TechCrunch wasn’t the only publication to go with a headline like this, and it makes sense: Uber’s diversity report in many ways mirrors those from other big companies in the tech industry, and doesn’t appear noticeably worse on several of the big metrics. Indeed, if you were reading the report itself including the commentary about the various efforts Uber is engaged in, you’d get the impression that Uber was a forward-looking, tolerant, diverse, and vibrant place for people of all backgrounds to work. And that’s the problem with these reports – they say nothing about what it’s actually like to work at the company if you’re in one of the underrepresented groups, and we know from recent news that Uber can actually be pretty awful if you’re a woman, especially in a technical role. So even though Uber comes off not much worse than other big tech companies from the report alone, that shouldn’t be all that reassuring. Since this is the first of these reports, we also have zero data about how things have changed in the past year, and whether they’ve got better or even worse, something some past female employees have suggested. But numbers alone don’t tell the story, and that’s why the investigation – flawed though it is – is critical for evaluating and hopefully changing the other aspects of Uber’s culture as regards diversity which this report says nothing about.
Intel “Sets the Record Straight” on Moore’s Law (Mar 28, 2017)
Intel is having a technology day today at which it’s talking up its manufacturing capabilities and offering evidence that not only is Moore’s Law alive and well but that Intel is ahead of its competitors in driving innovation in chip making. Intel obviously has a very strong incentive to argue that Moore’s Law isn’t – contrary to recent claims and reporting – dead, both as the originator of the idea and as perhaps its biggest corporate beneficiary. The reality is that we continue to see many of the benefits of Moore’s Law playing out, even if it isn’t necessarily playing out at exactly the same speed and in the same way as in the past (though Intel argues that it is still doing those things). Intel’s claim to be three years ahead of its competitors in process technology would certainly be disputed by major competitors and I suspect most analysts too – that’s hyperbole which isn’t supported by the reality. But Intel does lay out some interesting evidence to back its claim that there’s plenty of headroom left in Moore’s Law.
This article seems to be the result of a push by Kobalt around its new royalty-tracking app for the artists it works with. If you don’t know Kobalt, it’s a music tech company which acts as an intermediary between artists and streaming services and helps ensure accurate tracking and payouts of royalties. It’s using the unique data it has on Spotify streaming to push its app and broader service this week, and this article picked up on some of the data about how Spotify drives listening of less-known artists and songs with its curated playlists. This sort of thing used to be the province of radio, but of course in recent years the streaming services have increasing power to make new artists, although they’ve used that in different ways, with Apple using Beats 1 radio to literally replicate the radio experience in a streaming setting, while Spotify uses its playlists feature.
via Watch what happens when Spotify gives unknown music acts a big push – Recode (you might also be interested in this episode of the Beyond Devices Podcast, in which I interviewed Ryan Wright, CMO at Kobalt)
This story has been somewhat misreported, although this article does a decent job. It appears a hacking collective is claiming to have lots of username / password sets for iCloud accounts, though it appears that the source of the data is a hack of some other site or sites rather than any of Apple’s own. That breach then seems to have allowed the hackers to take iCloud.com email addresses and the passwords used on other sites and use them to access iCloud services as well. In other words, this isn’t an Apple hack at all, and is only effective because people are reusing passwords on multiple sites. Using two-factor authentication and unique passwords is therefore still the best defense against this kind of thing, although Apple still has to deal with the headache of both false claims and threats from this hacking group.
Apple just made a historic and risky change to all iPhones — and you probably didn’t even notice – Business Insider (Mar 28, 2017)
Apple this week pushed iOS 10.3 to iPhones and iPads, and although there were various other headline features, the big under-the-hood change was the upgrade from Apple’s historical HFS+ file system to the new Apple File System trailed a while back at WWDC. That this upgrade went off seemingly without a hitch is remarkable given just how disruptive it might have been to devices and the apps that run on them, and given that Apple has had one or two buggy iOS releases in the last couple of years, including one that bricked a lot of phones. I suspect Apple deliberately rolled this update out off the usual big annual schedule because people tend to adopt these point releases more slowly, so that if something did go wrong it could pull it before it did too much damage. But Apple is also benefiting these days from the extensive developer and public beta programs, which get its releases into many more hands (and onto a wider range of devices used for a wider range of tasks), which likely helps iron out some bugs before they ever get to wide release. But it’s arguably been underappreciated this week just how big a change this was and how flawlessly Apple seems to have executed on it. That’s a good counterpoint to some recent suggestions that Apple’s quality control around its software has suffered lately.
via Business Insider
Amazon has announced two grocery pickup locations that are free for Prime members – Recode (Mar 28, 2017)
These stores have been in the works for a while, and launch has felt imminent as people have spotted signs going up and other indications that they would be opening soon. So I’d take with a pinch of salt the slightly cynical take here that this announcement was a response to the negative Amazon Go story from yesterday. However, it is worth noting that these stores are opening to employees only for now, apparently with no set timeframe for public launch, though the pricing model is already clear: Prime subscribers get to use the service and these locations at no additional cost, versus the additional monthly fee Prime subscribers have to pay for Fresh delivery at the moment. As I pointed out earlier, this is a much less groundbreaking model than the Go concept, one that’s already being offered both in other markets (this piece mentions the UK) but here in the US too, with big grocery chains including my local Smith’s store. But it’s still a useful additional feature for an online-only (for now) grocery retailer to offer, and part of Amazon’s broader experimentation with physical retail.
Like Facebook, Twitter is pushing ads into more and more places, including videos on its platform, in an attempt to drive ad growth at a time when that rate of growth has been slowing. In Facebook’s case, the slowdown is due to saturating ad load, whereas for Twitter it’s a combination of anemic user growth and ineffective ad formats. Pre-roll ads for live video are likely to be a bit of a turnoff for users, but if the video is important (and long) enough then they may just put up with them anyway. But this is yet another sign that Twitter is willing to try lots of new things when it comes to finding new sources of revenue, on top of last week’s reports about testing a paid subscription service.
via The Verge
China’s Tencent Buys 5% Stake in Tesla – WSJ (Mar 28, 2017)
Tencent has been one of the most active Chinese investors in the US tech industry, and here’s another investment. It already has stakes in both Uber and Lyft, and although Baidu has been making bigger direct investments in autonomous driving in the US, Tencent’s indirect investments in transportation in the US are growing. This is a nice vote of confidence in Tesla at a time when it’s trying to raise money to fund the Model 3 manufacturing ramp, and it also gives Tencent decent exposure to what has been a nice growth stock so far this year.
Comcast reportedly planning streaming TV service just for its internet customers – The Verge (Mar 28, 2017)
Yet more evidence here that Comcast is readying a bigger launch of streaming TV, beyond last week’s report that it’s been signing deals for national streaming delivery of content. This streaming service is designed specifically for Comcast broadband customers who don’t also take its pay TV service, and has been offered as a sort of test in a few markets already. But it sounds like it’s gearing up for a big expansion, and that makes sense: Comcast has 2.2 million households which take broadband but not pay TV, so that’s the obvious target market for this service. But having launched this Stream service more broadly within its own footprint, it could eventually take it nationwide too, given those deals it’s been signing. I’ve been saying for a while now that I think there’s something of a game of chicken underway among the major pay TV providers about which will take a true pay TV replacement national first. Comcast was always a strong candidate, and it’s looking ever more likely that it will indeed be the one to go first.
via The Verge
We’ve known this was coming for a while, but there are a couple of extra wrinkles here. First up, let’s get the obvious out of the way – yes, this is another example of Facebook copying Snapchat, although at this point it’s also copying itself, specifically with regard to the presentation of Stories within the Facebook app, which is very similar to what it already does on Instagram. The good news is that it’s avoided the heavy-handedness that characterized its launch of the Stories equivalent My Day in Messenger and to a lesser extent the equivalent Status feature in WhatsApp – this feature is more subtle and slots in at the top of the app a la Instagram, which should lead to less of a backlash from users. One of the weirdest new features here, though, is a new direct message feature, which is an odd Google-like doubling up on messaging given the existence of the Messenger app. There are some other unique features, but several of them feel different for difference’s sake rather than being valuable or more appropriate for the Facebook setting than Instagram, and I’d expect at least some of them to make it into Instagram Stories in time. To take a step back, though, this is an entirely logical next step given the success of Instagram Stories: the latter has over 150 million users out of a monthly active user base of 600 million, while Facebook has a total user base three times that size, meaning it could bring the feature to many more people. And of course, in the process it’s likely to further dent Snapchat’s growth, which continues to be one of the biggest question marks over its long-term trajectory.
via The Verge
Another crazy wrinkle in the ongoing set of regulatory and legal actions against Qualcomm over anticompetitive practices: the Korean regulator responsible for the fine against Qualcomm last year says that one of the conditions of the contract between the companies was that Samsung would not be allowed to sell its own Exynos chips to any other vendors. What’s particularly crazy here is that Samsung is both Qualcomm’s biggest customer for chips and a contract manufacturer of those chips, so the two are inextricably intertwined here but are still going through this painful process. Samsung isn’t suing Qualcomm as Apple is, but it’s still likely cooperating with the authorities who are looking into its dealings in various markets. Just another sign of how far relationships between Qualcomm and some of its biggest customers have got, that they’re willing to start airing their grievances despite their close ties.
The High-Speed Trading Behind Your Amazon Purchase – WSJ (Mar 27, 2017)
This is a fascinating article looking into some of the mechanics behind how Amazon’s third-party sellers price their products on the site. I was actually aware of quite a bit of this already because I have a neighbor who runs a business which operates as a third-party seller on Amazon, and he’s told me a little of how his company operates. This piece only has a couple of examples, but in essence these sellers hunt down product categories where there’s room for price arbitrage by undercutting the current lowest price while still maintaining a margin. Suppliers in China will make many of the products cheaply enough to allow undercutting of the current top option on the site, and so there’s this constant hunt for the next product category with an opportunity for becoming the top seller by offering a lower price. It’s obviously great for Amazon and for its customers to have sellers competing so aggressively for business, because it brings down prices and raises sales, but Christopher argues in this piece that in some cases the same computerized models sometimes lead to price increases rather than just drops. Well worth a read of the whole thing.
Apple Files its Supplier Responsibility Report for 2016 (Mar 27, 2017)
Apple has filed its Supplier Responsibility Report for last year, and it shows decent progress on several fronts. This BuzzFeed piece ties the report into a broader picture of planned deregulation in this area by the Trump administration, and notes that Apple has both opposed that deregulation and pledged to continue to report on its own efforts even if the regulations go away. Conflict minerals are a complex area of Apple’s supply chain, not least because it doesn’t deal with many of the suppliers directly, but also because many operate in parts of the world which have little regulation or transparency over the conditions under which minerals are mined. But it sounds like Apple is making progress around cobalt, one of the areas in which it was accused of not doing enough last year, and in other areas too.
Spotify Acquires MightyTV to Improve Ad Targeting (Mar 27, 2017)
When I saw some of the headlines about Spotify buying a company which is good at recommendations, I assumed that would be the focus of the acquisition, but it turns out that the focus is actually on improving Spotify’s ad targeting. So you won’t see better music recommendations, and if you’re a paid user you won’t see any change as a result of this buy at all. I was a Spotify subscriber for a time, but have never used the ad-based service, so I don’t know how the targeting is at this point, but if it’s anything like other online video and audio services, it could use some help, so this seems smart. But of course good targeting requires good data on users, and I’m curious to see how Spotify will improve in that department – by itself, it presumably knows relatively little about its users beyond their musical tastes, so better targeting would likely require buying in third party data to enhance its user profiles. And therein, of course, lies the inherent tension in all ad-based business models – user privacy versus effective targeting.
There’s a certain amount of schadenfreude around about this story this morning, both from tech observers and I suspect from other retailers smirking at Amazon’s apparent inability to deliver on its store of the future concept. The idea of tracking products as they’re taken off shelves, placed in baskets and then ultimately carried out of a shop has seemed enormously ambitious to me from the start, because there just seemed to be so many ways it could go wrong. And now it seems that Amazon is holding up the launch of its Amazon Go store to regular customers because the technology can’t handle more than 20 people in the store at once, people who move too quickly around the store, or products which get moved from their original locations. These all seem like obvious bugs to have been worked out early on in development, and also ones which will all get worse when you go from friendly employee testers to real-world customers, so it’s a bit baffling Amazon would have whiffed on this so badly this late in the game. I’m very curious what happens from here on: whether we see Amazon launch just a little later than planned, with the bugs fixed, whether it launches despite the bugs (and risk of under- or over-charging customers), or whether it keeps the store employee-only for quite a bit longer. The last scenario seems most likely at this point.
This is a fascinating little piece on a guy who claims to have technology that would help Google from showing ads on problematic videos and websites, and who has apparently been responsible for raising the issue with reporters. Unfortunately, there’s fairly little evidence of that connection in this article, and I haven’t been able to establish one independently. But it would be striking if a guy trying to sell his technology was behind this crisis for Google and YouTube. None of that is to say that the issues aren’t real, but as we all know none of this is particularly new, so it would help explain why all this has suddenly come to a head now.
Google’s AI Explosion in One Chart – MIT Technology Review (Mar 27, 2017)
One of the big problems with evaluating which company is ahead or behind in a field like AI is that there are few external signals – companies work on a variety of AI projects behind closed doors in their R&D departments, and many of them only surface when they’re built into products and services they bring to market. Some have suggested using patents as a way to measure leadership, and this article cites publication in scientific journals as another. Certainly, Google’s publishing is a sign that there’s lots of work going on, but it also reflects the (deliberately) quasi-academic culture at DeepMind, its big AI acquisition, while Apple is also slowly moving in this direction with regard to AI specifically. Neither patent filings nor academic papers, however, have a direct connection to using AI to provide better products and services, and that remains very difficult to measure.
After the London terror attack, a top U.K. official says Facebook needs to open up WhatsApp – Recode (Mar 27, 2017)
This is a worrying (though not altogether unexpected) resurfacing of the arguments from early 2016, when the FBI was trying to get into an iPhone owned by one of the San Bernardino shooters. In this case, UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd (whose role has no direct counterpart in the US, but is responsible for domestic law enforcement and counter-terrorism among many other things) has made calls for WhatsApp to “open up” and specifically referred to encryption. That’s because WhatsApp was allegedly one of the apps used by the terrorist behind last week’s attack in London, though there’s no evidence yet that he used it to plan the attack or coordinate with others. The bigger issue, as with last year’s Apple-FBI fight, is of course that once the government can get in, there’s no guarantee others won’t use the same methods, whether that’s because of hacks like the one that hit Cellebrite a few weeks ago, or exposures of government tools like the Wikileaks CIA hack. Encryption is a fact of life at this point, and essential for secure communication and protection of privacy for millions of law-abiding users, and no government back door can solve the law enforcement problem without also compromising that essential function. And the Rudd quote in the closing paragraph of this story suggests she doesn’t actually understand the FBI-Apple situation at all, which is not surprising from a government official but worrisome nonetheless.
There’s not a ton here that’s new about Apple and Facebook’s efforts, but the article does share some new details about Magic Leap, which is said to be getting ready to launch this year at a price point north of $1000. As I’ve said before, for all the complaints from Magic Leap that people are underestimating its technology, until it actually shows more than a few hand-picked people, those complaints are unreasonable. This is a company that has massively hyped its own product (including releasing rendered rather than actual footage) while refusing to share any actual details about its product. There certainly are people (some of them investors) who appear to be very impressed by it, but not until it launches will mainstream tech reporters and others know whether the product lives up to the hype. In the meantime, other companies like Apple and Facebook are ramping up their efforts, and even though Magic Leap may well beat them to market, it’s a small company with no brand recognition, and it will have to blow people away en masse if it’s to take a meaningful lead in the market when it launches.
This feels like a huge misstep, especially announced the week of the S8 launch, which could otherwise have been the moment Samsung finally put the Note 7 debacle behind it. While the desire to minimize the environmental impact is admirable, and Samsung would no doubt benefit financially from refurbishing the phones, it would have been better off simply doing what it originally said it would and abandoning the line entirely and merely recouping parts. Another story that both keeps the Note7 in the news and raises the prospect of people actually buying them again (even if under a different name) just seems like a terrible tradeoff to make for those benefits. Ironically, this was the week when Samsung also finally issued a software update which will kill the remaining devices still in use in the US, yet another milestone in moving past this whole mess.
via The Verge