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: Apple vs Google, fintech, Bitcoin’s failing health, emerging markets and income inequality

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’ll look at virtual reality, the looming battle between Apple and Google, the fintech opportunity, Bitcoin’s (poor) health, emerging markets, income inequality and lots more.

Goran Peuc has called on designers to focus more on getting users to their destination as smoothly as possible, avoiding unwarranted complexity and features. Among the services he highlights as doing it right are Google Search, Nest, Dropbox and Gov.uk:

People are not really into using products. Any time spent by a user operating an interface, twisting knobs, pulling levers or tapping buttons is time wasted. Rather, people are more interested in the end result and in obtaining that result in the quickest, least intrusive and most efficient manner possible. And these are two fundamentally different concepts — usage versus results — which, at the very least, differentiate good product design from poor product design or, on a smaller scale, a good feature from a bad one.

2016 is likely to be a big year for virtual reality as it moves from vapourware to tangible experiences in consumers hands. Peter Rojas looks at some of the key issues affecting what the VR landscape will be come the end of 2016:

It feels like we’re on the cusp of an entirely new world of immersive computing, but VR as an industry is still completely wide open in a way which more established markets like mobile and desktop computing are not.

Facebook has begun releasing an SDK for Facebook Messenger enabling developers to build interactive experiences within the messaging platform with actions such as shop, book, travel and more. This brings Facebook closer to the WeChat model whereby users feel less need to leave the messaging platform to complete tasks. Uber is among the first partners to trial the service (see below):

 


 

GlobalWebIndex has released its figures for the global penetration of adblockers which gives you an indication of why their growth was highlighted as a trend to watch in a number of media commentators’ end of year roundup:

Ad-blocking is here to stay

Mehdi Daoudi contrasts Google’s web centric strategy with Apple’s app centric approach   are taking to online media with Mountain’s app centric approach, with both arguing that they have the user’s interests at heart. Media publishers are increasingly feeling like the meat in the sandwich, as these technology titans try and wrest control of consumers’ attention and eyeballs:

What’s really going on here? No one is saying that Google and Apple aren’t genuinely interested in creating the best possible online experiences. But the recent announcements are skirmishes in a bigger war for Internet dominance, with these behemoths and others trying to stifle each others’ business models, sway advertising trends in their own favor, and gain a bigger piece of the online advertising pie. The end-user experience argument is their Trojan Horse, and other companies, large or small, are unwilling pawns in their master plans.

Startup L. Jackson has been one of the most amusing and at times insightful commentators on the world of startups and Silicon Valley. Chris Dixon has pulled together some of his best tweets:

Concerns about the overvaluation of tech startups appear to be having a real impact on angel and venture capital funding, with CB Insights‘ figures pointing to a decline in the number of deals and funding in the last quarter in the US. Probably more a case of a market correcting for a bulge rather than the popping of a bubble:

US Tech Seed Deal Activity

The fintech sector has been one of the hotspots in London’s startup sector. TransferWise’s The Future of Finance profiles why there’s so much interest in the sector with its talk of disrupting traditional financial institutions and also looks at which categories consumers are most receptive to new entrants:

Consumers’ predictions of their own uptake of fintech over the next 10 years

Capgemini’s survey of the financial services sector provides a contrasting perspective, pointing to financial institutions in many cases being more concerned about larger technology players rather than the new range of fintech startups:
A view of the competitive threat by banking vertical

Bitcoin is one of the technologies that many commentators were forecasting would turn the financial services on its head. Whilst banks and other financial institutions are increasingly experimenting with blockchain solutions, bitcoin pioneer Mike Hearn’s prognosis for Bitcoin is less than healthy:

Why has Bitcoin failed? It has failed because the community has failed. What was meant to be a new, decentralised form of money that lacked “systemically important institutions” and “too big to fail” has become something even worse: a system completely controlled by just a handful of people. Worse still, the network is on the brink of technical collapse. The mechanisms that should have prevented this outcome have broken down, and as a result there’s no longer much reason to think Bitcoin can actually be better than the existing financial system.

Academic publishing is one sector that has proven surprisingly resistant to change with commercial publishers continuing to act as tollkeeper. Jason Schmitt looks at Elsevier and asks whether we’re on the cusp of change towards a much more open model of information sharing:

Time will tell if open access will be the needed disruption to allow the academic environment to right itself or if a new market emerges from startup incubators like the Center for Open Science. Regardless of how the future vision is realized, most in the academic community hope that the new iteration of scholarly articles and publishing will do more good toward humankind than that of a hefty profit margin.

You can gauge the shift in the global economy from Oxford Economics‘ forecast of the major economic centres in 2030 in this visualisation by CityMetric, which points to an increasingly China orientated world:

Cities that will contribute the most to growth in global GDP by 2030

Whilst the global economy has definitely been moving east, the short to medium term outlook for many emerging markets isn’t nearly as rosy. Ian Talley profiles some of the barriers that are likely to hold back many countries’ economic growth:

Not so emerging markets

Jan-Emmanuel De Neve and Nattavudh Powdthavee’s research points to a negative correlation between income inequality and life satisfaction:Overall well-being drops as national income inequality rises

Another area where the Nordics have excelled is press freedom with Finland, Norway and Denmark leading Reporters without Borders global league table:

2015 World Press Freedom Index

Whilst London sometimes feels like it’s bursting at the seams, the city reward its residents with one of the most diverse collections of ethnicities in the world (great if you’re a culinary explorer). The Economist has used Office of National Statistics data to highlight the leading ethnicities for each of London’s electoral wards in an interactive map (click on the map below for the interactive version):

London's ethnic map

Dive like Hector is the featured image by  Telmo Miel, painted in Christchurch, New Zealand on top of the YMCA building and published in StreetArtNews.

Thought Starters: young people’s media and device use, Facebook Messenger’s evolution, grey zone conflicts and the gender pay gap

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to look through articles, research and opinion pieces, highlighting interesting trends, developments and changes in the world you and I live in.  Among the stories and research we look at in this edition are the habits of children and young adults, the growth of Facebook Messenger, grey zone conflicts, the gender pay gap and lots more.

There’s been growing speculation that Twitter may increase the character length of its posting as it looks to get ahead of Facebook in its user growth stakes (see below).  Shira Ovide gives a strong argument for retaining it as it is, although I would argue there’s definitely scope for excluding links, images and video URLs from tweets’ character limit:

Comparison growth monthly active users of Facebook and Twitter

Younger audiences given an indication of future habits of  the general population. Dan Kopf analysis young adults habits in the American Time Use Survey which unsurprisingly points to growing gaming, computer use and reading and decline in time spent watching television:

Which leisure activities are twentysomethings spending more time on?

Benedict Evans on the other hand has used Ofcom’s Children and parents: Media use and attitudes report to look at the habits of British children which points to the substantial transition to mobile phones and tablets:

What would children miss

Flurry has released their analysis of Europeans’ use of smartphones and tablets based on their app data which shows wide variations in device penetration as well as giving clues on how mobile devices are being used:

Smart device penetration in Europe

Facebook has done a great job of transitioning to a mobile world with 78% of its ad revenues now coming from mobile. Facebook though is not one to rest on its laurels, with Facebook Messenger seen as a key component in strengthening its hold on mobile consumers. Facebook has just published a review of highlights for Messenger from 2015 which gives an indication of the social network’s ambitions for the mobile messaging service:

Facebook Messenger 2015 highlights

As mobile phones approach market saturation in developed markets, consumer electronics brands are looking to new categories for a boost in their revenues. Unfortunately for the brands, Accenture‘s global research profiled by Matt Rosoff  suggests that consumers aren’t getting caught up in the hype for new products despite a growing array of offerings:

Consumers are bored with today's tech and nervous about tomorrow's

Gartner’s CMO Spend Survey points to growing marketing budgets and an emphasis on digital commerce, innovation, sales conversion and customer retention. You can find further analysis of the survey results from Simon Yates who points among things to the blurring distinction between offline and online marketing:

Marketing budgets continue to grow

Interested in knowing what jobs are likely to keep you employed into the future? The Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis has analysed employment and unemployment rates for jobs on the basis of how routinised and levels of cognition which might give you some pointers whether you need to be retraining:

Routine vs Non Routine Cognitive vs Manual EmploymentFigures from Bloomberg point to the substantial cuts in employment some banks have taken post financial crisis. It might be rather too optimistic to hope that those people whose actions fueled the crisis might have been among the first to leave:

Staff cuts at the World's biggest banks

Cass R. Sunstein profiles Gabriel Zucman’s The Hidden Wealth of Nations: The Scourge of Tax Havens, examining the growing role that tax havens play in enabling corporations and the wealthy to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. Zucman’s analysis provides a guide to the scale of the problem and also points to the successes and failures different institutions have had in addressing the problem of tax evasion:

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, you might expect that there would be an international crackdown on the use of tax havens, and as we shall see, international attention is indeed growing. But the numbers demonstrate that no crackdown has occurred. In Luxembourg, offshore wealth actually increased from 2008 to 2012 (by 20 percent). In Switzerland, the increase has been comparable; foreign holdings are now close to an all-time high. Disturbingly, the new wealth is coming mostly from developing countries, which poses a serious problem in light of the severe strains on their limited budgets.

China’s economy is going through a rough patch, with the share market in a nose dive.  Given the over inflated valuation of many of the assets. Given the overinflated value of many of the assets in the country’s equity markets, this trend is unlikely to change (unless the government chooses to prop it up):

China Battles to Shore Up World's Priciest Stock Market

High profile Silicon Valley venture capitalist Paul Graham’s recent blog posting in which he argues that income inequality per se is not a bad has inevitably kicked up a storm of reactions. Among the more nuanced responses is Ben Thompson’s analysis who points to the risks and benefits associated with a more deregulated economy and calls out for the need for a strong social safety net that is independent of our employers:

Technology is changing the world, and it is naive to not expect the world to begin to push back. Rather than always be reactionary, it is past time for the technology industry broadly and Silicon Valley in particular to get serious about what that world will look like in the future, especially given the fact there is actually a way forward that is a win for not just technology companies and their investors, but for those who are impacted — i.e. everyone. Just as we should separate the means by which Uber allocates drivers from the ability to pay for a ride, it makes sense to separate work from the provision of a social safety net, and those most able to capitalize on this new world order should be the most willing to pay.

The conflict in Syria and the resulting flood of refugees fleeing to Europe is unfortunately leading to an anti immigration backlash in many European countries. Victims aside from the refugees fleeing harm in the middle of a European winter include the Schengen Agreement which previously allowed the free flow of people across much of mainland Europe:

Recent changes to crossing Europe's borders

Peter Pomerantsev uses the examples of China in the South China Sea, Russia in Crimea and Syria and ISIS with its terrorist attacks to highlight the growing importance of messy grey zone conflicts around the world:

It’s a brave new war without beginning or end, where the borders of peace and war, serviceman and civilian have become utterly blurred—and where you and I are both a target and a weapon.

Whilst we’re on the subject of globalisation and its impacts, The Economist has updated its Big Mac Index, pointing to who is paying over the odds for their guilty pleasure:

The Big Mac Index

The Freakonomics podcast is one of my regular listening appointments and this week’s edition looking at the causes and effects of the gender pay gap is well worth downloading.

The featured mural is by eko from his Flickr page.

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.