Company / division: Alphabet
Verily is one of the most fascinating Other Bets – in some ways, it’s the most completely removed from much of the rest of what Alphabet/Google does, both in terms of its focus and in terms of the business model, which has largely involved partnering with big pharmaceutical firms so far. (We devoted a big chunk of an episode of the Beyond Devices Podcast to Verily a while back, so if you’re interested it’s probably worth a listen – I also wrote a brief summary of my findings here.) Getting outside investment is an interesting way to reduce Alphabet’s exposure to the risks associated with what are rightly called “Bets”, while also potentially allowing these businesses to move faster than they could with Alphabet cash alone, and move into new markets – Temasek is Singaporean, but invests heavily in China. I’m curious to see whether we’ll see this model applied to additional Other Bets, or whether it’s another unique facet of the Verily business which we won’t see repeated elsewhere.
This is another one of those occasions where Android’s relatively open and complex structure allows for malware which couldn’t exist on iOS. In this particular case, it’s the layering of third party software (a customized version of the SwiftKey keyboard) on top of a customization of the UI and services (by Samsung) on top of the Android base layer. To be fair, this attack isn’t nearly as broad a threat as malware distributed through the Google Play Store – it requires a man in the middle attack and is therefore mostly a risk to those who might be deliberately targeted by hackers – but it’s still not good news, especially given the wide distribution of the devices in question. The complex route security patches have to take in the Android world is another element that will hamper the resolution of this issue.
via Ars Technica
These numbers get crunched every year, and are always an insight into the sometimes complex relationship between tech companies and the US government, as well as the very different strategies pursued by the various companies – Apple spends far less than some of its peers (less even than Facebook, which is a fraction of its size), while Google is always a big spender. The other thing I’m always struck by is the relatively tiny size of the spending – even Google’s $15.4m lobbying spending is minuscule in the context of its overall business – Apple’s spend was a fraction of a hundredth of a percent of its revenue for the year. It’s also interesting to see which issues the companies lobbied on: Apple lobbied mostly on technical issues directly related to its business, while Google lobbied more broadly on trade and immigration policy as well as several technical topics. All this will obviously potentially get a lot more complicated under the new administration, which has so far had a much more adversarial tone towards big tech companies than its predecessor.
Google’s 2016 Bad Ads Report: 1.7 billion ads removed, including fake news ads – Search Engine Land (Jan 25, 2017)
The quality of online advertising continues to be one of the big challenges for any company making a business out of selling ads. Between scams, predatory practices, and more recently fake news (and fake news sites), there are lots of ways online advertising can be abused, and Google reports each year on how it’s clamped down on some of this behavior (the report itself is here). Fake news doesn’t actually get a mention in the report directly – the closest link is sites pretending to be news sites for clicks, and then attempting to sell something such as weight loss products. But we do know that Google also shut down advertising on some fake news sites that were using its ad products in 2017. Draining scammers and predators of funds from Google goes a long way to breaking their business model, so we need to see more of this kind of thing.
Google Privacy-Policy Change Faces New Scrutiny in EU – WSJ (Jan 24, 2017)
Europe continues to be the locus of a lot of regulatory effort aimed at paring back perceived privacy invasions by big US online advertising companies, notably Facebook and Google. In this case, Oracle is part of a coalition that seeks controls on Google’s tracking of user data, and the focus of the current complaint is the change Google made to its terms and conditions last June, pursuant to which it now combines data on its users across its various services and DoubleClick. No action has been taken yet by European regulators, so this is only a complaint by one of Google’s biggest foes at this point, but this area has proven a thorny one for Facebook already, and could yet become one for Google too.
DCN report shows publisher revenue from Google, Facebook, Snapchat – Business Insider (Jan 24, 2017)
This article (and the report it’s based on) frustratingly focuses on average numbers across a range of very different publishers, rather than providing something more detailed, which limits the usefulness of the data, but there’s some interesting stuff in here regardless. For one, this reinforces the sense that publishers are between a rock and a hard place when it comes to supporting the major new content platforms – on the one hand, they feel they can’t afford to be absent, and on the other systems like Facebook Instant Articles and Google’s AMP don’t seem to allow them to monetize as they do on their own sites. One surprising finding is how strongly Snapchat shows here relative to its overall share of ad revenue. The picture is muddied by the fact that the report covers both video and news content, and so YouTube makes a very strong showing overall too. The key takeaway for me is that these companies continue to tread a difficult and dangerous path as they work with these platforms, ceding a lot of control to them and potentially seeing less revenue as a result.
Update: the actual report is now available here in full.
via Business Insider
Virulent Android malware returns, gets >2 million downloads on Google Play | Ars Technica (Jan 23, 2017)
Malware continues to be one of those things that essentially only affects Android in the smartphone world – iOS is for all intents and purposes immune to it because of the strong review process that all apps go through and because apps are sandboxed within the OS. The biggest single downside of Android’s relative openness is this vulnerability to malware, and that’s especially worrisome when the malware is distributed through the official Google Play Store. The numbers here are small in the grand scheme of the Android installed base of well over a billion users, but if you’re one of those two million, that doesn’t matter.
Google announced Instant Apps at I/O last year, and I wrote about them in the context of the overall evolution of apps in June here. This is one of many interesting experiments around how apps might evolve, and one that’s uniquely well-suited to Google’s natural bias towards the web and search. It previously tested app streaming back in 2015, and that is also live for some apps today – the two concepts are similar but slightly different. They’re both ways to use apps without downloading, but app streaming streams an image of the app running elsewhere, while Instant Apps downloads the app in the browser for temporary usage and then clears the content again once an interaction is complete. That’s a subtle difference, but both alternatives get at the same objective – making apps available without all the effort of a typical app install from within a search, ideal for a one-off use of an app, but obviously not a replacement for those apps used regularly.
Another departure from Apple who now shows up elsewhere, this time Nest, itself the subject of recent executive departures. Matsuoka has a long history at Google/Alphabet, and was only at Apple for a brief time – it sounds like the role there just wasn’t a good fit, and perhaps Tony Fadell’s departure at Nest reassured her that the sometimes toxic culture there is changing for the better. In and of itself, not an enormously significant departure from Apple, but obviously now part of a recent string of departures, something that’s worth watching for any signs there’s anything more going on than the usual turnover of talented people on the hunt for the next challenge.
Alexa and Google Assistant have a problem: People aren’t sticking with voice apps they try – Recode (Jan 23, 2017)
Call this a rare bit of cold water poured on the hot topic of voice assistants and especially Amazon’s Alexa. The data here suggests that the third party “Skills” available through Alexa have essentially zero staying power, with most abandoned very quickly after the first use. I suspect that’s partly down to the awkward syntax you have to use to invoke Skills on Alexa, and partly down to the fact that most of the Skills are novelties at best, with many providing very little utility at all – the number of Skills available is one that Amazon likes to tout and reporters dutifully report, but is largely meaningless while this is the case. In addition, none of this really says anything about the usefulness or sticking power of the built-in functions, and that would be a great subject for a survey. I would guess that people stick with the core functions a lot more than these Skills, or return their devices because they’re not using them – the latter was my own eventual outcome when testing the Echo.
Alphabet’s smart home brand Nest expands to Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain – TechCrunch (Jan 23, 2017)
Nest has appeared somewhat stuck over the last couple of years – though there have been updates to some of its existing products, there’s been nothing brand new or particularly notable, and it seems committed mostly to maxing out its addressable market with existing products. That’s confirmed by this report of expansion into new countries in Europe, which is one of the few levers left to the company based on its current business model and products. I continue to feel very strongly that the future of home automation is services, and Nest has no direct play there for now, though its new CEO is well suited to pursue such a strategy. In the meantime, all it can do is attempt to saturate the addressable market for retail, DIY purchases of smoke detectors, thermostats, and cameras, which is largely limited to early adopters and tinkerers. That’s not a great long-term strategy for Nest, and until something changes in its business model, its future doesn’t seem all that bright.
Super Mario Run was an iPhone exclusive when it first launched, and as such was featured in Apple’s Fall 2016 keynote. However, that exclusive won’t last forever, and it appears that the game will be coming to Android in March, despite the criticism of the business model and other features of the game. What’s not clear is whether the business model will be the same – while getting people to pay for iPhone games is hard, getting Android users to pay up is much harder still, so I wonder whether the additional investment will be worth it if Nintendo sticks with the $10 unlock model. More broadly, there will be additional games for both iOS and Android later this year, so Nintendo is clearly still committed to its smartphone game strategy. However, we still haven’t seen the symbolically important release by Nintendo of any of its highly popular original games for smartphones, something almost every observer seems to think it should do, but which it chooses for some reason to resist for now. It’s also worth noting that Super Mario Run (though not the next game) is another example of iOS first, Android later – a trend that continues to be one of the biggest hits against Google’s Play Store and Android in general.
What happened to virtual reality? – Business Insider (Jan 21, 2017)
This piece argues that VR is currently underperforming expectations, and hasn’t panned out the way many of its proponents hoped. In reality (no pun intended), I think most of the companies have been pretty realistic about the prospects for the current generation of VR technology – Facebook in particular has said it doesn’t expect Oculus sales to be material to its overall financial picture, for example. So this is as much about inflated expectations around VR that came from others – observers, proponents, fans – than from the companies themselves. But in some ways that doesn’t matter – the narrative was that VR was finally here and going mainstream, and now it’s becoming that VR is falling short of expectations. The first was misguided, and now the second flows from those misguided expectations rather than from actual performance in the market. VR is still at a very early stage, and though Samsung has sold 5 million mobile VR headsets, it’s mostly still a niche proposition today, limited largely to the hardcore gaming market. It’ll take both technological advances and much more compelling content to appeal to non-gamers.
Key Google executive heads to Uber – CNBC (Jan 20, 2017)
We’re not seeing anywhere near the same hysteria over this move from Google to Uber as we saw around Chris Lattner’s recent move from Apple to Tesla. In fairness, Singhal left Google a while back rather than making a direct switch, but the move is in some ways very similar – a senior engineer working on key products at a pure tech company is moving to a car-centric tech company. No-one seems to think Amit Singhal leaving Google is a sign that things are going wrong there, in contrast to the reaction to Lattner’s departure, which just highlights the power of narratives – Lattner’s departure from Apple taps into a powerful present narrative, while Singhal’s doesn’t. A few years back, when there was a cluster of departures from Google in quick succession, this was a story, but not today – that reflects both overall perceptions of these companies, but also the fact that people often do leave in clusters, often for similar reasons, but not always because they’re unhappy. Often, it’s just that they’ve been there for a long time and want a change of scenery or a new challenge. It’s nice to see this hire being seen in a more rational light. Update: as Recode points out, there are actually two hires here from Google, not just one, which just reinforces the point about narratives above.
Two Sonos Updates – The Verge / Variety (Jan 20, 2017)
Sonos recently got a new CEO, and he’s been communicating with both staff and reporters. The Verge has a mostly intact copy of his internal email to staff, while Variety has an interview with the main himself. The letter to staff is less revealing, though it suggests some broad strokes of the company’s strategy, while the Variety interview adds more unique insight, such as Sonos’s plans to incorporate Amazon’s Alexa into its speakers, a possible IPO, and plans for more of a retail presence. Sonos is in a fascinating space – it was arguably the big standalone home speaker player before Amazon came along with the Echo, and still has the advantage when it comes to whole home audio. But Echo and Google Home offer a big feature Sonos doesn’t, and I think Spence is smart to plan to incorporate both Alexa and potentially other voice assistants. Sonos would still make a fascinating buy for Apple, which already has its products in most of its stores, but both the Echo/Home and Sonos markets could be threatened by an organic entry by Apple into this combined market too.
This piece is an interesting counterpart to a couple of others I’ve recently linked to – another quoting Wave7 estimates for Pixel sales, and this WSJ analysis from earlier today on how hard Alphabet has been pushing sales of its hardware on Google search, given what this piece says about heavy TV advertising by both Google and Verizon around the Pixel. It’s also worth reading this Verge piece, which takes a much harsher stance on what these sales numbers and the supply shortages mean, though it focuses almost exclusively on the 128GB model. The point is, Pixels are in short supply, and there’s an estimate in this Bloomberg piece of around half a million sales, so this is a very different supply shortage from Apple struggling to meet demand for over 70 million phones per quarter – in other words, this isn’t about hitting up against theoretical maximum capacity for building phones, but about very conservative planning on Google’s part. Half a million isn’t bad, but it’s fairly clear sales could have been a lot higher with better supply. Presumably Google will learn from this experience as it looks to update the Pixel, possibly later this year.
Google Uses Its Search Engine to Hawk Its Products – WSJ (Jan 19, 2017)
This is a really fantastic bit of a analysis commissioned by the Wall Street Journal. It found that for 91% of searches relating to top consumer electronics categories, a Google or Nest product was in the top ad slot above the results, and in 43% it had the top two slots. This is Google competing with its own advertisers, and Google apparently was so taken aback by the analysis that it tweaked its strategy when the WSJ spoke to Google about it, and the numbers are now much lower. Google’s hardware push therefore not only puts it in conflict with its OEMs, but also with its biggest customers – advertisers. I’m intrigued to know how other big consumer electronics brands feel about this, but the challenge of course is that they have few alternatives – Google dominates search, and so it also has a dominant position in pitching its own products. There’s a close analogy here to Amazon’s hawking of its hardware on Amazon.com, but competitors know what they’re getting into there to a greater extent.
Google expressed its displeasure to Huawei re allowing Amazon’s Alexa to be built into its U.S. flagship phone – Amir Efrati (Jan 17, 2017)
Amir is a reporter with The Information, and has done sterling work lately on Alphabet and Google. This little scoop was only released in a tweet rather than expanded on in an article, but it raises a couple of important issues that affect both Amazon and Google. Firstly, Amazon needs to get Alexa onto smartphones if it’s to achieve ubiquity for users, and Android is really the only option for integration. Secondly, Google will put increasing pressure on its OEMs not to install assistants that compete with the Google Assistant, but it hasn’t yet made that assistant broadly available for OEMs to use, while Alexa is freely available. There’s a three-way conflict brewing here between the two giants and Google’s OEM partners, and it probably won’t be pretty for any of them.
Android One has always been an attempt by Google to try to squelch some of the uniqueness of various OEMs’ versions of Android, which is arguably inimical to their interests, given that such customizations are often the main way OEMs can differentiate when running the same underlying OS. I had assumed Google was slowly sunsetting the program given how little it’s talked about it recently, so it’s a bit of a surprise to see it now apparently coming to the US (the main focus so far has been emerging markets). Given the low price point, this can be seen as a combination of Nexus replacement and Google Pixel counterpart – a vanilla Android experience for low-end buyers, with the promise of regular quick updates to the OS. It’s also reminiscent of the strategy Motorola began to pursue towards the end of its time as a Google subsidiary. Of course, the big question is whether any smartphones coming out of this program will get carrier distribution – that makes or breaks phone launches in the US for the most part.
App downloads up 15 percent in 2016, revenue up 40 percent thanks to China – TechCrunch (Jan 17, 2017)
Two things are worth noting about all the data presented here: firstly, apps are still growing massively, putting the lie to the idea that native mobile apps are somehow dead, to be replaced by some combination of better web apps, bots, or something else. The number of apps being downloaded is growing rapidly each year rather than stagnating or slowing down. The second point is that there continues to be a massive disparity between usage and spending when it comes to Android and iOS. See the first and fourth charts in this article – the first shows massively more Android apps downloaded than iOS apps, while the fourth shows double the spending on those iOS apps relative to Android. It continues to be far more profitable for developers to make apps for iOS, even with a smaller user base and far fewer apps downloaded. That, in turn, seems likely to reinforce the pattern that the vasty majority of big new apps get launched on iOS first, and Android second (if ever). That continues to be one of Apple’s big ecosystem advantages.