Uber trials revolutionary new idea: queuing up for a cab

To reduce congestion at airports, TechCrunch reports, Uber is trialing this idea in Portland:

Once riders order their UberX, they make their way to the dedicated pickup zone. The app will briefly give riders information on how the PIN feature works. A six-digit personal identification number is then assigned to the rider, who is instructed to provide it to the first available driver.

Meanwhile, the driver, who has received a pickup opportunity at the airport, heads to the pickup location and will get in a queue, waiting for the next available rider.

I mean… sure. I can see how that works, and the PIN feature means there’s still all the benefits of app rides (cashless, accountable). But isn’t this, essentially, just lining up for a taxi?

Here’s why Facebook thinks it isn’t a monopoly

WeChat. iMessage. Skype.

Just three of the firms/features listed today by Nick Clegg, in an NYT op-ed* about why Facebook shouldn’t be broken up.

Here’s the argument:

The first misunderstanding is about Facebook itself and the competitive dynamics in which we operate. We are a large company made up of many smaller pieces. All of our products and services fight for customers. Each one has at least three or four competitors with hundreds of millions, if not billions, of users. In photo and video-sharing, we compete against services like YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter, Pinterest and TikTok, an emerging competitor. 

In messaging, we’re not even the leader in the top three markets — China, Japan and, by our estimate, the United States — where we compete with Apple’s iMessage, WeChat, Line and Microsoft’s Skype. Globally, the context in which social media must be understood, China alone has several large social media companies, including powerhouses like Tencent and Sina. It will seem perverse to people in Europe, and certainly in China, to see American policymakers talking about dismantling one of America’s biggest global players.

Not mentioned, obviously, is the extent to which Facebook has hobbled Snapchat by blatantly ripping off its features — and how it has tried to do the same to others, with less success.

I’d love to know exactly on what grounds Skype is considered a competitor. It stands out as a real barrel-scrape to me.

Meanwhile, a rep working with a major online activism platform told me last week that he (and plenty others) is suspicious of Facebook’s regulation motivations. Sweeping new rules could create an atmosphere where only giants can afford to operate, he said.

(*Getting pretty tired of these op-eds, obviously written by PR committee, getting such a big play in the press given how few on-the-record interviews about these issues take place.)

Conan O’Brien on accusations of joke theft

Conan O’Brien — the funniest American on TV* — has written for Variety about accusations he and his team pinched several jokes from a guy on Twitter.

It’s a thoughtful read on the nature of writing jokes, particularly topical ones, in the age of social media.

O’Brien has now settled, but maintains the joke wasn’t stolen:

How did I know? I knew because different people around the world come up with the same joke all the time, especially when the joke is topical. I was made aware of this 24 years ago, when, on the same night, David Letterman, Jay Leno, and I all told an identical “Dan Quayle is dumb” joke: “Dan Quayle announced today that he will not be running for President in ’96. However, he did not rule out running in ’97.” Back then, no one sued anyone because each of us knew that topical comedy often follows a pattern — it’s an occupational hazard. You try hard to avoid it, but sometimes, comedians inadvertently step on each other’s feet.

He concludes:

When you add the internet and an easily triggered legal system, the potential for endless time-wasting lawsuits over who was the first to tweet that William Barr looks like a toad with a gluten allergy becomes very real.

If you’re interested, here’s a USA Today report from the time discussing the alleged incident:

(*And that’s only because he’s Irish, clearly)

Google makes a privacy pledge – or does it?

I was impressed at how unequivocal Rishi Chandra – head of product at Google Nest – was when I asked him about how its latest Nest products would make use of user data.

Here’s the clip:

The quote if you’d rather not watch:

“We make another commitment: all your audio recordings, all your video footage, as well as your Nest sensor data, will never be used for ads or ads personalisation.

Ok, great. But then, in the Financial Times

And companies like Google wonder why people obsess over the privacy question?

Was the Washington Post unfair on Amazon’s Alexa?

Lots of discussion online today about whether Geoffrey Fowler’s column, headlined Alexa Has Been Eavesdropping On You This Whole Time, was unnecessary fear-mongering.

If you’re pushed for time, the short answer is: no, absolutely not.

The longer answer is marginally more complicated. But only marginally.

Here’s Fowler’s argument:

Many smart-speaker owners don’t realize it, but Amazon keeps a copy of everything Alexa records after it hears its name. Apple’s Siri, and until recently Google’s Assistant, by default also keep recordings to help train their artificial intelligences.

So come with me on an unwelcome walk down memory lane. I listened to four years of my Alexa archive and found thousands of fragments of my life: spaghetti-timer requests, joking houseguests and random snippets of “Downton Abbey.” There were even sensitive conversations that somehow triggered Alexa’s “wake word” to start recording, including my family discussing medication and a friend conducting a business deal.

This is one of those icky stories that splits techies and “normies” and places them in vastly opposing places.

The techie will say: of course Alexa listens to what it said after it thinks you have said the “wake word”. That’s literally how it works.

The normie will say: But Amazon shouldn’t capture and save what I say unless I really meant to say it to Alexa. And, even if it was intentional, why must it keep that recording after it’s done its job?

Everyone is right. It’s reasonable to argue that this is how this technology works: other than a physical button, which isn’t ideal, we don’t yet have a better way to engage with voice assistants. It’s not a secret. Furthermore, companies need to keep this data in order to train these systems.

But it’s also correct to say, and report, that the vast majority of users don’t know the full extent of how audio is saved and stored by Amazon, Google, Apple and friends — and this is not acceptable.

Fowler goes on to examine a multitude of other ways smart homes are tracking us, under the blanket and inadequate explanation of “using it to improve our service”:

When I’m up for a midnight snack, Google knows. My Nest thermostat, made by Google, reports back to its servers’ data in 15-minute increments about not only the climate in my house but also whether there’s anyone moving around (as determined by a presence sensor used to trigger the heat). You can delete your account, but otherwise Nest saves it indefinitely.

Then there are lights, which can reveal what time you go to bed and do almost anything else. My Philips Hue-connected lights track every time they’re switched on and off — data the company keeps forever if you connect to its cloud service (which is required to operate them with Alexa or Assistant).

Every kind of appliance now is becoming a data-collection device. My Chamberlain MyQ garage opener lets the company keep — again, indefinitely — a record of every time my door opens or closes. My Sonos speakers, by default, track what albums, playlists or stations I’ve listened to, and when I press play, pause, skip or pump up the volume. At least they hold on to my sonic history for only six months.

So, was Fowler unfair on Amazon? Give me a break.

The headline obviously leans heavily on the popular but unfounded theory that Amazon (and others) use the microphones to proactively spy on users to sell advertising.

But that’s fine… because the headline is accurate. These devices do eavesdrop, and reporters should be banging this drum as loudly and as often as they can.

YouTube predator, who had ‘hundreds of thousands of fans’, could see 11 years in prison

Austin Jones, 26, admitted to persuading six underage girls to send him sexually explicit videos.

The girls had been fans of his YouTube channel, where he shared his music, and at the height his popularity attracted “hundreds of thousands of followers”. The Chicago Tribune has reported on this in depth:

It was among those devoted fans that Jones found his victims, coercing underage girls to perform sexually explicit dances during live online chats by promising modeling opportunities, Instagram stardom and his valuable attention. “ohmygoodness that’s amazing!!” one victim responded when Jones told her she had “a lot of modeling potential,” according to prosecutors.

Prosecutors are pushing for an 11-year prison sentence. Jones’s defense has requested the minimum five years, citing a troubled childhood as some explanation for his actions as an adult. More from the Tribune:

In the months after his arrest, Jones alleged that his father repeatedly molested him between the ages of 6 and 10, according to the defense filing. The ensuing “emotional trauma and chaos … has consumed his life,” they wrote, leading to severe depression, low self-esteem, sexual dysfunction and difficulty sleeping since the age of 11.


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.