Start Up: Google Home goes ad-mad, Swatch thinks smart, Guardian kills Google ads, Apple’s endless doom, and more

Your browser’s APIs might give away all sorts of clues about you and your surroundings. Photo by Caden Crawford 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.

Google Home is playing audio ads for Beauty and the Beast • The Verge

Chris Welch:


Today some Google Home owners are hearing something extra when they ask for a summary of the day ahead from the smart speaker: an advertisement for the opening of Beauty and the Beast. Several users on Reddit have noticed the audio ad and Bryson Meunier posted a clip to Twitter. Some Android users are also getting the ad through Google Assistant on mobile.

The ad is delivered using the regular Google Assistant voice, so it blends in seamlessly with the other information — but some people still aren’t happy about it. It doesn’t seem directly targeted based on search interest in the movie…

…When contacted by The Verge for more information, Google denied that the audio snippet is in fact an ad, providing this rather strange statement: “This isn’t an ad; the beauty in the Assistant is that it invites our partners to be our guest and share their tales.”


It’s an ad, and Google is reverting to its nature. If this happens more, then Amazon has a home run. Trying to force advertising into every interstice of life seems to be the American way; except so many of them are choosing services like ad-free Netflix, because they don’t want ads. (Google later told Danny Sullivan that “This wasn’t intended to be an ad. What’s circulating online was a part of our My Day feature, where after providing helpful information about your day, we sometimes call out timely content”. This is still nonsense; they should get it read out by the White House press secretary so we’d know it wasn’t true.
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Swatch to launch Swiss smartwatch operating system by 2018 | Reuters

Silke Koltrowitz:


Nick Hayek said the biggest problems facing competitors’ smartwatches related to energy consumption and privacy. Swatch Group, whose brands include Omega, said last month it was working with Swiss research institute CSEM to launch an “ecosystem” for connected objects by the end of 2018.

Swatch said this would offer absolute data protection and ultra-low energy consumption and would not need regular updates.

“I don’t want to become the industry standard for smartwatches,” Nick Hayek said on Thursday, adding it would be dangerous if everybody depended on just one or two dominant operating systems.

“But in Switzerland we have a lot of expertise when it comes to creating something that is smaller, consumes much less energy, is independent and more cost-efficient and can go into little objects,” he said.

Swatch had many requests from small US startups looking for flexible open-source systems and would serve these customers while also using the system in its own watches, he said.


Won’t need regular updates? Uh huh. And those bozos at Apple and Google. What do they know about privacy or battery life? Though I don’t think a developer ecosystem is that important for a watch compared to a phone.
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AT&T quietly drops Lumia phones from online store • FierceWireless

Colin Gibbs:


AT&T no longer sells Lumia phones through its website as Microsoft’s presence in the worldwide handset market continues to disappear.

Wave7 Research noted the absence of Lumia devices this week in a research note sent to subscribers, observing that no Microsoft hardware is listed among the 29 devices available through Further checks revealed that Lumia devices also aren’t being sold through the websites of T-Mobile or Sprint, and Verizon offers only one Lumia phone online: the Lumia 735, which was released in September 2014.

It isn’t clear whether AT&T still sells any Lumia phones through its physical stores, and a carrier representative was unable to comment on the situation immediately. Wave7 said AT&T’s Cricket brand continues to sell two Lumia phones through its site, but Microsoft phones weren’t available through the sites of Boost, MetroPCS or Straight Talk, according to the research firm.


It’s.. dead, Jim?
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Guardian pulls ads from Google after they were placed next to extremist material • The Guardian

Jane Martinson:


The Guardian has withdrawn all its online advertising from Google and YouTube after it emerged that its ads were being inadvertently placed next to extremist material.

Ads for the Guardian’s membership scheme are understood to have been placed alongside a range of extremist material after an agency acting on the media group’s behalf used Google’s AdX ad exchange.

David Pemsel, the Guardian’s chief executive, wrote to Google to say that it was “completely unacceptable” for its advertising to be misused in this way.

He said the Guardian would be withdrawing its advertising until Google can “provide guarantees that this ad misplacement via Google and YouTube will not happen in the future”.

The content included YouTube videos of American white nationalists, a hate preacher banned in the UK and a controversial Islamist preacher.


Pemsel is urging other brands to do the same until there are guarantees. I rather doubt Google can give those guarantees.
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Versatile mobile devices are expected to grow in a declining personal computing devices market • IDC


Western European personal computing devices (PCDs), including traditional PCs (a combination of desktop, notebook, and workstations) and tablets (slates and detachables), will total 76.4 million shipments in 2017, a 6.1% YoY decline, according to International Data Corporation (IDC). However, some product categories, such as convertibles, ultraslims, and detachables, will continue to expand and will undergo 19.1% growth in 2017, with convertibles being the smallest in volumes but catching up the fastest (31.3% YoY growth). This outlines a stark shift in consumer and enterprise preferences from traditional solutions to thinner, lighter, and more versatile mobile solutions. In 2017, the traditional PC market will contract by 9.0%, while tablets will experience a 2.2% decline. Traditional solutions will continue to retain the majority of share thanks to their affordability and ability to address price-sensitive customers. More evolved and flexible solutions are gaining traction, representing an opportunity to reach market stabilization.


A 9% decline in the traditional PC market? That’s going to hurt the small companies which can’t compete in the detachable market. It has taken a long time for the lightweight laptop market to take off – it was all the talk back in 2011 or so (remember Intel’s Ultrabook campaign? They used to push it, bless them.)
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Uber, it’s time to get real over that $69bn price tag • Bloomberg Gadfly

Leila Abboud:


Politicians and regulators, especially in Europe where governments need labor taxes to pay for social benefits, are agonizing about the “gig economy” depleting the public purse. One British lawmaker recently grilled Uber and Inc. executives on why taxpayers should prop up the cheap costs of internet giants.

Indeed, how Uber drivers are classified – as employees or independent contractors – is the biggest risk to its $69bn paper valuation. While Uber revenues are growing rapidly, on track to reach $5.5bn in 2016, it remains deeply unprofitable, according to Bloomberg News. In the first nine months of last year, it lost $2.2bn on sales of $3.8bn.

And this crazy cash burn is Uber operating with the cheapest labor costs it will ever know. (At least until it invents robot cars.)

The losses come largely from subsidizing drivers during periods when customer discounts mean fares don’t cover costs. But maybe it’s time to devote cash to a more sustainable way of keeping workers happy. Uber often tells us that its “driver partners” love their independence and flexibility, so why not prove that by offering true employment to those who want it? The drivers who genuinely prefer their freedom would get to keep it, while the disgruntled lot who keep taking Uber to court could join the staff.


A couple of those points are very salient: that Uber wants to get everyone else to pay the social costs of the people it exploits (it doesn’t pay tax, so doesn’t pay for the roads its services exploit, hospitals that any crashes end up in, and schools people learn in); and that its losses are at a time when its labour costs could not be lower.

As labour costs rise and governments get antsy, Uber’s margins will get squeezed.
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The blockchain could help advertisers lock up our attention • The Conversation

Eric Lim and Chee-Wee Tan:


Advertising in the age of blockchains and smart contracts will be something more like an ecosystem. Information and value will flow and be captured in numerous directions. Using smart contracts, many different entities and data streams will be brought together.

Let’s imagine Jane sees an advertisement for a pair of shoes on her smartphone. The advertiser asks that, in exchange for Bitcoin, she reveal her identity by turning on her camera and taking a selfie. She must also allow the advertiser to access her SIM and verify with the phone company that it is indeed Jane who owns the phone. The advertiser would also like to know where Jane is located using the Google Maps application on her phone.

Individually, none of these actions are new. What will be new is having a smart contract to tie it all together.


The authors are a senior lecturer in information systems and a professor in IT management. I can only imagine they don’t get out much. The scenario they describe sounds more like a hostage negotiation than the offering of a desirable product or service. Jane won’t want to go through all that crap.

The effectiveness of putting a billboard beside the road (which Lim and Tan rail against) is hard to measure, but it has one great benefit: it’s very easy to engage with if you want to, and great advertising should make you want to engage with the product, not call in an airstrike.
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Privacy analysis of Ambient Light Sensors • Lukasz Olejnik

Olejnik pointed out the risks in making light sensor data available last October. Now the W3C wants to make it standard:


Smartphones are equipped with a sensor letting the device to detect the brightness levels in their environment (modern sensors are even capable to measure the intensity of green, red and blue lights). The simplest application of the sensor is to adjust the screen’s brightness in accordance with the environment.

Soon, every web browser will allow a web site to access Ambient Light Sensors of a device. This will be facilitated via the W3C Ambient Light Sensors API. Web designers will be enabled to unleash their creativity. The readout is provided in lux unit.

Ambient Light information is currently provided in modern smartphones, tablets and notebooks (such as MacBook Pro) on a number of web browsers.

Ambient Light Sensor is very interesting from privacy point of view and offers a lot of information, so let’s have a look from the privacy engineering perspective.

In this note, I am also introducing my project SensorsPrivacy, which will be covering issues around security and privacy of web and sensors mechanisms. It also has a research angle.


Sounds crazily esoteric, but you can distinguish all sorts of things about people and their exact machines (since you already know their browser) from this. There’s too much headlong rushing into making sensor data available, too little about considering the drawbacks of doing so.
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Gravity • Asymco

Horace Dediu:


In the modern, industrial era there are very few corporations that survived over a century and the Fortune 500 shows a turnover in inhabitants that resembles that of a plague-infested medieval inner-city. In contrast to their conservative, geriatric organic owners, synthetic companies are more likely to behave like live-fast, die-young punk rockers.

So it’s no surprise that Apple, at age 43, is seen as being well past its sell-by date. And yet it seems to be saying, somewhat faintly, “I’m not dead yet”. By generating more cash that can be comprehended by human observers and by controlling assets that are well beyond the means of many countries, they (it?) is confusing us with its persistence.

The confusion is exhibited in the following graph which shows the crises in confidence by that wonderful reflector of human perception–the stock market. By voting millions of times a day, the market shows us with great precision the totality of human emotion with regard to an asset. That emotion turns rapidly negative on Apple with surprising frequency.


I recently did an analysis of how the Fortune 50 (the top 50 US stock market-listed companies, listed by revenue) has changed over time since 1956 to 2016. Only eight companies – General Motors, Ford, Exxon Mobil, AT&T, Boeing, United Technologies, Proctor & Gamble and General Electric – were still there.

Of course the stock market is a guesstimate about the total future profitability of a company; revenues are, well, sales right now.
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Former Yahoo exec: lawyer ‘took the hit’ for Marissa Mayer • CNBC

Anita Balakrishnan:


After unprecedented cyberattacks rocked Yahoo, one former Yahoo executive told CNBC that a company lawyer, Ronald Bell, “took the hit” for boss Marissa Mayer.

“It’s shocking that a … beloved lawyer took the hit for the CEO given all the departments involved,” said the former executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Bell resigned March 1, after the board of directors concluded that Yahoo’s legal team did not sufficiently pursue information about the hacks.

Communications, mail, engineering and legal reported directly to Mayer, the former executive said. Indeed, Yahoo Mail was Mayer’s “one big product focus,” the former executive said. “How is she not responsible?”

Yahoo disclosed two separate data breaches last year, both among the biggest in history. A 2013 attack revealed in December affected more than 1 billion user accounts. In a separate 2014 attack, disclosed in September, information was stolen from at least 500 million user accounts.

Mayer said she worked with various teams to disclose the hacks to users and government officials.


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Smartphone brand stories in China • Tech.pinions

Ben Bajarin with a ton of data about smartphone use in China:


Perhaps the biggest storyline to me is Samsung’s decline in China. Before the smartphone era, and even into the beginning of it, Samsung was a dominant brand in China. Local brands becoming dominant in China is a relatively new phenomenon because, for a long time, Chinese consumers felt Chinese brands were not up to the quality of foreign brands and no one wanted to risk spending their hard earned money on a brand that could be lower quality. For this reason, Chinese consumers tended to purchase brands they were familiar with and knew were quality. Samsung was in that class. The other point to note here on Samsung is while their brand was viewed as reliable and high quality, it was also not playing in the high-end in China but competed with much more affordable, somewhat low-end devices on the price spectrum. This, I believe is the singular reason for their decline.

Apple has never competed on price in China. It kept them in a class unto themselves from a brand standpoint. Samsung’s strategy to compete on price and be affordable for a majority of Chinese consumers left them vulnerable once Chinese brands gained in recognition and were the same price or lower than Samsung. Perhaps a law of consumer electronics has emerged. Start by competing on price, and you will always compete on price.


Plenty more about Apple, Huawei and others such as OPPO, vivo and Xiaomi. (Paid-for.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up: Google Home goes ad-mad, Swatch thinks smart, Guardian kills Google ads, Apple’s endless doom, and more

  1. The advertising which ended up “placed next to extremist material” sounds like a real-life version of the stories based on making a wish to a genie/leprechaun/demon – which is then granted in a twisted way according to the literal words you said, but not the spirit of what you wanted.

    “Great GoogleAdBot, place my ads with content which has a demographic which skews young, actively engaged in political events, and which draws passionate engagement among social liberals.”
    “Your wish is my command, master. I’ve placed the ads with white supremacists, neonazis, and islamophobes.” (i.e. you didn’t specify *what sort* of “passionate engagement”!).

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