Start Up: Google faces the advertisers, crowdsourced e-ink iPhone flops, Rubin rebuffed, and more


Lego does augmented reality – will Apple follow? Photo by antjerevena 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.

Popslate, the company putting an E Ink display on your iPhone, is shutting down • The Verge

Andrew Liptak:

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A couple of years ago, Popslate developed a case for an iPhone that added an E Ink display to the back of the phone, designed as a way for users who check their phones often to conserve their batteries. We found the first version to be a bit limited, but an intriguing idea. The company later announced a follow-up device, the Popslate 2, which would act as a battery charger and come with a better screen.

The company raised raised over $1.1m to manufacture the Popslate 2 through Indiegogo, which it intended to deliver to customers by July 2016. Now, in an update to its backers, the company announced that it has “entered into the legal process for dissolution of the company,” and that backers would not receive their orders or be refunded.

The reason, according to CEO Yashar Behzadi and CMO Greg Moon, is financial. The company spent a considerable amount of money preparing to manufacture the device, and ran into some technical problems with its design. Last year, the company announced that it was pushing back shipping to October, noting that initial prototypes weren’t sufficient. Furthermore, when Apple announced the iPhone 7, it prompted Popslate to explore redesigning the device so that it would fit both the iPhone 6 and iPhone 7, only to backtrack when it discovered that a hybrid wouldn’t comply with Apple’s Made For iPhone program.

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Spent a million bucks to discover their phone case blocked the signal. Uh-huh.
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The fake freedom of American health care • The New York Times

Anu Partanen, an exported Finn, on the madness of US healthcare funding:

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Overall, Americans spend far more of their hard-earned money on health care than citizens of any other country, by a very wide margin. This means that it is in fact Americans who are getting a raw deal. Americans pay much more than people in other countries but do not get significantly better results.

The trouble with a free-market approach is that health care is an immensely complicated and expensive industry, in which the individual rarely has much actual market power. It is not like buying a consumer product, where choosing not to buy will not endanger one’s life. It’s also not like buying some other service tailored to individual demands, because for the most part we can’t predict our future health care needs.

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It’s the latter point which is key. Will you get cancer? You don’t know. If you do, will it be easy or difficult to treat? Same answer. How much healthcare will you need in the future? None of us knows for sure. But if you spread the cost over the widest possible group, by funding it from taxes and then providing it as needed, you can make broadly accurate estimates about healthcare needs. The only problem is delivery. The US system is so far from optimal that it’s a testament to the power of ideology that it is retained.
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Brexit Britain is suddenly debating trade – but it’s the wrong talking point • The Guardian

Larry Elliott is the Guardian’s economics editor:

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Pascal Lamy spent some of the best years of his life struggling to polish off the Doha round of trade liberalisation and an overspill room was needed to hear what he had to say about Britain’s likely post-Brexit deal.

Battle-scarred as he is, Lamy has no illusions about the difficulties of the negotiations that will follow the triggering of article 50 by the government later this month. He had a nice metaphor for the likely complexity of the talks: separating an egg from an omelette. And a warning born of experience: it won’t be achieved within two years.

Lamy divided the issues facing the negotiators into three categories: things that will be simple; things that will be more complex; and things that will be really complex.

In what might come as a surprise to the UK’s new army of trade experts, Lamy said the creation of a free trade deal would be simple. It was a “no brainer” that there would be zero tariffs so that integrated supply chains did not suffer. It would also be easy enough for the UK to keep the trade with countries that have signed bilateral agreements with the EU. Fishing could also turn out to be less difficult than expected if the EU and the UK maintained mutual access for their fleets.

Lamy then outlined a few of the more complex issues.

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And boy, are they complex. The news about the integrated supply chains is good; but things indeed get very complex over VAT, state support, environmental standards, and particularly intellectual property rights. Those could take up to six years, he suggested.
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Google algorithms are targeting offensive, upsetting, inaccurate & hateful search results • Search Engine Roundtable

Barry Schwartz:

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Paul Haahr, a lead search engineer at Google who celebrated his 15th year at the company, told us that Google has been working on algorithms to combat web pages that are offensive, upsetting, inaccurate and hateful in their search results. He said it only impacts about 0.1% of the queries but it is an important problem.

With that, they want to make sure their algorithms are doing a good job. So that is why they have updated their quality raters guidelines so that they can test to make sure the search results reflect their algorithms. If they don’t that data goes back to the engineers where they can tweak things or make new algorithms or machine learning techniques to weed out even more of the content Google doesn’t want in their search results.

Paul Haahr explained that there are times where people specifically want to find hateful or inaccurate information. Maybe on the inaccurate side, they like satire sites or maybe on the hate side, they hate people. Google should not prevent people from finding content that they want, Paul said. And the quality raters guidelines explains with key examples on how raters should rate such pages.
But overall, ever since the elections, Google, Facebook and others have been under fire to do something about facts and hate and more. They released fact checking schema for news stories. They supposedly banned AdSense publishers. They removed certain classes of hate and inaccurate results from the search results. And they tweaked the top stories algorithm to show more accurate and authoritative results.

Google has been working on this and they want to continue working on this. The quality raters will help make sure what the engineers are doing, does translate into proper search results. At the same time, as you all mostly know, quality raters have no power to remove search results or adjust rankings, they just rate the search results and that data goes back to the Google engineers to use.

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SoftBank drops $100m investment in iPhone rival • WSJ

Rolfe Winkler:

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The episode is a window into the unpredictable investing style of SoftBank Chief Executive Masayoshi Son, who is set to enhance his position as one of the tech industry’s most powerful investors with his $100bn tech-focused Vision Fund. That mammoth fund is expected to launch as early as this month, according to a person familiar with the matter.

As part of the proposed deal with Essential, Mr. Son had promised that SoftBank’s telecom subsidiary in Japan would provide a big marketing push for the release of [Android founder Andy Rubin’s] Essential’s high-end smartphone, scheduled for this spring, the people said, ahead of Apple’s expected fall release of its 10th anniversary iPhone.

In January, Apple agreed to commit $1bn to the Vision Fund. Though Apple didn’t block the Essential deal, according to the people, its investment complicated SoftBank’s interest in a competing smartphone company. In February, after months of negotiations and when final investment contracts were being drawn up, Mr. Son backed out of the deal.

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Just a reminder: the Rubin scheme is for a sort of smart modular smartphone. Nobody makes those. For good reason: ask LG about sale of the modular G5.
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Ad agencies and accountability • Stratechery

Ben Thompson on the Google-UK government-Havas-extremist-videos shenanigans:

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there are reasonable debates that can be had about hate speech being on Google and Facebook’s platforms at all; what is indisputable, though, is that the logistics of policing this content are mind-boggling.

Take YouTube as the most obvious example: there are 400 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute; that’s 24,000 hours an hour, 576,000 hours a day, over 4 million hours a week, and over 210 billion hours a year — and the rate is accelerating. To watch every minute of every video uploaded in a week would require over 100,000 people working full-time (40 hours). The exact same logistical problem applies to ads served by DoubleClick as well as the massive amount of content uploaded to Facebook’s various properties; when both companies state they are working on using machine learning to police content it’s not an excuse: it’s the only viable approach.

Don’t tell that to the ad agencies though.

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Let’s consider for a moment how Google (and Facebook) can hope to solve this with ML. They’ll need to pick out a load of extremist videos, train a network against it, and set it loose on all of YouTube. It notes the videos that it thinks are “extremist” (or “extreme”?) or somewhere in the shades of extremity. Because it must be a spectrum, correct?

Imagine how that is going to play out.
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Matt Brittin on how Google plans to tackle its YouTube brand safety problem • Business Insider

Lara O’Reilly:

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Google’s EMEA chief Matt Brittin said on Monday the issue of brand ads appearing next to questionable — and sometimes extremist — content on YouTube is affecting “pennies, not pounds” of their spend, but promised an announcement about how the company plans to tackle the issue in “the coming days.”

A growing number of brands in the UK — including the government, L’Oreal, McDonald’s UK, HSBC, and ad agency Havas UK on behalf of all of its clients — suspended their advertising from YouTube and Google this week over fears their ads were appearing next to questionable content and funding their creators.

Google’s executives were summoned to appear in front of the UK government last week after ads for taxpayer-funded services were found next to extremist videos, following an investigation by The Times newspaper. Google must return later this week with a timetable for the work it is doing to prevent the issue from occurring again.

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“Pennies not pounds” does feel like a way of saying “your outrage isn’t big enough to interest us”, though that’s not what he meant.
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Apple’s next big thing: augmented reality • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman: Hundreds of engineers are now devoted to the cause [of building augmented reality capability at Apple]

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, including some on the iPhone camera team who are working on AR-related features for the iPhone, according to one of the people. One of the features Apple is exploring is the ability to take a picture and then change the depth of the photograph or the depth of specific objects in the picture later; another would isolate an object in the image, such as a person’s head, and allow it to be tilted 180 degrees. A different feature in development would use augmented reality to place virtual effects and objects on a person, much the way Snapchat works. The iPhone camera features would probably rely on a technology known as depth sensing and use algorithms created by PrimeSense, an Israeli company acquired in 2013. Apple may choose to not roll out these features, but such additions are an up-and-coming trend in the phone business.

The AR-enhanced glasses are further down the road, the people say. Getting the product right will be key, of course. Wearables are hard. Apple’s first stab at the category, the Watch, has failed to become a mainstream hit. And no one has forgotten Google Glass, the much-derided headset that bombed in 2014. Still, time and again, Apple has waited for others to go first and then gone on to dominate the market. “To be successful in AR, there is the hardware piece, but you have to do other stuff too: from maps to social to payments,” [Loup Ventures founder and former starry-eyed ‘Apple is making a TV’ analyst Gene] Munster says. “Apple is one of the only companies that will be able to pull it off.”

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The Watch might not yet be a mainstream hit, but it took the iPhone and iPod a few years on the market to break through. (Three years at least for both.)

Meanwhile, how is what Gurman describes about the changing depth in a picture an AR feature? I’ve seen it in a Huawei system, where it’s just part of the dual-lens setup. (And rather neat.) Adding elements, a la Snapchat, isn’t AR either to my understanding. As for the glasses idea, it’s clear in the story that he has no idea whether Apple has even prototyped this. It’s a thin story bolstered only by details about the targeted acquisitions Apple has made in the field. I’m sure it’s doing something in AR, but I’d hope it’s aiming higher than tweaking focus.
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Bixby: a new way to interact with your phone • Samsung Newsroom

InJong Rhee (of Samsung):

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Samsung has a conceptually new philosophy to the problem:  instead of humans learning how the machine interacts with the world (a reflection of the abilities of designers), it is the machine that needs to learn and adapt to us.  The interface must be natural and intuitive enough to flatten the learning curve regardless of the number of functions being added. With this new approach, Samsung has employed artificial intelligence, reinforcing deep learning concepts to the core of our user interface designs. Bixby is the ongoing result of this effort.

Bixby will be a new intelligent interface on our devices. Fundamentally different from other voice agents or assistants in the market, Bixby offers a deeper experience thanks to proficiency in these three properties:

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Those being “completeness”, “context awareness” and “cognitive tolerance” – the latter being “how do you ask it to do X?” On this, Rhee promises that

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“Bixby will be smart enough to understand commands with incomplete information and execute the commanded task to the best of its knowledge, and then will prompt users to provide more information and take the execution of the task in piecemeal. This makes the interface much more natural and easier to use.”

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I think “wait and see” is the correct approach there. Bixby will also have a dedicated button. Notable how Samsung is pushing this out ahead of the S8 launch itself. It’s a piecemeal rollout in which it’s always going to be playing catchup to all the other major rivals.
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Uber president Jeff Jones is quitting, citing differences over ‘beliefs and approach to leadership’ • Recode

Kara Swisher and Johana Bhuiyan:

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Jeff Jones, the president of Uber, is quitting the car-hailing company after less than a year. The move by the No. 2 exec, said sources, is directly related to the multiple controversies there, including explosive charges of sexism and sexual harassment.

(UPDATE: Uber confirmed the departure, saying in a statement: “We want to thank Jeff for his six months at the company and wish him all the best.” And, in a note to staff, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said: “After we announced our intention to hire a COO, Jeff came to the tough decision that he doesn’t see his future at Uber. It is unfortunate that this was announced through the press but I thought it was important to send all of you an email before providing comment publicly.)

(UPDATE: Jones also confirmed the departure with a blistering assessment of the company. “It is now clear, however, that the beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber, and I can no longer continue as president of the ride sharing business,” he said in a statement to Recode.)

Jones, said sources, determined that this was not the situation he signed on for, especially after Uber CEO Travis Kalanick announced a search for a new COO to help him right the very troubled ship.

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Also departing: Uber’s head of maps Brian McClendon, who is heading off to do politics; Mike Isaac totted up the body count:

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The departures add to the executive exodus from Uber this year. Raffi Krikorian, a well-regarded director in Uber’s self-driving division, left the company last week, while Gary Marcus, who joined Uber in December after Uber acquired his company, left this month. Uber also asked for the resignation of Amit Singhal, a top engineer who failed to disclose a sexual harassment claim against him at his previous employer, Google, before joining Uber. And Ed Baker, another senior executive, left this month as well.

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This is going to leave Scruffy the Janitor helping out Travis Kalanick until a new chief operating officer is appointed.
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Meet the man whose site Mark Zuckerberg reads every day • BuzzFeed News

Charlie Warzel profiles Gabe Rivera:

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Techmeme may be a niche site compared to the Facebooks and the YouTubes of the world, but the tech-news aggregator influences the people who make the Facebooks and the YouTubes of the world: Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai are both confessed readers, as are LinkedIn’s Jeff Weiner, former PayPal exec and current Facebook Messenger head David Marcus, former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella.

Hunter Walk, a former product manager at YouTube turned seed-stage venture capitalist, told me he checks the site three to five times daily. “It’s one of my first morning sites,” he told me over email. “My perception is that lots of us [in Silicon Valley] use it.” That includes journalists: Rivera’s taste in that day’s news often dictates what stories are followed and chased by newsrooms across the country. Without writing a word himself, Rivera is shaping tech’s story for the legion of reporters and editors tasked to tell it.

Techmeme, then, wields tremendous power over a tremendously powerful group of people. And as its founder, Rivera has been quietly defining Silicon Valley’s narrative for the industry’s power brokers for more than a decade. But Rivera is uncomfortable — or unwilling — to reckon with how his influence has affected one of the most important and powerful industries in the world. The result is that Rivera can cast himself both as a gimlet-eyed insider with a powerful readership and as a mostly anonymous entrepreneur running a niche link blog from the comfort of his home. It’s a convenient cognitive dissonance.

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Personally in my newswriting time I never relied on Techmeme as anything but a lagging indicator – it didn’t tell you what was going to be written, it told you what had been written. (Questions about how it deals with video and audio content are separate.) I can see why executives might dial into it a lot, but the reality, as I think Rivera is attuned to, is that very few people outside the rarified tech bubble read it.

It’s significant too that Techmeme barely linked to stories about Theranos – because that’s “medical technology”. Take too narrow a view of what “technology” is, and you miss the forest because you’re arguing about what constitutes a tree.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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