The personal cost of Mark Zuckerberg’s mistakes

This week we have run a range of stories looking at what some of the consequences might be for Mark Zuckerberg over his handling of the many scandals at Facebook. The coverage coincided with the firm’s annual developers’ conference in sunny San Jose.

Here’s a primer TV package for BBC News, which was meant to feature Facebook’s chief technology officer – but he pulled out late on:

I discussed this issue with Dominic O’Connell on Thursday morning’s Today programme. The investor vote to make him stand down as chairman obviously won’t pass, I said, but it might give us an indication about discontent over Zuckerberg’s leadership. Here’s the clip:

(Of course, I meant to say “when not if” rather than “if rather than when”. It was late.)

I went into a little more depth in a written piece for the BBC News website. My conclusion on all this:

In simpler times, back in 2015, Mark Zuckerberg had just had his first child with wife Priscilla Chan, and at the same time announced his intention to gradually step away from the day-to-day running of Facebook.

With these issues swirling, that transition might need to happen sooner than Mr Zuckerberg would have hoped.

What role will Travis Kalanick play on Uber’s IPO day (and just how rich might he become)?

The New York Times’ Mike Isaac offers this fascinating glimpse at life-after-Travis Kalanick at Uber, dubbing Dara Khosrowshahi, the replacement CEO, as the “best compensated janitor in Silicon Valley”.

Kalanick may no longer be running things, but they can’t take away his legacy as co-founder of the “most valuable start-up in the world”. Isaac reports that Kalanick wanted to be part of the photo opp for Uber’s IPO moment: the ringing of the bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

He also wanted to bring his father, Donald Kalanick. It would be close to the second anniversary of the accidental death of Travis Kalanick’s mother, and of the dramatic boardroom coup that ousted him as boss. His presence on the exchange’s iconic balcony could make both Mr. Kalanick and the corporation appear resilient.

Mr. Khosrowshahi wasn’t having it. The original plan was to fill the rafters with Uber’s earliest employees and longest tenured drivers. 

Isaac goes on to say that Kalanick will be there, but on the trading floor. I guess we’ll have to see how much of a media presence Kalanick will drum up for himself on the day.

Beyond optics, Khosrowshahi has a bigger problem to wrestle with before the big day: convincing investors that Uber is a worthwhile bet. Lyft’s stuttering start as a public company might have prospective investors feeling unnerved – the firm began trading at a value of $21bn, but is now worth $18bn.

According to a report in The Information, Uber’s roadshow (where execs try to get investors onboard with pre-IPO stock deals) is making big promises:

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi and CFO Nelson Chai have told investors attending the company’s IPO road show presentations that they expect the company to one day earn a profit margin of 25%, before the impact of interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization after “competitive pressures” subside, according to two people attending presentations and a video shown to prospective investors. That’s a far cry from where things stand today: Uber had a negative margin of 31.4% in the first quarter.

The company is expected to have a value of $91bn as it begins trading. If that’s the case, the New York Times estimates, Kalanick’s share of Uber will be worth $5.9bn. I think he’ll get over not getting to ring the bell.

Asking readers nicely turns out to be a profitable strategy for the Guardian

My colleague Amol Rajan has written at length about the Guardian’s first profitable year since 1998.

Yes, it’s a lot to do with major cost-cutting in the newsroom – 120 journalists – and at the printing presses (it abandoned its uncommon, therefore expensive, ‘Berliner’ format). But it’s also about a bold experiment in making readers pay to read the news.

Here’s Rajan’s run down of what the newspaper did:

In all, if you include those who have left with roles that have closed, 450 positions have gone – of which 120 came from editorial. All have come from voluntary redundancy, albeit with some being gently encouraged to pursue that path.

The other significant saving in the past year, which has run into “several millions,” has come via the lower production costs of the tabloid edition, which replaced the Berliner format.

It has not been a cost-cutting exercise alone. The growth in revenues has been driven by a re-balancing between reader revenue and advertising, and between digital income and print income. This is a familiar story across upmarket publications. The Guardian’s transition has been effective.

In 2015/16, 40 per cent of revenues came from digital, and 59 per cent from print (other income was marginal); today 55 per cent of total revenues come from digital and only 43 per cent from print.

The transition, as Rajan puts it, is an encouraging update for a digital strategy that few, myself included, gave much hope of working: asking its readers nicely to pay.

The Guardian’s site doesn’t limit what people can read, or impose a monthly limit on articles. Instead, it asks frequent visitors to voluntarily contribute, either with a one-off payment or a monthly subscription that gets you some advanced features. It plays off the long-stanidng relationship it has with readers who not only read the Guardian, but consider doing so as part of their identity.

Rajan writes:

At present there are around 650,000 recurring contributors, and over 300,000 one-off contributions in a single year. Will the contributors disappear just as quickly as they arrived? That is, and must be, the constant question asked of The Guardian’s new model. But that the company should declare its ambition to get to two million subscribers shows confidence in the system.

Sophie Schmidt – daughter of Eric – plans new technology publication

Buzzfeed’s Joseph Bernstein with the scoop:

The publication, which does not yet have a name or any full-time staffers aside from Schmidt, will be “focused on exploring the surprising and complex effects of technology internationally, specifically outside the US and Europe,” the source wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News. “We’re most curious about human impact: social, cultural and political phenomena driven by the interaction between new tech and different cultures, institutions and norms abroad.”

Sophie Schmidt doesn’t have a journalism background. I met her a few times while covering Uber; she worked on their communications team, first in the US, handling the Travis Kalanick fiasco, and later in the UK where she headed up public policy comms.

Also, Buzzfeed notes:

Schmidt, who studied at Harvard’s Kennedy School and Stanford Business School, has had a globe-trotting early career, including stints at an Afghan media company in Dubai, a Google-funded tech incubator in South Africa, and the Chinese mobile giant Xiaomi in Beijing. In 2013, Schmidt interned at SCL Group, the parent company of the notorious political consultancy Cambridge Analytica.

Schmidt is reportedly using a consultant to help make hiring choices – she doesn’t yet have any journalists on staff. But, if they can hire well, this project has big potential. I love the idea of a publication that looks closely at how technology firms are impacting worlds beyond the US, UK and other markets were tech reporters and publications are more heavily concentrated. Done right, this might fill a gaping void.

Fearing the hand of regulators, Google makes privacy changes

A privacy-positive move from Google today: you’ll now be able to set your location and search history to auto-delete after three or 18 months. ZDNet:

The new feature is set to roll out in the coming weeks, according to Google, and will allow users to set an expiration date for information like past Google searches, activity on Google-owned sites, installations and usage of Android apps and games, Chrome browsing history (if users chose to sync it), and location data Google normally collects through the Location History feature included with some of its services, such as Google Search and Maps.

It’s the kind of move that goes a little way to justify the at-times mocked political process here.

Much of the focus (and criticism) of politicians is that they don’t know what they’re talking about, and that they have no idea what regulation will feasibly look like. Both statements are correct, but maybe look at it this way: the mere fear of regulation is forcing tech companies to looking hard at what they do and making changes.

Would Google be making these kind of moves if its executives weren’t hauled to Washington for a public dressing down? Surely the answer is no.

Apple, child-tracking apps, and our contradictory demands of tech giants

Two big themes in technology right now are, you won’t need me to tell you, privacy and addiction. We are demanding, rightly, that technology companies apply themselves to handle both problems.

That often seems straight forward: don’t sell my data… and stop making me look at my damn phone all the time. When companies pledge to be do just that, we are suspicious. Data and attention means money.

And so it came to pass, on Saturday, the New York Times ran a piece headlined “Apple cracks down on apps that fight iPhone addiction“. Here’s Jack Nicas’s lede:

They all tell a similar story: They ran apps that helped people limit the time they and their children spent on iPhones. Then Apple created its own screen-time tracker. And then Apple made staying in business very, very difficult.

Boooooo, Apple! Booooo, Tim Cook, you hypocrite! All this time you’ve been telling us about how you’ve taken addiction seriously, and here are some some apps helping parents control their kids: and you deleted them?!

Yes, said Apple. Of course it deleted them. Because if it didn’t, the story could have so easily been: “Apple was aware of third-party apps remotely tracking children, and did nothing fearing bad press”.

Here’s how they explained the decision in a statement published on Sunday:

Over the last year, we became aware that several of these parental control apps were using a highly invasive technology called Mobile Device Management, or MDM. MDM gives a third party control and access over a device and its most sensitive information including user location, app use, email accounts, camera permissions, and browsing history.

That’s not good at all. And so:

When we found out about these guideline violations, we communicated these violations to the app developers, giving them 30 days to submit an updated app to avoid availability interruption in the App Store. Several developers released updates to bring their apps in line with these policies. Those that didn’t were removed from the App Store.

What this episode shows is that when we look at the same issue, but with a different hot-button lens, we can draw vastly different conclusions about the apparent evils of big tech. Apple had no way of handling this without opening itself up to looking weak on privacy or addiction.

On a different day, Nicas may have gone all-in on the companies tracking children using an Apple “feature” that is open to abuse, rather than Apple itself. Indeed, that’s what TechCrunch’s Josh Constine did when he found a company — er, Facebook — doing precisely that.

(The obvious follow-up story here is: how many other sectors are abusing MDM, and does Apple know about it? Also: why is Google seemingly getting a free pass with its comparatively wild Android store?)

Apple’s ‘biggest mistake’

Jon Gruber on conitinued complaints about the shockingly-bad keyboard on new MacBooks:

These keyboards are the biggest mistake in Apple’s history.

He goes on to say Apple must be hard at work working on a new keyboard, and that it would take time to roll out across the MacBook line.

What baffles me: the old Macbook keyboard was the best in the industry. Comfortable, satisfying, reliable. So what R&D is required, exactly? Just put the old one back in already.

The best font gets a refresh

Hail Helvetica Now!

Those of us who nerd over fonts—that’s all of us, whether you know it or not—will enjoy Arielle Pardes’s feature on the change, just published on Wired:

Monotype has given Helvetica a face-lift, in the hopes that it can restore some of the magic to the iconic typeface. The new version, Helvetica Now, updates each of Helvetica’s 40,000 characters to reflect the demands of the 21st century. It’s designed to be more legible in miniature, like on the tiny screen of an Apple Watch, and hold its own in large-scale applications like gigantic billboards. Nix, who has spent two years reengineering the letters, hopes it will let designers see Helvetica in an entirely new way. To him, it’s like looking at “someone you love, when the light hits them the perfect way on a Saturday morning, and you suddenly see them like you’ve never seen them before. It’s like falling in love all over again.”

Samsung’s phone suffers some breaking news

Here’s my latest for BBC News pulling in reports of Samsung’s fantastical new folding phone having some rather big, and embarrassing, issues:

We’re still waiting on a statement from Samsung about this. But it’s a significant setback to the company’s hopes of wowing the world with what, on first glance, was a very impressive feat of engineering.

How big a disaster is this for Samsung? I don’t think it can be easily dismissed. If this breaks for reviewers, it will break for consumers. Ergo, it’s not ready—as many had suggested might be the case. Huawei must be delighted.

It’s been a couple of hours since the first reports of iffy devices, and Samsung is still yet to comment. It needs to if it’s to get on top of the bad press here. Something tells me there might be a disconnect between its US and South Korean press teams—we saw that happen a lot during the good old exploding battery days.

A tiny bit of relief for Samsung, though, comes via the WSJ’s Geoffrey Fowler: