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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prices for Electronic Goods and Services

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

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

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

Global Wealth Pyramid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thought Starters: venture capital, role of mobile and some favourite podcasts

The following is a collection of articles, thought pieces, presentations and podcasts highlighting interesting trends and changes in the world you and I live in.

Andreessen Horowitz recently released a presentation which looked at venture capital funding in the US which sparked off more conversations on whether there’s a tech bubble. Ben Thompson expands on this to provide his view on the value of the growing number of unicorns:

I think it’s this dichotomy that makes the current bubble discussion so difficult: most unicorns may be overvalued, but in aggregate they are probably undervalued. It turns out winner-take-all doesn’t apply just to the markets these startups are targeting, it applies to the startups themselves.

Ben Thompson profiles Google’s data centric strategy with Facebook’s strategy which focuses on personalisation with Twitter seemingly unable to deploy either approaches:

Facebook vs Google

Benedict Evans provides contrasting review of business strategy in the digital age, looking at the importance of curation in an age of abundance providing a review of different approaches:

  1. There is giving you what you already know you want (Amazon, Google)
  2. There is working out what you want (Amazon and Google’s aspiration)
  3. And then there is suggesting what you might want (Heywood Hill).

It’s also worth spending time with Evans’ updated Mobile is Eating the World presentation.

I have concerns about the way that pornography is reshaping sexual relations in the modern era, but Maria Konnikova’s account suggest that pornography might be more a symptom than a cause of modern ills.

A recent issue of the New Yorker has a fascinating look at a case of hate crime in North Carolina and the expanding scope of euthanasia.

For lovers of history and data visualisations,  Neil Halloran’s piece on deaths in World War 2 makes compelling viewing. Check it out The Fallen of World War II for an interactive version

I’ve been going through something of a  podcast binge recently, turning my cycle rides around town into more enriching affairs. Shows that have hit the spot recently include the following:

Children of the Magenta looking at the perils of automation in aircraft.

The Takeover looking at how a boring Facebook group developed a life of its own.

Antibodies Part 1: CRISPR looks at recent advances in gene therapy which are both exciting and bewildering.

The Birth and Death of the Price Tag looks at changes in pricing without even mentioning Uber’s surge pricing.

The President was Here leaves me even more enamoured with Barack Obama.

The featured photograph is of a Reka piece from Milan, Italy published in StreetArtNews.