Start Up: US phone sales slow, Unrolling.me, Facebook Live and the dead, and more


“Your honour, I’d like to present the next witness for the prosecution.” Photo by Ian D on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The rhythm is broken • CCS Insight

Raghu Gopal:

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Yesterday, in its results for the first quarter of 2017, AT&T stated: “The company is no longer providing consolidated revenue guidance primarily due to the unpredictability of wireless handset sales.”

Not long ago, some things in the US handset market were certain: Apple released a flagship smartphone in September and the average US mobile subscriber updated their phone every two years. The support mechanism was in place to move devices along in 24-month waves and it worked smoothly.

In contrast to AT&T’s statement, we believe the US market is changing exactly as we expected, with people holding on to their phones for longer than in the past. Our latest forecast projects sales of mobile phones in the US to drop by more than 2% in 2017.

As the subsidized-handset model that once created a reliable bond between carriers and subscribers fades into memory, much of the comfort of the relationship is gone. The device financing model that T-Mobile normalised a few years ago has thoroughly spread across the US market. Consumers in the US now pay for the device separately from the service plan, changing the nature of the financial arrangement. T-Mobile’s Un-carrier strategy offered a way for a second-tier player to leave a mark on the market. It has.

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Saturation brings subtle changes. Apple is aiming to pull people into upgrading and tempt the last of the featurephone holdouts. And so is Samsung.
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My comments on the Unroll.Me // Uber situation • Medium

Perri Chase, who co-founded Unroll.me:

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Believe me we came up with this product to rid your inbox of unwanted emails, AND the reason it is used by millions of people for FREE is because we figured out how to monetize it.

Data is pretty much the only business model for email and Unroll.me is not the only company that looks at, collects and sells your data. What exactly do you think is going on in your FREE gmail inbox? And honestly, anonymized and at scale why do people care? Do you really care? Are you really surprised? How exactly is this shocking?

Or maybe you just hate yourselves because you think Uber is gross but you use them anyway and “why are these tech founders such assholes” that they have to ruin your experience where you need to delete your apps? And you love Unroll.me and you feel righteous and you have to delete that now too because you need to take a stand against these plain-as-day-in-the-terms-of-service practices.

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Just to reiterate, I can’t find anywhere on its FAQ that Unroll.me explains that its monetisation model is to sell your data. The terms of service don’t either. Or the features.

Nobody objects if they can understand what’s going on. But discovering that your data is being sold without your clear consent? That’s something people get upset about.
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Live and death: Facebook sorely needs a reality check about video • The Guardian

Olivia Solon:

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Despite a wide-reaching advertising campaign urging people to use the feature to share heartwarming life moments, [Facebook Live has] gained a reputation for much grittier subject matter: the torture of a young man with disabilities in Chicago, the musings of a spree killer being chased by police, child abuse, rape, and now murder [in two separate occasions in the past week].

When these atrocities happen, Facebook’s response is woefully inadequate, typically stating that such “content” is not allowed by Facebook’s terms of service (as if that should give pause to a suicidal murderer) or pointing out that nobody reported the video to its moderation teams.

Jacqueline Helfgott, professor and chair of the Criminal Justice Department at Seattle University, thinks it is only going to get worse. Criminals have always sought to amplify their actions through the media, but social media makes it easier than ever before to attract an audience.

“A medium like Facebook where a person can instantly achieve celebrity or notoriety can be a risk factor for certain types of criminal behavior,” she said, explaining how violent images travel rapidly across the network without any need for translation, encouraging copycat behavior among people with the proclivity to commit crime.

Facebook has pledged to review its moderation practices and use artificial intelligence to speed up its response to such videos, but there was no formal acknowledgement at F8.

“It was a moment when many social critics, academics, journalists and policymakers were keen for Mark Zuckerberg to address the murder and the social implications of the platform in a substantive, meaningful non-glib way,” said Roberts. “But that did not happen.”

That didn’t stop the company from moving into new social and political minefields, including augmented and virtual reality.

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Never quite stopping long enough to focus on one thing or another.
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Google’s ‘Project Owl’ — a three-pronged attack on fake news & problematic content • Search Engine Land

Danny Sullivan on Google’s changes to search to try to combat “fake news”:

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A search for “did the Holocaust happen” today sees no denial sites at all in the first page of Google’s results. The results had been dominated by them last December, when the issue was first raised. In contrast, at the time of this writing, half of Google rival Bing’s top 10 results are denial listings.

Success for Google’s changes! Well, we don’t really know conclusively. Part of the reason that particular search improved on Google is that there was so much written about the issue in news articles and anti-denial sites that sprang up. Even if Google had done nothing, some of that new content would have improved the results. However, given that Bing’s results are still so bad, some of Google’s algorithm changes do appear to have helped it.

For a similar search of “was the holocaust fake,” Google’s results still have issues, with three of the top 10 listings being denial content. That is better than Bing, where six of the top 10 listings contain denial content, or eight if you count the videos listed individually. At least with both, no denial listing has the top spot.

The takeaway from this? As I said, it’s going to be very much wait and see. One reason things might improve over time is that new data from those search quality raters is still coming in. When that gets processed, Google’s algorithms might get better.

Those human raters don’t directly impact Google’s search results, a common misconception that came up recently when Google was accused of using them to censor the Infowars site (it didn’t; they couldn’t). One metaphor I’m using to help explain their role — and limitations — is as if they are diners at a restaurant, asked to fill out review cards.

Those diners can say if they liked a particular dish or not. With enough feedback, the restaurant might decide to change its recipes to make food less salty or to serve some items at different temperatures. The diners themselves can’t go back into the kitchen and make changes.

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The problem with WikiTribune • The Atlantic

Adrienne Lafrance:

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The larger problem with WikiTribune is this: Someone who is paid for doing journalistic work cannot be considered “equals” with someone who is unpaid. And promoting the idea that core journalistic work should be done for free, by volunteers, is harmful to professional journalism. The difference between a professional and a hobbyist isn’t always measurable in skill level, but it is quantifiable in time and other resources necessary to complete a job. This is especially true in journalism, where figuring out the answer to a question often requires stitching together several pieces of information from different sources—not just information sources but people who are willing to be questioned to clarify complicated ideas.

The project raises many other questions. For starters, what are WikiTribune subscribers actually paying for? It’s not yet clear what kinds of stories Wales’s 10-person team will cover other than “global news stories,” he told Nieman Lab. That’s an awfully broad focus for such a small team. (For comparison: The New York Times has about 1,300 newsroom staffers—reporters, editors, fact-checkers, copy editors, photographers, and so on.)

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Fact-checkers and copy editors are available at zero cost (that’s basically what Wikipedia does) but the reporting, especially on tricky subjects needing good contacts, are very different.
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Ten-year futures • Benedict Evans

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It’s useful to compare physical retail with newspapers, which face many of the same problems: a fixed cost base with falling revenues, the near-disappearance of a physical distribution advantage, and above all, unbundling and disaggregation. Everything bad that the internet did to media is probably going to happen to retailers. The tipping point might now be approaching, particularly in the US, where the situation is worsened by the fact that there is far more retail square footage per capita than in any other developed market. And when the store closes and you turn to shopping online (or are simply forced to, if enough physical retail goes away), you don’t buy all the same things, any more than you read all the same things when you took your media consumption online. When we went from a corner store to a department store, and then from a department store to big box retail, we didn’t all buy exactly the same things but in different places – we bought different things. If you go from buying soap powder in Wal-Mart based on brand and eye-level placement to telling Alexa ‘I need more soap’, some of your buying will look different. 

In parallel to this, TV, which so far has not really been touched by the internet, is also starting to look unstable. Again, this is especially important in the USA, which is very over-served by pay TV: almost everyone has it and the average spend is much more than people in other developed markets typically pay, so there’s a lot of pent-up desire for change. The US TV market reminds me of those diagrams of three gear wheels interlocked such that none of them can turn: Netflix and Amazon (and others) are trying to unlock them.

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There is a lot of noise around the collapse of physical retail in the US – and something similar is happening in the UK – but quite how it’s going to pan out is hard to see. As ever, simply: follow the money.
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Man suspected in wife’s murder after her Fitbit data doesn’t match his alibi • The Guardian

Jamiles Lartey:

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Officials say that the timeline given by Richard Dabate, accused of killing his wife in the couple’s Ellington, Connecticut, home in 2015, is at odds with data collected from her Fitbit, a wearable device that tracks physical activity.

“To say it is rare to use Fitbit records would be safe,” Lancaster, Pennsylvania, district attorney Craig Stedman told the Hartford Courant.

Dabate told police that a masked assailant came into the couple’s suburban home at around 9am on 23 December 2015 and subdued Dabate with “pressure points” before shooting his wife, Connie Dabate, with a gun that Richard Dabate owned. He said that the man killed his wife as she returned through their garage from a workout at the local YMCA. Dabate claimed that he eventually chased the assailant off with a blowtorch.

But the Fitbit tells a different story. According to data from the device, which uses a digital pedometer to track the wearer’s steps, Connie Dabate was moving around for more than an hour after her husband said the murder took place. Not just that – it also showed she had travelled more than 1,200ft after arriving home, contrary to Dabate’s story that she was killed as she arrived. The distance from her vehicle to the location she died is “no more than 125ft”, according to police documents…

…The arrest warrant shows a detailed breakdown of all her movements and locations from waking up through the time she was killed. From the sync locations and activity monitor, investigators were able to produce a timeline down to the minute of when she left for the gym, the duration of her trip home, when she walked into the garage, her intermittent moving around in the home, and when her body stopped moving.

The Fitbit is far from the only challenge Dabate faces in his legal fight. Computer records show that he lied about where he was when he sent an email to his employer that morning. He said he was on the road when he was really at home.

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Amazon wants to put a camera and microphone in your bedroom • Motherboard

Jason Koebler:

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Amazon is giving Alexa eyes. And it’s going to let her judge your outfits. 

The newly announced Echo Look is a virtual assistant with a microphone and a camera that’s designed to go somewhere in your bedroom, bathroom, or wherever the hell you get dressed.

 Amazon is pitching it as an easy way to snap pictures of your outfits to send to your friends when you’re not sure if your outfit is cute, but it’s also got a built-in app called StyleCheck that is worth some further dissection. 

• You cool with an algorithm, machine learning, and “fashion specialists” deciding whether you look attractive today? What sorts of built-in biases will an AI fashionista have? It’s worth remembering that a recent AI-judged beauty contest picked primarily white winners.
• You cool with Amazon having the capability to see and perhaps catalog every single article of clothing you own? Who needs a Calvin Klein dash button if your Echo can tell when you need new underwear? Will Alexa prevent you from buying a pair of JNCOs? 
• You cool with Amazon putting a camera in your bedroom?
• Amazon store images and videos taken by Echo Look indefinitely, the company told us. Audio recorded by the original Echo has already been sought out in a murder case; to its credit, Amazon fought a search warrant in that case. 

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Of course it will store the images indefinitely: it needs them to train its machine learning. They’re not your images any more. It’s not your data any more.
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Microsoft cuts off 40% of Windows phones with Creators Update shift • PCWorld

Mark Hachman:

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Our review of the Creators Update for Windows 10 Mobile may have shown it to be a half-hearted update at best, but a substantial portion of Microsoft’s base of installed phones won’t even have a chance to experience it.

A report by AdDuplex, an ad network running on top of Windows devices, found that four of the top ten Windows phones won’t be allowed to upgrade to Microsoft’s latest feature update. That works out to about 40% of all Windows phones already in the hands of users.

Just 13 phones are eligible for the Windows 10 Mobile Creators Update: some recent Lumias (the 550, 640/640XL, 650, and 950/950XL), two Alcatel phones (the IDOL 4S and OneTouch Fierce XL), the HP Elite x3, and a few others.

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Translated: people aren’t buying new Windows Phones; the population is dwindling through attrition. Not surprising, but it’s always useful to have new data points.
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The Next to be Left Behind • commentary magazine

Noah Rothman:

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The decline of retail has coincided with the decline of America’s official unemployment rate, which is today lower than at any point since April of 2007 (at 4.5%). This industry isn’t disappearing entirely, and its employees are being absorbed by other sectors of the economy or by firms that fulfill the demand for online retail. But the visibility of a vibrant physical retail sector is as critical to America’s sense of place and purpose as are the steel mills of legend. Retail’s labor force may not be as displaced as were the manufacturers who worked in America’s blue-collar businesses, but the public spaces their industry created and the daily interactions they facilitated will not be so easily replaced. There will always be someone, somewhere willing to promise the restoration of that which was lost to progress.

Dreamy reminiscence is a useful political tool when wielded by a skilled polemicist, and the evolving American vending landscape will have repercussions that extend well beyond the local outlet mall. The impulse to freeze existing employment conditions in place is, however, unrealizable. Politicians may promise to reverse the tides of history, ease the pressures on employers to automate rote labor, and repeal the Internet. Even if retail venues are more limited, Americans should recognize when they’re being sold a bill of goods.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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