In the first frenzied years after the iPad’s rapid rise threatened the laptop, phone makers and PC companies jumped in to produce Android tablets. Some, like Samsung and HTC, made do with Gingerbread, the then-current version of phone-optimized Android. But the first “proper” Android tablet was Motorola’s Xoom, based on Honeycomb — the most significant change to Android up to that point. Soon, Android tablets were rushing into the market from sources as unlikely as carriers, bookstores, and Google itself. Determined to give no quarter to Amazon as it launched its Fire tablet line, Google developed two generations of well-regarded Nexus 7 tablets with Asus, and a 10″ Nexus tablet in conjunction with Samsung boasting a very high-resolution display.
But development for Android tablets waned. Even if they had sold relatively well, they would have represented a small fraction of the number of Android smartphones. Developers had a far greater vested interest in ensuring that their development time was devoted to covering a wide base of the latter. And while Apple relentlessly exhorted developers to optimize their apps for the iPad, Google long saw the best approach as a scalable interface that developers largely ignored, even after Google thought to tout tablet optimization in Google Play.
Meanwhile, after cleaning off the blood from its nose resulting from Windows RT, Microsoft redoubled its efforts to offer 2-in-1s that provided a full Windows experience. Even today, that experience is not strongly optimized for touch. But it’s fine for reading a PDF, watching a movie, or many other tasks for which a laptop wouldn’t be just as good if not better. Windows has also benefited at the expense of Android by pushing the definition of a tablet toward something that is more of a subset of 2-in-1 functionality as opposed to a standalone device. And at least at the high end, market leader Apple has been willing to come along for the 2-in-1 ride even though both the iPad Pro and Surface offer keyboards as a separate accessory.
Back at Google, Chrome OS had found more success in a niche of cheap education laptops than Android had in larger form factors. Google made Chrome OS even stronger competition to Android by enabling the former to run Android apps; its last stab at a tablet was the Chrome OS-based Pixel Slate.
Building on its early support of Android tablets and its current maintenance of three product lines featuring them, Samsung is the only true champion of Android tablets left among major brands; Lenovo and Huawei also remain in the game. However, in large part because Amazon still iterates its Google-free Fire, Walmart has remained interested in the category, too. The mega-retailer has become something of an outpost for Android tablets, including several 10″ 2-in-1s from brands such as SmarTab, RCA, iView and, more recently, Packard Bell selling for around $100 or even less.
Given its existing selection, it was a bit surprising to see the retailer finally launch its own branded Android tablets under the brand “Onn.” They arrive with Android Pie and support 5 GHz Wi-Fi networks, a rarity in the lowest tier of tablets and laptops. On the other hand, Onn tablets tap out at less than six hours of battery life and feature a small Walmart logo icon in the navigation bar that mars the interface. Clicking it brings up a screen with a handful of Walmart-related apps. These include a Walmart eBooks app to answer the e-reading focus of the Fire.
Much like Android Wear, Android tablets have failed to gain much ground even as the obvious alternative to Apple. Both device classes have suffered from a lack of Google focus that can be chalked up in part to the company’s business model. After all, if you already know virtually everything about a person from their smartphone or their use of your web or iOS apps, there’s incrementally little to be gained from having them acquire second or third Android devices. Android tablets in particular suffered from the same squeeze between laptops and smartphones that attacked the iPad, which offers a far more polished experience. But some Android tablets still offer millions of apps and the flexibility of 2-in-1s for less than $100. That may no longer be interesting for Google, but has been appealing enough a value-seeking segment to keep a selection of them going.
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Facebook can save itself by becoming a B Corporation – TechCrunch
As Facebook confronts outrage among its employees and the public for mishandling multiple decisions about its role in shaping public discourse, it is becoming clear that it cannot solve its conundrums without a major change in its business model. And a new model is readily available: for-benefit status.
For decades, a misguided ideology has warped companies, economies and societies: that the sole purpose of corporations is to maximize short-term returns to one set of stakeholders — those who have bought shares. Neither law nor history requires this to be true.
But shareholder value-maximization ideology has become cemented in far too much corporate practice at the expense of societal well-being. This is manifested in many ways: a slavish adherence to the judgment of the “market,” even when other social signals are more powerful; executives enriched by stock options; companies fearful of “activist investors” who attack whenever stock prices fail to meet quarterly “expectations” and often-frivolous shareholder lawsuits pushing for stock gains at all costs.
The pandemic, however, has accelerated an already-spreading recognition that shareholder value maximization is often a harmful choice — not by any means a moral imperative or even a fiduciary responsibility.
Major institutions of capitalism are converging on a new vision for it. The 2019 Business Roundtable CEO statement said that corporate strategy should benefit all stakeholders – including shareholders, yes, but equally customers, employees, suppliers, and the communities in which companies operate. BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s recent annual letters assert new views of how that investment company, the world’s largest, should invest the trillions it oversees.
Fink’s 2019 letter spelled out a new vision for corporate purpose; the subsequent 2020 and 2021 letters focused on business’ responsibility around climate change, particularly in light of the pandemic. The B Corporation and conscious capitalism movements are growing. The World Economic Forum is championing a “Fourth Sector,” combining purpose with profit. Business schools, facing student rebellions against a purely profit-maximizing curriculum, are rapidly changing what they teach.
And with society under siege, many more businesses, including social media, are scrambling to seem like good corporate citizens. They have no choice.
Facebook, for example, has doubled down on philanthropy and new efforts to combat misinformation, even as usage and share price soar. Platforms like WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) have become essential services to connect people whose physical ties have been abruptly severed during the global pandemic. Shelter-in-place has become, in many ways, shelter-in-Facebook-properties.
But Facebook and its brethren remain fragile. Since the 2016 presidential election in the U.S., Facebook has faced governmental hearings and regulation, public uproar (#deleteFacebook), and huge fines for invading privacy and undermining democracy. These calls were amplified in the weeks following the January 6 Capitol riot. Separately, it faces allegations of bias, largely (though not entirely) from the political right. These have led to calls for the revocation or reform of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which grants it immunity from the actions of its users.
A giant company that is simultaneously essential and pilloried is vulnerable. Just ask the ghosts of John D. Rockefeller and his fellow robber barons, whose huge monopolies industrialized America more than 100 years ago. Journalistic muckrakers and public outrage targeted them for their abusive practices until the government finally broke up their companies via antitrust legislation.
Because Mark Zuckerberg maintains complete majority control of Facebook, he could unilaterally quell public opprobrium and fend off heavy-handed regulation singlehandedly by transforming Facebook into a new kind of business: a for-benefit corporation.
Under the Public Benefit Corporation legal model, firms bind themselves to a public benefit mission statement and carry out required ongoing reporting on both the standard financials and on how the company is living up to its mission. That status protects the company against profit-demanding shareholder lawsuits, and also attracts employees and investors who want to combine profit with purpose.
Data.world is one of the thousands of certified B Corporations that have seen good returns on financial metrics. Allbirds, for example, launched in a few sustainable materials using a pro-sustainability process to manufacture comfortable shoes, quickly reaching revenues of $100 million and valuation of $1.7 billion in an industry fraught with sustainability and human rights concerns. Other household names that are B Corps include The Body Shop, Coursera, Danone, the Jamie Oliver Group, King Arthur Flour, Numi Tea and Patagonia.
Many companies that have not undergone formal B Certification from B Labs have nonetheless done well while transforming their business practices, such as the carpet and flooring company Interface. Some firms incorporate ESG principles into their management systems – the $24 billion (market cap) Dutch life sciences company DSM has for years had meaningful sustainability targets for its senior management that account for fully 50 percent of their annual bonuses. Both Interface and DSM attribute much of their commercial success to their attention to non-financial considerations.
A for-benefit Facebook could similarly relate to the world differently, avoiding many of the reputational shocks and regulatory responses that have led to huge stock dips and enormous fines. Its operations would align with Zuckerberg’s proclaimed purpose to enable the potential abundance that results from connecting everyone in the world.
Imagine a Facebook town hall as a true public square, not just another way to gather and sell people’s data without their explicit consent. Imagine a Facebook that put its users first and its advertisers second; that revealed where ads came from; that earned your attention in a way that you controlled rather than through machine-driven algorithms maximizing your attention for good or ill. Such a for-benefit Facebook could create true buy-in and transparency with its massive community around the world.
Of course, such steps as Facebook’s new Oversight Board, which may provide some meaningful review, don’t require a legal change. But if shareholders and employees continue to be rewarded primarily by the success of the problematic ad revenue model, a continuing conflict between private gain and public benefit makes it impossible to have confidence about what is happening behind the scenes. A shift to for-benefit incorporation and appropriate certification brings with it different performance metrics and accountability systems with public scores.
In changing Facebook into a for-benefit corporation, Zuckerberg could insulate himself against presidential rage while rehabilitating his reputation — and his company’s. It would likely create vast ripples both in Silicon Valley and beyond — and it might help transform capitalism itself.
TikTok calls in outside help with content moderation in Europe – TechCrunch
TikTok is bringing in external experts in Europe in fields such as child safety, young people’s mental health and extremism to form a Safety Advisory Council to help it with content moderation in the region.
The move, announced today, follows an emergency intervention by Italy’s data protection authority in January — which ordered TikTok to block users it cannot age verify after the death of a girl who was reported by local media to have died of asphyxiation as a result of participating in a black out challenge on the video sharing platform.
The social media platform has also been targeted by a series of coordinated complaints by EU consumer protection agencies, which put out two reports last month detailing a number of alleged breaches of the bloc’s consumer protection and privacy rules — including child safety-specific concerns.
“We are always reviewing our existing features and policies, and innovating to take bold new measures to prioritise safety,” TikTok writes today, putting a positive spin on needing to improve safety on its platform in the region.
“The Council will bring together leaders from academia and civil society from all around Europe. Each member brings a different, fresh perspective on the challenges we face and members will provide subject matter expertise as they advise on our content moderation policies and practices. Not only will they support us in developing forward-looking policies that address the challenges we face today, they will also help us to identify emerging issues that affect TikTok and our community in the future.”
It’s not the first such advisory body TikTok has launched. A year ago it announced a US Safety Advisory Council, after coming under scrutiny from US lawmakers concerned about the spread of election disinformation and wider data security issues, including accusations the Chinese-owned app was engaging in censorship at the behest of the Chinese government.
But the initial appointees to TikTok’s European content moderation advisory body suggest its regional focus is more firmly on child safety/young people’s mental health and extremism and hate speech, reflecting some of the main areas where it’s come under the most scrutiny from European lawmakers, regulators and civil society so far.
TikTok has appointed nine individuals to its European Council (listed here) — initially bringing in external expertise in anti-bullying, youth mental health and digital parenting; online child sexual exploitation/abuse; extremism and deradicalization; anti-bias/discrimination and hate crimes — a cohort it says it will expand as it adds more members to the body (“from more countries and different areas of expertise to support us in the future”).
TikTok is also likely to have an eye on new pan-EU regulation that’s coming down the pipe for platforms operating in the region.
EU lawmakers recently put forward a legislative proposal that aims to dial up accountability for digital service providers over the content they push and monetize. The Digital Services Act, which is currently in draft, going through the bloc’s co-legislative process, will regulate how a wide range of platforms must act to remove explicitly illegal content (such as hate speech and child sexual exploitation).
The Commission’s DSA proposal avoided setting specific rules for platforms to tackle a broader array of harms — such as issues like youth mental health — which, by contrast, the UK is proposing to address in its plan to regulate social media (aka the Online Safety bill). However the planned legislation is intended to drive accountability around digital services in a variety of ways.
For example, it contains provisions that would require larger platforms — a category TikTok would most likely fall into — to provide data to external researchers so they can study the societal impacts of services. It’s not hard to imagine that provision leading to some head-turning (independent) research into the mental health impacts of attention-grabbing services. So the prospect is platforms’ own data could end up translating into negative PR for their services — i.e. if they’re shown to be failing to create a safe environment for users.
Ahead of that oversight regime coming in, platforms have increased incentive to up their outreach to civil society in Europe so they’re in a better position to skate to where the puck is headed.
Facebook will pay $650 million to settle class action suit centered on Illinois privacy law – TechCrunch
Facebook was ordered to pay $650 million Friday for running afoul of an Illinois law designed to protect the state’s residents from invasive privacy practices.
That law, the Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), is a powerful state measure that’s tripped up tech companies in recent years. The suit against Facebook was first filed in 2015, alleging that Facebook’s practice of tagging people in photos using facial recognition without their consent violated state law.
Indeed, 1.6 million Illinois residents will receive at least $345 under the final settlement ruling in California federal court. The final number is $100 million higher than the $550 million Facebook proposed in 2020, which a judge deemed inadequate. Facebook disabled the automatic facial recognition tagging features in 2019, making it opt-in instead and addressing some of the privacy criticisms echoed by the Illinois class action suit.
A cluster of lawsuits accused Microsoft, Google and Amazon of breaking the same law last year after Illinois residents’ faces were used to train their facial recognition systems without explicit consent.
The Illinois privacy law has tangled up some of tech’s giants, but BIPA has even more potential to impact smaller companies with questionable privacy practices. The controversial facial recognition software company Clearview AI now faces its own BIPA-based class action lawsuit in the state after the company failed to dodge the suit by pushing it out of state courts.
A $650 million settlement would be enough to crush any normal company, though Facebook can brush it off much like it did with the FTC’s record-setting $5 billion penalty in 2019. But the Illinois law isn’t without teeth. For Clearview, it was enough to make the company pull out of business in the state altogether.
The law can’t punish a behemoth like Facebook in the same way, but it is one piece in a regulatory puzzle that poses an increasing threat to the way tech’s data brokers have done business for years. With regulators at the federal, state and legislative level proposing aggressive measures to rein in tech, the landmark Illinois law provides a compelling framework that other states could copy and paste. And if big tech thinks navigating federal oversight will be a nightmare, a patchwork of aggressive state laws governing how tech companies do business on a state-by-state basis is an alternate regulatory future that could prove even less palatable.
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