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Thought Starters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Housing stock v demand

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

London First Time Buyers

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

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

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

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

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

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

The featured image is from eko.

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Thought Starters

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.

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Thought Starters

Thought Starters: China, Twitter, startups and the role of food

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

China’s digital media sector has developed its own distinct characteristics with unique properties and innovations that set it apart from many markets in the West. WeAreSocial profile key digital, social and mobile benchmark statistics for the Chinese that give a taste for the key players:

The markets have not responded kindly to Twitter’s performance with one of the company’s largest investors Chris Sacca pitching in with what he feels Twitter should be doing. James Gleich provides a contrasting opinion, suggesting that it’s doing a great job as it is and leadership should be wary of turning the service on its head (even if the returns don’t satisfy investors):

“Twitter doesn’t just want to make it easy for users to find tweets. They want to make it easier for marketers to find users. Everyone wants to know the secret of how to use Twitter to reach their million potential customers. I will tell you the secret. You can’t do it. Twitter is not a giant megaphone. There is no mouthpiece. Those 300 million people, that glistening prize, are not waiting for your message. They’re not tuning to your channels. They’re choosing their own.”

Research from Branch Metrics points to the benefits of contextual deep linking, something that will become increasingly important as we move more toward an app based world:

Advantages of Contextual Deep LinkingThere’s been growing speculation about Apple’s development of their own car as the company looks to expand its footprint outside its heartland of computers and portable devices. Benedict Evans takes  an  insightful look at the market opportunity for the likes of Apple and also how new technologies and business models are likely to see the market evolve.

Mark Suster looks at the dangers of pouring investment into early stage startups where capital inflows can undo the hunger that makes startups so dangerous to the status quo. An interesting complement to this is Andreessen Horowitz’s compilation of startup metrics which provide a guide for those of you looking to assess which opportunities are really in a healthy financial position.

There’s been a lot of talk about unbundling in the cable television industry, particularly in the US which will impact what shows are produced and how they’re distributed in the future. Jan Dawson looks at the factors which will impact on whether consumers will stay with the incumbents or move to the new players such as Netflix and HBO Now.

There’s no denying there’s been a real change in what media consumers are interacting with, particularly among the younger generations. David Pakman takes a closer look, pointing to the growth in media forms which enable self expression and communication:

Media Consump

Tim Wu writing for the New Yorker takes a closer look at the growing hours faced by America’s more educated, as the age of leisure moves further off into the distance:

“What counts as work, in the skilled trades, has some intrinsic limits; once a house or bridge is built, that’s the end of it. But in white-collar jobs, the amount of work can expand infinitely through the generation of false necessities—that is, reasons for driving people as hard as possible that have nothing to do with real social or economic needs.”

The jury is still out on the ultimate effect that the digitisation of culture is having on the careers of artists and other cultural makers. Steven Johnson provides a convincing case of the benefits for musicians, filmmakers and authors with a blurring of the boundaries between professionals and interested amateurs.

We’ve seen food’s profile grow in terms of contemporary culture providing an intersection of material and experiential culture. Eugene Wei profiles this move, drawing on a recent Econtalk podcast feature Rachel Laudan:

“Food has replaced music at the heart of the cultural conversation for so many, and I wonder if it’s because food and dining still offer true scarcity whereas music is so freely available everywhere that it’s become a poor signaling mechanism for status and taste.”

You can see this issue explored further with Joe Pinsker’s interview of Eve Turow focusing on the Millennials’ obsession with food in The Atlantic.

The featured image is Rage & Fury by Nootk! in Moscow, Russia.