Thought Starters: social media, Apple, banking and changes to employment and 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 competing social media platforms and their roles, whether Apple can innovate, banking and its relationship with fintech and changes in employment and income among other things. 

Robinson Meyer revisits Reid Hoffman’s look at social networks and the parallels he draws between them and the seven deadly sins:

“Social networks do best when they tap into one of the seven deadly sins,” the LinkedIn co-founder and venture capitalist said. “Zynga is sloth. LinkedIn is greed. With Facebook, it’s vanity, and how people choose to present themselves to their friends.”

Research from Social Fresh, Firebrand Group and Simply Measured points to Facebook being comfortably ahead of other social media platforms in terms of ROI:

Social Media Platforms that Produce the Best ROI According to Social Media Marketers Worldwide March 2016

Whilst Snapchat is making growing inroads among younger audiences in the US, Instagram for the moment is proving a more popular medium for advertisers according to L2 Think Tank’s research:

Snapchat vs Instagram Adoption Among Brands Worldwide by Industry

Twitter recently reclassified its mobile app as a news service rather than social media in Apple’s App Store. Pew Research’s recent findings point to how the services have a different relationship with news content with Facebook driving more traffic whilst users referred by Twitter typically spending more time with the visited content:

On cellphones more visits come from Facebook

Given the increasingly important role that Facebook plays in distributing content, it’s no surprise that commentators cried foul when Gizmodo reported that Facebook was suppressing conservative news. A more careful reading of the news by Tyler Cowen and Ben Thompson suggests this isn’t quite as significant as the headlines suggest:

This, then, is the deep irony of this controversy: Facebook is receiving a huge amount of criticism for allegedly biasing the news via the empowerment of a team of human curators to make editorial decisions, as opposed to relying on what was previously thought to be an algorithm; it is an algorithm, though — the algorithm that powers the News Feed, with the goal of driving engagement — that is arguably doing more damage to our politics than the most biased human editor ever could. The fact of the matter is that, on the part of Facebook people actually see — the News Feed, not Trending News — conservatives see conservative stories, and liberals see liberal ones; the middle of the road is as hard to find as a viable business model for journalism (these things are not disconnected).

James Allworth profiles Apple’s business strategy and suggests that the company’s success is one of the key things holding the company back:

And it appears that Apple has fallen into exactly the same trap. Rather than start anew — with a beginner’s mind—what the above reveals to me is that they’ve tried to take the last paradigm and just jam it into the new one. The old has bled into the new. The result, at least as it stands now: just like Microsoft did, Apple knows what needs to be built — a phone-disrupting device. It’s just that they can’t bring themselves to let go of the past in order to do the job properly.

Whilst the Apple Watch hasn’t proved the breakthrough success for Apple that the iPhone provided, Neil Cybart’s analysis of Apple’s R&D expenditure points to something big coming soon:

Apple R&D Expense (Annual)

At the more nascent end of the technology ecosystem, Jared Friedman’s analysis of applicants to the Y Combinator programme provides a valuable window into the type of startups we’re likely to see more of in the very near future. Think more apps, SAAS businesses and platforms based on messaging, Slack and virtual reality among other things:

Messaging & Communications

For those of you working in startups looking to improve your product and people management, you’d be well advised to read Mike Davidson’s account of life as Vice President of Design at Twitter. He covers a lot of ground so I’m not going to try and summarise it, but it’s well worth checking out.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a more nuts and bolts approach to improving your digital presence, Nick Kolenda’s 125 easy tweaks provides a good starting point, even if you don’t agree with everything he has to say.

The banking sector won no popularity contests over the last  9 years with its practices fueling the global financial crisis. James Surowiecki reviews moves to reform the sector suggesting improvements have been made but there’s still some way to go:

Of course, there’s much about Wall Street that Dodd-Frank has not changed. Bankers still make absurd amounts of money. Hedge-fund and private-equity managers still benefit from the carried-interest tax loophole. The big banks, though smaller, are still too big. “If you wanted financial reform to radically downsize the financial sector, or thought it was going to make a major dent in income inequality, you’re bound to be disappointed,” Konczal says. And Dodd-Frank’s work is still unfinished: many of the rules it authorized have yet to be written, and the banks are lobbying to have them written in their favor. As Ziegler told me, “The progress that’s been made is precarious. It can be unravelled.” But precarious progress is progress. Regulation involves a constant struggle to keep rules in place and to enforce the ones that are there. Dodd-Frank shows that that struggle is not necessarily a futile one: sometimes government really does regulate business, and not the other way around.

In Fintech circles there’s a lot of talk about the power of startups to disrupt the banking sector but Josh Constine suggests that these startups may actually strengthen rather than undermine your relationship with your bank:

But what many of these startups have in common is that they all rely on connecting to your existing bank to fund your accounts with them or receive money. Rather than shun the startups, the incumbents have built bridges to let you hook fintech products into your bank accounts.

The result is that while banking is changing rapidly, you might be more reluctant to change which bank you use, according to several fintech founders and VCs I spoke to.

There’s been increasingly vociferous discussions  about the impact that automation will have on employment over the long term. Josh Zumbrun’s analysis of US figures provides an indication of where things are heading.  Employment among knowledge workers and non-routine manual workers is proving much less susceptible to automation and is showing much stronger rates of growth compared to employment with routinised workflows:

The Rise of the Knowledge Worker

Pew Research figures point to the polarisation of wealth in American society as not simply coming from growing income and assets among the wealthiest but also due to the relative decline of the country’s middle-income households:

The middle class is shrinking nearly everywhere

Ed Hawkins’ data visualisation of climate over the last 150 years provides a valuable reminder that now is not the time for us all to put our heads in the sand:

Global temperature change (1850-2016)

Elisabeth Zerofsky’s profile of Marine Le Pen provides a reminder of the growing tide of nationalism in European politics and attempts to try provide a more “palatable” face on a movement that was previously at the fringe of European politics.

I am keen to hear your thoughts any of the above, whether you vehemently agree or disagree, so please don’t hesitate to use the comments field.

The featured image is a MOMO piece commissioned by the City of Sydney.

Thought Starters: innovation, intellectual capital & circular economy

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 questions over the pace of innovation, the growing portability of intellectual capital, the American presidential nominations and the circular economy among other things, all making for great weekend reading.

David Rotman profiles the work of economist Robert J. Gordon who takes a relatively dim view of the productivity gains over the last ten years. A valuable perspective although one focusing on economic gains doesn’t necessarily encompass other benefits enabled by new technologies and innovations:

Peak innovation

An interesting complement to the Rotman’s article is Prashant Gandhi, Somesh Khanna and Sree Ramaswamy’s review of the levels of digitisation across different parts of the US economy. Information technology inevitably leads the charge but it’s more valuable to look at the laggards where we’re likely to see considerable changes and innovations in the coming years:

How Digitally Advanced is your Sector?

One area that we have seen substantial advances recently is technologies that enable remote teams to more readily collaborate (eg Slack). Samuel Hammond points to a world where intellectual capital is increasingly portable even if immigration barriers mean that this mobility is more virtual than actual:

Consistent with the premature futurism thesis, smart writers have been predicting large and looming social implications from telecommuting and remote work for decades, only to have their visions stymied by some unforeseen technical or psychological barrier. While hiring international freelancers has gotten a lot easier, for many jobs people just prefer face to face contact. Yet we seem to be finally reaching a critical point where video streaming, virtual reality, and collaboration tools are converging to make even the most complex team production viable across borders.

Uber is one of the shining stars of the startup sector with its growth and funding leading many entrepreneurs to pitch their business as ‘Uber for ____’. Farhad Manjoo points out that we should be wary of trying to draw direct parallels between Uber and other business use cases given the particular characteristics the ridesharing:

But Uber’s success was in many ways unique. For one thing, it was attacking a vulnerable market. In many cities, the taxi business was a customer-unfriendly protectionist racket that artificially inflated prices and cared little about customer service. The opportunity for Uber to become a regular part of people’s lives was huge. Many people take cars every day, so hook them once and you have repeat customers. Finally, cars are the second-most-expensive things people buy, and the most frequent thing we do with them is park. That monumental inefficiency left Uber ample room to extract a profit even after undercutting what we now pay for cars.

But how many other markets are there like that? Not many. Some services were used frequently by consumers, but weren’t that valuable — things related to food, for instance, offered low margins. Other businesses funded in low-frequency and low-value areas “were a trap,” Mr. Walk said.

Dan Lyons’ rather humourous account of joining HubSpot provides a valuable antidote to some of the overinflated hubris sometimes associated with startups:

The truth is that we’re selling software that lets companies, most of them small businesses like pool installers and flower shops, sell more stuff. The world of online marketing, where HubSpot operates, though, has a reputation for being kind of grubby. Our customers include people who make a living bombarding people with email offers, or gaming Google’s search algorithm, or figuring out which kind of misleading subject line is most likely to trick someone into opening a message. Online marketing is not quite as sleazy as Internet porn, but it’s not much better either.

A lot of noise has been made about younger consumers fleeing Facebook for the newer social media platforms but comScore data from the US points to the platform maintaining its appeal among millennials – suggest we’d  see teenage audiences telling a rather different story:

Age 18-34 Digital Audience Penetration vs Engagement of Leading Social Networks

Snapchat updated its mobile messaging platform recently providing a richer range of features for users as well as changing its privacy policy which is likely to see a broader array of targeting options for Snapchat advertisers. It’s worth reading Ben Thompson’s piece on Snapchat if you want to take a broader look at how the platform has evolved since its launch in 2011.

Virtual reality is now well and truly out in the open with Oculus Rift now available to the general public. Brian X. Chen’s review of the headset suggests that in its current state, it’s one for the early adopters:

The Rift’s graphics, sound and head tracking, which is the device’s ability to follow where the viewer looks, do feel like something out of science fiction. While the system’s setup is somewhat complex, the smoothness of the graphics and the high-quality design of the headgear make virtual reality feel ready for prime time.

And yet there may be a higher reward for those who wait to buy the Rift.

Soundcloud Go launched on the 29th of March in the US, adding to the list of streaming providers that are offering a subscription service for music consumers. Another route to monetise content might sound great for musicians but Dave Wiskus’ review of the service suggests something much more insidious:

You can slice it, package it, or spin it however you like, but the bare fact is that you’re making money off of songs you aren’t paying for. Worse, you’re doing it while perpetuating an air of exclusivity around the concept of making money. All while you’re pretending to be a friend to the little guy. There’s nothing artist-friendly about this approach.

Sven Skafisk’s overlaying of smartphone sales on top of traditional camera sales illustrates how much mobile phones have come to dominate how the majority of consumers experience photography – click through for the full length chart which really puts things in perspective:

CIPA camera production

The success of Amazon’s Alexa highlights the significant market opportunity for user friendly smart home solutions, which has even led to religious authorities offering advice on its use during Shabbos. What consumers may be less aware of is that in many cases they are buying into a service rather than a piece of hardware with the demise of Revolv leaving consumers in the lurch (although it looks like Nest may be stepping in to address some of these concerns now).

With the release of the Panama Papers, it’s worth revisiting which countries enable financial secrecy. One of the interesting insights to come out of the reports is the relatively limited number of Americans caught up in reports reflecting relatively lax controls in some states. The US falls in third place in the Tax Justice Network’s Financial Secrecy Index.

NPR’s Planet Money (well worth subscribing to their podcast) has looked at the changing structure of employment in the US where you can see changes both in terms of the number of jobs and as percent of the total. No huge surprises but it will be interesting to see how the chart changes as machine learning and artificial intelligence make inroads into white collar professions which have traditionally proven more immune to automation:

The Decline of Farming and the Rise of Everything Else

Another podcast worth recommending is Vox’s The Weeds, providing a valuable window into American politics and policy. A recent episode looks at the tax implications of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders’ policies (from 34:20). One of the interesting conclusions is how comparatively robust both Democratic candidates proposals are compared to the leading Republican candidates despite Clinton and Sanders taking rather different policy approaches:

One area where Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump do seem to have something in common is their relatively protectionist approach to trade. Whilst I am all for ensuring employees gets appropriate protection around the world, it could put a real dampener on emerging markets’ economies as Jordan Weissmann points out:

With those last few words, Sanders has effectively written off trade with any country that is not already rich and prosperous—which is simply inhumane.

Encouraging the circular economy is likely to be a more appropriate way of encouraging local employment. Walter R. Stahel profiles this closed loop approach to production which offers benefits in terms of reduced emissions, increasing in employment and reduction in waste:

Closing Loops

As UK fast approaches the Brexit referendum, immigration and the country’s health system lead concerns facing Briton’s – issues not unrelated given the reliance Britain’s NHS has on foreign born staff:

What do you see as the most important issues facing Britain

Potentially allaying the concerns of immigration opponents is research from Mette Foged and Giovanni Peri in Denmark which points to the benefits of immigration, even for the low skilled populations:

Instead of a small negative effect on the local native-born — as most studies in the U.S. tend to find — Foged and Peri found a positive effect. That’s right — low-skilled immigrants actually raised the wages of their less-educated native-born counterparts in the surrounding area. The data followed the native-born workers for a long time, letting the authors confirm that the change was durable.

The featured image is a Nelio mural made for the Marion gallery in Panama.

Thought Starters: Google’s AMP, FANG, unicorns and the decline of the car

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 look at Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), FANG, unicorns, the decline of the car and smartphones in Myanmar among other things.

App Annie’s analysis of mobile app usage points to Google Play downloads continuing to exceed iOS downloads but Apple’s App Store revenues comfortably exceeding Google’s. Just bear in mind that Google Play doesn’t currently operate in China (although it has plans to) with the majority of Android handsets running on a version of the Android Open Source Platform (AOSP):

Annual Worldwide App Revenue

Instagram has seen a substantial drop in both follower growth and engagement levels according to Locowise figures. Whilst both figures were higher than for Facebook and Twitter, the social network is looking less and less like a free lunch:

Instagram Growth & Engagement Rates

As noted in the previous edition of Thought Starters, Google and Apple have competing visions of how content should be distributed with Apple taking an app centric view with the enabling of in app ad blocking and the launch of Apple News. Google on the other hand is putting its weight behind the open web which is no surprise given its reliance on search for a large proportion of its revenues. Google’s key initiatives has been the launch of Accelerated Mobile Pages which will improve load times and provide a better experience for mobile users than the current set up.  Frédéric Filloux comments :

Privately, Google people make no mystery of their intention to clean the advertising mess. They want to get rid of the invasive formats that, by ruining the user experience, contributed to the explosion of ad blockers and threatened a large segment of the digital economy. To that end, the AMP ecosystem is their weapon of choice

Ben Thompson draws parallels in the business strategies of Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google (FANG) pointing out how their stranglehold on a key access point has given them near insurmountable positions in the consumer economy:

None of the FANG companies created what most considered the most valuable pieces of their respective ecosystems; they simply made those pieces easier for consumers to access, so consumers increasingly discovered said pieces via the FANG home pages. And, given that Internet made distribution free, that meant the FANG companies were well on their way to having far more power and monetization potential than anyone realized.

Whilst there’s been a recent readjustment in the valuation of a number of tech startups, Spoke Intelligence and VB Profiles research calculates there’s still 208 startups that are worth more than $1bn and 21 worth more than $10bn:

Categorisation of startups with over a $1bn valuation

Europe has had some success with GP. Bullhound’s research pointing to 40 European startups reaching the $1bn valuation mark. Where the region falls short is in building these startups to the level of Facebook, Uber or Airbnb:

Cumulative Value of European unicorns

Adam Davidson looks at the phenomenon of corporations hoarding cash rather than using it to invest in acquisitions or return to shareholders:

Which leaves one last question: Why? The answer, perhaps, is that both the executives and the investors in these industries believe that something big is coming, but — this is crucial — they’re not sure what it will be.

Licensed drivers as a percentage of their age group

The automotive sector is beginning to enter a transition phase. New technologies are emerging (notably move to electric drive trains and self driving technologies) and consumers are beginning to think more in terms of transport solutions (eg Uber) rather than simply car ownership.

An interesting indication of change in the latter was a University of Michigan study of state driver’s licensing statistics that showed in the number of under 25 year olds applying for a driver’s license in the US.

Clive Thompson takes an interesting look at what the implications for cities where car ownership declines, aided by growing indifference to car use among the young and the growth of  ride sharing services.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that auto manufacturers are dead in the water. Automotive manufacturers are experimenting with service based models such as Ford’s FordPass and GM has recently made a large investment in Lyft. That being said, it wouldn’t surprise me if many of these firms increasingly get reduced to makers of commoditised hardware much like the PC manufacturers of today.

Tech in Asia figures point to the phenomenal growth in smartphone penetration in Myanmar (see below) as the country leapfrogs over the PC era. A useful complement to the Tech in Asia article is Craig Mod’s account of ethnographic research in Myanmar which looks at some of the fundamental differences in the way that smartphones and Facebook are used in developing countries:

Percentage of Myanmar population with cellular subscriptions

Consumers are spending more of their time with their smartphones, but the mobile user interface in its current form places limits (as well as advantages) in what users can do.  Scott Jenson looks at where mobile’s user experience falls short of the PC and provides some suggestions on how they could be addressed:

Most businesses still use desktops/laptops for the simple reason that people get more work done on them. If you say that “business use” no longer matters, you’re just confusing the new and old market effect. I’m not saying desktop will beat mobile. I’m also not saying we’ll have desktop computing forever. But there are nuanced differences between desktop UX and mobile UX, and they have important implications.

There’s more evidence of the shift in the global economy from emerging to developed world markets. Emerging markets experienced an estimated $735bn in net capital outflows last year with all but $59bn of that coming from China according to recently released figures from the Institute of International Finance:

Net capital flows to China

Timothy Taylor has pulled together data visualisations which allow readers to compare the relative strengths of different economies including this one from the How Much team:

The World's Economy Divided by Area

Oxfam released research during the recent World Economic Forum claiming that the world’s 62 richest individuals have same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorer half of humanity. There’s been some interesting critiques of Oxfam’s calculation, notably from Felix Salmon,  but I would argue the figures provide a valuable catalyst for conversations about the concentrations of wealth:

Share of global wealth

One illustration of the impact of growing concentration of wealth can be found in Jane Mayer’s profile of the Koch brother’s political campaigning in the US:

A new, data-filled study by the Harvard scholars Theda Skocpol and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez reports that the Kochs have established centralized command of a “nationally-federated, full-service, ideologically focused” machine that “operates on the scale of a national U.S. political party.” The Koch network, they conclude, acts like a “force field,” pulling Republican candidates and office-holders further to the right. Last week, the Times reported that funds from the Koch network are fuelling both ongoing rebellions against government control of Western land and the legal challenge to labor unions that is before the Supreme Court.

Laurence Dodds profiles the Hatton Garden raid in London and suggests it may well be the end of an era as criminals look for new ways for parting people from their worldly possessions:

It doesn’t quite have the romance of Hatton Garden. But while the age of John Dillinger and the Great Train Robbery is over, a new, digital lawlessness has come into being which is every bit as lucrative. It has its own romantic myths, its own folk heroes, because as long as someone is getting away with what the rest of us can only dream of, the cult of the outlaw will stay alive — in whatever form it can.

PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman’s Reply All podcast is a regular appointment in my listening schedule providing an irreverent look at the internet. A recent episode looks at the lack of diversity in the tech world (coverage from 11:50) and how this ultimately handicaps their performance. Informative and entertaining.

The featured image is the mural Mr Rooster by Etam Cru, located on the corner of 8th and Wall in the downtown Flower District in Los Angeles and published in Sour Harvest.

Thought Starters: the move to mobile, Oculus Rift, post Arab Spring and experiments with universal basic income

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 a look at the growing importance of mobile, questions about Oculus Rift, coverage of Middle East post Arab Spring, Finland’s experiment with the universal basic income and much more.

The International Telecommunications Union’s Measuring the Information Society Report provides a valuable collection of telecom statistics with an accompanying webpage enabling users to quick compare different countries and regions. What becomes quickly apparent in some of the statistics is how less developed countries have skipped of fixed telecoms as they make the transition directly to a mobile world:

ICT access by development status

Whilst the move to mobile is particularly apparent in many developing countries, figures from Enders Analysis point to UK’s own transition to mobile in internet use, ecommerce and online advertising:

Monetisation of mobile devices

Taking this further, Benedict Evans puts forward 16 hypotheses on how mobile has reshaped the technology landscape. Well worth spending time with this and the his accompanying articles.

Neural nets are one of the areas where we’re seeing significant advances in artificial intelligence.  Steven Levy has an entertaining profile of the work Alexander Mordvintsev and his attempts to understand how these neural nets work which has led to computationally produced images that are probably best described as psychedelic:

Inside Deep Dreams: How Google Made Its Computers Go Crazy

Oculus Rift has become the poster boy for the virtual reality community but Jason Pfaff suggests the need for expensive goggles tethered to a powerful Windows PC and poor user experience could see it quickly disrupted:

Which brings me to Oculus, and their flagship product, the Rift.  Today, as anyone with an Oculus development kit (DK2) will tell you, the experience provided by the hardware is like nothing you’ve ever experienced.  It is pure, blissful magic.  But, and this is key, to get to that experience you have to do a few things you haven’t done in a long time.  For starters, you need to buy a premium and Windows based PC.  Then, you have to find a massive file on an online store and wait minutes for it to download and eat large swaths of your memory.  Then you go into Windows Explorer, paste it from your download folder to the folder Oculus will read from, and then you extract the files.  Think about that.  Then you crack open that folder to find the one that launches it, then you click, then you wait, and then you hope.  And if it doesn’t work, you try another folder or another file, or look for another file called “Direct to Rift mode” to see if that forces the app through to the display.  This is repeated for every app, piece of content or game you want to display on your Rift. A lot of friction.

The media sector continues to evolve as consumers move their content consumption online and content producers find their access to consumers increasingly dictated by social media. The Nieman Foundation has asked a long list of opinion makers what they think are the important issues and trends for journalism in 2016.

Consumers are moving to non linear television with the use of PVRs (eg Sky+HD box), catch up television services (eg BBC iPlayer) and subscriptions to streaming video services (eg Netflix). James Poniewozik looks at what this means for the makers and consumers of television programmes:

HBO series like “Deadwood” — which jettisoned the ad breaks and content restrictions of network TV — have been compared to Dickens’s serial novels. Watching a streaming series is even more like reading a book — you receive it as a seamless whole, you set your own schedule — but it’s also like video gaming. Binge-watching is immersive. It’s user-directed. It creates a dynamic that I call “The Suck”: that narcotic, tidal feeling of getting drawn into a show and letting it wash over you for hours. “Play next episode” is the default, and it’s so easy. It can be competitive, even. Your friends are posting their progress, hour by hour, on social media. (“OMG #JessicaJones episode 10!! Woke up at 3 a.m. to watch!”) Each episode becomes a level to unlock.

With those new mechanics comes a new relationship with the audience. Traditional television — what the jargonmeisters now call “linear TV” — assumes that your time is scarce and it has you for a few precious hours before bed. The streaming services assume they own your free time, whenever it comes — travel, holidays, weekends — to fill with five- and 10-hour entertainments.

Tom Mitchell and Patti Waldmeir look at the massive growth in China’s  business elite and the growing tension with the ruling Communist Party which has seen the temporary disappearance of a number of business leaders:

The number of dollar billionaires in China

Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf is about to come out of copyright in Germany which has prompted The Economist to look at the shadow Nazi rule casts on contemporary German society:

If a country can ever be said to be good, Germany today can. And yet Germans know that whenever others are angry with them, they will paint a Hitler moustache on posters of their chancellor. Many Germans are fed up with this—with being “blackmailed”, as Bild, the leading tabloid, complained this spring, when Greece unexpectedly brought war reparations into negotiations about bail-outs in the euro crisis. Other Germans, mainly on the left, fret about a new “post-post-nationalism”, as Germany tentatively articulates its self-interest abroad. For most countries, this would count as normal. For Germany, it remains complicated.

Gilbert Achcar and Nada Matta look at the more recent legacy of the Arab Spring five years on from its beginnings in Tunisia, and they point to why some countries where more successful in their transitioning than others:

Five years into the uprisings, however, counterrevolutionary forces composed of the old regimes and Islamic fundamentalist forces have regained the political initiative, and are now violently vying for control. Egypt is under a worse dictatorship than before its uprising, and civil wars have broken out in Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Hundreds of thousands have died, and many millions have been displaced.

It’s also well worth reading Scott Atran’s detailed analysis of the rise of ISIS in which he draws parallels with earlier revolutionary movements and the conviction of its members which is in stark contrast to much of its opponents:

Civilisations rise and fall on the vitality of their cultural ideals, not their material assets alone. History shows that most societies have sacred values for which their people would passionately fight, risking serious loss and even death rather than compromise. Our research suggests this is so for many who join ISIS, and for many Kurds who oppose them on the frontlines. But, so far, we find no comparable willingness among the majority of youth that we sample in Western democracies. With the defeat of fascism and communism, have their lives defaulted to the quest for comfort and safety? Is this enough to ensure the survival, much less triumph, of values we have come to take for granted, on which we believe our world is based? More than the threat from violent jihadis, this might be the key existential issue for open societies today.

There’s been a lot of talk about a movement from corporate to self-employment. For those people whose skills are in demand, this can offer substantial benefits but for the less in demand, the transition to the freelance economy can pose significant challenges to individuals financial security. One of the solutions being suggested to this problem is the introduction of a universal basic income, guaranteeing all members of society an income regardless of their situation. Ben Schiller covers Finland’s experiment with the model, with the country seeing real potential benefits in terms of security, incentives to work and reduced bureaucracy:

The Finnish government likes the concept, and it’s putting serious resources behind a national experiment. Starting in 2017, up to 100,000 Finns could get up to 1,000 euros a month, in lieu of other benefits. These lucky souls won’t have to work. They won’t have to prove they’re in poverty to get the money. For two years, they’ll get a fixed amount to do with what they will.

The featured image is a mural produced by 108 for Bien Urbain in Besancon, France and found on ekosystem.

Thought Starters: a look at where startups are at, approaches to self driving cars, the decline of peak oil and the impact of an ageing population

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.

First Round Capital have just released their State of Startups research profiling the opinion of startup founders. Among the findings are that 73% of founders believe we’re in a bubble and that they expect to see a shift in power from startups to funders:

73% of startup founders say we're in a bubble

On the subject of bubbles, Abbas Gupta looks to sort out the unicorns from the donkeys by looking at the ratio of a startup’s lifetime value of customer compared to the cost of customer acquisition.

Kickstarter has become an important source of funding for creators and makers, particularly when founders don’t have a proven track record that enables them to tap more traditional sources of financing. Ben Einstein compares the pros and cons of pre-sales (eg Kickstarter), factory financing, purchase order financing and venture debt for entrepreneurs. For consumers, it’s worth considering that 9% of Kickstarters fail to deliver rewards, so get behind interesting projects but be aware that things don’t always go to plan.

Adam Satariano’s research reveals Apple spends a considerably smaller proportion of its revenue on R&D than its technology competitors. Apple’s position is boosted by the company’s large revenues and its ability to leverage innovations from its array of suppliers and partners:

Tech R&D Spending Comparison

Airbnb has been criticised for driving up property prices and in the process, making homes increasingly unaffordable for local residents. The company has defended itself, claiming that the majority of visitors are staying in properties only occasionally available to let but Ben Popper’s analysis of Airbnb’s data from New York doesn’t quite match the company’s claims.

Adrienne LaFrance contrasts the different approaches of Google, Uber, Apple and the major auto manufacturers in moving towards self driving vehicles and points to the hazards of the halfway house:

The question of which path to take to full autonomy, a ground-up approach or a more gradual semi-autonomous one, is at the center of many debates about the technology. A more pressing question in the short-term is this: How much does a person’s perception of the computer’s job make a difference? “This intermediate area where it may not be clear—is the vehicle responsible, or am I responsible?—is a hazardous place,” Gerdes told me. “There’s room for confusion that could reduce safety instead of increasing it.”

Peak oil is a spectre that has haunted the petroleum industry in the past but new discoveries, talk of a decoupling of energy use and economic growth and concerns about climate change have seen these concerns recede. Liam Denning looks at how this changed environment is forcing the hand of OPEC and how this could potentially damage the renewable energy sector:

Peaking Out

Credit Suisse research provides further evidence of the rising labour costs for manufacturers in China which is likely to see it the made in China tag appear less. No surprise then that the country is looking to invest more in robotics and automation:

Comparing manufacturing costs in Mexico Brazil and China

The recent pictures of pollution in Beijing were alarming. Unfortunately citizens in some of India’s cities face even worse pollution levels according to figures from the World Health Organisation reported in the Guardian:

Worlds most polluted cities

The recent terrorist attack in Paris provided a boost to Front National during France’s recent regional elections. It’s important to understand the party’s success is not a one off blip, with Julia Amalia Heyer charting Marine Le Pen’s move to reform the party and broaden support among the wider French public. Worth reading for anyone interested in the rise of nationalism and xenophobia in European politics.

Greg Ip profiles the ageing population of many western societies and the challenges and opportunities this poses for their economies. The Wall Street Journal article is well supported with graphs and interactive infographics charting the changes and forecasts for the future:

Social Security Enrollment

For something rather different, Priceonomics‘ profile of Richard Prince makes for an interesting read charting how his photographs of photographs became some of the most coveted prizes of the contemporary art world.

If you find yourself at a loose end in London between now and the end of February, it’s worth checking out the Big Bang Data exhibition at Somerset House. It kind of feel like a walk through of an issue of Wired, but it’s great to see data science get its place in the spotlight with the many benefits and challenges it poses for today’s society.

The feature mural is Eva & Ave by Hazulfrom Loures, Portugal and published in StreetArtNews.

Thought Starters: decacorns, the iPad Pro opportunity and the implications of CRISPR

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.

CB Insights profiles the growing valuations of the “decacorns” (private companies valued at over $10bn). Fidelity’s recent markdown of investments in Dropbox and Snapchat could be simply related to these companies’ specific circumstances or potential sign of a market correction:

Deals to Top Private Company Unicorns Valued at Over $10bn

Apple’s hoping that the release of the iPad Pro will give its tablet offering a much needed boost and the product’s performance mean that the iPad will be seen increasingly as a device to create as well as consume as John Gruber comments:

“We’ve now reached an inflection point. The new MacBook is slower, gets worse battery life, and even its cheapest configuration costs $200 morethan the top-of-the-line iPad Pro. The iPad Pro is more powerful, cheaper, has a better display, and gets better battery life. It’s not a clear cut-and-dry win — MacBooks still have more RAM (the iPad Pro, in all configurations, has 4 GB of RAM, although Apple still isn’t publishing this information — MacBook Pros have either 8 or 16 GB), are expandable, and offer far more storage. But at a fundamental level — CPU speed, GPU speed, quality of the display, quality of the sound output, and overall responsiveness of interface — the iPad Pro is a better computer than a MacBook or MacBook Air, and a worthy rival to the far more expensive MacBook Pros.”

One of the trends driving growth in a new range of startups is the shift to smartphones which is profiled in these global figures from Creative Strategies:

Percentage of time spent by device

90% of the time consumers spend on smartphones is spent in apps according to Flurry figures with Facebook, Google and Apple dominating in terms of the reach of their apps according to comScore figures:

Top 15 Smartphone Apps

Britney Summit-Gil looks at how the internet has enabled consumers to be better informed on a whole host of issues, but has lagged when it comes to understanding their own communities:

Internet users say digital tech makes them better informed than 5 years ago

Online advertising has been criticised for providing metrics that fail to reflect audience exposure.  Seb Joseph explores The Economist’s move to offer attention metrics which will better reflect consumers’ actual exposure to advertising:

“Working with analytics partners Chartbeat and Moat Analytics, The Economist tracks active time view – only counting a view when an ad is in view and the reader is actively engaged, i.e typing or scrolling up and down the page. Only those impressions that generate over 5 seconds of active view time will count towards the attention buy.”

Before brands throw all their media budget behind these new online advertising opportunities, it’s worth considering GroupM research which points to television’s lead in generating short to medium term sales (bearing in mind the research was commissioned by TV marketing body Thinkbox):

“GroupM found that media account for on average 39% of sales in the short to medium term (within three months of a campaign finishing); 33% of these media-driven sales are from TV advertising, more than any other communication channel. Paid-for online search created 22%, online display 12%, affiliates 10%, print 8%, direct mail 8%, radio 3% and outdoor 1%.”

Online media also needs to contend with declines in referral traffic from Facebook according to a report from Matthew Ingram. It’s far from clear  whether this is a result of a content glut or Facebook dialing back traffic but it does highlight how vulnerable mainstream content providers are to changes by Facebook and other intermediaries:

“The other nagging fear for media companies is that Facebook is essentially engaging in a large-scale bait and switch, by encouraging them to host all of their output on its platform, but then gradually turning off the traffic tap so that their reach declines. At that point, the social network can recommend a number of ways to boost the reach again—including by paying for promoted posts and other forms of advertising. Facebook would no doubt protest that it is doing nothing of the kind, but the fear remains.”

Michael Specter profiles the growing opportunities to manipulate our DNA with CRISPR/Cas system whilst Erik Parens chooses to explore the ethical implications of gene editing:

‘That seemingly simple question takes us to the heart of a deep tension that decent parents have felt for a very long time, but that will become ever more intense if a technology such as CRISPR-Cas9 is in fact safe and effective. I refer here to the tension between the ethical obligation of parents to accept their children as they are, and their ethical obligation to shape them.”

Rising wages in China mean that the country is facing growing competition for the title of factory to the world with Mexico also benefiting from its close proximity to the US according to a report from Ana Campoy:

Productivity Adjusted Labour Rates

UNHCR figures put the sheer scale of Europe’s refugee crisis in perspective, with the problem unlikely to abate given conflict in Syria and Afghanistan:

Migrant arrivals via the Mediterranean

If you find yourself in London over the next month, I’d strongly recommend checking out Ragnar Kjartansson’s The Visitors exhibition at the Brewer Street Car Park. A wonderful respite from the increasingly frenetic activity of central London in Christmas shopping mode.

The featured image is a Jessie and Katey mural on Ahui Street in Hawaii for the POW WOW festival.

Thought Starters: Chinese digital media, iPhone’s dominance, Holacracy and Europe’s lagging digital innovation

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.

We are seeing Chinese businesses increasingly innovate and excel, providing business models that set themselves apart from businesses in the West. Digital media and communications have been a particularly fertile ground illustrated by the following table which illustrates how diversified the revenue streams of Tencent and YY are compared to their American counterparts:

Tencent Facebook YY and Youtube Monetisation

Apple is carving an increasingly dominant place in the world’s smartphone marketplace in terms of market share and profit. Some critics have questioned whether Apple can continue this growth trajectory, but Ben Thompson provides a strong defence for why we’re not likely to see this train derailing in the near future:

Smartphone Marketshare

Closely tied to the issue of smartphone ownership is the penetration of different mobile browsers. Here again Akamai’s figures point to Apple’s Mobile Safari browser dominating globally:

Global Mobile Browser Share

Roger D. Hodge looks at the ups and downs of Zappos’ introduction of the Holacracy system for self-organisation. It’s a long article but provides a valuable window into the challenges (and some of the opportunities) of introducing radical organisational change:

Zappos' Models of Organisation

As we embed the internet in an more aspects of  our lives, countries’ digital readiness provides an increasingly important measure of future economic health. Tufts University created the Digital Evolution Index to measure the building of digital capacity and many European countries don’t come out particularly well according to Bhaskar Chakravorti and Ravi Shankar Chaturvedi:

Digital Evolution Index

One digital innovation with its roots in Europe is the blockchain platform Ethereum (although there’s definitely an argument for it being a global project). Vinay Gupta provides a valuable look at the development of blockchain and smart contracts within the wider context of the evolution of databases and the internet.

Christina Farr looks at the rise and fall of the home cleaning service Homejoy, providing important lessons for startups aiming for growth at all costs.

A lot of media attention has focused on the rapid rise in San Francisco property prices, so it’s interesting to see UBS’ comparison of how overvalued the city’s real estate is compared to other leading cities:

Global Real Estate Bubble Index

Eric Jaffe’s analysis of trends in working hours over the last 130 years points to a downward trend – lets hope that we see this trend continue without leaving us all unemployed:

Annual Hours of Work

The featured image is a mural in Covilhã, Portugal by Pantonio and published in StreetArtNews.

Thought Starters: innovation, unicorns and a critical look at the sharing economy

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.

Matt Ridley focuses on the forces that drive innovation forward, describing it as a more organic and chaotic environment that isn’t something that governments can readily turn on or off:

“The implications of this new way of seeing technology—as an autonomous, evolving entity that continues to progress whoever is in charge—are startling. People are pawns in a process. We ride rather than drive the innovation wave. Technology will find its inventors, rather than vice versa. Short of bumping off half the population, there is little that we can do to stop it from happening, and even that might not work.”

Activate provide a valuable look at the intersection of media and technology, focusing on the evolution of media usage, mobile messaging, audio, television and mobile apps. Good overview of how the landscape is likely to evolve over the next year:

Benedict Evans and Steven Sinofsky explore how smartphones represent the latest format in computers evolution, expanding technologies reach and ask what might be next in this cycle:

Wall Street Journal’s data visualisation (click through for the interactive version) makes apparent the massive growth in valuation of various venture funded startups over the last two years…exciting but also scarey:

Companies valued at $1 billion or more by venture-capital firms

The rapid growth of various unicorns has not come without its critics. Airbnb has accelerated the process of gentrification as property developers shift their focus from local residents to visiting tourists in markets already dealing with shortages of affordable housing. Steven Hill states:

“In a tight housing market, rent-controlled apartments are prey for what we might call “slamlords,” who promote condo conversions or renovations that would justify massive rent increases. Airbnb provides another layer—a powerful financial incentive as well as a technique for landlords to convert their apartment buildings into tourist hotels.”

Zeynep Tufekci looks more broadly at startups associated with the ‘sharing economy’, characterising them as fueling a growing gap  between the winners and losers in our current labour market:

“It sounds great, except for the ugly reality which lurks under the proliferation of “uber for…”s: the calcification of the two-tiered system between the overworked who need and can afford the “uber for…”s and the underpaid who are stuck in its 1099 economy of unstable, low wages.”

For the moment, the impact of the “gig economy” might be overstated. Figures from America’s Bureau of Labour Statistics points to self employment as actually decreasing in recent years (although that’s not to say this trend will continue):

The Self Employment Rate in the US

The majority of developed market economies are facing the challenge of an aging population as fertility rates decline so it’s interesting to look at those countries with large young populations with China and India standing out. A closer look at the statistics by John Poole reveals some more unsettling truths with China “missing” about 24 million girls between the ages of 0 and 19:

Half the world's teens live in these 7 countries
Countries with the largest teen populations

Climate change is reshaping our planet and forcing many indigenous ecosystems to adapt with a negative impact on our planet’s biodiversity. The effect on countries’ economies is more of a mixed bag according to Marshall Burke, Sol Hsiang, Ted Miguel’s forecast with winners and losers (click on the map for more detailed information). Whether such modelling can accurately accommodate all the different consequences of climate change remains to be seen:

Economic Impact of Climate Change on the World

The featured image is a mural by Italian artist Tellas in Shoreditch, London and published in StreetArtNews.

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: Facebook keeps on developing, augmented reality and a declining Saudi Arabia

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 mentioned in the last Thought Starters column, ad blockers pose a serious challenge to the online media industry which has traditionally relied on giving away content in return for providing eyeballs for online advertising. Ben Bajarin puts the case for native advertising and sponsored content as a potential panacea for the industry’s problems.

Whilst the media industry’s confidence has taken something of hit with all the talk of ad blockers, at least comScore’s figures from the US point to a growing appetite for content online driven by growth in mobile consumption:

Average Monthy Audience Across Digital Mobile and Desktop

Quartz profiles research by Helani Galpaya into consumers’ use of internet in the developing world. Among the findings are a considerable proportion of users didn’t see access to Facebook as being part of the internet and the inevitable disparity between the revenues Facebook receives from developed and developing world consumers:

Internet users and Facebook users per 100 people

Speaking of Facebook, the social network has been busy. October has seen the launch of the brand awareness optimization tool enabling marketers to understand audiences that have spent more time watching campaigns on Facebook, providing a more nuanced view than simply counting Likes.  Facebook has also expanded what consumers can do with their profiles which includes using animated GIFs for their profile photos, allowing people to be a little more expressive with how they present themselves:

Gil Dibner’s quarterly roundup of the European venture capital sector provides a valuable look at where money is going in the region’s startup sector:

Andreessen Horowitz General Partner and WealthFront co founder Jeff Jordan looks at why startups need to singlemindedly focus on growth if they’re to succeed and need to quickly adjust course when growth stalls:

Why? Because the unexpected slowing of growth in a “growth” business presents an existential risk to the company. Growth rates over a company’s history tend to move only one way over time (down); even in hypergrowth companies, growth rates tend to fall to earth … which is why I’ve referred to this effect as “gravity.”

Once gravity takes hold, it’s very hard to reaccelerate the growth of the business. Slowing growth portends a strong possibility that the company will never again experience prior levels of growth going forward.

The last ten years has seen a lot of talk about the experience economy as consumers look to define themselves increasingly by what they do (rather than what they own). This presents a real opportunity for a platform that could bring the right events to consumers’ attention but Hugh Malkin provides a valuable look at why this problem hasn’t been ‘solved’ yet.

Norman Chan’s coverage of the Oculus Connect 2 conference provides a valuable window into developments in the virtual reality sector. Oculus’ Medium platform was among the more mesmerising developments that caught my attention:

A recent holiday where I ran out of reading material had me temporarily reassessing whether a Kindle would be a smart purchase. Given my own thoughts, it was interesting to read Craig Mod’s review of his own digital reading habits which are seeing no shortage of articles being read on mobile devices but a disenchantment with digital books:

As our hardware has grown more powerful and our screens more capable, our book-reading software has largely stagnated

Saudi Arabia presents an interesting case study of the resource curse where an abundance of natural resources delays the need to address structural problems within society. Nafeez Ahmed points out that Saudis won’t be able to put their head in the sand for too much longer as its oil exports fail to keep up with its expanding population:

Like many of its neighbours, such deep-rooted structural realities mean that Saudi Arabia is indeed on the brink of protracted state failure, a process likely to take-off in the next few years, becoming truly obvious well within a decade.

Urban sprawl typically leads to growing dependence on the car but think tank Sustainable Prosperity point out some of the other costs associated with less compact urban forms:

Urban vs Suburban

It was disheartening to hear about the mass shooting at a community college in Roseburg, Oregon. Unfortunately Google Trends results point to Americans’ limited attention span when it comes to the issue of guns and gun control (at least until the next tragic shooting):

Relative Google search interest in recent mass shootings

The AOI World Illustration Awards exhibition is on at Somerset House. Among the pieces that caught my eye were Oliver Kugler’s portraits of Syrian Refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan. Beautiful work and very topical:

Issa

The featured image is Legacy by Alexey Luka for the Cibus in Fabula project in Milan.