Weekly readings – 7th August 2020

What I wrote last week

Uber’s latest quarter

Apple’s acquisition of this promising fintech startup from Canada

Business

Inside Netflix’s Quest to Become a Global TV Giant

US citizens increasingly moved to Canada through its Express Entry program

Content creators on YouTube that no longer rely on advertising dollars on the platform grew 40% between Jan and May 2020

Why Microsoft wants Tiktok

A sensible piece on Amazon, its private label and the antitrust issue that it has to deal with

Eugene Wei’s latest essay is on TikTok and it’s good

ARK’s latest white paper on SaaS

How Tim Cook has molded Apple into his own version, not Steve Jobs’

Technology

Apple secured a new patent that could equip Apple Watch with odor sensor technology

What’s the Big Deal About Revit? Understanding the Role of Autodesk Revit in Architecture, Engineering, and Construction

Other stuff that I think is interesting

Inside look at CloudKitchens

Bill Gates’ conversation on Covid-19

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: Tim Cook The Genius Who Took Apple To The Next Level

First of all, I own Apple stocks in my personal portfolio and I blogged many times about the company before. I picked up this book because I wanted to read something light and know more about the guy who runs the company which I admire and have a vested interest in. To be frank, the book was written by an author who seems to have a favorable view on Apple. Some suggested that his writing was biased towards the Cupertino-based company. I leave that to the readers to judge.

The book followed Tim Cook from his childhood in a small town in Alabama to his first job at IBM which was followed by one or two stints at others, before he ended up at Compaq. A fateful meeting with Steve Jobs shortly after he returned to the helm at Apple led to arguably one of Steve’s best hires at Apple who is now the CEO of the company. It’s interesting to read about Tim’s background in Alabama and the environment he grew up in. When he came to know his sexuality remains unclear from the book. What is clear is that his sexuality shapes his world view and what he declares as the best gift God gave him.

The majority of the book is about Apple under Tim’s leadership, even back to when he was only in charge of Apple’s supply chain. Some may be disappointed that the book doesn’t include more personal details or anecdotes on the man or any interview from the man himself. Nonetheless, he is known for being a private man and anyone’s privacy should be respected. If someone spends most of his awake time running a company, I think it’s fair to view him in the light of what others think of him and how he performs at work. Tim’s performance, when put in contrast to Steve Jobs’, should be more telling. While Steve is undoubtedly one of the best CEOs of all time, there are things that Tim did wouldn’t likely have been done by Steve such as the focus on environmental sustainability.

Tim’s actions on controversial issues such as the balance between profitability and protection of workers in the supply chain or privacy and the legal battle against FBI or his public confirmation on his sexuality should let readers know more about the man himself. Regarding his status as a CEO, Apple’s value has grown many times since he took over. The company once reached a market valuation of around $1.6 trillion. To manage a company with such operational complexity, a diverse set of products and services, a cut-throat competition and an unbridled level of scrutiny is no easy feat. No matter what you think about the book or the author’s allegedly favorable view on Apple, it’s hard to deny what Tim has brought to Apple.

“ Fast forward eight years, and under Cook’s leadership, Apple has been absolutely killing it. Since Jobs died, Apple reached the ultimate milestone, becoming the world’s first trillion-dollar company, making it the most valuable corporation in the world. Its stock has nearly tripled. Its cash reserves have more than quadrupled since 2010, to a record $267.2 billion—despite its spending nearly $220 billion in stock buybacks and dividends. For perspective, the U.S. government only has $271 billion cash on hand.”

Excerpt From: Leander Kahney;. “Tim Cook.” Apple Books.

“When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don’t consider the bloody ROI [return on investment],” he said. And the same thinking applies to Apple’s environmental initiatives, worker safety, and other policies. “If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock,” he snarled at the conservative investor. Afterward, the NCPPR issued a statement decrying Cook’s stance: “After today’s meeting, investors can be certain that Apple is wasting untold amounts of shareholder money to combat so-called climate change.” But Cook, as always, stayed true to his principles.”

Excerpt From: Leander Kahney;. “Tim Cook.” Apple Books.

“When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don’t consider the bloody ROI [return on investment],” he said. And the same thinking applies to Apple’s environmental initiatives, worker safety, and other policies. “If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock,” he snarled at the conservative investor. Afterward, the NCPPR issued a statement decrying Cook’s stance: “After today’s meeting, investors can be certain that Apple is wasting untold amounts of shareholder money to combat so-called climate change.” But Cook, as always, stayed true to his principles.”

Excerpt From: Leander Kahney;. “Tim Cook.” Apple Books.

Shortly after Cook was inducted into the Alabama Academy of Honor in 2014, he personally told Representative Todd that Apple had no intention of investing in Alabama until the state passes anti-discrimination laws. “Citizens of Alabama can still be fired based on their sexual orientation,” Cook said. “We can’t change the past, but we can learn from it, and we can create a different future.”

Excerpt From: Leander Kahney;. “Tim Cook.” Apple Books.

“Under Cook’s leadership, the amount of time that Apple’s inventory sat on the company’s balance sheet was reduced from months to mere days. In the seven months after he started work at Apple, thanks to Cook’s achievements slashing inventory turnover from thirty days to six, the company’s inventory stock was reduced from $400 million worth of unsold Macs down to just $78 million.”

Excerpt From: Leander Kahney;. “Tim Cook.” Apple Books.

To make sure that the computers shipped out to customers in an expedient manner over the all-important holiday season, Cook booked $100 million worth of air freight months in advance. This was unheard of, but it paid off in a big way. Not only did Apple get its products out to customers in a rapid fashion, but its rival PC makers, such as Compaq, suddenly found themselves struggling to secure shipping over the holidays.

Excerpt From: Leander Kahney;. “Tim Cook.” Apple Books.

“This is really bad,” Cook said. “Someone should be in China driving this.” The meeting continued for another half hour before Cook looked directly at Sabih Khan, a key operations executive, and asked, with deadly seriousness, “Why are you still here?” Khan immediately got up, left the meeting, drove to the airport, and booked a flight to China with no return date. He didn’t even stop at his home to pack a change of clothes.”

Excerpt From: Leander Kahney;. “Tim Cook.” Apple Books.

“He took conference calls on Sunday nights, was replying to emails by 3:45 a.m., and was at his desk by 6 a.m. every morning. He worked twelve- or thirteen-hour days in the office, and then returned home to answer more emails.

“I would get a couple of emails from Tim between about 3:45 and 4:15 in the morning,” and “then from 4:30 to 6:00 it would go quiet,” said his colleague Bruce Sewell, Apple’s former general counsel. “That’s when he’s at home and eating breakfast, getting up, getting ready to go to the gym.” Then from about 6:15 onward he would be at work.

It wasn’t unheard of for Cook to fly to China, work three days without acknowledging the sixteen-hour time difference, fly back, land at 7 a.m., and be in the office for a meeting at 8:30. When he wasn’t flying to China to meet with Apple suppliers, he rarely left the state of California so that he could be available at a moment’s notice.”

Excerpt From: Leander Kahney;. “Tim Cook.” Apple Books.

“Under Cook, Apple has taken a more hands-on role in launching initiatives targeting workers. In 2017 the company launched a new health awareness program intended for women working at its suppliers in India and China, offering access to services and education on self-examination for early cancer detection, nutrition, personal care, and maternal health. Jeff Williams said that by 2020, Apple hopes that this program will have reached one million women.

Apple’s financial muscle also means that it is able to dictate many of the terms of business to its suppliers. In 2018, Apple forced one of its suppliers in the Philippines to repay a total of $1 million it had charged for recruitment fees for factory jobs. ”

Excerpt From: Leander Kahney;. “Tim Cook.” Apple Books.

“iOS 7 also brought Activation Lock, a feature that prevents lost or stolen devices from being wiped and reactivated without the owner’s iCloud password. Activation Lock makes the iPhone and iPad significantly less appealing to would-be thieves, who quickly realized that they would not be able to sell what essentially became the world’s most attractive brick as soon as it was no longer in the possession of its rightful owner. Police data published in 2014 revealed that iPhone thefts in San Francisco had fallen 38 percent since Activation Lock was made available in September 2013, while thefts in London and New York City had dropped 24 percent and 19 percent, respectively.”

Excerpt From: Leander Kahney;. “Tim Cook.” Apple Books.

“Stefan Behling, a Foster partner who became one of the project leads, recalled Jobs’s specific demands: “He knew exactly what timber he wanted, but not just ‘I like oak’ or ‘I like maple.’ He knew it had to be quarter-cut. It had to be cut in the winter, ideally in January, to have the least amount of sap and sugar content. We were all sitting there, architects with gray hair, going, ‘Holy shit!’”

Excerpt From: Leander Kahney;. “Tim Cook.” Apple Books.

“Even something as simple as using an Apple Watch to unlock your Mac, which is surprisingly complex behind the scenes, is a small but telling example of innovation in the Cook era. Like Cook himself, these improvements aren’t trumpeted as big breakthroughs, but they add up to a better experience and are leading the rest of the tech industry. Indeed, many may not realize that this is the way Apple has always operated; the big breakthroughs are rare, but smaller incremental improvements are common, and sometimes they add up to big new breakthrough products.”

Excerpt From: Leander Kahney;. “Tim Cook.” Apple Books.