Start Up No.1215: Google’s culture change, ChromeOS is stuck, you are HERE in history, TikTok to infinity, and more


Put it in “Recycle” mode, and it’s good for nothing except, well, recycling. Is that really good? CC-licensed photo by BestAI Assistant on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Yes, we’re back! And so are you! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google veterans: the company has become ‘unrecognizable’ • CNBC

Jennifer Elias:

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Nine-year veteran Colin McMillen told CNBC that he left Google early this year without another job because he felt couldn’t be a part of the organization anymore, citing Dragonfly, transparency and Google leadership’s “poor handling” of crises over the last year.

Employees last month staged a rally amid the suspension of employees who were later fired. That rally’s purpose was to “save Google’s open culture,” according to the event details. Protesters demanded transparency on policies that Google said led to their decision to fire four employees. In December, the National Labor Relations Board began investigating the company for the firings.

“Google is built on trust,” said Zora Tung, an engineer at Google who spoke at the rally. “If the company wants to succeed, it needs to regain that trust through transparency and accountability.”

Long-tenured Google employees also said the company culture changed as it scaled to more than 100,000 workers, many of whom are contractors instead of full-time employees.

Graham Neray is CEO of a New York start-up called Oso. He told CNBC that longtime Googlers who interviewed for roles at Oso said the company had become “too big” and bureaucratic to make a difference for workers. Major organizational changes and uncertainty in some divisions like the Google Cloud Platform were also mentioned by candidates, he said.

Bureaucracy was the reason for a former engineering director who left the company in August after seven years. This engineer, who asked to remain anonymous because he’s not authorized to talk about his time there, said upper management began placing extra emphasis on head count in recent years. Because of that, the company has become reluctant to eliminate weaker team members, which affected his and others’ organizations, he said.

Some employees said they were recruited on the notion they’d be able to change the world with a free and open-thinking channel to management and products. But over the last year, those ideals no longer seem tenable, workers said.

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It certainly feels like something has changed at Google over the past five years particularly. Page and Brin becoming disengaged but not handing over control; the tension, visible from outside, between Ruth Porat on finance and the spending of the “moonshot” groups. So over the next ten years, does it decline into sclerosis or somehow rediscover its vision?
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Chrome OS has stalled out • Android Police

David Ruddock:

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Getting Android apps to run on Chrome OS was simultaneously one of the Chrome team’s greatest achievements and one of its worst mistakes. In 2019, two things are more obvious than ever about the Android app situation on Chrome. The first is that the “build it and they will come” mantra never panned out. Developers never created an appreciable number of Android app experiences designed for Chrome (just as they never did for Android tablets). The second is that, quite frankly, Android apps are very bad on Chrome OS. Performance is highly variable, and interface bugs are basically unending because most of those apps were never designed for a point-and-click operating system. Sure, they crash less often than they did in the early days, but anyone saying that Android apps on Chrome OS are a good experience is delusional.

Those apps are also a crutch that Chrome leans on to this day. Chrome OS doesn’t have a robust photo editor? Don’t worry, you can download an [Android] app! Chrome doesn’t have native integration with cloud file services like Box, Dropbox, or OneDrive? Just download the [Android] app! Chrome doesn’t have Microsoft Office? App! But this “solution” has basically become an insult to Chrome’s users, forcing them to live inside a half-baked Android environment using apps that were almost exclusively designed for 6″ touchscreens, and which exist in a containerized state that effectively firewalls them from much of the Chrome operating system.

As a result, file handling is a nightmare, with only a very limited number of folders accessible to those applications, and the task of finding them from inside those apps a labyrinthine exercise no one should have to endure in 2019. This isn’t a tenable state of affairs—it’s computing barbarism as far as I’m concerned.

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I always thought the point of ChromeOS was to be a low-end disruptor – cheaper and simpler than Windows/macOS, so it could do simpler tasks (in call centres?) that could run through a browser.
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It’s 2020 and you’re in the future • Wait But Why

Tim Urban:

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We’re now in charge of making this a cool decade so when people 100 years from now are thinking about how incredibly old-timey the 2020s were, it’s old-timey in a cool appealing way and not a boring shitty way.

It’s also weird that to us, the 2020s sounds like such a rad futuristic decade—and that’s how the 1920s seemed to people 100 years ago today. They were all used to the 19-teens, and suddenly they were like, “whoa cool we’re in the twenties!” Then they got upset thinking about how much farther along in life their 1910 self thought they’d be by 1920.

In any case, it’s a perfect time for one of those “shit we’re old” posts.

So here are some New Years 2020 time facts:

When World War 2 started, the Civil War felt as far away to Americans as WW2 feels to us now.

Speaking of World War 2, the world wars were pretty close together. If World War 2 were starting today, World War 1 would feel about as far back to us as 9/11.

The Soviet Union break up is now as distant a memory as JFK’s assassination was when the Soviet Union broke up.

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The post is a few days old, so that “If World War 2 were starting today” comment has more bite now than it did when written.
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Sonos in bricked speaker ‘recycling’ row • BBC News

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Sonos is facing a backlash for encouraging customers to get rid of their old speakers when there may be nothing wrong with them.

The US speaker giant offers customers a 30% discount on new products if they follow steps to recycle their old ones. Following these puts the device in Recycle Mode, which means it will then be permanently deactivated.

Sonos said it wanted to encourage responsible disposal of electrical equipment. But many took to Twitter saying it would be far better to allow people to resell them.

“Sonos’s ‘recycle mode’ intentionally bricks good devices so they can’t be reused,” wrote Twitter user AtomicThumbs. He posted photos of five Sonos speakers which had been recycled through his company, Renew Computers. “Someone recycled five of these Sonos Play:5 speakers. They’re worth $250 each, used, and these are in good condition. They could easily be reused.”

A Sonos spokeswoman told the BBC: “To participate in the Trade Up program and receive the 30% discount, a customer has to tell us in the app that they plan to recycle their old device.

Customers can then redeem their discount at sonos.com or at a participating dealer. Once they have their new device, the customer will then be able to wipe their old device and deactivate it. Then it’s up to them either to recycle it locally, or they can return it to Sonos and we’ll recycle it.

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It’s a really bad scheme: if the speakers could be reused, that could potentially increase the number of Sonos users. Sure, some people might resell them and take advantage of the 30% discount and in effect get a speaker for free. But Sonos would have a new user – which it needs, badly.
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TikTok and the coming of infinite media • ROUGH TYPE

Nick Carr:

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Infinite media sucks in all media, from news to entertainment to communication. Witness what’s going on in pop. Each TikTok has a soundtrack, a looping clip spinning on a wee turntable in the corner of the screen. The music business, seeing TikTok’s ability to turn songs into memes, has already developed a craving for the app’s yee yee juice. As Jia Tolentini explains in the New Yorker:

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Certain musical elements serve as TikTok catnip: bass-heavy transitions that can be used as punch lines; rap songs that are easy to lip-synch or include a narrative-friendly call and response. A twenty-six-year-old Australian producer named Adam Friedman, half of the duo Cookie Cutters, told me that he was now concentrating on lyrics that you could act out with your hands. “I write hooks, and I try it in the mirror—how many hand movements can I fit into fifteen seconds?” he said. “You know, goodbye, call me back, peace out, F you.”

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The aural hooks amplify the visual hooks, and vice versa, to saturate the sensorium. When it comes to the infinite, more is always better.

Boomers may struggle to make sense of TikTok, but they’ll appreciate its most obvious antecedent: the Ed Sullivan Show. Squeeze old Ed through a wormhole and give him a spin in a Vitamix, and you get TikTok. There’s Liza Minnelli singing “MacArthur Park,” then there’s a guy spinning plates on the ends of sticks, then there’s Señor Wences ventriloquizing through a hand puppet. Except it’s all us. We’re Liza, we’re the plate-spinning guy, we’re Señor Wences, we’re the puppet. We’re even Ed, flicking acts on and off the stage with the capriciousness of a pagan god.

Every Sunday night during the sixties the nation found itself glued to the set, engrossed in a variety show. It was an omen.

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It’s great that Carr is blogging regularly again. (Implies to me he’s between book projects.) Impressed that he managed to resist “in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 seconds”. I couldn’t. Speaking of TikTok…
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Hype House and the Los Angeles TikTok mansion gold rush • The New York Times

Taylor Lorenz:

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Alex, Thomas, Daisy Keech, 20, and Kouvr Annon, 19, live at the house full time. As the oldest, Thomas acts as a default den mother. Though Chase helped put money down for the house, Thomas manages schedules, handles the house issues and resolves the inevitable conflicts. Unlike Team 10 and other groups, Hype House doesn’t take a cut of anyone’s revenue.

The house does have strict rules, however. Creators can have friends over, but it is not a party house. If you break something, you have 15 days to replace it. And if you want to be a part of the group, you need to churn out content daily.

“If someone slips up constantly, they’ll not be a part of this team anymore,” Thomas said. “You can’t come and stay with us for a week and not make any videos, it’s not going to work. This whole house is designed for productivity. If you want to party, there’s hundreds of houses that throw parties in L.A. every weekend. We don’t want to be that. It’s not in line with anyone in this house’s brand. This house is about creating something big, and you can’t do that if you’re going out on the weekends.”

In order to make a splash on the internet, you need the right people and so Chase acts as Hype House’s unofficial talent scout and a behind-the-scenes operator. He has a knack for spotting influencers early and knows what qualities it takes to get big online.

You have to be young, you have to “have a lot of energy and personality and honestly a little weird. The weird people get the furthest on the internet,” Chase said. “You either have to be talented at something, or a weird funny mix, or extremely good looking.”

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Cities struggle to boost ridership with ‘Uber for transit’ schemes • WIRED

Flavie Halais:

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According to the tech companies pushing this solution, making on-demand busing work is a matter of crunching vast amounts of transit data, now made available by location tracking, and using algorithms to create custom shared routes. Data will help agencies reroute buses in real time based on factors like user demand and congestion, says Amos Haggiag, CEO of Optibus, whose software helps cities plan and manage bus routes, both on-demand and fixed. “I do see mass transit, even the large buses, as much more dynamic.” Many of those companies, including Uber, think all buses, not just those in low-ridership areas, should run on demand.

Reality, though, adds complications. Not everyone who needs to get around has access to an app. Smartphone ownership remains vastly unequal among countries, and between income and age groups. The cost of data is still cited as a major barrier to smartphone use around the world. And even those who do have phones may not want to rely on them to get to work. When I point out that my smartphone shuts down when the weather gets too cold in winter, Haggiag says my situation is “extreme.” I live in Montreal, along with 1.75 million other people.

Tech companies and planners often make decisions without considering the needs of people who are not like them. A pilot project in St. Petersburg, Florida, that let residents use Uber to connect to bus stops faced low adoption rates. The local transit authority realized residents, many of whom were low-income, didn’t know how to use Uber. They needed help on how to use the app, a planner told WIRED in 2017.

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Fixing things that don’t need fixing; what’s really needed is just regular buses, which can be funded by a mix of fares and tax incentives.
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Trade war dents China’s attendance at world’s biggest electronics show • WSJ

Raffaele Huang and Stu Woo:

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The expanding U.S.-China rivalry in the world of technology is set to be put on full display this week, with a smaller Chinese presence expected in Las Vegas for CES, the world’s biggest consumer-electronics exhibition.

Chinese exhibit space at the annual show is projected to be down 5% to 6% compared with last year, event organizers said. The event on Jan. 7 to Jan. 10 could also see a downtick in overall Chinese exhibitors, since 1,120 attended last year, but only 1,097 Chinese companies were listed on the 2020 directory as of Saturday.

One of those companies listed on the directory said it wouldn’t show up. A spokesman for Suning, a major Chinese electronics and appliance retailer akin to Best Buy Co. , said neither its Chinese nor its U.S. team would attend, even if it had already booked the space. Suning last year had a big booth that showcased shopping technology. The spokesman declined to elaborate on why the company is skipping the event.

The drop-off in Chinese participation at CES is a reversal from years past. In 2018, the exhibition had 15,383 attendees from China, the country’s highest reported attendance ever. At the time, some attendees jokingly referred to CES, formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show, as the “Chinese Electronics Show.” But attendance from China dropped to 12,839 in 2019, according to the official show audit.

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Analyst, analyze yourself • Asymco

Horace Dediu points out that we can – and so we should – examine sell-side analyst (ie share price forecaster) predictions, especially about the present from the past:

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The green line in the graph represents the closing share price at weekly intervals (from about October 2016 until last week.) The blue dots represent various estimates. Note that they are 12 months since their issuance and that since estimates can come at any time the are not easily clustered.

That is except last year and the “big reset” when the estimates all were issued on the same day. I highlighted the range with a vertical line. Note that the closing price last week was well above the highest estimate and that the lowest estimate ($140 is less than 50% of the current price).

This is quite a big fail. Errors of 50 for a 12 month time frame are egregious.

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The graph is a little hard to read, but essentially it says: they’re often wrong. For completeness I guess you’d want a random walk generator to compare them against for the same period.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

6 thoughts on “Start Up No.1215: Google’s culture change, ChromeOS is stuck, you are HERE in history, TikTok to infinity, and more

  1. Welcome back Overspill. We’ve missed you.

    Currently in Airbnb in Vienna about to go see the Lippizaners training then lots of Klimt. Plus cakes. Decided it was easier than skiing 😊

    >

  2. ChromeOS: I’m of two minds about it.

    On the one hand, it’s an extremely necessary option that is much easier to use than legacy Windows/MacOS, doesn’t require an admin like Windows/MacOS do, and is very safe unlike Windows/MacOS. It does everything 80% of users need and no, it’s not a “call-center OS” and works perfectly well offline and for semi-complex office-level task.
    On the other hand it is “Google being Apple” and isn’t really designed for use with non-1st-party apps (gDrive not OneDrive, gOffice not MS Office, no browser but Chrome), comes with time-limited support (5 or 7 yrs at launch IIRC, so don’t buy a 4yo model), and makes it fairly impossible to avoid Google’s tracking locally (LAN-wide PiHole and VPN still work though).

    Android and Linux (which the article unfairly dismisses) support is still work in progress. Storage support is still being worked on and improved (in ChromeOS 72 SD cards will fully support recent Android API AFAIK). I think it shouldn’t be taken into account as anything but icing on the cake, regular users should make sure ChromeOS itself fits their needs.

    I think the article is mostly clickbait, and worked well for that it has taken taken up by the whole pro-Apple blogosphere. It’s one guy whining about everything that can be whined about, not a 360 on what ChromeOS does well, so-so and badly. I’d have much preferred if Google had focused on a Desktop, LTS version of Android though – it is much closer than people realize.

    • When you call David Ruddock “one guy whining”, you’ve really lost the argument. He’s very experienced, deeply embedded in what Android offers, and fairminded. His point is that Chrome has *stalled*. It’s not moving forward; it’s bogged down in its own contradictions, which your attempts to justify above exemplify. I think it’s evident that it began with one aim, but others are now being piled on top of it in a way that creates contradictions and stresses that Google can’t handle.
      As for “pro-Apple blogosphere” – when Steve Sinofsky points to it, I think it’s moved well outside that space. He understands what’s involved in building an OS and suite of applications in a way that few people in the whole world do.

      • I’m not sure you understand what my argument is. It’s certainly not that ChromeOS is perfect or thriving, I actually wish Google hadn’t bothered with ChromeOS and haven’t bought or recommended it. My point is, mostly, a) that it’s easier and cheaper to get clicks with superficial negative stuff and b) that, surprise surprise, that stuff gets picked up by a whole extra heavily agenda’ed blogosphere.

        That’s my 2 points. “Winning” them is simple (that’s *your* framing of the issue, I’d rather we talk of fairness and perspective)
        1- there are factual inaccuracies in the article, and a complete disregard for work in progress. yes, sharing storage between OSes is messy and insufficient, no, work on it hasn’t stalled, see latest release notes. Ditto the Android container, etc…
        2- Is there a single positive, or even just descriptive, story about ChromeOS on your blog ? Millions of people use them happily, starting with the avc.com guy. How can one relay hit pieces but never a 360 ? Remember when you picked a fan for some Apple product “review” ? Remember when you denied anyone ever used Andorid tablets seriously when there was one testimony right in your comments ?

        I think the issue is with people trying to win stuff, instead of understanding it and reporting fairly on it. Especially in the media.

      • I’ve been, increasingly, wondering whether some people’s hate of anything non-Apple uses the exact same mechanisms as racism.
        It uses the same in the end incoherent mix of aesthetic, moral, and “design” arguments, mostly out of nowhere even based on wrong “knowledge”, backed by some out-of-context factoids, strongly reinforced by a clique of like-minded “higher-quality” individuals.
        What really drove the point home is comments on the ugliness of a rectangular slab of screen. There’s really no way for it to be ugly, unless the only rectangles that aren’t ugly are the space-grey ones with the right logo.

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