Nov 162016
 

Following last week’s US election attention has fallen onto the role of Facebook in influencing public opinion and the role of rumours and fake news.

The CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, says claims that his company’s news feed influenced the US election are nonsense but, as Zeynep Tufekci the New York Times writes, the platform has shown in its own experiments that the service does influence voters.

Sadly misinformation is now the norm on the web given anyone can start a blog and post ridiculous and outlandish claims. If that misinformation fits a group’s beliefs, then it may be shared millions of times as people share it across social media services, particularly Facebook.

Facebook’s filter bubbles exacerbates that problem as each person’s news feed is determined by what the company’s algorithm thinks the user will ‘like’ rather than something that will inform or enlighten them.

Those ‘filter bubbles’ tend to reinforce our existing biases or prejudices and when fake news sites are injected into our feeds Facebook becomes a powerful way of confirming our beliefs, something made worse by friends gleefully posting fake quotes or false news that happens to fit their world views. If you click ‘Like’, you’ll then get more of them.

Over time, Facebook risks becoming irrelevant if the news being fed from the site becomes perceived as being unreliable

For Facebook, and for other algorithm driven services like Google, the risks in fake news don’t just lie in a loss of credibility, there’s also the risk of regulatory problems when news manipulation starts affecting markets, commercial interests or threatens established power bases.

The fake news problem is something that affects the entire web and its users, for Facebook and Google it is becoming a serious issue.

Nov 022016
 

A year back this blog asked if Chattanooga’s experience shows how city infrastructure can drive private sector investment.

“The Gig”, as Chattanooga’s civic leaders have branded the city’s broadband rollout, came about because the city decided to treat internet services as a utility like water and roads. Vice Motherboard reports how this has reaped dividends for the town.

As Vice’s Jason Koebler describes, Chattanooga’s unemployment rate has halved since the depth of the Great Recession and in 2014 was listed as having the third highest wage growth among the United States’ mid-sized cities.

There are downsides though, Koebler warns, and one point is that having good broadband on its own isn’t a sure fire bet.

“Like the presence of well-paved roads, good internet access doesn’t guarantee that a city will be successful,” he writes. “But the lack of it guarantees that a community will get left behind as the economy increasingly demands that companies compete not just with their neighbors next door, but with the entire world.”

The advantage Chattanooga had though was its electricity company was owned by the city which meant a major part of the existing infrastructure was already in public hands and made it relatively easier and cheaper to roll out the network.

What Chattanooga does show is a well planned and structured fibre roll out can be done, it is easy or cheap and takes sensible planning. The latter is something other broadband projects can learn from.

Jun 302016
 

Two years ago Buzzfeed’s head of global operations visited Sydney and laid out the company’s vision of being the New York Times.

As Scott Lamb explained, an important part of the Buzzfeed model was generating traffic through social media shares — at that time a tactic which Iwas working well.

Since then the gloss has gone off Buzzfeed as the company misses financial targets and traffic plateaus.

Now Facebook has announced further changes to its newsfeed which sees more emphasis on users’ family and friends’ posts than news and brands.

Sites like Buzzfeed are left in a bind as one of their key sources for traffic dries up and, once again, Facebook’s cahnges show how risky it is for publishers and marketers to rely on individual online platforms.

In truth all of the major online services are predators with Facebook, along with Google and Amazon, being at the top of the food chain, just like tigers.

For those riding the internet tigers, the risk of being mauled is real. As Buzzfeed and others are finding.

Jun 102016
 
business return on assets is falling away

Ride service Uber has raised the game for logistics and delivery services in opening a group of Application Program Interfaces for third party developers.

The four functions available in the Uber Rush package cover delivery tracking, quotes and history. They make starting a logistics service or adding functions to a business far easier.

While there is a downside in the risk of being locked into Uber’s service this move will give a lot of developers the opportunity to develop delivery tracking products, for incumbent postal and courier services, this API is bad news on a number of levels.

Jun 062016
 

Ben Terrett, the former head of design at the UK Government’s Digital Service, tells GovInsider why the agency banned mobile phone apps with the British taxpayers saving £4.1bn over the following four years.

Instead the GDS insisted agencies built responsive web sites so pages would adapt to the devices they were being read upon, saving time and money being devoted to developing and maintaining individual apps for different platforms.

Apps are “very expensive to produce, and they’re very very expensive to maintain because you have to keep updating them when there are software changes,” GovInsider quotes Terrett.

For those of us who worry about the increasingly siloed and proprietary nature of the internet, Terret’s story is very good news. Apps are particularly problematic as they stunt innovation, lock users into platforms and give those who control the App stores – mainly Apple and Google – massive market power.

It’s no co-incidence Facebook are currently in the process of restricting web access to their messenger service. Locking users into their app gives them far more power over users and much more control over their data.

On the other hand, the open web means sites are more accessible and not subject to the corporate whims of whoever controls a given silo. It also means that any data collected is far more likely to be commoditised, something Facebook hates.

That government agencies and large corporations are realising the costs, risks and value they are handing over the gatekeepers by developing apps is encouraging. It would be good if they considered the other downsides of giving the web over to a small clique of companies.

 

May 242016
 
Cell phones in use

“We’re in the flip phone era of 5G networks, people don’t realise today’s 4G mobile standards were written for the era of the flip phone,” says John Smee, the Senior Director of Engineering at Qualcomm Research

John was speaking to me at chipset manufacturer Qualcomm’s San Diego head office to discuss the next generation of mobile phone services.

Putting together communications standards isn’t a simple thing, as John says “what we’re discussing now is what today’s five year olds will be using when they turn fifteen.”

John sees the new standard as giving the next generation of internet giants their market opening, pointing out companies such as Facebook and Uber benefitted from the rollout of 4G networks and some of today’s startups will get a similar boost from 5G services. “A few clicks and you’ve ordered a ride. That wouldn’t have been possible without 3G connectivity, high powered smartphones and networks that are scalable.”

“What are going to be some interesting new startups that become huge multibillion dollar industries from 2030,” he asks. “By definition we don’t understand the future.”

For telco executives being a ‘dumb pipe’ is one of their nightmares and John believes they can avoid that fate in a 5G world by concentrating on their advantages with licensed spectrum. “If they are looking a high reliability and low latency services then the quality of the connectivity they can offer becomes essential,” he says.

While the standards groups continue to work on the 5G standards, the technologies continue to evolve. John Smee’s message is that these new products are going to offer opportunities for new companies.

The trick is to figure out which of today’s startup companies will be the Uber or Facebook of 2025.

May 232016
 

The winner of the upcoming fight over voice technologies will come down to who is the most open and provides the best utility believes Tad Toulis, VP for design at smart speaker manufacturer Sonos.

A struggle is looming between the different voice systems believes Tad Toulis, VP of Design at smart speaker manufacturer Sonos.

We were speaking at Sonos’ Santa Barbara office the day after Google launched its Google Home voice activated hub to compete with Amazon’s and Apple’s Siri systems.

“There’s a little bit of syntax difference with every device we use, so we’re about to re-enter this environment where we have competing formats.” states Toulis, hinting at the days of competing network types operating systems and file types.

For Sonos, that fight between formats is an opportunity believes Toulis. “Sonos was very early into this space, so much so that it’s had a few lives. The original proposition was a way to get people who were into music to have access to their digital music and enliven their home with that music.”

“At a certain point in that arc, that category started to shrink a little bit and streaming started to emerge. Now streaming has become mainstream and we’re facing another cycle.”

Generous systems

Voice though is a social thing and that changes how we interact with devices Toulis believes, “we want to talk out loud in generous way to a generous system.”

“What people want is a supportive, powerful experience that creates good options day to day,” says Toulis. “The technology is fast approaching a tipping point where it’s very human centric.”

“The promise is to figure who can do that in the most natural way so you’re not thinking about the syntax and more about the experience.”

Finding a place at the table

Like most smaller players in the marketplace, Toulis sees Sonos as being a nuetral intermediary between with the various technology empires.

“Sonos offers a place in that conversation. We also approach it in a different way because it’s not one of our businesses, it is our business.”

“I assume we’ll do what we’ve done with the music services. We’ve always believed that we do well when there are many players.”

Winning the voice wars

When asked who is likely to win the voice wars, Toulis is quite rightly guarded, “what I’ve seen over my career in technology is what wins is what works for people, it’s not always the best technologies that win. What wins is the technology value proposition, here’s a need that hasn’t been satisfied and here’s a way of doing it that is sticky.”

“The one that creates the solution with the least resistance will win,” says Toulis. “The best solutions are usually pretty obvious. The problem is you have a bunch of specialists looking at it, they can’t see how obvious it is because they are looking past the target. They’re either very close up.”

While Toulis’ view is attractive, the risk for companies like Sonos is the technology empires find their business models aren’t suited to being open or generous and controlling access to their services is more compelling for their managers and shareholders.

Hopefully open web and data will prove to be the market’s driving forces and certainly Ted Toulis’ and Sonos’ views are what users would prefer, the giants though may not prove to be so generous.