This is an interesting wrinkle on the theme of premium TV channels going direct to consumer. In this case, AMC Networks is talking about going through the pay TV companies rather than around them, which would ensure high-quality distribution but would also limit it to those audiences already paying for traditional TV services, whereas its stated target is the millennials who famously don’t pay for those services. The price being talked about also seems very high: the AMC network is pretty cheap for pay TV distributors – one recent figure I saw suggested under 50 cents per month – so charging $5-7 just to take out ads seems steep. As a company, AMC makes a little over half its revenue from fees, and the rest mostly from ads, so charging ten times as much as it charges distributors just to remove ads doesn’t feel quite right. But it’s good to see the traditional cable networks experimenting with a variety of models as they try to stem the tide of both cord cutting and cord shaving, even if this doesn’t feel like it’s quite going to hit the spot.
Netflix: The Monster That’s Eating Hollywood – WSJ (Mar 24, 2017)
The headline here is indicative of the language used by some TV execs in the article, but that rhetoric feels pretty overblown, along with the suggestions that Netflix is somehow singlehandedly doubling the fees actors ask for or squeezing other players out of the business. Yes, both Amazon and Netflix are raising prices for acquisitions of indie movies at Sundance, but no, they’re not having that dramatic effect on the entire industry, not least because they’re still just a fraction of the size of the industry as a whole. The reality is that competition has been intensifying for years because the industry is getting tighter in an age of shrinking audiences and higher standards, and Netflix and Amazon aren’t to blame. Having said all that, the article is likely indicative of a souring of relationships between Netflix and traditional media companies, and if that continues we’ll likely see more content pulled from Netflix and other SVOD services, which just validates Netflix’s massive investment in original content which no-one can take away.
Google details Talk transition, SMS removal for Hangouts, other G Suite changes – 9to5Google (Mar 24, 2017)
This has been a heck of a long time coming – Google’s various messaging apps have been a confusing mess for ages now, and it’s good to see some rationalization of the portfolio and a bit more clarity about which bits will survive and what they’ll be used for. SMS-style messaging now belongs in the Messages app, which doesn’t have an equivalent on the desktop, while the ages-old Google Talk will finally be retired in favor of Hangouts, which will carry over some but not all of its functionality, with the rest going away. Some users will no doubt be annoyed at some of the lost functionality, but on the whole this should be a good thing for users. Of course, there is still Google Voice, which combines elements of services also found in Hangouts and Messages, so this doesn’t clear things up completely.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in an interview that he felt AI taking Americans’ jobs was 50-100 years away, and it wasn’t a concern in the present. Predictably, a whole raft of tech folk who work on AI and are very much aware of jobs being lost to AI today reacted rather poorly to that statement. At best, this feels like yet another government official who doesn’t have a good grasp on technology, something that’s been a worry with the current administration since before it took office. But at worst, this means the government is far less likely to take any meaningful action on helping protect American jobs that might be lost to AI or to retraining workers so that they can find new ones if their old ones go away. Whether you believe either of those things are the government’s job or not is largely a matter of your philosophy on the proper role of government, but at the very least you’d want the government to have a realistic sense of what kind of impact AI will have on jobs and when, in order to make an informed decision.
This story just keeps going, and in some ways it’s more of the same, but these two pieces are worth calling out specifically. The Bloomberg piece mentions a memo sent to advertisers late this week providing more detail than the blog post on Monday, though sadly the article doesn’t provide many of those details. The Journal piece, meanwhile, provides lots of examples of ads from big brands still showing up next to bad videos, with some of those brands adding their names to the list of boycotters. Importantly, the changes in the memo are supposed to be implemented by Sunday, so if advertisers are happy with the changes, we could see something of a return to normal early next week. As per my Techpinions piece yesterday, I still think that’s something of a long shot, although I argued that none of these brands really want to abandon YouTube or Google permanently, and will likely return to the fold once they extract some concessions over data and analytics. But if those fixes don’t go down well, and there continue to be widespread and easily found examples of ads showing against bad videos, then this could drag on for months.
Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and YouTube are bidding to stream the NFL’s Thursday night games – Recode (Mar 24, 2017)
When Twitter won these rights last time around in their first year as a separate set from television rights, it turned out to be something very different from what many of us expected. Rather than a massive splurge on a very valuable set of rights, it turned out that the winner merely got the right to show the games along with advertising mostly already sold by broadcasters, meaning there was very little additional revenue opportunity, and as such Twitter got the rights for a paltry $10 million. These NFL games have actually been a good fit with Twitter’s overall live strategy, which has mostly been focused on winning audiences rather than lots of new revenue, but it seems others are interested in taking another crack this year. It would obviously fit well with Facebook’s recent push into professionally produced live video, but also with YouTube’s recent investment in e-sports rights and with Amazon’s foray into TV bundles and Twitch video streaming. It’s less of a good fit with Apple’s current focus in the TV space, so it’s not surprising that its name doesn’t appear here. I’ll be very interested to see if the NFL is pitching the same kind of package as last time or whether the winning bidder will have the right to sell more of its own ads this time around.
I’m in two minds about this report. On the one hand, I’ve thought for a while that some kind of premium subscription service would be a great way to allow the heaviest users of Twitter to pay for the value they get out of it (while potentially avoiding ads), and serve as a useful additional revenue stream at a time when Twitter’s ad revenue has been stagnating. On the other hand, the news that this will effectively be an enhanced version of Tweetdeck is less appealing. Tweetdeck is for a particular type of Twitter user – one who wants lots of tabs open at once with various different feeds – but that’s not all power users by any stretch. And as an app Tweetdeck has a somewhat miserable reputation for reliability – the only times I ever see it mentioned on Twitter itself are when it’s crashing on people. I’ve used it occasionally in the past, but not for some time now, not least because it’s been neglected as a native app on macOS since 2015. If this new option really is limited to and centered on Tweetdeck, it’ll have appeal mostly limited to a certain kind of power user (mostly companies, brands, and professional social media managers), but if it’s instead aimed at power users broadly and supports other endpoints too, then it’s more interesting. We’ll probably have to wait until Twitter concludes its testing to know one way or the other, though.
via The Verge
I’ll refer readers back to last week’s comment on this topic, even though the news has moved on a little. That item was about telcos lobbying for a change in laws regarding user data, whereas today’s news is about the Senate pushing through a bill that would enact the change, but the issues are the same. At root, the telcos have argued that they shouldn’t be regulated more tightly than the internet companies that already gather and sell lots of data on users, and that therefore regulations introduced last year should be overturned. Of course, both web companies and other entities like data brokers already gather, aggregate, and sell masses of user data, so there’s some merit to the argument that telcos shouldn’t be the only ones singled out here. ISPs have also argued that they’ve voluntarily agreed to codes of conduct which would bind them in similar ways without this regulation. Regardless, the optics of a move such as this bill are terrible both for the ISPs and for the (mostly Republican) senators who have backed it.
I’ve held for quite a while that there’s a game of chicken going on between the various big pay TV providers over who will be first to take a streaming version of their service nationwide, and it looks like Comcast is taking steps to ensure that it can do so if and when it decides to move forward. That’s not a guarantee that Comcast actually will do so, and indeed this piece suggests Comcast has no immediate plans on this front. But it’s clearly in a very strong position to do so, as the second largest TV provider in the US and the largest cable company, and also the pay TV provider with the strongest user interface through its X1 platform. That platform could potentially run as an app on third party boxes like Roku, Amazon Fire TV, and Apple TV should it choose to run a nationwide service. And there is, of course, big upside from a revenue perspective in offering its service nationally, especially as a hedge against cord cutting within its existing footprint. The downside is that such a service would be standalone, and with content costs rising as a percentage of video revenue, margins there are being squeezed. In its footprint, Comcast can offset that by charging more for broadband or up-selling voice or home automation services as part of a bundle, but that’s not possible when selling online TV as a standalone product. Still, at some point I believe Comcast and other big pay TV providers will finally take really compelling TV offerings (rather than the watered down stuff we’re seeing from Sling and DirecTV) national, and that will be a big deal.
Amazon to acquire Souq, a Middle East clone once valued at $1B, for $650M – TechCrunch (Mar 23, 2017)
This would be one of Amazon’s biggest acquisitions to date, ranking fourth behind Zappos ($1.2 billion), Twitch ($970m), and Kiva Systems ($775m) if it goes ahead at the price reported here. And given how Amazon is competing with local competitors such as Flipkart in India and Alibaba in China, it’s interesting to see it absorbing a smaller one in a region where Amazon itself has no presence. Local infrastructure is critical to Amazon’s success elsewhere, and an acquisition like this potentially gives Amazon a huge head start in the region. I could definitely see it taking out more second-tier e-commerce players in other regions like this over the next few years as a way to accelerate its international growth.
With all the fuss about Facebook cloning Snapchat features, it’s worth remembering that not everything Facebook adds to its products is a copy of Snapchat, and this is a good example of adding features that owe more to Facebook’s core product than anyone else’s app. Given the backlash against the My Day feature added recently, it’s somewhat brave of Facebook to add yet more features (and potentially clutter) to Messenger, but these features look like they’ll add value too. And perhaps help to distract from the negative response against My Day.
Intel Consolidates its AI Teams (Mar 23, 2017)
Intel is announcing that it’s taking its various AI teams and consolidating them under Naveen Rao, who ran the AI company Nervana which Intel acquired last year. This feels like a sensible move from a company which has dabbled in AI in various parts of the organization but hasn’t become known as an AI powerhouse. Where things get slightly less credible is where Intel talks in the announcement about rallying the industry around a set of standards for AI as it has with past computational trends. Whereas Intel was a major player in personal computing, one of the examples it cites, it’s not nearly in the same position of influence with regard to AI, and so this feels like hubris rather than realism on what Intel’s role will be. Intel also talks, though, about bringing AI to more people, which sounds a lot like the “democratization of AI” message we’ve been hearing a lot from Microsoft lately, and which others including Google have also started parroting lately. This feels like it’s going to become an increasingly important theme in AI: less about individual companies owning capability and more about packaging up and making that capability available to anyone who wants to use it.
These things do the rounds from time to time, and it’s always worth remembering that very few of the things Apple acquires patents for actually make their way into its products. Like any sensible company that does lots of research and development work, Apple comes up with lots of ideas and patents many of them, in part for defensive reasons, but that doesn’t mean it has any plans to bring them all to market. As this article points out, this particular invention seems to fly in the face of several things Apple has said it won’t do. However, I do think we’ll see more attempts in the coming years to use smartphones and potentially eventually smaller devices like watches to power the various other gadgets around us, serving as identification devices and pulling in data and profiles from the cloud on external displays and so on. So even if I’m not convinced we’ll see this particular implementation from Apple any time soon, the overall concept isn’t totally unrealistic.
via Tom’s Guide
This seems like a great program from Google aimed at bringing in a more diverse workforce. For all that tech companies like to say they try to be diverse in their hiring, part of the problem is that people from underrepresented groups never apply in the first place, and companies therefore have to proactively reach out to those groups, as Google is doing here. Google is bringing students from Howard University, a historically black college, onto campus in Mountain View to help train black coders. This is on top of existing programs where Google employees spend time at Howard and other historically black universities helping students prep for interviews at Google and so on. Good for Google for doing this.
via USA Today
Google Provides an Update on Android Security (Mar 23, 2017)
This is a year-in-review post from the Android security team, and it’s supposed to be reassuring on the state of Android security. However, there are several fairly worrisome data points in here worth pulling out. Google says 0.71 percent of all Android devices had a “potentially harmful app” installed at the end of 2016, so almost 1% of the roughly 1.5 billion Android devices in use, which amounts to almost 11 million actual devices, and that number has risen rather than fallen in the past year. Secondly, even though Google has been working with carriers and OEMs to push security updates to devices outside the very slow OS upgrade cycle, about half of devices in use at the end of 2016 had not received a platform security update in the previous year. Given how frequently Android exploits are discovered, that’s pretty worrying. On the plus side, Google has reduced installations of malware from the store by around 50% across several categories, which is obviously good news, but the fact that it acknowledges some of the apps installed from the official store still contain malware is a sign that it isn’t doing its verification job well enough.
I almost didn’t bother commenting on this news story, because it’s essentially identical to all the stories that were doing the rounds at several earlier times (see this previous comment, for example, from a month and a half ago). I honestly don’t know why the Journal published this story today, because it adds nothing to the earlier stories – same unnamed government sources, same details about Wistron being the manufacturer, and the same absence of on the record comment from anyone involved, least of all Apple. It’s entirely possible (even likely) that Apple is indeed planning to manufacture phones in India, but the fact that it hasn’t announced those plans yet suggests either that the plans aren’t fully baked yet or there’s some sticking point, which makes me curious what that is.
What’s interesting here is that Microsoft is licensing patents rather than selling technology to Toyota – in other words, Toyota gets the right to use ideas patented by Microsoft, but not products or services built on top of them. That suggests that, while Microsoft has an impressive patent portfolio, it hasn’t necessarily built with those patents technology carmakers consider valuable. And that remains a big challenge for Microsoft in the connected car space – Windows and related technologies have been used in cars in the past, and Azure is being used as a cloud service behind some connected car services today, but Microsoft continues to struggle to build technologies carmakers actually want to use in cars, while other players continue to make headway in the space. I could certainly see Microsoft doing more deals like this – indeed, it describes this as a first for a new auto licensing program – but that doesn’t mean Microsoft is any closer to a stronger role in in-car technology.
Apple has acquired Workflow, a powerful automation tool for iPad and iPhone – TechCrunch (Mar 22, 2017)
This is a fascinating acquisition in the context of Apple’s recent parting of ways with Sal Saghoian, who ran the Automator app for macOS. That departure had signaled to some people that Apple was abandoning automation as a feature, but this acquisition sends the opposite message. Perhaps more importantly, Workflow is much more user friendly approach to automation than Automator, and what I’d hope we’ll see here is that same approach applied to built-in automation across Apple’s product lines including the Mac. That would make automation a more mainstream proposition, which is an intriguing prospect. That Workflow will remain available in the App Store is interesting too – that’s obviously going to be reassuring to existing users, but there’s no guarantee that it will stay there when Apple is done integrating it into its platforms. Siri stayed available for a time too, but of course disappeared when Apple released its version.
Netflix still has a huge lead in the streaming wars, but Hulu’s smaller service has loyal users (on TV sets) – Recode (Mar 22, 2017)
I added the parenthetical in the headline because that’s the key caveat here, as the piece itself points out. There’s a great chart in here comparing penetration of TV viewing over WiFi by various services with the average hours spent viewing those services in households that use them, and it highlights Netflix’s dominance as both the most popular and most used service within that narrow viewing category. Hulu does well on time spent too, though with far fewer households, while Amazon Video comes bottom of the four, and YouTube has reasonably high penetration but low time spent (again, on TVs in homes). Obviously, all four services can be viewed outside of homes too, and it’s YouTube in particular would score much higher in a mobile-only comparison. But for the other three services, in-home viewing on a TV is a critical segment of the audience, and it’s worth noting the order on that basis: Netflix first, Hulu second, and Amazon third. Sadly, there’s no traditional content in here for comparison’s sake – much higher percentages take pay TV services in the US than any of these services, and time spent is quite a bit higher too. The full Comscore report (linked below) is well worth reading in its entirety – lots of other interesting data points.
A.I. Expert at Baidu, Andrew Ng, Resigns From Chinese Search Giant – The New York Times (Mar 22, 2017)
This story is notable for two reasons. Firstly, Baidu especially and Chinese companies in general are often overlooked completely in discussions of who’s making big investments in AI and machine learning, and yet Baidu has made massive investments in this area, and recently hired former Microsoft exec Qi Lu to be its COO and to oversee its AI efforts. Secondly, despite Qi Lu’s recent arrival, the trend of former Silicon Valley execs joining big Chinese tech companies still has fewer long-term success stories than short-term fizzles, as this article points out. Both Hugo Barra and Andrew Ng’s move to Chinese companies were seen as highly symbolic, and as such it’s inevitable that their departures should be too. The big Chinese companies are doing good work, and in some cases pioneering new product and service categories, across a number of different areas, but attracting and keeping high-profile talent from the US (even those with ties to Greater China – Ng was born in the UK to parents from Hong Kong) remains tough.
via New York Times