economy Divided by Area

Oxfam released research during the recent World Economic Forum claiming that the world’s 62 richest individuals have same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorer half of humanity. There’s been some interesting critiques of Oxfam’s calculation, notably from Felix Salmon,  but I would argue the figures provide a valuable catalyst for conversations about the concentrations of wealth:

Share of global wealth

One illustration of the impact of growing concentration of wealth can be found in Jane Mayer’s profile of the Koch brother’s political campaigning in the US:

A new, data-filled study by the Harvard scholars Theda Skocpol and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez reports that the Kochs have established centralized command of a “nationally-federated, full-service, ideologically focused” machine that “operates on the scale of a national U.S. political party.” The Koch network, they conclude, acts like a “force field,” pulling Republican candidates and office-holders further to the right. Last week, the Times reported that funds from the Koch network are fuelling both ongoing rebellions against government control of Western land and the legal challenge to labor unions that is before the Supreme Court.

Laurence Dodds profiles the Hatton Garden raid in London and suggests it may well be the end of an era as criminals look for new ways for parting people from their worldly possessions:

It doesn’t quite have the romance of Hatton Garden. But while the age of John Dillinger and the Great Train Robbery is over, a new, digital lawlessness has come into being which is every bit as lucrative. It has its own romantic myths, its own folk heroes, because as long as someone is getting away with what the rest of us can only dream of, the cult of the outlaw will stay alive — in whatever form it can.

PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman’s Reply All podcast is a regular appointment in my listening schedule providing an irreverent look at the internet. A recent episode looks at the lack of diversity in the tech world (coverage from 11:50) and how this ultimately handicaps their performance. Informative and entertaining.

The featured image is the mural Mr Rooster by Etam Cru, located on the corner of 8th and Wall in the downtown Flower District in Los Angeles and published in Sour Harvest.

Thought Starters: decacorns, the iPad Pro opportunity and the implications of CRISPR

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.

CB Insights profiles the growing valuations of the “decacorns” (private companies valued at over $10bn). Fidelity’s recent markdown of investments in Dropbox and Snapchat could be simply related to these companies’ specific circumstances or potential sign of a market correction:

Deals to Top Private Company Unicorns Valued at Over $10bn

Apple’s hoping that the release of the iPad Pro will give its tablet offering a much needed boost and the product’s performance mean that the iPad will be seen increasingly as a device to create as well as consume as John Gruber comments:

“We’ve now reached an inflection point. The new MacBook is slower, gets worse battery life, and even its cheapest configuration costs $200 morethan the top-of-the-line iPad Pro. The iPad Pro is more powerful, cheaper, has a better display, and gets better battery life. It’s not a clear cut-and-dry win — MacBooks still have more RAM (the iPad Pro, in all configurations, has 4 GB of RAM, although Apple still isn’t publishing this information — MacBook Pros have either 8 or 16 GB), are expandable, and offer far more storage. But at a fundamental level — CPU speed, GPU speed, quality of the display, quality of the sound output, and overall responsiveness of interface — the iPad Pro is a better computer than a MacBook or MacBook Air, and a worthy rival to the far more expensive MacBook Pros.”

One of the trends driving growth in a new range of startups is the shift to smartphones which is profiled in these global figures from Creative Strategies:

Percentage of time spent by device

90% of the time consumers spend on smartphones is spent in apps according to Flurry figures with Facebook, Google and Apple dominating in terms of the reach of their apps according to comScore figures:

Top 15 Smartphone Apps

Britney Summit-Gil looks at how the internet has enabled consumers to be better informed on a whole host of issues, but has lagged when it comes to understanding their own communities:

Internet users say digital tech makes them better informed than 5 years ago

Online advertising has been criticised for providing metrics that fail to reflect audience exposure.  Seb Joseph explores The Economist’s move to offer attention metrics which will better reflect consumers’ actual exposure to advertising:

“Working with analytics partners Chartbeat and Moat Analytics, The Economist tracks active time view – only counting a view when an ad is in view and the reader is actively engaged, i.e typing or scrolling up and down the page. Only those impressions that generate over 5 seconds of active view time will count towards the attention buy.”

Before brands throw all their media budget behind these new online advertising opportunities, it’s worth considering GroupM research which points to television’s lead in generating short to medium term sales (bearing in mind the research was commissioned by TV marketing body Thinkbox):

“GroupM found that media account for on average 39% of sales in the short to medium term (within three months of a campaign finishing); 33% of these media-driven sales are from TV advertising, more than any other communication channel. Paid-for online search created 22%, online display 12%, affiliates 10%, print 8%, direct mail 8%, radio 3% and outdoor 1%.”

Online media also needs to contend with declines in referral traffic from Facebook according to a report from Matthew Ingram. It’s far from clear  whether this is a result of a content glut or Facebook dialing back traffic but it does highlight how vulnerable mainstream content providers are to changes by Facebook and other intermediaries:

“The other nagging fear for media companies is that Facebook is essentially engaging in a large-scale bait and switch, by encouraging them to host all of their output on its platform, but then gradually turning off the traffic tap so that their reach declines. At that point, the social network can recommend a number of ways to boost the reach again—including by paying for promoted posts and other forms of advertising. Facebook would no doubt protest that it is doing nothing of the kind, but the fear remains.”

Michael Specter profiles the growing opportunities to manipulate our DNA with CRISPR/Cas system whilst Erik Parens chooses to explore the ethical implications of gene editing:

‘That seemingly simple question takes us to the heart of a deep tension that decent parents have felt for a very long time, but that will become ever more intense if a technology such as CRISPR-Cas9 is in fact safe and effective. I refer here to the tension between the ethical obligation of parents to accept their children as they are, and their ethical obligation to shape them.”

Rising wages in China mean that the country is facing growing competition for the title of factory to the world with Mexico also benefiting from its close proximity to the US according to a report from Ana Campoy:

Productivity Adjusted Labour Rates

UNHCR figures put the sheer scale of Europe’s refugee crisis in perspective, with the problem unlikely to abate given conflict in Syria and Afghanistan:

Migrant arrivals via the Mediterranean

If you find yourself in London over the next month, I’d strongly recommend checking out Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors exhibition at the Brewer Street Car Park. A wonderful respite from the increasingly frenetic activity of central London in Christmas shopping mode.

The featured image is a Jessie and Katey mural on Ahui Street in Hawaii for the POW WOW festival.

Thought Starters: Facebook grows, software as the new oil and the music industry evolves

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.

Facebook’s release of quarterly financials point to strong growth in mobile users and video although costs grew at as faster rate than revenue. This seen a reshuffling of the S&P 500 in the US with the social networking overtaking a still healthy General Electric and Amazon.

Biggest S&P 500 Companies by Market Cap

Venture capitalist Fred Wilson points to software as taking the place of oil in securing a disproportionate share of the global economy’s economic surplus going forward:

“Companies that control the software infrastructure of the information revolution will sit back and collect the economic surplus of the information revolution and that will be a path to vast wealth and economic power. It has already happened but I think we are just beginning to see the operating leverage of these software based business models.”

We’ve seen a growing number of startups pass the $1bn valuation mark in recent years but a much smaller number have chosen to expose themselves to closer scrutiny and take themselves public. One of the enablers of this has been the availability of venture capital which is looking more and more like traditional debt financing:

“This is hardly an equity instrument at all,” says Altman. “Investors are buying debt but dressing it up close enough to equity to maintain their venture capital fund exemption status. In a world of 0 percent interest rates, people become pretty focused on finding new sources for fixed income.”

Consumers’ media consumption habits are inevitably changing when faced with a growing array of choices. Traditional television channels have up until recently managed to hold its own but Liam Boluk’s analysis points a substantial drop in viewing habits among younger consumers in the US:

Change in Time Spent Watching Television in the US

Content marketing appeared to provide an obvious choice for many brands looking to engage with their audiences providing relevant content in return for consumers’ attention. As Greg Satell points out, it’s not quite that easy as a growing glut of content is making it harder for companies to get their brand noticed unless your content really stands out:

“Yet despite these scattered successes, there is mounting evidence that most marketers’ content efforts are failing.  The Content Marketing Institute reports that although the majority of B2B and B2C marketers have some kind of content marketing program, less than 40% find those efforts effective.  Clearly, things need to improve.”

Songkick’s Ian Hogarth points to the convergence of radio, on-demand music and concert ticketing as reshaping the music industry, with data enabling musicians to foster a closer connections with their audiences:

“The integration of these three, previously distinct industries will produce a richer experience for artists and fans, unlock a ton of additional subscription, ticketing and advertising revenue for artists and create a better experience for fans. It will resolve the central tension between fans, artists and technology companies that so much ink has been spilled about.”

David Pakman argues strongly that as the automotive sector evolves with the introduction of electrification, software and data, traditional manufacturers will be poorly placed to fend off competition from new entrants:

“I am confident many of the existing automotive companies will produce cars with autonomous features. And some of them will be quite good. And eventually they will produce some fully autonomous electric cars too. In the meantime, there are many super-strong, thoughtful entrepreneurs with lots of incredible hardware and software experience working to fundamentally redefine what consumers should expect from cars.”

Chrissie Giles provides a fascinating look at Britain’s changing relationship with alcohol as the industry adapted to changing societal norms and trends which saw UK reach ‘peak booze’ in 2004:

“As the new century began, alcohol was easier to access, cheaper to buy and more enthusiastically marketed than it had been for decades. By 2004, Brits were drinking well over twice as much as they had been half a century earlier. The nation stood atop Peak Booze, and my generation was drinking the most.”

There’s a general expectation that we should see health statistics improve over time with advancements in healthcare seeing many problems either addressed or mitigated.  So it’s rather shocking to see research from Anne Case and Angus Deaton point to growing mortality among non-hispanic middle aged males in the US:

America's middle-aged mortality

The featured image is by Argentinean artist Pastel in Playa del Carmen, México published in StreetArtNews.

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: 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:

Issa

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

Thought Starters: innovation, incomes, employment and happiness

The following is a collection of articles and thought pieces highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in, with an emphasis on technology:

The Global Innovation Report as the name suggests ranks the innovation levels of various countries. The Economist recently published the following which points to Britain doing strongly:

Global Innovation Ranking

Figures from the US Census Bureau indicate growth in jobs but no commensurate increase in median incomes as represented in the following graph from the Economic Policy Institute:

Real Median Household Income

Whilst there’s been a lot of noise about the growing wealth of the top 1%, analysis by the Brookings Institute points to the relative success of the upper middle class in the US in recent years:

“While the rise in income and wealth at the very top is eye-catching, it also distracts attention from the action a little lower down the income distribution. The idea that the real divide is between ordinary members of the bottom 99 percent and the rich 1 percent is a dangerous one, since it makes it easier for those in the upper middle class to convince themselves they are in the same economic boat as the rest of America; they’re not.”

Maintaining overall income is not going to get any easier in the future due to an ageing population, with Morgan Stanley figures point to a decline in the total working population since 2005:

Working Age Population

There’s been lots of speculation recently on the effect that technology is having on the labour market. James Bessen suggests that we’re looking at a process of displacement rather than replacement of labour with a need for a labour force that is more adept at using technology:

“While technology takes over some tasks, it also increases demand for goods and services and hence increases demand for workers performing the remaining tasks. Instead of just eliminating jobs, new jobs are also created, sometimes in different occupations.”

Eurostat figures point to where Europeans spend comparatively more (or less) of their income on proportionately. Rather surprised to find UK’s spend on alcohol and tobacco to be lower than the European average:

European Household Spending

Marco Arment’s launch and then pulling of the Peace adblocker for iOS has led to renewed focus on the plight of the online media industry. Ben Thompson takes a look at some of the key pressures facing the industry and comes up with some recommendations if they want to be profitable.

Among the recent announcements at Apple’s Special Event on the 0th of September was the launch of the iPhone Upgrade Programme. Benedict Evans‘ takes a closer look at the initiative and how it shifts the balance of power from the mobile networks to Apple.

It’s also worth reading Benedict Evans’ piece critiquing talk of the  mobile internet given that internet access via mobile devices is increasingly the norm rather than the exception

Facebook has updated its Pages offering as it looks to provide a more relevant platform  for small businesses’ which includes an ecommerce offering and better design for mobile users:

Facebook Pages Update

Adam Piore writing for Nautilus looks at the role of human contact in making us happy and the impact that social networks are having on these relationships.

The featured image is a piece called Huemul produced by Pastel in Buenos Aires and published in StreetArtNews.

 

Thought Starters: Facebook’s M, Privacy, Driverless Cars, the Dating Apocalypse and more

The following is a collection of articles and thought pieces highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in, with an emphasis on technology.

Research from Flurry profiled by Yahoo points to the dominant role that apps have in the mobile ecosystem. The following graph doesn’t tell the entire story given the ability to reach web pages within a mobile app but does show the comparatively marginal role of the mobile browser:

Time_spent_on_Mobile

Facebook has launched its M virtual assistant as part of its Messenger offering and was recently profiled in Wired.  It has been rolled out to only a limited audience at this stage and what’s particularly interesting about the service is its use of humans as the system’s artificial intelligence develops a robust knowledge base:

“In the larger world of AI-driven personal assistants, M may seem like a regression. And as Facebook tests the tool with the public, it’s unclear whether this human-machine partnership can keep pace as the project expands to an ever-larger audience. But in a counterintuitive way, M may actually be a step forward for AI.”

Instagram now offers consumers and brands the opportunity to share photos and videos that are rectangles and not simply the iconic squares that we’ve become so used to.  Advertising Age has a look at the likely impact for brands:

There has been an awakening… #StarWars #TheForceAwakens

A post shared by Star Wars (@starwars) on

WeAreSocial follow up their profile of China with a profile of the world’s other fast developing behemoth with topline digital, social and mobile statistics for India:

A lot of noise has been made by commentators and critics about the cost in privacy that consumers are paying for the free services provided by Facebook and Google (“If you’re not paying for it; you’re the product”). Andrew McAfee jumps to their defence arguing that consumers are getting a fair deal, particularly given the plethora of consumer information already available to marketers:

“It’s true that all the information about me and my social network that these companies have could be used to help insurers and credit-card companies pick customers and price discriminate among them. But they already do that, and do it within the confines of a lot of regulation and consumer protection. I’m just not sure how much “worse” it would get if Google, Facebook and others started piping them our data.”

Maxwell Wessel looks at how the introduction of driverless cars is likely to restructure the auto industry, with the car forecasted to become less of a personal luxury and more of a utility.

The launch of UberPool brings Uber into closer competition with public transport with users picked up along what are being labelled as Smart Routes.  Given this, it was encouraging to see Nate Silver and Reuben Fischer-Baum argue that Uber and public transport are complementary and will hopefully get more cars off the road in urban centres:

Uber and Public Transport versus the Car

China’s economy seems to have hit the skids recently with Tyler Cowen giving a good overview of some of the key reasons for the downturn.  The BBC put together the following infographic which show why China’s economy isn’t significant just for the Chinese and investors in the country’s economy:

China's central role in world trade

Nancy Jo Sales‘ report on the impact of Tinder on relationships kicked up more than its fair share of criticism. Moira Weigel rightly points out that there’s been a long list of societal and technological changes that have created significant changes in courtship rituals without human society falling apart. Looking at the issue from another angle, Jon Birger’s analysis points to imbalances in education levels among men and women as creating a source of growing tension in relationship patterns.

Europe’s refugee crisis has deservedly dominated news headlines recently and the following infographic from the Washington Post illustrates why the scale of the crisis in Syria is so tragic. Please show your support:

Syria_popIf you’re in London between now and the 20th of September, I’d recommend a visit to the Photographers’ Gallery where the Shirley Baker exhibition Women Children and Loitering Men is well worth a view:

Hulme, May 1965 © Shirley Baker Estate Courtesy of the Shirley Baker Estate

The feature image was produced by Eko and published in his Flickr stream.

Thought Starters: venture capital, role of mobile and some favourite podcasts

The following is a collection of articles, thought pieces, presentations and podcasts highlighting interesting trends and changes in the world you and I live in.

Andreessen Horowitz recently released a presentation which looked at venture capital funding in the US which sparked off more conversations on whether there’s a tech bubble. Ben Thompson expands on this to provide his view on the value of the growing number of unicorns:

I think it’s this dichotomy that makes the current bubble discussion so difficult: most unicorns may be overvalued, but in aggregate they are probably undervalued. It turns out winner-take-all doesn’t apply just to the markets these startups are targeting, it applies to the startups themselves.

Ben Thompson profiles Google’s data centric strategy with Facebook’s strategy which focuses on personalisation with Twitter seemingly unable to deploy either approaches:

Facebook vs Google

Benedict Evans provides contrasting review of business strategy in the digital age, looking at the importance of curation in an age of abundance providing a review of different approaches:

  1. There is giving you what you already know you want (Amazon, Google)
  2. There is working out what you want (Amazon and Google’s aspiration)
  3. And then there is suggesting what you might want (Heywood Hill).

It’s also worth spending time with Evans’ updated Mobile is Eating the World presentation.

I have concerns about the way that pornography is reshaping sexual relations in the modern era, but Maria Konnikova’s account suggest that pornography might be more a symptom than a cause of modern ills.

A recent issue of the New Yorker has a fascinating look at a case of hate crime in North Carolina and the expanding scope of euthanasia.

For lovers of history and data visualisations,  Neil Halloran’s piece on deaths in World War 2 makes compelling viewing. Check it out The Fallen of World War II for an interactive version

I’ve been going through something of a  podcast binge recently, turning my cycle rides around town into more enriching affairs. Shows that have hit the spot recently include the following:

Children of the Magenta looking at the perils of automation in aircraft.

The Takeover looking at how a boring Facebook group developed a life of its own.

Antibodies Part 1: CRISPR looks at recent advances in gene therapy which are both exciting and bewildering.

The Birth and Death of the Price Tag looks at changes in pricing without even mentioning Uber’s surge pricing.

The President was Here leaves me even more enamoured with Barack Obama.

The featured photograph is of a Reka piece from Milan, Italy published in StreetArtNews.

Thought Starters

The following is a collection of articles and thought pieces highlighting interesting trends and changes in the world you and I live in.

Benedict Evans looks at which organisations can really benefit from a mobile app based digital strategy:

Do you have the kind of relationship, and proposition, that people will want to engage with  enough to put your icon on their phone? If the answer to this is ‘yes’, then you should have an app – if only because the app store is the way to do that that people understand, and they’ll look for you in the app store.

Nielsen figures point to 30 being the ceiling for the number of mobile apps typically used by consumers:

Mobile Apps

GlobalWebIndex figures point to Pinterest and Tumblr’s rapid growth globally, albeit off a much smaller base than the likes of Facebook:

Pinterest and Tumblr

Providing a more flattering view for Facebook are figures from the UK published by Ofcom in its Adults’ media use and attitudes Report 2015. The report also has plenty of coverage of UK consumer’s use of other media and devices:

Social media sites

There has been a lot of coverage in the media press on Facebook’s launch of Instant Articles. The service sees consumers access content on Facebook’s servers rather than being directed onto the publishers own platforms. This represents a further strengthening of Facebook’s position, but as Vox points out, has a certain inevitability to it.

Eugene Wei contrasts minimalist and frictionless design, suggesting that we should typically be aiming for the latter:

Minimalist design is about reducing the surface area of an experience. Frictionless design is about reducing the energy required by an experience.

Evolutionary biologist Josh Roseneau has looked at the correlations between faith groups in the USA and their attitudes towards evolution and environmental regulations:

Climate vs Religion

The Longform Podcast has been a recent discovery, with journalists interviewed about the story behind the story. A recent episode profiles  reporter Sarah Maslin Nir coverage of the New York nail salon industry and the brazen exploitation of its workforce. You can find Nir’s story over on the New York Times.

Well renowned journalist Seymour Hersh wrote a valuable article in the London Review of Books pointing out major inconsistencies in the United States’ account of the killing of Osama bin Laden. Unfortunately some commentators have chosen to attack the journalist rather than the story as Trevor Timm details in an account for the Columbia Journalism Review.

In an interesting interplay of film and gentrification, Nick Carr provides an account of life as a location scout in New York trying to find a quintessential New York which increasingly doesn’t exist.

Chip Rowe looks at the different design flaws in the human body and suggests some hacks to rectify them:

Evolution constructed our bodies with the biological equivalent of duct tape and lumber scraps. And the only way to refine the form (short of an asteroid strike or nuclear detonation to wipe clean the slate) is to jerry-rig the current model. “Evolution doesn’t produce perfection,” explains Alan Mann, a physical anthropologist at Princeton University. “It produces function.”

The featured image is Vegan To’ona’i by Askew One in Auckland, New Zealand and the photo was published in StreetArtNews.