Platforms are like doctors; A day with Bezos; AI poetry from a lion

Main Course
HBR: Platforms Should Become Information Fiduciaries

Harvard professor Johnathan Zittrain writes in HBR that large internet platforms should have a fiduciary duty to users: “Like doctors, lawyers, and financial advisers, social media platforms and their concierges are given sensitive information by their users, and those users expect a fair shake — whether they’re trying to find out what’s going on in the world or how to get somewhere or do something.” It’s an idea increasing in popularity among academics; we’ll see if it gains traction in policy rings, or if politicians remain content with Committee hearings and grandstanding.

Report: How the right uses YouTube to influence and “sell” a political ideology.
Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 9.21.39 AM
Data & Society’s report visualizes how YouTube’s recommendations can lead users from moderate to increasingly radicalized channels.

A new Data & Society report analyzes how political influencers adopt the techniques of brands to build audiences and sell them a political ideology. Of note: “YouTube is a principal online news source for young people. Which is why it is concerning that YouTube… has become the single most important hub by which an extensive network of far-right influencers profit from broadcasting propaganda to young viewers. Social networking between influencers makes it easy for audience members to be incrementally exposed to, and come to trust, ever more extremist political positions.”


Lighter Fare

⌚️ Watch out: Hodinkee’s got a review of the Apple Watch Series 4 after a week on the wrist. The cult classic Ikepod watch (perhaps most recognizable now because its strap design is used on the aforementioned Apple Watch) is also back, starting at less than $400. Quartz for now, but since the Kickstarter has already blown past its goal, those hoping for an automatic version may have something to look forward to in 2019.

Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 9.23.44 AM.png
Ikepod is back and better than ever; if you squint, doesn’t it look like the Apple Watch? | Source: Ikepod

🌮 A Financial Times columnist reflects on the enduring regionalism of cuisine, writing,  “To eat out is to see through the world-as-village conceit. Except at the lowest price point (McDonald’s) and the highest (Nobu), a global dining scene — in which each cuisine is, like an iPhone, consistent across the world — remains not just elusive but unimaginable.

🍌 Elsewhere in food: peeling back the history of the banana, and American habits are changing faster than fast food can keep up (or, restaurant visits are at a 28-year low).

🤑 Forbes’ interview with Bezos. One of the best quotes from the $160 billion man: “Friends congratulate me after a quarterly-earnings announcement and say, ‘Good job, great quarter,’ and I’ll say, ‘Thank you, but that quarter was baked three years ago.’ I’m working on a quarter that’ll happen in 2021 right now.

Salesforce’s Benioff purchases TIME for $190 million. This week in the genre of tech-founder-gives-news-outlet-an-opportunity-to-profile-to-prove-he’s-an-okay-guy: Kairos’ Ankur Jain is profiled by the New Yorker, and Business of Fashion’s Imran Ahmed is profiled by the Guardian. At the intersection of politics and retail: #NikeBoycott is over, and why retail activism rarely changes anything. Important reminders for men in tech (and elsewhere). Can the maker of Tasers provide answers and new technologies to assist with police abuse? Ikea’s self driving ambitions.

🍾 A week of anniversaries: WIRED turns 25 and the Economist turns 175, with the requisite reflective essays to accompany the milestones.

📱 Apple v. Kanye. The Financial Times points out that two industries historically poles apart – fashion and tech – will go head-to-head on Friday. Adidas’ Yeezy line will have its biggest drop yet, while Apple will debut the first of its new phone line. Apple has always gladly straddled the line of luxury brand disguised as tech company (or is the other way around?), while Kanye has declared a goal of democratizing high-end fashion. His $220 sneakers are a good start.

🦁 Please Feed the Lions: Designer Es Devlin, who has in the past found herself in the good graces of Kanye West and Beyonce, is behind a new project titled Please Feed the Lions. Visitors to the sculpture in London’s Trafalgar Square “feed” the lion a word via tablet. The lion then uses AI to create a poem using the word.

Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 11.00.14 AM.png
AI-powered poetry, brought to you by a lion | Source: Google

Amazon Go Opens In Chicago

When Amazon opened its first Amazon Go location in Seattle earlier this year, I wrote:

On January 22, Amazon opened Amazon Go, its cashier-less convenience store concept, to the public. Pictures of the store show a small, 7-Eleven-like space filled with grab-and-go items, meal kits, and even alcohol. Almost as soon as news of its opening spread, speculation of Amazon’s plans for the technology behind Amazon Go spread as well. Will they license the technology to others? (eh, maybe) Bring it to Whole Foods? (eventually) Build Amazon Go stores across the United States? (yep).

Seven months later, Amazon has opened three more Go locations in Seattle, and on September 17, it quietly opened the first Go location outside of its home city, in Chicago’s Loop.

Here are a few photos of the new location, at 113 S Franklin, for those in Chicago (it’s the same building as Amazon’s office in the city).

The entrance is unremarkable, just one door that opens to the street and another that opens into the attached office building (where Amazon resides). The space itself is also small, no larger than a 7-Eleven you might find in a downtown area.

IMG_0014
The entrance to Amazon Go’s new Chicago location.

Inside, the store is also pretty ordinary, with a long L-shaped refrigerated around along the walls, and a few rows of common convenience items lining the internal rows. The items have a decidedly more health-focused bent then traditional packaged goods one might see at convenience stores. The fridge space is filled with read-to-eat items for breakfast and lunch, and boxed dinners that can be taken home and prepped in “about 30 minutes,” Blue Apron style.

Continue reading Amazon Go Opens In Chicago

The technology and culture sites you need to know

Technology is a fast-paced industry, and staying up on what’s happening at the intersection of technology and culture is tough. There are a number of sites I admire and use as resources when aggregating stories to publish Codebrief. In no particular order, these are some of the best technology blogs and websites, and the best culture blogs and websites. Enjoy on your own, or subscribe to Codebrief, which will refer and link to many of these sites on a weekly basis. Of course everyone can visit the technology section of their favorite newspaper or find news about movie openings or stars from Variety, the New Yorker, or any other number of nationally recognized publications, but that’s not what this list is about; it’s about recognizing the often unrecognized publications that do great work in synthesizing the news and make sense of it.

Technology

Stratechery

The preeminent technology analysis site, written by analyst Ben Thompson. It’s a must read for anyone remotely interested in the business and strategy of technology companies and the impact of these companies on society at large.

CB Insights

CB Insights is a firm that makes its money by providing in-depth analysis and reports to paying subscribers. For non-subscribers though, they send out fun newsletters about startups and disruptive technologies once a week or so, which give high-level overviews of their latest research, as well as brief commentary on other trends and news. It’s a newsletter that provides a lot of levity to an industry that often takes itself to seriously.

Lean Luxe

A multi-weekly newsletter (is that a thing? they usually publish two or three times a week) covering everything DNVB (that’s digitally-native vertical brand, for the uninitiated – think Warby Parker, Glossier, Everlane, and all those other companies that started as a mere ad in your Instagram feed). They provide great coverage of the businesses reshaping consumer habits and the venture capital behind these businesses. They’ve also cultivated an active and passionate community via Slack and other channels.

Exponential View

A self described “wondermissive,” this weekly newsletter is delivered every Sunday, providing links to articles from around the web on self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, and other so-called “exponential technologies.” A great newsletter to understand the high-level trends impacting every industry and person today.

Hacker News (Newsletter)

Okay, suggesting Hacker News isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but their weekly newsletter does a great job of distilling all of the headlines that pop to the top of the site for those who can’t stay on top of it every day. It provides the best in programming, design, business, and more. A great window into the hacker world, for non-programmers (like me).

Techmeme

The preeminent technology news aggregator. For the more aurally inclined, also check out their daily podcast, a 15-minute roundup of the tech news from the day.

The Information

I can’t afford the hefty subscription to The Information, but their weekly newsletter still provides a great overview of what they published the week prior, as well as characteristically cogent analysis from founder Jessica Lessin.

The Interface by Casey Newton

Casey Newton is an editor for The Verge (probably my favorite online technology publication), mainly covering Facebook and other social networks. This is his nightly newsletter, providing an overview of the day’s news. I don’t subscribe anymore, mainly because I became overwhelmed by the constant stream of FB controversies of the past few years, by Newton describes and analyses this controversies better than anyone else out there.

Aeon

Publishing some of the best long form pieces out there, often analyzing how technology is impacting what it means to be human.

Techdirt

Mike Masnick’s Techdirt does a great job covering the lesser-covered technology policy and legal news of the day, and the site takes stronger stances than almost any other I’ve read.

Benedict Evans’ Newsletter

Benedict Evans is VC Andressen Horowitz’s big thinker – he sends out a weekly newsletter of links from around the web, often providing a blog post that synthesizes his thoughts on the big trends in tech.

Culture

Business of Fashion

The Wall Street Journal of the fashion industry. Quiet simply, this is the go-to resource for business people in the fashion industry. Founded in 2007, BoF provides daily analysis about whatever’s going on with fashion and the businesses creating the trends of tomorrow.

Hodinkee

Started by Ben Clymer ten years ago, this is the go-to stop for all things watches. New releases, in-depth analyses and a surprisingly entertaining podcast make all of Hodinkee’s content a must for mechanical watch nerds everywhere. Oh, and you might even spot a post or two by one John Mayer.

The Goods (by Vox)

RIP Racked, long live The Goods. When Vox shut down the Racked brand in early 2018, it promised to roll its fashion, consumer and retail content into a new sub-brand under the Vox flag. Well, we finally have it, in the Goods, and its content to date has been superb. Of course, Vox’s Eater also churns out great content for the foodies among us.

The Outline

A publication fast gaining in popularity, The Outline provides unique and sometimes odd takes on all variety of culture and society. It was started by the founder of the Verge, who was also one of the founders of Vox Media.

Fast Company

Well-known but by no means a household name, Fast Company focuses on the future of the businesses we all know and love. And, with its recent purchase of Co.Design, the publication is also a destination for understanding the design strategies these companies are pursuing.

Quartzy (by Quartz)

A special publication by Quartz focused on all things consumerism: form design to dining to decor.

Gear Patrol

This one’s for the guys, but Gear Patrol does a pretty good job of putting its readers on notice of the best new tech and fashion gear so its worthy of a mention here.

High Snobiety

David Fischer has built something of an empire at the intersection of sneakers, fashion and music, becoming an authority on streetwear in the process.

2PM

The weekly newsletter of Web Smith, who’s something of an authority in the ecommerce-retail-brand space. Subscribe for his thoughts.

Scott’s Cheap Flights

Okay, this one is off topic, but just subscribe. You never know what you’ll get from Scott.

Of course I try to stay up to date on popular, more general-interest news sources – Verge, Vox, Wired, NYT, WSJ, Digg being some of my favorites – but I think these lesser known sources are worth highlighting.

Platforms are the New Corporation; Technology and Basketball

wildlife-photography-eagle-fox-fighting-over-rabbit-kevin-ebi-8-5b0661f2c2717__880
An eagle and a fox fight over a rabbit; or, Amazon’s fight for food delivery dominance.

🏢 Do Platforms Work?, Aeon

The distributed network has gobbled up the hierarchical firm. Where once we had the ‘corporation’, now we are witnessing the ascendancy of the ‘platform’. The platform economy is in its early days, but to date, profits generated by these large internet platforms (Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple) have accrued to their owners. But the future of platforms provides promise for workers (through the current platform model, or through crypto networks) to build and own their own platforms. This provides opportunity for them to actual participate in and own the value being created, rather than having it be skimmed by remote investors or shareholders.

“The traditional structure of the firm might have reached its use-by date. But if societies can embrace the economics of the platform while shifting its ownership to workers, a more equitable, resilient and democratic society could well be in store.”

🥑 How Amazon Is Using Whole Foods in a Bid for Total Retail Domination, Fortune

As part of its profile of Fortune 500 companies, Fortune provides a peak into Amazon’s Whole Foods strategy, a year since the merger took place. The online food delivery business is different than the traditional ecommerce business Amazon has perfected, but its Whole Foods purchase gives it just the door needed to win over the fridge space of its 100-million-strong Prime subscriber base. Indeed, many of Amazon’s most well-known and consumer-facing efforts – Amazon Key, the Ring purchase, Alexa – will all play critical roles in the ecommerce giant’s efforts to sell us our kale and avocados.

“’Food is the platform for selling you everything else,’ says Walter Robb, the former co-CEO of Whole Foods. ‘It’s an everyday way into your life. There’s nothing else that happens quite that way.'”

👸 Queens of Infamy: Anne Boleyn, Longreads

Before royal weddings were nationally televised and Harry wiped away a tear for millions to see, there was Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. A brilliantly funny and informative tour of Boleyn’s life.


 

With the NBA Finals beginning today, a few basketball-themed tech long reads:

⛹️‍♂️ The Instagram Stars of High School Basketball, The Atlantic

Around 2014, the hyper-local world of high school basketball began to change.

Zion Williams, a high-school phenom and Duke’s latest five-star recruit, has more than 1.5 million Instagram followers.

Short-form video began to proliferate on social networks and more digitally native high-school athletes, armed with their own cellphones, started posting clips of themselves and friends doing dunks and trick shots, and cobbling together their own highlight reels for YouTube. These clips spread like wildfire, amplified by the rise of basketball-focused media companies like Ballislife and Overtime, which have dedicated increasing resources to covering the high-school market.

It’s another fascinating story illustrating the way in which digital platforms have influenced the way we act in the physical world.

🏀 The Curious Case of Bryan Colangelo and the Secret Twitter Account, The Ringer

In one of the weirder internet-meets-sports stories since Manti Te’o and the dead girlfriend, The Ringer details the weird story of Philadelphia 76ers’ president of basketball operations, Bryan Colangelo and his five fake Twitter accounts. The accounts disclosed non-public information, debated 76ers’ front office moves and strategy, and crticized NBA players.

Cool things of the week 🤔: 

🦅 A fox and a bald eagle fight over a rabbit in mid air.

🎬 A trailer for the Winnie the Pooh live action film that might make you cry.

📚 And, all the books Bill Gates has recommended.

How Social Media Influences Everything, from Architecture to the Outdoors

Because I recently graduated law school and I’ll be studying for the bar exam all summer, I’ve decided I’ll be doing something a bit different with this blog/newsletter for the next few months.

Recently, I’ve noticed a lack of a well-curated newsletter of long form essays on technology and its impact on society. Social media and other algorithms are great at surfacing the news of the day, but aren’t great at curating the long reads that step back and force us to think about the big picture.

This tweet from Andressen Horowitz’s resident tech pundit, Benedict Evans, crystallized the gap:

In short, this is what I’m going to do over the next few months. I’ll provide links to a few great long reads from the past week, with a short synopsis and some takeaways.

I love thinking in depth about technology and society, but more than that, I love reading others’ in-depth thoughts on how technology is impacting what it means to be human. While books often address these topics, technology moves so fast it can be better to read digital essays that don’t have to go through the time-consuming book editing process to understand quickly evolving trends.

And so without further distraction, here are this week’s long reads.


 

🗻 Death in the Alpine, High Country News

The story of two buddies who attempt to hike one of Colorado’s famed fourteeners, and what happens when outdoor adventures are inspired by social media.

“Even in the wildest places, we are connected to a universe of people and information through Instagram and Facebook, while those same apps bring distant landscapes into the comfort of our living rooms. That can affect people’s assessments of how dangerous things are: What once seemed extreme becomes normal if you look at enough Instagram photos showing other people doing it….

If mountain climbing has traditionally reflected the most heroic versions of ourselves — triumphant and invincible — social media has amplified that projection.”

It’s another story of the way the digital world has come to reshape the physical world around it, and how the physical world is responding to reshape that digital milieu.

 

⌨️ ‘Crush Them’: An Oral History of the Lawsuit that Upended Silicon Valley, The Ringer

On the 20th anniversary of the filing of the Justice Department’s antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft, the Ringer convened the lawyers who tried the case, the competitors who found themselves under Microsoft’s heel, and the journalists tasked with making sense of it all to recount tech’s most important legal battle, in their own words.

A fascinating oral history of the DOJ’s case against Microsoft, with little gems like this: “The line in the sand for Microsoft was the freedom to put anything it wanted to into Windows. And [Steve] Ballmer’s line was, ‘If we want to put a ham sandwich in it, we can.'”

It also tells the tale of lead prosecutor David Boies using Bill Gates’ awkwardness against him, starting with opening arguments (sound anything like another famous founder under regulatory scrutiny now?)

 

📺 Poppy’s Legal-Battle Woes Are Years in the Making, Polygon

Can a living art project be found guilty of identity theft? A new lawsuit alleges that a YouTube star Poppy “copied Mars Argo’s (a former YouTube star) identity, likeness, expression of ideas, sound, style,” and “dyed her hair a specific platinum blonde and, in character as Poppy, started to alter her voice to be a pitch higher to mimic Mars Argo’s distinctive speaking voice.”

In addition to concerning accusations of domestic violence and abuse, the lawsuit brings important questions regarding copyright and fair use to the fore. In a world where nothing is new and everything is derivative, every character or caricature that comes into question could be subject to legal proceedings. — an avenue few YouTubers want to travel down.

It’s quickly become one of the most important legal battles in YouTuber history, and an interesting challenge for adapting old copyright laws to new mediums.

 

😱 I Tried to Get an AI to Write This Story, Bloomberg

The author goes on a fun adventure to get machine learning tools (TensorFlow) to create real-sounding meetings. It highlights the promises and potential pitfalls of a future powered by machine learning, including the possible centrality of Google to AI infrastructure:

“Even if TPUs shrink and everyone in the world can do machine learning, I’ll (Google) have the data. The beautiful, expensive-to-acquire data. I will have turned all my maps into self-driving cars, all my conversations into phones that have conversations for you, all my emails into automated replies. And I will be providing the cloud infrastructure for a whole machine learning world—clawing back what’s rightfully mine from those mere booksellers at Amazon—because my tools will be the standard, and our data will be the biggest, and the applications the most immense.”

 

🏢 The Brand Builder, The New Republic

A profile of the work of “starchitect” Bjarke Ingels. Ingels’ firm, BIG, many current commissions include campuses for Google, station and car designs for Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, a private school for WeWork (“WeGrow”) in Chelsea.

“BIG is as much a brand as an architectural practice, devoted less to building timeless structures than to associating itself with the newest and latest. This might explain why Silicon Valley clients like Google and WeWork find Ingels’s sensibility so appealing.”

As BIG continues to win commissions and followers, the result may be a kind of aggregate BIG world, in which rapid change and flexibility take precedence over a textured sense of place and community, as architecture merges with brand building.

800px-VIA_57_West_-_exterior
BIG’s Via 57 West. It could be in any of today’s rich, cosmopolitan cities, but this one is in Manhattan.

 

🇻🇳 The Untold Story of Robert Mueller’s Time in Combat, Wired

Wired’s June cover story – an in-depth exploration of special counsel Robert Mueller’s time in Vietnam.

 

📜 Section 230 as First Amendment Rule, Harvard Law Review

Section 230 of the Community Decency Act, often referred to as the law that made the internet possible (the law provides for intermediary liability protection, which shields websites from lawsuits directed at user activity, while also encouraging these sites to engage in content moderation), has found itself the target of many attacks against big tech over the past couple years. Cary Glynn, a graduating Harvard Law student, argues that even without Section 230, protecting internet intermediaries from liability should be the First Amendment rule

 

Patents, Spotify, and Incentivizing Innovation

💊 PATENTS AND INCENTIVIZING INNOVATION

Tuesday brought decisions from both patent cases argued in front of the Supreme Court this term, Oil States Energy Services v. Greene’s Energy Group and SAS Institute v. Iancu. At issue in both cases was the process of inter partes review (IPR), which was instituted in 2012 after the passage of the America Invents Act. The process allows a competitor to bring call for an IPR, which, if institute, initiates a trial-like process engaging both parties. The USPTO has the sole discretion in reconsidering and potentially invalidating the patent at issue.

In Oil States v. Greene’s Energy, the question before the Court was whether the adjudication of IPR petitions by the USPTO is an exercise of the “judicial power” that under Article III of the Constitution can be exercised only by courts. The Supreme Court’s resident patent expert, Justice Clarence Thomas, wrote the opinion, holding that IPR does not violate the Constitution. Thomas wrote that because patents are a public right and the IPR process is simply a reconsideration of that grant, Congress has the authority to conduct the reconsideration. There has long been an academic argument about whether patents are public (e.g. statutorily created) rights or private (e.g. common law) rights, with Justice Thomas falling on the former side of that debate. But, Thomas was careful to articulate that the decision should not be misconstrued as suggesting that patents are not property for purposes of the Due Process Clause or Takings Clause.

According to Court documents, the IPR process has been used to invalidate some 1,300 patents since 2012. Tech companies are largely please with the decision, as it allows them to continue to use the IPR process to challenge patents instead of having to undergo long, drawn out litigation against alleged patent trolls.

But, pharmaceutical and biotech companies are more worried about the ruling, fearing it may open the door for competitors to more easily (and cheaply) invalidate patents through IPR. This gets to the difficulty of treating two fundamentally different industries (tech/internet companies and pharm/biotech companies) with different business models the same when it comes to intellectual property.

For modern tech companies, potential returns are much greater. Modern internet companies are driven by network effects that can generate massive returns to scale for innovation. They’re able to spread fixed costs over a massive user base that can scale quickly. Meanwhile, Moore’s Law (yea, I went there) implies that R&D cost, on a per unit basis, continues to decline for computing-based R&D.

On the other hand, evidence suggests that biotech and pharmaceutical R&D is only getting more difficult and more costly. Some have even referred to drug discovery as operating under a “reverse-Moore’s law,” and while machine learning may facilitate the drug discovery process, this promise is largely unfilled as of yet.

The Constitution gave Congress the power to “promote the progress of Science and and useful arts,” but the reality is spurring innovation requires different tactics in different industries. We can quibble about how strong patents should be in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, but the heavy capital investment required to innovate in these sectors necessitates some statutory protection. But, the case for government-granted monopolies (patents) for software innovations is much more tenuous.

While we wait for the merging of software and biology (or, for software to eat biology), it’s important to recognize the different capital structures at play for different industries and structure incentives accordingly. We don’t need the government to incentive investment in the next “one-click buying” patent, but we do need to incentivize continued commercial investment in biological R&D. Government-granted monopolies are an impure means to an end (innovation), and it’s important to critically evaluate when and where they should actually be issued.

The second, less exciting opinion held that when the USPTO institutes an IPR process to review an already issued patent, it must decide the patentability of all claims the petitioner has challenged.

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash
Some inventions require patents (above). Some don’t. Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash.

🎧 SPOTIFY THE HITMAKER

On April 24, Spotify announced its new free tier with a few major changes. First, it’ll recommend music to users on the fly using its machine learning. Second, and more importantly, it’ll let free-tier users listen on-demand to whatever song they want, as many times as they want, if the song appears on one of Spotify’s 15 personalized discovery playlists. These playlists account for about 750 tracks in total.

As I wrote after Spotify filed its F1, its success depends largely on its ability to cut out the music labels, whose content currently accounts for 87% of content streamed on Spotify. With the overhaul of its free tier, Spotify is attempting to mint new hints, allowing the 90 million users of its free tier to listen to certain songs, selected by Spotify, as often as they want. Spotify’s success depends in large part on its ability to serve as a platform for new or up-and-coming artists, helping users discover new artists while at the same time helping new artists get discovered. It’s a beneficial relationship for both listener and musician, with Spotify sitting in the middle taking a cut of the transaction. Providing free users access to unlimited listening of select songs drastically increases Spotify’s ability to be a hitmaker.

Apropos the patent discussion above, note that while Spotify has patents related to its machine learning and recommendation algorithms, these may not be essential to its business. The fact that it has 160 million total users makes the cost of acquiring these patents relatively trivial. Either way, the data Spotify continues to gather on its users is much more valuable (and protectable) than any patent it may or may not have acquired.


🎬 NETFLIX THEATRES?

From one subscription media business to another. Reports have emerged that Netflix is looking for ways to get into the movie theatre business. While it may not be interested in Mark Cuban’s Landmark Theatres anymore, it sounds like Netflix wants to get some of its productions in theatres so it can qualify for awards. Jeff Bezos has long been obsessed with garnering awards with his Prime Video service, so it seems he’s not the only one with a complex (the Prime Video section of his shareholder letter is basically one long sentence about how awesome Prime is because of all the meaningless awards its various shows received).

Of course, Netflix (and to a lesser extent, Prime Video), are successful illustrations of the “laddering up” strategy that Spotify is now pursuing. That is, they built businesses off of licensing copyrighted content from TV and movie studios, building a war chest to invest in their own original content and cut out the middle man.

But, there may be differences between music and video that make this strategy harder for Spotify. Namely, old music still holds a ton of value, while old TV shows and movies are less valuable. I love to bump the Beatles, but only watch I Love Lucy when I’m home during the holidays and my mom makes me.


🦅 Bird’s Eye View. In China, facial recognition technology was used to spot a man in a crowd of 60,000 concert goers.

💡 From the Printing Press to the Internet. A chart showing productivity from 1440 printing press to today. Other academics have studied causes of the productivity slowdown since 2004, illustrating it’s more than just a “measurement problem” (Business Insider, Marginal Revolution).

The Bundle is Back 🗞

From Spotify to Apple News, bundles are back; are they better than ever?

One of the business world’s great apocryphal sayings goes something like this: “there are only two ways to make money in business: One is to bundle; the other is unbundle.” Netscape founder Marc Andressen attributes it to his buddy Jim Barksdale.

A recent spate of bundling news makes it clear that a new age of bundling is upon us:

  • Hulu and Spotify announced a $12.99/ mo bundle that includes unlimited access to both services. It’s a nice savings, as Hulu (with ads) cost $7.99/ mo and Spotify premium costs $9.99/ mo. It’s an expansion of the two companies’ partnership: last year, they offered a student bundle for $4.99/ mo.
  • On the heels of acquiring Texture, “the Netflix of magazines,” there are now reports that Apple is working to launch a subscription news in its Apples News app later this year. Apple has recently been pushing to bring in more revenue from its Services (think App Store and Apple Music), so this move fits in line with its broader strategy. Speaking of Apple Music, it was also recently reported that Apple Music now has 40 million subscribers, creeping towards Spotify’s 70 million.
  • Comcast and Netflix announced that customers will soon be able to add a Netflix subscription to new and existing Comcast Xfinity packages.
  • Medium’s Ev Williams wrote about the Medium model, bragging that it’s “one of the largest bundles of original content of its type, so it’s a great value for readers.” Medium launched its subscription model a year ago, and apparently it’s going great (graph without a y-axis be damned).
  • Jeff Bezos revealed in his annual shareholder letter that Amazon Prime – the bundle of all bundles – has over 100 million subscribers. By tacking on benefits at recently acquired Whole Foods, the scope of the Prime bundle continues to expand.

In addition to Netflix and Spotify proving that subscription bundles can work, the recent fire Facebook and other ad-driven companies have come under has give the bundle even greater tail winds.

Meanwhile, with the official launch of ESPN+, the sports broadcasting giant has dipped its toes in the water of the over-the-top future, albeit cautiously. ESPN won’t offer many of its flagship sporting events on ESPN+, indicating a reluctance to fully embrace a digital future. Despite staff upheaval and non-stop talk of “cord cutters,” ESPN’s cable TV business remains profitable. Further, ESPN owns (and continues to bid on future) rights to sporting events, meaning it has an intellectual property moat that others don’t necessarily have. Sporting events need to be seen live, while very few other events do. As such, ESPN doesn’t want to make the shift to digital too soon, thereby undercutting its existing cable business before it needs to do so.

Really though, the pendulum swinging from bundled to unbundled and back again is a reflection of the underlying technology: in the early 2000s we all carried around individual songs on our iPods. They took forever to update – and we had to hardwire the iPod into our PC – so it was fine if we just bought a few songs. Then, as cloud storage and streaming became technically (and economically) feasible, consumers shifted to streaming services. Chris Dixon has a great explainer on bundling economics here, but the conclusion is this: in the end, bundling is beneficial for buyers and sellers.

But, bundling can also be used as an anti-competitive mechanism. I recently warned that Google’s Chrome ad-blocker may be an attempt to do this:

This forced tying of products together is what often gets monopolies in trouble with the law, in one way or another. AT&T’s attempt to force consumers to buy its own phones and network attachments was eventually deemed unreasonable and unnecessary by the FCC. Similarly, Microsoft’s attempt to bundle Internet Explorer with the OS eventually caught the DOJ’s attention, leading to a landmark antitrust case. And now Google is attempting to leverage its browser to squeeze the ad blocker market.

Of course, Spotify is nowhere near anti-competitive behavior: it’s not even profitable, and tech giants like Apple and Amazon are nipping at its heels. In fact, the bigger anti-competitive worry is these tech giants that can bundle together any number of services making it almost impossible for startups to compete.

nikita-kachanovsky-571468-unsplash
Sometimes, what’s old is new again. Photo by Nikita Kachanovsky on Unsplash.

THAT’S NOT (WAY)FAIR

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in South Dakota v. Wayfair. It’s a case on whether to overrule a 1992 decision that prohibits individual states from requiring out-of-state retailers that do not have a physical presence in the state to collect tax on sales to state residents. States claim they’re losing massive tax revenue. Online retailers are concerned about a patchwork system of state and local taxes, making it hard for them to efficiently conduct business. Since you asked, Amazon already collects sales tax when it sells its inventory through Amazon.com, but when third-party retailers sell through the Amazon Marketplace, the company leaves it up to them to collect the sales tax. Most probably don’t.

Even this Amazon example illustrates that large companies may be better able to collect local tax revenue, and it might be more difficult for small companies or merchants to collect the sales tax, robbing the smaller merchants of a single national marketplace. Thankfully, it seems as though our President has a handle on the matter:


☁️ Microsoft dismissed, but a cloudy future. With the hasty passing of the CLOUD Act, the Supreme Court dismissed a long-running dispute between Microsoft and the Department of Justice that had made it all the way to the Supreme Court.  The CLOUD Act clarifies that warrants for data held by service providers like Microsoft and Google reach data stored anywhere in the world. But, questions over whether Microsoft will challenge the new warrant issued under the CLOUD Act and how foreign governments will react to the new, hastily enacted legislation leaves the potential high for fresh disputes to surface.

The new legislation authorizes the U.S. to enter into bilateral data-sharing agreements for law enforcement purposes, while allowing service providers to move to quash a warrant if they believe there is a “material risk” that the request would violate the laws of a foreign government.

This sets the CLOUD Act on a collision course with international privacy laws like the EU’s forthcoming GDPR. Meanwhile,

Meanwhile, the EU has introduced a similar law, that allow European prosecutors to force companies to turn over data such as emails, text messages and pictures stored online in another country, within 10 days or as little as six hours in urgent cases (Reuters).


👮‍♂️ FCC adviser arrested. Perhaps taking a cue from her boss, broadband adviser Elizabeth Pierce was arrested on charges of tricking investors to dump $250m into a fiber optic scheme by faking contracts (The Verge).

🔑 Post hoc, ergo proper hoc. Visualizing errors and manipulation in logical thinking. Oh, and also it’s “raise the question,” not “beg the question.”