Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Who needs democracy when you have data? -- MIT Technology Review

From an extensive China + technology overview
"As far as we know, there is no single master blueprint linking technology and governance in China. But there are several initiatives that share a common strategy of harvesting data about people and companies to inform decision-making and create systems of incentives and punishments to influence behavior. These initiatives include the State Council’s 2014 “Social Credit System,” the 2016 Cybersecurity Law, various local-level and private-enterprise experiments in “social credit,” “smart city” plans, and technology-driven policing in the western region of Xinjiang. Often they involve partnerships between the government and China’s tech companies.

The most far-reaching is the Social Credit System, though a better translation in English might be the “trust” or “reputation” system. The government plan, which covers both people and businesses, lists among its goals the “construction of sincerity in government affairs, commercial sincerity, and judicial credibility.” (“Everybody in China has an auntie who’s been swindled. There is a legitimate need to address a breakdown in public trust,” says Paul Triolo, head of the geotechnology practice at the consultancy Eurasia Group.) To date, it’s a work in progress, though various pilots preview how it might work in 2020, when it is supposed to be fully implemented."
Who needs democracy when you have data? -- MIT Technology Review

Microsoft's CEO on helping a faded legend find a 'sense of purpose' -- CNET

Earlier in the interview: ""You join here not to be cool, but to make others cool," he says. "You want to be cool by doing that empowerment.. It's the result that matters." Also see This is not your father's Microsoft (CNET)
"But the implication from your book is that Microsoft — I won't say the word "broken," but that there were some serious problems here. What was it that was so concerning to you?
It's interesting you say that, because in some sense Microsoft is one of these companies that have been super successful. One of the things that happens when you're super successful is you sometimes lose touch with what made you successful in the first place.

So if anything I wanted to not talk about what is broken. I wanted to go back to the very genesis of this company. What is that sense of purpose and drive that made us successful? What was the culture that may have been there in the very beginning or in the times when we were able to achieve that success. How do we really capture it? So that's why I think about it as the renaissance as much as about fixing something that's broken."
Microsoft's CEO on helping a faded legend find a 'sense of purpose' -- CNET

Videogame Developers Are Making It Harder to Stop Playing -- WSJ

From a gaming reality check
"Videogames are more popular than ever. Game-software revenue rose 80% between 2013 and 2017 to $97.6 billion world-wide, and this year is projected to reach $108.4 billion, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. By comparison, spending at the box office and on home-movie entertainment reached a global record of $88.4 billion in 2017, according to the latest data available from the Motion Picture Association of America.

Among the biggest changes fueling more interest in videogames is that many, such as the megahit “Fortnite,” encourage players to socialize, acting as social hot spots that are replacing malls and other teen hangouts."
Videogame Developers Are Making It Harder to Stop Playing -- WSJ

Twitch Prime members will lose ad-free viewing next month -- The Verge

See this Twitch blog post for details
"Twitch Prime, the streaming video site’s Amazon-style benefits program, will no longer include ad-free viewing as a complimentary perk starting on September 14th, the company announced today. Initially launched two years ago as a suite of benefits for Amazon Prime subscribers, Twitch Prime has grown into a more robust platform that offers free games, in-game loot for select titles, and a monthly channel subscription credit that can be awarded to a streamer of the member’s choice.

All those perks are remaining part of Twitch Prime, and the only aspect of the service that is changing going forward is the ad-free viewing. Twitch describes the decision as a way to help better support streamers. “Advertising is an important source of support for the creators who make Twitch possible. This change will strengthen and expand that advertising opportunity for creators so they can get more support from their viewers for doing what they love,” reads the company’s blog post."
Twitch Prime members will lose ad-free viewing next month -- The Verge

Microsoft says it has found a Russian operation targeting U.S. political institutions -- The Washington Post

Also see We are taking new steps against broadening threats to democracy (Microsoft Blog)
"“This apparent spear-phishing attempt against the International Republican Institute and other organizations is consistent with the campaign of meddling that the Kremlin has waged against organizations that support democracy and human rights,” said Daniel Twining, IRI’s president, who put blame on Russian President Vladi­mir Putin. “It is clearly designed to sow confusion, conflict and fear among those who criticize Mr. Putin’s authoritarian regime.”
The move by Microsoft is the latest effort by Silicon Valley to address Russian threats to the coming election more aggressively than the technology industry did in 2016, when many woke up to the seriousness and sophistication of disinformation efforts only after Americans had voted. Companies and U.S. officials have vowed to work together more closely this year. Facebook recently disclosed that the company had taken down 32 fake accounts and pages that were tied to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian disinformation operation active before and after the 2016 election."
Microsoft says it has found a Russian operation targeting U.S. political institutions -- The Washington Post

Monday, August 20, 2018

Amazon Is Planning Live TV Recorder, Challenging TiVo -- Bloomberg

In other Amazon news, Amazon Is Ready to Take on Apple and Spotify in Streaming Music (Bloomberg)
"The device, dubbed "Frank" inside Amazon, is a new type of digital video recorder for the streaming era. It would include physical storage and connect to Amazon’s existing Fire TV boxes, the living room hub for the company’s online video efforts, according to the person. They asked not to be identified discussing unannounced product details. An Amazon spokeswoman declined to comment.

The Frank DVR has the same wireless technology that Amazon’s Echo speakers use to connect to Fire TV boxes. Users will be able to record live TV and stream the video to a smartphone so it can be watched later. That functionality is similar to offerings from TiVo and Dish Network Corp.’s Slingbox. Amazon hasn’t made a final decision on rolling out the streaming feature, the person said, noting that the plans could either be canceled or delayed.

TiVo shares fell as much as 10 percent in afternoon trading in New York."
Amazon Is Planning Live TV Recorder, Challenging TiVo --  Bloomberg

Google’s Brin Cops to Plan to Reclaim Lost Decade in China -- Bloomberg

Also see The employee backlash over Google’s censored search engine for China, explained (Vox)
"At Thursday’s meeting, Pichai argued that depriving Chinese people of access to Google products wouldn’t help. “I genuinely do believe we have a positive impact when we engage around the world and I don't see any reason why that would be different in China,” he said, according to a transcript of the meeting provided to Bloomberg.

Brin, who had driven the exodus in 2010, told the Wall Street Journal at the time that China’s policies of censorship and surveillance shared the "same earmarks of totalitarianism" as Soviet Russia, where he was born. On Thursday, he was more equivocal. He told employees in a rambling  explanation that questions about projects in China come up “every year or so” and “we experiment with what it might look like.” “There’s a handful of things we have been able to ship in China and that’s great,” he said. “You know, it’s slow-going and complicated.”"
Google’s Brin Cops to Plan to Reclaim Lost Decade in China --  Bloomberg

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey admits ‘left-leaning’ bias but says it doesn’t influence company policy -- The Washington Post

Also see 'We won't let that happen:' Trump alleges social media censorship of conservatives (Politico)
"“The real question behind the question is, ‘Are we doing something according to political ideology or viewpoints?’ And we are not. Period,” Dorsey said. “We do not look at content with regards to political viewpoint or ideology. We look at behavior.”

“We need to constantly show that we are not adding our own bias, which I fully admit is more left-leaning,” he added. “And I think it’s important to articulate our own bias and to share it with people so that people understand us. But we need to remove our bias from how we act and our policies and our enforcement.”"
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey admits ‘left-leaning’ bias but says it doesn’t influence company policy -- The Washington Post

Elon Musk Defends Punishing Pace as Tesla Saga Enters Third Week -- Bloomberg

Also see Tesla Slashes Spending, and May Add to Its Troubles (NYT) and ‘He’s not unlike the president’: How Elon Musk shapes Tesla coverage (The Washington Post)
"The exchange underscores Musk’s determination to lead Tesla through the turmoil that accelerated after his Aug. 7 tweet suggesting he’d secured funding to take the firm private at $420 a share. Rather than soaring toward that value, the stock has since plummeted 20 percent -- dipping blow $300 in early trading Monday -- amid an unraveling of parts of Musk’s story unravel and mounting pressure on Tesla’s board for its handling of the iconic CEO. Nothing will get easier this week as he and Tesla’s board align with their separate sets of legal and financial advisers, all amid inquiries from U.S. securities regulators.

On Sunday, the picture became a little more complicated. Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund -- the very investor that Musk described as a linchpin of his plan to take Tesla private -- was reported by Reuters to consider buying a stake in another U.S. electric-car company. The Saudis’ Public Investment Fund, which recently bought an almost 5 percent holding in Tesla, was reported to be in talks for a separate $1 billion investment in Lucid Motors Inc. that would give the fund control of that fledgling automaker."
Elon Musk Defends Punishing Pace as Tesla Saga Enters Third Week -- Bloomberg

After the Cryptocurrency Boom: Hard Lessons for New Investors -- NYT

From a timely *coin reality check
"The virtual currency markets have been through booms and busts before — and recovered to boom again. But this bust could have a more lasting impact on the technology’s adoption because of the sheer number of ordinary people who invested in digital tokens over the last year, and who are likely to associate cryptocurrencies with financial ruin for a very long time.

“What the average Joe hears is how friends lost fortunes,” said Alex Kruger, a former banker who has been trading in the cryptocurrency markets for some time. “Irrational exuberance leads to financial overhang and slows progress.”"
Cryptocurrency Boom: Hard Lessons for New Investors -- NYT

Friday, August 17, 2018

When China Rules the Web -- Foreign Affairs

From a detailed China + internet reality check; see China's plan to control the future of the internet (Axios) for a summary
"China’s continued rise as a cyber-superpower is not guaranteed. Top-down, state-led efforts at innovation in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, robotics, and other ambitious technologies may well fail. Chinese technology companies will face economic and political pressures as they globalize. Chinese citizens, although they appear to have little expectation of privacy from their government, may demand more from private firms. The United States may reenergize its own digital diplomacy, and the U.S. economy may rediscover the dynamism that allowed it create so much of the modern world’s technology.

But given China’s size and technological sophistication, Beijing has a good chance of succeeding—thereby remaking cyberspace in its own image. If this happens, the Internet will be less global and less open. A major part of it will run Chinese applications over Chinese-made hardware. And Beijing will reap the economic, diplomatic, national security, and intelligence benefits that once flowed to Washington."
When China Rules the Web -- Foreign Affairs

Facebook has a plan to protect the U.S. midterms. Is it enough? -- Recode

Also see ‘Weaponized Ad Technology’: Facebook’s Moneymaker Gets a Critical Eye (NYT)
"Will Facebook be ready? The company says it’s moving quickly on its plan — which includes a physical war room to monitor the elections from its corporate headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. — and has promised to double the number of safety and security employees on staff to 20,000 people. Facebook says it’s spending so much money monitoring political ads that it will actually hurt profits.

But Facebook is also running out of time to execute its plan. With the midterms less than three months away, it’s almost go time.

“When over half of Americans get their news from Facebook, it’s pretty damn important,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Vir., who has been one of the country’s most outspoken critics of Facebook’s role in elections. “We’re starting to see the enormous success of the Trump campaign in using social media. I think it’s changing the paradigm.”"
Facebook has a plan to protect the U.S. midterms. Is it enough? -- Recode

Twitter officially kills off key features in third-party apps -- The Verge

Also see Twitter’s fear of making hard decisions is killing it (The Verge)
"After years of warnings and several delays, Twitter finally made good today on its promise to kill off key features of popular streaming apps. In a blog post today, Twitter said it would remove access to APIs needed to power push notifications and an auto-refreshing timeline. Rob Johnson, a director of product, said Twitter would stop supporting those APIs so it could focus on its own native applications.

The changes affect popular third-party Twitter apps including Tweetbot, Twitterrific, Talon, and Tweetings. As Johnson wrote in a separate note to the company, third-party apps invented many features that were later adopted by the company in its native apps.

“Third-party clients have had a notable impact on the Twitter service and the products we build,” he wrote. “Independent developers built the first Twitter client for Mac and the first native app for iPhone. These clients pioneered product features we all know and love about Twitter, like mute, the pull-to-refresh gesture, and more.”"
Twitter officially kills off key features in third-party apps -- The Verge

Google CEO Tells Staff China Plans Are ‘Exploratory’ After Backlash -- Bloomberg

Later in the article: "“Our stated mission is to organize the world’s information,” Pichai said, according to the transcript. “China is one-fifth of the world’s population. I think if we were to do our mission well, I think we have to think seriously about how we do more in China.”"
"Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai told employees at a meeting that plans to re-enter China with a search engine are “exploratory” and in “early stages,” addressing a topic that has exploded with controversy. Google co-founder Sergey Brin also spoke to the staff Thursday at the company’s all-hands meeting, saying that Google isn’t compromising its principles.

The accounts came from two people familiar with the discussion at the meeting of the Alphabet Inc. unit. They asked not to be identified talking about private matters. Google didn’t respond to requests for comment. The discussion at the all-hands meeting was the first time Google executives addressed the company’s plans for a possible return to China.

“We are not close to launching a search product in China,” Pichai said, according to a transcript of the meeting provided to Bloomberg. “And whether we would do so or could so is all very unclear.”"
Google CEO Tells Staff China Plans Are ‘Exploratory’ After Backlash -- Bloomberg

Microsoft and Amazon made their voice assistants into friends. Here’s how that relationship works. -- The Washington Post

Voicing capitulation?...
"But how does this relationship of rivals work? The voice assistants will only be used to “wake” the other one up. In other words, customers have to say either “Cortana, open Alexa” or “Alexa, open Cortana.” From there, people can talk to the other assistant as usual.

The integration is available through Echo devices, Windows 10 devices and Microsoft’s Harman Kardon Cortana speaker. Someone with an Alexa-powered speaker, for example, can open Cortana to check for new emails in Outlook or set up appointments for their calendar. It’s also possible to ask Alexa through your Window PC to flip on your lights or check your order status."
Microsoft and Amazon made their voice assistants into friends. Here’s how that relationship works. -- The Washington Post

Elon Musk Confronts a Fateful Tesla Tweet and an ‘Excruciating’ Year -- NYT

Final paragraphs; also see Kara Swisher's Elon Musk Is the Id of Tech (NYT)
"In response to questions for this article, Tesla provided a statement that it attributed to its board, excluding Elon Musk. “There have been many false and irresponsible rumors in the press about the discussions of the Tesla board,” the statement said. “We would like to make clear that Elon’s commitment and dedication to Tesla is obvious. Over the past 15 years, Elon’s leadership of the Tesla team has caused Tesla to grow from a small start-up to having hundreds of thousands of cars on the road that customers love, employing tens of thousands of people around the world, and creating significant shareholder value in the process.”

Mr. Musk said he had no plans to relinquish his dual roles as chairman and chief executive.
But, he added, “if you have anyone who can do a better job, please let me know. They can have the job. Is there someone who can do the job better? They can have the reins right now.”"
Elon Musk Confronts a Fateful Tesla Tweet and an ‘Excruciating’ Year -- NYT

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Uber reportedly lost $891 million in the second quarter of 2018 as growth slows -- The Verge

I'm guessing VCs are seeing fewer "We intend to be the Uber of ..." pitches these days
"Uber is planning for an initial public offering in the second half of 2019, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has said. That could be complicated by Uber’s habit of burning large quantities of cash. The company lost $4.5 billion last year, and has burned through $11 billion since launching in 2009. But Uber still has $7.3 billion cash on hand, according to Bloomberg, which certainly gives it some running room before an IPO.

Bloomberg characterized the report as Khosrowshahi embracing the company’s “growth above profit” ethos. But it has cast a spotlight on some of Uber’s more expensive, trouble-prone projects. Specifically, the company’s beleaguered self-driving car operation is said to be losing as much as $200 million a quarter, The Information reported today. And Bloomberg noted that Uber is being urged by investors to off-load the unit.

Khosrowshahi has made moves to diversify the business since taking the reins nearly a year ago. Earlier this year, Uber acquired dockless bike-share company Jump and is preparing to launch its own electric scooter sharing service as well."
Uber reportedly lost $891 million in the second quarter of 2018 as growth slows -- The Verge

Tencent’s Rout This Year Has Wiped Out Over $175 Billion in Market Value -- WSJ

Also see Tencent, the Chinese Internet Giant, Stumbles. Beijing Gets the Blame (NYT)
"Tencent, which owns China’s highly popular social-messaging app WeChat, a day earlier reported a 2% decline in second-quarter income to 17.9 billion yuan ($2.6 billion). Its revenue rose 30% to 73.7 billion yuan, but that also missed most analysts’ forecasts. The company said its games business has been hindered by a regulatory restructuring of two Chinese government agencies that oversee videogame content, leading to delays in game approvals.

The shares, which closed Thursday at 325.80 Hong Kong dollars ($41.51), are now down by nearly a third from their record high in January, when Tencent’s market capitalization climbed to $572 billion and surpassed that of U.S. social-media giant Facebook Inc.

The selloff has sparked fears of whether there will be broader contagion for tech stocks around the world. U.S.-listed Chinese tech giants such as Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Baidu Inc. also fell on Wednesday, pushing deeper into negative territory for the year."
Tencent’s Rout This Year Has Wiped Out Over $175 Billion in Market Value -- WSJ

Amazon in Running to Acquire Landmark Movie Chain -- Bloomberg

Tbd if the concession stands would offer free bananas...
"The company is vying with other suitors to acquire the business from Wagner/Cuban Cos., which is backed by billionaire Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner, according to the people, who asked not to be identified because the discussions are private. The chain’s owners have been working with investment banker Stephens Inc. on a possible sale, the people said. No final decisions have been made, and talks could still fall apart.

Pushing into movie theaters would follow Amazon’s expansion into myriad other forms of media, including a film and TV studio and music service. With Landmark, it gets a chain focused on independent and foreign films that was founded in 1974. The company has more than 50 theaters, including high-profile locations in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, with about 250 screens in 27 markets."
Amazon in Running to Acquire Landmark Movie Chain -- Bloomberg

Jack Dorsey says he’s rethinking the core of how Twitter works -- The Washington Post

Setting (low) expectations, later in the article: "With more limited resources than Facebook or Google, though, Twitter has to be selective about its investments in safety. “Choosing to do one of them comes at a cost of not doing something else because of the number of resources we have,” Dorsey said."
"In an interview with The Washington Post on Wednesday, Dorsey said he was experimenting with features that would promote alternative viewpoints in Twitter’s timeline to address misinformation and reduce “echo chambers.” He also expressed openness to labeling bots — automated accounts that sometimes pose as human users — and redesigning key elements of the social network, including the “like” button and the way Twitter displays users’ follower counts.

“The most important thing that we can do is we look at the incentives that we’re building into our product,” Dorsey said. “Because they do express a point of view of what we want people to do — and I don't think they are correct anymore.”"
Jack Dorsey says he’s rethinking the core of how Twitter works -- The Washington Post

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Nearly 50k people have blocked Twitter’s biggest advertisers over the Alex Jones debacle (and you can too) (TNW)

Three clicks to send a message to Twitter management
"It’s the type of feel-good measure one might take when wishing there were something they could do, while not really considering the general apathy of most internet users. The goal, she hints, is to put the screws to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, applying pressure until the platform reverses course and bans Alex Jones.

But Coulter, an industry veteran, understands the typical internet user. She’s not asking anyone to “go forth and do things” that might interrupt hot yoga, or cost more than a pumpkin spice latte. She’s calling on the internet to do what it does best: Be pissed, so long as it doesn’t take a lot of effort.

By clicking a custom link (this link) Coulter’s done all the hard work for you and promises to continue doing it until Jones is banned. The call to action asks Twitter users to click the link, smash the button that says “Block All and Subscribe” and then click the blue “Authorize App” section. In doing so, you’re blocking each of Twitter‘s biggest advertisers, without actually having to, you know, do stuff."
Nearly 50k people have blocked Twitter’s biggest advertisers over the Alex Jones debacle (and you can too) (TNW)

Amazon Has YouTube Envy (Bloomberg)

Something to watch
"YouTube has become synonymous with online video and the lucrative advertising that it commands. Amazon.com Inc.’s Twitch streaming site is the go-to place for the much smaller audience of video gaming enthusiasts. Now, in a bid to grab a larger slice of the online advertising pie, Amazon has decided to aggressively broaden the programming on Twitch to take on its video rival.
[...]
For now, it’s a David vs. Goliath battle. YouTube, the largest advertising-supported video site in the world, has about 1.9 billion monthly viewers; Twitch gets about 15 million a day. But the Amazon unit gives creators multiple ways of making money, including paid subscriptions (a feature YouTube added in response), and offers advertisers the appeal of a live, engaged audience. Amazon, which saw its ad sales in the first quarter exceed $2 billion for the first time mostly by selling “sponsored products” slots during product searches, analysts estimate, has already become a credible contender in online advertising to Google and Facebook Inc."
Amazon Has YouTube Envy (Bloomberg)

WhatsApp Co-Founder’s ‘Rest and Vest’ Reward From Facebook: $450 Million -- WSJ

That should help fund his collection of "rare air-cooled Porsches"
"As part of selling WhatsApp to Facebook, Mr. Koum earned about 24.85 million restricted shares, according to his offer letter filed to the Securities and Exchange Commission at the time. The stock has vested in quarterly increments, with the final period taking place in mid-November of this year.

In mid-May, Mr. Koum collected 2.5 million shares worth about $458 million at the time, according to a securities filing. In mid-August, he is set to collect another 2.5 million shares, or about $450 million at Facebook’s stock price of $181 at Tuesday’s close.

The stock awards have been contingent on Mr. Koum being employed at Facebook during that time, or “subject to continued service to us through each vesting date,” according to one Facebook securities filing. Mr. Koum fulfilled that requirement by showing up at Facebook headquarters about once a month, according to two people familiar with the matter. It is unclear what he did on his days in the office or how long he stayed."
WhatsApp Co-Founder’s ‘Rest and Vest’ Reward From Facebook: $450 Million -- WSJ

Verizon Is Close to Apple, Google Deals for 5G TV -- Bloomberg

Excerpts:
"Verizon Communications Inc. announced deals making Apple Inc. and Google its first video providers for a superfast 5G wireless service the company plans to launch in four cities later this year.

The home broadband service will debut in Los Angeles, Houston and Sacramento, California, as well as the newly announced fourth city of Indianapolis, Verizon said Tuesday in a statement. With the introduction, Verizon will provide 5G customers either a free Apple TV box or free subscription to Google’s YouTube TV app for live television service, according to people familiar with the plan.
[...]
Verizon Chairman Lowell McAdam, who handed the title of chief executive officer over to Hans Vestberg this month, staked out a different path than AT&T and Comcast, which have acquired movies and TV programming by spending billions purchasing media companies. McAdam chose to develop a mobile media and advertising venture through the purchase of AOL and Yahoo! For video entertainment, he’s seeking allies, not assets.

“It’s our belief that we’re positioned perfectly to have the partnerships that we need to be successful,” McAdam said on an earnings conference call last month when he addressed the 5G video plan. “We’re not going to be owning content, so we’re not going to be competing with other content providers. We’re going to be their best partner from a distribution perspective.”"
Verizon Is Close to Apple, Google Deals for 5G TV -- Bloomberg

A Twitter staffer spoke out about “failing” company leadership — on Twitter -- Vox

See the full article for details; also see Twitter Suspends Alex Jones for Seven Days Over Tweet (NYT)
"The controversy over Twitter’s refusal to ban far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones continues to expand — with many users speaking out against the site’s confusing and often contradictory policies. Increasingly, this even includes members of Twitter staff who’ve voiced their frustrations on the platform they’re working hard to save.
The latest staffer to speak out is an engineer named Jared Gaut, who announced in a viral Monday-evening thread — one that he addressed directly to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey — that he would be logging out of Twitter and deleting the app to send a message about his company’s flailing direction."
A Twitter staffer spoke out about “failing” company leadership — on Twitter -- Vox