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.
Daily Podcast Episode 75 – Wednesday, October 11, 2017 (Oct 11, 2017)
Update: the wrong episode was uploaded originally, but it’s now been fixed. Apologies.
The daily podcast episode for October 11 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:
- Facebook Russia Questions
- CBS and Star Trek
- Qualcomm Antitrust Backgrounder
- Evernote Interview
- Uber Legal Troubles
With all the renewed talk of a Sprint-T-Mobile merger in recent months, one big assumption has been that the Trump administration would view it much more favorably than the Obama administration did, and that it wouldn’t therefore be shot down this time as it was last time. However, Bloomberg reports today that the staff lawyers at the Department of Justice are mostly the same as under the previous administration, even if the leadership and presidency has changed in the interim, and that the lawyers themselves are likely to reach much the same conclusion today as then. In other words, if the deal is to be approved by the DoJ, it will likely happen over the objections and recommendations of the staff rather than with their support. That’s certainly not a deal-killer – SoftBank Chairman Masa Son has cozied up to the Trump administration on issues like job creation, and would presumably curry some favor on that basis. But this does make it more challenging for the deal to go through than many might have assumed. Last time around, the deal was called off before it even formally went through regulatory approval on the basis that it wouldn’t succeed, so I would guess that Son and others would be feeling out the regulatory authorities quietly behind the scenes again this time around to ensure smoother passage.
Lyft Announces 500m Total Rides, 100m in Past Three Months (Oct 11, 2017)
Lyft has announced that its service has provided 500 million cumulative rides since its inception, 100 million of which were in the last three months alone. It also says it’s providing over 1 million rides every day at this point, which gels with that 100m number. The chart in Lyft’s blog post looks like an exponential growth rate, and is a testament to the fact that the ride sharing category overall is still growing very rapidly even in a relatively mature market like the US, with Lyft’s share growing a little over the past year. As I’ve said before, while it’s tempting to ascribe that to Uber’s troubles, it’s actually mostly about Lyft’s rapid expansion into new markets during the course of this year in particular. But it’s good to see another competitor offering a serious alternative to Uber in its home market and keeping up the pressure, which should ensure that both companies continue to innovate and improve experiences for drivers and riders.
AT&T has pre-announced some figures for its third quarter results in an SEC filing, including nearly 300,000 DirecTV Now streaming subscriber additions in the quarter, but around 90k traditional pay TV losses. Assuming that latter number is reported on the same basis as in the past and therefore excludes the DirecTV Now customers, it would represent a significant improvement, as the company lost over 300k subs in Q3 2016, and over 200k subs in Q2 this year. But losses are losses, and although the company through hurricanes into the mix as a driver, it’s clear that the underlying drivers that caused previous declines are still big factors too, and those include competition (and have in the past included the challenge AT&T faces of not being able to provide broadband-TV bundles in big chunks of the US).
Two wireless items in the filing are also worth noting. Firstly, the company said it saw 900k fewer postpaid phone upgrades in the quarter, a continuation of a long-standing trend at AT&T of lower upgrades over time, which has seen it fall to by far the lowest upgrade rates among the big four US carriers. Secondly, it’s breaking out certain prepaid IoT connections – notably those associated with connected cars – in its reporting for the first time, and it sounds like it has just over half a million of those as of the end of the quarter. That’s a tiny fraction of its overall connected car connections, which stood at a cumulative 13 million connections as of the end of Q2, the vast majority of which are low-revenue telematics connections sold to car manufacturers rather than directly to end users.
The California DMV has approved rules to go into effect next year which will allow companies testing autonomous vehicles on its roads to do so without human drivers or traditional human driving hardware in cars. That’s a change to the existing rules, which had explicitly prohibited such testing and required human drivers. This appears to be at least in part a response to the increasing popularity of Arizona as a testing location for driverless cars due to its looser regulations, something which has presumably irked companies based in California which would rather test their technology closer to home. All of this could eventually be superseded by federal regulation being contemplated, which would override all state-level rules on this topic, but that’s still some way off and it makes sense for states with an existing commitment to allowing such testing to move forward in the meantime. As before, companies will have to register and report details of both their testing and any disengagements (human interventions) and accidents involving their cars.
via The Verge
Amazon has added basic voice recognition and personalization features to its Echo devices, as a partial response to the Google Home’s similar feature. As in other areas, Amazon has a weakness here compared with Google in that it has no real background profile information on the individual users in a household, something it’s starting to change with recent family features (and the teen account feature announced earlier today). As such, its voice recognition feature will only enable limited personalization, focused on Amazon’s own services and not third party features like calendars, which is where Google Home’s equivalent feature (and Google services in general) excels. This makes Amazon’s new feature a good start, but far from a fully-fledged response to Google in this department, while it continues to be ahead in other key areas following its recent hardware and software upgrades.
via The Verge
Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba has announced that it will double its R&D spending over the next few years, with the main focus of its $15 billion investment in three areas: AI, the Internet of Things, and quantum computing. Though the Bloomberg piece here suggests this is another front in its competition with Amazon, the reality is that the two compete for very little business, mostly competing against other western and Chinese companies respectively in their major markets, with Alibaba dominant in China but negligible in the US. Rather, this is part of a much broader competition between big tech companies in aiming for leadership in several key new research categories, AI chief among them. That’s a competitive dynamic that has now taken on geopolitical overtones, with the US and China emerging as the likeliest leaders in AI, itself considered critical to future competitiveness in not just business but cyber warfare and other areas. Alibaba is, of course, already growing dramatically as a company, and the increase in planned R&D spending is therefore not wildly out of whack with its overall growth, but it makes for a great press release as the company seeks to burnish its innovation credentials.
Indian ride sharing service Ola, which is the main rival to Uber in that market, is in the process of a large fundraising round, with backing from Tencent, SoftBank, and a variety of others. Ola arguably needed additional funding to be able to compete on more level terms with Uber, while Tencent and SoftBank have invested previously in India and the international ride sharing space respectively, their interests merging in Ola. The biggest risk for Uber in India is another failure and ultimate concession of the market to a stronger local competitor along the lines of what’s happened in China and Russia over the past eighteen months, so it’s clearly not about to give up there. But the two have been battling for supremacy for some time now without an obvious winner, in what’s one of the fastest-growing and potentially one of the largest ride sharing markets in the world.
Facebook’s Oculus today held its fourth developer event, Oculus Connect, and the biggest announcements revolved around standalone headsets. First, Oculus will launch the Oculus Go, a mobile-grade standalone VR unit, at $199 early next year; secondly, the company has made significant progress on its Santa Cruz project, which will result in a standalone PC-grade headset at a later date. The Oculus Go is a pretty compelling new entrant in the market, a competitor of sorts to Samsung’s Oculus-based Gear VR but without requiring a compatible smartphone, and with some feature benefits too. It’s more expensive than Gear VR and Google’s Daydream View, but still fairly reasonably priced. Santa Cruz will offer inside-out tracking and six degrees of freedom, meaning that it will allow a full range of motion and room and object detection without requiring external sensors to be installed in a room as the HTC Vive does. There’s no detail on pricing or exact availability for that product, but it sounds like it’ll be at least late next year before that’s out. With both products, Oculus reduces its dependence on partners – Samsung in mobile and PC for the Rift – over the long term, which is likely to push them further into the arms of other VR platforms, including Daydream in the case of Samsung and Microsoft’s Windows-based Mixed Reality VR platform in the case of PC OEMs.
On that latter point, though, another big announcement Oculus made today was making permanent the temporary $399 summer price point for the Oculus Rift bundle including controllers, something that’s seemed increasingly inevitable as Oculus extended the price promotion. As I pointed out in this piece I wrote for Techpinions a while back, that price point and similar pricing moves from HTC and Sony are making the opportunity Microsoft originally targeted for its VR partners disappear. It’s going to be very tough to sell a basic PC VR headset against the Oculus Rift bundle at the same price point.
The other announcements made largely relate to different bundles and new software. Oculus is updating its platform for the Rift, introducing some new experiences including a virtual desktop environment along the same lines as Microsoft’s recent announcements – something I’m still not convinced most people want from VR – as well as more social and entertainment experiences. It’s also creating a business bundle for Oculus designed for companies that want to deploy Rift and Rift-based experiences, which will come with a premium tier of support over and above a set of hardware.
The big new goal Facebook and Oculus announced at today’s event is getting 1 billion people into VR, something that’s miles away from today’s numbers, which are likely closer to one hundredth of that number. Certainly, bringing the price points down is part of getting there, as is creating experiences beyond hardcore gaming, but it really doesn’t feel like there’s much there yet, which may be OK because Facebook doesn’t seem to have put a timeline on that goal, which therefore remains more aspirational than concrete.
Amazon has just announced a way for teenagers to buy items from its site through parent accounts, with either an item-by-item approval process or pre-set spending limits. Parents will receive summary text notifications when their teens have placed an order and have the option to reply with a simple “Y” via SMS to approve the order, or to see full details on Amazon’s site. This feels like yet another example of both Amazon’s maturity in the e-commerce space and the way it continues to evolve its offerings even as other retailers continue to play catchup on its core services, and of its need to continually expand its addressable market for its e-commerce services to new potential customers. We’ve already seen this with its attempts to serve cash-centric customers, and we’re now seeing it with this move into serving teenagers more directly rather than through their parents. This will, of course, also train those teens to buy from Amazon from an early age, bypassing other potential sites, while leveraging the benefits of Prime. Feels pretty smart all around.
Qualcomm Fined $773m by Taiwan for Antitrust Violations (Oct 11, 2017)
Following existing investigations and/or action over antitrust issues against Qualcomm in the US, South Korea, and China, Taiwanese authorities have issued a $773m fine against the company over the same issues. The government’s Fair Trade Commission found that Qualcomm acted anticompetitively when it forced licensees for its standards-essential patterns to accept onerous terms as a condition of licensing. The fine relates to a 7-year period in which the FTC says Qualcomm was paid around $13 billion by Taiwanese manufacturers (presumably HTC and contract manufacturers like Foxconn). This antitrust situation is going more and more badly for Qualcomm, but the biggest outstanding case is of course its fight with Apple, which is withholding its own and contractors’ royalties from the company pending the outcome of various lawsuits. It’s hard to see this all going Qualcomm’s way at this point, and it feels like it’s mostly a question of how much the royalty rate will end up being reduced, and therefore what the financial hit will be.
Daily Podcast Episode 74 – Tuesday, October 10, 2017 (Oct 10, 2017)
The daily podcast episode for October 10 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:
A reviewer at Android Police reports that he discovered the Google Home Mini unit he was testing was recording nearly everything he said while in its vicinity, because the device erroneously thought he was holding down the button which acts as an alternative to its wake word. Google has now pushed a software patch which disables that button entirely for the time being, to ensure that doesn’t happen to others. Given that many people already feel uncomfortable with the idea of an always-listening device in their home, the idea that it could be recording and transmitting to Google’s servers everything that’s being said because of a bug will not instill confidence. This is something of a nightmare scenario for these devices, and the fact that Google turned off a feature of the device to fix it indicates just how seriously it’s taking the issue. Reviews of the Mini have dribbled out here and there and have mostly been positive, while this is the first mention I’ve seen of this issue, but it’s certainly not a great start for the Mini.
via Android Police
Google Acquires Podcast App 60db (Oct 10, 2017)
Business Insider is reporting that Google has acquired a podcasting app called 60db, which specialized in shorter audio segments, among other things. Interestingly, 60db had earlier published a blog post on Medium announcing the acquisition, only to take it down immediately after, though not before it was captured by a publication covering the podcast market. In that post, the company said it was joining Google News, which is an interesting wrinkle given that Google’s current podcasting efforts sit within Google Music and not Google News. That suggests that the podcast app might perhaps complement web-based news with audio news, conceivably as part of Google Home. Podcasts have become a big focus for other companies in the last couple of years after Apple was almost the only big player in the market for a long time, and it still dominates overall listening, in part by virtue of being the only platform with a dedicated podcast app installed on its devices. But Spotify, Amazon, and now Google are all taking the space more seriously, which will mean some meaningful competition for those users who care enough to look for alternatives to the default apps that come with their phones.
via Business Insider
A developer named Felix Krause has surfaced an issue that’s been present in Apple’s iOS for a long time and which I’ve often wondered about myself, which is that the operating system periodically pops up what appear to the user to be random dialog boxes asking users to supply their Apple ID passwords. Because of the seemingly random times and places these dialogs show up, they train users to enter their passwords when using apps, which means that apps could at least theoretically recreate these dialogs with their own and thereby phish users’ Apple ID details, creating a security vulnerability. The post Krause wrote about this suggests several fixes, the most of obvious of which is that these dialogs should direct users to the Settings app rather than prompting for a password directly. In my opinion, it would also be nice if the dialogs explained why the user suddenly had to re-enter their password – the lack of explanation is another long-standing niggle I have with these dialogs. But this feels like a rare goof by Apple, which is normally so strong on privacy and security but has here created a situation which could easily be exploited by malicious parties. It’s easily fixed, though, and hopefully Apple will do so soon.
via Felix Krause
The Wall Street Journal reports, with confirmation from NBC but not Apple, that the latter has signed a deal to reboot Steven Spielberg’s 1980s TV series as part of its big original video content push. This would be the first deal that’s come to light since Apple brought in two Sony TV execs to run the initiative, which I think of as version 2.0 of its original content push, with the first characterized by a variety of smaller projects with ties to its ecosystems like Planet of the Apps, Carpool Karaoke, and a variety of one-off music documentaries. Amazing Stories wasn’t a huge hit back in the day, running for only two seasons with limited ratings, but the Spielberg name will likely do a lot for it, and with a big budget ($5m per episode) and some good stories it could well be an interesting hit. Apple will obviously need quite a few more of these to use up its billion-dollar budget and secure enough content to become a draw for whatever service Apple wraps around this content, but this seems like a promising start.
Microsoft is bringing its Cortana virtual assistant to Skype, over a year after it first demonstrated some of the features at its Build developer conference in 2016. Whereas Cortana does act in some settings as a voice assistant like Siri and the Google Assistant, it’s worth remembering that Microsoft uses the Cortana name to refer to all the underlying AI capabilities too, and that’s what’s being implemented here. The integration is text- rather than voice-based and limited to messaging rather than voice or video interactions, and Cortana will offer up smart replies in messaging conversations and also offer useful information like movie and restaurant reviews. In some ways, this is a different spin on the Context Cards Snapchat added today, and very much along the same lines as Facebook’s current implementation of its M assistant within Messenger – offering context-based suggestions within existing human-to-human interactions. This is part of Microsoft’s broader push to get its AI into every corner of its products and services, but will hampered by the overall stagnation of Skype as a communication platform – though it clearly has some messaging users, it isn’t the default messaging platform for the vast majority of the population, at least in their personal lives.
CNBC reports that Amazon is working on two new forms of delivery which would leverage technology to enable packages to be left for recipients in cars and homes. The main focus of the piece is a potential partnership with Phrame, which acts as a smart locker for cars and is backed by Bosch, but it also talks about Amazon working on what it calls a smart doorbell but would in reality have to incorporate a smart lock to work properly. Walmart recently announced a trial of in-home delivery with August in Silicon Valley, but Amazon has more incentive than anyone else to solve the problem of deliveries to customers who aren’t present given that its retail business is today almost entirely dependent on such deliveries. The big question I have around all this is the business model – both Phrame and existing smart lock products from companies like August are priced from $150 to $300, which is a large amount for Amazon to subsidize entirely, so I’d guess that it might offer some kind of partial subsidy of these products for heavy Amazon users.
Snapchat has added one of its biggest new features in recent memory with the addition of Context Cards, which will be reached through a swipe up on a Snap tied to a specific location. The Context Cards will offer various additional details about the place, and also provide links to ride sharing and restaurant booking services as well as information like address, reviews, and so on. This is yet another move by Snapchat beyond its original limitations, along with the addition a while back of outbound linking from Snaps. What both of those features offer is a way to add additional detail and context to a Snap beyond the limited photo/video formats Snapchat has supported natively. It’s also an interesting alternative to voice assistants, bots, and other ways to add context to what’s currently happening on screen without the user having to type text into a search box. The feature certainly lends itself well to monetization opportunities in future too, whether advertising or revenue sharing with the initial or additional partners. However, as with other Snapchat features, it doesn’t feel particularly tough for others to emulate if successful.
Also worth noting, briefly, is the fact that Evan Spiegel, who has rarely done press interviews, did not one but two as part of the launch of this feature, as a sort of follow-on to his recent comments that he realizes he needs to do more public communication now that Snap is a public company.
Nvidia has announced Pegasus, a mini-computer which it claims is powerful enough to operate all the functions of a self-driving car while having roughly the footprint of a license plate, and which will become available in the second half of 2018. One of the key challenges with self-driving cars is that the computing power to run them is often so large and power-intensive that the unit often takes up much of the trunk of the car (see this Google search) and requires significant fuel over and above that required by the engine. Miniaturizing that processing power and making it more efficient is key to making autonomous driving a reality, albeit only one of several big challenges that must be overcome before that happens. Nvidia is arguably the current leader in providing the GPUs and related technology for these cars today, while others have taken the lead in sensors or connectivity relating to the cars, and this leadership has been a huge boon to Nvidia’s overall prospects and performance.