Start Up No.1,063: are App Stores over?, Google’s 15m music subs, the rise of apps built on fear, peak copper?, and more


Now decommissioned, Battersea Power Station was coal-fired. But the UK has gone without burning coal for power for a week. CC-licensed photo by mendhak on Flickr.

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A selection of 13 links for you. So get reading! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The end of App Stores is rapidly approaching • OneZero

Owen Williams:

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t’s time to blow up the walled garden that keeps you locked into the products Apple and Google allow into their app stores. A new generation of Progressive Web Applications (PWAs), now taking root on desktop computers, may soon make the jump to your smartphone, changing how you download apps — and where they come from — forever.

An update in recent preview versions of Google Chrome, which enjoys 63% of the browser market share worldwide, hints at the potential here. Users can now install apps from sites simply by clicking a button that materializes in the URL bar, giving near-instant access to powerful, web-based versions of services like Spotify — no more app stores or finicky download pages.

These install buttons are a magic peek at the future of app development. If you navigate to a PWA, such as Spotify’s web player, you’ll see a desktop-style experience and a new option to install the app, so long as you’re using a browser that supports the feature.

Once you’ve installed it, the app will open in its own independent window outside of the browser, create desktop shortcuts, and offer a full feature set — like the ability to use your computer’s media keys to skip tracks or pause music — as if it were a “real,” native app.

Upcoming improvements will allow these apps to do even more. Hidden options in Chrome allow PWAs to launch themselves whenever relevant links are accessed — Twitter’s PWA becomes almost as good as a desktop app with this option enabled, auto-redirecting tweet URLs to the right place.

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I love how this story appears every two years. The future is web apps, and has been since Steve Jobs told the WWDC audience in 2007 he had a “sweet solution” to their desire to put apps on the iPhone – the web! – and was greeted by the stoniest of silences. PWAs aren’t even fully functional on the desktop; you can’t use any browser. On mobile, still a non-starter.
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Google tops 15 million music subscribers as it chases Spotify • Bloomberg

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Google’s paid music services have eclipsed 15 million subscribers, according to two people familiar with the numbers, a milestone for a company that has struggled to build subscription media businesses.

The figure includes subscribers to two services – YouTube Music and Google Play Music, an older service that is being folded into YouTube Music – said the people, who asked not to be identified because the information isn’t public. The number also includes some customers who are still on promotional trials.

Google, part of Alphabet Inc., is still a long way from the market leaders: Spotify has more than 100 million subscribers, while Apple has more than 50 million. But the progress is a good sign for an ad-supported company that has rarely gotten customers to pay for its services.

YouTube declined to comment on the total number of customers for its paid music service, but said subscribers to YouTube Music and Premium grew 60% between March 2018 and March of this year. Premium subscribers pay for the music service, as well as access to the regular YouTube without ads.

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Lousy headline.It’s probably more accurate to say it’s chasing Amazon, which has somewhere over 20m, though those mix Prime and Music Unlimited subscribers.
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Fear-based social media Nextdoor, Citizen, Amazon’s Neighbors is getting more popular • Vox

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These apps have become popular because of — and have aggravated — the false sense that danger is on the rise. Americans seem to think crime is getting worse, according to data from both Gallup and Pew Research Center. In fact, crime has fallen steeply in the last 25 years according to both the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Of course, unjustified fear, nosy neighbors, and the neighborhood watch are nothing new. But the proliferation of smart homes and smart devices is putting tools like cameras and sensors in doorbells, porches, and hallways across America.

And as with all things technology, the reporting and sharing of the information these devices gather is easier than it used to be and its reach is wider.

These apps foment fear around crime, which feeds into existing biases and racism and largely reinforces stereotypes around skin color, according to David Ewoldsen, professor of media and information at Michigan State University.

“There’s very deep research saying if we hear about or read a crime story, we’re much more likely to identify a black person than a white person [as the perpetrator],” Ewoldsen said, regardless of who actually committed the crime.

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China is wasting less solar and wind power • Sixth Tone (via Caixin)

David Kirton:

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China is wasting less electricity generated by renewables thanks to rising demand, falling costs, and greater grid connectivity.

The drop in wasted electricity, which industry types call “curtailment,” suggests that the government is coming to grips with an issue that has kept cleaner energy off the grid even as policymakers try to make renewable power a greater part of the country’s energy mix. According to its latest five-year plan, the government aims to increase the mix of nonfossil power consumption to 15% by the end of the decade.

While China leads the world in solar and wind capacity, much of the power generated has gone to waste as a lack of coordinated construction led to an overabundance of capacity in regions far from centers of power demand without adequate transmission infrastructure. Around 17.1% of total wind generated power was going to waste as of 2017, according to government statistics.

Yet the rotor may have turned. In the first quarter of 2019, China wasted 2.7%, or 1.24 billion kilowatt hours (kWh), of the solar power it generated, and 4%, or 4.35 billion kWh, of wind-generated power, the National Energy Administration (NEA) said in a press conference last week. This marks major progress, with curtailment down 1.7 percentage points and 4.5 percentage points from the same figures a year earlier.

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If any country might have both the ability and the desire to seriously slow down climate change, it’s China. Its government knows that the disruption from floods would be colossal – and that threatens its power. Its coal-building will slow dramatically, if not stop completely.
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Britain passes one week without coal power for first time since 1882 • The Guardian

Jasper Jolly:

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Britain has gone a week without using coal to generate electricity for the first time since Queen Victoria was on the throne, in a landmark moment in the transition away from the heavily polluting fuel.

The last coal generator came off the system at 1.24pm on 1 May, meaning the UK reached a week without coal at 1.24pm on Wednesday, according to the National Grid Electricity System Operator, which runs the network in England, Scotland and Wales.

Coal-fired power stations still play a major part in the UK’s energy system as a backup during high demand but the increasing use of renewable energy sources such as wind power means it is required less. High international coal prices have also made the fuel a less attractive source of energy.

The latest achievement – the first coal-free week since 1882, when a plant opened at Holborn in London – comes only two years after Britain’s first coal-free day since the Industrial Revolution…

…Reductions in coal use in the UK have been responsible for halving electricity generation emissions since 2013, according to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), whose report last week called for the UK to pursue a target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

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You can follow the Twitter account UK_Coal to see how long the UK has gone without burning coal for electricity (176 hours at this moment) and there’s also a live dashboard of the mix of all the UK’s electricity sources.
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The mighty US consumer is struggling • Bloomberg

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As for what’s pushing households to tap into their rainy-day funds, Deutsche Bank recently pointed to the 15% year-on-year increase in household interest payments. Levels of payments rising at a similar pace preceded the onsets of the last two recessions.

Is it any wonder credit-card issuers are bolstering their cushions to absorb future losses? And it’s not just Capital One that caters to lower-credit quality borrowers. All seven of the largest U.S. card issuers boosted their charge-off rates in the first quarter to an average of 3.82%, an almost seven-year high.

Mortgage lenders are reporting similar strains. According to Knight Black’s latest Mortgage Monitor, a typical first quarter sees the national delinquency rate decline by 15% as borrowers use tax refund proceeds to catch up on their household finances. The first three months of 2019, however, marked the smallest drop in delinquency rates since 2009.

It’s almost as if the tax cut never happened…

…TS Lombard Chief Economist Steven Blitz notes that two-thirds of April’s new jobs were generated in lower-wage services industries such as administration and support services, health and social services, leisure and hospitality, among others. The flipside of this dynamic is that high-paying job growth has been nearly halved to 1.6% since peaking in 2015.

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A fist on the horizon the size of a man’s hand.
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Epson’s $500 smart glasses are literally powered by your phone • Engadet

Rachel England:

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Google has already demonstrated that it’s possible to build a pair without bottle-thick lenses and chunky frames, and yet the market’s newest arrival, Epson’s Moverio BT-30C smart glasses, boast exactly that.

Aesthetics aside, though, Epson’s latest offering comes with features that could help give smart glasses the nudge they need to take hold in the consumer market — at the moment such devices are largely the sole domain of business. The Moverio BT-30C connect with an Android smartphone of Windows PC over USB-C, a plug and play function that mitigates some of the hassle seen in previous iterations with custom controller boxes.

The glasses project up to three apps on three different screens against a transparent background and come with an OLED display for sharp, bright imagery. The glasses also come with a dark lens shade, for a movie-theater experience when streaming videos. Of course, none of these features alone will have consumers lining up for a pair, but their reasonable price tag of $499 will certainly make them a little more enticing, given previous models hit the market at $699.

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Why why why would you want this, at whatever price? They’d be in the cupboard under the stairs in a day.
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Rainforest in Ghana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Brazil, Colombia rapidly depleting • Quartz Africa

Kwasi Gyamfi Asiedu:

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Ghana’s rainforest is being lost at an alarming rate, according to a new report about the state of forests worldwide.

Global Forest Watch (GFW) used updated remote sensing and satellite data from the University of Maryland and estimates that there was a 60% increase in Ghana’s primary rainforest loss in 2018 compared to 2017, the highest in the world. The second highest was neighboring Côte d’Ivoire with a 28% increase. Together, these two countries produce nearly 60% of the world’s cocoa.

However, the Democratic Republic of Congo lost the largest size of tropical primary rainforest in Africa and collectively, the world lost 3.6 million hectares of primary rainforest last year—an area the size of Belgium in 2018 alone.

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Peak Copper is back, thanks to Teslas and smart tech • TreeHugger

Lloyd Alter:

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Remember Peak Copper? Back when TreeHugger was young, we worried about Peak Everything – oil, corn, natural gas, water, electricity and even dirt. Copper was in there, too, with TreeHugger John noting that “ore extraction and smelting takes a serious toll on the environment, and that the ‘easy pickings’ are already either long gone or in places where mining companies and their nations of origin get no respect.”

Apparently, Peak Copper is back. It takes a lot of it to build an electric car; according to Ernest Scheyder of Reuters, about twice as much as in a gas powered car, and there may not be enough of the stuff:

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Tesla expects global shortages of nickel, copper and other electric-vehicle battery minerals down the road due to underinvestment in the mining sector, the company’s global supply manager for battery metals told an industry conference on Thursday, according to two sources.

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Google Face Match brings privacy debate into the home • Financial Times

Tim Bradshaw:

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The “Google Nest” rebranding comes with a prompt for Nest customers to merge their user accounts with their Google profiles. “We want to make sure we are seamlessly integrating these devices,” said Rishi Chandra, vice-president and general manager of Google’s Home and Nest products.

For some customers, merging Nest data could include years of information on a family’s comings and goings, home energy usage and security camera video recordings. Google says it will not use that information for advertising.

“That data will never be used for ads personalisation,” said Mr Chandra, before being corrected by a member of Google’s public relations team. “We can never say never,” he added hastily, “but the commitment we are making is, it is not being used.”

Google is hoping to recapture some of the trust it lost this year when it emerged that its Nest security hub included a secret microphone. Mr Chandra conceded that it was a “mistake” not to inform customers when it went on sale.

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It’s time you stopped worrying so much about video game addiction • WIRED UK

Pete Etchells is Reader in Psychology and Science Communication at Bath Spa University:

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The way loot boxes are implemented varies from game to game. In some, the items are locked into the game environment, with no tangible outside value. In others, they can be bought and sold on external marketplaces (and sometimes for eye-watering sums of money: in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, some items have sold for upwards of $3000).

Regardless of the specific way they are implemented though, there’s some emerging research evidence to suggest that there’s a link between paying for loot boxes and problematic gambling behaviours. What little work we currently have in this area is largely correlational in nature, so we don’t know whether paying for loot boxes causes problematic gambling behaviour, or whether it’s instead the case that people who have a tendency to show problems with gambling are drawn to loot box systems in games. But either way, science is starting to provide an early indication that there are some clear aspects of video games that addiction researchers should be looking at more closely.

These sorts of issues are complex, and don’t fit neatly into simplistic narratives that often form the basis of news reports about gaming effects.

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Loot boxes are bad news; they’re like fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) – a terrible compulsion to lead on gamblers (who might not even know they’re gamblers).§
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Children change their parents’ minds about climate change • Scientific American

Lydia Denworth:

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The team of social scientists and ecologists from North Carolina State University who authored the report found that children can increase their parents’ level of concern about climate change because, unlike adults, their views on the issue do not generally reflect any entrenched political ideology. Parents also really do care what their children think, even on socially charged issues like climate change or sexual orientation.

Postulating that pupils might be ideal influencers, the researchers decided to test how 10-to-14–year-olds’ exposure to climate change coursework might affect, not only the youngsters’ views, but those of their parents. The proposed pass-through effect turned out to be true: teaching a child about the warming climate often raised concerns among parents about the issue. Fathers and conservative parents showed the biggest change in attitudes, and daughters were more effective than sons in shifting their parents’ views. The results suggest that conversations between generations may be an effective starting point in combating the effects of a warming environment. “This model of intergenerational learning provides a dual benefit,” says graduate student Danielle Lawson, the paper’s lead author. “[It prepares] kids for the future since they’re going to deal with the brunt of climate change’s impact. And it empowers them to help make a difference on the issue now by providing them a structure to have conversations with older generations to bring us together to work on climate change.”

Scientists in the field find the study heartening. “These encouraging results suggest that not only are children increasingly engaged in advocating for their future, they are also effective advocates to their parents,” says climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University. She was not involved in the research but works to bridge the gap between scientists and stakeholders on the issue. “As a woman myself and someone who frequently engages with conservative Christian communities,” she says, “I love that it’s the daughters who were found to be most effective at changing their hard-nosed dads’ minds.”

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Greta Thunberg is just an example, not an outlier.
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512GB SSDs’ price-per-GB estimated to fall below US$0.1 and hit an all-time low this year end • Trendforce

Alan Chen:

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According to research by DRAMeXchange , a division of TrendForce , the NAND flash industry this year is clearly exhibiting signs of oversupply, and SSD suppliers have gotten themselves into a price war, causing SSD prices for PC OEMs to take a dive. Average contract prices for 512GB and 1TB SSDs have a chance to plunge below US$0.1 per GB by the end of this year, hitting an all-time low. This change will cause 512GB SSDs to replace their 128GB counterparts and become market mainstream, second only to 256GB SSDs. We may also look forward to PCIe SSDs achieving 50% market penetration, since PCIe SSDs and SATA SSDS are nearly identical in price.

TrendForce points out that SSD adoption among notebooks had already come above the 50% threshold in 2018. Contract prices for mainstream 128/256/512GB SSDs have fallen a long way by over 50% since peaking in 2017, and those for 512GB and 1TB SSDs have a chance to fall below US$0.1 per GB by year-end. This will stimulate demand from those seeking to replace their 500GB and 1TB HDDs. SSD adoption rate is expected to land between 60 and 65% in 2019.

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$100 for a 1TB SSD. Amazing times.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

4 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,063: are App Stores over?, Google’s 15m music subs, the rise of apps built on fear, peak copper?, and more

  1. re Kids changing parents’ mind: so now we know why conservatives in the US have been targeting school curriculums so hard for the past decade or two., going from “it’s OK if your religion says otherwise” to “teach the controversy” to “teach only the lies”.

  2. Re. PWA : I’m not a fan either, they’re reliant on a limiting extra layer of middleware (the browser) and, as usual, in the end not more write-once-run-anywhere than regular apps.

    But the callback to M. Jobs’ iPhone= no native apps is far-fetched. First, he was not the first one to want the network to be the computer by a few miles, so strong attribution boas here. Second, he offered that at a time web apps couldn’t work offline well if at all, which PWA can (at least on Chrome and Firefox; not on Safari… ); third he said that at a time even 3G coverage was patchy, so lol.

    • The point about Jobs was that this “do a browser app, it’ll be fine!” panacea comes around every few years. He wasn’t the first, certainly hasn’t been the last, but he’s the shining example of being flat wrong.

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