Tech Narratives was a subscription website, which offered expert commentary on the day's top tech news from Jan Dawson, along with various other features, for $10/month. As of Monday October 16, 2017, it will no longer be updated. An archive of past content will remain available for the time being. I've written more about this change in the post immediately below, and also here.
I’m sorry to announce that I’ll no longer be updating Tech Narratives, starting today. It’s been a great experience to work on this project for the past few months, but unfortunately the level of paid subscribers simply hasn’t risen quickly enough to the level where it needs to be in order to justify the continued time and effort required to keep the site going.
As a practical matter, I’ll be automatically refunding payments for anyone who was billed in the last two weeks. If you were last billed before that, but would like a full refund of last month’s payment, please just let me know and I’ll be happy to process it. I would hope that at least some of you would feel you’d received enough value since then to merit the price, but if not I’m happy to return your payment. The site will stay up and all the content will continue to be available, at least for the time being.
I’ve written about this change and why I’m making it in more detail here, and there’s also more information there about my other work, how you can continue to receive my analysis in other forms, and so on. Thanks again for your support over the last few months.
Daily Podcast Episode 77 – Friday, October 13, 2017 (Oct 13, 2017)
The daily podcast episode for October 13 is up now on SoundCloud and should be syncing shortly to iTunes, Overcast, and other podcast apps. As usual, the podcast spends about one minute on each of the items covered on the site today, and also points to a few other items in the news today which I didn’t cover but which are nonetheless interesting. You can find today’s episode on SoundCloud and all episodes on iTunes, Overcast, and so on. The additional items covered are below:
Uber Files Appeal in London Hours Before Deadline (Oct 13, 2017)
Uber has formally lodged an appeal against its ban in London, on the day the deadline to do so would have passed, allowing its service and drivers to continue operating until the matter is resolved. As I suspected, though this kicks off a formal legal process, it seems the situation is most likely to reach a resolution through negotiation between Uber and Transport for London, the body that regulates cabs and ride sharing services in the city. My guess is that Dara Khosrowshahi’s recent visit will have shed light on specific changes Uber needs to make to pass regulatory muster going forward, and that it’s actively working on a plan to ensure it can continue to operate there.
T-Mobile Caps Roaming Benefit in Canada and Mexico (Oct 13, 2017)
The way T-Mobile has always explained its Un-Carrier moves to me is that, while some other promotions may be temporary, these are all permanent. But it looks like we’re seeing the first counter-example of that, with a change to the way the company’s roaming plan works in Canada and Mexico for unlimited data customers. Until recently, the company had offered unlimited roaming in those two countries to those customers, but now the company is capping usage at 5GB in those two countries before booting users onto the same free throttled data roaming it offers in many other countries. What’s happening here is that T-Mobile is encountering the same problem as every other unlimited offering from any telecoms operator ever: some small number of users will always go over the reasonable use the company projects, and ruin it for everyone. This is why pretty much all “unlimited” plans come with caps and throttling thresholds in reality, and it’s why it’s generally a bad idea to offer any truly unlimited service without some terms and conditions or caps, whatever the marketing benefits might be.
Several trade groups representing parties involved in online advertising have sent an open letter to the Coalition for Better Ads (of which they are themselves among the largest members) pushing for faster implementation of self-regulatory moves intended to stave off the threat of browser-based ad blocking. The context here is moves by browser makers – notably Google and Apple – to get tougher on bad ads and cookie-based tracking respectively, both of which threaten the online ad industry. The industry would therefore like to put in place self regulatory measures which have been discussed for some time but not implemented as a way to try to stave off more of this stuff, though the Apple changes have already gone into force and Google’s are likely to do so as well. The online ad industry only has itself to blame for failing to self-regulate sooner and more effectively and thereby maintaining an environment in which such moves by tech companies are deemed necessary. Poor online advertising really serves no-one well in the long term but the industry’s short-termism in allowing it to continue unchecked is now leading to nasty long-term consequences which it is essentially powerless to reverse.
via Marketing Land
Qualcomm Seeks iPhone Sales and Manufacturing Ban in China (Oct 13, 2017)
Qualcomm has announced that it’s filed lawsuits in China seeking a ban on iPhone sales and manufacturing in the country, the latest salvo in the ongoing dispute between the two over patent royalty payments. Qualcomm previously requested the International Trade Commission to ban the import of Intel-based iPhones into the US, and importantly the Chinese government earlier fined Qualcomm on antitrust grounds, so it’s not necessarily disposed to siding with it in this case. However, Qualcomm has been among a set of companies looking to curry favor with the Chinese government, so it’s possible that the Chinese government might look more favorably on such a request. On balance, though, I think it’s unlikely that Qualcomm will prevail here given its history not only in China but elsewhere around these antitrust issues, though of course a successful ban would be a huge blow to Apple in China, so it’s understandable why Qualcomm would seek it as a way to gain leverage in the case.
Facebook has announced that it’s now offering an option to order food through its app, as a result of integration with a range of delivery partners and individual restaurant chains. The “Order Food” option is so far buried deep in the “Explore” tab where few people are likely to find it, though I’m guessing users who make use of it frequently may see it move into their core navigation over time. The integration is basic, mostly launching an in-app browser aimed at the website for either a delivery service or the restaurant chain, with the user having to fill in all relevant information such as credit card, address, and other contact information if they don’t have an existing account. As such, this integration feels like it adds little value over and above the minimal utility of shopping for food within the Facebook app rather than a separate one. It’s a good reminder that, for all Facebook’s reach and power, its new feature launches are often pretty lacking and unlikely to gain much traction, at least in their original form.
Following the Rose McGowan account suspension I mentioned in an item yesterday, a number of prominent women on Twitter have organized a boycott of the platform which is taking place today (Friday). I’m linking below to an item from USA Today which covered the boycott as it being organized, but the challenge today is knowing how effective the boycott has been, because by definition it’s about silence rather than speaking out. Other women, meanwhile, have chosen to speak out about the issues today instead, which makes for a more immediately visible form of protest (Update: this New York Times piece summarizes the different views being expressed on this question). One would hope that these protests, whatever their form, would prompt Twitter to look more seriously at the serious issues being debated, but its lack of past progress on this issue makes me skeptical that that will happen.
via USA Today
In the wake of the many allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, allegations of sexual harassment by Amazon Studios boss Roy Price have resurfaced, and have led to his suspension by the company. As with the Weinstein allegations, it appears those against Price have circulated for some time but never been talked about publicly much, though The Information did have a story a little while ago about the specific accusation that’s been reported again this week. Price has already been somewhat embattled recently as Jeff Bezos has begun overruling some of his decisions as head of Amazon’s original content efforts, so it’s possible that he will be forced out over these allegations whether or not others emerge as a way to clean the slate and complete the shift towards the new programming strategy. Needless to say, as with Weinstein, if the allegations are proven to have merit, Price ought to go for those reasons alone.
Update: BuzzFeed has a copy of the internal memo sent to Amazon staff about the suspension and related issues. Something I should have mentioned earlier but neglected to: Amazon was made aware of the allegations some time ago and instigated an independent investigation, which ended without any apparent action against Roy Price. That he’s been suspended now appears to be entirely the result of the public attention this is now receiving rather than any new information that’s come to light. That feels like hypocrisy, a sense exacerbated by the references to Amazon’s policy on abuse in the internal memo.
Samsung today announced its preliminary results for Q3, but also announced that its CEO, Oh-Hyun Kwon, will step down in March 2018. The preliminary results are very much in keeping with results for the last several quarters, with record revenues and profits for any quarter, likely again driven by very strong memory sales and higher memory prices, though the smartphone business also likely did well again. Samsung’s management structure is a little different from most western tech companies: it technically has three CEOs, who each run a big chunk of the business, with Kwon overseeing the Device Solutions segment while also being chairman of the board of directors and therefore the closest thing to an overall CEO the company has. That Device Solutions business, interestingly, is the home of memory and other component products at Samsung, which have been the source of its great financial strength, so Kwon’s resignation certainly isn’t a response to poor performance. Rather, it seems likely to be a response to the broader scandals that have engulfed the Samsung group of companies, including Jae-Yong Lee, grandson of the company’s founder, who is currently in jail (and was also technically a vice chairman at Samsung Electronics). His resignation later certainly makes it sound like he is resigning as a matter of honor and to allow the company to move on under fresh leadership, rather than an indication that he’s tainted at all by association with the scandals.
Daily Podcast Episode 76 – Thursday, October 12, 2017 (Oct 12, 2017)
The daily podcast episode for October 12 is up now on SoundCloud and should be syncing shortly to iTunes, Overcast, and other podcast apps. As usual, the podcast spends about one minute on each of the items covered on the site today, and also points to a few other items in the news today which I didn’t cover but which are nonetheless interesting. You can find today’s episode on SoundCloud and all episodes on iTunes, Overcast, and so on. The additional items covered are below:
- Bloomberg on Google Robotics
- Google on Google Robotics
- Teens Survey
- Waymo Safety Report
- Inside Every iPhone
Magic Leap Raises Big New Round of Funding (Oct 12, 2017)
Magic Leap, the stealth AR startup based in Florida, has just raised yet more funding, according to a regulatory filing, though the exact amount isn’t yet public. It has an authorization to raise up to $1 billion at a roughly 17% premium to its last round, and Singapore’s Temasek is expected to be one of the investors. That Magic Leap is raising even more money ahead of what’s been widely expected to be a launch late this year is both a sign that its investors are still excited by what they see, and also likely a sign that it isn’t quite ready to launch and therefore start generating revenue yet. Both Magic Leap and a small group of people who’ve seen its product continue to be very bullish about its technology, but it remains tight-lipped about exactly what it’s building, what form its product will take, how it will be priced, or when it might launch. Hopefully that will change soon, because for now gaming-centric headset VR and smartphone-based AR are really the sum total of the combined AR and VR markets, and Magic Leap has the potential to add an interesting new segment to the market.
Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg was interviewed today by Axios’s Mike Allen on the subject of Russian election interference and other topics, while Facebook also issued some data about the effectiveness of its program to flag fake news on the platform. At the same time, the Washington Post reports that Facebook has removed a set of data from its site and tools which allowed for analysis of Russian-related postings.
The Sandberg interview shed little additional light on the topic, with the only real news that Facebook is sharing both the ads bought by Russian-backed entities and additional details associated with them with Congress, which in turn may share them publicly. However, she was also asked whether Facebook was a media company, a characterization she pushed back on, leading to several articles from actual media companies arguing that she’s wrong. There continues to be something of an ulterior motive for these stories given the tense relationship between Facebook and the media, but I continue to believe that these characterizations are wrong. To my mind, Facebook is much more like a cable TV company than a TV programmer, putting together a package of content for users but not mostly doing that programming itself, while selling ads that appear within the programming. I don’t think most would argue that cable TV companies are media companies or that they’re responsible for the specific content of the programming, while they are responsible for establishing general policies and rules about what will run on their platforms.
The data Facebook shared on its fake news flagging effort suggests that a fake news label applied after fact checking from third parties effectively reduces sharing and views once it’s applied, but the problem has always been that it takes several days for this to happen, which means most of the views have already happened by the time it takes effect. It shared the data with its fact checking partners as a way to incentivize them to do better (something they’ve been asking for) but without massive new resources from Facebook or elsewhere, it’s not clear how those organizations will be able to work faster or cover more ground. That, in turn, will continue to limit the effectiveness of the program.
Lastly, Facebook says the data it has pulled from its site with regard to Russian accounts should never have been available in the first place, and its disappearance therefore reflects the squashing of a bug rather than a decision to pull otherwise public information. Whether you believe that or not likely depends on your view of Facebook’s overall level of transparency in relation to the Russia story, which has clearly been limited. It appears Facebook at a corporate level is still desperate to control the flow of information about Russian influence on the platform, which likely isn’t helping its PR effort here – better to be as transparent as possible so that all possible bad news can come out quickly rather than continuing to trickle out.
Twitter has once again starkly illustrated its inconsistency in policing abuse, by temporarily suspending the account of actress Rose McGowan over an alleged breach of its rules, while continuing to allow much more egregious abuses to go unchecked. In this case, Twitter claims that McGowan included someone’s personal phone number in one of her tweets, and that it reinstated her account once she deleted the offending tweet, but as usual there was a lack of transparency on Twitter’s part until there was a media outcry, which has been the repeated pattern. The great irony was that McGowan was speaking up about her own and others’ abuse at the hands of Harvey Weinstein and others, while many women who are abused on Twitter’s platform itself find their reports of abuse ignored or dismissed. Twitter desperately needs to both improve its consistency in policing actual abuse on its platform and to communicate more openly about how it enforces the rules, because this situation just continues to get worse.
SensorTower, an app analytics firm with a misleading name, reports that over 3 million apps which require support for the ARKit augmented reality toolset have been downloaded from Apple’s iOS App Store since the launch of iOS 11, and that over half of those downloads were of games. Importantly, this excludes apps which have ARKit-based features as optional extras and only focuses on those apps which require ARKit compatibility to run at all, which is obviously a narrower set of apps. Around a third of the apps available in this category are games, so they’re being downloaded disproportionately more than apps in other categories. Overall, I have to say that I’ve been surprised by how few really compelling or big ARKit-based apps there have been so far – even some of the apps demoed by Apple at WWDC and the iPhone launch seem to be missing in action so far, including an updated Pokemon Go game. That’s a little disappointing given how much noise Apple made about ARKit ahead of its launch and the high expectations many of us had for the platform. I still think more games and apps will come in time, but things are definitely taking off more slowly than I would have expected.
Target and Google have announced a nationwide launch of their partnership to offer voice shopping from Target through Google Home (and eventually the Google Assistant on smartphones too). This follows on from Google’s earlier announcement with Walmart, and these partnerships feel very much like a new front in the escalating war between Google and Amazon. This also opens up potential new revenue streams for Google around voice, a medium far harder to monetize through advertising than its traditional businesses, and which Amazon is certainly going to leverage for e-commerce sales. On the other hand, an indirect relationship will make this a little more complex than a single-company solution – customers will have to train the Google Assistant to know which retailer to use for which items if they have several integrations set up. And of course for now shopping is still a minority use case for voice speakers, well down the list of actions people use regularly, though that may change over time.
Google today announced an effort to give a billion dollars to various philanthropic causes aimed at mitigating the effects of technology on jobs and work over the next five years. It has apparently already given away a tenth of that sum over the past few months, with 1% of the total coming in a donation to Goodwill to create educational programs. Much of the money will likely go towards programs which help workers learn new skills which will be more relevant in the future workplace, a worthy and important goal in a world where educational systems are mostly still the same ones designed over a hundred years ago by industrialists looking to train good factory workers. Google and other big tech companies have obviously played a role in creating this change, for better or worse, and so aligning their philanthropic efforts with mitigating its negative effects is a sensible strategy, if nothing else than as a useful PR counterpoint to recent criticism of the company on other fronts. Google joins Microsoft as a big philanthropic spender, with the latter recently announcing a big project to help provide broadband in rural America.
via USA Today
Reuters reports that Waymo had sought a billion dollars and a public apology from Uber in settlement talks over the lawsuit the companies are embroiled in. Uber apparently quickly dismissed those requests as unreasonable, which isn’t all that surprising, given that it’s still far from clear that Waymo has the evidence it needs against Uber as a company rather than merely against Anthony Levandowski around the stealing of LIDAR technology. It’s also a sign that Waymo is perfectly happy for the court case to continue and for it to continue to distract Uber at a time when the latter already has a lot on its plate including several legal actions and more.
The American Cable Association, a trade group which represents 750 smaller pay TV companies with around 7 million subscribers between them, says Comcast is making it very difficult for them to offer smaller pay TV bundles. In addition to being the second largest pay TV company in the US itself, Comcast owns several regional sports networks, and is allegedly attempting to force those smaller pay TV companies to carry them on the vast majority of their subscription packages, raising prices and preventing companies from offering increasingly popular “skinny bundles”. The companies have filed a formal complaint with the FCC, but only in response to a broad annual enquiry into the state of competition in the market, rather than as an accusation of broken rules. As such, it’s not clear what effect if any this complaint will have, but it’s indicative of the fact that big TV companies are increasingly attempting to fight consumer disinterest in their programming with forced bundling to stem the loss of subscribers and the associated revenues. That’s clearly not a workable solution over the long term.
Update: later in the day, Viacom executive Bob Bakish sent a memo to staff saying that Charter has been blocking attempts by the company to create its own packages and bundles in response to being dropped from some of Charter’s programming tiers. So this is not simply a one-way issue, but something which affects both sides of the coin here.
Five major movie studios have banded together to join a successor to Disney’s Movies Anywhere service, which serves as a digital locker consolidating digital movie purchases across major retailers like iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Video, and Vudu. This is a pretty big deal, because the service was Disney only in the past and competed with UltraViolet, a competing platform. This partnership now brings together five of the biggest names in movies, and it’s fairly compelling – I just signed up and was able to consolidate my past purchases from iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon Video into one big collection, which I can now view on various devices and even download for offline viewing on a phone. That’s important to me because even though I’ve tended to favor one particular storefront over the last few years, I have at various times acquired movies on other platforms for pricing, availability, or testing purposes, and they’ve been kind of lost on there. This therefore feels like the first time something like this might actually take off in a meaningful way.