Start Up No.1230: 23andme cuts staff, Motorola’s lumpy foldable, Google’s search backtrack, Sonos redux, killing Xylo, and more


Nike’s Vaporfly will make you run faster over significant distances. So should they be banned? CC-licensed photo by beast120815 on Flickr.

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A selection of 13 links for you. Ready or not. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

23andMe lays off 100 people: CEO Anne Wojcicki explains why • CNBC

Christina Farr:

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Home DNA-testing company 23andMe is laying off about 100 people, or 14% of its staff, on Thursday, in the wake of declining sales.

The layoffs include the operations teams, which were focused on the company’s growth and scaling efforts, as well as other teams. In the coming months, the company plans to tighten its focus on the direct-to-consumer business and its therapeutics arm while scaling back its clinical studies arm.

CEO Anne Wojcicki told CNBC she’s been “surprised” to see the market starting to turn.

Wojcicki has theories, but she doesn’t have clear proof for why consumers are shying away from getting tests that reveal their percentage of Irish heritage, propensity for a favorite ice cream flavor, or whether they have a limited set of variants that are associated with breast cancer. Either way, she notes, she’s downsizing because it’s “what the market is ready for.”

“This has been slow and painful for us,” she said.

«

The reality is she doesn’t know why it’s slowing down; maybe privacy, maybe economic concerns. Or maybe once you get past the early adopters, people don’t care about their genetic ancestry, and don’t really want to know their genetic future. That puts a very definite ceiling on sales.
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Why the Jeff Bezos phone hack is a wake-up call for the powerful • Financial Times

Richard Waters:

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Three things come together to make the case an object lesson in the exploitation of digital vulnerability. The first involves social engineering. Attacks like this play on weaknesses in the human operating system that can’t easily be patched. At senior levels of business and government, ego, opportunity and responsibility jostle to shape how personal networks operate. Trust is a requisite, and electronic channels of communication unavoidable.

Even friends spy on each other. Angela Merkel’s phone calls were monitored by the US National Security Agency, according to leaks by Edward Snowden — though German prosecutors dropped their investigation after failing to come up with hard evidence.

For anyone aspiring to power and influence in the world, this prompts deeply uncomfortable questions. For instance, which is worse: that a future head of state hasn’t been sending you internet memes over WhatsApp, or that he has? It’s a safe bet that the crown prince has many fewer WhatsApp contacts today than he started the week with.

«

I think that point is the really important one. People will be a lot more careful to quarantine their personal phone from their business phone. It might be a pain, but it will become necessary again. Not that it wasn’t before, but the Bezos case is now always going to be the “um, remember when…?”
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Motorola on the Razr’s folding screen: ‘bumps and lumps are normal’ • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

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Motorola has posted a series of videos on its YouTube channel that are somewhere between brief ads and how-tos for the folding phone. And as you might have guessed from the headline, “Caring for razr” caught our eye.

In it, Motorola runs through the basics of what you need to know if you have a phone with a plastic folding screen. We thought we knew most of them already based on our experience with the Galaxy Fold, but Motorola’s video has one more thing to think about: “Screen is made to bend; bumps and lumps are normal.”

With the Galaxy Fold, “bumps and lumps” ended up being the first harbingers of a catastrophic screen failure on our review unit. Apparently that’s not going to be the case with the Razr. There are lots of ways to build a hinge for a folding plastic screen, and Motorola apparently opted for a design that allows for a little more flex than the original Fold design did. It’s also able to close completely flat.

Because of that plastic material, the screen is likely to have some kind of crease — though we weren’t really able to see much of one in our original hands-on. We’ll obviously need to review the phone in full before we can say ourselves whether the screen has a notable crease, bumps, or lumps.

«

They’re normal, but only if you pay $1500 first.
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Can Bernie (really) save America? • Eudaimonia and Co

umair haque:

»

America made a socioeconomic choice — a fatal one. It wasn’t going to be like any other society. No — it was exceptional, and always had been: a promised land. Here, people would learn to pick themselves up by their own bootstraps — and along the way, they’d learn the virtues of industry, hard work, and decency. They’d become better people — and everyone would grow rich. All it would take was a little punishment, a little selfishness, a little bit of hard-heartedness. Or maybe a lot. “Tough love” is what American pop culture calls all that.

The problem, of course, is that America’s economic exceptionalism didn’t work. Making Americans beg each other for dollars to pay for healthcare online didn’t make anyone better off — it just made people dead. Turning the middle class into the new, desperate poor didn’t lead to some kind of mass movement of generous and beautiful people — it just led to neofascism, as they sought even more powerless people to hate. Making working class Americans work around the clock and never take vacations didn’t add to more industry — in fact, it only led to abusive monopolies, and mega-billionaires that corrode democracy.

American ideas have failed in every possible way — and hence, as a result, America’s having something very much like a Soviet collapse…

…Europeans live not just the world’s longest, happiest, richest, healthiest, sanest lives — by a very, very long way — but history’s. Moreover, they’ve accomplished that in just one human lifetime — from the ashes of war. The magnitude and triumph of such a thing isn’t taught in America, but it should be. It might just be humanity’s greatest accomplishment, ever. The European miracle should be taught to every child in preschool, so that they really understand what human prosperity is made of, where it comes from.

«

Haque’s complaint that Sanders is only incremental, not revolutionary, misses the point to me: Americans simply wouldn’t vote for someone who offered real revolution like that. (Thanks Adewale Adetugbo.)
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Google is backtracking on its controversial desktop search results redesign • The Verge

Nick Statt:

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Google is backtracking on a controversial search engine redesign, announcing that it will experiment with some elements of the new look in response to user feedback.

Google made one of the biggest changes to how it displays search results in the company’s history earlier this month, with the changes taking effect over the course of the last week. It involved a visual overhaul that makes it more difficult to differentiate between advertising and organic search results with the removal of color overlays and the introduction of small branded iconography, known on the web as favicons, next to non-ad results.

The company’s stated intention was to align desktop search results with the way they’re presented on mobile, but it became clear this also had the effect of making it harder to distinguish between paid results and non-paid ones. The only difference between an ad and an organic result in the new design is the small lettering or icon next to a link, meaning ads and organic results now look more similar than ever before.

«

I wonder if people inside Google tested this and suggested that it wouldn’t be good. I bet some did. And that they weren’t listened to.
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Vaporfly shoes will help me reach my marathon dream. Should I use them? • The Guardian

Jamie Doward:

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When they first went on sale, the Vaporfly 4% – the first iteration of the shoe [used by Eliud Kipchoge to run his sub-two hour marathon] – sold out so quickly that pairs were going for more than £1,000 on the resale market.

Struggling to justify that price to myself, I bagged a pair of the 4%’s cheaper cousin, the Zoom Fly 2 Flyknit, which, at £140 (at the time) were still a good £50 more than I’d ever spent on a pair of running shoes.

But, like the Vaporfly, they had a carbon plate [in the sole], and the difference this made was immediately apparent. I ran the Pisa marathon in three hours 17 seconds, shaving more than seven minutes off my personal best.

To be clear: there were many factors at play on that day and I’m not suggesting the shoes benefit everyone. Many runners claim that the shoes reward more efficient, faster runners who have spent several years chasing personal bests. Reviews suggest they are not great for regular training at a slower pace. But it’s clear they gave me a significant boost.

Too significant, apparently.

The world athletics ruling body is preparing to tighten regulations governing shoe technology, according to two sources who spoke to Reuters. World Athletics is expected to make the announcement when it unveils the findings of a review at the end of the month.

“World Athletics definitely agrees that there needs to be greater clarity on what is permissible in elite sport and in our competitions,” it said in a statement to Reuters, adding that any change would need to be ratified by its council.

«

In that case, shouldn’t everyone run in bare feet? How and where do you draw the line on this technology?
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Article 13: UK will not implement EU copyright law • BBC News

»

Universities and Science Minister Chris Skidmore has said that the UK will not implement the EU Copyright Directive after the country leaves the EU.

Several companies have criticised the law, which would hold them accountable for not removing copyrighted content uploaded by users, if it is passed. EU member states have until 7 June 2021 to implement the new reforms, but the UK will have left the EU by then.

The UK was among 19 nations that initially supported the law. That was in its final European Council vote in April 2019…

…Critics claimed Article 13 would make it nearly impossible to upload even the tiniest part of a copyrighted work to Facebook, YouTube, or any other site.

However, specific tweaks to the law in 2019 made memes safe “for purposes of quotation, criticism, review, caricature, parody and pastiche”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson criticised the law in March, claiming that it was “terrible for the internet”. Google had campaigned fiercely against the changes, arguing they would “harm Europe’s creative and digital industries” and “change the web as we know it”.

«

It’s never seemed likely that this would be used to go after folk posting memes; only those who are doing really egregious infringement.

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Sonos’ frantic flailing illustrates the stupidity of smart tech • ExtremeTech

Joel Hruska:

»

My Advents [mid-market hi-fi loudspeakers] are 45-50 years old. Even when new, they didn’t qualify as “the best” speakers — they were designed to be very good, midrange, affordable speakers. I have no doubt that some of you own audio systems that utterly outclass my own, though I have a vague plan to build a 7.1 sound solution using them as the front pair, then adding a subwoofer underneath it, just for fun.

My Advent Loudspeakers are the best speakers for one and only one reason: my father gave them to me.

I thought of all this when I read [The Verge’s] summary of Sonos’ position. According to Sonos, a speaker they built just 10 years ago has reached its “technological limits.” It made me think about the way we’ve allowed companies to arbitrarily define what “technological limits” are, and what they look like, and how easily that phrase gets tossed about by companies to justify bricking hardware, removing features, or preventing customers from repairing their own equipment. It’s an issue that’s much bigger than Sonos or any single company. It even impacts the US military.

If Sonos had existed in the mid-to-late 1970s and my father had chosen to buy a speaker from it, there would have been nothing to pass on in the first place.

«

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Unauthorized Bread • Ars Technica

A novella by Cory Doctorow which is a finalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s national book award, and more; the whole thing is at the link, and this is how it starts:

»

The way Salima found out that Boulangism had gone bankrupt: her toaster wouldn’t accept her bread. She held the slice in front of it and waited for the screen to show her a thumbs-up emoji, but instead, it showed her the head-scratching face and made a soft brrt. She waved the bread again. Brrt.

“Come on.” Brrt.

She turned the toaster off and on. Then she unplugged it, counted to ten, and plugged it in. Then she menued through the screens until she found RESET TO FACTORY DEFAULT, waited three minutes, and punched her Wi-Fi password in again.

Brrt.

Long before she got to that point, she’d grown certain that it was a lost cause. But these were the steps that you took when the electronics stopped working, so you could call the 800 number and say, “I’ve turned it off and on, I’ve unplugged it, I’ve reset it to factory defaults and…”

There was a touchscreen option on the toaster to call support, but that wasn’t working, so she used the fridge to look up the number and call it. It rang seventeen times and disconnected. She heaved a sigh. Another one bites the dust.

«

For all those who have been having fun with printers lately.
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A letter from our CEO • Sonos Blog

Patrick Spence:

»

rest assured that come May, when we end new software updates for our legacy products, they will continue to work as they do today. We are not bricking them, we are not forcing them into obsolescence, and we are not taking anything away. Many of you have invested heavily in your Sonos systems, and we intend to honor that investment for as long as possible. While legacy Sonos products won’t get new software features, we pledge to keep them updated with bug fixes and security patches for as long as possible. If we run into something core to the experience that can’t be addressed, we’ll work to offer an alternative solution and let you know about any changes you’ll see in your experience.

Secondly, we heard you on the issue of legacy products and modern products not being able to coexist in your home. We are working on a way to split your system so that modern products work together and get the latest features, while legacy products work together and remain in their current state. We’re finalizing details on this plan and will share more in the coming weeks.
While we have a lot of great products and features in the pipeline, we want our customers to upgrade to our latest and greatest products when they’re excited by what the new products offer, not because they feel forced to do so.

«

This is a good move, essentially clarifying what had been said already, but imperfectly reported. However I – and plenty of others, I’d suspect – still feel that the way the trade-in program bricks devices is bad. The problem comes in the way that the app keeps being updated, and eventually will leave some devices behind (or that’s the way it feels). But culturally, we’re completely unused to the idea that a piece of hi-fi (or Bluetooth speaker) will stop responding to its controls.
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Why Xylo had to die • Pioneer Square Labs

Peter Denton is in charge of marketing at PSL, which is a VC fund and incubator:

»

At PSL, we kill nine out of ten ideas that we test. We haven’t talked much about these publicly before, but we wanted to share what it looks like when we make a “kill” decision. Our goal in publishing this is to help other founders think about how to do early validation the way that we do inside the studio.

The idea we tested was Xylo, which solved a problem that millions of parents in the U.S. experience: finding great teachers for music lessons. Our proposed solution was an online platform to connect these teachers with students for remote (or in-person) lessons with a great user experience. Sounds like a great idea, right? Let’s dive in!

«

The detail in the numbers is remarkable. Turns out Xylo would just about keep one person clothed, but certainly not housed (in San Francisco).
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Guessing names based on what they start with • FlowingData

Nathan Yau:

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I’m really bad at names. A lot of the time when I meet someone new, the name goes in one ear and out the other. If I manage to remember the name short-term, remembering long-term is still a toss-up in favor of forgetting.

But sometimes I can remember the first letter and then I can cycle the alphabet on the second letter to jog my memory.

I wonder: If I can remember the first letter or two, can I use name data from the Social Security Administration to make an educated guess about the full name?

Put in your sex, the decade you were born, and start entering your name below. I’ll try to guess your full name before you’re done.

«

I’m not American, but it got mine from the first letter. (X is always Xavier. Z apparently includes Zoltan, which is fun if you remember Big. OK, so that was Zoltar, but anyway.)

Power of big data, as ever.
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Apple pushes back against EU common charger, warns of innovation risks • Reuters

Foo Yun Chee:

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iPhone maker Apple on Thursday pushed back against EU lawmakers’ call for a common charger, warning the move could hamper innovation, create a mountain of electronic waste and irk consumers.

Apple’s comments came a week after lawmakers at the European Parliament called for a common charger for all mobile phones and amended a draft law to say the ability to work with common chargers would be an essential requirement for radio equipment in the bloc.

A move to a common charger would affect Apple more than any other companies as its iPhones and most of its products are powered by its Lightning cable, whereas Android devices are powered by USB-C connectors.

“We believe regulation that forces conformity across the type of connector built into all smartphones stifles innovation rather than encouraging it, and would harm consumers in Europe and the economy as a whole,” Apple said in a statement.

It said regulation was not needed as the industry is already moving to USB-C through a connector or cable assembly.

“We hope the (European) Commission will continue to seek a solution that does not restrict the industry’s ability to innovate,” Apple said.

A study by Copenhagen Economics commissioned by Apple showed that consumer harm from a regulatory-mandated move to a common charger would cost at least €1.5bn, outweighing the €13m in associated environmental benefits.

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OK, well I’m confused: I’d call the thing that goes into the phone a “connector”, not a charger. Separated by a common bureaucratic language, as ever.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

3 thoughts on “Start Up No.1230: 23andme cuts staff, Motorola’s lumpy foldable, Google’s search backtrack, Sonos redux, killing Xylo, and more

  1. Re. Apple chargers. I’m not getting Apple’s argument: there’s billions of proprietary cables out there, so we should keep adding more to that because past waste justifies future waste ? Innovation is mostly limited by software and scale effects, so we should split ecosystems right down the middle about a physical connector ? When Apple dropped Lightning from Macs, were they un-innovating but didn’t tell anyone ?

    This is just about the physical connector and the most basic charging function. It doesn’t prevent anyone from doing fancy things: USB has a free-form mode, Apple could even DRM or proprietarize it to keep the MFI revenue flowing; they could even implement the USB-C connector but not the USB X.x protocols aside from charging. This is purely about the physical connector and the charging function.

    USB-C is probably a better connector than Lightning. When something better than USB-C comes along, it probably should be standardized. I’m sure going from micro-USB to USB-C obsoleted even more copper, but that never really got talked about. Partisan PR is weird.

  2. Planned obsolescence: it really makes no sense, most of the time, to meld fast-obsoleting IT into long lasting products, moreso the lore long-lived and expensive the non-IT part is. Melding a computer and its screen already was iffy. Ditto a TV and its smarts (though at least in that case the smarts can be overridden with newer smarts in an external box). etc with speakers, scales, ovens…
    Even worse when products are cloud-dependent, so they don’t just lose their smarts but outright stop working at a company’s first rejigging of business.
    Plus the “cloud” part is often used as an excuse to extract rent instead of allowing an outright purchase.

    Maybe I’m just old. I’m getting a lot more music for my money buying CDs rather than subscribing for life. And -gasp- my bathroom music comes from a lone Bluetooth speaker, not some fancy centralized integrated whole-house setup.

  3. Xiaomi’s upper-midrange K30 phone is out and fine. https://www.gsmarena.com/xiaomi_redmi_k30-9991.php

    For $250ish+tax, you get
    – claim to fame: 120Hz screen, though it’s LCD not AMOLED
    – all-too-rare practical stuff: SD slot, audio jack, FM radio, IR blaster, 1.5x an iPhone XS’ battery life = one huge day, typically 2.
    – all the basics: solid&nice design, good performance (antutu = iPhone 7.5 ^^), Android 10 out of the box (which is important for future updates), very nice pics (good even at night)
    – no wireless charging, no AMOLED, no zoom lens, only a Snapdragon 7xx not 8xx

    I’m getting more requests for better cams, especially zoom, than for a better screen. Also for simultaneous 2xSIM+1xSD (that K30 only has 2 slots, one either SD or SIM, which makes no sense because abroad is when you need local media + a second SIM). Not sure the screen is where I’d have spent sourcing budget, especially 120Hz seems a bit overkill. What can be quantified wins over what’s “softer” (glare !), sadly.

    Realme’s answer not here yet. Curious what product formula they’ll choose.

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