Uber’s Relationship with Pittsburgh Worsens (May 22, 2017)
Though Google spent much of its I/O keynote talking about apps and features like Photos and the Assistant, it did devote a few minutes to the topic of AR and VR, which will have a second deeper-dive keynote of their own tomorrow. On the VR side, the key announcement is that Google is extending the Daydream platform beyond mobile VR to standalone headsets, which in the first instance will be built by partners Lenovo and HTC and supported with chips from Qualcomm. Daydream so far has been limited by the fact that the biggest Android smartphone vendor has its own competing platform, so the news that Samsung’s Galaxy S8 phones will support Daydream through a software update in the summer is a big deal. My guess is that Samsung will still favor its own Gear VR system with its usual bundling and discounting deals, but the fact that Daydream View and other compatible headsets will now work with Samsung devices should increase its appeal. Daydream’s system is better than Samsung’s in a number of ways, though the recent Gear VR update closes the gap a bit, so the playing field should be a leveled a little going forward. Also worth noting are a couple of AR announcements, including a new “Tango phone” to support Google’s indoor mapping technology, and VPS, an indoor equivalent of GPS which will enable precise directions within large stores and the like. Neither of those feels remotely mass market yet, which means Google’s AR efforts are far more marginal than the phone-based efforts from Facebook and Snapchat (and likely soon Apple too). Interestingly, VR head Clay Bavor outlined his vision for the space in a blog post today too, and it’s remarkably similar to Microsoft’s in that it envisions a continuum or spectrum that includes both VR and AR, though Bavor’s favored term is immersive computing rather than mixed reality and he’s less pejorative about the VR and AR terms everyone is already using.
Amazon previously invested in Nucleus, a company that makes a tabletop videoconferencing system for the home, and now the company’s CEO is angry because Amazon has just released the Echo Show, which he sees as very similar. Two quick things to say about this: firstly, if you take an investment from a company like Amazon, you have to go in with your eyes open. You have to know that the reason for the investment is that the company is interested in the technology, which might mean to an outright acquisition of your company (best case scenario) or might simply enable it to learn about it and do its own thing (worst case scenario). If you don’t know that going in, that’s your fault. Secondly, it’s not like the Echo Show is a pure clone – it’s first and foremost an Echo, a concept Amazon can quite fairly say it has pioneered, and only secondarily a videoconferencing system. Yes, that element was emphasized in its video and so on, but that’s because it’s a big part about what’s new and different from this device compared with its previous Echo devices. This device does far more than that, though, and anyone suggesting it’s some kind of clone is on the wrong track. It sucks to be Nucleus right now, but it should have known this outcome was a strong possibility from the start.
Back in December, Microsoft announced its equivalent of Amazon’s Alexa platform for third parties in the form of its Cortana Skills Kit and Cortana Devices SDK. A week later, Harman Kardon announced its was working on a speaker that would feature Cortana, and said it would launch in 2017. Five months later, the two companies have provided a name (Invoke), pictures, and some capabilities for the device, but there’s still no specific launch date (beyond “Fall 2017”) or pricing. On paper, the Invoke looks a lot like Echo in both its design and its capabilities (it even has an Echo-like 7-mic array), and the main difference is that it will do Skype voice calls, which is something that’s been rumored for both Echo and Google Home but isn’t yet supported by either. One advantage Harman would have over Amazon or Google in this space is that it’s a speaker maker, so it may well have better audio quality in its version than those companies have in theirs, something that’s been a shortcoming in this category so far. And of course, it’s interesting given Samsung’s ownership of Harman Kardon that this speaker is running neither of the assistants Samsung itself supports – its own new Bixby assistant or the Google Assistant – though this partnership obviously began before the Samsung acquisition closed. Pricing is an interesting question: whereas Google and Amazon both have broader ecosystems which benefit from such a device and therefore justify subsidizing or selling it at cost, Harman obviously needs to make money on it, so it may end up being priced higher (as Apple’s version likely will be too). Lastly, we might see other ecosystem devices using Cortana announced at Microsoft’s Build developer conference this week.
Apple has done a deal with HP to allow the latter to include its devices in its enterprise device-as-a-service offering for enterprises. This is the latest in a string of deals between Apple and various enterprise-centric partners over recent years – a sign that the enterprise is an increasingly important source of growth for Apple as the consumer market reaches saturation for smartphones and upgrade cycles lengthen. HP will be a channel for all Apple devices, but the two companies are also working together to create some guidelines for various industries in deploying those devices and making the most of them in various applications. Apple’s strategy for the enterprise continues to be mainly leveraging these various third party channels rather than growing its own substantial business sales force, which is smart given Apple’s expertise (and the gaps in it).
Facebook Expands Paid WiFi Access Product to India (May 4, 2017)
Last week, the day before Twitter’s earnings, it briefed BuzzFeed on its plans for 24/7 live video, and this week it’s announcing that it will achieve that objective at least in part through an expanded partnership with Bloomberg. But whereas Twitter has so far just carried the standard Bloomberg stream, this new partnership will have at least some exclusive content and also apparently a broader coverage than the existing, very business news-oriented, channel. As of when I’m writing, all the details aren’t out yet, but the channel is to begin airing sometime in the fall. This is an interesting partnership, but I reiterate what I said last week, which is that just having content is not the same as having compelling content, and even if there’s an exclusive element to this Bloomberg deal, business news or even news in general doesn’t quite fit the bill. I’m intrigued to see the details here, but as of right now I have a hard time seeing this make a big difference to Twitter’s smallish live video audience (just 14% of its monthly active users watched even 2 seconds of one live video last quarter), let alone its overall growth or ability to monetize its audience better.
Update (3:40pm MT): Bloomberg and Twitter have now announced some more details around the new channel, and it’s an interesting idea: become the breaking news network that takes what’s happening on Twitter and curates and verifies the information before feeding it out in a live TV show. Given how central Twitter is to the 24/7 news cycle already, I’m not convinced this is new and different, and if the emphasis here is on verification (certainly not a bad thing) it may actually mean the in-house network is slower to break news than CNN etc. One of the big problems with 24/7 news coverage is also always the challenge of filling time and keeping viewers engaged, which lends itself to sensationalism (to make unimportant stories seem important) and lots of filler material (because there’s never always something newsworthy going on). It’ll be interesting to see if Bloomberg and Twitter can collectively overcome these two, because otherwise we’re just getting yet another always-on news channel with little to differentiate it. The proof is totally going to be in the pudding with this one.
Musical.ly is one of the few big app hits in recent years that didn’t come from one of the big established players and isn’t a game, while also being that rare example of a Chinese tech company that’s done well in the West. It’s popular with teenagers, who use the app to create short music videos using original songs, and Apple will now be the supplier of those songs, replacing a small UK-based provider. It will also therefore be able to promote Apple Music within the service, and will integrate with Apple Music for paying subscribers. Recode notes that the app has declined in popularity recently as measured by App Store rankings, but the reality is that its ranking has been extremely volatile, rising as high as 11th and as low as 92nd over the past six months. That volatility is driven almost entirely by the day of the week, with the app peaking over the weekend and dropping during the week – had Recode written its piece last Saturday, for example, the app would have been ranked #41. Given Musical.ly’s popularity within its target segment, Apple is smart to strike a partnership that allows it both to drive additional revenue and market to the app’s users. I’m almost surprised Apple didn’t just acquire the company and app outright, given Apple’s recent investment in creative and content apps with News, Music, and Clips.
One of Amazon’s big advantages in building scale for its Alexa assistant has been its opening of the underlying platform to third party hardware vendors, and the resulting hardware was arguably the big story of CES this year. Google, by contrast, has only opened up its Assistant very slowly to third parties, instead favoring its own hardware for the first six months or so. That’s now starting to change as it not only makes the Assistant available in Android but now also starts opening up an SDK for third party hardware makers, albeit in a fairly closed fashion for now. One thing it’ll want to make sure of is that the resulting hardware meet some minimum standards, something Amazon has done very little to enforce.
via Ars Technica
★ Samsung Uses Google Music as Default Option on Galaxy S8 (Apr 21, 2017)
Amazon to Provide its Echo Mic Array and Related Technology to Select Hardware Partners (Apr 13, 2017)
There’s some good reporting here about publishers starting to pull their content back from Facebook’s Instant Articles. When it first launched, I think publishers were at the very least keen to experiment with it, and in many cases felt they had little choice but to participate out of fear that non-IA content would be deprioritized by Facebook’s News Feed algorithms. That publishers (including the New York Times) are starting to pull back is a sign both that the format is underperforming badly and that content owners have confidence that they can buck Facebook’s first party platform without negative consequences. That’s a good counterpoint to all the stories about Facebook’s power and how little choice content owners have about publishing to Facebook natively. It remains to be seen whether these publishers will see the same monetization and traffic now as they did before IA debuted, because if that’s the comparison organizations are making they may be disappointed. But all this also explains why Facebook has been working so much harder lately to cater to news publishers in particular, with its Journalism Project, new calls to action and subscription (though not paid subscription) options, and listening tours. It’s clearly worried that it’s losing the battle here and needs to do more.
This is an interesting little announcement – it’s short on details, but it appears Microsoft will be selling a version of the Galaxy S8 with more of its apps pre-installed. The big downside is that this seems to be a highly manual process and the devices are only available at full price from Microsoft rather than through carrier stores and installment plans, so that’s going to dramatically limit the addressable market. But it’s interesting to see Microsoft deepening its investment in Android at a time when its own mobile devices continue to be all but irrelevant.
The High-Speed Trading Behind Your Amazon Purchase – WSJ (Mar 27, 2017)
This is a fascinating article looking into some of the mechanics behind how Amazon’s third-party sellers price their products on the site. I was actually aware of quite a bit of this already because I have a neighbor who runs a business which operates as a third-party seller on Amazon, and he’s told me a little of how his company operates. This piece only has a couple of examples, but in essence these sellers hunt down product categories where there’s room for price arbitrage by undercutting the current lowest price while still maintaining a margin. Suppliers in China will make many of the products cheaply enough to allow undercutting of the current top option on the site, and so there’s this constant hunt for the next product category with an opportunity for becoming the top seller by offering a lower price. It’s obviously great for Amazon and for its customers to have sellers competing so aggressively for business, because it brings down prices and raises sales, but Christopher argues in this piece that in some cases the same computerized models sometimes lead to price increases rather than just drops. Well worth a read of the whole thing.