Start up: Gov.uk vetoes apps, Buzzfeed nixes Trump ads, Twitter’s growth trouble, and more

We’ve got some bad news about the BlackBerry Priv. Photo by liewcf on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Why Britain banned mobile apps • GovInsider

Joshua Chambers spoke to Ben Terrett, former design chief at the UK’s Government Digital Service, which often acted as a sort of “tiger team” to fix big or little projects that had got bogged down in spec-land:

»Key to the GDS’ approach is designing for user needs, not organizational requirements, Terrett says. “That is how good digital services designed and built these days. That is how everyone does it, whether that’s google or facebook or British Airways or whoever.”

The problem is that public sector agencies tend not to design with citizens in mind. “Things are just designed to suit the very silos that the project sits in, and the user gets lost in there,” Terrett adds.

For example, opening a restaurant might require multiple permits from different agencies. A good digital service should combine them all in one place.

Focusing on user needs also needs officials to cut bad ideas out. Most Ministers might want there to be sharing options on websites so that citizens can easily promote government on Facebook and Twitter. But the GDS tested this, and found that only 0.1% of citizens ever clicked on them. These stats allowed officials to remove them from the design, making the site simpler, cleaner and quicker to load.

«

The mobile apps stuff? Because then you have to update them for each version of each platform. Responsive websites are better.
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BlackBerry Priv is faring worse than expected • CNET

Roger Cheng:

»”The BlackBerry Priv is really struggling,” the high-level executive [at AT&T], who asked not to be named, said last week. “We’ve seen more returns than we would like.”

Wireless carriers are seldom publicly critical of their handset partners, and the sobering comments offer a rare glimpse into the troubles BlackBerry faces with the Priv, which is the first of its phones to run on Google’s Android software. BlackBerry, once a global leader in smartphones, hoped the Priv, which features a slide-out physical keyboard, would at least get the company back on its feet in the mobile devices business…

…BlackBerry and the carrier expected to see demand for an Android phone with a physical keyboard. Instead, most of the buyers were BlackBerry loyalists, the executive said. Those faithful, however, struggled with the transition from the BlackBerry operating system to the Android operating system, leading to a higher-than-expected rate of return.

BlackBerry’s decision to market the phone as a high-end device also hurt its prospects, the executive said. The Priv initially sold unlocked for $699, above the starting price of the iPhone 6S, which sells for $650. Few premium phones have fared well beyond devices from Apple and Samsung.

“There isn’t much volume growth in the premium segment, where Apple and Samsung dominate,” the executive said.

«

The Priv camera app on the Google Play store still has fewer than 500,000 downloads globally, having launched in November. That’s seven months on sale. BlackBerry’s hardware division is a money pit. (BlackBerry’s fiscal first quarter ran to the end of May. Results later this month.)
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Why the economic payoff from technology is so elusive • The New York Times

Steve Lohr:

»for several years, economists have asked why all that technical wizardry seems to be having so little impact on the economy. The issue surfaced again recently, when the government reported disappointingly slow growth and continuing stagnation in productivity. The rate of productivity growth from 2011 to 2015 was the slowest since the five-year period ending in 1982.

One place to look at this disconnect is in the doctor’s office. Dr. Peter Sutherland, a family physician in Tennessee, made the shift to computerized patient records from paper in the last few years. There are benefits to using electronic health records, Dr. Sutherland says, but grappling with the software and new reporting requirements has slowed him down. He sees fewer patients, and his income has slipped.

“I’m working harder and getting a little less,” he said.

The productivity puzzle has given rise to a number of explanations in recent years — and divided economists into technology pessimists and optimists…

…Some economists insist the problem is largely a measurement gap, because many digital goods and services are not accurately captured in official statistics. But a recent study by two economists from the Federal Reserve and one from the International Monetary Fund casts doubt on that theory.

«

So much doubt, so little clarity. The most likely explanation? Technology actually hasn’t gotten that far into the economy.

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BuzzFeed pulls out of $1.3M advertising deal with RNC over Donald Trump • POLITICO

Hadas Gold, Mike Allen and Alex Spence:

»In an email to staff on Monday, BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti explained that in April, the RNC and BuzzFeed signed an agreement to “spend a significant amount on political advertisements slated to run during the Fall election cycle.” But since Trump became the nominee his campaign has proven themselves to be “directly opposed to the freedoms of our employees in the United States,” because of proposed bans on Muslim immigration and comments about descendants of immigrants, among other policies.

“We don’t need to and do not expect to agree with the positions or values of all our advertisers. And as you know, there is a wall between our business and editorial operations. This decision to cancel this ad buy will have no influence on our continuing coverage of the campaign,” Peretti said in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by POLITICO.

“We certainly don’t like to turn away revenue that funds all the important work we do across the company,” Peretti wrote. “However, in some cases we must make business exceptions: we don’t run cigarette ads because they are hazardous to our health, and we won’t accept Trump ads for the exact same reason.”

«

Peretti knows Buzzfeed’s audience, though, and knows accepting the ads would be bad for the site’s long-term health.
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How to vote in the EU referendum • Martin Lewis’ Blog…

Lewis is an ex-Financial Times journalist who set up the Moneysavingexpert.com website, which has brought him great respect from the wider public as someone who understands money, understands the economy, and isn’t in anyone’s pockets. So his post on this was greatly anticipated:

»My mailbag’s been drowning with questions and concerns. The biggest being: “Please just tell us the facts, what’ll happen if we leave?” I’m sorry, but the most important thing to understand is: there are no facts about what happens next.

Anyone who tells you they KNOW what’ll happen if we leave the EU is a liar. Predicting exact numbers for economic, immigration or house price change is nonsense. What’s proposed is unprecedented. All the studies, models and hypotheses are based on assumptions – that’s guesstimate and hope.

So accept the need to wrestle with uncertainty. The EU referendum is far from a black and white issue; there are more shades of grey than E L James’s bookshelf.

Frustratingly though, most politicians try to come across as doubt-free. Those pro-EU pout that all elements are good, while those against frown at them. Yet like life, it’s a mix, and the debate would be better if both sides admitted that.

«

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A statement on my position • Jacob Appelbaum

Writing in Berlin, Appelbaum, who left the Tor project last week, says:

»Vague rumors and smear campaigns against me are nothing new. As a longtime public advocate for free speech and a secure internet, there have been plenty of attempts to undermine my work over the years.

Now, however, these unsubstantiated and unfounded attacks have become so aggressive that I feel it’s necessary to set the record straight. Not only have I been the target of a fake website in my name that has falsely accused me of serious crimes, but I have also received death threats (including a Twitter handle entitled ‘TimeToDieJake’).

I think it’s extremely damaging to the community that these character-assassination tactics are being deployed, especially given their ugly history of being used against fellow members of the LGBT community. It pains me to watch the community to which I’ve dedicated so much of my life engage in such self-destructive behavior. Nonetheless, I am prepared to use legal channels, if necessary, to defend my reputation from these libelous accusations.

I want to be clear: the accusations of criminal sexual misconduct against me are entirely false.

«

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New York Times ‘exploring’ ad-free digital subscription • AdAge

Jeremy Barr:

»The New York Times is “exploring the possibility” of selling an ad-free digital subscription package, chief executive Mark Thompson said at the IAB Ad Blocking & User Experience Summit Monday.

“We do want to offer all of our users as much choice as we can, and we recognize that there are some users — both subscribers and non-subscribers — who would prefer to have an ad-free experience,” he said, according to a copy of his remarks provided in advance to Ad Age. (The all-day summit, which is intended for publishers, is not open to the press.)

«

Love the irony in that last sentence. The article’s conclusion:

»Generally speaking, Mr. Thompson said marketers “need to think like programmers rather than as traditional advertisers,” by “offering consumers content which actually has value to them.”

Advertising will always be a vital revenue source for the Times, he said, pointing out that some 107 million of the 110 million people who access the Times are not paid subscribers.

«

Hm.
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Twitter’s anti-Semitism problem is exactly why Twitter has a growth problem — Quartz

Paul Smalera:

»[New York Times reporter Jonathan] Weisman, in his story about being attacked [by anti-Semites], writes that, “An official at Twitter encouraged me to block the anti-Semites and report them to Twitter.” In other words, Twitter’s advice to users is that they police the hate themselves. It’s not an awful idea to ask users to report abuse, but the problem is that Twitter trolls can open up new accounts just as fast as Twitter closes down old ones. And with the power of search, newly opened accounts can quickly regain the followers and reach that shuttered ones had.

I haven’t signed up for Twitter or Facebook accounts for years, so I quickly opened up a browser in anonymous mode and went through the signup processes for each. Facebook stopped me several times, prompting me to use my real name. I had put in “Bad Guy” as my name, and eventually had to change it to “Badrick Guyowski” to get the service to let me in. Even when I was able to create an account, Facebook access was limited until I confirmed my email address–which was impossible for me to do, since I had entered a fake one. In essence, Mark Zuckerberg’s social network is inaccessible to someone who is not willing to part with at least some pieces of information that can be tied back to a real world identity.

Meanwhile, Twitter accepted these credentials to allow me to create an account, without protest, and without a phone number.

«

Because Twitter has a growth problem, though, it can’t tackle its anti-Semitism problem. Wall Street is worried about its growth, so anything it does that might slow that “growth” looks bad, even if it improves the quality of the network, and so its attractiveness to the users who are already there, or aren’t there.
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A May 2016 look at Big Five ebook pricing Author Earnings

“Data Guy”:

»One of the key points we made in our recent DBW presentation was that higher ebook prices end up hurting newer debut authors far more than they hurt long-established authors, who already have existing fanbases and sustainable writing careers — especially those perennial bestsellers who have managed to become household names. We could see in our data clear indications that, between 2014 and 2016, higher prices had progressively damaged the earnings of new Big Five debuts, and even more crucially, crippled their *discoverability* — that all-important key to establishing the brand-new readership and fanbase necessary to establishing a long-term writing career. The triptych of slides below make that case with glaring starkness: in them, we can see Big Five debut authors dropping from 22% of ebook sales by debut authors in early 2014, down to barely 9% of those vital, career-launching initial sales in early 2016.

«

I wonder if ebooks have some lessons for app stores – as ebooks have been around for slightly longer, though with less volume, and so might have worked out the trends that app stores are revealing. Discoverability matter, but people won’t spend on things they’re not familiar with already.
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Google misfires as it aims to turn Star Trek fiction into reality • Stat

Charles Piller:

»Google employees, squeezed onto metal risers and standing in the back of a meeting room, erupted in cheers as newly arrived executive Andrew Conrad announced they would try to turn science fiction into reality: The tech giant had formed a biotech venture to create a futuristic device like Star Trek’s iconic “Tricorder” diagnostic wizard — and use it to cure cancer.

Conrad, recalled an employee who was present, displayed images on the room’s big screens showing nanoparticles tracking down cancer cells in the bloodstream and flashing signals to a Fitbit-style wristband. He promised a working prototype of the cancer early-detection device within six months.

That was three years ago. Recently departed employees said the prototype didn’t work as hoped, and the Tricorder project is floundering.

Tricorder is not the only misfire for Google’s ambitious and extravagantly funded biotech venture, now named Verily Life Sciences. It has announced three signature projects meant to transform medicine, and a STAT examination found that all of them are plagued by serious, if not fatal, scientific shortcomings, even as Verily has vigorously promoted their promise.

The Tricorder, as Conrad and others at Verily call the device, is “in the realm of not only science fiction, but beyond that — science fantasy,” said David Walt, a Tufts University chemistry professor and nanoscience expert who met with Verily scientists and engineers last year to share his concerns. “And I’m not sure it will ever be science reality.”

The company has also touted a glucose-sensing contact lens as a substitute for frequent blood tests on diabetics, but independent experts said it is scientifically dubious at best.

It claims a billion-dollar “Baseline” study of human health will define what it means to be healthy and help identify early signs of disease. But researchers said design weaknesses make these lofty goals far-fetched.

Largely through Verily, Google has positioned itself to be a giant in life sciences by marrying technology and big data with science to cure diseases that have, so far, defied the best minds. But its setbacks and prominent scientists’ skepticism call into question this vision of the future of medicine.

«

Piller has gone into this thoroughly. Verily starts to look like a clunker. (They’ve featured here before, also through Piller, who noted that Conrad was “divisive”. Sounds familiar somehow.)
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Nest’s time at Alphabet: A “virtually unlimited budget” with no results • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo peers over the smoking ruins:

»It’s hard to argue with the decision to “transition” [founder and chief executive Tony] Fadell away from Nest. When Google bought Nest in January 2014, the expectation was that a big infusion of Google’s resources and money would supercharge Nest. Nest grew from 280 employees around the time of the Google acquisition to 1200 employees today. In Nest’s first year as “a Google company,” it used Google’s resources to acquire webcam maker Dropcam for $555m, and it paid an unknown amount for the smart home hub company Revolv. Duffy said Nest was given a “virtually unlimited budget” inside Alphabet. Nest eventually transitioned to an Alphabet company, just like Google.

In return for all this investment, Nest delivered very little. The Nest Learning Thermostat and Nest Protect smoke detector both existed before the Google acquisition, and both received minor upgrades under Google’s (and later Alphabet’s) wing. A year after buying Dropcam, Nest released the Nest Cam, which was basically a rebranded Dropcam. Two-and-a-half years under Google/Alphabet, a quadrupling of the employee headcount, and half-a-billion dollars in acquisitions yielded minor yearly updates and a rebranded device. That’s all.

«

Didn’t make an “audio device”, didn’t come up with a home hub language or door sensor or window sensor. Too much money can be bad for a startup.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida:

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