Weekly reading – 27th March 2021

What I wrote last week

Great reminders for clustered and busy minds

Business

Amazon Keeps Getting Sued for Paying Drivers Less Than Minimum Wage. It baffles me to see that minimum wages can be such a polarizing issue or that it doesn’t garner more public support. In my mind, the US retail market is too big for any company like Amazon to abandon. Hence, if all the states and the federal government enacted a minimum wage law, what would Amazon do? Leaving the US retail market? Moving their operations to California or Mexico while paying import taxes and incurring more transportation expenses?

An interesting read on the e-signature market. All the companies that sell software to companies should really beware Microsoft. If Microsoft decides to invest in its own e-signature product and embed it for free in Microsoft 365, it will be a huge threat to the likes of Docusign.

Case study: How Akamai weathered a surge in capacity growth

How Nike is using DTC and data to expand its empire. For a legendary brand that has always been technologically competent like Nike, the pandemic is perhaps a blessing in disguise as it spurred consumers towards shopping online and exploring what the company has to offer.

Even God Couldn’t Beat Dollar-Cost Averaging. An interesting look at Dollar Cost Averaging vs Buy The Dips.

What I found interesting

Google and the Age of Privacy Theater. It seems that the new privacy approach that Google announced a short while ago may just be for show and won’t improve user privacy much.

Facebook’s ‘Red Team X’ Hunts Bugs Beyond the Social Network’s Walls

Hospitals Hide Pricing Data From Search Results. I really really hope that the Biden administration will look into this issue and impose a hefty fine on hospitals that actually did this.

A Brief History of Semiconductors: How The US Cut Costs and Lost the Leading Edge

Perseverance and redemption can be a wonderful combination, you know? Pierre Gasly is a young French F1 driver. Admittedly, I wasn’t a fan of his, but he grew on me. He got promoted to a top team in his 2nd or 3rd season in F1, only to get demoted half way to the season to an inferior team. He was brutally criticized and doubted in the media. And his best friend died in a tragic incident shortly before his demotion news. Yet, Pierre persevered and has shone brightly after his demotion. He had his maiden F1 win last year in Italy. Sweet sweet redemption. Here is what he wrote on the Players’ Tribune.

Stats that you may find interesting

42% of surveyed Americans reported an average weight gain of almost 30 lbs, according to the American Psychological Association

45% Bridge Millennials would switch grocers for access to contactless in-store payment

DOE aims to cut solar costs to 2 cents per kWh

Renewable energy met 97% of Scotland’s demand in 2020

Weekly reading – 27th February 2021

What I wrote last week

I reviewed The Spotify Play

Business

Profile of Bumble CEO

Interview with Spotify CEO, Daniel Elk

Frozen food sales have been boosted by Covid-19

When Did Generic Grocery Brands Get So Good Looking?

CBS and Showtime have a combined 30 million subscribers. Paramount+ with ads will go live with ads at $5/month in March and $10/month without ads in June

AT&T and TPG: There is No Why

What I found interesting

A COVID-19 vaccine life cycle: from DNA to doses

A look into Zuck and Kaplan’s influence on content moderation policies

Massive experiment shows why ticket sellers hit you with last-second fees

Sheryl Sandberg and Top Facebook Execs Silenced an Enemy of Turkey to Prevent a Hit to the Company’s Business

Abandoned houses in Japan can be bought for cheap as a get-away destination, but upgrading them can be very expensive

How Uber Deals with Large iOS App Size

Stats you may find interesting

Electric vehicles in the US reached 1.8% market share in 2020

This one stat is more horrifying than interesting. US exceeded 500,000 lives lost due to Covid-19

40% of Disney+ subscriber base are in the US. Because India is responsible for another 30% of the streamer’s subscriber count, the other markets such as Latin America and Europe combined make up 30% of its subscribers

86% of iPhones introduced in the last 4 years are on iOS14

Weekly reading – 20th February 2020

What I wrote last week

I reviewed the book Working Backwards. If you are interested in the culture at Amazon, have a read!

Business

Robinhood revealed it has 13 million customers, 13% of which traded options, 9% of which were African Americans, 16% of which were Hispanic.

The highest court in UK ruled that Uber drivers have to be classified as employees. Uber cannot appeal further in the UK; as a result, unless it wishes to exit the UK market, especially London, operating expenses will likely increase from now on. Another interesting detail from the ruling is that workers should get paid whenever they are logged into Uber’s system and poised to accept rides. On the other hand, Uber argued that the ruling would only apply to Uber’s Mobility, not Uber’s Delivery. I don’t know if that’s factually true, but I don’t like their chances.

Facebook practically lied to marketers about their potential reach

Scott Belsky is one of my favorite follows on Twitter. As the founder of Behance and Chief Product Offier at Adobe, he had a fascinating take on several issues related to startups and products. Here is an interesting interview between him and Patrick O’Shaughnessy

US video streaming giants face tough second act in India

WSJ’s piece on Walt Disney CEO Bob Chapek. He seems to be more ruthless on the bottom line, less burdened by creativity and the nostalgia of the Disney brand than his predecessor

What I found interesting

Jacquard by Google. The product category may be interesting, but I am not sure that folks are ready for it. It’s bad enough that we carry around our phone with us every single waking moment in this digital life. Whether consumers agree to carry another device, no matter how small, remains to be seen, especially when the device comes from a company like Google, which is notorious for tracking users.

How to be more productive, more easily

Why did I leave Google or, why did I stay so long?

Have a look at the beauty of Vietnam, from above

Interesting stats that may interest you

35 of Amazon’s sellers in India made up more than two thirds of its online sales

Source: Chartr

Owning the relationship with your customers. A look at the controversial case of Apple

Humans form relationships with one another. Between two people, a relationship is only strong when each side benefits from it and strives to strengthen the bond over time. If a friend betrays you or harms you, there likely won’t be a friendship any more, right? Once a relationship is formed, the stronger it is, the less it is less effected by others and the more trust there is. If a romantic relationship between you and your boyfriend/girlfriend is strong, you are less likely to be swayed by the opinion of your friends or family. And the people with whom you have the best relationship are the folks you trust the most.

Why do I need to state such an obvious observation? Because it is the same deal between companies and customers.

Relationship between companies and customers

When there is a transaction between a customer and a company, the two parties form a relationship. However and whether the relationship lasts depends on many factors: Is the customer happy? Is the company happy? Are there efforts involved to strengthen the relationship over time? Is there trust? A company like Amazon gains the trust of its customers through Prime & an increasing host of benefits, a variety of choices, quick delivery, easy return and consistency. From Amazon perspective, they have been investing a lot of time, effort and money into cultivating the relationship with its customers. In return, customers like and trust them. Millions of people shop at Amazon. Many, by default, head to the site to look for products. Such a relationship is so strong that it’s not much affected by 3rd parties or suppliers that depend on Amazon. They don’t form much of a bond with customers or the bond isn’t as strong as Amazon’s. The same goes with governments. Consumers, especially in America, don’t usually have the greatest of relationships with governments. Hence, it’s not a high bar to cross for Amazon in this regard. Additionally, because there is trust and a great relationship, Amazon customers stay loyal and locked in (intentionally or unintentionally through Prime), saving the company some trouble from competitors in the retail industry.

I picked Amazon because it’s a household name and an easy example. But the logic applies to every company. I drew a little diagram below. Inside the blue bubble that stands for a relationship, two parties work to build it over time. Outside the bubble, there are factors that can influence it. The stronger the relationship/bubble, the smaller the potential influence. Companies lose competitive advantages because the relationship isn’t as strong any more. Kodak didn’t offer consumers the benefits that digital cameras did; therefore, their relationship was strayed, paving the way for their demise. Nokia had nothing but inferior products and customer experience to offer. That’s why they lost the relationship to other phone manufacturers like Apple or Samsung. Barnes and Nobles lost the relationship to Amazon in the same way.

Imagine that your best friend or spouse is an executive at a company with an opening and an acquaintance reached out to your for help with an introduction. Under normal circumstances like (99% of the time!), however you make the introduction or whether you choose to make it at all is up to you. That is because within the relationship between you and the executive, the two parties determine the rules and whoever wants to leverage it has to respect and follow them. Think about it this way. Advertisers who want to reach Facebook users have to comply with Facebook guidelines. Apps that want to reach Apple users have to comply with Apple. Brands that want to sell to Walmart’s customers in Walmart’s stores, you guess it, have to comply with Walmart. The farther away from customers and the weaker a relationship, the less say a company has on its fate and the more it has to rely on others.

Which brings me to Apple. I want to talk about it using the relationship logic above because the debate is interesting and offer a lot of nuances.

Apple vs Facebook

Facebook’s main business is to sell ads. To be able to help advertisers sell personalized ads, Facebook needs to track users. In the past, Apple allowed Facebook as well as other apps to track users through Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA), which is unique for every device even though users’ identity isn’t disclosed. A few months ago, Apple announced its plan to stop the practice with the launch of iOS14. Specifically, advertisers now have to ask users’ permission to continue to track them across different apps and users have the choice to grant or decline that request. Facebook attacked Apple for being a monopolist and anti-competitive practices. Some said that Apple’s action was self-serving and hypocritical because it is building its own ads machine and it’s likely that Apple’s own ads engine isn’t subject to Apple’s rules as others. Apple critics piled on the criticisms by saying that Apple wields too much power and impedes the growth of the future Internet. Let’s unpack then by looking at the relationship between consumers, Apple, Facebook and other parties.

Facebook has a relationship with its users through its portfolio apps such as the Blue App, Whatsapp, Messenger or Instagram. Advertisers that want to reach the users on those platforms have to adhere to Facebook’s rules and guidelines because they are leveraging a relationship that is not theirs. Obviously, I don’t imagine Facebook would be happy if advertisers wanted to dictate how the relationship should be. After all, they own the closest relationship with their users.

Unfortunately for Facebook, in the case of Facebook users on iOS platforms, they aren’t necessarily the one that owns the closest relationship. Apple does. Hence, using the same logic laid out above, Facebook has to adhere to Apple’s rules and guidelines, in the same way that advertisers have to listen to Facebook. When Apple changed the rules to make cross-app tracking more challenging because they want to bolster their own relationship with their consumers, who is Facebook to say what Apple should or should not do? Would they be happy if advertisers wanted to dictate ads rates with them on their ads platforms?

The same goes with app developers who want to reach out to millions of iOS users. If Apple doesn’t want to have certain apps on their App Store (Overtly sexual or pornographic material/ Realistic portrayals of people or animals being killed, maimed, tortured, or abused, or content that encourages violence / Depictions that encourage illegal or reckless use of weapons and dangerous objects) or if they want to remove Parler in the aftermath of the insurrection on the 6th of Jan 2021 because that’s how they want the relationship to be (for good reasons), they should be within their rights to do so. If they want to charge commission on certain apps to be in the App Store, that’s their rights as well.

Companies love to lock in customers with exclusive service or products that grant them exclusive rights. That makes sense. If you spend money and resources to cultivate that relationship, you should reap your rewards. The same should for Apple. It spends money and resources on building and maintaining not only the App Store, but also hardware and software, why should it not be able to dictate their own relationship with iOS users?

But Apple wields too much power!

Indeed they do. There are currently more than 1.5 billion Apple devices in circulation, 1 billion of which are iPhones. In the US, about 60% of mobile devices are iPhones. That’s extraordinary power that one company possesses. It’s a legitimate concern that a company should not have that much power, especially given the tight grip that the company has on its proprietary hardware and software. However, it’s worth noting that Apple is in this position today because of their own efforts and the lack of competition. Which of its competitors can offer the same integration of services, hardware and software? Amazon is legendary in devotion to customer services, but they aren’t great at mobile production or software. Google owns Android, but they haven’t been great at hardware or customer services. Samsung manufactures phones, but they do not own Android. Hence, it’s not entirely fair to blame it all on Apple. If there is no challenger that can offer the same benefits to drive the end users from the relationship with Apple, it’s hardly 100% Apple’s fault that it happens, is it?

But Apple impedes innovation!

When we look at the fact that there are 1.5 billion Apple devices in circulation, the company can be bottleneck that impedes innovation. I am no app developer, but I can imagine the scenario that developers complain the tools Apple forces them to use aren’t advanced enough to let them do what they want. If that’s the case in reality, it’s a legitimate concern. But if Android were that much better at fostering innovation, why are we still in this situation, given that Android has a bigger market share than iOS globally? Why do we debate on the power of Apple, and not of Samsung or other phone manufacturers? As I imagine, if the operating system were so innovative that users would have no choice but to flock to Android devices, Apple wouldn’t have the power that they have today. In essence, while this can be a legit concern, there isn’t much proof of that.

Imagine that you are in a relationship and someone comes and tells you: well you know, the person you are dating with is what stops you from even better days and more happiness in the future. I mean, that can happen, but you kinda need some proof.

But their privacy policies are self-serving!

Which companies don’t act in their own interest? Even when companies try to uphold their corporate social responsibilities, they try to align them with their P&L and finance. If an environmentally-friendly initiative could make Apple look better, but present a $20 billion hit to their bottom line, I don’t think you would see them take it up. In this case, does it matter whether Apple implements the new privacy policy out of concern for their users or as groundwork for their ads business? Yes, it’s hypocritical if Apple wants to grow their ads business and claims the new policy is for the end users, but doesn’t every company do so? If Apple admitted to doing it for their ads business, would critics be happier? If any other company but Apple did this, would critics voice the same opinion?

But Apple doesn’t apply their own policies consistently and to their own apps!

I do agree that Apple can do better both in applying their rules consistently and in showing whether their own apps are subject to the same rules. With the regard to the first part, Apple does have a relationship with app developers, even though when it comes to shove, the relationship with the end users allows Apple to wield more bargaining power. Nonetheless, it is important for the company to foster the bond with developers. One way to do so is to be more transparent with the App Store guidelines, especially in its actions, and more consistent in their application of these guidelines.

Disclosing the extent to which their own apps are subject to the same App Store rules is a bit more nuanced in my opinion. I don’t think it would change anything if Apple told us Apple’s digital content or subscriptions were subject to the same 15%/30% commission rule. After all, Apple would pay that money back to themselves. If their overall business continues to grow and their margin stays flat like it has for the past few years, does it really matter if a few of their services are unprofitable or not? With that being said, I really think Apple should subject themselves to the guidelines that other apps are and show it to developers. It’s fair to do so and it will help build the relationship with developers. Indeed, pre-loading their own apps such as Apple Music gives it more advantage over Spotify. But as long as Apple doesn’t outright block Spotify or do anything that prevents their competitors’ apps from being downloaded for no reasons, it’s not an egregious abuse of power. That’s just Spotify being subject to the rules of Apple when leveraging the relationship with iOS users.

In sum, Apple is at the peak of their power and having the best relationship ever with users, a relationship that involves other parties such as app developers. The company invests a lot of resources into cultivating the relationship with both end users and app developers. As long as the former is strong (apparently it is now given its strong financial results), it gives Apple enormous bargaining power over anyone who wants to leverage such a relationship. To reduce Apple’s power, the most logical way is to weaken the bond they have with the end users by offering a better alternative, though it’s by no means an easy ask.

In my opinion, relationships with customers become more difficult to maintain over time. Customer preferences change. Old competitors compete harder. New competitors come in to disrupt. Regulations can be detrimental. Culture and leadership can weaken over time. Freak events like Covid-19 can happen. All sorts of problems to tackle. A strong position today doesn’t warrant a strong position in the future. The same applies to Apple. If they labor to maintain their competitive advantages in the future, kudos to them and we should be as generous in our appreciation for such an achievement as in our effort to criticize them and to keep them honest.

Disclosure: I own Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Spotify stocks in my portfolio.

Weekly reading – 6th February 2021

What I wrote last week

My summary of Microsoft’s latest earnings, a giant with growth momentum

My estimate on Azure revenue

Bezos is stepping down (not really a shock), but Amazon is in a great shape

Business

I don’t always agree with all Ben’s takes, but his presentation here is pretty well-done

The NYTimes looked at the current infrastructure for electric vehicles which are becoming a force in the near future

It seems that Amazon’s struggles with its Game Studio come from the top

Apple in 2020: The Six Colors report card

A profile on Kaishou

The Facebook Oversight Board’s First Decisions: Ambitious, and Perhaps Impractical. A pretty good writeup on the first 5 decisions by the FOB. I think it’s great that the FOB came out swinging to prove at least up to now it’s not for show and it’s for business. It’s also great that it doesn’t put too much weight on the operationability of its decisions. That way, the decisions seem more dialogic and as a guide instead of being contaminated by expenses and profits.

Forbes’ writeup on Chegg, a subscription company that lets you solve your homework with the help of an army of experts from India. Every business needs to make money. That I can understand. But if somebody comes out and says that it encourages cheating, they also have a point.

A story on the implosion of Ample Hills, which was once Brooklyn’s hottest ice cream brand

The latest investment letter from RGA

What I found interesting

A professional photographer took incredible photos of the glaciers in Alaska, using iPhone 12 Pro Max

Have a look at an interesting mushroom farm in Vietnam

The ridiculous lack of understanding on Section 320 from lawmakers doesn’t seem limited to Republicans because Democrats have it too

An interesting piece on Arthur Hayes, the founder of BitMEX

Interesting stats

Another horrifying story about the US healthcare. I can’t believe what I read. A new parent had to deal with their newly born child being sick and the insurance company relied on red tape and the flaws of the system to exploit their customers. Imagine the horror of receiving a $270,000 bill.

US Distilleries made $31 billion in revenue in 2020, due to Covid-19. Premium liquor rose in popularity among consumers

In 2020, nearly 1 million Gen-Zers opened a trading account at Apex Clearing, most likely through a broker, with the average age of 19.

App downloads in January 2021 from Bank of America

Someone compiled data on customers for Fintech firms

Zelle processed more than $300 billion in 2020

Power, Responsibilities, Choices and Agendas

In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the Capitol Building on the 6th of Jan 2021, multiple companies either severed their business relationships with Trump’s organizations or banned him on their platforms altogether. Different views arose. Some agreed that Trump was too radioactive and too harmful. His supports protested the backlash levied on their hero. Others pondered whether some companies like Twitter and Facebook should have the power to ban even the President of the United States.

It has been a week since that happened and I thought a lot about two things. The first is the famous line that Spider Man’s uncle told him: with great power come great responsibilities. The other is this clip:

If you’re not a Marvel fan, this is the scene where the superheroes debated whether they should be put under guidance and supervision by a panel, instead of making their own choices. Some led by Tony Stark thought they should be, while others led by Captain America disagreed, saying that the panel would be run by people with agendas and agendas change. Cap reasoned that surrendering their right to choose and submitting to people’s agendas, especially with their superhero power was too big a risk.

There are multiple issues here. First, think about what Captain America said about agendas and what happens in real life. The legislative and judicial systems are supposed to be there to rein in the Executive Branch, especially the President. What has happened in the last 4 years is nothing but that. The Republican officials in Congress did Trump’s bidding and closed their eyes on the crimes and misdemeanor that he has committed. Why? Because they follow their own agendas and want to stay in power. Angering Trump will provoke him to turn on them and tell his supporters to remove the dissenters from office. What is supposed to supervision and a check against balance becomes gas to the fuel.

Some argued that powerful platforms should be supervised by a committee or panel of experts or regulated by the government. Either option is run by people with agendas and like Cap said, agendas change. What if the government doesn’t like criticisms made on a government-controlled Facebook and decides to ask the company to censor them? What if the politicians and the powerful work behind the scenes to install friendly faces on the supervising panel/committee? It’s not an exaggeration to say that the likes of Google, Facebook or Twitter have superpower heroes. Used the right way, they can further the society’s interests. Used the wrong way, they can be very harmful weapons.

But should these companies have that much unchecked power at their disposal? Let’s talk about the accusation that they censor content on their platforms. The extreme case first. Trump is the President of the United States. As long as he has something to say, media outlets all over the world will likely broadcast it, even when it is an outrageous claim. He can have a press conference, a rally or he can call in right-wing media which also has significant reach to broadcast his messages. Being banned on Facebook or Twitter doesn’t amount to a complete censor. He was banned because he repeatedly violated the terms of services written and imposed by private entities; which gives them the right to act like they did. Had he not pushed the envelope too far like when he incited violence on the 6th of Jan 2021, he wouldn’t have been banned. Two months after the election, he repeatedly called into question the legitimacy of the election, yet the likes of Facebook and Twitter didn’t ban him. That should be the evidence that if anyone is to blame for Trump not being on Twitter or Facebook, it will be him and him alone.

The same goes for other users. These social media platforms want and need you to engage with their platforms so that they can bring in valuable ads dollars. If you don’t commit grave offenses that warrant a ban, there is economic benefit to these platforms to ban and purge you without a legitimate reason. What’s the point of building a platform and acquiring users without wanting to keep them? Plus, the Internet allows anyone to broadcast his or her opinion in multiple ways. Banned on Twitter? Try Facebook. Banned on Facebook? Try Snapchat. Banned on Snapchat? Try writing an op-ed to a newspaper and getting it published. That doesn’t work either? Try having a blog and advertising it. Want to get the message out in person? Try having a small rally or a speech at a market.

Social media platforms connect people, including the good guys and the deplorable. They are also essentially megaphones that send wide and far well-intentioned messages or on the opposite, purely harmful agendas. A knife is a great cooking tool, but in the hands of a criminal, it’s a weapon that can take one’s life. How social media are used hinges much on the users. Since it’s practically impossible to prevent the extreme or the propagandists, the platforms have to take up the responsibility to ensure their platforms do more good than harm.

As private entities, these companies have agendas. The people like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey and their confidants have agendas. If they were just “normal” folks, their ethics would affect only themselves and those around them. However, because they are vested with immense power, the importance of their own ethics is amplified so that they can wield the power responsibly. Their ethical compass will dictate what their agendas are and whether the greater goods look like. As to what can be the fail-safe/safeguard against these powerful individuals, I would argue that it would be competition. Powerful as politicians in the US are, they listen to their donors which, in turn, listen to their customers to some extent because of the risk that customers will flock to their competitors. In the aftermath of the terrorist attack last week, big companies and political donors decided to stay away from Trump and some halted their political donors to those that voted against the certification of the election. That should have a sway on the elected officials’ mind, whether they publicly take action or not. Moreover, Whatsapp delayed the rollout of their new privacy terms which would make it easier for them to share data with Facebook because users protested and flocked to rival apps such as Signal. Without competition and action by users, such a reversal wouldn’t happen. Powerful as Facebook is, they are not immune to the threat from competition.

I don’t claim to know how to encourage healthy competition in the market. I refer it to the people whose full-time job is to make laws. What I am trying to say is that between encouraging competition and creating an oversight that can be tainted by personal agendas, I would prefer the former. I don’t know about you, but my experience in Vietnam the US so far hasn’t given me much confidence in the latter.

Apple vs Facebook and its iOS adoption

Apple vs Facebook

In October, Apple announced a new feature in iOS14 called App Tracking Transparency (ATT). Essentially, this feature requires advertisers to seek user consent if they are looking to collect user data that helps with ads personalization and delivery. Although Apple delayed the introduction of ATT once already, starting next year, if apps want to be in the App Store, they will have to implement this feature. As the announcement came out, of course, those who make a living from ads aren’t happy. Facebook predicted that ATT would lead to a significant drop in its revenue while others threatened to sue Apple for anti-trust behavior.

This week, Facebook ran a PR campaign targeting Apple, saying that ATT would harm small businesses whose survival depends on running ads. Here are the ads:

Source: The Verge and The Verge

Essentially, both are standing up for their customers. Apple is acting true to their corporate values and out of the interests of their end users. I don’t think any end users will be displeased with ATT. On the other hand, Facebook, whose main source of revenue is small businesses, is allegedly standing up for them. After Facebook ads were aired, Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, tweeted this response

Image
Source: Tim Cook

As you can see from Tim’s tweet, all ATT does is to force advertisers to seek users’ authorization to collect user data. It DOES NOT take away their ability to track. Plus, Facebook can customize the prompt message and convince users why it is in the user best interest to let Facebook collect their data. It is true that a prompt like that is pretty much similar to a NO, but at the end of the day, doesn’t it make sense to let users have a say in how their data is collected? Furthermore, Apple’s operating systems are its intellectual property. If Facebook wants to reach users on Apple’s devices and OSes, then Facebook has to comply with the rules that Apple sets. If the shoe were on the other foot, as in if a vendor was complaining about the rules Facebook sets on its platform, what would Zuck and his co. say then?

I saw some folks say that a move like ATT is Apple’s abusing its power and harming small businesses

With regard to the harm to small businesses, my perspective is that when the interests of the end users and advertisers/publishers collide, Apple rightfully takes the side of the former. Because the end users, not advertisers/publishers pay Apple for their products and services. I am sure that nobody can fault a company for catering to its own paying customers. To succeed in a world that is increasingly more conscious of privacy, the burden to succeed is on publishers and advertisers, not on Apple helping them. While I can see the difficulties that await those who are affected by ATT, as an end user, I appreciate what Apple is doing here. I mean, just look at this long list of data that Facebook collects from users and tell me if you think advertisers should get our data without our explicit consent

As to whether Apple is abusing its power, the answer is a bit more tricky. Apple is not dictating how the Internet works. Yes, it has one of the two largest mobile operating systems in the world and millions of devices, but there is also Android. What Apple does is just on its platform and how is that different from Target requiring all merchants to abide by its rules on its premises? Or any company exerting power on its platform?

However, Apple does have its own advertising business and it also uses some of the data generated by users to deliver ads. In its Advertising & Privacy section, Apple says that it doesn’t send user-specific data to advertisers. It tracks information such as device information (language preference, device, OS version, mobile carrier), device location (if enabled for the App Store, who doesn’t?) and segments which represent groups of people with similar characteristics. While it seems Apple doesn’t track users individually per se, the default option on iOS14.3, which I am on now, is that you give the company consent to collect some of your data, as mentioned above, and deliver personalized ads to you. While it’s much less grotesque than what FB does, I can see why some people accuse Apple of hypocrisy.

81% of iPhones launched in the last 4 years are on iOS14

According to 9to5Mac, here is what Apple told developers on the adoption of iOS14 and iOS13

Source: 9to5Mac

It’s worth noting that iOS13 and iOS14 are only compatible with iPhone 6S and models that come after it. iOS 13 was launched on 9/19/2019, almost at the same time as iPhone 11. Based on these pieces of information, what we can be sure is that 10% of iPhone installed base worldwide are iPhone 6/6S or older. If there are around 1 billion iPhones in circulation, it means that Apple can look at 100 million phones that are primed for an update, whether it’s a brand new iPhone12 or a refurbished older model.

If we take the period between September 2016 and now as the four-year span that Apple referred to, what we can be sure, based on the compatibility and the launch of iOS, is that at least 2% of the phones introduced in the last 4 years were made up of iPhone 7, 7+, 8, 8+, X, XS and XR.

Even though people hold on to their phones longer, the adoption of iOS14 indicates an increasing engagement with Apple’s latest iOS; which is a good sign if you want to increase Services revenue and keep customers loyal. Almost a year ago on 01/27/2020, Apple revealed the similar figures for iOS13 and they were lower than what was just announced this week

iPhone iPad iOS 13 adoption
Source: 9to5Mac

Disclaimer: I hold Facebook and Apple stocks in my personal portfolio.

Weekly readings – 19th September 2020

What I wrote

I reviewed a few books such as: The Anatomy of The Swipe, Tape Sucks, The Motley Fool Investment Guide, 7 Powers: The Foundation of Business Strategy

I put down some thoughts on Apple Fitness+ and Apple One

Business

A deep dive analysis into Snowflake

A study on the effect of Wikipedia on businesses

Our estimates show that adding about 2,000 characters (approximately two paragraphs) of text and one photo to a city’s Wikipedia page increased the number of nights spent in this city by about 9% during the tourist season compared to cities in the control group.6 The effect comes mostly from pages that were initially relatively incomplete. In particular, the treatment increases hotel stays by about 33% in cities which initially had very short pages in a particular language, while there was no effect on city-language combinations where the pages were well developed.

Technology

A review of Microsoft Duo by WSJ. It’s quite concerning that a $1,400 phone has a subpar camera and a buggy software

What I found interesting

A brief profile by BBC of Freiburg, a green and futuristic city in Germany

An interactive map of the Earth some 240 million years ago

A damning memo of a Facebook employee on how the leadership turned a blind eye on election manipulations. She wrote “I have blood on my hands”

The US is almost at the bottom among advanced countries when it comes to well-being of children

The Three Year Rule: How To Stay Motivated Working On A Long-Term Project

A WSJ profile on Trevor Noah and his journey from South Africa to America

According to Census, Asians had the highest median income in the US in 2019 and foreign born folks grew median income at a faster rate than native-borns

Antitrust hearing with 4 big-tech CEOs

A disappointing hearing

Today, the long anticipated hearing by The House Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law which features Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, Sundar Pichai and Mark Zuckerberg, the four powerful CEOs of big tech companies, took place. Suffice to say, I am not surprised at what transpired, but I am pretty disappointed. I don’t think that there is an objective or a desirable outcome from this hearing. While Democratic officials focused more on the issue at hand which concerns antitrust practices by these companies, their Republican colleagues, in particular Representative Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan, were more interested in an entirely issue: alleged bias and censorship of conservative views on social media. Jim Jordan even compared Apple’s famous 1984 ads campaign to the so-called cancel culture almost 40 years later! Ranking Member Sensenbrenner even mistook Facebook with Twitter when he tried to question Mark Zuckerberg on Twitter’s decision to temporarily suspect Don Jr’s account. You don’t need to spend time on the hearing, but you can get some idea on the quality of this event based on those incidents.

Notwithstanding the difference in pointed questions, every lawmaker in this hearing did more grandstanding than listening. The 5-minute rule is there to ensure that every lawmaker has a chance to ask questions and that witnesses don’t digress. However, the rule’s side effect is that lawmakers don’t wait for witnesses to answer. Instead, they push their own assumptions/allegations on witnesses or just restrict complicated matters to a “Yes/No” question. If this hearing is to uncover how these CEOs approach competition, why is it that they weren’t allowed to talk more and elaborate?

The format of the hearing needs to change in order to yield results. I have a few thoughts in mind on what can be implemented:

  • Every question at a hearing should stick to a topic. Anyone who violates this rule twice should be kicked out of a hearing. For example, Jim Jordan today didn’t ask questions on anti-competition. He threw allegations towards the witnesses on alleged bias to conservatives. So did several other GOPs. How do those questions belong to the Antitrust conversation at hand?
  • Every lawmaker should have 5-10 minutes, but there should only 5-10 questions allowed. A limit on the number of questions can help ensure the quality of questions, give witnesses more time to elaborate and reduce grandstanding. Many issues are complicated and take some explanations.
  • Before a hearing, questions should be compiled in advance on a portal/website and witnesses must answer in writing before appearing in front of lawmakers. Written answers offer witnesses space and time to elaborate and remove the constraints of time. During hearings, lawmakers can just build off of the written answers submitted in advance.
  • Similarly, there should be a collection of follow-up questions that are answered after a hearing.

Not every acquisition of a competitor violates antitrust laws

Facebook and Google were grilled today on their previous acquisitions: Facebook on Instagram, WhatsApp and Google on DoubleClick. I was baffled by this line of question. Take Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram several years ago as an example.

When Facebook paid $1 billion to acquire Instagram in 2012, nobody could be 100% sure that it would be what it is today. At the time of the acquisition, Facebook was already a big player primed for its IPO and heavily invested while even though it was growing fast, Instagram had around 30 million users, generated no revenue and was valued at $500 million. The startup was struggling to grow its team and infrastructure. Joining Facebook did give Instagram benefits on the way to having more than 1 billion users, as the book No Filter noted below

“It was the most dire server problem in company history. Instagram was now important enough to be mentioned in every press story about the meltdown, alongside Pinterest and Netflix. Coworkers, none of whom did that kind of engineering, sent ice cream to the office as support. Sweeney ate several scoops to try to make it through the night, though he accidentally fell asleep multiple times on his keyboard.”

“The infrastructure wasn’t the only problem bubbling up to an intensity the tiny team could barely handle. Spam was everywhere on Instagram. So was troubling and abusive user content, which the community team could no longer finish sifting through in its shifts—and which was starting to appear in their nightmares. Frustration over the financials aside, selling to Facebook might give employees their lives back.”

Excerpt From: Sarah Frier. “No Filter.” Apple Books.

“Systrom gave four reasons. First, he reiterated Zuckerberg’s argument: that Facebook’s stock value was likely to go up, so the value of the acquisition would grow over time. Second, he’d take a large competitor out of the picture. If Facebook took measures to copy Instagram or target the app directly, that would make it a lot more difficult to grow. Third, Instagram would benefit from Facebook’s entire operations infrastructure, not just data centers but also people who already knew how to do all the things Instagram would need to learn in the future.”

Excerpt From: Sarah Frier. “No Filter.” Apple Books.

“So that summer, Zuckerberg directed Javier Olivan, Facebook’s head of growth, to draw up a list of all the ways Instagram was supported by the Facebook app. And then he ordered the supporting tools turned off. Systrom again felt punished for Instagram’s success.

Instagram was also no longer allowed to run free promotions within the Facebook news feed—the ones that told people to download the app because their Facebook friends were already there. That had always brought a steady stream of new users to Instagram.

Another of the new changes would actually mislead Facebook users in an attempt to prevent them from leaving for Instagram. In the past, every time an Instagram user posted with the option to share on Facebook, the photo on Facebook said it came from Instagram, with a link back to the app. Instagram’s analysis showed that between 6 and 8 percent of all original content on Facebook was cross-posted from Instagram. Often, the attribution would be a cue for people to comment on the photo where it was originally posted. But with the change mandated by the growth team, that attribution would disappear, and the photo would seem as if it had been posted to Facebook directly

Excerpt From: Sarah Frier. “No Filter.” Apple Books.

Consolidations in the same industry always involve reduction of competition. The fact that Facebook is a giant company doesn’t make every single acquisition it made illegal or inappropriate. That’s why I don’t get folks are so upset about Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram. I think it’s safe to say that having Instagram at its current size benefits end users, entrepreneurs and small businesses. There is no guarantee that without Facebook, Instagram would have had the same achievement. It’s also worth noting that the FTC, at the time, approved this merger. As a result, why suddenly did this issue become trending again?

Using data to launch private labels isn’t illegal or bad in and of itself

One of the popular themes in this hearing is the use of data from other businesses by big tech companies to launch competing products. Amazon is accused of using data from startups that work with its investment arm and from sellers on its website to launch competing products. First of all, if Amazon violates any confidentiality term to gain illegal access to sensitive data, then yes they should be held accountable. However, I don’t think using aggregate data stemming from activities on its own website to launch private labels is inappropriate or illegal. What do you think Target, Walmart, Kroger or a litany of other retailers do? Where do you think they got intelligence before launching their own private labels? Here is the revenue share by private labels of retailers. The practice went back to several decade. So, why suddenly is it an issue?

Furthermore, even though Amazon has 35%-40% of the US eCommerce, it still has to compete with brick-and-mortar stores. Hence, if you account for physical stores and the whole US retail market, Amazon occupies only 6%, according to Ben Evans. It’s a bit of a Catch-22 situation for lawmakers. Focus on eCommerce alone and it’s not fair. Look at the whole retail segment and Amazon is likely off the hook as they have only 6% of market share. Imagine that as a successful business owner, you were told not to venture in a different segment, how would you feel? You’d probably say: “wait a minute, that’s unAmerican and against capitalism. Why aren’t I allowed to compete in another category just because I was successful in one?”

What I’d have a problem with is if Amazon abuses of its power to promote its private labels without merits. Specifically, if Amazon pushes its own labels which don’t have any positive reviews at all ahead of more established brands with a lot of reviews, then it’s problematic and not in the best interest of consumers. In that case, Amazon’d deserve scrutiny and criticisms.

App Store commissions

I’ll write about this issue in more details later, but here are a few basic points I want to bring up. Every company that plows resources properly into an operation earns the right to make money from such an operation. Even as one of the biggest and richest corporations in the world, Apple should be able to do that too. As a result, when Apple is responsible for manufacturing its own devices and creating the operating systems that include the App Store, Apple earns the right to monetize their effort. It’s unreasonable to expect Apple to run a charity out of the App Store. Whether the 30% or 15% commission is too high warrants a legit discussion, but I strongly disagree with folks who say Apple should just charge developers its cost of running the App Store.

While developers are important, they are just one side of the coin. The other side is Apple customers. Apple needs to ensure that the user experience on the App Store is as pleasant as possible. Otherwise, they wouldn’t sell as many devices and make as much money any more in the near future. That’s why they have guidelines on the App Store. It’s not reasonable to expect Apple let developers do whatever they want when Apple’s brand is on the line. In life, there is no free lunch. Developers shouldn’t expect to leverage Apple’s infrastructure and reach to customers without abiding by their rules. We all know the saying that goes “my house, my rules”, don’t we?

There is a legitimate concern over the inconsistency of Apple’s rule enforcement. The concern is amplified when it comes to select cases in which Apple has a conflict of interest with regard to its own apps. On that front, I do agree Apple should be held accountable and scrutinized by users, developers, media and the authorities.

In summary

The hearing is a waste of time for the most part, in my opinion. There are interesting discoveries revealed by the committee in the documents submitted by the companies; which you can find here, but the format of these hearings needs upgrading and the answers we got today from the CEOs weren’t that meaningful. I do believe that some of the anti-competition claims on big techs should be fleshed out more.

Disclaimer: I own Apple and Amazon stock in my personal portfolio

Book Review – No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram

Instagram is so popular in our life that it became part of our vernacular: Instagrammable. I wanted to learn more about a young startup that was founded in the beginning of the 2010s, got acquired by Facebook for a monstrous amount at the time and eventually grew to become one of the biggest social networks in the world. This book provides a good insight into the history of Instagram.

The history of Instagram started with Kevin Systrom, a Standard graduate. He passed up an opportunity to join two startups in their early days that would become multi-billion companies (Facebook and Twitter). He worked for a short time at Google before venturing out on his own. Along with Mike Krieger, a graduate student from Brazil, he developed an app called Burbn that attracted interest and capital from some of the angel investors in Silicon Valley. Burbn was later pivoted to become Instagram after a soul-searching discussion between the two founders. After 18 months of hard work, Instagram was bought by Facebook for $1 billion. The Instagram team and the two co-founders managed to keep their relative high level of independence within the Blue Brand for about 5-6 years. A score of disagreements over strategic decisions and a realization that it was Zuckerberg that effectively owned Instagram, the two founders left the company.

What fascinates me about the book is the chronicle of important decisions that the founders made along the way, especially decisions on product development. From the onset of Instagram, the founders, especially Systrom, wanted to focus on genuine and quality connections with users. While Facebook cheapened the relationship with users by prioritizing the sharing of news and articles, Instagram took time and effort to preserve the unique qualities of Instagram. For instance, they refused to have a share feature because they wanted users to have a genuine connection with whom they followed. Specifications for photos on Instagram were stricter than on Facebook. Systrom emphasized the importance of aesthetic quality of Instagram by personally approving Instagram ads at first, limiting to one advertiser a day originally, guiding celebrity users on how to post nice photos and setting up the tone for the culture as well as how users perceive Instagram.

One can argue that Instagram’s founders sold it too soon, but the counter argument is that without Facebook’s resources and infrastructure, Instagram wouldn’t like have achieved the growth it did that quickly. In the end, the hierarchy and essentially cultural clash with Facebook drove the founders out.

The book provides an exciting story of how little features, care for users, commitment to quality and great decisions can lead to a great product, especially when put in contrast to Facebook. I have been super annoyed by the amount of ads on Instagram. You can’t scroll more than 3 or 4 posts without an ads. I don’t think the founders would have approved that, but in the end, it wouldn’t have been their choice to make either.

If you are interested in a popular company’s history, entrepreneurship or product development/strategy, this book will be a nice one to pick up on a slow hot weekend. Isn’t it interesting to learn why there is no share button, why there is only one place you can post a hyperlink, why little details on Instagram came into beings? The book also sheds some light onto Mark Zuckerberg, who cast a long show over much of Instagram’s history.

“When Systrom joined in 2006, it had almost 10,000 employees. Google, far more functional and established than tiny Odeo, was led mostly by former Stanford students making data-based decisions. It was the culture that drove homepage leader Marissa Mayer, who later became CEO of Yahoo!, to famously test 41 shades of blue to figure out what color would give the company’s hyperlinks the highest click-through rate. A slightly purpler blue shade won out over slightly greener shades, helping boost revenue by $200 million a year. Seemingly insignificant changes could make a huge difference when applied to millions or billions of people.”

Excerpt From: Sarah Frier. “No Filter.” Apple Books.

“Krieger and Systrom started the exercise by making a list of the top three things people liked about Burbn. One was Plans, the feature where people could say where they were going so friends could join them. Another was photos. The third was a tool to win meaningless virtual prizes for your activity, which was mostly a gimmick to get people to log back in.

Not everybody needed plans or prizes. Systrom circled “photos.” Photos, they decided, were ubiquitous, useful to everybody, not just young city dwellers.

“There’s something around photos,” Kevin said. His iPhone 3G took terrible pictures, but it was only the beginning of that technology. “I think there will be an inflection point where people don’t carry around point-and-shoots anymore, they’re just going to carry around these phones.”

Excerpt From: Sarah Frier. “No Filter.” Apple Books.

“Their first prototype was named Scotch, a relative to bourbon. It allowed people to swipe through photos horizontally and tap to like them, similar to a Tinder before its time. They used it for a few days before going back to the Burbn idea, doubting their instincts. And then they tried a new concept that would allow people to scroll through photos vertically, showing the most recent post first, like Twitter.

All of the photos would use as few pixels as possible, so that they would load quickly, helping solve problem number one—only 306 pixels across, the minimum required to display a photo on an iPhone with 7-pixel borders on each side. The photos would be square, giving users the same creative constraint for photography as Systrom’s teacher in Florence gave him. It was similar to how Twitter only let people tweet in 140-character bursts. That would help solve, but not fully solve, problem number two.”

Excerpt From: Sarah Frier. “No Filter.” Apple Books.

“The founders picked their first users carefully, courting people who would be good photographers—especially designers who had high Twitter follower counts. Those first users would help set the right artistic tone, creating good content for everyone else to look at, in what was essentially the first-ever Instagram influencer campaign, years before that would become a concept.”

Excerpt From: Sarah Frier. “No Filter.” Apple Books.

“Krieger did build a re-share button but never released it to the public. The founders thought it would violate the expectations you had when you followed someone. You followed them because you wanted to see what they saw and experienced and created. Not someone else.”

Excerpt From: Sarah Frier. “No Filter.” Apple Books.

“Instagram, on the other hand, was trying to build a premium experience, brainstorming directly with advertisers about their ideas and manually placing their ads. They knew that this system couldn’t work forever, but Systrom and Krieger always urged people to do the simplest thing first, the way they had when they first built the app. Working manually on a small version of the product made more sense than spending precious engineering resources and navigating politics with Facebook’s ads sales team, for a system that might not ultimately work.

Using a strategy similar to that he’d employed when he founded the company—picking launch partners like Burberry and Lexus who would get it—Systrom personally approved every ad. Especially since now Instagram’s brand was too precious to risk letting anyone and everyone advertise however they’d like.”

Excerpt From: Sarah Frier. “No Filter.” Apple Books.

“Only one brand per day, Systrom had decided—that felt right. It was nonnegotiable: if Louis Vuitton called wanting the twentieth of the month, they would decline if Ben & Jerry’s already had the slot. All the names of the early advertisers were mapped out in red marker on a whiteboard calendar. An employee would print the potential ads out; then Systrom would go through them, one by one, deciding what was good enough and what wasn’t. If an ad wasn’t good enough, he would protest.

At one point Systrom was concerned that the food in one of the branded posts looked unappetizing, especially the French fries, which appeared soggy. “I don’t want to run it like this,” he told Jim Squires, his new ads lead, who had come over from Facebook.”

Excerpt From: Sarah Frier. “No Filter.” Apple Books.

New employees of Instagram, especially those coming from Facebook, would regularly suggest sharing tools to help increase the amount of posts on the app, only to be shot down by Systrom and Krieger. Public re-sharing was such a popular request that other entrepreneurs built apps like Regrann and Repost to attempt to fill the need, but these were no substitute for an in-app function. This made it harder to get noticed, but in some ways made it easier to build a personal brand. All your posts were yours. That was what the founders wanted.

Excerpt From: Sarah Frier. “No Filter.” Apple Books.

Trump had outspent Clinton between June and November, paying Facebook $44 million compared to her $28 million. And, with Facebook’s guidance, his campaign had operated like a tech company, rapidly testing ads using Facebook’s software until they found the perfect messaging for various audiences. Trump’s campaign had a total of 5.9 million different versions of his ads, compared to Clinton’s 66,000, in a way that “better leveraged Facebook’s ability to optimize for outcomes,” the employee said.

Excerpt From: Sarah Frier. “No Filter.” Apple Books.

“By December 2016, Instagram was letting users turn off comments for posts entirely if they wanted. Systrom’s willingness was in stark contrast to the attempts by Facebook and Twitter to err on the side of leaving content up, in an attempt to promote environments they said were neutral and open, but that in practice were rarely policed.

The same ideas, of letting users turn off comments or block them according to keyword, had been suggested several times at Facebook over the years. But it had never stuck. If there were fewer comments, there were fewer push notifications, and fewer reasons for users to come back to the site. Even on Instagram’s team, the former Facebook employees promised Systrom that they would find a way to build out the tool so it was difficult to find, and applicable only to one post at a time. That way, it wouldn’t be used as often.

Thanks but no thanks, Systrom said. He explained that he wasn’t worried about losing engagement, that the team was thinking too short-term. Over the long term, if the tool was easy to find and well publicized, people would have more affinity for Instagram, and the product would better weather storms of bad publicity, like the kind Facebook was starting to receive.”

Excerpt From: Sarah Frier. “No Filter.” Apple Books.

“So that summer, Zuckerberg directed Javier Olivan, Facebook’s head of growth, to draw up a list of all the ways Instagram was supported by the Facebook app. And then he ordered the supporting tools turned off.

Systrom again felt punished for Instagram’s success.

Instagram was also no longer allowed to run free promotions within the Facebook news feed—the ones that told people to download the app because their Facebook friends were already there. That had always brought a steady stream of new users to Instagram.

Another of the new changes would actually mislead Facebook users in an attempt to prevent them from leaving for Instagram. In the past, every time an Instagram user posted with the option to share on Facebook, the photo on Facebook said it came from Instagram, with a link back to the app. Instagram’s analysis showed that between 6 and 8 percent of all original content on Facebook was cross-posted from Instagram. Often, the attribution would be a cue for people to comment on the photo where it was originally posted. But with the change mandated by the growth team, that attribution would disappear, and the photo would seem as if it had been posted to Facebook directly”

Excerpt From: Sarah Frier. “No Filter.” Apple Books.