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.
This is a good summary of the way in which Intel is now being challenged not just in mobile by ARM architectures but in AI by Nvidia and AMD too. That means that Intel is now falling behind in the two most important new chip use cases, not just one, and that its big bets on IoT and wearables will likely end up looking marginal next to AI as the next big opportunity for chip vendors. Add in cars, where Nvidia is also doing very well, and suddenly things start to look pretty bleak for Intel. There’s a great deeper dive here on the WSJ too.
There’s lots of interesting data in here about both AirPod and Beats sales over the past twelve months and the holiday period. Bluetooth headphones in general have skyrocketed in terms of share, something that was happening already but was likely accelerated by the removal of the headphone jack on the new iPhone. All of the new W1-based products are expensive, and it’s not clear from the report what share of Beats sales were these high end ones rather than the cheaper ones Beats offers. But it’s a sign that at least some people are embracing the iPhone’s wireless audio future.
Alibaba promises Trump it’ll create a million U.S. jobs, but don’t believe it – MarketWatch (Jan 11, 2017)
This is a great bit of analysis on the latest job creation claim from an industrial leader after meeting Donald Trump. In this case, Jennifer Booton points out that Alibaba is talking about indirect job creation in the US through a Chinese-based entity, not employing people in the US directly. But it’s another sign of both he need major tech firms seem to feel to engage with the incoming administration, and their understanding that they can ingratiate themselves with it by talking about job creation. I suspect we’ll see a lot more shaky claims about job creation made by big tech companies in the coming months and years.
This news (FB’s own blog post here) should obviously be taken together with the hiring of Campbell Brown as head of news partnerships at Facebook, announced last week. It’s easy to see this as being about the whole fake news story, and there’s an element of that, but this goes much further than that. What’s interesting is the number of value judgments in Facebook’s own post about this – it isn’t neutral here when it comes to fostering news sites, and local news in particular. That’s clearly in its interests, but it goes further than that too. It’s also very sensibly looking at business models beyond display ads for monetizing news content on Facebook, something the industry needs as Facebook becomes the place where many of their readers consume their content.
We’re finally coming to the end of this saga, with one of the most visible and painful reminders of the fate of the Note7 going away. Though the 96% return rate likely is a major factor in the decision, the fact that most Note7 devices remaining now won’t charge either thanks to the recent carrier updates is likely another – those who have these phones will find it very hard to do anything dangerous with them. The last remaining chapter in this story is now Samsung’s long-awaited disclosure of the root causes for the fires, and its plan for avoiding similar issues in future.
Is Amazon late to the mobile voice assistant game? – iMore (Jan 11, 2017)
This is satire and opinion, but it’s very relevant to two prevailing narratives – that Apple is behind in AI and that Amazon is ahead in voice. Rene’s piece here does a good job of framing the discussion, and the two essays on this site which I just linked to take a similar stance: Amazon is very good at what it does with Echo, but it does a very limited number of things, and for today still does them mostly in the home. Siri has two orders of magnitude more users, but also gives users a variety of other ways to interact with their device. Any analysis that doesn’t take into account those factors when comparing the two is insufficient.
Amazon to Launch Credit Card for Prime Members – WSJ (Jan 11, 2017)
This is yet another example of Amazon pursuing its flywheel strategy of reducing friction and providing incentives for people to spend more time and money on Amazon. The 5% cash back feature for Amazon purchases will be compelling for many people, since it’s basically free money for things many of them would already buy there, but since it’s a higher percentage than for purchases made elsewhere, it may also shift some buying to Amazon. This is a smart move and I’m curious to see how many people sign up for this (something we will of course have to rely on third parties to tell us).
As well as copying Snapchat’s Stories feature for the purposes of capturing more users and more of its existing users’ time, it appears Facebook/Instagram was creating a new channel for ads too. Instagram has already ramped up ads quite a bit to the point where roughly every 10 posts in my feed is an ad, and that’s probably about as far as it can go in the feed. But Stories offer another venue for advertising, and with users who have lots of Stories to view they’ll simply slot in between Stories from friends. Stories are easy to skip, so this shouldn’t disrupt the user experience too much, while delivering decent growth in ad revenue.
Creator of Apple’s Swift Leaves for Tesla – Tesla PR (Jan 10, 2017)
This is one of those bits of news that’s almost impossible not to see as symbolic – a top software engineer leaves an Apple that has appeared to be struggling for Tesla, the car tech startup that can do no wrong. Both of those, of course, are exaggerations and Apple has poached many employees from Tesla over the last couple of years too. But the fact that Chris Lattner, an extremely well respected software engineer, chose to leave at the very least says something is currently more attractive for him at Tesla than at Apple. If Apple’s car efforts are in as much flux as they’ve recently seemed, and if cars are what Lattner wants to work on next, then that’s not all that surprising. And it’s impossible to know at this point whether there’s something more to it than that. (Update, Jan. 11 2017: see also this news)
The dream of Ara: Inside the rise and fall of the world’s most revolutionary phone | VentureBeat (Jan 10, 2017)
This piece is probably hundreds of words more than you want to read on Google’s failed Project Ara modular phone, but there’s some interesting history here nonetheless, and it also fits into at least two narratives: Hardware is Hard, and Alphabet Lacks Focus. This is just the kind of project that almost everyone who had any sense outside of Google (and presumably many inside it too) knew would never work – the kind of “great in theory, lousy in practice” thinking that Google often falls into. Smartphones are tough enough without massively handicapping many of the things people care about most with a modular approach. Google did eventually kill this project in the Ruth Porat era of austerity, but it should arguably never have made it past the YouTube video the story starts with.
Best Buy launches cord-cutting campaign with website & how-to video – Rich Greenfield (Jan 10, 2017)
This move by Best Buy is both notable and clever – notable because it swings one of the biggest consumer electronics retail brands behind cord-cutting, and clever because Best Buy is selling far more than just online subscriptions here. It’s using the cord-cutting umbrella to sell lots of gear too, from wireless routers to antennas, and even offering to help with installation through Geek Squad and how-to videos. Stuff like this is just going to accelerate cord-cutting even further, pushing it closer to a tipping point where it will cause enormous disruption in the TV industry.
Apple has invested enormously in its green initiatives under Lisa P Jackson, arguably one of the biggest and most visible changes under Tim Cook, who seems determined to use Apple’s power for good beyond the influence of its products alone, to a much greater extent than Steve Jobs was. For Apple to come out on top of the major tech companies is still quite an achievement, though Google and Facebook also did well. It’s not clear that most consumers care all that much about any of this, but there’s an argument to be made that these companies are seen as leaders in the field, and Greenpeace’s endorsement puts pressure on others to fall in line, which has broader environmental benefits.
It must be tempting to make every speaker-related story about Amazon and Echo at the moment, but I think the thrust of this story is off. I just met with Sonos last week at CES, and they’re doing very well – arguably just hitting their stride, with their first brand advertising campaign after many years of word of mouth marketing alone. They recently secured Apple Store distribution and have an interesting partnership with AirBnb. I do think they’ll want to take their current Alexa integration beyond Echo-based control by incorporating microphones into the line, but I don’t see an existential threat here just yet.
Microsoft has been rapped over the knuckles by regulators and attacked by privacy advocates over its data collection in Windows 10. Over-collection of data combined with lack of notification for users have to be the most common twosome in privacy abuses among tech companies. Tech companies often collect far too much data by default, and then fail to inform users what’s being collected or why. This change is a positive one, but I’d hope that Microsoft (and others) will learn from the backlash here and do better from the outset in future releases of Windows and other products.
The specifics of this story aren’t as important as the trend that’s emerging ever more clearly – almost any device that’s connected to the Internet is potentially susceptible to hacking, and the more critical the device’s intended function is, the more serious any potential breach can be – in this case, life threatening. The challenge is that most of these devices – along with cheap web cams and many others – were not designed with watertight security built in, and it’s almost impossible to add that on after the fact. So we’ll see lots more of these stories in the coming years, which will put off potential customers, while giving an advantage to IoT and smart home vendors who prioritize security.
Europe proposes expanding telco data privacy rules to WhatsApp, Facebook et al | TechCrunch (Jan 10, 2017)
Europe continues to take a harder line on privacy for online services, and is also finally caving to long-term pressure from telecoms operators to force online communications providers to comply with a more consistent regulatory framework. Both individual European countries and the EU have come down on Facebook recently for its attempted integration with WhatsApp following the merger, and the region is likely to continue to be more challenging for online providers operating there. This, in turn, may provide a small advantage for those providers that collect less user data and offer more protections by default.
This is really mostly about what Snapchat is doing today with musicians, and the answer is pretty interesting – adding audio to filters, for example. In contrast to Snapchat’s general unwillingness to engage in a special way with celebrities, this approach shows it is willing to provide tools for musicians and others to promote themselves and new content. Music has always held special appeal for mobile platforms because of the emotional appeal, and Snap appears to on board too.
Fitbit acquires the Vector smart watch startup, as the wearable giant continues its roll-up | TechCrunch (Jan 10, 2017)
Consolidation continues in the smartwatch market. This piece is a little too effusive over the original technology – Vector wasn’t that special. But, like the Pebble deal, this is about Fitbit buying in IP and to some extent skills that should help it sharpen its next generation of wearables and smartwatches specifically. As the wearables market continues to be tough, we’ll see much more of this, and many of the smaller, struggling, vendors will be snapped up by the few remaining big names, with Fitbit likely one of the big acquirers.
It’s good to see Ellen Pao land in another venture role, but also one where she’ll be able to continue to push for more diversity in tech now that she has a high profile in this area. Funding is one of several bottlenecks at which diversity is stripped out of the Silicon Valley ecosystem, so having her and her new partners working on improving things should be helpful.
MacBook Pro Ratings Changed – Consumer Reports (Jan 10, 2017)
I changed the headline on this piece, which is a bit of amazing spin. Following serious pushback from Apple on its MacBook Pro battery tests, Consumer Reports provided more information to Apple on its testing process, and it emerged that it had turned off the cache (which consumers never would) and this in turn triggered an obscure bug which drained battery life. Had CR simply given Apple the opportunity to provide feedback on the testing process, this whole thing could have ended a lot earlier and without the unjust criticism. To the extent that anyone saw this story as evidence of slipping standards at Apple, that should now be laid to rest. For what it’s worth, I’ve seen excellent battery life on the MBP the last two weeks while traveling, especially with the screen dimmed somewhat. (See also Apple’s full statement.)