Start Up No.1,023: Spotify says Apple’s bad, the Tube’s missing Wi-Fi, FourSquare: still here, Cobol lives on, and more

A whitewood intruder among the blue pallets. It’s a hidden business struggle. CC-licensed photo by Michael Sauers 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.

Consumers and innovators win on a level playing field • Spotify

Daniel Ek, CEO of Spotify:


Spotify has filed a complaint against Apple with the European Commission (EC), the regulatory body responsible for keeping competition fair and nondiscriminatory. In recent years, Apple has introduced rules to the App Store that purposely limit choice and stifle innovation at the expense of the user experience—essentially acting as both a player and referee to deliberately disadvantage other app developers. After trying unsuccessfully to resolve the issues directly with Apple, we’re now requesting that the EC take action to ensure fair competition.

Apple operates a platform that, for over a billion people around the world, is the gateway to the internet. Apple is both the owner of the iOS platform and the App Store—and a competitor to services like Spotify. In theory, this is fine. But in Apple’s case, they continue to give themselves an unfair advantage at every turn.

To illustrate what I mean, let me share a few examples. Apple requires that Spotify and other digital services pay a 30% tax on purchases made through Apple’s payment system, including upgrading from our Free to our Premium service. If we pay this tax, it would force us to artificially inflate the price of our Premium membership well above the price of Apple Music. And to keep our price competitive for our customers, that isn’t something we can do.


Spotify needs to satisfy just two tests. Is Apple dominant, ie has 40% of the market? And is it using its power in one market to annexe another, or keep rivals out?

Afraid it doesn’t have a dominant position in the European market – it has 15-20%. (Higher in some countries, lower in others.) And it hasn’t kept Spotify off the App Store. The one thing it might get called on is preventing apps calling for people to subscribe on the web, rather than in-app. But without a dominant position, it’s moot.

Don’t think they’ll file this in the US: they’d need to show that Apple (which has a much stronger position – about 40% of smartphones) is doing something that raises prices for consumers. But the app store levy is like a cost of business, same as selling through a retailer. And there are options.
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Why does the London Underground still not have Wi-Fi in tunnels? • WIRED UK

Katia Moskvitch:


First is cost. “Technically, it is straightforward, although expensive, to deliver Wi-Fi in stations,” says Matthew Griffin, head of commercial telecoms at TfL. To install it, individual access points have to be placed within the station ceiling or hidden in voids, with flat antennas providing the signal.

While this sounds simple, it’s very expensive to lay cabling to reach all these access points. “This cabling needs to carry a significant amount of internet traffic to manage a reliable and consistent service, one terabyte per day on the Tube, and requires careful engineering to ensure it can be delivered without interfering with other station infrastructure,” says Griffin.

In tunnels, the process is much more difficult. Some sections of the Tube are more than 150 years old and its tunnels very narrow, which means there is little space to install any extra equipment. Wi-Fi uses radio waves, which work great when they can move in a straight line and have plenty of space (say, up to and down from a satellite, or through your living room). But they run into trouble when they hit solid matter.

London’s Tube tunnels twist and turn, so any Wi-Fi radio waves would not be able to penetrate walls or go around corners. To deliver mobile connectivity on, say, the Northern Line, TfL would have to install an enormous number of access points – which is both uneconomical because of the cost of equipment, and unreliable as it will be tricky to maintain all these access points in such a confined space, says Griffin.


On the plus side: 4G is coming. Though the carriages will have to have Wi-Fi backhauled to the 4G.
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Researchers make Q, a genderless voice for personal assistants like Alexa • CNBC

Sara Salinas:


I asked major tech companies — Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Google, if we’re naming names — for virtual assistants with traditionally male voices where they didn’t exist and for a more neutral default setting where they did. I thought I was asking for choice, but a joint venture by Vice’s creative agency Virtue and Copenhagen Pride has just shown me up and invented a third, undeniably compelling option.

The virtual assistant is called Q, and it’s designed to be genderless. It sounds neither male nor female — or seems to fluctuate between the two depending on how intensely you’re listening for a gendered bent.

Q is a composite of five voices, recorded and then altered to match a gender-neutral range of pitches, as defined by a linguist and researcher. It’s scientific and definably gender-neutral, and it establishes criteria by which other assistants could follow suit.


Salinas doesn’t like the fact that so many voice assistants are female-voiced, but the default Siri in the UK has been male since 2011. I prefer them to be one of the other.
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You may have forgotten Foursquare, but it didn’t forget you • WIRED

Paris Martineau:


Ask someone about Foursquare and they’ll probably think of the once-hyped social media company, known for gamifying mobile check-ins and giving recommendations. But the Foursquare of today is a location-data giant. During an interview with NBC in November, the company’s CEO, Jeff Glueck, said that only Facebook and Google rival Foursquare in terms of location-data precision.

You might think you don’t use Foursquare, but chances are you do. Foursquare’s technology powers the geofilters in Snapchat, tagged tweets on Twitter; it’s in Uber, Apple Maps, Airbnb, WeChat, and Samsung phones, to name a few. (Condé Nast Traveler, owned by the same parent company as WIRED, relies on Foursquare data.)

In 2014, Foursquare launched Pilgrim, a piece of code that passively tracks where your phone goes using Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS, and GSM to identify the coffee shop or park or Thai restaurant you’re visiting, then feeds that data to its partner apps to send you, say, an offer for a 10% off coupon if you leave a review for the restaurant. Today, Pilgrim and the company’s Places API are an integral part of tens of thousands of apps, sites, and interfaces. As Foursquare’s website says, “If it tells you where, it’s probably built on Foursquare.”


Not only not gone away; it has big ambitions.
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Whitewood under siege • Cabinet Magazine

Jacob Hodes:


Blue pallets are an inch or so taller, often cleaner, and always more uniform than the pallets [made] of whitewood. Crucially, blues do not have any stringer boards along their sides; instead, their height is obtained by way of nine wooden blocks sandwiched between the top and bottom deck boards. This block design allows forklifts and other tools to enter the pallet with equal ease from four directions. (Most stringer pallets, by contrast, offer either “two-way entry” or “partial four-way entry.”) There are approximately 240m blue pallets in the world, circulating in over fifty countries. On the sides of each are the words, “Property of CHEP.”

CHEP, a subsidiary of Brambles Limited, an Australia-based multinational corporation, is the largest pallet business in the world. The company earned $3.5bn in pallet-related revenues during fiscal year 2013, and in many markets has achieved pallet monopoly… CHEP doesn’t sell pallets; it rents them. This means that, in contrast to the world of whitewood, where a pallet may change ownership many times, CHEP maintains control of its pallets throughout their lives.

…By 2002, there were ten million blue pallets floating around the US, unaccounted for, and a report by Credit Suisse warned investors that CHEP usa was experiencing “a loss of control of [its] pallet pool.”

Despite these lost pallets, CHEP continued to grow. In 2010, in a shock to the industry, Costco announced that it would only accept shipments on CHEP-style block pallets: they break less, they have tighter quality controls, and full four-way entry promises tiny but measurable efficiencies when loading and unloading trucks. Panic ensued in the world of whitewood.


You never knew you could be interested in wood pallets.. until this. Now you’re going to notice white and blue pallets everywhere you go for the next week.
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Eero is now officially part of Amazon, pledges to keep network data private • The Verge

Nilay Patel:


concerns that Amazon would somehow make expanded use of Eero network data have been growing ever since the deal was announced — obviously, your Wi-Fi router can see all your network traffic, and Eero’s system in particular relies on a cloud service for network optimization and other features. But Eero is committed to keeping that data private, said [Eero CEO Nick] Weaver, who also published a blog post this morning that explicitly promises Eero will never read any actual network traffic.

“If anything, we’re just going to strengthen our commitment to both privacy and security,” Weaver told us. “We’ve got some pretty clear privacy principles that we’ve used for developing all of our products, that are the really the underpinnings of everything. Those aren’t going to change.”

Those three principles, as laid out in the blog post, are that customers have a “right to privacy” that includes transparency around what data is being collected and control over that data; that network diagnostic information will only be collected to improve performance, security, and reliability; and that Eero will “actively minimize” the amount of data it can access, while treating the data it does collect with “the utmost security.”


Never is a long time; there was a time when Nest was never going to be integrated into Google. A more proximate worry for a smaller group of people is whether it’s going to keep advertising on podcasts.
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Technical debt is like Tetris • Medium

Eric Higgins:


The basic purpose of the code we studied was to go through every customer account, calculate their bill, and send it over to the invoicing API. It had clearly been written with care and good intentions — not so much messy as it was inflexible. It was a monolithic function. There were no tests. There were very few logs. There were barely any documentation. There was some unexplained randomization. It had been written over five years earlier by one of the co-founders. The only changes since then were from an early employee, who was no longer at the company.

Was it really a problem? Invoices were going out. The company was making money. There was no indication of an issue. All of this could have dissuaded us from a refactor, but we also knew that big changes were coming, this function wouldn’t scale to our needs, and we could move faster if this piece were simplified.

We refactored the function within a single sprint and added some much-needed logs. That’s when we discovered what we had actually fixed. Someone from our accounting team stopped by our desks to ask why the number of outbound invoices had unexpectedly increased. The old code had been silently timing out and some customers’ usage wasn’t being tallied for the invoice. That weird randomization? It hid any patterns that might have alerted us customers weren’t being billed. When we ran an estimate, the missing invoices totalled over $1m per year.


Why is it like Tetris? Because you can never beat it, only delay losing to it. (Technical debt is the problems you’ve left in your program with the intention of sorting out later.)
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It’s COBOL all the way down • Increment

Glenn Fleishman on the 60-year-old programming language:


Companies involved in keeping COBOL-based systems working say that 95% of ATM transactions pass through COBOL programs, 80% of in-person transactions rely on them, and over 40% of banks still use COBOL as the foundation of their systems. “Our COBOL business is bigger than it has ever been,” said Chris Livesey, senior vice president and general manager at Micro Focus, a company that offers modern COBOL coding and development frameworks.

The Bank of New York Mellon told Computerworld in 2012 that it had 112,500 COBOL programs representing 343m lines of code in active use. (And, yes, they’re still hiring COBOL coders in 2018.) The US Social Security Administration (SSA) noted in a 2014 report that it “currently has roughly 60m lines of COBOL in production that support the agency’s high transaction volume and enable the agency to meet its regulatory, benefit, and reporting requirements.” Starting in 2012, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia spent a reported US$750m and five years migrating its core software away from COBOL on a mainframe to a modern platform (it’s not clear how that effort ended).

The language never died, though its early practitioners have faded away, and the generation of programmers who built systems towards the end of the predominant mainframe era in the 1970s and ‘80s are largely near or past retirement age. Micro Focus estimates that about 2 million people worldwide actively work with COBOL, although how many directly write or modify code is likely a small proportion. That number is expected to decline rapidly over the next decade.


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How TikTok is rewriting the world • The New York Times

John Herrman:


TikTok is an app for making and sharing short videos. The videos are tall, not square, like on Snapchat or Instagram’s stories, but you navigate through videos by scrolling up and down, like a feed, not by tapping or swiping side to side.

Video creators have all sorts of tools at their disposal: filters as on Snapchat (and later, everyone else); the ability to search for sounds to score your video. Users are also strongly encouraged to engage with other users, through “response” videos or by means of “duets” — users can duplicate videos and add themselves alongside.

Hashtags play a surprisingly large role on TikTok. In more innocent times, Twitter hoped its users might congregate around hashtags in a never-ending series of productive pop-up mini-discourses. On TikTok, hashtags actually exist as a real, functional organizing principle: not for news, or even really anything trending anywhere else than TikTok, but for various “challenges,” or jokes, or repeating formats, or other discernible blobs of activity…

…the first thing you see isn’t a feed of your friends, but a page called “For You.” It’s an algorithmic feed based on videos you’ve interacted with, or even just watched. It never runs out of material. It is not, unless you train it to be, full of people you know, or things you’ve explicitly told it you want to see. It’s full of things that you seem to have demonstrated you want to watch, no matter what you actually say you want to watch.

It is constantly learning from you and, over time, builds a presumably complex but opaque model of what you tend to watch, and shows you more of that, or things like that, or things related to that, or, honestly, who knows, but it seems to work. TikTok starts making assumptions the second you’ve opened the app, before you’ve really given it anything to work with.


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Google tells dozens of employees on its laptop and tablet division to find new jobs at the company • Business Insider

Nick Bastone:


Google has moved dozens of employees out of its laptop and tablet division, scaling back the size of its in-house hardware group as it re-assesses product plans in the fiercely competitive computer market.

Dozens of Google employees working on the company’s “Create” team – an internal hardware division responsible for developing and manufacturing Google’s laptop and tablet products – have been told to find new projects within Google or its parent company Alphabet, amid what sources describe as “roadmap cutbacks.”

Among the affected employees who were given notice of the cutbacks in the last two weeks are hardware engineers, technical program managers, and those who support program managers. Sources say projects have been canceled within the laptop and tablet division, prompting the changes, but that team members have been instructed to find new roles temporarily within the Google or Alphabet organization.

By asking employees to seek temporary, rather than permanent, new roles, Google may be leaving itself flexibility to boost staffing on the Create hardware team in the future. Already, these “floating” employees have been seeking roles within the company’s smartphone division, Pixel, and other Alphabet companies, sources say.


Thin margins, high-priced hardware that probably doesn’t sell; it’s not surprising.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: yesterday’s picture caption referred to the 787 – but as the story and the photo showed, that should have been 737. Eh, 7% error – within expected tolerance.

1 thought on “Start Up No.1,023: Spotify says Apple’s bad, the Tube’s missing Wi-Fi, FourSquare: still here, Cobol lives on, and more

  1. “But the app store levy is like a cost of business, same as selling through a retailer. And there are options.”

    1- Which “options” ?

    2- Which other example do you have of a retailer having exclusive control of content, apps, accessories, addons for something they sold you ? I’m not aware of my estate agent controlling or getting a cut of furniture and services I get for my home…

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