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Thought Starters

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

Thought Starters provides me with a chance to review and highlight some of the more important or interesting research and opinions that I’ve read over the last week or so. This edition looks at the transition from a PC to a smartphone-dominated world, the story behind financial results from Apple and Facebook, the growth of Sci-Hub and a closer look at the universal basic income model among other things:

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

Smartphones have unique scale for tech

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

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

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

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

iPhone Unit Sales Growth (trailing 12 months)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smartphone as Shopping Assistant

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

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

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

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

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Thought Starters

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.