Facebook Messenger embraces cannibalization, lets users skip the time sink called “news feed”

Messenger

Facebook just launched Messenger for Web Browsers. Just open messenger.com from your Desktop browser and start chatting.

This is a remarkable move.

First, it confirms the assumption that the company’s focus on its news feed-centric core product is the past. Second, and this is the really astonishing part, Facebook is completely cannibalizing its core product facebook.com. Because every user who just wants to write or read some messages can now head to messenger.com, avoiding a major source of procrastination.

Companies who are willing to cannibalize their own products with something new are rare. Apple did it a couple of times. Steve Jobs famously said: “If you don’t cannibalize yourself, someone else will”.

With Messenger for Web Browsers, Mark Zuckerberg follows that philosophy. Messenger is said to have more than 500 million active users on smartphones. Millions of users who could not really let go of the time sink called news feed when messaging through Facebook from their desktop computers and notebooks will be very thankful, I am sure. Bosses at companies have a reason to celebrate, too.

For the core product facebook.com and the news feed, this almost certainly will mean a decrease in user activity. But for a product that is roughly a decade old, this is totally ok.

Estonia’s innovative and ambitious e-residency project takes an important step

Last year the small European country of Estonia did something unique: It has started to offer a virtual residency to people from all around the world at no costs (other than an administration fee during registration) – no matter whether they have any actual connection to the country. The e-residency gives access to a broad selection of e-government services – the same which actual Estonians use as well. The only major differences are that an e-resident cannot vote, does not receive the right to physically live in Estonia and does not get an Estonian passport.

I have been planning to become an e-resident since the launch of the initiative. However, until today, the application process involved a visit to a Police and Border Guard Office in Estonia. While this would be a great opportunity to visit the Baltic country in the Northeast of Europe, it has not really fitted into my travel schedule.

As of tomorrow, the requirement of showing up in Estonia to obtain an e-residency disappears. Today I received an email announcing that a visit to most Estonian embassies and consular offices around the world is now sufficient for the application. The date April 1 might not be the perfect choice for a news like that, but I am pretty sure this is no April Fool’s joke. Continue Reading

Forget Apple Pay, the peer-to-peer payment revolution is here

PaymentsApple’s decision to work together with credit card companies instead of trying to disrupt them turned out to be a smart, at least in the short term. However, while Apple Pay captures a lot of the attention and excitement, another big payment revolution is happening right now: peer-to-peer payments.

This term simply means real-time direct bank transfers between two parties, enabled by an easy-to-use mobile app. In the U.S., this segment is booming. The most successful player in this field so far is said to be Paypal-owned Venmo, which is “killing cash” (according to Bloomberg) especially for younger users. At the end of last year, Snapchat launched its own competitor Snapcash. A bit earlier, Square released Square Cash, and just last week Facebook announced the rollout of a money transfer feature for Messenger. Even Google allows for direct payments through Gmail – for Americans and since a couple of weeks ago even for users in the U.K. Continue Reading

Foursquare and the Art of Unexpected Gestures

Unexpected gestures of thankfulness and appreciation shown by companies to their users or customers are – at least in the Internet industry – a neglected instrument to create loyalty and brand ambassadors. Thus when it happens, it becomes even more powerful. Here is a good example:

The other day I found a mail by Foursquare in my inbox, titled “Your thank you gift”. In the mail the location recommendation service thanked me for having written 137 tips. “Tips” are small comments about locations. In my approximately 6 years as Foursquare user I have been writing the occasional tip. Apparently exactly 137 of them.

After the initial thank you note, the mail informed me that I would receive a complimentary $10 gift card that I can redeem at 40 major retailers (Amazon, Starbucks etc). Continue Reading

Let’s hope that Number26 can stir up Europe’s complacent banking sector

Number26

Most traditional banks have failed to create exciting e-banking and mobile banking solutions. Because of that I was very interested when Number26, a new “mobile first” banking startup from Berlin, announced its upcoming launch last year. I covered the news in German and made sure to sign up for early access. Very recently, the company opened its closed beta period for customers in Germany and Austria – and I received my invite code by mail.

So what’s my first impression? Well, Number26 for sure presents itself as a full-flegded banking account including all the major features which are needed for that purpose. The service claims to offer “Europe’s most modern bank account”. Especially thanks to the intuitive and easy to use mobile app, this could be the truth already in this early stage. Of course the traditional banks’ failure to delight customers means the bar is not very high.

Feature's that should be common in every banking app - but aren't.

Feature’s that should be common in every banking app – but aren’t.

What makes Number26 stand out is a combination of the state-of-the-art look & feel and usability optimized for smartphone usage, analytics features to help customers manage their finances, as well as the cost structure. Currently neither the banking account nor the MasterCard debit card come with any fees. ATM withdrawals are free (except ATM-imposed fees), and there is no foreign transaction fee. These conditions make the service especially attractive for travelers. I actually opened my account while in the U.S., which felt kinda cool. It’s the first bank account I ever opened while not being physically present in the bank’s country.

The process of opening a banking account can be completed online. Number26 uses the services of another quite young startup, IDnow, which allows for identity verification via Webcam. I had to show my national ID or passport and answer some questions. After that my registration was completed. The overall procedure took about 10 minutes.

I expect Number26 to have an impact on the banking landscape in Germany and Europe – the latter assuming that the Berlin-based startup will expand to the rest of the continent. In Germany, the only serious competitor I am aware of is DKB, which has similar customer-friendly terms, but comes across as more conservative. So there is lots of room for Number26 to grow and to capture the hearts of tech-savvy mobile users.

One challenge that Number26 will face is the European Union’s plan to cap interchange fees for card payments. The startup’s current revenue model is based on a commission it receives from MasterCard each time a Number26 customer pays somewhere with the card. If the E.U. forces banks and MasterCard to dramatically cut the fees that retailers pay to them for card transactions, then MasterCard will have to cut or completely cancel the commission it offers card resellers such as Number26. The actual implementation of the fee cap could still be many months away. But when it happens, the company will have to come up with new revenue streams. Apart from that there of course is no guarantee yet that the commission alone is sufficient to create a profitable banking endeavor anyway.

Nevertheless, right now Number26 is a very welcome addition to the rusty European banking sector. Let’s see if the company can stir up this industry.

Facebook tells WhatsApp users to download Chrome – because everything goes mobile anyway

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WhatsApp just released a browser client for notebook and desktop users. But the Facebook-owned company made some strange choices: In order to use the browser version which simply mirrors the WhatsApp apps’ content in real time, one’s smartphone on which WhatsApp is installed needs to be connected to the Internet. Also, WhatsApp users that run the app on an iPhone cannot use the new client. According to WhatsApp the reason are “Apple platform limitations”. But the weirdest thing is that for the moment, WhatsApp Web only is compatible with Google’s Chrome browser. If you access https://web.whatsapp.com with Safari oder Firefox, you are being prompted to download Chrome.

This is a type of behaviour that we, as far as I know, have only seen from one major company before: Google itself. For example, Google’s new mail interface Inbox was initially only available for Chrome.

But WhatsApp belongs to Facebook. Facebook and Google can be considered major competitors. Over the past years, both companies had various smaller and bigger fights. Even though Google’s latest social experiment Google+ – which has an estimated couple of million active users a month – does not cause Facebook any headache, both companies are competing over user’s attention and advertising Dollars. Therefore seeing Facebook actively promoting the competitor’s browser strikes me as pretty exceptional.

Now, there apparently are some technical reasons for why WhatsApp went with Chrome. As the messaging service told GigaOm, Google Chrome’s push notification system “is ideal for the product”. The blogger and developer Andre Garzia points out that WhatsApp makes use of a non-web standard API of Chrome. Since I am not a developer I can only guess about why WhatsApp made its choices. But this guess actually is not hard: Probably Chrome allowed for a comparatively easy, smooth implementation which meant less work for WhatsApp. Going the easy way might not usually be the best business philosophy. But in this case, WhatsApp and its owner Facebook simply think pragmatically:

Mobile

The stationary web that is accessed through PCs is rapidly becoming less relevant. Mobile is where the action happens. The majority of Facebook’s revenue is generated on mobile devices. That trend will only accelerate. WhatsApp likely felt some pressure to offer a web version – but not enough to invest heavy engineering resources in this endeavor. So the company opted for an easy “alibi” solution (instead of developing native clients for Windows and Mac OS X). It’s unclear whether iPhones and other browsers than Chrome will be supported one day. That probably depends on the feedback and traction WhatsApp Web receives.

But no matter how much easier the work on WhatsApp Web became for the company by choosing Chrome as the initially only supported browser: Would all this be worth it if it means pushing the competition’s browser?

Not in a scenario in which browsers on desktop machines and notebooks lead to competitive advantages. But since the mobile web is taking over, and since mobile is dominated by native apps, Facebook most likely does not see any harm in getting some more users to download Chrome. Maybe it even wants Chrome to gain in an overall shrinking browser market, because of Google’s willingness to  embrace non-standard, developer friendly APIs.

In any case it really is the boldest way of telling your competition how little of a threat you think it is: by actively pushing your competition’s product. Google better not feels flattered.

Prepare to use Facebook Messenger to chat with businesses

MessengerSignificantly more than a billion people – probably soon more likely close to 2 billion people – are sending billions of smartphone messages every day, using one of the many popular chat apps. But at least for those services that are most popular outside of Asia, such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, there is one thing missing: The possibility to send text messages to companies, service providers, restaurants or stores.

For everybody who does not enjoy wasting time on the phone waiting to speak to an agent or staff member, a feature to quickly type and send questions or provide feedback from a smartphone to all kinds of businesses that consumers interact with on a regular basis would be a huge simplification. In fact, it is being done already, to some extent at least, by Asian chat apps like WeChat and Line (that offer company accounts that users can interact with). Recently, the infamously struggeling U.S social network company Path released an app called Path Talk, which includes business-to-consumer (B2C) communication.

Personally I cannot wait to see businesses participating in the messaging frenzy. It could be a win-win-win situation. Users skip waiting on the phone and paying calling fees, businesses increase customer satisfaction and in turn sales, and messaging apps would tap into a new source of revenue with dedicated, sophisticated business accounts. Also, with smart algorithms working in the background, many repetitive customer inquiries could probably be automatized.

Well, good news – at least for those who agree with my assessment: According to the German IT news site heise online, Facebook Manager David Marcus mentioned on stage at the DLD conference in Munich that the company thinks about offering companies a chance to communicate with users via Messenger. He has said something similar in an interview with Wired in October, so the remarks at DLD can be seen as a confirmation. Marcus also explained the different positioning of Messenger and Facebook-owned WhatsApp: WhatsApp will remain a simple and better alternative to the SMS, whereas Messenger which had been separated from Facebook’s main app last year, is going to become more interactive and feature-rich.

I think both strategies make a lot of sense. I expect Facebook to launch some kind of platform for Messenger that will introduce (freemium or paid) business accounts. Possibly at the F8 Developer conference in March.

From a user perspective, this is how I would like it to work: A separate tab for chats with businesses that I have interacted with. A feature to see businesses in my proximity that are available for chat, as well as a search tool for businesses by name and location. Simple and useful.

In Sweden, the beginning of the end of linear TV is here

TV

When one wants to understand how technology trends and people’s usage patterns will develop within the near future, there are some regions of the world that are especially helpful indicators. The U.S. should be mentioned of course, since this is where most of the companies and ideas that shape the technology world are coming from. Southeast Asia and China are also interesting to observe. Emoji, messaging apps/platforms, phablets and selfie sticks are some of the more recent trends that either originated in Asia or that were at least picked up by users there first. A third region that I personally find worthy having a closer look at is Sweden (where I am officially based).

If we ignore the fact that Swedes still praise and use the teletext, the country’s population is quite tech-savvy, curious and has often been among the first to adopt new kind of digital solutions. The Scandinavians flocked to social networks already in the late 1990s, partly thanks to progressive broadband expansion. They used legal music streaming services before everyone else (Spotify was founded in Sweden). Sweden also is closer than most societies to abandon cash.

Because of Sweden’s “tradition” to be at the forefront of technology adoption, recent news about a massive decline in traditional TV consumption might be an indicator of what is going to happen elsewhere within the near future: The yearly report by the Swedish media research company MMS about citizen’s TV consumption shows a significant decline of minutes spent with linear TV (PDF). The industry publication Resumé points out that despite major live events such as the Olympic Games and the Football Worldcup, the daily average time watching TV declined with more than 10 minutes within the most important viewership groups.

10 minutes less linear TV a day on average might itself not sound too dramatic considering that the daily averages still reach up too almost 200 minutes a day during winter months. However, according to people from the industry, this shift is massive compared to the past. Resumé quotes media agency executive Patrick Wallin saying that in 25 years working in the sector he has never experienced a dramatic change like this. “The expectations of the end of TV were exaggerated for a while, but now the technological platforms have advanced and the consumers have completely new possibilities”, said Wallin to Resumé. “2014 was no good year”, another agency executive told Resumé.

Instead of linear TV, Swedes increasingly watch on-demand content, which is provided by various subscription services such as Netflix and HBO Nordic, but also by the major TV stations that have created quite advanced on-demand services. Half a year ago, a million households in Sweden were said to subscribe to at least one streaming service for video. In a country of less than 10 million people, that might come down to 20 percent of the population having access to a paid video streaming flatrate.

It is true that for a long time, the upcoming shift from linear to on-demand TV did not materialize, which might have increased linear TV proponent’s hope that it maybe never will happen. But judging from how Resumé and the consulted experts comment on the latest audience statistic, at least in Sweden the fundamental shift is happening right now. And if it happens in one developed country, there is no reason to believe that other equally mature markets will be different.

(Photo:  Flickr/Robert Couse-Baker, CC BY 2.0)

Today’s complex world cannot be explained with yesterday’s news journalism

To state that we are living in geopolitical eventful times would be a massive understatement. One of the big challenges for people is to grasp the complexity of the many ongoing stories and narratives, and to realize how they are all connected – to each other, and to events from the past. Unfortunately, the average human brain is not very good at handling complexity. Instead, it seduces us into simplification and an isolated view on issues that must be seen within the bigger picture. The breaking news-obsessed media is doing its part to encourage the disinforming, one-dimensional approach.

Given this situation, when reading about a new news app called Timeline, I got curious immediately. Timeline, available for free as iOS app or mobile web app, promises to put news into context and to provide historical background to major events happening today. The startup’s claim “The news is the short tail of a very long string of events” nails pretty good what the traditional and online media mostly miss in their effort to get as many eyeballs as quickly as possible.

The timeline view

I tried the app and found it to be delivering what it promises: Users are being offered a selection of current news stories (with a focus on global affairs and the U.S. where Timeline is based). To each story one can access an historical overview of how things got to the point where they are today. Each story is accompanied by a timeline view, offering quick access to the events that shaped and influenced the story.

In my eyes, putting events and incidents of possibly global importance into an historical context is a crucial undertaking in order to understand what really is going on out there. In the long run it might even be THE way to fight populism, extremism and a narrow-minded, simplified world view. That of course would require everyone to actually consume news that way, which right now seems unlikely. But Timeline shows how technology can be leveraged to reshape journalism and news media in a way that actually makes sense. Something way too many other players in today’s digital media landscape have lost out of sight.

More of that, please!

After years of struggle, 2015 looks to become big for Spotify

When Spotify released its user numbers in the middle of November, I wrote a piece on netzwertig.com (in German) stating that the on-demand music service finally seemed to have initiated some kind of exponential growth. In order to illustrate my point, I created a graph visualizing the growth in users and paying subscribers over the past years.

My conclusion was certainly quite early, as the curve only indicated a possible trend of exponential growth. But I felt it was a bet I could afford. Fortunately, I do not need to revoke my statement: Only 2 months later, Spotify announced new numbers: 60 million users in total, of whom 15 million are paying. In November, the numbers were 50 million and 12.5 million.

Correspondingly I updated my chart, which now clearly shows an accelerating growth (for users reading via RSS the embedded Google sheet might not be shown).

Quartz realized that it was time for a visualization of the Spotify user growth as well. The site also correctly points out that since Taylor Swift withdrew her entire catalog from Spotify in November, the numbers increased by 20 %. That suggests that the massive media attention that was generated by Swift’s decision actually might have helped Spotify to acquire more users.

For a couple of years, Spotify, the pioneer of legal on demand streaming, had something of a growth-problem. Now, for the first time ever, the curve points at the right direction. Unlike some other online industries where a niche can be lucrative, the on-demand music business with its significant licensing costs and complex stake holder structure can only work if there is massive scale.

We still need to wait and see whether the current trend continues. If it does, 2015 will become the big year of Spotify (and, if the market allows for, the year of a Spotify IPO).