Instagram has had buy buttons and other e-commerce features for a while now, but it looks like it will be adding an appointment booking feature soon too, in another attempt to allow company accounts to turn viewing of pictures into actual business. It’s been fascinating to watch how Instagram has been able to turn something as simple as a photo stream into something much more like a shop window for brands, something that was inspired at least in part by how certain merchants in emerging markets were using the platform even before Instagram added these features formally. The headline here mentions Yelp as a target, but of course many of these businesses themselves compete with Amazon and other big online retailers, and so these features also enable smaller businesses to punch somewhat above their weight in that fight.
This isn’t the worst example yet of an IoT / smart home vulnerability, but it’s bad enough, given that it allows burglars to defeat a security system if they happen to know how. More worrying, it appears the researcher who discovered the vulnerability shared findings with Nest back in October, but Nest didn’t notify customers or push out a patch until now, when it says it has a fix rolling out to customers soon. The more of these devices we have in our homes, the more potential points of vulnerability there will be for hacking of one kind or another, and makers of both systems and ecosystems need to bake really tight security in from the get-go to prevent as many of them as possible.
via The Register
Cable Network Owners are Culling Underperforming Networks (Mar 21, 2017)
Today, both the Wall Street Journal and Variety published in-depth pieces on the way major cable network owners are culling some of their underperforming networks, either shutting them down entirely or shifting investment to their more successful properties. Both articles have lots of good history, and each also features an interesting graphic with lots of detail that helps readers see which are the worst performing networks. All of this is, of course, a reflection of several trends impacting the TV industry, from cord cutting to cord shaving to increasing content costs and a shift from linear live viewing to VOD and streaming. For now, the focus is on these underperforming channels, and the pieces seem to suggest there are magic subscriber numbers above which the problems are either smaller or don’t exist at all. But the reality is that even big networks like ESPN are struggling. As I argued in a my weekly Variety piece last week, the only thing keeping most cable networks from seeing negative growth is contractual rate increases, which won’t last forever. Interestingly, though, cable networks continue to be some of the most lucrative segments of the overall TV market, with high margins relative to pay TV providers and broadcasters.
I joked on Twitter earlier that this is basically Content ID for the physical world – Amazon is now allowing brands to register their intellectual property in physical goods, so that Amazon can more easily identify and remove from its listings any counterfeit goods. That’s important because the company has been increasingly criticized in recent months for selling knockoff items from counterfeiters without doing much about it, and in some cases those goods have even been dangerous (for example fake iPhone chargers and cables). This feels like a step in the right direction, but to draw another Google analogy, this is a bit like Google policing videos on YouTube – the raw scale here is impossible for human employees to monitor alone. In this case, Amazon needs customers and brands to flag counterfeit items, but at least this registry makes it easier to match those items to copyrighted originals and therefore to take them down more quickly.
Google releases Android O to developers, promising better battery life and notifications – The Verge (Mar 21, 2017)
There’s an increasing dichotomy between the way the world’s two big mobile operating systems are run. On the one hand, you have Apple, which updates not just iOS but many of the apps that live in it once a year, announcing new versions in the summer at its developer conference and releasing them in the fall to consumers, with smaller updates through the year, and consumer adoption reaching a majority of the base within weeks. On the other, you have Google, which now announces new versions of the OS in a blog post, provides more detail at its developer event, and makes it available to OEMs in the fall, with consumer adoption typically taking a year to reach significant numbers and never reaching a majority of the base for any single version. However, individual apps are now mostly updated separately, making even full releases like the Android O version announced today relatively minor updates, focused on back-end developer features and a handful of consumer-facing features. That’s to some extent an inevitability when Google has so little ability to get new versions out to consumers quickly, but some have argued (with some merit) that Google’s approach actually pushes app-level features out more quickly and more regularly than Apple’s. The focus of this update for consumers is on notifications and battery life, with the former bringing Android’s power management more in line with iOS, while the latter could extend Android’s lead in an area where Apple has been making some mistakes recently. But by far the more interesting and important updates will be happening in individual app updates which will reach users much more quickly.
via The Verge
Uber Press Call Highlights Huffington’s Conflict of Interest (Mar 21, 2017)
One of the more troubling things about the sexual harassment investigation at Uber is that Arianna Huffington, who is helping to lead that investigation, is also currently acting as both Uber and Travis Kalanick’s most visible public defender, undermining claims that the investigation is independent. Either Huffington is committed to getting to the bottom of what has happened (and may still be happening) at Uber, or she can defend it and its leadership, but she can’t do both. That she reiterated those public defenses of Kalanick personally on this press call today just reinforces that point. Meanwhile, the call itself revealed little that was new, by all accounts – a previously promised diversity report is indeed on the way, and both the investigation and the COO search are ongoing, with nothing new to report for now. Meanwhile, Kalanick himself was apparently too busy with that COO search to appear on the call, while Uber’s (female) HR manager was available. (The headline here is mine – the headline on the Axios piece linked below focuses on the diversity report.)
Apple’s App Store Gets a Makeover – Bloomberg (Mar 21, 2017)
The headline makes it sound like there are changes coming to the App Store, but this story is really about all the changes that have already happened on the App Store since Phil Schiller took it over from Eddy Cue a little over a year ago. One of the notable things in the story is the impact that better analytics have had, and how that’s made it easier for more dynamic developers to update their apps more frequently in response to user behavior. More generally, though, the article suggests that big strides have been made in the way the App Store runs from a developer perspective, which is a story that hasn’t been told much. It’s been subtle, and if you’re just a user you might not be aware of most of these changes, but better experiences for developers make for better end user experiences too. I know there are still lots of developers, especially Mac-centric developers, who have complaints they feel have gone unheeded, but Apple has at least made some progress in fixing big pain points on the iOS side.
The recent downtime for Microsoft’s various cloud services hasn’t got nearly the attention Amazon’s recent outage did, in part because it’s more of a brownout than the total blackout AWS experienced, and in part arguably also because fewer third party services rely on Azure and related services. But Microsoft has had a couple of recent issues, and as of right now they’re happening again. There will always be issues here and there with any large scale infrastructure, but that they’ve been lasting for hours and repeating at Microsoft recently is a little worrisome, and it’ll be good to see the explanation when Microsoft finally shares it.
It’s interesting to see Walmart dialing this kind of thing up, while Target recently discontinued several efforts along similar lines. Walmart’s approach certainly makes a lot more sense – retailers absolutely have to be innovating around the in-store experience if they’re to preserve and build whatever advantages physical retail has, and technology is going to be central to that effort. That’s not to say Walmart will succeed – arguably most of its past innovations have been about merchandizing rather than technology, but it’s certainly got the resources to invest significantly in figuring things out.
After Google Phone Fizzles, Huawei Turns to AT&T for U.S. Expansion — The Information (Mar 21, 2017)
Based on the headline, I thought this was about Huawei finally being able to sell phones through AT&T’s postpaid business, because that’s the holy grail for Chinese manufacturers, and remains stubbornly unavailable to them at AT&T or any other major US wireless carrier. Where the Chinese vendors have had some success is in the prepaid business, and AT&T currently carries several ZTE phones on its GoPhone prepaid brand, as well as one Huawei phone in a partnership with Walmart. However, what’s actually happening here is that AT&T is certifying Huawei’s own chipset for use on its network, which is really just a possible first step to getting more Huawei phones onto AT&T store shelves. Huawei’s lack of brand awareness in the US continues to be its single biggest challenge – something that hasn’t really changed over the years. I remember having conversations about this with Huawei executives at CES at least six years ago. Until that changes, there’s very little incentive for AT&T to give over shelf space reserved for familiar brands consumers recognize to a relative unknown like Huawei.
via The Information
Apple Debuts Clips, a New Way to Create Videos on iOS (Mar 21, 2017)
Alongside the iPad announcement it made this morning, Apple made three other announcements, of which this is the most interesting (the other two concern a PRODUCT(RED) iPhone and new languages for Swift Playgrounds). Clips looks like a hybrid of Snapchat and iMovie, with lots of new filters, stickers and other effects and an easy editor for creating a montage of video clips and photos, but apparently without any kind of social component. This is a funny sort of inbetweener software product from Apple, which doesn’t have an explicit social network and whose creative tools around editing photos and videos are far less used among young people than those which come with the social networks they use. I don’t necessarily see that changing with this product, though there are some clever-looking features like auto-generating titles. The proof will be in the pudding, though – the app comes out in April, though I’m guessing it may appear in developer betas before then, giving us a chance to try it out. It’s interesting to see Apple experimenting to try to fill a gap here, but I’m not convinced it’s got it right just yet.
Apple today updated its online store and issued a press release around a new 9.7″ iPad, confirming a change in strategy which seemed apparent when the 9.7″ iPad Pro launched but wasn’t made explicit until now. The new iPad drops the Air branding, and offers specs a year or two behind the iPad Pro line, while reducing the price to the lowest in Apple’s iPad lineup, at $329 (the only iPad mini available now is the 128GB model, which starts at $399, meaning that for the first time it’s cheaper to buy the new 9.7″ iPad than the newest iPad mini). What we have now, then, is a clear bifurcation between the iPad Pro, which is the latest and greatest with high-end specs, new features, and accessories like Pencil and the Smart Keyboard, and the more basic and low-end iPad. The iPad Pro is therefore not just the iPad for people who want to replace their laptop, but also the best iPad for everyone else. The iPad, then, becomes the low-cost alternative, the one for people with simpler needs, for giving to kids, and so on. That’s going to do interesting things to average selling prices, which had gone up slightly with the launch of the iPad Pro line and will now come down, but also to Apple’s competitiveness in a price band where it really hasn’t played before, expanding its addressable market. This new iPad is effectively the equivalent of the iPhone SE, taking older innards and wrapping them in new branding to bring the price down to a new level, and I suspect that – like the iPhone SE – it will indeed bring the device to new people. However, I suspect it’ll take quite a bit more share of the overall market than the SE has in iPhones.
Last week, there was a blowup in the UK over ads showing up next to videos promoting hate and terrorism, and Google issued an initial response in Europe without promising any specific changes. It’s now talking about the problem on a global basis and getting slightly more specific about how it’ll tackle the problem. Given that the initial post highlighted the challenge of human curation, Google’s promise to do better in policing content is too vague to be reassuring – how will it do this? By hiring thousands more people to check individual videos? Better computer video analysis? On the other hand, it’s finer-grained controls for advertisers and tighter default settings are very much in line with the solutions I proposed last week, but come with other risks. If by default advertisers’ ads won’t show against the long tail of YouTube content, that will dramatically reduce the attractiveness of posting video to YouTube for creators, and revenue for YouTube as well. So the devil is in the detail here, and detail is something this post is incredibly short on. Hopefully we’ll see a lot more specifics as Google works its way through this. There are no easy solutions here though. Update: one other thing worth noting, which I had intended to include earlier but forgot: Google is going to be cracking down on some content not just from an advertising perspective but in terms of what can be posted to YouTube in the first place, which feels like a significant shift.
eBay: Yes, speedy shipping really is a thing with us – CNET (Mar 20, 2017)
eBay is announcing that it now offers guaranteed 3-day shipping on 20 million items, compared to Amazon Prime’s two-day shipping for over 50 million items. The difference in the range and timing here highlights another big difference: whereas Amazon increasingly controls its logistics infrastructure, eBay has very little control at all, which is why it’s been reluctant in the past to commit to delivery dates even though it says almost two thirds of its sales already reach customers in three days. That’s because eBay buyers are responsible for shipping their own goods, while Prime and Fulfillment by Amazon leverage the company’s massive distribution infrastructure including an increasingly deep investment in its own shipping. Yes, eBay is making progress here, but it’s going to be hard for customers not to notice both the difference in the number of items and the speed of delivery and spend their money accordingly.
After years waiting for Google Fiber, KC residents get cancellation e-mails – Ars Technica (Mar 20, 2017)
In some ways, this story is far from surprising – Google has publicly announced a scaling back of its Fiber activities, supposedly in favor of new technologies. However, in theory it’s also still committed to the small number of markets where it’s actually rolled out service, including Kansas City. And indeed a statement towards the end of this piece suggests Google is still rolling out fiber in new areas. What I suspect is happening here is that Google is cherrypicking the most attractive neighborhoods while scaling back on others, just as other providers have done (just in the past two weeks, I’ve commented on stories relating to AT&T and Verizon around this very problem). Selectivity about where to roll out was always a facet of Google’s Fiber strategy, and for every provider who does this that’s based on a calculus on how much rollout will cost, what percentage of households will buy the service, and how much they’ll spend on average. That then leads to a determination about which houses are worth serving based on some pre-determined threshold for profitability over a certain period of time. I’m guessing that what’s happened here is Google has just raised that threshold by another notch, putting some homes that once made the cut out of the running now, hence these cancelations. Which would make it another symbol of increased financial discipline and belt-tightening at Alphabet.
via Ars Technica
The whole framing of this article feels very much driven by its subject, Duan Yongping, who runs the conglomerate which owns Oppo and Vivo, two of the world’s largest smartphone brands. The idea that these brands have somehow toppled Apple in China isn’t really borne out by the facts, and it appears the (unnamed) author rather took Duan’s word for it on this and other points. Apple has absolutely seen falling sales in China, but that’s as much about a saturating market and the drop-off from the huge iPhone 6 launch as about any local competitors. It’s also fairly clear that Oppo and Vivo compete in a very different segment of the market from the iPhone, though many who buy those devices plan to buy an iPhone next, per some recent Morgan Stanley research, suggesting that these are customers which aspire to buy iPhones rather than having switched from them. There’s no doubt Oppo and Vivo have achieved impressive market share in China, and therefore also globally, but it’s far less clear that their strategy is sustainable – after all, we’ve seen other Chinese brands (notably Xiaomi) do very well in the short term and then fizzle. In China in particular, the Apple brand is highly aspirational, and that will continue to drive a lot of sales.
Uber president Jeff Jones is quitting, citing differences over ‘beliefs and approach to leadership’ – Recode (Mar 20, 2017)
This is the first high-profile departure from Uber’s executive ranks which is being explicitly described as a response to the toxic culture at the company – Amit Singhal was forced out, while Ed Baker’s reasons for leaving were at least somewhat opaque. But Jeff Jones is, at least by his telling, leaving precisely because of the toxic culture and an unwillingness to stay at a company where he clearly doesn’t feel comfortable. Travis Kalanick’s explanation – which I think can probably be dismissed as face-saving – is that Jones decided to leave after Kalanick announced that he was hiring a COO. The fact that Recode had sources saying Jones’ reason for leaving was cultural even before Jones himself spoke out certainly reinforces that fact. Kalanick’s response just reinforces the sense that he hasn’t changed at all, and that if Uber’s culture is going to change meaningfully, that COO had better be a very strong individual, able to stand up to Kalanick and force real changes.
Facebook’s Building 8 working on camera, augmented reality, mind reading projects – Business Insider (Mar 20, 2017)
This is an interesting roundup of signals about what Facebook is working on in its advanced hardware projects group, which is named Building 8. The most interesting part of the article in some ways is that Facebook might show off some of this stuff at its F8 developer conference next month, which I’ll be attending. The whole point of a division like this, though, is to try to do hard things, which means many of their efforts will fail, and ultimately even many of those which succeed might not be built by Facebook. Though Facebook does now have an explicit hardware product arm in Oculus, it just doesn’t strike me as a company well placed to make a big hardware push, so I’d expect a lot of what this group develops to be proofs of concept and prototypes, with the technology open sourced, spun off, or otherwise made available to other organizations to build and market. There will be some exceptions that end up being built into things like Oculus, but I suspect – as with Google’s similar ATAP group – we won’t see many actual Facebook hardware products come out of Building 8.
via Business Insider
Samsung has somewhat unexpectedly taken the wraps off its virtual assistant Bixby ahead of next week’s Galaxy S8 launch, where I’d expected it to be the main event from a feature perspective. Based on how Samsung is describing the feature, though, I think it’s merely trying to defuse some hype by downplaying expectations of what Bixby will and won’t be. (The hype was fueled in part by Samsung’s acquisition of Viv, which was a more traditional virtual assistant that Samsung acquired last year, but Bixby appears to be something less.) The description from Samsung is somewhat vague, but I think the approach actually has a lot of merit: every other assistant promises to be just that, implying a broad-based ability to meet needs, which inevitably leads to disappointment and frustration when it falls short, over-promising and under-delivering. Samsung looks like it will come at this from the opposite end, starting small and building up functionality over time, app by app, in a way that the voice interface is able to handle everything the touch interface does in the same app. That, incidentally, should be good for accessibility, something Android devices have always done less well than iPhones. But the big limit there as with Bixby overall is that if third party developers don’t support it, it won’t be very useful, and it the S8 ships with the Google Assistant users may just choose to use that instead. I’m very curious to see next week exactly how Bixby is invoked and how it compares to the more traditional assistant model. Samsung doesn’t have a great reputation in software and services, and I’m skeptical that it will get this right.
via The Verge
CTIA, which is the industry association that represents the largest US wireless carriers, is arguing before the FCC that it shouldn’t be subjected to new rules on sharing data it collects on its users. The carriers have argued that Google and other online service providers aren’t subject to the same rules (those companies are regulated primarily by the FTC rather than the FCC) and so for consistency’s sake the carriers should be treated the same way. This is really about a technical definition of the word “sensitive” – clearly the kind of data being talked about here is indeed enormously sensitive, but the real question is how disclosure of that data is regulated. This matters because, for example, AT&T as a fiber broadband carrier in certain parts of the country has offered a service discount for customers who consent to tracking of their web browsing history and so on, something which it argues Google does all the time without explicitly asking for users’ permission to do. What the carriers are arguing here is that it should be allowed to continue to do this kind of thing without having to ask users to opt in first. The carriers look likely to win given the current hands-off policy stance of the FCC, which means more erosion of user privacy for users, but the proper approach would be for the FTC and FCC to work together to craft a set of consistent rules that would apply to all players that get access to similar data, rather than each regulating in a vacuum.
via Ars Technica