Start Up No.1291: Australia to force Google to share ad revenue, Texas oil price goes negative, PC shipments slump, a new theory of everything?, and more


You might not be surprised to hear that Samsung’s Galaxy S20 isn’t selling as well as its predecessor. CC-licensed photo by K%u0101rlis Dambr%u0101ns 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.

Facebook and Google to be forced to share advertising revenue with Australian media companies • The Guardian

Josh Taylor:

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Facebook and Google will be forced to share advertising revenue with Australian media companies after the [federal] treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, instructed the competition watchdog to develop a mandatory code of conduct for the digital giants amid a steep decline in advertising brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

In its response to the landmark digital platforms inquiry in December, the federal government asked the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to develop a code between media companies and digital platforms including Google and Facebook.

The code was to require the companies to negotiate in good faith on how to pay news media for use of their content, advise news media in advance of algorithm changes that would affect content rankings, favour original source news content in search page results, and share data with media companies.

The code was due to be finalised in November 2020, but after limited success in early negotiations between the platforms and the news industry – and in light of the sharp decline in ad revenue – the government has now asked the ACCC to write a mandatory code.

The mandatory code will have the same elements as the proposed voluntary code, but would also include penalties and binding dispute resolution mechanisms for negotiations between the digital platforms and news businesses. It will also define news content that would be covered by the code, and will encompass services beyond Google search and Facebook’s main platform, such as Instagram and Twitter.

…Frydenberg said it was only fair that media companies that created the content got paid for it. “This will help to create a level playing field,” he said.

The communications minister, Paul Fletcher, said the decision was about a strong and sustainable news media ecosystem. “Digital platforms have fundamentally changed the way that media content is produced, distributed and consumed,” he said.

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Wow. Be right back, just going to put some popcorn on. Radical move. Expect the companies to fight this up and down the courts.
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US oil price below zero for first time in history  | Financial Times

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US oil prices crashed into negative territory for the first time in history as the evaporation of demand caused by the coronavirus pandemic has left the world awash with oil and not enough storage capacity — meaning producers are paying buyers to take it off their hands.

West Texas Intermediate, the US benchmark, lost more than 300% to trade as low as -$40.32 a barrel in a day of chaos in oil markets. The settlement price on Monday was -$37.63, compared to $18.27 on Friday.

Traders capitulated in the face of limited access to storage capacity across the US, including the country’s main delivery point of Cushing, Oklahoma.

The collapse will be a blow to US president Donald Trump, who has gone to great lengths to protect the oil sector, including backing moves by Opec and Russia to cut production and pledging support for the industry.

The shale sector has transformed the US into the world’s largest oil producer in the last decade, giving Mr Trump a foreign policy tool he has brandished as “US Energy Dominance”, but which now faces a rapid decline.

Negative prices are the latest indication of the depth of the crisis hitting the oil sector after lockdowns imposed in many of the world’s major economies have sent crude demand tumbling by as much as a third, leaving the industry facing what Jefferies analyst Jason Gammel called “the bleakest oil macro outlook” he had ever seen…

…Stephen Schork, editor of oil-market newsletter The Schork Report, said he expected access to storage capacity in the US to be exhausted within two weeks — and cautioned that the collapse of the country’s oil consumption was accelerating.

“It just gets uglier from here,” Mr Schork said, adding that sharply rising unemployment numbers meant fewer and fewer Americans would be driving, hurting petrol demand even during its peak summer months.

“This summer is dead on arrival. The biggest demand months are not going to happen,” he said. 

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Second-order effects are beginning to roll in. Expect more. Also, for more background, there’s this (free to read!) FT Alphaville piece which suggests this might effectively lead to the permanent destruction of some production capacity.
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Traditional PC shipments saw a sharp decline in Q1 2020 despite increased demand to meet remote work and school needs • IDC

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The global traditional PC market, comprised of desktops, notebooks, and workstations, declined 9.8% year over year in the first quarter of 2020 (1Q20), reaching a total of 53.2 million shipments according to preliminary results from the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Personal Computing Device Tracker. The stark decline after a year of growth in 2019 was the result of reduced supply due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in China, the world’s largest supplier of PCs.

While production capacity in January was pretty much on par with past years, the extended closure of factories in February and the slow resumption of manufacturing along with difficulties in logistics and labor towards the end of the quarter led to a reduction of supply. Meanwhile, demand rose during the quarter as many employees needed to upgrade their PCs to work from home and consumers sought gaming PCs to keep themselves entertained.

“Though supply of new PCs was somewhat limited during the quarter, a few vendors and retailers were able to keep up with the additional demand as the threat of increased tariffs last year led to some inventory stockpiling at the end of 2019,” said Jitesh Ubrani, research manager for IDC’s Mobile Device Trackers. “However, this bump in demand may be short lived as many fear the worst is yet to come and this could lead to both consumers and businesses tightening spending in the coming months.”

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The squeeze on the smaller players, always a background hum, is going to get serious this year. Apple shipments crashed (on IDC’s measure) by 20%, but the new MacBook Air – the one that’s finally really worth buying – was only released near the end of March.
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Samsung Galaxy S20 sales fall behind its predecessor amid pandemic • SamMobile

“Asif S”:

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The Galaxy S20 series was unveiled in February and the devices went on sale in most of the markets by the end of March 2020. However, the latest flagship smartphone series from Samsung didn’t meet the company’s own sales expectations. Apparently, it couldn’t even reach the sales of its predecessor in the Korean firm’s home market.

According to a new report from Yonhap News, sales of the Galaxy S20 series are hovering below the sales of the Galaxy S10 series. The main reason behind disappointing sales is said to be a lower demand for consumer products amid the COVID-19 pandemic. South Korean mobile carriers claim that the cumulative sales of the Galaxy S20, Galaxy S20+, and the Galaxy S20 Ultra are just 60% of the sales of the Galaxy S10 series.

Samsung has not been reporting official sales numbers for the Galaxy S20 series, but it claimed that sales of its latest flagship smartphone series were around 80% of the Galaxy S10 sales.

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Not surprising. Forecasts for the year for smartphone totals are down 30%; I suspect that will get revised further down.
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Finally we may have a path to the fundamental theory of physics… and it’s beautiful • Stephen Wolfram Writings

Stephen Wolfram (he’s the big ideas brother):

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I’m thrilled to say that I think we’ve found a path to the fundamental theory of physics. We’ve built a paradigm and a framework (and, yes, we’ve built lots of good, practical, computational tools too). But now we need to finish the job. We need to work through a lot of complicated computation, mathematics and physics. And see if we can finally deliver the answer to how our universe fundamentally works.

It’s an exciting moment, and I want to share it. I’m looking forward to being deeply involved. But this isn’t just a project for me or our small team. This is a project for the world. It’s going to be a great achievement when it’s done. And I’d like to see it shared as widely as possible. Yes, a lot of what has to be done requires top-of-the-line physics and math knowledge. But I want to expose everything as broadly as possible, so everyone can be involved in—and I hope inspired by—what I think is going to be a great and historic intellectual adventure.

Today we’re officially launching our Physics Project. From here on, we’ll be livestreaming what we’re doing—sharing whatever we discover in real time with the world. (We’ll also soon be releasing more than 400 hours of video that we’ve already accumulated.) I’m posting all my working materials going back to the 1990s, and we’re releasing all our software tools. We’ll be putting out bulletins about progress, and there’ll be educational programs around the project.

Oh, yes, and we’re putting up a Registry of Notable Universes. It’s already populated with nearly a thousand rules. I don’t think any of the ones in there yet are our own universe—though I’m not completely sure.

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I can never decide if he sounds like the mad villain who presses the button that shrinks the Earth to the size of a golfball, or the brilliant scientist who saves the planet from the aliens/asteroid by figuring out the equation just in time. This sounds wild, bizarre, yet possible. But it needs to come up with some testable theories.
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Another disaster is ready to catch the US unprepared: drought • Ars Technica

Cathleen O’Grady:

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The [American] southwest has experienced an abnormally dry period that started back in 2000—an emerging “megadrought” that is due partly to natural climate cycles and partly to anthropogenic climate change. Higher temperatures “increase moisture demand from the land surface,” writes climate risk researcher Toby Ault in a second Science paper on drought this week, “for the same reason that a sauna will dry out a towel faster than a steam room.” Climate driven changes in the patterns of snow and rainfall can also contribute to drought.

As a result of lower levels in rivers and reservoirs, people have been tapping deeper and deeper wells to access steadily depleting groundwater resources, which are often poor quality—or even unusable—at greater depths.

On top of this, water infrastructure is frequently poor to begin with—and often deteriorating. Drought emergencies are declared regularly in the US, Mullin writes, with water systems sometimes running so dry that it’s “necessary to turn to tanker trucks or even fire hoses to bring water into the community for weeks or months.”

This means that drought is more than a natural disaster in the making: like the coronavirus outbreak raging through the US, it’s a disaster that’s natural in origin but magnified by poor infrastructure and societal fragmentation.

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Isn’t going to get fixed just now, though, is it. Who’s going to give it the necessary urgency? What has to happen to give it the correct priority?
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Zoom’s security woes were no secret to business partners like Dropbox • The New York Times

Natasha Singer and Nicole Perlroth:

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Zoom’s defenders, including big-name Silicon Valley venture capitalists, say the onslaught of criticism is unfair. They argue that Zoom, originally designed for businesses, could not have anticipated a pandemic that would send legions of consumers flocking to its service in the span of a few weeks and using it for purposes — like elementary school classes and family celebrations — for which it was never intended.

“I don’t think a lot of these things were predictable,” said Alex Stamos, a former chief security officer at Facebook who recently signed on as a security adviser to Zoom. “It’s like everyone decided to drive their cars on water.”

The former Dropbox engineers, however, say Zoom’s current woes can be traced back two years or more, and they argue that the company’s failure to overhaul its security practices back then put its business clients at risk.

Dropbox grew so concerned that vulnerabilities in the videoconferencing system might compromise its own corporate security that the file-hosting giant took on the unusual step of policing Zoom’s security practices itself, according to the former engineers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss their work.

As part of a novel security assessment program for its vendors and partners, Dropbox in 2018 began privately offering rewards to top hackers to find holes in Zoom’s software code and that of a few other companies. The former Dropbox engineers said they were stunned by the volume and severity of the security flaws that hackers discovered in Zoom’s code — and troubled by Zoom’s slowness in fixing them.

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Zoom went public in April 2019. This is a deep, cultural problem. (But it is wonderfully easy to use.)
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We are probably only a tenth of the way through the pandemic • NY Mag

David Wallace-Wells:

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Here are the timelines for each of the three. The most optimistic projection for vaccines is that they begin to be available this fall; other reputable estimates suggest between one and two years from now. A two-year development cycle would be unprecedented speed for any vaccine, and, while scientists are quite optimistic, no vaccine has ever been developed for a coronavirus before; onto each timeline you’d have to add some amount of time for rollout and administration.

The treatment picture is murkier, but the drugs being tested today are repurposed ones, not designed to combat COVID-19 but deployed on the chance they might help. One in particular, remdesivir, is showing some real promise, but in general it is hard to bet confidently on repurposed drugs to be miracle cures of the kind that dramatically change the clinical shape of the disease and its treatment. Serological treatments offer some promise, but testing is only in the earliest stages. And the drugs likely to really “cure” the disease are just notions in a lab, at this point.

That leaves herd immunity. Epidemiologists tell us it requires between 60% to 80% of the population to have antibodies. At the moment, though, lack of testing means we don’t have a clear picture of the spread of the disease; a generous rough estimate for how many Americans have been exposed is 5%.

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Sorry about that. So we could be into 2022 before life returns to “normal”.
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Republicans attack Facebook as network shuts down anti-lockdown protests • POLITICO

Steven Overly:

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Facebook is blocking anti-quarantine protesters from using the site to organize in-person gatherings that violate states’ stay-at-home orders — a move that had brought an immediate backlash from conservatives including President Donald Trump’s eldest son.

The world’s largest social network has removed protest messages in California, New Jersey and Nebraska from its site, a company spokesperson said Monday, after days of rallies across state capitals where protesters — many carrying pro-Trump signs — called for an end to the health restrictions.

The spokesperson said Facebook had been instructed by those state governments that the events are prohibited under the lockdown and social distancing orders that authorities have issued in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We reached out to state officials to understand the scope of their orders, not about removing specific protests on Facebook,” a company spokesperson said. “We remove the posts when gatherings do not follow the health parameters established by the government and are therefore unlawful.”

The statement followed confusion over whether states had instructed Facebook to remove the protests from its platform. Earlier Monday, a spokesperson said that “events that defy government’s guidance on social distancing aren’t allowed on Facebook” and had been removed following guidance from individual states.

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Lovely how the red meat dolts can’t figure out whether Facebook is their friend or not.
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Magic Keyboard for the iPad Pro review: the best way to turn an iPad into a laptop • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

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Trackpad support on iPadOS is great, by the way. The cursor is a little dot most of the time, but it quickly changes to a traditional text cursor when appropriate. It also expands out to become the size of UI elements like buttons or icons, sort of snapping to them when you get close. That sounds annoying (and you can turn it off), but I quickly came to love it.

Beyond clicking, scrolling, and highlighting text, you can use the trackpad for navigating the system. You use three fingers to swipe up to home and multitasking — or left and right to switch between recent apps.

The only place where it feels a bit off is when you drag the cursor to the edge of the screen. You kind of drag “beyond” that edge to slide in various things like the dock, Notification Center, Control Center, or your Slide Over apps. You get used to it, but it’s the one time when the stuff on-screen moves in the opposite direction of your fingers.

Now, trackpad support on iPadOS and within Apple’s apps is great, but trackpad support on a bunch of third-party apps is absolutely not. Any app that doesn’t use Apple’s standard APIs for creating buttons or text views feels off-kilter with the trackpad. Stuff you can swipe with your finger can’t be swiped with the trackpad, text selection can be a fiasco, and the cursor doesn’t always do its neat shape-shifting tricks. Google’s apps are particularly guilty here, but they’re far from the only ones.

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Google is never very interested in giving people a great experience on the iPad. Bohn’s review covers a lot of ground. Clearly this is a quite heavy thing (25% heavier than the iPad Pro with the Smart Keyboard, which I use all the time) but the “floating” screen is alluring. And being able to navigate more easily around spreadsheets and big chunks of text is attractive. You can watch his YouTube review – takes about eight minutes – or read the review: they’re the same content, in effect.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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