Benevolent digital dictators, without control

What is Facebook? That strange but relevant question was recently at the center of a long piece by Select All. Clearly, to describe Facebook and other highly influential tech firms simply as profit-driven companies like any other enterprise falls absurdly short, as it doesn’t allow us to grasp what they do and what they represent. It is like labeling every person as a “human”, and then ignoring what she/he does with their life. Obviously, it matters to our understanding of that person whether we are talking to a car mechanic, artist or president of a state.

The title of the article posed the question if Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg knows what Facebook is. Most likely he doesn’t. Facebook’s conflation with essentially every of our civilization’s and daily life’s major systems, has turned Facebook into a thing which doesn’t represent anything that humanity has seen before, and that lacks a proper descriptive name.

Bill Fitzgerald describes the status quo like this:

“For all the talk of disruptive innovation, how tech entrepreneurs are the smartest people in the room, etc, etc, we are now in a situation where billions of dollars have been spent creating platforms that the creators neither control nor understand.”

So we don’t know what Facebook, Twitter and other tech companies are. Neither do their leaders. Nor do they have control. Sounds awkward and uncomfortable.

This also leads to another question: Who/What is Mark Zuckerberg, who/what is Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey? If Facebook and Twitter aren’t just companies like [enter any major brand or manufacturer of consumer goods or traditional media company], then these guys aren’t just CEOs. They are something else.

Here is my proposal: They are a type of dictator. A digital equivalent, not ruling over geographical nations but over something akin to a digital nation. For now, these dictators are not intentionally evil. They are, or at least want to be, benevolent. And last but not least, as we just learned, they are kind of clueless and have lost control.

Digital, benevolent, clueless dictators without control over what’s happening with their platforms. But with the (accidental and undemocratic) power to change the whole world. That’s something to chew on.

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People abandon the web, Google inserts it into their apps

Here is a German version of this article.

Google has released a new mobile app for group communication called Spaces. But the heart of the app is not messaging. It’s the Google search. The central element of each group (or “space” as groups are called in here) is a sharing button, which by default opens what essentially can be considered the Google search. From there, users can enter any term to find stuff to share (through the Google search), or they can type a URL of a site to open directly within the in-app browser. Other sharing options accessible through a menu bar at the bottom are YouTube videos (surprise), locally stored photos and chat messages.

Google Spaces

Google’s approach is interesting. The company is famously under pressure due to the massive changes in user behaviour caused by the shift to mobile. Much more time is spent in apps than on the web and generally, people’s search habits are changing when on a smartphone. Instead of performing a Google search they might ask a friend (or a bot) on a chat app, they might directly open their preferred native app for shopping/information/news/music/videos/restaurant reviews/hotel bookings, or they might use the voice search capability of their smartphone (which on iOS is powered by Bing).

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Smart Home: Google, Apple and Microsoft are watching the cake while Amazon is eating it

Here you can read this article in German.

The success of Amazon’s voice-controlled personal assistant Echo is by many considered a surprise. It’s easy to understand why: There was comparatively little media hype after its launch, the product category was unproven and Amazon’s track record regarding hardware products (other than the Kindle) has been rather mixed. But one and a half year after its release, the device, which so far can only be purchased in the US, has become a huge hit, highly rated by both Amazon reviewers as well as the technology crowd. Furthermore, thanks to the Echo, Amazon’s smart assistant software Alexa has become a poster child for the thriving category of artificial intelligence-powered assistants.

Here is what’s at least as surprising as the rise of Echo: The absence of competing products by the other big three: Google, Apple, Microsoft. Continue Reading

Mini-posts: Snapchat vs Facebook, app unbundling, Stockholm’s tipping point

I’m trying out a new format with a post comprising of 2-3 mini-posts about trends and news from the tech world. A maximum of 10 sentences per post.

4 billion video views
Snapchat has announced 4 billion daily video views. Usually I would not pay any attention to such a vanity metric. But in this case, the number allows for an enlightening comparison: Just a couple of months ago, in April, Facebook reached the same milestone of 4 billion daily video views (sidenote: YouTube did so in the beginning of 2012). Facebook has almost 1 billion daily active users, compared to Snapchat’s nearly 100 million daily active users. The videos on Snapchat are extremely short, presumably much shorter than those on Facebook. That aside, an average Snapchat user views 10 times as many videos a day as a Facebook user. No surprise Snapchat is so hot.

Unbundling works – for Google and Facebook
Last year, many major Internet companies started to move certain features from their existing apps into newly launched, separate apps. “Unbundling” (or “app constellations“) was the latest trend, utilized by all the big names. A new comScore report shows for which companies this has worked the best: Facebook and Google (which in fact had been relying on this strategy for quite some time already). Among the top 10 most popular smartphone apps in the U.S. on iOS and Android combined, 3 are owned by Facebook (Facebook, Messenger, Instagram), and 5 by Google (YouTube, Search, Google Play, Google Maps, Gmail). Pandora Play and Yahoo Stocks are the only apps within the top 10 that are not owned by either company. Facebook’s initially controversial move to spin-off Messenger totally paid off. Meanwhile, unbundling did not work so well for other tech giants. Related news: Just this weekend, Google released Street View as yet another seperate app.

comScore

Stockholm’s tech tipping point
The VC fund SparkLabs recently published a ranking of the 10 hottest startup ecosystems in the world, and Stockholm ranked second after the Silicon Valley. While the accuracy of these kind of reports always can (and should) be questioned, the good result of the Swedish capital did not surprise me. In fact, it seems apparent to me that the city has reached its tipping point. From now on, past success and experience helps to build new, even bigger successes, with guaranteed international attention. Last Wednesday I attended a great conference, Stockholm Tech Fest. The amount of local bigshots among the speakers who shared their insights and experiences was astonishing. Spotify CEO Daniel Ek, Skype-founder and seriel entrepreneur/VC Niklas Zennström, Klarna CEO Sebastian Siemiatkowski, Delivery Hero CEO Niklas Östberg (Berlin-based but Swedish), Truecaller Co-founder Nami Zarringhalam were among the speakers. I am truly excited about what comes next.

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The “privacy activist” Tim Cook’s criticism gets uncomfortable for Google and Facebook

A fascinating debate is going on between the consumer technology giants Apple, Facebook and Google. For a while Apple CEO Tim Cook has been emphasizing privacy as an important feature of Apple products. Several times he referred to the practices of major Internet firms such as Facebook and Google as the opposite of how his company would act (usually without mentioning their name). And no matter how much hypocrisy one might believe to find in Cook’s words, there indeed is a fundamental difference between Apple and the two Internet juggernauts: Apple generates the lion share of its revenue with selling high-margin premium gadgets. Google’s and Facebook’s revenue streams are almost exclusively based on advertising. Google and Facebook need to know as much as possible about their users to be able sell more ads at higher prices. There is no way to deny this. Apple is much less depended on knowing each and every user action and preference. No matter how you slice it – and Apple’s security-related privacy issues aside – Tim Cook has a point.

Most recently he used this argumentation in an interview with The Telegraph. Cook said things like this: Continue Reading