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: post carbon futures, social class and Brazil

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 venture capital, Uber’s valuation, mobile commerce, innovations in the telecom and the energy sector, social class and Brazil among other things.

Benedict Evans has written a valuable overview of the venture capital sector, pointing to the importance of winning big rather than winning often, with failure a necessary part of the equation for investors if they really want to get ahead:

There are no 10x deals

Uber has been one of the darlings of the startup sector with its position further strengthened by the sale of its Chinese subsidiary which was proving a drain on its finances. Steve LeVine has looked to pour some cold water on Uber’s current valuation suggesting that the brand is not necessarily the sure thing that some investors would have you believe:

With Uber, you have a singular brand with a credible story. The question is whether that brand and that credibility, plus the other assets on Uber’s balance sheet, add up to $62.5 billion. Here is a business under siege by rivals big and Lilliputian, in the midst of a cannibalistic pricing race to the bottom, bleeding cash and losing money while battling well-heeled, technologically savvy incumbents displaying every intention of owning the space themselves.

Ofcom released its annual Communications Market report, providing a whole host of benchmark statistics for the UK across television, online video, radio, telecoms and the internet. Well worth bookmarking:

Household take-up of digital communications/ AV devices: 2006-2016

Mobile commerce is definitely on the rise as we spend more and more time glued to our smartphone screens. What’s interesting is that for all the talk of the opportunities of mobile apps, browser based purchasing dominates with a lead that’s growing according to Andy Favell:

Access Method for Mobile Shoppers

Federic Filloux looks at how the traditional media players have been sidelined by the news aggregators (primarily Facebook and Google) and newer media outlets more attuned to the rapid fire news cycles of the current age:

For the news industry, this huge economic gap carries two likely consequences: internet giants and digital native news outlets will have tremendous financial firepower to do whatever it takes in terms of marketing or their ability to go further into the general information segment (cf. Snapchat); and the network effect will apply even further when advertising dollars keep drying up for what will be increasingly seen as niche media.

More broadly, except for the old, educated and affluent segment of the population, the vast majority will be informed by a rapid-fire of superficial and shallow contents spat by the social firehose. Expect more Brexit hurricanes and Trump floods in the future.

Self driving cars are reshape our relationship with the automobile but it’s not just the driver who will be impacted by these changes as Robin Chase explores:

We’re at a fork on that roadmap. One direction leads to a productive new century where cities are more sustainable, livable, equitable, and just.

But if we take the wrong turn, we’re at a dead end. Cities are already complex and chaotic places in which to live and work. If we allow the introduction of automated vehicles to be guided by existing regulations we’ll end up with more congestion, millions of unemployed drivers, and a huge deficit in how we fund our transportation infrastructure. We will also miss an opportunity to fix transportation’s hereto intractable reliance on liquid fossil fuels (and their associated pollution).

There’s no disputing the fact that mobile is reshaping the world we live in with data via hardwired, mobile and wifi networks fueling the growth in an ever expanding range of devices (smartphones, sports trackers etc) and services (mobile messaging Shazam etc). Our current infrastructure isn’t really built for these growing demandsJeff Hecht looks at what providers are doing to future proof our telecoms infrastructure:

Bottleneck Engineering

The energy sector is facing growing calls to switch away from fossil fuel based energy given the growing threat from climate change. Renewable energy has traditionally been handicapped by intermittent supply and the costs of energy storage whilst nuclear is costly and has a rather mixed safety record. Tim Harford points to the potentially valuable role of price signals in getting the energy market to travel in the right direction:

Overall, there is little prospect of running out of fossil fuels, and it seems unlikely that alternative energy sources will outcompete them. And yet we must make the shift, or risk catastrophic climate change. Our reserves of fossil fuels may be no constraint but the atmosphere’s capacity to safely absorb carbon dioxide is.

There is some space for optimism. Renewable energy sources are no longer impossibly costly. Nor is nuclear power, even though the costs have moved in the wrong direction. We cannot wait for the market to make the switch unaided — but the gap is no longer so wide that sensible policy cannot bridge it. The centrepiece of such a policy would be to raise the price of carbon dioxide emissions, using internationally co-ordinated taxes or their equivalent. Such a tax would make renewable energy sources more attractive — as well as encouraging energy efficient technologies and behaviour. Market forces can do the rest. Low carbon energy is not free — but it is worth paying for.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard points to innovations in energy storage as giving more than a helping hand,  changing what is economically viable and potentially making Hinkley Point look like something of a white elephant:

This transforms the calculus of energy policy. The question for the British government as it designs a strategy fit for the 21st Century – and wrestles with an exorbitant commitment to Hinkley Point – is no longer whether this form of back-up power will ever be commercially viable, but whether the inflection point arrives in the early-2020s or in the late 2020s.

Simon Hattenstone  has taken a critical at meritocracy in the UK in light of Theresa May’s recent cabinet appointments which are less dominated by Etonians than her predecessor David Cameron. This raises the question will we see real change or more of the same?

Lee Elliot Major of the Sutton Trust, talks of an academic arms race. “Every time opportunities widen for those from less privileged backgrounds, the middle classes find some way of defining merit to their advantage again. Never underestimate the skills and the tenacity of the middle classes to reinforce their privileged position in society. So there was a university expansion, but if you look at the more prestigious universities, there’s still a stark gap in terms of those from more advantaged backgrounds versus those from disadvantaged backgrounds. And increasingly you’re seeing post-graduate degrees.”

The rise of Donald Trump has prompted much soul searching among political commentators in the US pointing to it as a symptom of the growing social inequality. Research from Gallup provides a more nuanced analysis as Max Ehrenfreund and Jeff Guo report:

According to this new analysis, those who view Trump favorably have not been disproportionately affected by foreign trade or immigration, compared with people with unfavorable views of the Republican presidential nominee. The results suggest that his supporters, on average, do not have lower incomes than other Americans, nor are they more likely to be unemployed.

Yet while Trump’s supporters might be comparatively well off themselves, they come from places where their neighbors endure other forms of hardship. In their communities, white residents are dying younger, and it is harder for young people who grow up poor to get ahead.

Alec MacGillis looks more broadly at the growth of a white underclass in the US which has  provided a fertile ground for Trump’s more xenophobic view of the world:

So why are white Americans in downwardly mobile areas feeling a despair that appears to be driving stark increases in substance abuse and suicide? In my own reporting in Vance’s home ground of southwestern Ohio and ancestral territory of eastern Kentucky, I have encountered racial anxiety and antagonism, for sure. But far more striking is the general aura of decline that hangs over towns in which medical-supply stores and pawn shops dominate decrepit main streets, and Victorians stand crumbling, unoccupied. Talk with those still sticking it out, the body-shop worker and the dollar-store clerk and the unemployed miner, and the fatalism is clear: Things were much better in an earlier time, and no future awaits in places that have been left behind by polished people in gleaming cities. The most painful comparison is not with supposedly ascendant minorities—it’s with the fortunes of one’s own parents or, by now, grandparents. The demoralizing effect of decay enveloping the place you live cannot be underestimated. And the bitterness—the “primal scorn”—that Donald Trump has tapped into among white Americans in struggling areas is aimed not just at those of foreign extraction. It is directed toward fellow countrymen who have become foreigners of a different sort, looking down on the natives, if they bother to look at all.

Reflecting the current race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, The Economist suggests that politics will increasingly be about open versus closed models rather than the traditional battles between left and right:

Left, right, left, right

The Rio Olympics has put Brazil in the spotlight during a tumultuous period in its political history. Franklin Foer has a valuable piece that provides a valuable background to recent events:

But the public’s understandable despair isn’t wholly shared by the experts I spoke with. Stepping back, they saw unlikely causes for hope. Impeachment revealed the worst about Brazilian democracy—and the worst wasn’t so terrible. There’s no talk of returning to dictatorship, no real fear of a Hugo Chávez–like figure clouding the sky. Impeachment was a poor showing of democracy, but it was still democracy. Even with all the budgetary turmoil, Bolsa Família remains firmly ensconced. Austerity will whack the poor, yet Lula’s evolution of Brazilian social democracy won’t reverse course. Most important, the Petrobras scandal is so spectacular that its grasp on the popular imagination doesn’t seem to be slipping. Indeed, Temer’s impeachment gambit has yet to slow the Moro investigation. Brazil has a once-in-a-generation chance to untether its politics from its debilitating state of codependence with the big firms. Hosting the Olympics was never going to bring Brazil the national greatness Lula advertised. Freeing its democracy and economy from the plague of corruption could.

Saudi Arabia feels for many of us like a different world given the way that religion shapes everyone’s lives. Studio D’s research into the lives of young Saudi’s provides a valuable window of how people adjust and if that whets your appetite, it’s also worth reading Jessi Hempel’s coverage of the research process:
For Saudi female youth the smartphone is the great liberator
The featured image is a Gue mural photographed by Angelo Jaroszuk Bogasz at the Altrove Street Art Festival in Catanzaro, Italy and published in StreetArtNews.

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: the rise of artificial intelligence, a look at YouNow, what’s going on in content marketing and a climate change update

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. This edition includes signs of growing interest in artificial intelligence, a profile of the YouNow live streaming service,  a review of the UK’s content marketing sector, a look  at climate change post COP21 and lots more.

Artificial intelligence has been one of those innovations that’s often talked about but rarely seen but there are signs this is beginning to change.  Jack Clark profiles recent developments which provide indicators of the technologies readiness to move out of the laboratory:

AI Learns to Pin the Tail on the Donkey

Another technology that is apparently gaining traction are virtual assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana. MindMeld’s research points to a substantial uptake in usage in the last six months (tipping point?) although as a provider of such services, MindMeld is not exactly a neutral voice:

When did you first start using voice search:commands?

Digital audio landscape  has continued to evolve as we move from an ownership to an increasingly streaming based model. Parviz Parvizi has looked to map out the current landscape (see below) and also suggests where we’re likely to see a blurring of boundaries in the near future as the market continues to evolve:

Digital Audio Landscape

I’ve been an avid follower of the Tumblr platform for some years, with the service fitting very much into a space which users broadcast their identity and interests. It will be interesting to see whether the platform’s launch of messaging provides a catalyst for communities of interest among strangers:

Unlike Facebook Messenger or services like WhatsApp, Karp says this is a tool for connecting people who actually don’t know each other in the real world. They may have the same interests and often reblog each other’s work, but have never met in real life.

Ofcom recently released its annual International Communications Market Report,  providing a valuable collection of media and communication statistics. Statistics typically cover UK, France, Germany, Italy, USA, Japan, Australia and Spain , but also include Sweden, Poland, Singapore, South Korea, Brazil, Russia, India, China and Nigeria for some data sets:

Checking smartphone at the start of the day

Amanda Hess profiles rapidly emerging livestreaming platform YouNow which is apparently making an impression on teenage audiences:

“…on YouNow, you don’t see what the broadcaster sees—you see the broadcaster himself. You click into a stream and stare into his eyes. YouNow’s camera is always set, by default, to selfie mode. The whole site is designed to create personalities and foster fandoms around them.

Consumers are spending more time in app on their mobile phone. Unfortunately for retailers this doesn’t mean that developing an app is necessarily the road to success, with comScore research from the US pointing to 51% of users having three or less retail apps. That doesn’t leave much space for an app from your local craft beer emporium:

How many mobile retail apps do you currently have on your smartphone

Content marketing is definitely having its moment in the sun with organisations seeing it as a valuable means of getting their story across to consumers and organisations. Unfortunately this also means that it’s harder to get yourself noticed in an increasingly crowded field. The Content Marketing Institute has released its report looking at what British brands are doing to get themselves noticed:

China was seen by many international brands as the land of opportunity driven by strong economic growth and a population seemingly infatuated with international brands. Angela Doland’s profile of China now suggests the honeymoon might now be over as as competition increases and the economy slows, but the sheer size of the market means that it’s still very hard to ignore:

By 2030, 66% of the world’s middle class will be in Asia, according to Brookings Institution calculations. Only 21% will be in North America and Europe combined. “From a marketing perspective, that statistic tells the whole story of what the challenge is,” Mr. Dumont said. “Asia is the future, and with the world’s largest middle class, China is at the center of it.”

China’s slowing down economy is also having a substantial flow-on effect on global commodity prices, the majority of which now down on where they were a year ago:

Commodity Carnage

Another field apparently in decline is the American middle class. Pew Research Center’s research points to a growing polarisation in household income levels:

Share of adults living in middle-income households is falling

Brad Plumer’s analysis of the recent climate change conference in Paris suggests that it will be some years before we really get an indication on whether it was a success on addressing the issue of global warming.  What is reassuring is seeing research pointing to a reduction in CO2 emissions driven by a fall in the emissions intensity of GDP and a drop in China’s CO2 emissions attributed to a drop in coal consumption. This is a trend we’ll need to see continue if we’re to see the rise in global temperature come down to manageable levels:

Global CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel use and industry since 1990 and emissions intensity CO2/GDP

London’s skyline has seen a lot of changes over the last 10 years as the City of London Corporation has liberalised height restrictions in the City. Oliver Wainwright and Monica Ulmanu’s review of the recent and proposed changes and the article’s accompanying visualisations are well worth reading if you have more than a passing interest in London’s architecture and urban landscape:

All lines lead to St Paul’s

As the process of gentrification continues in the heart of many of the world’s great cities, Jordan Fraade considers whether we’re likely to see the suburbs get the same cultural treatment as areas like Brooklyn and Hackney:

Despite all that ink spilled about repurposed lofts and bike lanes, it’s quite likely that if you’re scraping by as a graphic designer, writer or even nonprofit employee in a big city, you’re going to end up in the ‘burbs after all. What does that mean for our suburbs? Will millennials remake them in their image? Is America destined to become a country of “Hipsturbia?”

The featured image is a Farid Rueda mural in Uruapan, Mexico published in StreetArtNews.

Thought Starters: children’s media use, app streaming, Dribbbilisation and privacy

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.

Ofcom released Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report this month which provides a detailed look at the media consumption and device usage of children and teenagers in the UK. Among the interesting statistics are changes in the social media usage and inevitably high penetration of smartphones:

Main social media site used by children

Consumers movement from a browser to an increasingly app based interactive experience poses a significant threat to Google’s business model where the majority of income continues to come from search.  Among the ways that Google is looking to address this threat is the deeper indexing of content from apps and the launching of app streaming smoothing the transition from search to app usage.  You can see an example of it in action below with a search for a hotel in Chicago leading to the Hotel Tonight Android app below:

Google App Streaming

A further indication of the growing importance of mobile can be seen in the growing share mobile is taking of ecommerce revenues in the US according to figures from comScore:

Mobile commerce as share of total ecommerce revenues

An interesting companion piece to comScore’s forecast are figures from the Wall Street Journal which point to a decline in retail space per capita in the US which is no doubt fueled by growing ecommerce sales:

Retail space decline

WeChat provides an interesting case study in how we might see the mobile ecosystem developing in the West with mobile messaging becoming a hub for an increasingly diverse range of services. Edith Yeung profiles some of the different services currently offered in China – we’re beginning to see this with Facebook Messenger’s expansion of functionality and there’ll no doubt be plenty more to come in the near future.

Paul Adams criticises many designers for paying too much attention to aesthetics and not enough attention to purpose in what he describes as the Dribbbilisation of Design (referencing design showcase site Dribbble).  Adams argues that designers need to give greater consideration to outcomes, structure and interaction, particularly as we move to an environment where interactive design permeates everything:
The Dribbblisation of Design

Tony Aube points to the move to an increasingly messaging based world driven by artificial intelligence as making the traditional model of visual user interfaces irrelevant:

“What I do believe, however, is that these new technologies are going to fundamentally change how we approach design. This is necessary to understand for those planning to have a career in tech. In a future where computers can see, talk, listen and reply to you, what good are your awesome pixel-perfect Sketch skills going to be?

Let this be fair warning against complacency. As UI designers, we have a tendency to presume a UI is the solution to every new design problem. If anything, the AI revolution will force us to reset our presumption on what it means to design for interaction. It will push us to leave our comfort zone and look at the bigger picture, bringing our focus on the design of the experience rather than the actual screen. And that is an exciting future for designers.”

Benedict Evans reviews the competition for control of the television which he characterises as a ultimately a sideshow to the broader battles for the PC and more recently the smartphone and tablet:

“Games consoles’ closed ecosystem delivered huge innovation in games, but not in much else. The web’s open, permissionless innovation beat the closed, top-down visions of interactive TV and the information superhighway. The more abstracted, simplified and closed UX model of smartphones and especially iOS helps to take them to a much broader audience than the PC could reach, and the relative safety of installing an app due to that ‘closed’ aspect enables billions of installs and a new route to market for video. It’s not that open or closed win, but that you need the right kind of open in the right place.”

GroupM has released its forecast for the UK media sector, with a continuation in the trend of decline in print advertising and robust growth from television and interactive advertising:

Media Spend Forecast

The Flexport blog looks at the overinvestment in freight shipping capacity where the impact has been compounded by a decline in Chinese exports leading to some unintended consequences:

“It costs $300 to move a 40-foot container from Rotterdam to Shanghai, which is barely enough to cover the cost of fuel, handling, and Suez Canal fees. Here’s some more context. Let’s say that you want to travel for a year; it’s cheaper to put your personal belongings in a shipping container as it sails around the world than to keep it at a local mini-storage facility.”

Germany has long been a manufacturing powerhouse (see below). What The Economist asks is whether the country can adapt to an environment where a greater share of the value added comes from outside the traditional domains of designing and assembling goods:

Manufacturing as percentage of GDP

Turkey’s recent shooting down of a Russian air force plane has raised serious concerns about a further escalation of the conflict in Syria. Liam Denning argues the conflict reflects the increasingly embattled position Russia faces as oil prices decline (I wouldn’t paint Turkey’s role as necessarily benevolent given its support for anti Kurdish forces in Syria):

“Two things flow from this. First, Syria may represent just one front in a many sided struggle by resource-dependent countries such as Russia to maintain their position in oil and gas markets that suddenly look more like actual competitive markets than they did just a few years ago as new supply has entered the scene. That, rather than a Turkish border dispute, is the central geopolitical drama affecting energy.”

We’re seeing privacy at the centre of debates around online advertising and state surveillance but Greg Ferenstein explains that the concept of privacy is a relatively new one. He explores the emergence of privacy and looks at how we’re likely to see it further evolve in years to come:

The History of Privacy

The Economist has produced a valuable interactive infographic (it’s worth visiting The Economist for the interactive version) allowing viewers to examine which countries are doing a better job of empowering women in the workplace. Britain seemingly doesn’t do well in any of the measures:

The glass-ceiling index

The US is often characterised as deeply religious which has an inevitable impact on national and ultimately international politics. Given this, it’s interesting to see Pew Research Center’s latest recent research into religion and faith pointing to the country becoming more secular:

How the U.S. public became less religious

The featured image is Pistache, Bleu Gris et Noir by eko.

Thought Starters: potential for micropayments, notifications and a closer look at WeWork

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

As the online media sector grapples with the impact of ad blockers on their business model, we’re likely to see growing interest in micropayments. Frédéric Filloux profiles Dutch platform Blendle and how their business model takes a collaborative approach with media operators:

“Blendle benefits from exceptionally favorable trade winds. The traditional advertising model is crumbling under the pressure of programmatic buying and of the pervasiveness of adblockers. In addition, Blendle also takes advantage of limitations in paywall models that mostly target the heavy, affluent users segment, but exclude the younger audiences that are Blendle’s main target (today two-third of Blendle users are under 35). From the legacy media perspective, this makes the paid-by-the-article system more attractive than ever.”

Figures from comScore in the US point to mobile and tablet app usage following the power law with a few apps monopolising consumers’ attention:Time spent per app

John Borthwick profiles the role of notifications as the smartphone becomes the centre of our digital lives:

“Right now we are witnessing another round of unbundling as the notification screen becomes the primary interface for mobile computing. It’s easy to get fixated with notifications as a feature — they are a feature for an app. But they are also part of this broader unbundling cycle and they are part of an architectural shift from pull to a push. It’s an interesting time.”

Steve Cheney looks at how Apple has used its expertise in microchips to carve out a competitive advantage in smartphones with potential to do the same in other market categories.

WeWork is positioning itself more as disruptive tech startup rather than traditional property company as a means of buttressing its market valuation. Nitasha Tiku takes a closer look and asks whether the company is really that different from more traditional commercial property providers:

“These slides show how easy it is to create a good-looking growth curve — not just for WeWork, but for all of its peers in the current tech climate. “You put together a model. It spits out whatever it spits out based on the inputs,” Sussman told BuzzFeed News. “I always say, ‘If you gave David Copperfield or Harry Potter Microsoft Excel, they could do even more amazing magic.’” The basis for WeWork’s five-year forecasts, he said, all rests on its assumptions. “Key metrics like membership growth, pricing, and square footage leased drive the whole model. Change those inputs and everything changes.” Input in, pivot out.”

On the topic of startups and their respective valuations, the following slide provides an interesting look at how Slack is miles ahead in terms of the value of each customer according to L2:

Valuations per user

Having grown up (at least initially) with the printed word, it’s fascinating to see the growth of YouTube as an information channel for the under 55s according to Ofcom research:

Sources used when looking for information online

The Pew Research Center has released figures looking at how social media usage has changed over the last 10 years. No great revelations but an interesting window into how usage has grown and how it does (or doesn’t) vary by age, gender, education and income:

Social Media vs Income

Corporate taxation (or the lack thereof) continues to pop up in the headlines with Facebook apparently paying out just £4,327 in tax UK despite giving out £35m in staff bonuses according to a Guardian report. Among the tricks of the trade are the use of offshore shore bases which The Economist highlights with FDI inflows:

FDI inflows as percentage of GDP

Using figures from the American Community Survey, the United States Census Bureau points to women overtaking men in having a bachelor degree or higher in the US (although pay equity looks much further off):

Comparison of Gender vs Tertiary Qualification in US

Whilst Britain’s role in Europe may be in question with talk of Brexit, English becomes increasingly dominant among languages taught in primary schools in the European Union according to the Pew Research Center:

Growing dominance of English language in Europe

The featured image is Dark Perimeter / Basic Primary Shapes by the Argentinian artist Elian Chali for Nuit Blanche in Brussels and published in StreetArtNews.

Thought Starters: WeChat, Android fragmentation, media consumption and Ethereum

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.

Connie Chan’s profile of WeChat for Andreessen Horowitz is a strong reminder that there’s plenty of tech innovation outside Silicon Valley which can change the world.

The significance of WeChat can be seen in Benedict Evans’ analysis of the growing dominance of mobile and more specifically smartphone. As handsets increasingly come to dominate the digital landscape there’s been a flow on effect on a range of new tech innovations that are leveraging associated hardware and software innovations:

Growing scale of smartphones

Cities around the world are competing to be seen as the most friendly for internet startups. Startup Compass have looked to rank cities by their performance, funding, market reach, talent and startup experience in the 2015 Global Startup Ecosystem Ranking. It’s no surprise that Silicon Valley comes out on top:

Startup Ecosystem Ranking

OpenSignal have updated their findings on fragmentation within the Android ecosystem which provides an illustration of the broad array of devices and challenges in adapting to the operating system:

Android Fragmentation

Ofcom’s Communications Market report provides a valuable window into the changing media and technology usage of UK consumers. A great starting point if you’re doing research into use of TV, video, radio, telecoms and web based content.

Liam Boluk looks at consumers’ changing consumption of music in the US and how the industry is attempting to adapt to new business models:

Consumer Spend on Recorded Music

Ethereum has launched its blockchain based cryptocurrency out into the public realm incorporating a virtual machine and smart contracts. This along with other blockchain based platforms will push the internet into new realms inside and outside the financial sector. Check out the video below, Vinay Gupta’s introduction and Ethereum Frontier Guide if you want to get more actively involved.

Big news this week was Google’s announcement of a restructure that has seen the creation of Alphabet as a holding company with various subsidiaries for its various business arms. Ben Thompson takes a closer look at the motivations and likely implications of the move.

Marco Arment takes a critical look at the increasingly intrusive online media sector.  He goes on to argue (despite being a publisher himself) that this approach provides growing justification for consumers’ use of ad blocking software despite the negative effects this is likely to have on media creators:

“All of that tracking and data collection is done without your knowledge, and — critically — without your consent. Because of how the web and web browsers work, the involuntary data collection starts if you simply follow a link. There’s no opportunity for disclosure, negotiation, or reconsideration. By following any link, you unwittingly opt into whatever the target site, and any number of embedded scripts from other sites and tracking networks, wants to collect, track, analyze, and sell about you.”

The featured image is Cesarea, a piece by Bosoletti in Casarano, Italy and published in StreetArtNews.

Thought Starters

A mixed collection of materials looking at societal trends, the role of technology and other content that has resonated with me.

The World Bank has combined population and GDP per capita statistics in a graph, providing an indication of current spending power as well as an indication of future opportunity.

Real GDP Per Capita and Share of Global Population

Gartner has updated its Hype Cycle which gives an indication of maturity and adoption of different technology platforms around the world.

Gartner Hype Cycle

American consumers are now faced with a growing array of video content through a range of platforms but consumer spending has actually decreased according to analysis from Liam Boluk.  In a world of all you can eat subscriptions such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, consumers are arguably choosing to spend their money elsewhere.

Entertainment Industry Ecosystem

Andreessen Horowitz has announced a $50 million investment in BuzzFeed, gaining mixed reactions from the news media.  Felix Salmon warns that comparing BuzzFeed to traditional media sources risks missing the business’ true potential.

The best way to think of BuzzFeed’s various products, then, is probably as a proof of concept: it’s a way to show advertisers that the company is able to reach a large, young, mobile, social audience in a multitude of different ways. The ability to reach those people is something of a holy grail for advertisers, who are therefore very willing to pay top dollar to anybody who can help them achieve their goal. The idea is that if BuzzFeed can reach a broad audience with its various editorial products, it can then sell that secret sauce to advertisers, and help them reach the same audience, using the same tools.

There’s been a lot of noise lately about the unbundling of mobile apps in Western markets with the launch of Foursquare’s Swarm and the splitting out of Facebook Messenger. Taylor Davidson warns against seeing this as a natural conclusion with app extensions, deep linking and notifications providing a countervailing force to this trend.

And as the platforms, hardware, and operating systems in mobile continue to change how people use their devices, don’t be surprised if the rationale behind unbundling shifts as well.

I think we think of unbundling as the end-state, but instead, it’s a process that leads to it’s reversal. Unbundling creates the incentives for rebundling.

The constant, as usual, is change.

We’ve seen strong growth from shared economy based enterprises such as Uber and Airbnb which use rating systems as a means of engendering trust on the part of consumers. Danny Crichton in an article for TechCrunch warns of the corrosive effect of these computational trust systems on wider society.

Our growing need to feel connected is confirmed by research from the US which found that 60% of US internet users were almost always connected.

Three in five internet users are almost always connected

British communications marker regulator Ofcom’s report The Communications Market 2014 is a treasure trove of insights into the UK market. Find below some key insights.

Reinforcing the earlier message of the always on lifestyle is the following graph looking at consumers engagement with media and communications during their waking hours.

Media Consumption Activity

Looking at how media and communications time is spent across different age cohorts provides clues as to how we can expect media to move in the future.

Media by Time

A similar analysis of internet consumption by device type points to the importance of smartphones for younger audiences.

Device usage internet

Providing further data on the UK market in the 4GEE Media Living Index which provides figures on mobile data usage from EE customers. Among the interesting data points are the following which point to the strong presence of Tango in the mobile messaging space and Soundcloud in audio streaming.

Instant Messaging Audio Analysis from Comscore points to Snapchat moving from outsider to well established member of the communications space in the US having long passed what Comscore considers critical mass in the 18-24 aged audience segment.

Snapchat PenetrationPew Research Center’s analysis of Twitter traffic provides an interesting breakdown of social communities and how they interact, converge and/or diverge. Something well worth considering when we see issues emerge that have the potential to bring us together or divide us.

Twitter CommunitiesMalcolm Gladwell’s look at organised crime among immigrant groups in the US point to this ‘career’ as being seen as an important enabler of upward mobility in what makes for an enjoyable read.

The point of the crooked-ladder argument and “A Family Business” was that criminal activity, under those circumstances, was not rebellion; it wasn’t a rejection of legitimate society. It was an attempt to join in.

If you find yourself in London between now and the end of August, do check out Lucy Sparrow’s The Cornershop in the Columbia Road area recreating various household goods in felt. You can find an interview with the artist over at Folksy.

felt-food

The featured image is Beautiful Bridge #1 by Sabina Lang & Daniel Baumann in Recoleta, Buenos Aires.