Start Up No.1,064: time to break up Facebook?, self-driving cars delayed, China’s coal bonanza, Disney writes off Vice, and more


A busy restaurant: will staff have time to answer a phone call from “Google”? CC-licensed photo by Ralph Daily on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Friday! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

It’s time to break up Facebook • The New York Times

Chris Hughes, formerly of Facebook (he worked to develop its News Feed), with a very long article about why he thinks it’s time for antitrust action, which boils down to this:

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How would a breakup work? Facebook would have a brief period to spin off the Instagram and WhatsApp businesses, and the three would become distinct companies, most likely publicly traded. Facebook shareholders would initially hold stock in the new companies, although Mark and other executives would probably be required to divest their management shares.

Until recently, WhatsApp and Instagram were administered as independent platforms inside the parent company, so that should make the process easier. But time is of the essence: Facebook is working quickly to integrate the three, which would make it harder for the F.T.C. to split them up.
Mark Zuckerberg after ringing the opening bell for the Nasdaq stock market on the day his company went public.

Some economists are skeptical that breaking up Facebook would spur that much competition, because Facebook, they say, is a “natural” monopoly. Natural monopolies have emerged in areas like water systems and the electrical grid, where the price of entering the business is very high — because you have to lay pipes or electrical lines — but it gets cheaper and cheaper to add each additional customer. In other words, the monopoly arises naturally from the circumstances of the business, rather than a company’s illegal maneuvering. In addition, defenders of natural monopolies often make the case that they benefit consumers because they are able to provide services more cheaply than anyone else.

Facebook is indeed more valuable when there are more people on it: There are more connections for a user to make and more content to be shared. But the cost of entering the social network business is not that high. And unlike with pipes and electricity, there is no good argument that the country benefits from having only one dominant social networking company.

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One year later, restaurants are still confused by Google Duplex • The Verge

Natt Garun:

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Some employees were even skeptical about whether the voice on the other line is truly a robot. Gabriel Murphy, owner and chef at Gogi’s Restaurant in Jacksonville, Oregon, said he tried the AI out on his staff as he monitored the call in private. When he later told them it was Duplex, the team didn’t believe they were truly talking to an AI. “None of the staff seemed to have any issue with it, [but] there were plenty of jokes about Skynet and machines taking over,” Murphy says.

But Google’s machines don’t seem to be taking over yet. As the US continues to deal with an onslaught of spammy robocalls, it seems that many restaurant employees are inadvertently shielding themselves from Duplex by ignoring incoming calls that do not display a person’s name. Mark Seaman, a manager at two-year-old restaurant Queens Bully, in Forest Hills, New York, says he often tries to avoid calls from businesses that look like they could be pitching the restaurant on a product or service. “Most of our growth comes from our own social media efforts and the parties we throw,” Seaman tells me. “We get calls all the time from people trying to sell us something [we don’t need].”

Although Google does not personally call businesses to convince them to buy ads, it stands to reason why many restaurant employees would shy away from answering calls that list the company in its caller ID in the first place. As Google plans to extend Duplex beyond restaurants and into other appointment-based services like hair salons, it’ll have to do more to convince businesses that its robocalls, at least from the surface, are different than the ones most Americans are accustomed to.

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The Caller ID issue is going to be a big one. Americans suffer terribly from spam calls. (Though what if Google gets its CallJoy system to answer them? AI talking to AI. Or would it block them?) Also, it’s been less than a year that Duplex has been in use. You’d have got the same reaction (generally) to the iPhone, iPad, Amazon Echo etc a year after their launch.
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Ford taps the brakes on the arrival of self-driving cars • WIRED

Aarian Marshall:

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Ford CEO Jim Hackett Tuesday joined the growing ranks of vehicle and tech execs willing to say publicly that self-driving cars won’t arrive as soon as some had hoped.

The industry “overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles,” Hackett told the Detroit Economic Club. Though Ford is not wavering from its self-imposed due date of 2021 for its first purpose-built driverless car, Hackett acknowledged that the vehicle’s “applications will be narrow, what we call geo-fenced, because the problem is so complex.” Bloomberg earlier reported the comments.

Hackett is the latest high-ranking industry insider to engage in public real talk about the prospects for self-driving cars, which back in 2016 seemed just around the corner…

…What’s so complicated about full self-driving? For one, there are no federal regulations for the tech, and states have struggled to fill the void with their own testing rules. Second, industry insiders say sensors need to get better—to “see” farther more cheaply—before the tech can be deployed widely. And developers are still hacking away at better algorithms, ones that can handle the uncertainty of new road situations without hurting their cargo.

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Who has gone where • Centre For Towns

Concom Website Design:

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Moving out of London

This map shows the number of people who have moved from London to each local authority over the last four years.

House prices where you live: This map has four options: 1. Average house price in 1997; 2. Average house price in 2017; 3. Change in house price (£), 1997-2017; 4. House price:Income ratio. The last option uses average houshold income.

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And plenty more: mental health contacts in the last 12 months, post office closures in the past three years, train station usage, access to broadband, and much more.
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Global smartwatch shipments grew 48%yoy in Q1 2019; one in three was an Apple Watch • Counterpoint Research

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Global smartwatch shipments grew a healthy rate of 48% year-on-year (YoY) in Q1 2019 driven by Apple, Samsung, Fitbit, and Huawei, according to the latest research from Counterpoint’s Global Smartwatch Tracker.

Commenting on the major shift in the market, Counterpoint Research Analyst, Satyajit Sinha, noted, “Apple Watch shipments grew a solid 49% YoY despite the weak demand for its iPhones. Apple continues to focus on the health-related features like ECG and fall detection in the Apple Watch Series 4. The ECG capability in the Apple Watch is the most desirable feature, according to our latest Consumer Lens survey. Apple has now received approval on its ECG features from healthcare authorities of Hong Kong and 19 other countries including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK.”

Sinha added: “The heart rate sensor for health monitoring, GPS and pedometer sensors for fitness, and NFC embedded for payment are some of the key integrated technologies. Related use-cases and in addition to notifications with cellular capability are driving the smartwatch adoption. However, limited battery life remains a pain point for consumer’s decision-making process, irrespective of region and price band.”

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I don’t think Apple is going to dramatically extend battery life. Surprised that after four years people haven’t figured this out. It hasn’t done on its laptops, phones, tablets or AirPods. Not going to happen on the Watch. Meanwhile, Huawei is coming up fast.
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North American smartphone market plunges to five-year low • Canalys

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Smartphone shipments in North America plummeted 18% year on year in Q1 2019 to a five-year low of 36.4m units, down from a record high of 44.4m in Q1 2018. This is the steepest fall ever recorded, due to a lacklustre performance by Apple and the absence of ZTE. But Apple remained the clear leader, despite suffering a regional decline of 19%. It shipped more than 4.5m iPhone XR handsets in the quarter, while Samsung shipped more than 2.0m each of its Galaxy S10+ and S10e models.

Samsung narrowed Apple’s lead in the first quarter, shipping 29% of North America’s smartphones, against 23% in Q1 2018. Samsung scheduled an earlier launch date for the S10 series, and more than doubled shipments over the S9 series in their respective launch quarters.

“Samsung brought real differentiation to its Galaxy S10 devices,” said Canalys Research Analyst Vincent Thielke. “Its triple camera, ultra-wide-angle lens, hole-punch display and reverse wireless charging all raised consumer interest. While these technologies are not new, Samsung is among the first to bring them to the US in a mass-market smartphone, and the appeal of such new features will be important for other launches this year.”

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Saturated market; replacement cycles lengthening. I don’t think people are honestly gagging for triple cameras or the rest. A few wanted a new phone, is all.
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What happened after my 13-year-old son joined the alt-right • The Washingtonian

“Anonymous”:

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the transfer, midyear, to a new school—after he’d been wrongly accused, unfairly treated, then unceremoniously dropped by his friends—shattered Sam. He felt totally alone. I counseled patience, naively unprepared for what came next: when he found people to talk to on Reddit and 4chan.

Those online pals were happy to explain that all girls lie—especially about rape. And they had lots more knowledge to impart. They told Sam that Islam is an inherently violent religion and that Jews run global financial networks. (We’re Jewish and don’t know anyone who runs anything, but I guess the evidence was convincing.) They insisted that the wage gap is a fallacy, that feminazis are destroying families, that people need guns to protect themselves from government incursions onto private property. They declared that women who abort their babies should be jailed.

Sam prides himself on questioning conventional wisdom and subjecting claims to intellectual scrutiny. For kids today, that means Googling stuff. One might think these searches would turn up a variety of perspectives, including at least a few compelling counterarguments. One would be wrong. The Google searches flooded his developing brain with endless bias-confirming “proof” to back up whichever specious alt-right standard was being hoisted that week. Each set of results acted like fertilizer sprinkled on weeds: A forest of distortion flourished.

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Google thought my phone number was Facebook’s and it ruined my life • VICE

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai:

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In the last three days, I’ve gotten more than 80 phone calls. Just today, in the span of eight minutes, I got three phone calls from people looking to talk to Facebook. I didn’t answer all of them, and some left voicemails.

Initially, I thought this was some coordinated trolling campaign. As it turns out, if you Googled “Facebook phone number” on your phone earlier this week, you would see my cellphone as the fourth result, and Google has created a “card” that pulled my number out of the article and displayed it directly on the search page in a box. The effect is that it seemed like my phone number was Facebook’s phone number, because that is how Google has trained people to think.

Considering that on average, according to Google’s own data, people search for “Facebook phone number” tens of thousands of times every month, I got a lot of calls.

“[Google is] trying to scrape for a phone number to match the intent of the search query,” Austin Kane, the director for SEO strategy for the New York-based consulting company Acknowledge Digital, told me in an email. “The first few web listings … don’t actually have a phone number available on site so it seems that Google is mistakenly crawling other content and exposing the phone number in Search Engine Results Pages, thinking that this is applicable to the query and helpful for users.” (Vice Media is a client of Acknowledge Digital.)

When I reached out to Facebook’s PR to get their thoughts, a spokesperson started his email response with: “Huh, that’s an odd one.”

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But the fault is Google’s.
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Belt and Road summit puts spotlight on Chinese coal funding • The Guardian

Jonathan Watts:

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At the opening last week of a 660MW coal power station in Tharparkar – supported by China Machinery Engineering Corporation – officials declared the new facility to be “the pride of Pakistan”, but the plant will make the country dependent on a new open-cast coalmine that will produce 3.8m tonnes of low-quality fuel each year. Climate campaigners said this was a missed opportunity because the surrounding Sindh province had rich potential for renewables, with wind corridors and abundant sunlight.

In Europe, China is financing, building or equipping 4.1GW of coal-fired plants, according to the Danish NGO VedvarendeEnergi (Sustainable Energy), including the Kostolac B3 power station in Serbia and the Tuzla 7 plant in Bosnia, which are subject to investigations, lawsuits or petitions from environmental groups.

Wawa Wang, a senior adviser to VedvarendeEnergi, said the forum should address the double standards between China’s domestic climate actions and its overseas actions. “I’d like to see China introduce binding policy and law that restrict financing of overseas coal projects,” she said.

Xi has declared that the BRI [Belt and Road Initiative] should be green. But the balance so far has been towards black energy.

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A riposte to my suggestion that China would rein back on coal. Instead it seems to be ramping it up abroad, through funding. (Thanks Robert Howarth for the link.)
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Disney put more than $400m into Vice Media. Now it says that investment is worthless • Vox

Peter Kafka:

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Disney’s accounting decision is yet another example — perhaps the most stunning one — of the turnabout we’ve seen in digital media over the past few years. Investors have decided that high-flying publishers that once confidently explained that they’d created a new media paradigm are now worth very little … or even less.

Here’s a partial roll call familiar to some of you:

• Mic, which raised more than $60m, sold for less than $5m late last year
• Mashable, which was valued at about $250m in 2016, sold for less than $50m in 2017
• The properties formerly known as Gawker Media, plus the Onion and other sites, just sold for a price that’s likely well below $50m; Univision, the TV conglomerate which sold them off, had paid $135m for the Gawker sites alone in 2016
• We don’t (yet) know the value that Comcast, which put a collective $600m into Vox Media (which owns this site) and BuzzFeed over the past few years now thinks those two publishers are worth. But it’s a reasonable bet that Comcast thinks they are worth less than it thought in 2015.

All of those companies have different stories and different particulars. The through-line is that a few years ago, all of them were confident that they were going to shoot up in value, because they knew how to reach young audiences by exploiting the big tech platforms — in particular, Facebook and Google.

Instead, Facebook and Google have hoovered up the majority of digital ad revenue — the money the new publishers expected to get, once they reached scale. And publishers that had expected Facebook and Google to rely on them for content have learned that Facebook and Google don’t really need them, after all.

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The valuations were always wild, based on starry-eyed guesses from early growth rather than realism. So it goes.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1,064: time to break up Facebook?, self-driving cars delayed, China’s coal bonanza, Disney writes off Vice, and more

  1. Re. US smartphone market. It’s That OEM list reads like something from 10 years ago. There’s something awful wrong when what’s supposed to be the northen star of free-marketism turns into a sclerotic incumbents’ paradise.

    I hear unlimited contracts are ridiculously expesnive too. Mine (France) is $20/mo incl. some roaming in EU and NA, tethering, …

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