Start Up: Microsoft buying Github, Google’s dashed drone hopes, let’s trade war!, beating dark ads, and more

Android tablets seemed to have been unceremoniously demoted on Google’s developer site. But not so! Photo by Aaron Yoo on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. Tariff-free. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Microsoft is said to have agreed to acquire coding site GitHub • Bloomberg

Dina Bass and Eric Newcomer:


Microsoft Corp. has agreed to acquire GitHub Inc., the code repository company popular with many software developers, and could announce the deal as soon as Monday, according to people familiar with the matter.

GitHub preferred selling the company to going public and chose Microsoft partially because it was impressed by Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella, said one of the people, who asked not to be identified discussing private information. Terms of the agreement weren’t known on Sunday. GitHub was last valued at $2bn in 2015.

The acquisition provides a way forward for San Francisco-based GitHub, which has been trying for nine months to find a new CEO and has yet to make a profit from its popular service that allows coders to share and collaborate on their work. It also helps Microsoft, which is increasingly relying on open-source software, to add programming tools and tie up with a company that has become a key part of the way Microsoft writes its own software.

Frank Shaw, a spokesman for Microsoft, declined to comment. GitHub didn’t return an email seeking request for comment.


Sounds likely: Microsoft wants to get in front of programmers; it wants to know what trends are in programming; this is a great way to do that. Nadella’s Microsoft is an adaptable creature.
link to this extract

Leaked emails show Google expected lucrative military drone ai work to grow exponentially • The Intercept

Lee Fang:


Google has sought to quash the internal dissent in conversations with employees. Diane Greene, the chief executive of Google’s cloud business unit, speaking at a company town hall meeting following the revelations, claimed that the contract was “only” for $9 million, according to the New York Times, a relatively minor project for such a large company.

Internal company emails obtained by The Intercept tell a different story. The September emails show that Google’s business development arm expected the military drone artificial intelligence revenue to ramp up from an initial $15 million to an eventual $250 million per year.

In fact, one month after news of the contract broke, the Pentagon allocated an additional $100 million to Project Maven.

The internal Google email chain also notes that several big tech players competed to win the Project Maven contract. Other tech firms such as Amazon were in the running, one Google executive involved in negotiations wrote. (Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.) Rather than serving solely as a minor experiment for the military, Google executives on the thread stated that Project Maven was “directly related” to a major cloud computing contract worth billions of dollars that other Silicon Valley firms are competing to win.

The emails further note that Amazon Web Services, the cloud computing arm of Amazon, “has some work loads” related to Project Maven.


But now it isn’t going to renew the contract. Employee pressure can make a difference, which is heartening.
link to this extract

How to win a trade war • FiveThirtyEight

Rachael Dottle:


You (Yes, you!) have just been elected president of your very own country. Congratulations! Now it’s time to get to work. There is another country out there that has goods you can buy, and you have goods it may want to buy. Your job is to choose your foreign economic policy — which you’ll do in the little game we’ve prepared for you below.

The rules go like this: You can cooperate with the other country, allowing the free flow of its goods into your country. Or you can defect, imposing tariffs on the foreign goods. And because you will trade with the same country over and over again, you have to decide whether to stick with a single strategy no matter what or whether to change course in response to your opponent. The other country faces the same choice, but you can’t know in advance what plan they’ve chosen. Free trade helps both countries, generating big windfalls for both sides. But it’s possible for a single country to improve its own situation at the other’s expense — you both have a selfish incentive to defect, taxing the imports from the other country and helping only yourself. However, if you both defect, you both wind up isolated, cutting yourselves off from the market and reducing earnings on both sides.

So, give it a try. Another randomly chosen FiveThirtyEight reader will play the part of the other country.


It’s Prisoner’s Dilemma, iterative version. As has been shown by multiple tournaments, the optimal strategy is “nice tit-for-tat”: cooperate (no tariff) in the first round, do whatever your opponent just did to you (cooperate or defect – ie, no tariff, or tariff) in each subsequent round.
link to this extract

Removing Trending from Facebook • Facebook Newsroom

Alex Hardiman, head of news products:


We’re removing Trending soon to make way for future news experiences on Facebook. We introduced Trending in 2014 as a way to help people discover news topics that were popular across the Facebook community. However, it was only available in five countries and accounted for less than 1.5% of clicks to news publishers on average. From research we found that over time people found the product to be less and less useful. We will remove Trending from Facebook next week and we will also remove products and third-party partner integrations that rely on the Trends API.

We’ve seen that the way people consume news on Facebook is changing to be primarily on mobile and increasingly through news video. So we’re exploring new ways to help people stay informed about timely, breaking news that matters to them, while making sure the news they see on Facebook is from trustworthy and quality sources.


Suuuuuure. Trending turned out to be a terrible idea, open to being gamed – as it was – and made worse by firing the humans who had done it and giving the job to machines. (This Wired article from February tells the inside story on that.)
link to this extract

How Ireland beat dark ads • Foreign Policy

Rachel Lavin and Roland Adorjani:


Niamh Kirk, a journalism and digital media researcher at Dublin City University, carried out an analysis of the groups that had been buying ads before this ban [on Irish 8th amendment referendum ads] and found that the role played by foreign groups was small but significant. Nine% of ads were from groups based outside of Ireland.

Twenty-eight ads in the TRI database (3% overall) were from groups based in the United States, one was from Canada, three were from France, and the origin of 39 (4% overall) was unclear.

There was also the question of funding. Irish electoral law states that all donations to political campaigns above 100 euros must be registered with the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO), meaning the groups paying for these ads should have been publicly declared.

But a number of the ads were being put out by groups that were either not registered or else completely anonymous — especially those coming from the retain side.

Another electoral fear was bots — automated social media accounts used to promote certain topics or users and shut down others. They’ve played a key role in disrupting democratic discourse on Twitter. The Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University found that bots supportive of Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. election outweighed Hillary Clinton’s 5-to-1.

The same techniques threatened Ireland’s abortion discussion. An analysis of more than 400,000 tweets collected two months before the referendum found a significant proportion of botlike activity.

Out of 165,323 tweets for #Savethe8th (the anti-abortion hashtag), 14% came from accounts with numerical names (3 or more numbers in the handle), 6% were from accounts with numbers in their names and no location, and 2% had no bios in addition to the previous two markers.

Out of 267,274 tweets for #Repealthe8th, the figure for such botlike activity was half of the anti-abortion campaign.


Perhaps not allowing these sorts of ads – which can be micro-targeted – would be a good idea, since it’s so hard to make sure that they’re in any way legitimate. And that’s before you get onto the content that isn’t advertising but which gets pushed around Facebook and so on.
link to this extract

Embattled Chinese telecom giant ZTE beefs up lobbying muscle • Daily Beast

Lachlan Markay:


ZTE Corporation struck a contract with D.C. lobbying and public relations powerhouse Mercury Public Affairs on May 14, a day after Trump tweeted that he would consider lifting the penalties that had been imposed on the company as punishment for its violation of sanctions against Iran and North Korea.

The Mercury consultant working on the account is Bryan Lanza, a veteran of the Trump 2016 presidential campaign. Less than two weeks after Lanza’s work began, the Trump administration announced that it had reached a tentative deal to ease those penalties, a move criticized by lawmakers of both parties.

Many factors likely contributed to the resolution of the ZTE penalties, including efforts to leverage ongoing trade negotiations with China. But the swiftness of the Trump administration’s efforts to reach an agreement with the company—and the equally swift decision of that company to bring on a prominent Trumpworld figure—underscores the new world of influence peddling in Washington D.C. An infamously impulsive president, prone to bucking political norms and changing legislative priorities, has compelled companies to turn to K Street just to keep up.

Former aides to any president are a particularly lucrative draw in DC’s influence industry. And true to form, companies looking to win favor with President Trump have frequently turned to those he once employed. Lanza remains close with the White House and occasionally speaks with the president himself.

The Trump administration plan is a lifeline for ZTE. The Commerce Department’s decision to ban the use of American-manufactured parts in ZTE products, chiefly smartphones, prompted the company to announce that it would be forced to shut down global operations absent U.S. government relief.


So it’s all grace and favour again. Trump’s venality and hypocrisy never ceases to dismay, but it’s worth citing from time to time.
link to this extract

Google unceremoniously removes the tablet section from official Android website • Android Police

Ryan Whitwam:


Google has been doing an impressive job of pretending Android tablets don’t exist for the last few years, and now it’s done pretending. Google has updated the Android website to remove the tablet section entirely. You can now use that site to learn all about Android on Phones, Wear, TV, Auto, and Enterprise. That’s it. RIP Android tablets.

As of yesterday [May 31], the tablet section still existed. You can see the last version of the page in the Internet Archive. It talked about hot new tablets like the Shield and Galaxy Tab S2. So, yeah. It wasn’t getting much attention even before Google killed it. Now, if you try to visit the URL for the tablet page, it kicks you back to the main Android site.


Wow, that is quite a statement – even in passive-aggressive form. Whitwam also points out that there are no Android P dev tablets. Though there might be ChromeOS tablets that run Android. Google says it made a mistake updating the site and tablets were never meant to go away.

Even with this, Android tablets come in dead last on developers’ to-do list, which generally runs iPhone, Android phones, iPad, Android tablets. Though possibly ChromeOS comes ahead of Android tablets now.
link to this extract

Looking for life on a flat earth • New Yorker

Alan Burdick:


If we can agree on anything anymore, it’s that we live in a post-truth era. Facts are no longer correct or incorrect; everything is potentially true unless it’s disagreeable, in which case it’s fake. Recently, Lesley Stahl, of “60 Minutes,” revealed that, in an interview after the 2016 election, Donald Trump told her that the reason he maligns the press is “to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.” Or, as George Costanza put it, coming from the opposite direction, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”

The flat Earth is the post-truth landscape. As a group, its residents view themselves as staunch empiricists, their eyes wide open. The plane truth, they say, can be grasped in experiments that anyone can do at home. For instance, approach a large body of water and hold up a ruler to the horizon: it’s flat all the way across. What pond, lake, or sea have you ever seen where the surface of its waters curves? Another argument holds that, if Earth were truly spherical, an airplane flying above it would need to constantly adjust its nose downward to avoid flying straight into space. If, say, you flew on a plane and put a spirit level—one of those levels that you buy at the hardware store, with a capsule of liquid and an air bubble in the middle—on your tray table, the level should reveal a slight downward inclination. But it doesn’t: the level is level, the flight is level, the nose of the plane is level, and therefore the surface of Earth must be level. Marble performed this experiment himself, recorded it, posted it on YouTube, and a co-worker started a Reddit thread that linked to it. Soon Marble had twenty-two thousand followers and a nickname, the Spirit-Level Guy.

“We’re not trying to express any degree of intellectual superiority,” he said at the conference. “I’m just trying to wake people up to the idea that they’ve been lied to. It’s what you would do with any friend.”


It’s hard to decide: are we entering a new dark ages, when the populace is stupid and so are the rulers, and intelligent ideas are pushed aside? Or is this just a fringe, with the necessary intelligent work continuing regardless? I side with the “fringe” idea, but the ability of totally stupid, unscientific ideas to persuade people is unsettling.
link to this extract

Dixons Carphone risks loss of big mobile groups in contracts row • FT

Nic Fildes:


Alex Baldock, new chief executive of Dixons Carphone, warned the mobile phone sector this week that its contracts — some signed after the collapse of its rival Phones 4U in 2014 — were “unsustainable” and in need of renegotiation.

The company revealed plans to close 92 Carphone Warehouse stores and said that revisiting the contracts was a key part of its strategy to improve profitability.

“Our performance is unacceptable in mobile and we won’t tolerate it. One way or another, this performance will improve in the medium-term,” he said during an analysts call.

The mobile operators said that the bellicose statements, and demands for more cash upfront, did not signal that Mr Baldock wanted to build long-term relationships.

One person on the retail side of one of the largest networks said that it has delayed a decision on whether to re-sign with the retailer, and that it could walk away.

Another person at a rival network said that selling phone contracts through Carphone Warehouse was the “least profitable channel for operators” and that the comments suggested that the business was struggling.


This is an existential threat for CPW, which grew – as its name suggests – from the original demands to put mobile phones in cars. (Mobile phones were physically big in those days.) If the mobile operators pull out, it has a real problem – the same one that sank Phones4U.
link to this extract

Messenger Kids no longer requires the kids’ parents to be friends, too • TechCrunch

Sarah Perez:


Facebook’s Messenger Kids application, which allows children under 13 to chat with parents’ approval, is today rolling out a small, but notable change – it no longer requires that the children’s parents be Facebook friends with one another, in order for the children to connect. This solves one of the problems with the app’s earlier design, where it operated more like an extension of a parents’ own social circle, instead of one for their child.

Of course, parents still have to approve every contact their child adds, as usual.

As any parent understands, there are always going to be those friends of your child where you have an acquaintance-type, friendly but casual relationship with the parents that falls short of earning “Facebook friend” status. While you might text them for the occasional play date or nod politely at drop-off, you’re not necessarily “friends.” But your kids are friends with each other. And you’re fine with that.

The Messenger Kids update now allows those kids to connect, if you okay it.


This was totally predictable. My comment back in December when this was announced: “at its core, it’s about getting people – even those under age – to use Facebook more.” Letting more kids connect means they use Facebook more. Ta-da!
link to this extract

Experiment: How easy is it to spy on a smartwatch wearer? • Kaspersky Lab official blog


Our research has shown that data obtained from a smartwatch acceleration sensor can be used to recover information about the wearer: movements, habits, some typed information (for example, a laptop password).

Infecting a smartwatch with data-siphoning malware that lets cybercriminals recover this information is quite straightforward. They just need to create an app (say, a trendy clockface or fitness tracker), add a function to read accelerometer data, and upload it to Google Play. In theory, such an app will pass the malware screening, since there is nothing outwardly malicious in what it does.

Should you worry about being spied on by someone using this technique? Only if that someone has a strong motivation to spy on you, specifically. The average cybercrook is after easy pickings and won’t have much to gain.

But if your computer password or route to the office is of value to someone, a smartwatch is a viable tracking tool.


Full report here. Note that this is about an Android smartwatch; no word on doing it with an Apple Watch (which one suspects would be a lot more difficult.)
link to this extract

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

10 thoughts on “Start Up: Microsoft buying Github, Google’s dashed drone hopes, let’s trade war!, beating dark ads, and more

    • Yes, I updated on being told this. Android does have the majority share; but it’s a long way behind in profitability, and without profit there’s little point continuing. I analysed Lenovo’s tablet business back in 2016: Android tablets were a clear lossmaker for it. Asus, Acer, tiny Chinese whitebox OEMs – they’re all seriously scaling back their tablet business. Share of sales doesn’t equal sustainability.

    • Just as an addendum to my point on Lenovo/tablets/profitability – my piece also links to Benedict Evans, who calculated that there may be about 250m Google Android tablets in use. That isn’t a lot – there are more iPads, total, in use – because a lot of the “tablet” sales are inside China, and those aren’t Google Android. (They’re essentially used as media players for torrented etc video.)

      Thus “Android has 60% of the tablet market” can be a misleading stat, if you’re trying to understand the non-China world. It might be substantially smaller outside China.

      • Not having the Google PlayStore doesn’t mean you don’t use a store. China has its own stores, you can’t discount all Chinese tablets wholesale with a “they’re used for pirated content”. They are, as are iPads, but I’m sure they also run games, Web, social… Around me I don’t see any difference of usage between iPads and Androids on average, a few sophisticated iPad users are overshadowed by a majority of worse-than-noob overly brand-conscious users, Android is more in the middle, with the high-end being techies instead of creative/excutive types for the iPad.

        Benedict “there are now no reasons to buy Androids, except price” Evans is very heavily biased (trollish even) and not a reliable source.

      • It seems callous of me to point out that Evans is a well-rewarded analyst for a Silicon Valley full-stack venture capital company, and before that was a well-rewarded analyst for a highly regarded analyst company in London (Enders Analysis). Other people at the VC company where he works include Steve Sinofsky, ex-Windows chief, who seems to agree with him on many things. Whereas you’re.. trying to split hairs about the profitability of Android tablets?

        If you find yourself thinking he’s “very heavily biased” you might want to recalibrate, just as an intellectual exercise, on the basis that you might be calamitously wrong and he might be absolutely correct about the trajectories of these topics.

        At the very least, you’d need to offer analyses you’ve made in the past of how things would turn out so that we can compare them to the present day. Evans has done a lot of that, and hasn’t been significantly wrong in my experience. Then we can decide who is “very heavily biased (trollish even) and not a reliable source”.

      • (there seems to be a limit on nesting comments, this is a reply to your “It seems callous ” post.)

        M. Evans has interesting insights and analyses. He’s also extremely biased, probably because that helps with publicity. That quote from him from back when Apple released a 5.5″ phone says it all; at the time, the consensus was that the iPhone didn’t have the best screen, the best camera, the best battery, the most rugged casing, the largest storage, the ability to sideload apps (for oppressive countries), water/dust resistance…

        I’m sure his post was partly allegorical, partly a joke. But it was, mostly, a troll. And I don’t need to be a better analyst than him (I’m not) to point that out, and to point out that this casts a wider shadow.

  1. While we’re on the subject, I not finding any info on global ecosystems app revenues (that’s certainly including China and if possible including ads). 2017 was supposed to be the year Android overtook iOS (some recount it happened in 2016), and since I’m now only seeing figures about per-device or per-user sales, I’m guessing that has indeed happened, hence the metrics sleight-of-hand ?

    • If Android is the most profitable platform for which to develop apps, it would be unprofessional of the companies which collect the statistics and advise their clients to obscure that fact from them and from others. `
      Bear in mind too that (1) smartphone sales stopped growing in 2017 (2) smartphone sales growth was in low-income countries, and negative in high-income countries (US, Europe saw falls in sales) (3) iOS sales grew in high-income countries, and China (4) low-income countries tend not to generate revenues at anything like the level of high-income ones
      ..and you realise that it’s not unreasonable to think that the two platforms are at least level-pegging for revenue. The point I made previously, that for the same number of installs on iOS you’ll get more profit (lower dev cost, higher receipts), remains.

      • I can’t vouch for that w/o actual total, not per-device, revenues. I’m surprised you’re willing to.

        As to why that type of news is so heavily curated, frankly I think reporters have more skin in the game than just reporting facts: scoring invites to event, consulting gigs, even just being quotable and quoted… I mean, that info was all over the web until last year. Why did it vanish ?

      • Reporters are just interested in stories. That is their only skin in the game. They get invited to events, or they don’t; if they don’t, they find something else to do. “Consulting gigs”? No idea who you mean. I don’t know anyone who has done that. “Being quotable and quoted”? If you’re authoritative, or just available, then you get quoted.
        Why did the info vanish? Clearly, because it’s either just pretty boring now – the smartphone wars have been over for a couple of years, minimum – or the analysts have chosen to make it client-only. That’s the case for quite a lot of data.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.