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.
Sprint’s Virgin Mobile Goes iPhone-Only in Relaunch (Jun 22, 2017)
Spotify Puts Collaborative Playlists in Facebook Messenger (Jun 21, 2017)
Spotify has launched collaborative playlist creation in Facebook Messenger by way of an “extension” (Facebook Messenger’s apps with its app). This will allow multiple friends to work together to populate a playlist even if some of them don’t have Spotify accounts of their own. That in turn turns Spotify into something of a music layer within Facebook rather than merely a proprietary service, and once again raises the question of whether Facebook would ever want to buy Spotify outright and integrate it more tightly into the Facebook experience. Facebook has so far entirely sat out the music market, doing the odd partnership here or there but never becoming a serious player, even though social features are often touted as one of Spotify’s strengths and an important feature for music services overall (though I have to add that a survey I ran a couple of years ago suggested social features are actually well down the list of the most important features users look for). At any rate, this looks like a neat addition to Spotify’s feature set, as well as a useful integration for Facebook Messenger, and a good showcase of what’s possible in Messenger now that the original bots vision has been replaced by something a bit more realistic and focused, with all the user interface elements needed to power something like this.
Some YouTube Advertisers Still Staying Away (Jun 21, 2017)
Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick has finally bowed to pressure from investors in the company and resigned. It doesn’t look like Uber has issued an official statement at this point, but Recode claims to have confirmed the news following a letter from a number of big investors demanding his resignation. At various points since Uber started melting down in January, I’ve both said that Travis Kalanick was the source of the company’s cultural problems and therefore that it would be very hard for the company to truly change with him still in place, and also as recently as last week said that resignations of other top executives felt hollow when Kalanick had in many places been involved in or at least aware of their wrongful actions. For many years, Kalanick’s closest allies within the company were protected by him even when acting egregiously, and that circle had tightened to just Kalanick himself in recent weeks, but did still include him, making all the changes Uber was making ring rather hollow as he continued at the helm. I think his leave of absence was intended to achieve some of the same objectives as an outright resignation without forcing him out, which would have been tough to do, but it was already clear that he was remaining involved remotely in key decisions and thus that there was no real separation. What’s notable is that, despite all the outside pressure for Kalanick to go, and board members’ repeated defenses of him, it took investors acting as a group to finally force him out. This now leaves an enormous vacuum at the top of the company – a committee of no less than 14 people has been said to be running Uber during Kalanick’s absence – at a time when it has already been looking to fill the COO role and has left several other key executives in recent months. I would guess all that will now be reset, with several new executive search processes eventually running to fill the key roles. That, in turn, is going to make it very hard for the company to move forward aggressively with the changes it has committed to in the wake of the Holder Report recommendations. But this is all for the best long term, even if it’s messy in the short term. One big question that’s outstanding is whether the legal strategy in the Waymo-Uber court case changes at all as a result of Kalanick’s departure – we’ll see now to what extent the approach pursued so far was driven by him personally and to what extent the company will act consistently or differently now that he’s out.
Uber Adds Tipping and Makes Other Driver-Friendly Changes (Jun 20, 2017)
Today’s Instagram announcement is ostensibly about the launch of live video replays, a new feature that allows users to save their live videos for 24 hours as an Instagram Story. However, the part most outlets I’ve seen have focused on is the announcement of 250 million daily active users for Instagram Stories as a whole, which is naturally being compared once again with Snapchat’s overall user numbers. That’s always a bit disingenuous because comparing a single feature in an app with 700 monthly active users with daily active user numbers for a standalone app isn’t a like for like comparison – some large number of people who regularly use Instagram as an app might occasionally dip into Stories without ever posting one, while the average Snapchat daily active user spend sover 30 minutes in the app every day, suggesting a very different level of engagement. But this is the inevitable comparison, not just because the Stories feature was copied from Snapchat but also because its launch seems to have come at just the time Snapchat user growth slowed. The reality is that Facebook’s reach is now such across its many apps that it can easily launch new features and services and have them reach this kind of scale, and in the process eat into the time spent in other apps, but I don’t think anyone at Facebook would suggest that Instagram Stories by themselves generate nearly the engagement of Snapchat as an app, and even Instagram as an app likely only generates the same engagement and time spent as Snapchat among a minority of users. But that doesn’t mean Instagram Stories isn’t a huge hit for Instagram and a great way to neutralize the ongoing threat presented by Snapchat as a competitor, especially among the demographics where it hasn’t yet gained wide adoption.
Ex-Apple Engineer Chris Lattner Leaves Tesla After 5 Months (Jun 20, 2017)
Apple Adds New Claims to Qualcomm Lawsuit (Jun 20, 2017)
Google announced its Jobs search vertical last month at its I/O developer conference, but it’s now actually launched the feature live for users (this is a good example of how launch announcements are often vague or completely silent on the point of timing, and it’s always worth checking that detail). The search feature works pretty much as you would imagine, for now at least merely aggregating search listings on existing big job search sites, though there’s no guarantee Google won’t eventually seek to disintermediate the legacy players and do more of the heavy lifting itself. After all, if users are already coming to Google for search results, why not encourage employers to list directly on Google over time? It’s also worth noting that Google has been reported to be working on a recruitment service for companies, for now decoupled from the Google search engine, but clearly a potential fit with it in time.
Netflix Announces Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Shows for Kids (Jun 20, 2017)
IDC Forecasts Strong Growth for AR and VR Headsets, with VR and Commercial AR Biggest (Jun 19, 2017)
Any service which becomes central enough to its users’ lives eventually has aspects which become essentially intimate to the user: what feel like private places where the user feels extremely comfortable, and where intrusions of content, ads, or other unwanted outside elements feel like a violation. I suspect users’ own playlists on Spotify feel like just such a place to its loyal users, and so the news that Spotify is testing a “Sponsored Song” ad unit in which songs are literally placed into users’ playlists should be concerning. Almost every ad-based business model eventually engages in such violations, either temporarily or permanently, because the drive is always to push the boundaries of ad load and the places where ads can show – the most valuable real estate is also often the most invasive, and each ad platform has to draw its own line between what is and isn’t acceptable in the pursuit of ad dollars. Spotify’s recently leaked full results for 2016 show that its ad-based business is loss-making even on a gross margin basis, while its subscription business is profitable on that same basis, so there’s always going to be a push to squeeze more ad revenue out of each user. I’ve recently finished a piece for Variety which will publish in the next couple of weeks in which I argue that Spotify should in fact ditch its free tier and go subscription-only, because of all the tradeoffs the ad-based business forces, especially in its relationships with labels. But these types of encroachments into what should be sacrosanct aspects of the user experience are another example of the risks of the free tier, especially relative to the small rewards – just 10% of Spotify’s revenue in 2016.
Time Warner Signs $100m Deal to Develop Shows for Snapchat (Jun 19, 2017)
This is a great counterpart to the FuboTV piece I posted earlier, because it illustrates the state of the current over-the-top streaming TV landscape. The survey quoted here from IBB Consulting suggests that nearly half of US broadband customers have at least one streaming TV service, with over half of those in turn subscribing to several. Moreover, nearly two thirds of those subscribing to these over-the-top services also still subscribe to traditional TV. That paints a picture in which subscription VOD (SVOD) services are both complements and substitutes to traditional pay TV, and even then largely fail to meet all of consumers’ needs for video. This is still a very fragmented marketplace, in which even the best providers are only partially meeting people’s needs. That creates both a near-term opportunity for someone to do better at meeting those needs, but also a long-term threat of consolidation as consumers balk at having to pay for and manage multiple subscriptions and long for someone to bring it all together. Given all the assets and relationships held by the major legacy pay TV companies, they’ve certainly in a strong position to aggregate some of this fragmentation on the part of consumers, while platform companies like Apple and Amazon are also positioning themselves in different ways as subscription aggregators, presenting another possible way forward. Regardless, as today’s FuboTV fundraising news suggests, there’s lots of activity still to come here.