Start Up No.909: making heavy weather, game apps under fire, the everlasting iPhone?, Outlining the problem, and more


Larry Page in 2006. His public appearances are increasingly rare. So what’s he doing? Photo by Herkko Hietanen on Flickr

»You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email (arriving at about 0700GMT each weekday). You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.«

A selection of 9 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

New iPhones, new Galaxies: who’s the bigger copycat? • Yahoo News

David Pogue is a brave, brave man:

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First, I made up a list of every major feature that’s standard on smartphones today. Pinch-to-zoom. Auto-rotating screen. Slow-mo video. Word suggestions above the keyboard. A quick settings panel. Voice assistant. Voice calling. Private browsing. And on and on.

Second, I hunted down the first appearance of every feature by poring through old user manuals, Wikipedia, tech reviews, and how-to books. With help from my assistant Jan Carpenter, we eventually filled in a spreadsheet, which you can see here.

I turned the data over to David Foster, infographics lead for Oath Studios, who designed the timelines you see below. Each one shows clearly not just which company wins each horse race, but how long it took its rivals to copy each feature. The timeline bars also provide a fascinating look at how smartphones have evolved since the iPhone’s debut in 2007.

Now, a few notes on this project’s limitations:

• I’ve restricted the game to three players: Apple, Samsung, and Google. Some features may have appeared first in phones by smaller companies, but most of the “you stole that!” accusations involve the Big Three. Especially when it comes to software features (Apple’s iOS vs. Google’s Android) and hardware features (Apple’s iPhone vs. Samsung’s Galaxy S series).
• Not all features get stolen. Nobody ever copied Apple’s Force Touch screen idea (detects how hard you’re pressing) or its Emergency SOS siren (to use when you’re being mugged). Similarly, to this day, only Android offers desktop widgets and multiple user accounts on the phone. And Samsung, through the years, has introduced dozens of features that nobody chose to imitate (built-in heart-rate sensor, auto-scrolling based on your head tilt). This story is about features that have become universal, so those features don’t appear here.
• Also not included: Features that existed before the smartphone era, like downloadable ringtones. They weren’t Apple’s, Samsung’s, or Google’s ideas in the first place.
Even with all of this research and documentation, I’m sure there will be much to argue about. Does Samsung’s easily fooled face recognition get credit for being first, when Apple’s later implementation, which uses depth cameras that can’t be fooled by a photo, is far better? Should a company get credit for being the leader, when the feature it introduced seems obvious and inevitable (say, an on-screen keyboard)? Should a feature be listed if two companies introduced it more or less simultaneously?

In all three cases, I’ve answered “yes” as I built this study.

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RIP your mentions, dude.
link to this extract


How The Weather Channel made that insane storm animation • Wired

Brian Barrett:

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If you haven’t seen the graphic yet, take a moment to watch the segment below. It starts normally enough, with a top-side view of the Eastern seaboard, showing the “reasonable worst-case scenario” of water levels. (The data comes from the National Hurricane Center.) But about 45 seconds in, a shift occurs. Meteorologist Erika Navarro stands not in a studio, but on a neighborhood street corner. And then the waters around her start to rise.

On one level, yes, the visualization literally just shows what three, six, and nine feet of water looks like. But it’s showing that in a context most people have never experienced. It fills in the gaps of your imagination, and hopefully underscores for anyone in a flood zone all the reasons they should not be.

A year ago, this wouldn’t have been possible. In fact, this specific demonstration wouldn’t have been possible a month ago. The Weather Channel only finished the new “green screen immersive studio” at its Atlanta headquarters this week. With peak hurricane season coming, it wanted to be prepared. “It was all hands on deck,” says Michael Potts, TWC’s vice president of design.

Fortunately, they’ve already had some practice with this sort of thing. About 18 months ago, Potts says, the broadcast industry at large started getting serious about the quality of graphics it could offer, thanks in part to the rising popularity of esports. Seeing potential for weather coverage, TWC invested in the use of Unreal Engine, the same suite of tools that powers countless video games (yes, including Fortnite.

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The video is indeed amazing. This is “augmented reality” being used to its best capacity.
link to this extract


Amazon is stuffing its search results pages with ads • Recode

Rani Molla:

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Sponsored ads allow vendors to bid auction-style to have their products show up when consumers type in a related search term. If you’re Duracell, for example, you can pay to have your product show up above or among search results when someone types in “batteries” — or “Energizer.”

When searching for a specific product — “Kellogg’s Corn Flakes,” for example — ads for Kellogg’s own Frosted Flakes and competitor Nature’s Path Corn Flakes both show up as sponsored results first.

And in an unscientific Recode test, these types of ads showed up for every search term, from the vague to the hyperspecific:

“Nobody is scrolling beyond the first page when they do a search,” Jason Goldberg, SVP of commerce at SapientRazorfish, a digital marketing agency, told Recode. “If you want to be discoverable, you have to find a way to show up in search results.”

To get that prime visibility, brands are responding with more cash. Spending on sponsored products in Amazon’s search increased 165% in the second quarter of 2018 compared with a year earlier, according to data from marketing agency Merkle.

The competition for brands to bid on their own or others’ keywords is fierce, and is leading toward what Goldberg called a “perfectly escalating arms race where all the trends are to spend more money to buy more ads to have better visibility on Amazon.”

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I’ve noticed this; Amazon isn’t bound, as far as I can tell, by the requirements on other search engines to label ads “prominently”. The only positive thing is that if you’re actually determined to buy product A, then an ad for product B probably won’t do it. The annoyance comes when you accidentally click on the ad product thinking it’s part of the organic listings. Which can happen on Google too, of course.
link to this extract


“Where’s Larry?” • Bloomberg BusinessWeek

:

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For several months he maintained a weekly meeting with leaders at Google Fiber, a project to develop ultrahigh-speed internet access, to brainstorm technical solutions for implementing the service, such as newfangled ways to drill fiber-optic cables into sidewalks, says a former manager there.

Another skunkworks project that consumed Page, started in 2015 and previously unreported, was a Disney-esque idea to reimagine transportation, code-named Heliox. According to three people familiar with the effort, a team operating out of a former NASA hangar in the Bay Area built a tube of plastic the width of a subway car, snaked around a circular track, designed to propel bicyclists at rapid speeds through a swirl of oxygen and helium pumped into the tunnel at their backs. Heliox was pure Page, a space-age concept both preposterously imaginative and mechanically marvelous: The vision was to stretch this tube system, arced hundreds of feet in the air, from a ground-level entry point on Google’s Mountain View campus to an exit 35 miles north, in San Francisco, so Google’s rainbow-colored beach cruisers might one day be seen flying over U.S. Highway 101. Yes, it sounds like a Hyperloop for bikes.

Many of these projects, including Heliox, have since fizzled or died. As Alphabet’s CEO, Page had to placate investors anxious about his investments beyond Google’s core business. Now almost all of Alphabet’s spending goes to Google. Several people familiar with the dynamic say Page’s involvement with Alphabet’s subsidiaries has become more sporadic in recent years as the L Team has shrunk to a smaller coterie known as “AlphaFun,” and it’s difficult to pinpoint a fresh project inside the company with his clear imprint. One former manager who worked at X says the rare office check-in from Page is akin to a royal visit, replete with assistants, hangers-on, and advance fretting. Doctoroff, the Sidewalk Labs CEO, disputes this characterization and says Page is “intensely involved,” citing their weekly video chats and a surprise Page visit to Sidewalk’s Toronto project in July. Although Page hasn’t visited Sidewalk’s New York headquarters in months, Doctoroff says he’s constantly discussing ideas as varied as “dynamic pavement” and “cross-laminated timber.”

These days, there’s a sense within Google that futurism has taken a back seat to more pressing concerns.

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This is such a contrast with the Zuckerberg profile from the New Yorker. Fascinating detail: Page is younger than Google’s Sundar Pichai.
link to this extract


How game apps that captivate kids have been collecting their data • NY Times

Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, Natasha Singer, Aaron Krolik and Michael Keller:

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Before Kim Slingerland downloaded the Fun Kid Racing app for her then-5-year-old son, Shane, she checked to make sure it was in the family section of the Google Play store and rated as age-appropriate. The game, which lets children race cartoon cars with animal drivers, has been downloaded millions of times.

Until last month, the app also shared users’ data, sometimes including the precise location of devices, with more than a half-dozen advertising and online tracking companies. On Tuesday evening, New Mexico’s attorney general filed a lawsuit claiming that the maker of Fun Kid Racing had violated a federal children’s privacy law through dozens of Android apps that shared children’s data.

“I don’t think it’s right,” said Ms. Slingerland, a mother of three in Alberta, Canada. “I don’t think that’s any of their business, location or anything like that.”

The suit accuses the app maker, Tiny Lab Productions, along with online ad businesses run by Google, Twitter and three other companies, of flouting a law intended to prevent the personal data of children under 13 from falling into the hands of predators, hackers and manipulative marketers. The suit also contends that Google misled consumers by including the apps in the family section of its store.

An analysis by The New York Times found that children’s apps by other developers were also collecting data. The review of 20 children’s apps — 10 each on Google Android and Apple iOS — found examples on both platforms that sent data to tracking companies, potentially violating children’s privacy law; the iOS apps sent less data over all.

These findings are consistent with those published this spring by academic researchers who analyzed nearly 6,000 free children’s Android apps. They reported that more than half of the apps, including those by Tiny Lab, shared details with outside companies in ways that may have violated the law.

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link to this extract


Youtube Kids adds a whitelisting parental control feature, plus a new experience for tweens • Techcrunch

Sarah Perez:

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YouTube is adding another feature that will give parents the ability to explicitly whitelist every channel or video they want to be available to their children through the app.

Additionally, YouTube Kids is launching an updated experience to serve the needs of a slightly older demographic: tween viewers ages 8 through 12. This mode adds new content, like popular music and gaming videos.

The company had promised in April these changes were in the works, but didn’t note when they’d be going live.

With the manual whitelisting feature, parents can visit the app’s Settings, go to their child’s profile, and toggle on an “Approved Content Only” option. They can then handpick the videos they want their kids to have access to watch through the YouTube Kids app.

Parents can opt to add any video, channel, or collection of channels they like by tapping the “ ” button, or they can search for a specific creator or video through this interface.

Once this mode is enabled, kids will no longer be able to search for content on their own.

While this is a lot of manual labor on parents’ part, it does serve the needs of those with very young children who aren’t comfortable with YouTube Kids’ newer “human-reviewed channels” filtering option, as mistakes could still slip through.

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Yup, that’s a lot of effort. Bet that few parents go to the trouble. Allows Google to say it has tried and that it offers what people have demanded. Except what people want is for Google to do the filtering.
link to this extract


The iPhone franchise • Stratechery

Ben Thompson:

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probably the biggest surprise from these announcements (well, other than the name “XS Max”) is just how good of a smartphone the XR is.

• The XR has Apple’s industry-leading A12 chip, which is so far ahead of the industry that it will still be competitive with the best Android smartphones in two years, and massively more powerful than lower-end phones.
• The XR has the same wide-angle camera as the XS, and the same iteration of Face ID. Both, again, are industry-leading and will be more than competitive two years from now.
• The biggest differences from the XS are the aforementioned case materials, an LCD screen, and the lack of 3D Touch. Again, though, aluminum is still a premium material, Apple’s LCD screens are — and yes there is a theme here — the best in the industry, and 3D Touch is a feature that is so fiddly and undiscoverable that one could make the case XR owners are actually better off.

There really is no other way to put it: the XR is a fantastic phone, one that would be more than sufficient to maintain Apple’s position atop the industry were it the flagship. And yet, in the context of Apple’s strategy, it is best thought of as being quite literally ahead of its time.

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Reading this – in which he points out that smartphone strategies are worked out years in advance – I began to suspect that Apple’s long-term strategy for India and other countries which have big markets but where it has negligible share is to let the XR age, and keep offering it more and more cheaply in those markets. The SE tried, but simply wasn’t big enough; those markets demand big screens.
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Lasts longer • Asymco

Horace Dediu:

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What is the logic of this durability focus as a business model? It may be good for the environment but is it good for the bottom line?

Of course, there would be not much business without an environment and we should all strive for sustainability.  But this is an existential observation, and it’s defensive. The important call to make is that Apple is making a bet that sustainability is a growth business.

Fundamentally, Apple is betting on having customers, not selling them products.

The purpose of Apple as a firm is to create and preserve customers and to create and preserve products. This is fundamental and not fully recognized.

To understand how this works, if you look at the pricing graph below, you can read it as a story of increasing prices for a decreasing market share. But if you understand that each advance in products increases absorbable[1] utility then the cost per use remains steady or declines.

An iPhone at $1200 may be less expensive than an iPhone at $600 if the $1200 version lasts twice as long as is used twice as much each day. The $1200 phone delivers 4x the utility at twice the price, making it half the price. By making more durable products, both in terms of hardware and software, the customer base is satisfied and preserved.

Practically, the initial buyer may resell the iPhone and that 2nd hand devices may be sold yet again. This means an iPhone could have three users over its life and thus it could end up expanding the audience for Apple by a factor of 2 or even 3.

The expanded audience is offered accessories, additional products such as wearables and, of course, services. These residual business models are certainly profitable, perhaps even more so than the iPhone.

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Dediu always has a different way of looking at things.
link to this extract


The Outline and the curse of media venture capital • Columbia Journalism Review

Mathew Ingram:

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When The Outline launched, it had about 10 full-time staff, including veteran writers and editors like Aaron Edwards from BuzzFeed, Adrianne Jeffries from Vice Media’s Motherboard site, and Amanda Hale from Talking Points Memo. The site soon had a four-person video team, and added a number of high-profile writers who worked out of its office on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Its website, which often looked and functioned more like a mobile app, got largely positive reviews, and there were high hopes for its customized approach to advertising.

A source close to the company say the board encouraged Topolsky to spend more and expand quickly, assuring him there would be no problem in finding more financing. By late last year, however, the media environment had soured. Vice Media and BuzzFeed were said to have missed their revenue targets for the year by as much as 20 percent, and Mashable—a former digital media superstar—was forced to sell itself for a fraction of its previous valuation, to Ziff Davis, which immediately laid off 50 people. A tight advertising market and the increasing dominance of Facebook, as well as the lackluster performance of video, meant sharply lower traffic and revenue numbers for just about everyone in the business.

At first, The Outline seemed to have figured out a way to make it work. In April, Topolsky said his ad strategy was working so well that clickthrough rates were 25 times the industry average. Then he announced a new round of funding in May, another $5 million from existing investors and several new funds. In a Wall Street Journal interview, Topolsky said the site (which then had more than 30 staff and 3 million unique visitors a month, according to internal analytics), had kept its funding round small because it didn’t want to suffer from inflated expectations.

According to several sources, however, this wasn’t entirely true. The site very badly wanted to raise more than $5 million—and in fact needed to do so to keep up with its burn rate—but had failed to find enough investors willing to sign up. Also, the announcement didn’t mention that most of the funding had come in months earlier, and had already been spent.

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I can’t see The Outline lasting much longer as an independent organisation. Apart from anything, what’s it for? What’s its niche? The internet rewards niches. It penalises generalism unless you’re gigantic.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified.

5 thoughts on “Start Up No.909: making heavy weather, game apps under fire, the everlasting iPhone?, Outlining the problem, and more

  1. I haven’t read the full “who copied most” article yet, so I don’t know the final score, but the rules are ridiculous

    – “I’ve restricted the game to three players: Apple, Samsung, and Google.” That’s unjustified and unfair, we know smaller players have to be the most innovative.
    – so of course ” The original 2007 iPhone brought us multitouch (pinch to zoom), an on-screen keyboard, auto-rotate, lists that scroll as though with momentum, and the apps-on-a-Home-page design that we all use to this day.” because Palm who did half of that 10 years before ain’t included in the contest (on-screen keyboard, apps on homepage, lists with inertia)

    I might try to make the list truthful if I get bored.

  2. Also, the choice of tracked features seems random. For example, in the screen category, why “Retina screen” (an obvious Apple brand), but not 720p, 1080p, 4K, 16:9, 18:9, HDR, another normalized color gamut, theming, notch, borderless, drop resistance, hardened, works with gloves, transflective, dual, folding, e-ink, always-on, ….

    So 2 issues really:
    1- “contest” features are fairly random
    2- limiting to 3 players when there are at least 10 relevant ones, some pre-dating those 3 by over a decade. Crediting Apple for GPS in a phone in 2008 when the first phone with GPS came out in 1999 is ridiculous.

    • I think it’s just a fun, interesting article. 300DPI is as good as any benchmark to use for the screen. Having 10 players would make the article less interesting and harder to read.

      • It would be fun, if it didn’t exhibit 2 recurring issues that are well-documented, and by now inexcusable. As many articles, it’s a comparison between essentially 2 ecosystems, but with 2 glaring biases that pre-determine the outcome:

        1- it pits a single-player ecosystem vs a diverse ecosystem, and… starts by ruling out most of the diverse ecosystem’s actors. Those are old, ever-recurring issues that become maddening with time. About profits: just focus on Sony and HTC, don’t mention Huawei Xiaomi nor BBK. Same with “innovation”, they’re trying to redefine “innovation” as “must be a major device or seller”, which simply denies anyone not Apple or Samsung (and maybe now, Huawei) the ability to innovate.

        2- it pits a vertically-integrated ecosystem vs a layered ecosystem, but… looks at only one layer of the layered ecosystem while bundling in all the layers of the integrated one. Example: all those “Apple makes all the profit” stories about PCs or Mobile, that carefully exclude MS and Google.

        By now, I get triggered but this kind of crap.

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