Start Up: curved iPhones?, smartphone sales struggle, Pixels perform, Valley’s empathy miss, and more


Smartphones have arrived in Myanmar – and it’s been a hell of a shock to the system. Photo by Asian Development Bank on Flickr.

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A selection of 13 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The danger of a device-based approach to assistants • Tech.pinions

Jan Dawson:

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Amazon’s Echo began life as the only home of its personal assistant, Alexa and, although Alexa is now available on several other devices, my guess is the vast majority of users still equate the assistant with the device. Google, meanwhile, has made Google Home the entry point for its own Google Assistant and, for many people, Home is the only place they’ll be able to experience the Assistant for now, given the low uptake of the Allo messaging app and the high barriers to smartphone switching.

The downside here is, as people equate the assistant with the device, they will also equate failures by the assistant with failures of the device. When the entire purpose of a device like Echo or Home is to act as an assistant, to the extent the assistant fails to do its job, the device becomes useless. This is, importantly, very different from the likely reaction to failure by Siri or Cortana, which are mere features on devices that do much more. If we’re unhappy with Siri’s performance, we might well fall back on other ways to interact with our devices or be more selective in the scenarios for which we use Siri rather than the touchscreen because we have options. We may also choose to try again at a later time when the software has been updated because the assistant is still there on the device we’re using for lots of other things. But a device whose sole purpose is to be a good voice assistant and fails at that one job fails entirely and we will likely be tempted to return it or, at the least, put it away.

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The problem with a voice-based assistant: how do you correct it? Where do you see what it thinks you said?
link to this extract


What is the future of free trade? Five facts about US trade policy • Brookings Institution

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3. Technology, not international trade, is the primary force behind lost manufacturing jobs.

Many are quick to blame trade for a loss of jobs in the manufacturing sector, yet Solís affirms that the predominant force behind losses in manufacturing employment has been technological change (85 percent), not international trade. As she explains, automation has transformed the American factory, and the advent of new technologies (like robotics and 3D printing) has rendered many low-skilled jobs unnecessary.

Metropolitan Policy Program Senior Fellow Mark Muro also examined this trend in a recent post, pointing out that the total inflation-adjusted output of the U.S. manufacturing sector is actually higher today than it has ever been, even though the sector’s employment growth has remained relatively stagnant.

“These diverging lines—which reflect the sector’s improved productivity—highlight a huge problem with Trump’s promises to help workers by reshoring millions of manufacturing jobs [by renegotiating trade deals],” Muro argues. “America is already producing a lot. And in any event, the return of more manufacturing won’t bring back many jobs because the labor is increasingly being done by robots.”

And Solís agrees: “Simply put, we are producing more with fewer people.”

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link to this extract


Opera inserts advertising into your bookmarks • Terence Eden’s Blog

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Last week I was scrolling through my bookmarks, when I found a curious addition – “Breaking News”.

I didn’t remember adding that bookmark. I suppose I might have done it by mistake…? Let’s take a look at where it goes.

Oh. An advert. Shoved into my bookmarks by Opera.

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Guess who doesn’t use Opera any more?

Possibly related: a Chinese consortium recently bought Opera for about $1.2bn.
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Google will generate $4 billion in 2017 from the Pixel • Business Insider

Hannah Roberts:

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Morgan Stanley has estimated that Google’s new smartphone, the Pixel, will generate $3.8 billion in revenue for the company in 2017.

The estimate is based on the expectation that Google will sell around 5-6 million Pixels next year, which retail between $649 and $869.

The bank also projected that Google will sell 3 million Pixels in the last three months of 2016, generating $2 billion.

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That’s implying it will sell all the phones that HTC made for it this quarter, which sounds about right. And there should be a fair profit from them too at that price.
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4G smartphones to surpass 1 billion mark in shipments for 2016 as emerging markets play catch up • IDC

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Worldwide smartphone shipments are expected to reach 1.45 billion units with a year-over-year growth rate of 0.6% in 2016 according to the latest forecast from the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker. Although growth remains positive, it is down significantly from the 10.4% growth in 2015.

However, 4G smartphones are still expected to show double-digit uptake at 21.3% year-over-year growth globally for 2016, reaching 1.17 billion units, up from 967 million in 2015. Much of this growth is coming from emerging markets (Asia/Pacific excluding Japan, Latin America, Central and Eastern Europe, and Middle East and Africa), where only 61% of 2015 smartphone shipments were 4G-enabled compared to IDC’s 2016 projection of 77%. Mature markets (USA, Canada, Japan, and Western Europe) are further along the 4G adoption curve with 85% in 2015 and a projected 94% in 2016, respectively.

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Stagnant growth. Not happening in less developed countries anything like as fast as it did before.

link to this extract


This is what happens when millions of people suddenly get the internet • BuzzFeed News

Sheera Frenkel in Yangon, Myanmar:

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The internet brought Donald Trump to Myanmar. Or, at least that’s how Shar Ya Wai first remembers hearing about the Republican president-elect.

“One day, nobody knew him. Then, everyone did. That’s what the internet is. It takes people who say crazy things and makes them famous,” the 19-year-old student said.

Like most people in this country of 50 million, which only recently opened up to the outside world, Shar Ya Wai is new to the internet. And on this day, she had walked purposefully into a phone shop in central Yangon to buy her first smartphone, a simple model by China’s Huawei that is popular among her friends. “Today I’ll buy this phone,” she said. “I guess I’ll find out how crazy [the internet] really is.”

It’s not that she’d never seen the internet before. She’d tried to stalk ex-boyfriends through a friend’s Facebook page and caught glimpses of the latest Thai pop bands on her uncle’s old tablet, which he bought secondhand a year ago. But her forays into the internet have been brief and largely left her perplexed. Here was a public space where everyone seemed to have so much to say, but it was disorganized, bombastic, overwhelming. It felt like the polar opposite of the quiet, sheltered life she’d lived until recently.

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Fascinating case study.
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Fight fake news and propaganda with data • CHANGE ADVERTISING INC’s Fundraiser

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We’re raising money for an annual subscription to a website data source that we hope our volunteers can use to figure out which ad networks are helping fund these sites spreading fake news and propaganda, and help shut them down. 

Our first investigative piece, The Clickbait Report, was featured in the New York Times and Fortune (see changeadvertising.org for details).

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Doesn’t need a huge amount. Go on, go on, go on.
link to this extract


Microsoft reveals minimum specs for their upcoming $300 VR headsets • UploadVR

Joe Durbin:

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These new, $300 HMDs are being made by the likes of Lenovo and they will be a small part of the Redwood companies big mission to turn Window’s holographic into a truly viable and competitive virtual reality platform. In advance of the new headsets release Microsoft has released a “First Run” application for Windows Holographic. The app does a few different things, but most importantly it reveals the minimum hardware specifications it will take to run the new batch of headsets. These are the requirements:

At least 4GB of RAM,
A USB 3.0 port,
A graphics card with DirectX 12 support,
4 CPU cores, including dual-core processors with hyperthreading.

These specs are quite generous and should fit the bill already for a large amount of current PC users. It doesn’t seem there will be a huge need for last-second hardware upgrades for those VR enthusiasts looking to snag one of the new systems.

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If that’s the minimum spec, what’s the experience going to be like?
link to this extract


Just how partisan is Facebook’s fake news? We tested it • PCWorld

Mark Hachman:

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To conduct our experiment, I opened Google Chrome in Incognito mode, then created two Gmail addresses. I then used both email addresses to register for new Facebook accounts—“Chris Smith” for Clinton, and “Todd White” for Trump. To eliminate hidden biases, I registered them both as white males, each with the same birthday. 

For Smith, I then Liked three people: Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and President Barack Obama. For White, I Liked Donald Trump, Mike Pence, and Newt Gingrich.

I then asked Facebook to recommend Pages to follow. Facebook provides two mechanisms for doing this: a “Like Pages” page in the left nav bar, which provides a visually compelling tiled layout of suggested Pages, and a similar list of suggested Pages next to the Pokes section. For each of my test profiles, I systematically selected the first, fourth, and seventh from the list of Pages next to Pokes. Then I added the first seven suggestions from Like Pages later that night, for a total of 10 across both avatars.

Note that I deliberately didn’t Like pages like alt-right news service Breitbart.com, as I wanted to see if other pages would reference them. (Surprisingly, they often didn’t.) I was testing what Facebook offered my avatars, more than what these avatars might actively solicit. I also made no friends on the service—again, to test Facebook, not other humans.

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This is depressing predictable, though it also confirms the idea that there’s no traction in pro-Clinton fake news.
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Genevieve Bell: ‘Humanity’s greatest fear is about being irrelevant’ • The Guardian

Ian Tucker asked the questions, such as:

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Q A lot of the work you do examines the intersection between the intended use of a device and how people actually use it – and examining the disconnection. Could you talk about something you’re researching at the moment?

I’m interested in how animals are connected to the internet and how we might be able to see the world from an animal’s point of view. There’s something very interesting in someone else’s vantage point, which might have a truth to it. For instance, the tagging of cows for automatic milking machines, so that the cows can choose when to milk themselves. Cows went from being milked twice a day to being milked three to six times a day, which is great for the farm’s productivity and results in happier cows, but it’s also faintly disquieting that the technology makes clear to us the desires of cows – making them visible in ways they weren’t before. So what does one do with that knowledge? One of the unintended consequences of big data and the internet of things is that some things will become visible and compel us to confront them.

Q Why is your Twitter handle “feraldata”?
I was castigating an Australian colleague about 10 years ago about how we talked about technology using British idioms. For example, we kept talking about the digital commons, yet Australia does not have an enclosure act.

So what are the Australian experiences we could use to talk about technology? I began to think about camels, goats and cats – lots of animals jumped the boats in Australia and created havoc by becoming feral. Would feral be an interesting way for thinking about how technology had unintended consequences? It occurred to me that of all the things that were most likely to go feral in the technological landscape it was data. It gets created in one context, is married with a third thing and finds itself in another.

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Bell is a wonder. I recall interviewing her back in the late 90s, when she pointed out how mobile use on buses would shape peoples’ behaviour. As an anthropologist, she always brings a fresh eye to topics.
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Apple iPhone With Curved Screen Could Come as Soon as Next Year – WSJ

Takashi Mochizuki in Tokyo and Eun-Young Jeong in Seoul:

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An iPhone with a curved screen could be on store shelves as soon as next year.

Apple’s suppliers say they have been asked to increase output of thinner organic light-emitting displays and submit prototype screens with better resolution than ones from South Korea’s Samsung Electronics Co. to differentiate the U.S. company’s models.

The Cupertino company has been battling slowing smartphone sales and is under pressure to deliver a hit phone when the iPhone marks its 10th anniversary next year.

An iPhone with an OLED screen could be introduced as one of several models to be unveiled, people familiar with the matter said, but would come with a higher price tag because OLED displays are more expensive to produce.

Apple might decide not to release the model because it is one of more than 10 prototypes being considered, the people said.

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I left the locations of the writers on because it seems relevant to the story: a Seoul-based source could be talking to Samsung or LG; a Japan-based one to Sony and Taiwanese suppliers. Either way, I’d take this as a possibility.
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Q&A: is BT facing the chop? • FT

Nic Fildes on Ofcom’s order that BT make its Openreach division a wholly owned subsidiary:

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Q Why is BT opposed to this?

BT argues that the status quo has delivered Britain the widest superfast broadband coverage in Europe and that its proposals are enough to improve Openreach’s independence and pave the way for move investment in ultrafast broadband. It has put £6bn on the table for ultrafast, appointed an independent chairman of Openreach and expects to announce more non-executives in the future. However, it has baulked at the cost of moving staff and pensions over to the newly formed entity and warned of the risks of doing so given the deficit of £10bn at the end of June.

Q: Will BT’s rivals cheer this move?

In public, BT’s rivals — who clogged up Sharon White’s in tray with thousands of identical public submissions via a lobbying website called Fix Britain’s Internet — will cheer the move to hold BT to account. TalkTalk has called it a “step in the right direction” as the legal separation paves the way for a full break up in the future. Privately, the heads of those companies argue this should have happened much sooner as Ofcom has been proposing a submission since the start of the year.

Q So is a broadband utopia just around the corner?

Even though BT looks to have escaped the dreaded break-up, there is no doubt that Openreach has had its feet held to the flames over a poor performance on service and investment dating back years. If the promised move to ultrafast delivers better and more consistent speeds the debate could die down. The problem for BT is that “broadband rage” has become all too common and many are convinced that a full break-up is the only way forward.

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BT will drag its feet on this, which implies that it’s bad for BT, and thus good for rivals, and so good for everyone who wants fairer competition. The more BT is against it, logic suggests, the better for everyone else.
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Silicon Valley has an empathy vacuum • New Yorker

Om Malik:

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[The row over fake news] isn’t the first time Facebook has shied away from the reality that it can influence the lives of the billion and a half people connected to it. A perfect example came two years ago when Facebook, in its “Your Year in Review” feed, published the photo of the dead daughter of a user named Eric Meyer, prompting Meyer to write, “Algorithms are essentially thoughtless. They model certain decision flows, but once you run them, no more thought occurs.”

It seems possible to model the eventuality of a dead child’s photo showing up on the feed, but the designers didn’t consider it. Perhaps because those who write these algorithms have not experienced such trauma, or perhaps they just weren’t talking about the human feelings in their product meetings—especially when you are a company focussed on engagement and growth. The lack of empathy in technology design isn’t because the people who write algorithms are heartless but perhaps because they lack the texture of reality outside the technology bubble. Facebook’s blunders are a reminder that it is time for the company to think not just about fractional-attention addiction and growth but also to remember that the growth affects real people, for good and bad.

It is not just Facebook. It is time for our industry to pause and take a moment to think: as technology finds its way into our daily existence in new and previously unimagined ways, we need to learn about those who are threatened by it. Empathy is not a buzzword but something to be practiced. Let’s start by not raging on our Facebook feeds but, instead, taking a trip to parts of America where five-dollar lattes and freshly pressed juices are not perks but a reminder of haves and have-nots.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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