Thought Starters: Uber, Machine Learning, “Alt-Right” Democracy and Globalisation

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to review and highlight some of the more  interesting (and hopefully well informed) opinions that I’ve read over the last few weeks. This edition is dominated by the fallout from the American elections with people looking at the reasons for the rise of such an unconventional candidate and a look at what we might expect from Donald Trump’s presidency:

Is the tide turning on Uber? There’s no disputing that the ridesharing model has become a key plank of our transport infrastructure. Question is will Uber’s pool of cash be enough to keep the company going until self driving cars arrive? Yves Smith and Eric Newcomer weigh in:

Published financial data shows that Uber is losing more money than any startup in history and that its ability to capture customers and drivers from incumbent operators is entirely due to $2 billion in annual investor subsidies. The vast majority of media coverage presumes Uber is following the path of prominent digitally-based startups whose large initial losses transformed into strong profits within a few years.

This presumption is contradicted by Uber’s actual financial results, which show no meaningful margin improvement through 2015 while the limited margin improvements achieved in 2016 can be entirely explained by Uber-imposed cutbacks to driver compensation. It is also contradicted by the fact that Uber lacks the major scale and network economies that allowed digitally-based startups to achieve rapid margin improvement.

Benedict Evans released the latest version of his Mobile is Eating the World presentation which looks at the growing synergies between mobile and machine learning, with a particularly focus on retail or automotive:

Lighting everything up with machine learning

Benedict’s presentation points to mobile apps as the dominant means for consumers to interacting with the digital world. As mobile becomes ubiquitous, we’re seeing consumers sticking to the apps they know according to research from Adobe in the US:

App abandoment is on the rise as consumers stick to the apps they know

Amazon is taking advantage of mobile technology to further automate the process of shopping with their soon to launch AmazonGo offering. Better experience for consumers, less employment for retail workers:

As mobile matures, we’re seeing the next gold rush emerging in machine learning. Sam DeBrule has pulled together a valuable collection of information sources if you’re keen to track developments in the sector as they increasingly spill over into the real world:

Machine Intelligence Startups & Tools

Providing a counterpoint to Silicon Valley boosterism is Om Malik’s column warning that technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum and that the startup sector needs to be more aware of these changes if it’s to avoid a major backlash:

“It is not just Facebook. It is time for our industry to pause and take a moment to think: as technology finds its way into our daily existence in new and previously unimagined ways, we need to learn about those who are threatened by it. Empathy is not a buzzword but something to be practiced. Let’s start by not raging on our Facebook feeds but, instead, taking a trip to parts of America where five-dollar lattes and freshly pressed juices are not perks but a reminder of haves and have-nots. Otherwise, come 2020, Silicon Valley will have become an even bigger villain in the popular imagination, much like its East Coast counterpart, Wall Street.”

Ryan Broderick tracks the rise of the “alt-right” in the US and Europe and how social media provides fertile ground for its growth.

“Facebook doesn’t want to challenge you, they don’t want to upset you, because they know that if you’re challenged on their platform, you wouldn’t want to use it as much,” Derakhshan said. “The very fact that you cannot show your reaction to anything you see on Facebook by saying that you agree or disagree or that it’s true or false and you can only show your emotions to it is very telling.”

UK’s telecommunications regulator regularly releases research looking at Britons’ use of media and technology. Their most recent report covers media use and attitudes among children and young people aged 5-15, providing a valuable window into where media is heading in the future:

Media used by children aged 5-14 at home

Pew Research’s research from the US point to ebooks market share as stabilising with a similar story for printed books. Another valuable finding is that consumers are now increasingly reading e-books on tablets, PCs and smartphones rather than just dedicated e-book readers:

Print books continue to be more popular than e-books or audio books

Americans have traditionally been strong believers in economic progress with the expectation that they will be better financially positioned than their parents. Research from Raj Chetty profiled by David Leonhardt points to this no longer being the case, a situation which is presumably leading to growing dissatisfaction with the political status quo:

Chance of making more money than your parents by age cohort in the US

Much has been made of Donald Trump’s call for bringing manufacturing back to the US with suggestions that he’ll bring in more protectionist trade policy. Mark Muro in his coverage of the American manufacturing points to how automation is seeing the sector become increasingly divorced from its blue colour labour roots:

More Output, Less Employment

Another initiative Donald Trump has been touting is investment in America’s infrastructure which is one area where the Democrats and Republicans could potentially find common ground…but the devil is in the details. Ronald A Klain’s analysis of the initiative suggests that it’s more likely to line the pockets of those already working on projects rather than providing a boost to employment:

First, Trump’s plan is not really an infrastructure plan. It’s a tax-cut plan for utility-industry and construction-sector investors, and a massive corporate welfare plan for contractors. The Trump plan doesn’t directly fund new roads, bridges, water systems or airports, as did Hillary Clinton’s 2016 infrastructure proposal. Instead, Trump’s plan provides tax breaks to private-sector investors who back profitable construction projects. These projects (such as electrical grid modernization or energy pipeline expansion) might already be planned or even underway. There’s no requirement that the tax breaks be used for incremental or otherwise expanded construction efforts; they could all go just to fatten the pockets of investors in previously planned projects.

China’s economic growth is unprecedented, but a darkening political climate has led to growing suggestions that this trend may be derailed in the future as the country adopts a more authoritarian stance:

% of world GDP from year 1700 to 2008

The rise of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Marie Le Pen among others points to a backlash against globalisation, but analysis from The Economist point to this trend not being shared by all countries:

Attitudes towards globalisation against change in GDP per person

Amanda Taub profiles Yascha Mounk’s research pointing to declining support for democracy among many developed countries, coinciding with the growth of the “Far Right”…Although Erik Voeten’s analysis suggests it’s not quite as severe as the graph below suggest:

Percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy

Given the rise of the far right, Yale history professor Timothy Snyder’s 20 lessons from 20th century provides valuable advice on fighting a rise in authoritarianism  (even if it is aimed at an American readership):

1. Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

The Danish concept of hygge has become very much of the moment with its harking back to a simpler age but Charlotte Higgins suggests that the UK’s reinterpretation of the idea is not quite so healthy:

If, for Danes themselves, hygge has an element of fantasy – through the way it draws back from difficulties, difference and debate – then the British import is a fantasy of a fantasy. Hygge may be quintessentially Danish, but there is something utterly British about the nostalgic longing for the simple accoutrements of an earlier time – especially if it can be bought. At the same time, it is hard to deny that just at the moment, the most natural thing in the world is to want to huddle round the fire and wish the outside away. Settle in: it’s going to be a long winter.

The featured image is a MOMO mural from Sicily.

Thought Starters: Andreessen’s forecast, Google Assistant, Brexit and the global wealthy

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 Marc Andreessen’s forecast for the future of tech, Google’s recent keynote address and launch of Google Assistant, an update on Brexit and a look at how the wealth differ between countries among other matters.

The advertising industry has seen a lot of change over the last 15 years with the growth of online advertising, social media and smartphones all impacting how brands reach consumers. What Eric Chemi’s analysis of DB5’s figures suggests is that these changes haven’t really enabled the marketing industry to take a greater share of the pie with advertising budgets staying constant as a proportion of GDP:

Ad industry's flat-line growth

One more recent window into how the world of marketing is changing can be seen in product discovery. Amazon is now where more than half of online US consumers begin their product searches according to Spencer Soper’s report on Bloomreach research, with the online retail behemoth strengthening its hold on consumers thanks to its low prices, growing delivery network and Amazon Prime offering.

Marc Andreessen in an interview with Timothy B. Lee gives his view on where technology and innovation will be sending us next. This sees him cast his opinion on artificial intelligence, drones, employment and autonomous cars:

To me the problem is clear: The problem is insufficient technological adoption, innovation, and disruption in these high-escalating price sectors of the economy. My thesis is that we’re not in a tech bubble — we’re in a tech bust. Our problem isn’t too much technology or people being too excited about technology. The problem is we don’t have nearly enough technology. These cartel-like legacy industries are way too hard to disrupt.

Google’s I/O 2016 keynote saw the company launch various new offerings including the Pixel smartphone, Daydream virtual reality headset, Chromecast Ultra streaming device, Google Wifi router and Google Home smart home assistant. The most interesting feature from the Pixel smartphone is Google Assistant, offering a real step forward from Google Now and Apple’s Siri:

Ben Thompson’s analysis of the launch of Google Assistant points to it as signalling a real change in Google’s mobile strategy, with its move to limit the service to Pixel rather than all Android handsets:

Google has a business-model problem: the “I’m Feeling Lucky Button” guaranteed that the search in question would not make Google any money. After all, if a user doesn’t have to choose from search results, said user also doesn’t have the opportunity to click an ad, thus choosing the winner of the competition Google created between its advertisers for user attention. Google Assistant has the exact same problem: where do the ads go?

After all, if a user doesn’t have to choose from search results, said user also doesn’t have the opportunity to click an ad, thus choosing the winner of the competition Google created between its advertisers for user attention.

Sony is in the throes of releasing its Playstation VR headset which is expected to be a frontrunner in the race to get virtual reality in consumers’ living room. Brian X. Chen’s review suggests we’re still a long way off from having virtual reality in most of our homes:

Virtual reality is still in its early days, and it’s unclear whether it will ever catch on with people beyond gamers. If you already own a PlayStation, spending a few hundred dollars for the headgear and accessories is a worthwhile purchase to get started on virtual reality.

But for the average consumer, the thrill of virtual-reality gaming with PlayStation VR may be fleeting. Initially, virtual reality will probably mesmerize you because it’s so unlike any gaming experience you have ever had. But the scarce number of good games available today, combined with the fatigue you will experience after 30 minutes of game play, may drive you back to gaming on your smartphone or television screen.

Another area that might not live up to the current hype is self driving cars. We’re seeing Google and Uber trying out live experiments but there’s little sign of these being available to consumers (Tesla’s Autopilot is a much more limited version of self driving) and Tom Simonite suggests we’re not likely to have this situation change anytime soon:

But don’t expect to toss out your driver’s license in 2021. Five years isn’t long enough to create vehicles good enough at driving to roam extensively without human input, say researchers working on autonomous cars. They predict that Ford and others will meet their targets by creating small fleets of vehicles limited to small, controlled areas.

One area where we have seen real change is in consumers’ growing adoption of digital photography, fueled by the now ubiquitous smartphone.  It’s been interesting to watch is how smartphone  software is increasingly giving high end cameras a run for their money in their picture quality as Michael Zhang’s comparison of the iPhone 7 and Leica M9-P attests to:

iPhone 7 vs Leica M9-P: a side-by-side photo comparison

Diane Coyle provides a valuable refresher on how the move into the digital age is changing our conceptions of property ownership:

Conceptions of property seem to be evolving again with the rise of the “sharing economy”. The ease of using digital matching platforms make the consumer’s decision to buy or rent less stark than in the past ; the legal ownership rights are clear but the economic choices and consequences are changing.
The wider point is that technology and the law have between them significant effects on the kinds of market transactions that take place. Some consequences might seem minor. Others concern land grabs for economic assets.

Brexit has been thrust back into the spotlight by British Prime Minister Theresa May’s announcement that the country will start formal negotiations for Britain to leave the EU by March 2017. Gideon Rachman criticises May for essentially giving away one of the few bargaining chips that the country has in its negotiations with the European Union:

So why has Mrs May been so reckless? The short answer is politics. If the prime minister had delayed triggering Article 50 any longer she might have faced a revolt from Conservative MPs, who would have feared that she was backsliding on Brexit. By making her announcement just before the Tory party conference, she has also guaranteed herself some favourable headlines and applause in the conference hall. She may have bought herself another couple of years in 10 Downing Street. But she has also significantly increased the chances that Brexit will cause severe damage to the British economy.

Theresa May and British foreign secretary Boris Johnson would be well advised to give an ear to Centre for European Reform director Charles Grant who provides some valuable advice on how we would best negotiate Brexit.

There’s been a lot of talk of protecting manufacturing jobs in both the US and UK but does this really reflect problems of contemporary society?  Binyamin Appelbaum suggests it might be more a case of reflecting the group that shouts the loudest rather than those most worthy of support:

The enduring political focus on factory workers partly reflects the low profile of the new working class. Instead of white men who make stuff, the group is increasingly made up of minority women who serve people. “That transformation really has rendered the working class invisible,” says Tamara Draut, the author of “Sleeping Giant,” a recent book about this demographic transformation and its political consequences.

The old working class still controls the megaphone of the labor movement, in part because unions have struggled to organize service workers. Manufacturing was, logistically speaking, easier to organize. There were lots of workers at each factory, and most knew one another. Service work is more dispersed and done in smaller crews. Workers living in the same city and employed by the same retail chain, for example, would likely know only a handful of their compatriots. Fostering a sense of trust and shared purpose under these conditions is difficult.

Tyler Cowen draws on Jonathan Wai and David Lincoln’s research into the global wealthy to point out differences between countries with some counterintuitive results:

Percentage of rich individuals who primarily inherited their wealth

Our World in Data provides a reassuring forecast of the growing levels of education we can expect in the coming years. This should go someway to addressing the issue of global population growth and increasing standards of living:

Projection of the total world population by level of education

The Economist has collated Nobel laureates’ age at the date of their award and the trend is definitely older (with the exception of the Peace category). Now if only I’d achieved half as much as Malala Yousafzai had by the age of 17:

Age of Nobel laureates at date of award

Amnesty International has released the following map which points to the disproportionate load that some countries are bearing in the hosting of the world’s refugees. What makes this even more concerning is the state of many of these countries’ economies leaving them ill placed to host refugees compared to the countries of Western Europe and North America:

The world's top 10 refugee host countries

The featured image at the top of the page is Stone Quarry by Zest in Villars-Fontaine, France which was published in StreetArtNews.

Thought Starters: look at AMP, Amazon’s dominance, corporate profits & music industry

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to review the research and opinions that I’ve read over the last week or so. This edition looks at the launch of Accelerated Mobile Pages, Amazon’s growing dominance in the digital world, rising corporate profits, the declining fortunes of the music industry and terrorism among other things.

Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages is now out in the open. Alex Bauer profiles what it offers mobile internet users and also what is going on behind the scenes:

AMP isn’t actually new technology. In fact, AMP is what the web could have been all along, if it had been originally designed with nothing but mobile device performance in mind. This “mobile-only” approach is important because one of the ways AMP achieves its blazing-fast performance is by completely ignoring any device that is not small enough to fit in your pocket. AMP is emphatically not about making desktop websites look good on phone screens, but rather a totally separate, alternative presentation of the same content. It’s the web we already know, except stripped back to the bare essentials and then subjected to aggressive validation and rendering controls.

Alex Muir points to Facebook’s Hydra like offering as something any entrepreneur should consider as a competitor before launching a business into the B2C space:

Today, **if you’re building a service for communities or individuals then Facebook is almost certainly your biggest competitor. ** B2B: Excel, B2C: Facebook.

Ben Thompson recently profiled how Amazon is leveraging its scale in ecommerce and cloud computing to gain a near insurmountable competitive advantage. Eugene Kim’s collection of charts profiling Amazon provides a valuable complement to Thompson’s words illustrating what a behemoth the organisation present (at least in the US):

Amazon's long term growth

Bastion of free market economics, The Economist has made a convincing argument that the US economy needs more competition (and regulation) pointing to growing concentration and rising profits among the country’s leading firms:

Even better at making money

Scott Santens joins the chorus of voices raising concerns about the threat automation poses to employment with Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo illustrating the major advances in artificial intelligence capabilities which could upturn society as we know it:

No nation is yet ready for the changes ahead. High rates of labor force nonparticipation leads to social instability, as does a lack of consumers within consumer economies. It turns out, humans are good at designing things, but not so great at picturing a world that their technology will create. What’s the big lesson to learn, in a century when machines can learn? Maybe it is that jobs are for machines, and life is for people.

Ben Sisario and Karl Russell profile the declining fortunes of the music industry over the last ten years with growth streaming services and vinyl sales failing to fill the hole left by declining CD sales. Whilst the figures don’t allow for revenues from other revenue streams such as concerts, sponsorship and branded content initiatives, overall, the picture isn’t particularly healthy: 

Music industry revenues

An interview with Michael Rosenfeld sheds some light on how online dating is (and isn’t) changing the nature of relationships in the 21st century:

I don’t think that that theory, even if it’s true for something like jam, applies to dating. I actually don’t see in my data any negative repercussions for people who meet partners online. In fact, people who meet their partners online are not more likely to break up — they don’t have more transitory relationships. Once you’re in a relationship with somebody, it doesn’t really matter how you met that other person. There are online sites that cater to hookups, sure, but there are also online sites that cater to people looking for long-term relationships. What’s more, many people who meet in the online sites that cater to hookups end up in long-term relationships. This environment, mind you, is just like the one we see in the offline world.

The rise of Donald Trump is one of the more interesting (and scary) phenomenons in the US’s current election cycle. Clare Malone looks at where Trump’s support comes from:

The Upshot’s look at the geography of Trumpism showed a number of variables linked to areas of deep Trump support — counties where a high proportion of the population is white with no high school diploma, where there are large numbers of mobile homes, and where there is a poor labor-force participation rate. Political scientists Michael Tesler and John Sides recently pointed to new research that shows “both white racial identity and beliefs that whites are treated unfairly are powerful predictors of support for Donald Trump in the Republican primaries.”

Whilst playing to race is an important part of Donald Trump’s success, changing demographics point to a strategy of appealing to America’s white population as becoming increasingly untenable in the future according to Pew Research forecasts:

The changing face of America

The recent terrorist attack has led to an inevitable concerns among Europeans about their personal safety. Annalisa Merelli’s analysis of deaths and injuries from terror attacks in Western Europe point to the region being no more dangerous than in the recent past although digital media is no doubt amplifying current fears:

Dead and injured in terror attacks in Western Europe

The featured image shows a Hazul Luzah mural from Underground Paris’ interview with the Portuguese artist.

Thought Starters: mobile’s evolution, the gang of four, sadness on Tumblr and Brexit

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to look through the articles, research and opinion pieces I’ve read, highlighting the more interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in. This edition looks at the evolution of mobile, Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook’s stranglehold on media and technology, Tumblr’s role among teens and the upcoming Brexit referendum among other things. Happy reading. 

With the Mobile World Congress on in Barcelona, Benedict Evans looks back at how we’ve got to today’s mobile ecosystem and how various incumbents were wrongfooted by these changes:

It’s always fun to laugh at the people who said the future would never happen. But it’s more useful to look at the people who got it almost right, but not quite enough. That’s what happened in mobile. As we look now at new emerging industries, such as VR and AR or autonomous cars, we can see many of the same issues. The big picture 20 years out is actually the easy part, but the details are the difference between Nokia and DoCoMo ruling the world and the world as it actually happened. There’s going to be a bunch of stuff that’ll happen by 2025 that we’d find just as weird.

The recent launches of Facebook’s Instant Articles and Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages aim to get content to consumers faster on their mobile phone (as well as keeping content within their respective domains). The following graph should give you an idea of why load times are so important for consumers:

Cognitive load associated with stressful situations

Bruce Schneier gives a valuable defence of Apple’s refusal to handover the ‘keys’ to the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone. I am not so sure if it’s quite as cut and dry as Schneier makes out but there’s a strong case for not opening back doors given that there are plenty of people whose governments are less benevolent than are own:

What the FBI wants to do would make us less secure, even though it’s in the name of keeping us safe from harm. Powerful governments, democratic and totalitarian alike, want access to user data for both law enforcement and social control. We cannot build a backdoor that only works for a particular type of government, or only in the presence of a particular court order.

NYU Stern Professor Scott Galloway provides a rapid fire look at the growing stranglehold that Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google have on the media and technology sector – entertaining and informative:

A valuable companion to Galloway’s video is The Guardian’s presentation on key trends in the media sector focusing on where consumers are spending their time, emerging media models and podcasting among other things:

Whilst Tumblr might not be living up to Yahoo’s expectations with its monetisation, theres’ no denying its cultural impact. Elspeth Reeve provides a window into where Tumblr fits into teens’ digital lives:

Wong explained that teens perform joy on Instagram but confess sadness on Tumblr. The site, he said, is a “safe haven from their local friends. … On Tumblr they tell their most personal stories. They share things that they normally wouldn’t share with their local friends because of the fear of judgment. That has held true for every person that I’ve met.”

The IAB UK is pushing the importance of online advertising in the living room, pointing out that television isn’t the only game in town if you want consumers’ attention:

“Second screening is ingrained to such a degree that all screens are now equal, there’s no hierarchy, only fragmentation of attention – actually switch-screening is a much more accurate term,” says Tim Elkington, the IAB’s Chief Strategy Officer. “Furthermore, entertainment is only a small part of the living room media activity. It’s now a multifunctional space where people jump between individual and group activities, be it shopping, social media, emails, work or messaging.”

Ben Carlson explores why bear markets are so painful for consumers and businesses (and it’s not just the hole it leaves in their pockets):

One of the reasons for this is because of the difference between the nature of bull and bear markets. There’s an old saying that stocks take the escalator up but the elevator down. Bull markets are fairly slow and methodical. Bear markets are violent and come in waves. Bull markets take time to climb the wall of worry while bear markets can wipe out a decent amount of those gains in a hurry.

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has provoked renewed interest in the issue of income inequality. Dr Max Roser’s analysis points to rising inequality in English speaking countries which contrasts with the other developed economies profiled:

Share of Total Income going to the Top 1%

Britain is now in Brexit fever as debates  rage over whether the country should leave the European Union following the announcement by Prime Minister David Cameron of a referendum in July. The Economist has done a quick roundup of some of the arguments those for and against Brexit are pushing:

Arguments for and against Brexit, according to the main campaigns

One of the big uncertainties is the impact that Brexit will have on the UK’s economy. Chris Giles looks at three possible scenarios, a Booming Britain, a Troubled Transition and a Disastrous Decision.

The Economist point to the importance of education as key arbiter in determining Briton’s perceptions of Brexit. Tertiary education in particular providing a different filter to view these changes as well as increasing the potential benefits from being part of the European Union:

In the long term, this bodes well for pro-Europeans. University attendance has exploded, which suggests that Britain will become more internationalist and comfortable with EU co-operation. Yet in the meantime it seems the country will be increasingly polarised: liberal, Cambridge-like places on the one side; nationalist, Peterborough-like ones on the other and an ever-shrinking middle ground between the two, as the population bifurcates into those whose skills make them globally competitive and those who must compete with robots and the mass workforces of the emerging economies. Democracy—especially in a system as centralised and majoritarian as that of Britain—assumes some common premises and experiences, a foundation that thanks to the great educational-cultural divide is now at risk. Eventually Britain will look more like Cambridge than it does today. But until then decades of division and mutual alienation await.

Another country that is having a rather mixed relationship with the European Union is Poland. Christian Davies follows Jarosław Kaczyński and the Law & Justice party’s rise to power and concerns about growing nationalism and authoritarianism:

Commonly labelled conservative or nationalist, Law and Justice blends the religious and patriotic rituals of Poland’s long history of resistance to foreign oppression with hostility to free-market capitalism and a heavy dose of conspiracy regarding the machinations of Poland’s enemies. It is the vanguard of a movement that goes far beyond the party itself, supported by sympathetic smaller parties, ultra-Catholic media, nationalist youth organisations and an assortment of cranks and cynics who share a hostility to liberalism in all its guises. As foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski told the German tabloid Bild, his government “only wants to cure our country of a few illnesses”, such as: “a new mixture of cultures and races, a world made up of cyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energy and who battle all signs of religion … What moves most Poles [is] tradition, historical awareness, love of country, faith in God and normal family life between a woman and a man.”

Valentine’s Day this year was awash with media coverage of online dating and the impact it is having on relationships. It’s interesting to look back on how people have met their other halves in the past. These figures might not be right up to date (certainly pre Tinder) but they do give a valuable indicator of changing social trends:

How heterosexual US couples met their romantic partners 1940-2009

The featured image is a Hitotzuki mural from the POW! WOW! festival in Hawaii and published in Arrested Motion.

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

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

Authors of The Age of Cryptocurrency, Michael  Casey and Paul Vigna talk about how Bitcoin is no longer being seen as a novelty in the world’s financial system.

Leslie Berlin provides a valuable account of the history of Silicon Valley, pointing to the technical, cultural, and financial forces that have shaped its growth.

Silicon Valley
Santa Clara Valley before it became Silicon Valley, OSU Special Collections.

Amazon recently released its financial results which broke out figures for its AWS cloud computing offering for the first time. Ben Thompson profiled the growth of Amazon and the increasingly important role that AWS now plays for the tech juggernaut, fueling the company’s forays into new markets. Jan Dawson on the other hand takes a critical look at some of Amazon’s forays into foreign markets which have met with mixed success and suggests that the company should double down on those markets where it has critical mass.

Amazon Services
Amazon’s array of services with Jan Dawson arguing that the company should concentrate on depth rather than reach.

Elon Musk’s launch of Tesla Energy has raised a lot of comments about the disruption of the electricity sector. Davide Castelvecchi takes a more critical view

Senior fellow at the Centre for Global Development, Michael Clemens argues the case for opening Europe’s doors to immigration, providing a marked contrast to politicians response in the European Union.

The UK election has come to a close and I can’t claim to be happy with the result. The Financial Times has some valuable data visualisations which allow readers to quickly grasp trends in voting.

Screen Shot 2015-05-09 at 10.55.28

Want to know where you’re likely to find racism? PLOS ONE used Google’s search data, providing a source of information that’s free of some of the biases traditionally associated with survey data on racism:

Google Racism

Ryoji Ikeda’s Supersymmetry exhibition at the Vinyl Factory’s Brewer Street Car Park space is well worth a visit for fans of digital art at a more visceral level.

The featured image is 1010 piece in Fondi, Italy for Memoire Urbane and published in StreetArtNews.

Thought Starters

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

Mobile messaging continues to grow as a communication format and as a platform which The Economist profiles in its latest issue. Mobile messaging sector has been given a boost  in the tech press by recent announcements at Facebook’s F8 Developer Conference which  has seen Facebook Messenger repositioned as the hub  for consumer’s smartphones. It’s an interesting strategic play by Facebook as it could potentially see the messaging platform become a gatekeeper across mobile regardless of which mobile operating system consumers are using.  I recommend checking out Benedict Evans and  Charlie Warzei’s take on things if you want to find out more.

Jay Z and friends have launched the Tidal streaming music service into what is an increasingly crowded market. Ben Thompson uses this as a starting point to look at how has the bargaining power in the music industry value chain…and he concludes that Tidal doesn’t have a particularly strong position.

Amazon Dash Button provides an interesting example of the changing face of marketing and Amazon’s move to bind consumers more closely to its ecommerce ecosystem. Eugene Wei has an interesting review of the service or for a more critical perspective, try Ian Crouch. I don’t think I’m ready to have little brand advertisements all around my home quite yet.

The popularity of UKIP and other parties hostile to immigration across Europe point to concerns about ‘job stealing foreigners.’ Adam Davidson provides a valuable retort to this view drawing on the Lump of Labour Fallacy.

The drop in global oil prices has helped and hurt different countries. Moisés Naím picks out who the winners and losers are.

Fareed Zakaria advocates the benefits of a liberal arts education pointing to the benefits it provides in enabling countries to be economically successfully and warns of the risks of putting too much emphasis on STEM  focused education.

There’s been a fair amount of talk recently of the impact that technology and automation is having on employment in the developed world. Noah Smith suggests that this argument is overstated pointing to the massive impact that China’s workforce is having on the global economy.

It’s worth checking out  Evan Osnos’ detailed profile of Chinese President Xi Jinping and his view of development which doesn’t include Western ideals of democracy and press freedom. One to watch given his role in shaping international relations in years to come.

Scott Harrison’s profile of  the Moscow apartment bombings of 1999 and Vladimir Putin’s alleged involvement paints the Russian leader in a much less flattering and ultimately rather scarey light.  Well worth a read, particularly in light of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine.

Who are the happiest people in Europe? The social democratic model appears to be working in Scandinavia whilst the economic crisis in Southern Europe appears to be dampening things according to Eurostat figures.

Qualityoflife

For those of you in the UK, you might want to check out Cambridge University research reported on in the Guardian which looks at which parts of the UK are the friendliest and most neurotic.

Featured image is a John-Thomas Nagel photo taken in Sao Paulo in Brazil published in Street Art Utopia.

 

 

Thought Starters

Content that has caught my eye recently, which includes coverage of Amazon, Apple Pay, Facebook’s financial results, the music industry, income inequality among other things.

Vanity Fair has a feature article focusing on the increasingly fraught relationship between Amazon and the publishing industry. The piece charts how Amazon was originally seen as a counterbalance to to the growing power of Borders and Barnes & Noble, but over time it was Amazon that upset the relatively cosy relationships within the publishing industry (albeit at the expense of the consumer).

Whilst Amazon’s hold on the publishing industry appears relatively secure, the company has received a bit of stick recently for its performance in other market segments (most notably the Fire Phone) .

Bezos’ sterling reputation kept few questioning these initiatives, but in recent months that has started to change. A number of recent initiatives seem to be costing more money while not necessarily showing signs of sure success.

Benedict Evans made a strong case a couple of months ago for Amazon’s approach of  putting off profits as it invested in new market segments, but  Amazon needs to have more winners if this strategy is to work over the long term.

Ben Thompson takes a valuable look at how Apple has carved out a strong strategic position in the payments space by creating a situation of mutual advantage for its customers, credit card networks, banks, and to a lesser degree, merchants:

Apple Pay

Technalysis has forecasted healthy growth in the wearable computing category. Whether its enough to provide a lifeline to Samsung and other besieged smartphone manufacturers remains to be seen:

Wearables

Facebook’s revenue results reported by Benedict Evans point to the company doing a good job of adapting to consumers’ increasing time on their smartphone:

Facebook Mobile

What Facebook is doing a less good of is reducing its reliance on the North American market as reported in Inside Facebook, despite the continued growth of internet and mobile internet penetration in the rest of the World:

Facebook Revenue by Region

Whilst Western consumers are relishing increasing mobile internet speeds, it’s a rather different story for many consumers in the developing world where the cost of data makes internet access a relative luxury. Ben Bajarin talks about the ‘light web’ in which mobile experiences are carefully optimised to reduce the data usage for consumers wary of:

Mobile Internet Developing World

Much has been made  of the move by brands from an era of disruption to engagement, enabled by broadening array of interactive digital channels. Given these changes, its valuable to read Tom Doctoroff’s spirited defence of more traditional marketing agencies.

An interesting counterpoint to Doctoroff’s  view is Faris who points to the lack of interactivity in the majority of digital advertising, pointing to Honda’s The Other Side campaign as where things should be heading:

You get the idea. I guess I just miss ideas that work on the web, where the user is in control of the interaction. Where everyone gets an interactive experience.

Bradley Leimar takes a look at how banks will look to improve their offering using enhanced digital channels that go beyond simply putting a customer interface online:

We are moving away from a banking relationship defined by the goal of being a customer’s primary financial institution to one where we focus on becoming their primary financial application. It’s no longer about wallet share. It’s about app-driven mindshare – as our customers reach into their pockets for their mobile device or use their glasses or other form of wearable technology and think about their financial relationship choices – before, during, and after a financial moment of truth.

The music industry is adjusting from an ownership to a streaming model. Mark Mulligan argues that the music industry needs to drop the pricing of streaming music if it wants to maximise overall revenues:

Music Revenue

Felix Salmon on the other hand focuses his attention on the value of having three dominant record labels in facilitating streaming music services, arguing that an oligopoly in this case serves the interests of consumers.

We take globalisation for granted in the increasingly interconnected world we live in. Given this, it’s interesting to see analysis from Pankaj Ghemawat and Steven Altman which compares how globalised information, trade, people and capital is over the last 10 years:

Globalisation

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has sparked renewed interest in the issue of income inequality. Oxfam has looked into correlations between income and inequality and health outcomes pointing to some of the more tangible negative outcomes associated with income disparities within countries:

Inequality

 

Sorapop Kiatpongsan and Michael Norton’s research points to the vast gap between the income of CEOs and their unskilled workers across different countries, with the wage gap being much larger than most people saw as being appropriate:

Wage Gap

The featured image is 25% Black by Elian in Cordoba, Argentina and found on eksoystem.

Thought Starters

A mixed collection of materials looking at societal trends and the impact of technology on the way we live.

The McKinsey Quarterly profiles technological disruption, emerging markets growth and ageing population as trends that will have a substantial effect on business in the coming 50 years:

Workers per Dependent

Going on public confidence, we’ve still got a long way to go before the world pulls out of the recession according to research from Pew Research, although reassuringly, UK is among the more confident:

Economic mood

Americans are seemingly chain to their desks, followed not too far behind by the UK according to research from the National Bureau of Economic Research. Salon’s reporting of the research also highlights willingness of Americans and Britons to work weekends and evenings:

Working hours

The Economist profiles  the world  of real time bidding for online advertising which has gained a strong foothold in US and UK markets and looks likely to rapidly spread to the rest of the world:

Real time bidding

Research from Harvard Business School profiled in Forbes contrasts the ROI from search and display advertising. I won’t giveaway who came out on top.

Much has been made of the impact that Amazon is having on the retail sector with effects particularly felt in the book sector. Zachary Karabell’s reporting points to the independents rather than the larger book store chains as proving best able to respond to Amazon’s encroachment.

The Guardian has avoided adding paywalls to its website unlike competitors The Times and the New York Times. What the organisation has done is follow the lead of other move media organisations and establish a membership led events programme offering that will bring its staff more into face to face contact with its readers:

Guardian

The New Statesman profiles bellingcat which looks to use a citizen based journalism model to shed light on conflict zones, with successful reporting from Ukraine and Syria among other locations.

There’s been no shortage of coverage of Apple’s launch event for Apple Pay, iPhone 6 and Apple Watch. Marco Arment looks at what we would like to see with the Apple Watch but then goes on to praise Apple for its ability to produce best in class product design:

The ideal smartwatch would have a high-resolution, color, self-illuminated but not too bright, highly visible yet completely subtle screen that’s always on, but isn’t tacky and doesn’t draw much attention to itself from others. The screen must be as large as possible so you can read and touch it nicely, but as small as possible so it isn’t ostentatious and doesn’t look out of proportion on a wrist. This screen, and all of the other components, must use as close to zero power as possible because the battery needs to last at least a week (ideally much longer), weigh as little as possible, and occupy almost no space.

So it needs to be bright, dim, bold, subtle, large, and small, with a battery that lasts a month with zero mass, and some compelling everyday applications beyond telling time and showing phone notifications. The true design challenge isn’t making it pretty — it’s making it good.

Horace Dediu in his analysis points to Apple’s presentation which highlighting the Watch’s role as timepiece, communicator and health and fitness device but he goes on to suggest that we will see lots more use cases emerge in the coming years.

Whilst much of the consumer attention was on the iPhone and Apple Watch launch, we may well find that it’s Apple Pay that will have the most substantial long term effect  on our society, giving the mobile payments sector an important boost.

For those of you wanting to find out more about the wearable technology sector outside of Apple’s launch, you might want to try PSFK’s recently released presentation:

Tinder has reshaped the way that many people approach dating and relationships. If you’re interested in finding out more about the site, I’d suggest you try Kiera Feldman’s oral history or for a more analytical approach try Anne Helen Petersen looking at how race and social class affects people’s choices on the platform.

Tinder

A lot of noise has been made about the disruptive forces of Silicon Valley. Airbnb founder and CEO Brian Chesky argues that the tech sector should be more selective in their use of the phrase and suggests that Airbnb is more a return to older ways of doing business rather than something totally new:

 Dougald Hine highlights the need for reflection as consumers are faced with an ever expanding hosepipe of information:

The latter requires, among other things, space for reflection – allowing what we have already absorbed to settle, waiting to see what patterns emerge. Find the corners of our lives in which we can unplug, the days on which it is possible to refuse the urgency of the inbox, the activities that will not be rushed. Switch off the infinity machine, not forever, nor because there is anything bad about it, but out of recognition of our own finitude: there is only so much information any of us can bear, and we cannot go fishing in the stream if we are drowning in it. As any survivor of the 1960s counterculture could tell us, it is best to treat magic substances with respect – and to be careful about the dosage.

The featured image is by Ben Slow in Vitry, Paris and was found on vitostreet’s Flickr stream.