Start Up No.956: the smartphone crunch begins, Apple cutting orders?, kill that dropdown menu!, flat earth dunces, and more

QWERTY: also known as EMBEDDED. CC-licensed photo by Dennis Wilkinson on Flickr.

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A selection of 48 links for you. Links counted by the European Research Group. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Meitu leaves the dancefloor – and the brutal smartphone OEM crunch begins • Medium

I wrote a piece over at Medium:


“They shoot horses, don’t they?” asks the beautiful woman near the end of the film of the same name, as she and her partner consider their hopeless struggle to stay awake in a dance marathon – one of the US Depression’s little entertainments, where you could win a prize, and more importantly get food, if you could only stay on your feet.

The modern form of the dance marathon is the smartphone business. The latest to take one to the head is Meitu. It’s a Chinese smartphone company which previously attracted some attention for its “beauty shot” selfie system (and some more attention for its data-grabbing ways). The reason you probably haven’t heard of it is because it’s pretty small on a global scale: since launching in 2013, it has sold a total of just 3.5m smartphones. That’s about 0.7m per year. Apple sells about that many per day in a slow quarter.

Now, though, Meitu is interesting for a different reason: it’s an early casualty of the coming smartphone crunch. The whole business is in a recession, and small players are going to get squeezed out.


Meitu said that its full-year loss will be about $144m, up from half-year losses of $18.4m. It’s all going south. The Android OEM business is murderous.
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Apple suppliers suffer with uncertainty around iPhone demand • WSJ

Yoko Kubota, Takashi Mochizuki and Tripp Mickle:


Lower-than-expected demand for Apple’s new iPhones and the company’s decision to offer more models have created turmoil along its supply chain and made it harder to predict the number of components and phones it needs, people familiar with the situation say.

In recent weeks, Apple slashed production orders for all three of the iPhone models that it unveiled in September, these people said, frustrating executives at Apple suppliers as well as workers who assemble the handsets and their components.

Forecasts have been especially problematic in the case of the iPhone XR. Around late October, Apple slashed its production plan by up to a third of the approximately 70 million units it had asked some suppliers to produce between September and February, people familiar with the matter said.

And in the past week, Apple told several suppliers that it cut its production plan again for the iPhone XR, some of the people said Monday, as Apple battles a maturing smartphone market and stiff competition from Chinese producers.


Neil Cybart (over at AboveAvalon) looked at this; he reckons that what is probably happening is that older models such as the iPhone 8 are selling better than Apple had expected compared to the newer models – because people don’t see the need to spend that much on an upgrade – and that the XR has been hardest-hit by that shift. Doesn’t mean that it’s selling fewer units overall, though; it’s just the suppliers for the old models haven’t got any complaints, so they would be hard to get to talk.
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Drop-down usability: when you should (and shouldn’t) use them • Baymard Institute

Christian Holst:


If, for a particular input, there are many more than 10 options, but the input doesn’t have to be validated, an open text form field will often be simpler than a drop-down, as users don’t have to read and understand all options before making a choice.

A “Full Name” text field, seen here at Wayfair, eliminates the need for “Title”, “Middle Name”, and “Suffix” drop-downs.

For example, a “Full Name” field is a very flexible way of supporting optional “Title” and “Suffix” fields (inputs often wrongly displayed in a drop-down). Similarly, an optional text field for delivery instructions will often be simpler than an optional drop-down.

For some fields, such as the “Country Selection” field, where the input often does have to be validated, we observe that a well-performing alternative to a drop-down is an autocomplete field.

This addresses the issues of drop-down selectors by letting the user begin to type their country themselves. As they begin typing, the possible matches are suggested, which simplifies the task of locating and selecting a value, and is observed to greatly speed up the country-selection process altogether.

A country autocomplete solves the issue of having a massive drop-down that’s difficult to use, while it can also support typos and sequencing, synonyms, common names, local spellings, and abbreviations.


Oh man country drop-downs are the WORST.
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Why we can’t quit the QWERTY keyboard • MIT Technology Review


In 2011, Kyoto University researchers proposed that QWERTY stemmed from key rearrangements made to satisfy the habits of the typewriter’s earliest customers: telegraph operators, who used it to transcribe Morse code messages. (For instance, some letters that are often confused for one another in Morse are close together on the keyboard.) Those researchers were challenging the oft-invoked bit of folklore that QWERTY was chosen to prevent typewriters from jamming when people hit commonly used letters in quick succession. Either way, in 1893, several of the largest typewriter makers combined to form the Union Typewriter Company. By the turn of the century, QWERTY was the typing standard.

After that, it wasn’t long before children started learning QWERTY. These days, US kids are required to be able to type with a keyboard by third grade, and some schools are teaching kids as young as kindergarten basic keyboard skills.

QWERTY dominates not just in countries that use alphabets (with some regional variations), but in countries like China that developed their own systems, such as Pinyin, to type a vast array of characters with the same simple keyboard.

But the QWERTY keyboard’s success has not been due to lack of competition.


The biggest – and in many places still the most-used – competitor is T9, for mobile phone keyboards. Though this article looks at the many, many other possibilities.
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China’s Orwellian social credit score isn’t real • Foreign Policy

Jamie Horsley:


Under the system, government agencies compile and share across departments, regions, and sectors, and with the public, data on compliance with specified industry or sectoral laws, regulations, and agreements by individuals, companies, social organizations, government departments, and the judiciary. Serious offenders may be placed on blacklists published on an integrated national platform called Credit China and subjected to a range of government-imposed inconveniences and exclusions. These are often enforced by multiple agencies pursuant to joint punishment agreements covering such sectors as taxation, the environment, transportation, e-commerce, food safety, and foreign economic cooperation, as well as failing to carry out court judgments.

These punishments are intended to incentivize legal and regulatory compliance under the often-repeated slogan of “whoever violates the rules somewhere shall be restricted everywhere.” Conversely, “red lists” of the trustworthy are also published and accessed nationally through Credit China.

The scope, scale, diversity, and language of the evolving system have caused a lot of confusion, particularly with respect to the existence of a single social credit score. There is no such thing as a national “social credit score. A few dozen towns and cities in China, as well as private companies running loyalty-type programs for their customers, do currently compute scores, primarily to determine rewards or access to various programs. That was the source of at least some of the confusion. Ant Financial’s Sesame Credit program, for instance, which gives rewards on various platforms and easier access to credit, was often cited as a precursor of a planned government program, despite being a private enterprise.

The government does assign universal social credit codes to companies and organizations, which they use as an ID number for registration, tax payments, and other activities, while all individuals have a national ID number. The existing social credit blacklists use these numbers, as do almost all activities in China. But these codes are not scores or rankings.


For something that isn’t real, that seems pretty real to me.
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Apple’s tools sneak into business • WSJ CIO Journal

Sara Castellanos:


This year, individual sellers have sold more than $10m worth of sneakers through GOAT’s app and the Flight Club consignment store, up from $2m a year ago. The companies have an inventory of 35,000 unique sneaker styles and hold over 200,000 pairs of sneakers at four warehouses around the country including one at the Flight Club store in the SoHo neighborhood of New York. A rare pair of sneakers such as the DJ Khaled Jordan 3 can sell for as much as $40,000.

The two companies combined have nearly 800 Apple devices deployed throughout their workforce including iPads and MacBooks. Apple’s Device Enrollment Program allows the companies to purchase laptops, iPads and other Apple products with company-specific security preferences and apps already installed.

When the device ships to an employee, it’s already configured with the appropriate business settings as soon as it’s turned on. The program has been a crucial component in the effort to accommodate growth, Mr. Arndt said, because it doesn’t require the device to be configured by an IT person before it gets to an employee, saving days worth of time.

“It’s fully configured without any interaction required, which is an easy transition in on-boarding (employees) and relieves some of that stress of first-day training,” Mr. Arndt said.

Flight Club uses Apple iPads in its brick-and-mortar SoHo store, where employees can look up and purchase inventory for customers using a sales floor application that was built in-house. Employees don’t need much training in the store because they’re familiar with the intuitive, easy-to-use Apple products they use in their consumer lives, Mr. Arndt said. “Everybody already knows what it’s like to use one of these devices,” he said.


Isn’t marked as sponsored content, so I guess it’s just a CIO Journal thing. Will look out for the article on businesses using Android tablets for similar jobs – must be coming next week.
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Inside the Flat Earth conference, where the world’s oldest conspiracy theory is hot again • The Daily Beast

Kelly Weill:


“In five years, everyone will know the Earth is flat,” Scott Simons tells me as we wait in line for the second annual Flat Earth Conference.

Scott, holding the Utah license plate “ITSFLAT,” is explaining how the Flat Earth revolution will bring “societal collapse” because the bulk of our knowledge comes from Round Earth institutions.

“It’s globalism,” his wife Julie interjects. The term, a favorite of President Donald Trump, has become an anti-Semitic euphemism, attached to a far-right conspiracy about Jews controlling the world. I make what must be a funny face, because Julie tries to clarify.

“Globalism,” she repeats, and draws a circle with her hands to illustrate.

Ah. Globe. Yes…

…On the first day of the conference, I ask Flat Earthers when they converted. When did they chuck out the globe, renounce outer space as fake, and decide we live on a flat plane covered by a dome?

The answer, for most, is three years ago. That’s when some of the movement’s biggest names launched YouTube channels with hours-long videos explaining not so much why the Earth is flat (it isn’t) but why elements of the “globe model” are suspicious, particularly when they clash with a literal reading of the Bible.

“August 2015,” Ginny, a California woman tells me. That’s when a friend forwarded her a video series on Flat Earth. “I spent like three nights wide awake and then I was hooked.”

This is the real currency in the Flat Earth community. Between speeches, everyone is showing each other YouTube videos on their phones. People reference each other by their YouTube names, and twice when I leave my seat I return to find advertisements for YouTube channels on the chair. A panel on Women in Flat Earth is more of a how-to on running a Flat Earth YouTube channel while female…

Conference speaker Joshua Swift tells me a popular Flat Earth video “woke him up” to the movement. “It came on autoplay,” he says. “So I didn’t actively search for Flat Earth. Even months before, I was listening to Alex Jones.”


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Snap’s Spiegel flies high above Wall Street worries • The Information

Tom Dotan:


Although Android has been a longstanding issue—even an ongoing joke at the company—staffers are optimistic that the rebuilt app will help jumpstart user growth in markets like Western Europe and the Middle East where some Snapchat users dropped off, according to people familiar with the matter. There’s also a large cohort of potential users who don’t have Snapchat, but have friends who do, that Snap employees also see as low-hanging fruit. Insiders are less confident about some markets that Instagram has targeted, like Brazil.

Meanwhile, another facet of of Mr. Spiegel’s growth strategy—attracting older users— remains up in the air. Snapchat has always been most popular for people in their mid- 20s and younger; Mr. Spiegel has suggested a combination of product fixes and better outreach on the value of communicating through pictures will help bring along older users.

The optimist case that people see for Snap in the near term is to follow the same trajectory Twitter did after its stock crashed to a low of $14 in 2016 from $50 in early 2015: stabilize the leadership, slowly build the business and start turning a profit. While Twitter’s user base has been stagnant for the past few years, it is solidly profitable, thanks to steadily growing ad revenues. Twitter stock is up 73% in the last year to $33.

“No one says [Snap] need to be ubiquitous. They can still be a real business even if they’re not taking over the world,” said Pivotal Research analyst Brian Wieser. He says Snap can succeed, even at its current size, if it keeps being an essential advertising outlet for a small number of large industries, like entertainment.

To follow in Twitter’s footsteps, Snap has to survive—which means it needs to stop the losses before it runs out of cash. At the end of September, the company had $1.4bn in cash. But it is burning through cash, with spending overwhelming revenue, by $661m in the first nine months of this year.

Snap has reduced its cash burn in the past year and has a little over two years of cash left. In a recent memo to staff reported by Cheddar, Mr. Spiegel set becoming profitable in 2019 as a “stretch” goal.


Might be tight not running out of cash.
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‘They’ll squash you like a bug’: how Silicon Valley keeps a lid on leakers • The Guardian

Olivia Solon:


Since [James] Damore’s [infamous] memo, Google has become much leakier, particularly around internal discussions of racial and gender diversity.

“It’s a cry for help internally,” said another former Googler, who now runs a startup.

He said people at Google had for years put up with covert sexism, internal biases or, in his case, a manager with anger management problems. “No one would do anything until one day a VP saw the guy yelling at me in the hallway.

“People have been dealing with this stuff for years and are finally thinking ‘if Google isn’t going to do something about it, we’re going to leak it’.”

For low-paid contractors who do the grunt work for big tech companies, the incentive to keep silent is more stick than carrot. What they lack in stock options and a sense of corporate tribalism, they make up for in fear of losing their jobs.

One European Facebook content moderator signed a contract, seen by the Guardian, which granted the company the right to monitor and record his social media activities, including his personal Facebook account, as well as emails, phone calls and internet use. He also agreed to random personal searches of his belongings including bags, briefcases and car while on company premises. Refusal to allow such searches would be treated as gross misconduct.

Following Guardian reporting into working conditions of community operations analysts at Facebook’s European headquarters in Dublin, the company clamped down further, he said.

Contractors would be questioned if they took photographs in the office or printed emails or documents. “On more than one occasion someone would print something and you’d find management going through the log to see what they had printed,” said one former worker.

Security teams would leave “mouse traps” – USB keys containing data that were left around the office to test staff loyalty. “If you find a USB or something you’d have to give it in straight away. If you plugged it into a computer it would throw up a flare and you’d be instantly escorted out of the building.”

“Everyone was paranoid. When we texted each other we’d use code if we needed to talk about work and meet up in person to talk about it in private,” he said.


Easy to overlook how difficult it must have been to gather the information for this story. Solon is doing really terrific work.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.956: the smartphone crunch begins, Apple cutting orders?, kill that dropdown menu!, flat earth dunces, and more

  1. drop downs: The issue with full-name freeform fields is that they often get first/last/middle wrong (in France, You’d go First LAST normally, but on official stuff it’s usually LAST, First, Second).

    Country dropdowns ain’t bad. France is the 6th “F” ;-p

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