Start Up No.1763: Google gives Spotify special billing, Instagram offers chronological, Apple buys banking startup, and more


How green is the power generation in different countries in Europe? There’s now a handy map to tell you. CC-licensed photo by Chuck Coker on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Not part of a billing experiment. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Exploring user choice billing with first innovation partner Spotify • Android Developers Blog

Sameer Samat is VP of product management at Google:

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When users choose Google Play, it’s because they count on us to deliver a safe experience, and that includes in-app payment systems that protect users’ data and financial information. That’s why we built Google Play’s billing system to the highest standards for privacy and safety so users can be confident their sensitive payment data won’t be at risk when they make in-app purchases.

We think that users should continue to have the choice to use Play’s billing system when they install an app from Google Play. We also think it’s critical that alternative billing systems meet similarly high safety standards in protecting users’ personal data and sensitive financial information.

Building on our recent launch allowing an additional billing system alongside Play’s billing for users in South Korea and in line with our principles, we are announcing we will be exploring user choice billing in other select countries.

This pilot will allow a small number of participating developers to offer an additional billing option next to Google Play’s billing system and is designed to help us explore ways to offer this choice to users, while maintaining our ability to invest in the ecosystem. This is a significant milestone and the first on any major app store — whether on mobile, desktop, or game consoles.

We’ll be partnering with developers to explore different implementations of user-choice billing, starting with Spotify. As one of the world’s largest subscription developers with a global footprint and integrations across a wide range of device form factors, they’re a natural first partner.

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What’s not clear (intentionally?) is whether Spotify will have to pay some cut to Google even if it uses its own billing – one would guess it will – and how much that will be.

The other wrinkle to this is that it’s Google getting ahead of the expected legislation in the US and Europe which would force this on it. And of course on Apple. Of course Apple will say it’s doing this already in the Netherlands with dating apps. For some meanings of “doing”.
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You can now view your Instagram feed in chronological order • WSJ

Joanna Stern:

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We the people: Give us social-media feeds that don’t use algorithms to manipulate what we see.

Instagram: Here’s an upside-down caret the size of an ice-cream sprinkle that you can tap for a temporary solution.

On Wednesday, Meta released a tool that some of us have long asked for: a way to view our Instagram feeds with the newest posts first. Yes, you can now ditch the company’s algorithms—which show you the stuff it thinks you’ll engage with most—for a feed that’s ordered, well, in order. The fix isn’t permanent, however, and the app will continue to throw you back to the algorithmic feed. 

The setting will be available to all Instagram iOS and Android users. If you’ve recently updated your Instagram app, the option is available automatically. If you don’t see it, try downloading an app update.

The change comes as Instagram, TikTok and other social-media companies face increased scrutiny around algorithms and their ability to keep people, specifically kids, glued to their feeds and show them harmful content.

At a Senate hearing in December, Instagram head Adam Mosseri was asked if he believed kids should be able to use the Instagram app without “being manipulated by algorithms that are designed to keep them hooked.” Mr. Mosseri replied, “We believe in more transparency and accountability,” adding that a chronological feed was in the works.

Well, the feature has come, and I’ve been testing it out. Is it progress in our fight to gain some control of our social-media feeds? Absolutely. Is it enough? Absolutely not.

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And where do you find it?

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In the upper left corner of the app, next to the Instagram logo, you’ll now see the tiny inverted caret. Tap that area and you can toggle between two new feeds—Following and Favorites.

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Instagram shifted to an algorithmic feed in 2016, saying that people “miss 70% of their feeds”, and said a year later that people were interacting more. But it’s always slightly unsatisfactory.
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Read Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.


Sonos TV: Home Theater OS under development • Protocol

Janko Roettgers:

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Sonos appears to be getting ready to play a bigger role on the TV: The company is hiring multiple staffers for a new “Home Theater OS” project, with job descriptions hinting at plans to run apps or experiences directly on the TV. This comes after the company considered various ways to play a bigger role in TV streaming in recent years, according to multiple sources who spoke to Protocol on the condition of anonymity.

A Sonos spokesperson declined to comment.

The company recently started searching for a “UX Lead — Next Generation Home Theater Experience,” who will work “across device surfaces (mobile, television, tablet, and HW remote) to deliver a next generation content delivery experience.” Applicants need to have multiple years of experience designing for mobile “and/or TV.”

To date, Sonos has built apps to control its speakers for mobile devices and desktop PCs but not TVs. The company’s existing home theater products also don’t ship with a hardware remote and can instead be controlled with third-party TV remotes.

Another job listing is for a future “Principal Platform Product Manager” to develop an “OS & Media Platform roadmap”; the listing asks for applicants to have experience with modern operating systems, including Android/Android TV. And a “Head of Partnerships, Home Theatre” will “play a pivotal role in connecting users to the content and services they love with Sonos quality experiences they’ve come to expect,” according to another recent listing.

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For years people (me especially) have been asking Sonos when/if it’s going to get into video, and been rebuffed. This might be that? Or a streaming device? Its own streaming device (like an Apple TV?) could integrate with its speakers. It’s difficult to see quite what the space is that it thinks is beckoning.
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Israel blocked Ukraine from buying Pegasus spyware, fearing Russia’s anger • The Guardian

Stephanie Kirchgaessner:

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Israel blocked Ukraine from buying NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware for fear that Russian officials would be angered by the sale of the sophisticated hacking tool to a regional foe, according to people familiar with the matter.

The revelation, following a joint investigation by the Guardian and Washington Post, offers new insight into the way Israel’s relationship with Russia has at times undermined Ukraine’s offensive capabilities – and contradicted US priorities.

The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has been critical of Israel’s stance since Russia launched its full and bloody invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, saying in a recent address before members of Israel’s Knesset that Israel would have to “give answers” on why it had not given weapons to Ukraine or applied sanctions on Russians.

People with direct knowledge of the matter say that, dating back to at least 2019, Ukrainian officials lobbied Israel to try to convince it to license the spyware tool for use by Ukraine.

But those efforts were rebuffed and NSO Group, which is regulated by the Israeli ministry of defense, was never permitted to market or sell the company’s spyware to Ukraine.

When it is successfully deployed against a target, Pegasus can be used to hack into any mobile phone and intercept phone conversations, read text messages, or view a user’s photographs. It can also be used as a remote listening device, because a government user of the spyware can use it to remotely turn a mobile phone recorder on and off.

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You’d have to take it on trust that Ukraine would have been using it against the separatists in Crimea and the Donbas. But Israel’s stance, as highlighted by Zelenskiy, begins to look very peculiar. Why is it so worried about Russia, precisely?
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Apple acquires UK open banking startup Credit Kudos • The Block

Ryan Weeks and Andrew Rummer:

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Credit Kudos, a UK open banking startup that helps lenders make better decisions, has been acquired by US tech giant Apple.

The deal closed earlier this week, according to three people close to the deal. One source said it valued the startup at about $150m, a significant uplift in valuation. A link labeled ‘Website Terms of Use’ on the Credit Kudos website currently leads to a page outlining Apple’s terms of use. Both Credit Kudos and Apple were contacted for comment but did not respond by press time.

Credit Kudos last raised money at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in April 2020, bagging £5m (roughly $6.5m) in a round led by AlbionVC. TriplePoint Capital, Plug and Play Ventures, Ascension Ventures’ Fair by Design fund, Entrepreneur First and a number of angel backers also invested.

The startup offers insights and scores on loan applicants drawn from bank data — specifically transaction and loan outcome data — sourced via the UK’s open banking framework. Its API can offer lenders faster decision-making, less risk, and increased acceptance rates, according to its website.

Launched in 2015 by founders Freddy Kelly and Matt Schofield, Credit Kudos becomes the latest in a string of big European open banking acquisitions in the past year — albeit the first to be snapped up by a tech giant.

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Apple’s credit card is organised in partnership with Goldman Sachs, but this makes it look as though it’s aiming to go it alone. Intriguing.
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Why are Ukraine’s cheap, slow drones so successful against Russian targets? • NBC News

Ken Dilanian and Courtney Kube:

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Before the war began, military experts predicted that Russian forces would have little trouble dealing with Ukraine’s complement of as many as 20 Turkish drones. With a price tag in the single-digit millions, the Bayraktars are far cheaper than drones like the U.S. Reaper but also much slower and smaller, with a wingspan of 39 feet.

As so often has been the case in this war, however, the experts misjudged the competence of the Russian military.

“It’s quite startling to see all these videos of Bayraktars apparently knocking out Russian surface-to-air missile batteries, which are exactly the kind of system that’s equipped to shoot them down,” said David Hambling, a London-based drone expert.

That is confounding, Hambling said, because the drones should be easy for the Russians to blow out of the sky — or disable with electronic jamming.

“It is literally a World War I aircraft, in terms of performance,” he said. “It’s got a 110-horsepower engine. It is not stealthy. It is not supersonic. It’s a clay pigeon — a real easy target.”

If nothing else, the Russians should be able to down the drones with fighter jets, Hambling said. But without air superiority, Russia hasn’t been flying regular combat air patrols. As for electronic jamming, one of the mysteries of the Ukraine invasion is why the Russians haven’t made more use of what experts believe is their advanced electronic warfare capability.

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Possibly it’s not that advanced? Russia has managed to downgrade our expectations on all its capabilities recently, apart from its artillery. Which we already knew about.
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Google’s CTO of Android tablets sees tablet sales passing laptops ‘in the not too distant future’ • The Verge

Richard Lawler:

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Android 12L is in development to support larger-screened devices, and one of the platform’s co-founders, Rich Miner, has rejoined the team with the title “CTO of Android tablets.” Now, speaking to developers during an episode of Google’s The Android Show, Miner explained the opportunity the company is seeing (via 9to5Google).

Miner references the introduction of Android tablets in 2011 and how apps like media players scaled to fit them easily without much investment, but then growth “kind of stagnated.” Now, he cites data showing growth took off pre-COVID in late 2019 and has continued to rise, with more keyboard peripherals and developments in software and hardware by third-party manufacturers to make them better tools to create instead of consuming.

The other reason he cites is that tablets can be “very capable, less expensive than a laptop.” That spurred Google’s work on Android 12L to optimize its system UI for use on bigger devices, as well as the way it formats apps to fit on big screens.

Miner is making the pitch for developers to look at their apps and consider taking advantage of the tools Google’s building to improve tablet support or even building apps that approach the market as a tablet-first experience. He points to 2020 sales data, where “tablet purchases actually started to approach the number of laptop shipments… I actually think there’s going to be a crossover point at some point in the not too distant future where there are more tablets sold annually than there are laptops. I think once you cross over that point, you’re not going to be coming back.”

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This isn’t true, and although there were points in the late 2010s when it looked like tablets might approach PC sales. But it won’t happen. Plus Apple dominates the high end, and is still the single biggest vendor.
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A question for Lambda Literary • Lauren Hough

Lauren Hough is a queer novelist, who was disinvited from the shortlist of the Lambda Literary Prize because..:

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My book won’t win a prize because my friend Sandra Newman wrote a book. The premise of her book is “what if all the men disappeared.” When she announced the book on twitter, YA [young adult] twitter saw it. This is the single most terrifying thing that can happen to a writer on twitter. YA twitter, presumably fans of young adult fiction, are somehow unfamiliar with the concept of fiction. YA twitter doesn’t do nuance. They don’t understand metaphor or thought experiment. They expect fictional characters to be good and moral and just, whether antagonist or protagonist. They expect characters and plot to be free of conflict. They require fiction to portray a world without racism, bigotry, and bullies. And when YA twitter gets wind of a book that doesn’t meet their demands, they respond with a beatdown so unrelenting and vicious it would shock William Golding. They call it “call-out culture” because bullying is wrong, unless your target is someone you don’t like, for social justice reasons, of course.

Publishing hasn’t yet figured out how to respond to YA twitter. Authors who’ve been targeted have left social media entirely. Reviewers shy away. Publishers have pulled books. Authors have changed lines, characters, and scenes in their books hoping to avoid becoming a target, or to appease YA twitter once they have. And once they have become targets, those writers often find themselves alone—their friends and colleagues silent for fear of becoming targets themselves. The entirety of the publishing world is terrified of a few hundred self-described book lovers on social media who are shockingly bad at reading books.

When YA twitter came for Sandra, someone who has always been there for me, I responded. I told them to read the book before condemning it.

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This story resonated because it happens again and again; I wrote about the dynamics of it, with another example from a couple of years ago which also involved YA Twitter, in Social Warming. A pity to see that nothing has changed. If anything, it’s got worse.
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electricityMap: Live CO₂ emissions of electricity consumption

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Climate Impact by Area

Ranked by carbon intensity of electricity consumed (gCO₂eq/kWh)

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Fascinating graphic. France is pretty green, Scandinavia is very green, Britain is a bit brown, Germany is very brown, Poland is almost black, Kosovo is almost completely black. Based on open source data.
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BuzzFeed investors have pushed CEO Jonah Peretti to shut down newsroom • CNBC

Alex Sherman:

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BuzzFeed is shrinking its money-losing news organization, the company announced Tuesday, amid what people familiar with the matter describe as broader investor concern that the division is weighing down the company.

Several large shareholders have urged BuzzFeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti to shut down the entire news operation, said the people, who asked not to be named because the discussions were private. BuzzFeed declined to comment.

BuzzFeed’s stock closed over 6% higher at $5.27 on Tuesday.

BuzzFeed News, which is part of its content division, has about 100 employees and loses roughly $10 million a year, two of the people said. The company, which also has advertising and commerce divisions, said Tuesday its full-year content revenue grew 9% in 2021 to $130 million.

One shareholder told CNBC shutting down the newsroom could add up to $300 million of market capitalization to the struggling stock. The digital media company went public via a special purpose acquisition vehicle in December. The shares immediately fell nearly 40% in their first week of trading and haven’t recovered.

…The company has offered voluntary buyouts to fewer than 30 employees, according to a person familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named because the decision is private. The buyout is only available to reporters and editors who cover investigations, inequality, politics or science and have worked for the company for more than a year.

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Which tells you the segments that are judged to be money-losing.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Seth commented on yesterday’s post on who might find the leak of the source for Cortana and Bing useful. Here’s part of what he said: “Just off the top of my head: small specialized search engines can try to get algorithmic improvements. Google could possibly look for areas of competitive weakness, or even see if there’s a trick or two they could use themselves. Major spammers have the ability to analyze the code and look for means of attacking search rankings – and it’s quite possible that if some attack works on Bing, it’ll work on Google too (worth a try).”

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