Thought Starters: venture capital’s global hubs, blockchains and Facebook’s ups and downs and Amazon as more than just a retailer (and we’re not talking about AWS)

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. This edition looks at the global hubs for venture capital, blockchains ups and downs, Facebook’s success and challenges and Amazon’s move from retailer to service provider among other trends and insights.

A profile of Martin Prosperity Institute points to the dominance the US has in venture capital with London ranking 7th among metropolitan centres:

Venture capital investment by metropolitan area

There’s been a lot of talk of the potential for blockchain technologies to upend the incumbents in the financial services sector, but the major banks are beginning to make themselves known. Tanaya Macheel profiles different blockchain based initiatives by some of the major American banks which includes attempts to patent innovations in a sector previously associated closely with open source technology:

Blocking off the Blockchain

Keeping on the blockchain theme, Timothy B. Lee profiles the growing pains that Bitcoin is experiencing as growing demand challenges the infrastructure of the technology as it currently stands:

The Bitcoin community is currently locked in a debate about whether to follow that same trajectory: whether to grow quickly at the cost of possibly becoming more centralized. The difference is that the way the Bitcoin network works means that early adopters have an effective veto over further growth. If a critical mass of Bitcoin stakeholders refuse to accept larger blocks, the Bitcoin network could be stuck with its current, limited capacity for years to come.

WhatsApp has done a great job of expanding its reach which has seen it recently pass the 1 billion user maker despite having only 57 engineers. What the mobile messaging platform has been less successful in doing is monetising its user base compared to Line and WeChat as Terence Lee reports although there are indications this is likely to change:

WhatsApp Statistics

Amazon is one organisation that has done a great job of monetising its platform, moving from a bare bones online retailer to a dominant player in retail providing a range of ecommerce related services to third parties (see illustration below). This ties in nicely with a recent Jan Dawson blog post where he stresses the need for providers to absorb as many activities as possible (eg Facebook) or alternatively be on as many domains as possible (eg Uber):

Amazon ecommerce value chain

An interesting recent development in Amazon’s strategy is its experiment with the opening of a physical store in Seattle with reports that they plan on rolling out 300 to 400 stores across the US in the future.

Tal Shachar with Liam Boluk point to the growing glut of content that consumers face across a range of media and with this comes the growing issue of discovery and opportunities for content curation. Sentiments further echoed in a recent post by Benedict Evans:

WeAreSocial have recently published the Digital in 2016 report, providing a range of digital benchmark statistics including internet, mobile internet, social media and mobile app usage along with a range of other indicators. Well worth bookmarking for future use:

It’s financial results season in the US with recent announcements from Apple, Alphabet and Facebook. One of the interesting points to emerge from Facebook’s results is how well the company has transitioned to a mobile first company since 2010 as Alice Truong reports:

Facebook's mobile users as percentage of all active users

Where Facebook has been less successful is in the launch of its Free Basics offering in India. The service looks to offer free access to limited selection of mobile optimised content to mobile users but has come into fierce opposition from net neutrality campaigners in India according to Lauren Smiley’s report:

Free Basics only serves a tiny Facebook-endorsed portion of the Internet to users for free — a “walled garden” as opponents call it — while users must pay to access anything else on the web. As Backchannel has been chronicling for some time, they see it as a violation of the principle of net neutrality, that all things on the internet should be treated the same to preserve competition: no faster data connection for deep-pocketed companies, no charging consumers for some sites but not others, no cordoning off slices of the internet by private companies.

Sometimes the internet doesn’t prove quite as virtual as you’d imagine. Dan Wang profiles the physical delivery of data to servers around the world by content delivery networks (CDNs) as a means of speeding up the delivery of content to internet users in a curious mix of the physical and the virtual:

So instead of using the Internet to transfer big pieces of data, companies have turned to the global freight network. High-traffic websites copy data onto hard drives (which are no bigger than what you’d use to back up your laptop), pack them into cardboard boxes, and then fly them around the world. They can be in a box in the belly of a passenger plane, right beside cartons full of iPhones.

Business Insider profiles the digital habits of American teens. Whilst the sample size of 60 is a far from representative sample, it does provide some interesting insights into the habits of younger consumers:

Most Important Social Networks Among Teens

Alexander J. Motyl warns of a Russian collapse, fueled by an economy hamstrung by its dependence on a declining petroleum market and a political system resistant to change and reform:

The problem for Putin—and for Russia—is that the political–economic system is resistant to change. Such a dysfunctional economy is sustainable only if it is controlled by a self-serving bureaucratic caste that places its own interests above those of the country. In turn, a deeply corrupt authoritarian system needs to have a dictator at its core, one who coordinates and balances elite interests and appetites. Putin’s innovation is to have transformed himself into a cult-like figure whose legitimacy depends on his seemingly boundless youth and vigor. Such leaders, though, eventually become victims of their own personality cult and, like Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Mussolini, do not leave office voluntarily. Russia is thus trapped between the Scylla of systemic decay and the Charybdis of systemic stasis. Under such conditions, Putin will draw increasingly on Russian chauvinism, imperialism, and ethnocentrism for legitimacy.

Ben Judah recently published This is London: Life and Death in the World Citytaking the approach of a foreign correspondent to reporting on the experience of immigrants in his home city.  His interview in London School of Economics’ lecture series is well worth a listen for anyone interested in the experience and impact of London’s many immigrant communities:

The featured image is a CT mural from Torino published in ekosystem.

Thought Starters

The following is a collection of articles and thought pieces highlighting interesting trends and changes in the world we live in.

Mobile messaging continues to grow as a communication format and as a platform which The Economist profiles in its latest issue. Mobile messaging sector has been given a boost  in the tech press by recent announcements at Facebook’s F8 Developer Conference which  has seen Facebook Messenger repositioned as the hub  for consumer’s smartphones. It’s an interesting strategic play by Facebook as it could potentially see the messaging platform become a gatekeeper across mobile regardless of which mobile operating system consumers are using.  I recommend checking out Benedict Evans and  Charlie Warzei’s take on things if you want to find out more.

Jay Z and friends have launched the Tidal streaming music service into what is an increasingly crowded market. Ben Thompson uses this as a starting point to look at how has the bargaining power in the music industry value chain…and he concludes that Tidal doesn’t have a particularly strong position.

Amazon Dash Button provides an interesting example of the changing face of marketing and Amazon’s move to bind consumers more closely to its ecommerce ecosystem. Eugene Wei has an interesting review of the service or for a more critical perspective, try Ian Crouch. I don’t think I’m ready to have little brand advertisements all around my home quite yet.

The popularity of UKIP and other parties hostile to immigration across Europe point to concerns about ‘job stealing foreigners.’ Adam Davidson provides a valuable retort to this view drawing on the Lump of Labour Fallacy.

The drop in global oil prices has helped and hurt different countries. Moisés Naím picks out who the winners and losers are.

Fareed Zakaria advocates the benefits of a liberal arts education pointing to the benefits it provides in enabling countries to be economically successfully and warns of the risks of putting too much emphasis on STEM  focused education.

There’s been a fair amount of talk recently of the impact that technology and automation is having on employment in the developed world. Noah Smith suggests that this argument is overstated pointing to the massive impact that China’s workforce is having on the global economy.

It’s worth checking out  Evan Osnos’ detailed profile of Chinese President Xi Jinping and his view of development which doesn’t include Western ideals of democracy and press freedom. One to watch given his role in shaping international relations in years to come.

Scott Harrison’s profile of  the Moscow apartment bombings of 1999 and Vladimir Putin’s alleged involvement paints the Russian leader in a much less flattering and ultimately rather scarey light.  Well worth a read, particularly in light of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine.

Who are the happiest people in Europe? The social democratic model appears to be working in Scandinavia whilst the economic crisis in Southern Europe appears to be dampening things according to Eurostat figures.

Qualityoflife

For those of you in the UK, you might want to check out Cambridge University research reported on in the Guardian which looks at which parts of the UK are the friendliest and most neurotic.

Featured image is a John-Thomas Nagel photo taken in Sao Paulo in Brazil published in Street Art Utopia.