Benedict's Newsletter: No. 343

Benedict's
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This is a weekly newsletter of what I've seen in tech and thought was interesting.

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✏️ My posts

I published an updated version of my annual trends deck, thinking about what COVID means for tech this summer. Link

I did a podcast with Ed Vaisey, formerly the UK's digital & media minister, talking about Zoom, lockdown and regulating tech. Link

 

🗞 News

China versus India. The border conflict between China and India has resulted in the Indian government banning 59 Chinese mobile apps, including Tik Tok (which is huge there, with maybe 120m users) and WeChat (rather less so). This is presented as a security and privacy matter, but the obvious motivation is political, and this also reflects broader Indian concerns about the weight of Chinese tech companies locally (also seen in sensitivities around mobile handset vendor share). India is aggressive in its intervention in the internet: it shut down the internet in some way close to 100 times last year, and shut it down in Kashmir for seven months. Ironically, that points to the spread of a very Chinese attitude: that the internet is something you can fence and shut off as a routine policy tool. (More ironic, of course, is the Chinese government complaining at internet services being blocked). Links: the full list, coverage

Google/Facebook advertising anti-trust. The UK's competition authority, the CMA, released its final report on Google and Facebook's market power in search and online advertising. Several things to unpick: 

  • It proposes a lot of very specific, detailed interventions into the mechanics of the ad and search business to inject more competition: for example, mandated provision of Google's click and search stream data to competing search engines, or stopping Google from buying the default search slot on iOS (at $1bn+ a year)
  • Search and especially ad industry mechanics are a total blind spot in Silicon Valley. No-one talks about this stuff if they don't actually work on an ad team.
  • The US and Europe have very different models of regulation. The USA tends to be lawyer-led and crime-based - ' is the law being broken here?' But Europe and the UK often ask 'is there a lack of free competition and a resultant bad outcome in this industry?' and if so will write new rules. Hence, the EU cut mobile roaming rates and then credit card interconnection rates: there was no DoJ-style anti-trust court case, just a new regulatory regime. This is going to confuse many Americans.
  • Tech is going to be a regulated industry: it's too big on some axes and too important on others to avoid the scrutiny that gets applies to other big industries. Get used to this. 
Links: final CMA report, Furman report on digital competition (from 2019)

UK 'Online harms' delay. Conversely, COVID has delayed the UK's move to regulate content moderation. (Another note for Americans - other people are already rewriting 'Section 230', and their rules will get applied to US companies over time.) Link

Food delivery consolidation: as had been rumoured, Uber has bought Postmates, for $2.65bn in stock. Food delivery has low margins, too much competition, a price war and a customer acquisition war - as Craig McCaw put it, 'you're always at the mercy of your dumbest [or most aggressive] competitor", and now lockdown has compounded all this. So reducing capacity and bolting customer pools together (hence paying in stock) instead of fighting for them has obvious logic. You still need the underlying unit economics to work, though, and what about those cloud kitchens? Link 

Lululemon goes Peloton. It's buying Mirror, which sells a screen that gives video home fitness lessons on subscription, for $500m. How do you turn a physical brand, a commodity product and a one-off anonymous purchase into an ongoing customer relationship? Side-note: carving out verticals like this with dedicated products might be a better route into the home for new experiences than VR. Link

AR smoke signals. Two pieces in the steady flow of R&D news about AR: Google bought a glasses / optics company, North, and Facebook published a paper on much thinner VR displays. Links: GoogleFacebook

UK satellites? The UK government has bought a stake in OneWeb, a bankrupt company that was building a Low-Earth-Orbit (LEO) satellite broadband constellation. Some confusion here: OneWeb was building a data network, which typically uses low orbits, but the government is talking about navigation, which typically uses much higher (MEO) orbits and of course the existing constellation won't have the right hardware for that. Watch this space? Link

Telegram's token issuance is being unwound. This is complicated: if a software project is based on a blockchain, the tokens on the blockchain can have a share of the economic value of the project. So if you therefore sell those tokens to fund the project, is that equity and are you covered by securities laws, and have you just done an unlicensed offering? it depends, and it isn't necessarily very clear; Telegram did this, got taken to the US courts, and they found that in this case it was a security, so Telegram has to hand back $1.2bn. Link

 

🔮 Reading

Detailed study of China's use of data in COVID virus tracing. Link

More deeply wonky thinking on the future of mobile advertising, as Google and (especially) Apple dismantle the old models entirely. This isn't about privacy and personal data so much as accurate attribution: people just want/need to know which ads resulted in a sale. That pays for a lot of journalism, and the cards have all been thrown up the the air, it seems. Link

The UK government is launching a new roadmap for thinking about national R&D, and to explore why UK R&D seems not to make its way into huge tech companies (if indeed that's true, and a problem). Link

The New Yorker on cloud kitchens. Link

In the last few weeks there was a wave of abandoned shopping carts all over the web, prompting much puzzlement: it turns out it was a Google bot checking that the quoted prices were real. Link ($)

Worth watching how Hermès staged its new collection in a video performance. We've spent twenty years converting high-touch purchases offline into low-touch purchases online, but you don't necessarily do it with Amazon's pure commodity model and a grid of dresses. Link

Activate has a useful study of how lockdown has affected media and ecommerce behaviour in the USA. Link

A citizen test for Indian smartphone makers. Link ($)

 

😮 Interesting things

A short French film about the future, from 1947. This has the most amazingly accurate depiction of smartphones, including people bumping into each other in the street. And be sure to watch to the end for the augmented reality. Link

'What to the slave is your 'Fourth of July?' - Frederick Douglass. Link

Jimmy should work in advertising. Link

RIP Ennio Morricone. Link

 

📊 Stats

The ITU has an interesting and very comprehensive standardised survey of phone and internet pricing around the world. Link

US BLS study on what work can theoretically be done from home versus what work is actually being done from home in lockdown. Link

 

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