Thought Starters: ubiquitous smartphones, post-PC and universal basic income

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 transition from a PC to a smartphone-dominated world, the story behind financial results from Apple and Facebook, the growth of Sci-Hub and a closer look at the universal basic income model among other things:

Benedict Evans profiles the increasingly ubiquitous smartphone and how the mobile market is changing as the technology becomes increasingly commodified:

Smartphones have unique scale for tech

Steven Sinofsky moves to an iPad Pro for his daily computing requirements and shares his experiences. As the PC loses its hegemony, raises new challenges and opportunities for businesses and entrepreneurs:

The shift to this new form factor and new platform will bring with it cultural changes that take advantage of what are perceived as disadvantages. As makers, being early is essential, otherwise you are late.

For more on the topic of post-PC world, I’d suggest reading Paul Thurrott’s reluctant forecast of the demise of Microsoft’s Windows and Steven Sinofsky and Benedict Evans rounding out their thoughts on the a16z podcast:

The release of quarterly results has provided a valuable window into the ups and downs of some of the world’s tech giants. Neil Cybart’s analysis of Apple’s financial results suggests we’ve reached peak iPhone, with sales hit by longer upgrade cycles and fewer easy growth opportunities:

iPhone Unit Sales Growth (trailing 12 months)

Apple CEO Tim Cook has emphasised the company’s service offerings in recent announcements. It’s worth having a read of Ben Thompson’s analysis of this move as the company looks to avoid being typecast as simply a maker of beautiful devices:

With regards to the iPhone, it’s hard to see its record revenues and profits ever being surpassed by another product, by Apple or anyone else: it is in many respects the perfect device from a business perspective, and given that whatever replaces it will likely be significantly less dependent on a physical interface and even more dependent on the cloud (which will help commoditize the hardware), it will likely be sold for much less and with much smaller profit margins.

Facebook had more joy with its financial results growing monthly and daily active users and mobile’s share of traffic although growing presence in developing markets is dragging down its average revenue per user. Whilst recent research suggests that people might be increasingly wary of sharing their personal thoughts on Facebook, the social network maintains a strong role as onramp to many consumers’ digital world as Will Oremus comments:

The company has reinvented itself in two distinct ways. First, Facebook as a platform has been quietly evolving into something different than a social network—something less personal, but no less useful. Second, Facebook as a company has been furiously hedging its bets on the future of technology and social media, to the point that it is no longer properly described as merely a social network—no more than Alphabet (né Google) is properly described as a search website.

So what has the Facebook app and site become, if not a social network? The answer is rather obvious when you watch how people use it. It has become a personalized portal to the online world.

Whilst tech unicorns have typically avoided the scrutiny of the stock market by staying private, analysis of sales of ping-pong tables in Silicon Valley suggest that venture capital funding might not be as free flowing as it once was:

Sales of ping-pong tables to companies at a Silicon Valley store correlate with venture-capital deals made during the same quarter.

Whilst we’re on the subject of startups, it’s worth reading Chris Dixon’s call for entrepreneurs to look broadly to better understand future threats and opportunities, namechecking automation of logistics, apps, video and voice services:

Think of the internet economic loop as a model train track. Positions in front of you can redirect traffic around you. Positions after you can build new tracks that bypass you. New technologies come along (which often look toy-like and unthreatening at first) that create entirely new tracks that render the previous tracks obsolete.

The American IAB has released research tracking consumers’ use of smartphones and tablets when shopping, pointing to the ways different age categories use their devices. This providing both a threat and an opportunity for traditional bricks and mortar retailers:

Smartphone as Shopping Assistant

John Bohannon profiles the growth of Sci-Hub which offers users a means of accessing copyrighted academic research regardless of whether people have the necessary institutional resources. The service provides a valuable source for researchers in less well-funded institutions, but usage statistics suggest that users include plenty of people with the necessary credentials and are simply looking for more user-friendly alternatives:

Server log data for the website Sci-Hub from September 2015 through February 2015

With predictions of automation threatening employment across an increasingly broad spectrum of jobs, there’s been growing calls for the introduction of universal basic income. This would essentially provide a guaranteed income to all regardless of employment status and has gained an interesting collection of supporters from both ends of the political spectrum. It’s something I am expecting to hear a lot more about in the coming months and you get an introduction to the concept from Tim Harford (shorter version), Andrew Flowers (longer version) and the Freakonomics team (podcast version).

The featured image is a Nerone mural from Bordeaux, France published in ekosystem.

Thought Starters: mobile internet, adblockers, sexism in the workplace and the developing world

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to look through the articles, research and opinion pieces I’ve read over the last week or so, highlighting the more interesting trends, developments and changes in the world we live in. This time we’re looking at the growth of mobile, the role of adblockers, the impacts and origins of sexism in the workplace and the internet in the developing world among other things. Happy reading.

The growth of mobile has seen the emergence of a whole new range of digital channels, but Visual Capitalist’s research points to the largest platforms all being controlled by Microsoft, Google or Facebook. That being said, there are range of platforms (WeChat, Snapchat, Slack, Netflix, Spotify) that fall short of a billion users but dominate within their respective sectors or geographies and could present a challenge to the market incumbents:

Apps or programmes with more than one billion active users

The IAB (US) recently released research which profiles how American consumers are using their PCs and smartphones. What is apparent is the continuing move to mobile  although the same research points to computers still registering a higher volume of internet views pointing to the different ways these devices are used:

Nearly Two-Thirds of All Internet Time is Spent on a Mobile Device

Google and Facebook have responded well to consumers’ growing use of smartphones, taking more than half of the available mobile ad revenues and leaving the remaining players fighting over the scraps in the US. eMarketer’s forecast suggests this isn’t going to change any time soon:

Net US mobile ad revenue share by company forecast

A continuing note of concern for media operators is the growth of adblocking with 22% of Britons using the software with this rising to 47% among 18-24 year olds according to Internet Advertising Bureau (UK) commissioned research.

Dean Dubley’s analysis suggests the introduction of mobile adblocking services won’t decimate the online media sector but is likely to further strengthen the hand of Google and Facebook:

The bottom line is that screaming headlines in stories like those from ZeroHedge (link) about “the risk to Internet companies’ business models” are nonsense. Ironically, it’s Google and Facebook’s approach to advertising that is safe. Small online publications using other advertising channels may not be so lucky. I noticed this tweet referencing mobile advertising growth forecasts from Goldman Sachs (link) which seems to suggest that Wall St is sanguine about the adblocking “threat” and that rapid growth in revenues will continue.

Among the likely responses by media operators to growing adblocker usage is a growing reliance on native advertising which is reflected in Enders Analysis’ recent forecast for Yahoo:

Forecast for the growth of native advertising in Europe

Whilst a few apps such as Facebook are nearly universal in their appeal, others give a clearer indicator as to who the user might be. Researchers have looked to profile the correlation between the ownership of different mobile apps and various demographic characteristics and income to develop profiles of mobile users. You can check out who they think you are in quiz – they got my gender and age wrong (I’m definitely male and over the age of 32) although I’m guessing not being a US resident probably didn’t help the profiling process.

Slack has been touted as the solution to the problem of information overload in the workplace with over 2 million daily active users. Samuel Hulick provides a more sceptical view warning that this “asynchronish” is in many cases compounding rather than addressing the problem:

Maybe you will say I’m afraid of commitment, but I’m just not interested in a relationship that seems to want to swallow up more and more of my time and attention, and demand that more and more of my interactions with other people go through you first.

Jeff Goodell has written an extended feature article on artificial intelligence and machine learning. Worth a read if you’re keen to get up to speed with what’s happening in the sector:

Despite advances like smarter algorithms and more capable robots, the future of superintelligent machines is still more sci-fi than science. Right now, says Yann LeCun, the director of Facebook AI Research, “AIs are nowhere near as smart as a rat.” Yes, with years of programming and millions of dollars, IBM built Watson, the machine that beat the smartest humans at Jeopardy! in 2011 and is now the basis for the company’s “cognitive computing” initiative. It can read 800 million pages a second and can digest the entire corpus of Wikipedia, not to mention decades of law and medical journals. Yet it cannot teach you how to ride a bike because its intelligence is narrow – it knows nothing about how the world actually works

Developments in software technology including artificial intelligence are rapidly expanding the scope of what computers can do. Nathaniel Popper profiles Kensho’s role in automating some of Goldman Sach’s research roles, highlighting how automation is increasingly emerging as a threat to white collar jobs:

The lead author on the Oxford paper, Carl Benedikt Frey, told me that he was aware that new technologies created jobs even as they destroyed them. But, Frey was quick to add, just because the total number of jobs stays the same doesn’t mean there are no disruptions along the way. The automation of textile work may not have driven up the national unemployment rate, but vast swathes of the American South suffered all the same. When it comes to those A.T.M.s, there has, in fact, been a recent steady decline in both the number of bank branches and the number of bank tellers, even as the number of low-paid workers in remote call centers has grown.

This points to a disconcerting possibility: Perhaps this time the machines really are reducing overall employment levels. In a recent survey of futurists and technologists, the Pew Research Institute found that about half foresee a future in which jobs continue to disappear at a faster rate than they are created.

Virtual reality is another technology that’s spilling out of the lab. Whilst it’s great to see the technology in the real world, Daniel Harvey profiles how a lack of diversity is leading to accidental sexism reflecting wider problems in the tech sector:

Based on that pattern it should come as no surprise that VR suffers from much the same. Motion sickness in VR has plagued the format since its inception. Women have shown a greater tendency toward VR-induced nausea than men. But why? It’s all about unconscious bias and technology’s notorious self-selection bias.

Discrimination is certainly not something exclusive to the tech sector. The absence of women in the boardrooms of many FTSE 100 or Fortune 500 companies reflects a range of barriers and will hold back their performance given they’re less able to reflect the needs of half the world’s consumers. It’s worth heading over to The Economist site where you can play with an interactive version of the following:

Facebook recently released its State of Connectivity report which profiles barriers to internet access for the developing world as part of its initiative. The key barriers to access highlighted in the report are the state of connectivity, availability of infrastructure, affordability, relevance and readiness of the population:

Barriers to internet access for developing world consumers

A valuable complement to Facebook’s report is Pew Research Center’s recently released research which looks at smartphone ownership and internet usage around the world including developing countries:

Percent of adults who use the internet at least occasionally or report owning a smartphone

With Britain’s Brexit referendum coming up on the 23rd of June, The Economist has profiled the regions that are europhile and eurosceptic:

UK regions' attitudes to Brexit

Whilst Europe is generally becoming more urbanised, this process (like technology) is unevenly distributed with different cities experiencing significant growth (Istanbul, Brussels, Amsterdam) or decline (Katowice, Ruhr, Katowice, Ostrava, Bucharest):

Europe cities growth and decline

Claire Cain Miller and Quoctrung Bui profile changes in patterns of relationships and marriage in the US, highlighting the role of assortative mating in reinforcing social class and undermining social mobility:

Assortative mating is the idea that people marry people like themselves, with similar education and earnings potential and the values and lifestyle that come with them. It was common in the early 20th century, dipped in the middle of the century and has sharply risen in recent years — a pattern that roughly mirrors income inequality in the United States, according to research by Robert Mare, a sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. People are now more likely to marry people with similar educational attainment — even after controlling for differences between men and women, like the fact that women were once less likely to attend college.

The featured image is a mural by ecb / Hendrik Beikirch for the St+Art India event in New Delhi and published in StreetArtNews