Start Up: Google’s Pixel drought, “cheap premium” is over, Guardian sues adtech co, Facebook v blasphemy, and more


How much would you pay to see a film in your house on its first day, rather than the cinema? Photo by bigmick 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.

The Google Pixel does not exist • PhoneArena

“Victor H”:

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The Google Pixel, the best Android phone if you ask the majority of tech gurus, does not exist.

It is a delusion, an Android fan’s mirage.

It is vaporware. Vaporware definition: software or hardware that has been advertised but is not yet available to buy, either because it is only a concept or because it is still being written or designed.

The phone that Google launched in early October 2016, some six months ago, and was widely seen as a rival to the Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy is simply not available on the one place, where it should be in plentiful supply: the Google Store. To be perfectly exact, the Google Pixel and Pixel XL technically are available, it is just that you have to wait more than a month to actually get one. Six months after the launch of the phone it is abundantly clear that such depressingly long shipping times cannot be blamed on shortage of inventory or any other technicality, but the only logical conclusion left to make is that it is Google itself that is not willing to make the Pixel.

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Google was rather caught out by the initial popularity of the Pixel, which was magnified by the failure of Samsung’s Note 7. But this continuing shortage suggests a failure to get on top of inventory.
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Pakistan says Facebook vows to tackle concerns over blasphemous content • Reuters

Syed Raza Hassan:

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Facebook has assured Pakistan that concerns about blasphemous content on the social media site will be addressed and a company delegation will visit this week to discuss the issue with the government, the interior minister said on Tuesday.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif earlier this month ordered that blasphemous content on social media be removed or blocked and that anyone posting such material be punished, and the government requested a meeting with Facebook.

Blasphemy is a criminal offense in the strictly Islamic country and can carry the death penalty.

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, quoting from what he said was a letter from Facebook’s vice president received a day earlier, told reporters: “I wanted to reiterate that Facebook takes the concerns raised by the Pakistani government very seriously. We have also committed our representative to meet with you and senior officials of your government.”

Khan described this message as a “very big improvement” from Facebook as, he said, the U.S. social media giant generally had not responded to such complaints in the past.

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Blocking child abuse images is one thing. But isn’t God big enough to deal with this latter sort of thing without help? Facebook’s complicated juggling game of trying to please diverse cultures on a single platform continues.
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Virgin Media suspends staff over £3bn upgrade errors • FT

Nic Fildes:

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Virgin Media has suspended four employees and launched an internal investigation after reducing the number of homes it said had been reached by a £3bn network upgrade.

The cable company said on Tuesday that staff had “misrepresented” the completion status of the Project Lightning expansion when it reported fourth-quarter results in February.

Virgin Media claimed that its new network had grown to pass 215,000 British homes in the three months to the end of December but has now cut that figure to 86,000.

Four employees have been suspended as a result of the revision. Paul Buttery, chief operating officer in charge of driving customers to upgrade to the network, left the company in late February.

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Well this is an odd one.
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You should appreciate germs • Bill Gates

Yes, it’s billg:

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I found some of [Ed] Yong’s reporting [in his new book I Contain Multitudes] directly relevant to my role as a parent. Melinda and I—and most parents in the U.S. and other rich countries—have dramatically cut down on our children’s exposure to the diverse array of microbes that for millennia have helped human beings strengthen their immune systems and avoid inflammatory diseases. As Yong puts it, “We have been tilting at microbes for too long, and created a world that is hostile to the ones we need.”

It’s not just all the anti-bacterial soaps and sanitizers we Americans use. Another major problem is the excessive use of antibiotics. On net, antibiotics have been unbelievably positive for humanity. But every time we give them, we are carpet-bombing our microbial ecosystem (microbiome), not merely knocking out pathogens. “A rich, thriving microbiome acts as a barrier to invasive pathogens,” writes Yong. “When our old friends vanish, that barrier disappears [and] more dangerous species can exploit the … ecological vacancies.”

As you can imagine, the book is also quite relevant to my work at our foundation, especially in the area of children’s growth and development. Yong explains why, if we want to prevent malnutrition, we not only need to help alleviate hunger and provide key micronutrients. We will also need to learn why some kids’ microbiomes are out of balance and how to restore them back to a healthy state.
Not only could this lead to low-cost interventions for malnutrition. I suspect this line of research will also help scientists make inroads against many other diseases. The list of disorders that have been linked to disruptions in the microbiome includes Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, colon cancer, obesity, type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease. Even though we don’t have good ways of manipulating the microbiome to head off disease, I am hopeful we will eventually. I’m particularly excited about the implications for neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s. It may turn out that these diseases get their start in the gut a decade or more before any brain symptoms show up. If that’s the case, the gut may prove to be a great target for medicines, giving new hope to many millions of families.

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The microbiome is almost surely going to be the source of some of the most profound things to be found out in the next 20 years in medicine.
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Let robots handle your emotional burnout at work • How We Get To Next

Meeri Kim:

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Then there’s Ellie, a clinical therapist whom I recently met in the lab of computer scientist Jonathan Gratch. In a soothing voice, she asked me questions like, “Where are you originally from?” and “What do you like about living in Los Angeles?” As I responded, Ellie nodded her head and smiled at all the right moments, immediately putting me at ease.
As charming as she is, Ellie isn’t a real person. She’s a virtual human — the creation of Gratch and his colleagues at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. A software agent, she looks like an ordinary CGI character displayed on a screen. But she’s not scripted—behind the scenes, she uses sophisticated machine vision and voice analysis to interact with humans in real-time.

“Researchers focused on emotional labor have suggested using virtual humans as a first line of defense, so to speak, in customer service,” said Gratch, who is also a computer science professor at USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering. “Anywhere you have people doing emotional labor, there could be a potential for this technology to serve that role without incurring the negative effects on a worker’s health.”

I certainly respect Gratch’s line of thinking, but isn’t he ignoring that most customers absolutely hate interacting with robot customer service representatives? Are we really going to change just because we can see a “virtual human” on a computer screen?

After the brief demonstration, Gratch and his colleague lifted the curtain on Ellie. As it turned out, throughout our conversation she had been tracking an astounding amount of data about me: my facial expression, attention level, upper body movements, voice pitch, eye gaze, and smile level. She recorded, moment to moment, if I had seemed happy or sad, engaged or distant, and tweaked her responses accordingly.

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link to this extract


Review: Virtual Competition: the promise and perils of the algorithm-driven economy, by Ariel Ezrachi and Maurice E. Stucke • Times Higher Education Supplement Books

Julia Powles:

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It is becoming increasingly apparent that widespread deployment of algorithmic tools can intensify, rather than reduce, the chasm between the wealthy and the vulnerable. This is the issue Ezrachi and Stucke address as behavioural discrimination. With ever-increasing hoards of data, firms can engage in near-perfect dynamic price discrimination, flipping our attributes, likes and fancies into individually enclosed and tailored worlds. Overall, they argue, this is corrosive to social welfare, because the more vulnerable among us end up paying more. The authors’ assessment of where this is heading is of the most sober kind: absent legal intervention, perfect discrimination will likely become the new norm.

There is a lively gameness to Ezrachi and Stucke’s study, marked by their willingness to call out what the world’s internet users stare into every day – monopoly power on a scale unlike any we have ever known – and their systematic attempt to provide the language and tools needed to start tackling it. The book relies for some of its pivotal claims on an adjacent work that should be seen as a companion text: the unimaginatively titled but brilliantly executed Big Data and Competition Policy (2016). Co-authored by Stucke, this time with the distinguished US anti-trust practitioner Allen Grunes, it contains a detailed analysis of merger and antitrust cases and lucidly explores the interplay between privacy and competition in a way that neatly sets up the analysis, and fills some of the gaps, in Virtual Competition.

The constant aim of both of these works, and their clear achievement, is in exposing the facile mirage of competition in digital markets.

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There’s a conference at Cambridge University on Friday – The Power Switch – which will look at topics like these. Some tickets still available. Ezrachi is among the speakers.
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Global average sales price of Chinese branded smartphones to reach RMB 2,000 by the end of 2017 as ‘affordable premium’ becomes impossible • TrendForce

Avril Wu:

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The global smartphone market, which has been experiencing slowing growth and intensifying competition, has become an even tougher environment because of recent sharp rises in component prices. Avril Wu, smartphone analyst for the global market intelligence firm TrendForce, stated that China-based brands have been raising their prices as they face significant erosion of their margins.

“The global average sales price of Chinese branded smartphones stayed at a level of about RMB 1,700 [US$245, UK£200] during the course of 2016,” said Wu. “By the end of 2017, the global average sales price of Chinese branded smartphones is estimated to climb to around RMB 2,000 [US$290, UK£236]. Facing rising costs and mounting competitive pressure, Chinese smartphone makers will eventually abandon their favorite strategy of selling high specs devices at extremely affordable prices.”

Starting in the second half of 2016, numerous Chinese brands broke from the tradition of offering high performance products at low prices. The deviation from the usual pricing scheme was first noticed among flagship devices such as Huawei’s P9 and Gionee’s M6. The pattern of a general price increase became more apparent as affordable brands including Xiaomi and Meizu also followed suit.

“By raising prices, Chinese brands are at risk of losing consumer demand for their products,” said Wu. “At the same time, maintaining profitability has become a struggle as the market is now more competitive than ever. Therefore, the price hike may be the last resort for some Chinese smartphone makers and an indication of a coming industry consolidation.”

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Most consumers wouldn’t pay high prices for day-and-date in-home movies • Variety

Movie patrons are a price-sensitive group, and many can be turned off if they think a show is too expensive or too difficult to attend — tendencies that keep many fans away from theaters, a new survey commissioned by Variety suggests.

Still, only a small percentage say they’d pay $25 or $50 to see a film at home on the same day it opens in theaters, the survey by CivicScience found. And yet that subset — when spread across the entire population — could create a substantial enough audience to encourage entertainment companies to move ahead with plans to shorten the traditional 90-day window between a movie’s release in theaters and in the home.

Those are the most significant takeaways from questions asked of more than 1,800 Americans in late February and early March by CivicScience, a Pittsburgh-based market-research firm that surveys a representative sample of consumers via questions embedded on hundreds of websites.

That 9% (and the unsure 13%) could turn into a lot of money – especially once you factor in the travel, parking and food. Which raises the question: what is the “job to be done” of a cinema? It’s not just showing a film.
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Did China quietly authorize law enforcement to access data anywhere in the world? • Lawfare

Susan Hennessey and Chris Mirasola:

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On September 20, 2016 the Supreme People’s Court, Supreme People’s Procuratorate (China’s prosecutor), and the Public Security Bureau jointly released 30 regulations governing the collection and examination of digital data in criminal investigations. Unsurprisingly, the regulations were primarily only of interest to Chinese judges, lawyers, and public security officials.

Tucked in among the relatively mundane provisions, however, was a potentially rather alarming development that has thus far escaped much public notice in the United States. The regulations seem to authorize the unilateral extraction of data concerning anyone (or any company) being investigated under Chinese criminal law from servers and hard drives located outside of China.

Article 9 of the 2016 regulations provides that the police or prosecutors may extract digital data from original storage media (e.g., servers, hard drives) that are located outside of mainland China (i.e., including servers in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan) “through the Internet” and may perform “remote network inspections” of such computer information systems. Remote network inspections are helpfully defined, in Article 29, as “investigation, discovery, and collection of electronic data from remote computer information systems related to crime through the Internet.” The only caveat to this grant of authority is a requirement that investigations be subject to “strict standards.” No guidance is provided as to what “strict” means.

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By the by, Lawfare is quietly becoming a must-read site.
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Tech kings’ greatest enemy is in the mirror • Bloomberg Gadfly

Shira Ovide:

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Advertisers can’t afford to boycott Google for long. Neither can the company afford to brush off the squabble with its usual promises to do better next time because signs of a rebellion are brewing. An executive from the world’s biggest advertiser, Procter & Gamble, said recently that his company could no longer tolerate the long-standing flaws of digital advertising such as fraudulent ad clicks and erroneous measurement. Walt Disney was spooked when it turned out the company was doing business with a YouTube series laced with anti-Semitic messages. My colleague Leila Abboud has suggestions for what Google can do differently.

This feels different from the many, many controversies Google has weathered over the years, including previous flaps over how it polices material. The pushback isn’t coming from its users, regulators, journalists or the newspaper and television companies that are losing sales to Google. This time, the companies that pay Google’s bills are the ones complaining. (Advertising accounts for 88% of Alphabet’s annual revenue and 97% of Facebook’s.)

The gripes about Google — and similar finger-pointing about bogus information spreading on Facebook — aren’t new, but the complaints are growing louder as the companies’ power grows. And in part, they have themselves to blame. Google and Facebook boast that their sophisticated technology can pinpoint 100 people who might buy a new pair of jeans. So why can’t those geniuses sniff out when an internet star’s videos are laced with anti-Semitic commentary or accurately track how long people watch videos?

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The Guardian takes legal action against ad tech company Rubicon Project • Business Insider

Lara OI’Reilly:

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The Guardian is preparing to file a lawsuit against ad tech company Rubicon Project, alleging the ad tech vendor did not disclose fees it levied on advertisers looking to buy the newspaper’s online ad inventory, sources told Business Insider.

The Guardian is due to file its legal papers at the UK High Court’s Chancery Division, Business Insider understands.

A Guardian spokesperson confirmed the matter with Business Insider: “We can confirm that we have commenced proceedings against Rubicon Project for the recovery of non-disclosed buyer fees in relation of Guardian inventory.”

…Business Insider understands the amount The Guardian is looking to recuperate from the supply-side platform (SSP) spreads back over a number of years, but is only in the single-digit millions. Nevertheless, no matter what the outcome, the legal dispute will likely shed more light on the complicated nature of the online ad buying ecosystem…

…Last year, The Guardian conducted a test where it bought its own ad inventory on open ad exchanges so it could get a sense of how much of the money put into the ad tech ecosystem made it back to the publisher.

In the worst case scenario, The Guardian found that for every £1 spent on its inventory, just 30p actually made it to The Guardian, as MediaTel reported in October.

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Wow. Suing adtech companies is really putting the cat among the pigeons. Is 2017 the year in which the wheels start coming off the adtech business?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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