Start Up: the Spotify playlist black market, how Siri soured, who’ll wear WearOS?, Toys’R’Us bust, and more


These guys will probably get their contract renewed. Photo by Elliott Brown 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.

Exclusive: Amazon’s internal numbers on Prime Video, revealed • Reuters

Jeffrey Dastin:

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a person familiar with its strategy said the company credits a specific show for luring someone to start or extend a Prime subscription if that program is the first one a customer streams after signing up. That metric, referenced throughout the documents, is known as a “first stream.”

The company then calculates how expensive the viewer was to acquire by dividing the show’s costs by the number of first streams it had. The lower that figure, the better.

The internal documents do not show how long subscribers stayed with Prime, nor do they indicate how much shopping they do on Amazon. The company reviews other metrics for its programs as well. Consequently, the documents do not provide enough information to determine the overall profitability of Amazon’s Hollywood endeavor.

Still, the numbers indicate that broad-interest shows can lure Prime members cheaply by Amazon’s calculations. One big winner was the motoring series “The Grand Tour,” which stars the former presenters of BBC’s “Top Gear.” The show had more than 1.5 million first streams from Prime members worldwide, at a cost of $49 per subscriber in its first season.

The documents seen by Reuters reflect Prime subscribers in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Austria and Japan, where Amazon’s programs were available before Prime Video rolled out globally in December 2016.

Analysts estimate that 75 million or more customers have Prime subscriptions worldwide, including about half of all households in the United States.

About 26 million US Prime members watched television and movies on Amazon as of early 2017. Reuters calculated this number from the documents, which showed how many viewers a TV series had as a percentage of total Prime Video customers.

Rival Netflix Inc had twice that many US subscribers in the first quarter of last year. It does not disclose how many were active viewers.

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Those numbers for Grand Tour perhaps aren’t surprising, but they’ll be very reassuring for Clarkson et al.
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Graphics that look hand-drawn • Rough.js

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Rough.js is a light weight (~8k), Canvas based library that lets you draw in a sketchy, hand-drawn-like, style. The library defines primitives to draw lines, curves, arcs, polygons, circles, and ellipses. It also supports drawing SVG paths.

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So it produces effects like this:

or this


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Inside the black market for Spotify playlists • Daily Dot

Austin Powell:

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Tommie King could be the next rapper to breakout from Atlanta. He’s well-connected, has obvious swagger, and he’s been quietly building a successful collection of singles on Spotify. His latest, “Eastside (feat. Cyhi the Prynce),” has already clocked more than 110,000 streams, driven largely by its placement on 14 independent playlists.

Gone are the days of hustling in parking lots, selling mixtapes out of the trunk of your car. In the modern music economy, in which streaming services account for nearly two-thirds of the total revenue generated by recorded music, emerging artists are increasingly being tracked via big data. Spotify streams, YouTube views, Twitter interactions, and even Wikipedia searches are all being used to discover the proverbial next big thing. That’s why King’s manager has worked to land his music on a staggering 594 Spotify playlists to date.

“Without Spotify playlists, to tell you the honest truth, I wouldn’t feel like we were accomplishing much,” King tells me when I reach him at the phone number he lists publicly on his Facebook page. “Streams are now the only way to really reach people you otherwise wouldn’t be able to connect with. It gives you the ability to be played worldwide, which we’re doing quite well with.

“That’s everything nowadays.”

There’s just one catch: King essentially paid to be added to those Spotify playlists… The black market for Spotify playlists is booming. It’s cheaper than you might expect to hack the system — and if it’s done right, it more than pays for itself.

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Ironic: because they’re human-curated, the biggest playlists are targets for this. It’s the modern payola. (Millenial readers: like paid SEO for music on the radio.)
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‘Snitches get stitches’: how secure phones for criminals are sold on Instagram • Motherboard

Joseph Cox:

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On Saturday, Motherboard reported that the FBI has arrested the CEO of Phantom Secure, a company allegedly providing security-focused phones to international organized crime groups including the Sinaloa drug cartel. A key issue is whether Phantom deliberately created its product to help facilitate crime, which the criminal complaint alleges.

As it turns out, a Phantom-linked Instagram account, used mostly for marketing the company’s products, isn’t subtle when it comes to the organization’s alleged connection to crime; a brazen trend seen across the wider secure phone industry, too.

“Snitches get stitches,” one image, uploaded to Phantom PGP’s Instagram account, an apparent reseller of Phantom’s phones, reads. It is unclear whether this particular reseller or those operating other accounts advertising Phantom phones are connected to the recent charges against the main Phantom company and its owner.

Phantom and a number of other companies in this space sell customized BlackBerry or Android devices, typically with the camera and microphone removed, as well as, in Phantom’s case, the GPS-tracking and ordinary internet browsing functionality. In place of texts or phone calls, Phantom’s phones route encrypted messages through the company’s own infrastructure.

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link to this extract


The seven-year itch: how Apple’s marriage to Siri turned sour • The Information

Aaron Tilley and Kevin McLaughlin:

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The Topsy team [acquired by Apple in 2013] ultimately grew into a massive organization under Mr. Stasior that now nearly rivals the number of employees on the Siri team, said one former employee. Topsy CEO Vipul Ved Prakash continues to lead that search group and reports directly to Mr. Stasior.

Uniting the existing Siri team with the expanding search unit under Mr. Stasior proved troublesome. Members of the Topsy team expressed a reluctance to work with a Siri team they viewed as slow and bogged down by the initial infrastructure that had been patched up but never completely replaced since it launched.

“There was a feeling that, ‘Why don’t we just start over and build what we need to build, and then worry about reconciling those two later?’” said a former member of the search team. “They’re still reconciling it.”

Core Siri and Spotlight are powered by a combination of both Topsy’s technology and Siri Data Services, which is based on older search technology ported over from iTunes search but modified for Siri and launched in 2013, said the former employee. Siri Data Services deals with things like Wikipedia, stocks and movie showtimes, while Topsy sorts through Twitter, news and web results. The Siri Data Services team was eventually lumped into the Topsy team under Mr. Prakash with the plan to integrate all of the tech into a single stack. But they’re based on two different programming languages and are tricky to reconcile.

The difficulty integrating the search teams led to some embarrassing outcomes. Users could get completely different responses to the same question based on whether they were using Siri or Spotlight—which were powered by two different search technologies built by two different teams.

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This verrry long piece indicates that there’s a hell of a lot of competing groups, and no overarching view of quite how to fix Siri – nor quite what it should be. We all know what we want Siri to do. But it seems like there are conflicting ideas on how to get there.
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‘Hey’ used to be for horses • 500ish Words

MG Siegler:

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Save for the Echo, each of these assistants is invoked by speaking the words “hey _____.” “Hey Google.” “Hey Siri.” “Hey Cortana.” With Amazon’s device, it’s simply “Alexa.”

Again, this seems like a tiny thing. It’s one syllable. But I think it matters.

I live in a house with both the Echo and the Home. And I’m always testing out Siri to see what she can and cannot do in relation to the competition. It’s just so much nicer to invoke Alexa than the others. And I’m certain a part of it is not having to add that extra wake word.

It also happens to be an awful word. Hey. Every time I hear it, I think back to growing up when my parents would make the dreadful parenting joke — which was really more of a reprimand. “‘Hey’ is for horses.” These days, we’re not only letting our children say “hey”, we’re basically forcing them to.
So I welcome the news that Microsoft is apparently doing away with “hey” for Cortana. And I hope Apple and Google follow suit. Sure, it may lead to a few more cases of accidental invoking, but I think the upside will be worth it.

Eventually, I imagine all of these devices are going to let you choose your own wake word. Yes, you can already change it on the Echo, but I mean picking something totally random personalized to you or your family.

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I thought it was “OK Google” rather than “hey, Google” but the general point holds. And being able to personalise the wake word seems like a completely obvious setting, especially for privacy-conscious Apple: why should absolutely anybody be able to invoke my personal assistant just because they’re in speaking range?
link to this extract


Android Wear, it’s time for a new name • Google Blog

Dennis Troper was director of product management at Android Wear:

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Android Wear was founded on the belief that wearable technology should be for everyone, no matter what style you wear on your wrist or what phone you have in your pocket. Since then, we’ve partnered with top watch and electronics brands to create more than 50 watches to help you manage your fitness, connect with the people who matter most, and show you the information you care about. The best part: We’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible with wearables and there’s even more exciting work ahead.

As our technology and partnerships have evolved, so have our users. In 2017, one out of three new Android Wear watch owners also used an iPhone. So as the watch industry gears up for another Baselworld next week, we’re announcing a new name that better reflects our technology, vision, and most important of all—the people who wear our watches. We’re now Wear OS by Google, a wearables operating system for everyone.

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And now Troper is director of product management at Wear OS. That one-in-three figure is quite a number, but I don’t think this is going to change the trajectory of Android W–er, Wear OS. Sales are tiny compared to Apple Watch, and there’s no reason to think this will suddenly juice them.
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The key to the iPhone X’s future lies in China • Forbes

Luke Kelly on prospects for the rumoured larger-screened iPhone X+1 later this year:

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As per this report from IDC, China consumed 50% of the 437.4m so-called “phablets” shipped in 2016, and the country is expected to remain the largest market for large-screen smartphones.

“Chinese customers like bigger screens,” says Jia. “Close to 26% of smartphones shipped in Q4 2017 had 6in screens or larger, while this figure is just 10.7% in the U.S.” This phenomenon has led the larger “Plus” iPhone models to sell significantly better than their smaller siblings in China – the iPhone 7 Plus was the second best selling handset in China last year.

This is because many Chinese smartphone users own just one device, explains Zhang. “A smartphone is their only device to connect to the internet, so they want their smartphones to be as big as possible for playing games, multitasking and watching videos,” she explains.

Although this upcoming device could cost even more than the iPhone X, it seems clear that for China’s most affluent citizens, affordability is not an issue. Where American and European consumers have balked at the X’s $1,000 asking price, the Chinese market has no such qualms. With profit margins becoming ever-more crucial in a saturated smartphone market, it appears that China will be the key to the future of the iPhone X line.  

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This is a really confused piece. He says sales of the iPhone X have “fallen well short of expectations”, except in China.. where people want bigger screens, which the X doesn’t have compared to the iPhone 8 Plus. Huh?

What seems clearer is that lots of people don’t have a handle on a) how many iPhone Xs Apple expected to sell in the last calendar quarter of 2017 b) how that would affect sales in C1Q 18 c) how many Xs Apple expected to sell across those two quarters, and hence how its demand profile might have shifted. (Sell more in 4Q17, sell fewer in 1Q18, but still hit overall target.)
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Toys’R’Us to close all 800 of its US stores • Washington Post

Abha Bhattarai:

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A group of toymakers led by Isaac Larian, chief executive of MGA Entertainment, the giant behind brands such as L.O.L. Surprise!, Little Tikes and Bratz, on Wednesday submitted a bid to buy Toys R Us’s Canadian arm, which includes 82 stores, according to Larian. He added that he is also looking into buying as many as 400 US stores, which he would seek to operate under the Toys R Us name.

“There is no toy business without Toys R Us,” Larian said, noting that he sold his first product to the chain in 1979. “It’s a big deal and I’m going to try to salvage as much of it as possible.”

According to its September bankruptcy filing, Toys R Us owes MGA Entertainment $21.3m.

Despite turnaround efforts at Toys R Us, which included adding more hands-on “play labs,” retail experts say the 60-year-old company has been unable to get customers back into its stores. It doesn’t offer the low prices or convenience of some of its larger competitors, nor the fun-filled experience that many smaller outfits do, some analysts have said.

Toys R Us, based in Wayne, N.J., has been struggling for years to pay down billions of dollars in debt as competitors such as Amazon, Walmart and Target win over an increasingly larger piece of the toy market. Its bankruptcy filing last year cited $7.9bn in debt against $6.6bn in assets. The company said it has more than 100,000 creditors, the largest of which are Bank of New York (owed $208m), Mattel ($136 m) and Hasbro ($59m).

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A leveraged buyout in 2005 overloaded it with debt (both financial and, arguably, strategic). Now all that has come home to roost. Wonder if a buyer will try to rebrand it.
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Power outage reportedly disrupts Samsung NAND flash production • Digitimes

Jessie Shen:

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A brief power outage took place at Samsung Electronics’ NAND flash plant in Pyeongtaek on March 9. Wafers damaged in the incident are equivalent to 3.5% of the global supply in March, a report from Taiwan’s TechNews.

About 5,000-60,000 wafers were damaged during a half-hour power outage at the Samsung NAND flash fab, the report quoted market watchers as saying. The damaged wafers are equivalent to about 11% of Samsung’s overall NAND flash output in March.

Samsung’s sufficient inventory will be able to offset the wafer losses caused by the outage, which will have no major impact on Samsung’s NAND chip operations, the watchers were cited as saying in the report.

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3.5% of global supply from one factory’s power outage. That’s some concentration of production.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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