The Tech Month in Snippets: April 2020
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April 2020: The Greatest Hits
1. Contact tracing apps went live
Many countries have been working on contract-tracing apps over the last few months, in an attempt to identify and alert individuals who come into contact with infected people.
If a user develops symptoms or has tested positive (should tests actually be available), it is down to them to update the app.
Such apps are live in 29 countries already and there is broad, but not uniform, agreement on how the tracing part should work. The most popular app is India’s Aarogya Setu, with over 50 million downloads. There is a really useful country-by-country breakdown here, if you’d like more details.
Apple and Google offered to join forces to create a “privacy-focused” (no, really) decentralized system. They would use Bluetooth to gather data in the background on Apple and Android devices, which would not interfere with the normal functioning of the phone.
This means the data resides on the individual phones, not on a central government server. It’s also much better for your phone’s battery life than a dedicated app would be, given that these typically need to “wake up” to make the connection.
The BBC did a nice job of jazzing it up into a diagram:
Germany didn’t like that approach, but has acquiesced and will work with the Apple/Google decentralized system.
The UK is sticking with its plan for a centralized system and will not use the Apple/Google approach. The matching between contacts will happen on a computer server in the UK, which will then send out notifications to the relevant parties. France also advocates this approach, as they believe it gives the government more insight into the disease’s spread.
The numbers people reckon we need over 60% of the population to use these apps to make them effective. For comparison, about 67% of UK smartphone users have downloaded WhatsApp, so this new thing needs to be a serious hit.
It’s a telling time for the big tech companies and their relationships with governments. The governments are painfully aware of how little data they have on people’s movements and this is an opportunity to take control of this information. This Economist article looks at how autocratic governments are using the virus as a smokescreen for their ulterior motices.
Tech companies, on the other hand, have shown just how pervasive their data collection is and also how resilient their businesses are to times of widespread upheaval.
It’s not all good news, though. The restrictions of the tech companies have surfaced, too.
For example, this excellent article tackled a lingering concern:
A.I. can’t solve this: The coronavirus could be highlighting just how overhyped the industry is — CNBC
In the article, one potty-mouthed expert offered, “This (pandemic) is showing what bulls — t most AI is. It’s great and it will be useful one day but it’s not surprising in a pandemic that we fall back on tried and tested techniques.”
Obscenities aside, there is a lot of truth in this.
Much of what we currently badge as new-age AI is really good-old statistics. AI works very well in concrete applications, with a clear goal and lots of trained data.
Google and Facebook have helped with some data modelling tasks since the outbreak and they do excel in this area, but there is a gap between these applications and the real-world applications needed in a health crisis.
In an article entitled, “Google’s medical AI was super accurate in a lab. Real life was a different story.”, MIT Technology Review wrote this week:
“A study from Google Health — the first to look at the impact of a deep-learning tool in real clinical settings — reveals that even the most accurate AI systems can actually make things worse if not tailored to the clinical environments in which they will work.”
We should certainly not read into this that the tech giants will retire to the sidelines. Quite the contrary, in fact. AI is a tool to extend and enhance human capabilities, when designed with people in mind.
As such, AI leaders have already secured a seat at the top table.
For example, Demis Hassabis (founder of Alphabet-owned DeepMind) was asked to dial into the UK’s scientific advisory board coronavirus meetings, further highlighting the exalted status that tech execs can expect these days.
They may not be helping to their fullest potential during this crisis, but the big tech companies will no doubt spy an opportunity to help us out of our next jam.
I suppose we don’t blame windmills for the wind, do we?
2. A retail of two cities
For that pun to work, we’ll need to imagine one of the cities is ecommerce and the other is offline retail.
Yes, I get that this stretches the pun beyond all credulity.
Either way, it has been a very turbulent time for retailers, as you know.
Some high street retailers, such as Oasis and Warehouse in the UK, will not be able to reopen once the pandemic subsides, whenever that may be.
Shopping malls are facing their own existential crisis, which has been on the horizon for a while but now stands in sharp relief.
Retailers with a reasonable balance of online and offline sales have still suffered due to an overall decrease in consumer activity.
For example, adidas posted increased sales for ecommerce in Q1, but overall sales fell 19%. As we often discuss, offline still accounts for the majority of sales across the board.
For online-focused retailers, the picture is still murky even if not quite as gloomy as it is for offline specialists.
Demand has increased for online groceries, as you’d expect, and this surge will (hopefully) be short-lived.
However, this may be the nudge the industry needs to establish a lasting change in how we shop for fresh produce. Until now, we have all been resolute in our desire to see and select our own items in the supermarket, to the chagrin of your Amazons.
Walmart aims to capitalize by offering two-hour delivery on groceries, and Instacart posted its first profit in April.
The new Wunderman Thompson ‘Future Shopper’ report (downloadable here) aims to predict what will happen in a range of major markets, with a sustained focus on how services will shift to the online world.
One wonders how quickly we will return to our relentless, consipuous consumption. The sense that we will simply shift online, only faster than before, seems reductive.
3. Shall we Zoom? Or Meet? Or Facebook Messenger? Or..
Zoom has come out of this distressing time rather well, from a business perspective.
Its user numbers have soared, although it has had to clarify that it actually has 300 million ‘participants’, not individual users. So, if you join multiple meetings on Zoom, you are counted as a new participant each time.
Still, it has been one of the prime beneficiaries of our switch to home working and its share price has more than doubled this year already. People are even running “nightclubs” on Zoom, as this WSJ article reported.
Zoom is interesting because it entered a market that was already populated with giants. It is not a shock that video-conferencing is on the rise; it has been rising for more than a decade.
Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and oh so many others have been in this game for a while.
And yet, Zoom took off. It just works a bit better than the others. That is not by accident: Zoom invested heavily in its infrastructure and has largely been able to manage the huge surges in traffic recently.
Zoom’s success has awoken the tech industry’s dormant video-conference titans.
These dialectics never stop, do they?
Where Zoom availed of weaknesses in Google’s Hangouts service (namely, it’s overall crumminess), Google now aims to strike back and zone in on Zoom’s flaws.
Zoom has received a lot of criticism for its lack of security, leading to the advent of ‘Zoombombing’, where uninvited guests can turn up to meetings. One FT reporter was suspended this week for listening in on Zoom calls at rival papers like the Evening Standard.
Google’s Meet service is now free for all users with a Google account, and they are very keen indeed to stress that their video calls are secure. They also have some snazzy features like AI noise cancellation, which would really help me with the number of sirens that go off in the background during my webinars.
The increased competition and the size of the prize on offer should spur innovation in this technology.
Video-conferencing is really just a “digitization” of a meeting, in crude terms. To make this the preferred way to meet, post-pandemic, the new medium needs some new features.
+ Facebook claims its new chatbot beats Google’s as the best in the world — MIT
4. Quibi chief quits
Remember Quibi? We discussed it not so long ago.
Well, its marketing chief has already left the company and daily downloads are dropping off, after that initial surge.
We would expect that, to a greater or lesser degree, so the focus now will be on turning free trials into paid subscriptions.
This amateur critic was less than enamored of Quibi’s content and it remains staggering that they spent over $1 billion on content and ended up reviving Punk’d.
5. TikTok had the “best quarter for any app, ever.”
I wonder if they had a decent quarter at TikTok, then?
Talk about ramming the point home.
They are also testing a ‘Shop Now’ button for influencer videos to close that gap from “Gimme” to “I got it.”
Shopify, meanwhile, has launched a new product called Shop. You can shop on it.
It’s more interesting than it sounds and will likely get that hi, tech. treatment soon.
Brands will likely lean on direct response advertising in the short-term future, as it provides a comforting correlation between ad spend and returns. TikTok wants a piece of the action and no doubt, Shopify’s new platform will open up to advertisers soon.
The advertising group Publicis is taking this all a step further. They have announced a new service called The Pact, which offers a money-back guarantee to clients if their performance targets are not met.
From my experience in digital advertising, now a distant-but-potent memory, I can say rather them than me. However, the Publicis performance targets apparently have some maths behind them and aren’t just dreamt up by an avaricious chancer, so maybe it’ll pay off.
Five Things That Made Us Smarter in April
1. ‘A bargain with the devil’: What coronavirus means for Airbnb hosts — WSJ
Many Airbnb superhosts borrowed against future bookings. $1.5 billion in Airbnb bookings was canceled in March, so they’re struggling to maintain their properties.
The article notes,
“Hosts brought with them cleaning services, interior designers and property-maintenance workers who helped build miniature property empires — so their plight has ripple effects that go far beyond their own listings.”
2. What Premier League clubs are learning from F1 — The Athletic
“The 2019 Williams car had more than 350 sensors in it and one car alone was generating over 17.5 billion data points per Grand Prix weekend.”
3. Five trends in venture capital for a post-coronavirus world — MIT Sloan
4. What Pinterest users searched for in April 2020 — Pinterest
Yeastless bread (+4,400%)
Home face masks (+324%)
5. Ten reasons why a ‘Greater Depression’ for the 2020s is inevitable — Guardian
Including: Increasing government deficits, private-sector debts, creaking infrastructure, the US-China “decoupling”, and many more!
Tidbit of the Month
Al Capone and his cronies cornered the market in milk as the end of Prohibition approached. They bought a factory and worked out a swindle to move milk in from a neighboring county at a lower price, bypassing local taxation laws.
They kidnapped a milk union president and everything.
That said, Capone had a positive impact on the dairy industry too. He is said to be the reason milk has an expiration date on the bottle, believe it or not. His crew lobbied for the change after a Capone family member got sick from drinking expired milk.
What a world we live in.