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.
Robert Scoble is an odd source – not strictly a reporter, and one with a very mixed track record when it comes to this kind of thing. So take it with a pinch of salt, but this is an interesting report given that Apple does seem to be very interested in AR. The timing is interesting here too – Scoble says the glasses might launch this year, which would be a big new product for Apple when it could really use one to reassure the faithful.
Facebook is going to start showing ads in the middle of its videos and sharing the money with publishers – Recode (Jan 9, 2017)
Given Facebook’s massive push into video over the past year, it was inevitable that it would eventually begin monetizing – the question was always how. Since video autoplays on Facebook by default, pre-roll would never work, whereas post-roll ads simply cry out for abandonment. Some sort of mid-video ads therefore always seemed the likeliest option, and here they come – they’ll play at 20 seconds in or later. In an autoplay video, I suspect these will still be a user turnoff, but in the context of a longer live video they’ll be more palatable. As ever, the question is how many ads users will stand for – the beauty (for users, if not for monetization) of Facebook video is that there’s always more to choose from if one puts you off.
I’ve tagged this one against the Hardware is Hard narrative, because it seems the perfect illustration – thin margins in the face of aggressively priced competition from China is the perfect encapsulation of much of what ails the hardware industry. On the other hand, it’s also notable that Parrot is heading deeper into the enterprise drone market and pulling back from the consumer side – that seems an entirely sensible move in the face of the competition, and should work out better for the company. DJI, though, seems increasingly dominant here, while I’m curious about how GoPro will fare – it faces the same issues as Parrot across its entire business, and may well see similar results in drones specifically.
This is yet another example of the new focus that’s come to Alphabet under Ruth Porat as CFO. On balance, this particular move seems smart – there’s no differentiation in owning mapping satellites per se, especially if Alphabet isn’t going to be providing Internet access with them. If it can recoup some investment and refocus its business in the process, while maintaining access to good satellite imagery and data, then it’s a win/win.
Facebook’s Hiring Process Hinders Its Effort to Create a Diverse Workforce – Bloomberg (Jan 9, 2017)
Like most big tech companies, Facebook struggles with diversity, but would like to do better. And yet its own internal processes are apparently hindering its efforts here, with existing engineers having too much power to shape hiring of candidates in their own image. This is a known issue at this point, and it’s frustrating that Facebook – with all its innovation – can’t crack it. All this just highlights that all the will in the world can’t trump flawed processes.
CES 2017: What Makes a Smart Home Smart? – Comcast Blog (Jan 9, 2017)
I wanted to link to a news article on these announcements, but it was relatively short on meaty content and linked back to Comcast’s own blog here, so I’ve gone with that instead. This post echoes a lot of my own thinking on the smart home, which is that the retail DIY model is broken for the vast majority of ordinary consumers, and that integrated services and platforms are the way smart home technology reaches the mainstream. Vivint is selling a similar vision here, and I actually think their total offering is more promising than Comcast’s. But it’s these services companies and not the retail ones who will do best in the long-term smart home market.
Just when we’d got used to the idea that Alphabet was only going to do software when it comes to autonomous driving, it seems it will do some of its own hardware work, specifically on sensors rather than making cars. Not every carmaker that partners with Waymo will want to use its sensors, but it allows Alphabet to own more of the technology and ensure it all works well together.
This is the second of two Alexa car announcements made at this year’s CES, along with Ford’s, and together they’re part of Amazon’s push to get Alexa out of the home. There’s no date yet for this one, so it’ll be a while still before we start to see this, and of course unless you’re buying a new Ford or VW in the near future, you won’t benefit, but this is part of the longer-term push.
Why Apple’s Critics Are Right This Time – WSJ (Jan 8, 2017)
This piece rehashes all the recent stuff that’s been said about Apple without really adding anything new. AI is mentioned a few times, and that’s the ostensible focus, though it’s not clear that AI is really what’s meant – it’s mostly about voice assistants specifically, and this article repeats a lot of the prevailing narrative about Amazon being ahead in voice, a situation that’s significantly more nuanced in reality. But in some ways the key point here is that we’re starting to see a steady drumbeat of this kind of thing lately, and that’s notable in its own right.
KGI: 3 new iPads to debut next quarter will slow decline in sales, 10-10.5 inch model wildcard | 9to5Mac (Jan 8, 2017)
The iPad had a better year in 2016, but shipments were still down 10-15% year on year, while revenues were down by a few percentage points. I believe revenues will likely level off sooner than shipments due to higher ASPs driven by the Pro models, while shipments will level off over the next year or two as well. New iPads which provide more compelling reasons to upgrade will help with that, but a lot of sales will be driven by replacements among the massive installed base of older models. The new models reported by KGI are intriguing – at least one new size will make an appearance, and it appears this will be the high-end version of the 9.7″ model, which will remain at a lower price point.
Though lots of the fuss about AI in cars relates to autonomous driving, the reality is that we’re many years from broad scale autonomous driving, and so what we’ll get in the meantime is lots of technology that assists human drivers rather than doing the driving itself. This Nvidia-Mercedes partnership is very much in this category, though we don’t know all the details yet, but we’ll see lots more of this kind of thing in the next few years, which in turn will help train AIs to take over the driving later on.
Slice is one of those data sources you can’t completely trust – because the data is about online purchases only, it’s partial, and it’s also only ever directional. But this data suggests decent growth year over year for the Watch, which is in line with Tim Cook’s fairly vague but positive remarks on sales recently. The Watch should have sold well over the holidays – the second generation launched shortly before with some new hardware features (and better software), the base price is now cheaper, and there were deals on several models over the holiday shopping period. We won’t, of course, get hard numbers from Apple, but there should be enough in the reported results of the Other Products category to check if this is true come the end of the month.
This is yet another step in Facebook’s evolving vision of its identity. Campbell Brown isn’t going to be producing news for Facebook, but rather working with news organizations that use Facebook, but it’s a recognition that news is a huge content category on the service, and that many people get their news through Facebook. It will be very interesting to see how this role pans out in detail, and whether it feels Facebook is really helping news organizations, especially when set against recent moves to combat fake news.
Apple camera lens manufacturer posts significant profit, shedding doubt on iPhone order cuts – Apple Insider (Jan 6, 2017)
This is only one data point, so take it with a pinch of salt, but it suggests healthy sales for the new iPhones in Q4 2016, in contrast to the recent reports of manufacturing cuts by Apple at its major suppliers. We’ll know soon enough when Apple reports its results for the quarter, but I’m still expecting some decent year on year growth and a fairly bullish outlook for the March quarter.
This piece highlights what I still see as the biggest challenge for Alexa – for the most part, it’s not available outside the home, and where it is the experience is sub-par relative to the Echo. That’s really important because I think a lot of people are mistaking Echo’s superior performance as evidence of better voice recognition or natural language processing rather than a function of its form factor. Put it in a smartphone or watch, and it will likely perform just as poorly as other assistants in those devices.
This report from Baird’s retail analysts cites its own survey on several points around selection and Prime. It estimates that there are 55-60 million Prime households in the US, out of around 125m total households. Some of the biggest expansion categories in selection are apparel, office/industrial, and home/kitchen, where Amazon has historically been weaker. There are tons of other data points in the linked report, which is well worth a read.
Russia Requires Apple and Google to Remove LinkedIn From Local App Stores – The New York Times (Jan 6, 2017)
This comes hot on the heels of the Chinese New York Times app story earlier in the week, and there’s a danger of this becoming a trend. Apple and Google both tend to comply with local laws when it comes to this kind of thing, and that’s certainly a reasonable defense. But if oppressive regimes start to use the major app stores as a way to block content they don’t like, Apple and Google are going to find themselves on the receiving end of attacks from lots of civil liberties groups.
Lyft Co-Founder John Zimmer Drives And Dishes On Automation, Car Subscriptions, And Cash – BuzzFeed News (Jan 6, 2017)
An interesting tidbit in here – Lyft is already profitable on a per-ride basis, and the $150m or less it aims to lose each quarter is down to customer acquisition costs – free rides and so on. In that sense, it’s like many enterprise SaaS companies, and the burn rate is a factor of the rate of growth versus the base of customers. Lyft is much smaller than Uber, but also losing a lot less money. The key question therefore is whether it can at some point shift that balance between growth and profitability despite its smaller scale.
Given that so many big tech companies are falling over themselves to grab a slice of in-car technology, Microsoft’s strategy is somewhat striking – it doesn’t want a direct role in, say, autonomous driving, but instead wants to provide a set of services to enable others to build that and other in-car technology. That’s a subtle distinction, but a sensible one for Microsoft, and one that will allow it to be seen as less of a threat to the carmakers than either Google or Apple, which each appear to have deeper ambitions in the car.
Autonomous tech supplier Mobileye wants automakers to crowdsource maps for self-driving cars – Recode (Jan 5, 2017)
Given that HERE is already owned by several of the automakers, you could make the argument that there’s a more natural player to aggregate mapping data from them, but Mobileye is making its pitch regardless. On the one hand, it’s easy to see the logic here – all the companies ultimately need basically the same data. On the other, however, these companies are fierce competitors and though they’ve occasionally cooperated too, they’re far less likely to cede control and exclusive ownership of something they consider strategically important. Ultimately, it may well be the premium and niche automakers who need such an approach more than the big guys.