Thought Starters: integrations, chatbots and the content glut

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to review and highlight the more important or interesting research and opinions that I’ve read over the last week or so. This edition looks at integrations as a means of reaching consumers, the growing hype around chatbots, a critical look at content marketing, growing income inequality among other things:

Ofcom has released the latest edition of its Adults’ media use and attitudes providing a window into consumers’ use of technology and media in the UK. It’s a great reference document that’s well worth bookmarking for future reference, particularly given its inclusion of longitudinal and demographic data:

Device used most often for specific online activities

With the growth of smartphones, the development of mobile apps has became one of the dominant paradigms for reaching and engaging with consumers. Unfortunately, seemingly every other business has had the same idea but the development of a growing array of integrations opens the door for new channels which Hugh Durkin explores:

Native apps are perfect for these frequent, heavy use jobs. But that doesn’t mean you need a mobile app for every product or service. Ask yourself — will people really want to put your icon on their homescreen?

That’s why companies like Uber are looking beyond homescreen icons. Instead of asking users to come to them — download and install an app — they’re deeply embedding their services where users already spend their time.

Chat bots are being increasingly talked up as the next big route to market for businesses with the recent Facebook Developer Conference seeing a lot of this attention focusing on Facebook Messenger’s growing capabilities:

If you want a more balanced view of the opportunities for chat bots, I’d suggest giving Benedict Evans and Connie Chase a listen on Andreessen Horowitz’s podcast:

A valuable complement to the a16z podcast is Dan Grover’s article where he looks at the success of WeChat in China and suggests that it’s less about chatbots and more about a better user experience:

The key wins for WeChat in the above interaction (compared to a native app) largely came from streamlining away app installation, login, payment, and notifications, optimizations having nothing to do with the conversational metaphor in its UI.

Whilst artificial intelligence and machine learning are expanding the capabilities of chat bots and virtual assistants, there are plenty of situations where humans continue to offer a better experience. Ellen Huet explores the services that are relying on the human touch (for the moment):

A handful of companies employ humans pretending to be robots pretending to be humans. In the past two years, companies offering do-anything concierges (Magic, Facebook’s M, GoButler); shopping assistants (Operator, Mezi); and e-mail schedulers (X.ai, Clara) have sprung up. The goal for most of these businesses is to require as few humans as possible. People are expensive. They don’t scale. They need health insurance. But for now, the companies are largely powered by people, clicking behind the curtain and making it look like magic.

Much of the attention in the West has focused on the dominance of WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, but many Asian markets have seen the development of their own indigenous platforms. This can be seen most vividly in China as detailed by TechinAsia:

China's most popular mobile apps March 2016

Rex Sorgatz provides a very personal account of a return to his old home town of Napoleon, North Dakota. Whilst many of aspects of the town have remained unchanged in 25 years, Sorgatz explores how the internet has changed the experience of teenagers living at the geographic periphery of American society:

I cannot shake the sentence, which seems to contain between its simple words a secret key, a cipher to crack my inquiries into technology and change. Napoleon didn’t have a drive-in in the 1950s, or a mall in the 1980s, but today it definitely has the same social communications tools used by every kid in the country. By that fact alone, the lives of teenagers in Napoleon must be wildly different than they were 20 years ago. But I lack the social research finesse of Boyd, who could probably interrogate my thesis about technology beyond anecdote. So I change the topic to something I know much better: television.

Ezra Klein interviews one of my favourite media and technology commentators Ben Thompson, providing a valuable guide to how he views the world:

Inbound marketing has gained a bit of unwanted courtesy of Dan Lyon’s book Disrupted with its first hand account of his time working for HubSpot. Alexandra Samuel looks at the broader social costs associated with pumping an endless stream of unwanted content out into the internet:

But from a personal perspective, it sucks. For every email newsletter you’re genuinely thrilled to receive, you likely have dozens that merely clutter up your inbox, where they linger unread. To get to the Facebook posts that have been shared by the actual genuine human beings you know, you have to plough through a feed that’s cluttered with posts that somebody paid to put there. (A problem that’s only going to get worse, now that Facebook has given its official blessing to branded content on verified pages.) And unless you read blog posts while wearing glasses that block your peripheral vision, you’re likely to get sucked into clicking on one of the irresistible headlines that now frame nearly every page of content on the Internet — headlines that somebody paid to put there, and which almost always lead to something way less interesting than the headline suggests.

Tom Whitwell explores what is almost certainly the most neglected member of the marketing mix, price:

Price is the crudest, and most subtle, message you can send about your product, so it’s worth getting it right.

Amazon is one of the behemoths of the tech world and it’s the company’s AWS which is likely to prove its brightest star. AWS’s revenue growth points to the opportunities in selling the 21st century equivalent of shovels in a gold rush, particularly when you get it right:

AWS is the fastest growing enterprise technology company ever

Cade Metz looks at how data center operating systems (DC/OS) are enabling more efficient use of data centres which fuel the internet with adoption rapidly spilling outside Google where the technology was originally developed:

But this also is about improving the lives of software engineers. Any company that hits 50 to 100 engineers, Stoppelman says, almost has to embrace this kind of container architecture. It must break down its software into tiny pieces that can by run across myriad machines. Otherwise, things get too unwieldy. Tools like DC/OS and Kubernetes make it far easier to build that kind of distributed software. And the importance of this should not be underestimated. After all, software that runs across dozens or even hundreds of machines—think Google and Twitter and Apple Siri—drives the modern world.

We’ve seen a lot of hot air come out of the startup sector over the last six months with a drop in their valuations and entrepreneurs becoming more cautious about raising funds. Venture capitalist Bill Gurley reviews what this means for founders, investors and employees alike:

As we move forward, it is important for all players in the ecosystem to realize that the game has changed. Equally important, each player must understand how the new rules apply to them specifically. We will start by highlighting several emotional biases that can irrationally impact everyone’s decision making process. Next we will highlight the new player in the ecosystem that is poised to take advantage of these aforementioned changes and emerging biases. Lastly, we will then walk through each player in the ecosystem and what they should consider as they navigate this brave new world.

Markus Poschke and Barış Kaymak look at the reasons for the growing concentration of wealth in the US, concluding that technology is the main driver, followed by tax cuts and more generous public transfers:

Top 1% wealth and income shares, 1960-2012

Daniel Knowles profiles Sub-Saharan Africa’s economic ups and downs for The Economist. Whilst much of the recent success has been driven by commodity exports, there are signs of a broadening economic base which will be sorely needed given Africa’s young and rapidly growing population:

Average annual % change in GDP and Exports in Sub-Saharan Africa

Richard Wike teases out some of the cultural differences between the US and Europe including attitudes to individualism, free speech, religion and adultery. One of the interesting pointers is that richer countries tend to be less religious, with the US being an outlier in this general trend:

Generally, poorer nations tend to be religious; wealthy less so, except for the US

The recent waves of refugees arriving in Europe has put wind in the sails of many nationalist groups seen very recently in the Austrian elections, with employment high on supporters list of concerns. Given this, it’s interesting to see Hu, Chen and Singh among the most common surnames of Italian company founders in a country not particularly known for its ethnic diversity:

Most common surnames of Italian company founders Jan-Aug 2015

The featured image is a Claudia Walde aka MadC mural photographed in London by Marco Prosch and published in WideWalls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prices for Electronic Goods and Services

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

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

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

Global Wealth Pyramid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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