Rather than be sore about losing independence within Facebook, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom told me it was an inevitable sign of his app’s triumph. Today at South By South West, Systrom and fellow co-founder Mike Krieger sat down for their first on-stage talk together since leaving Facebook in September. They discussed their super hero origin stories, authenticity on social media, looming regulation for big tech, and how they’re exploring what they’ll do next.
Krieger grew up hitting “view source” on websites while Systrom hacked on AOL booter programs that would kick people off instant messenger, teaching both how code could impact real people. As Instagram grew popular, Krieger described the “incredi-bad” feeling of fighting server fires and trying to keep the widely loved app online even if that meant programming in the middle of a sushi restaurant or camping retreat. He once even revived Instagram while drunk in the middle of the night, and woke up with no memory of the feat, confused about who’d fixed the problem. The former Instagram CTO implored founders not to fall into the “recruiting death spiral” where you’re too busy to recruit which makes you busier which makes you too busy to recruit…
But thankfully, the founders were also willing to dig into some tougher topics than their scrappy startup days.
Independence vs Importance.
“In some ways, there being less autonomy is a function of Instagram winning. If Instagram had just been this niche photo app for photographers, we probably would be working on that app for 20 year. Instead what happened was it got better and better and better, and it improved, and it got to a size where it was meaningfully important to this company” Systrom explained. “If this thing gets to that scale that we want it to get to which is why we’re doing this deal, the autonomy will eventually not be there as much because it’s so important. So in some ways it’s just an unavoidable thing if you’re successful. So you can choose, do you want to be unsuccessful and small and have all the autonomy in the world, or no?”
Krieger followed up that “I think if you study . . . all the current companies, the ones that succeed internally eventually have become so important to the acquiring company that it’s almost irresponsible to not be thinking about what are the right models for integration. The advice I generally give is, ‘are you okay with that if you succeed?’ And if you’re not then you shouldn’t do the deal.” If the loss of autonomy can’t be avoided, they suggest selling to a rocket ship that will invest in and care for your baby rather than shift priorities.
Asked if seeing his net worth ever feels surreal, Systrom said money doesn’t make you happy and “I don’t really wake up in the morning and look at my bank account.” I noted that’s the convenient privilege of having a big one.
The pair threw cold water on the idea that being forced to earn more money drove them out of the company. “I remember having this series of conversations with Mark and other folks at Facebook and they’re like ‘You guys just joined, do not worry about monetization, we’ll figure this out down the road.’ And it actually came a lot more from us saying “1. It’s important for us to be contributing to the overall Fb Inc . . . and 2. Each person who joins before you have ads is a person you’re going to have to introduce ads to.” Systrom added that “to be clear, we were the ones pushing monetization, not the other way around, because we believed Instagram has to make money somehow. It costs a lot to run . . . We pushed hard on it so that we would be a successful unit within Facebook and I think we got to that point, which is really good.”
But from 2015 to 2016, Instagram’s remaining independence fueled a reinvention of its app with non-square photos, the shift to the algorithm, and the launch of Stories. On having to challenge the fundamental assumptions of a business, “You’ve got maybe a couple years of relevance when you build a product. If you don’t reinvent it every quarter or every year, then you fall out of relevance and you go away.”
That last launch was inspired by wanting to offer prismatic identity where people could share non-highlights that wouldn’t haunt them. But also, Systrom admits that “Honestly a big reason why was that for a long time, people’s profiles were filled with Snapchat links and it was clear that people were trying to bridge the two products. So by bringing the two products [Feed and Stories] into one place, we gave consumers what they wanted.” Though when I asked anyone in the crowd who was still mad about the algorithm to hiss, SXSW turned into a snake pit.
Regulating Big Tech
With Systrom and Krieger gone, Facebook is moving forward with plans to more tightly integrate Instagram with Facebook and WhatsApp. That includes unifying their messaging system, which some say is designed to make Facebook’s apps harder to break up with anti-trust regulation. What does Systrom think of the integration? “The more people that are available to talk with, the more useful the platform becomes. And I buy that thesis . . . Whether or not they will in fact want to talk to people on different platforms, I can’t tell the future, so I don’t know” Systrom said.
Krieger recommended Facebook try to prove users want that cross-app messaging before embarking on a giant engineering challenge of merging their backends. When I asked if Systrom ever had a burning desire to Instagram Direct message a WhatsApp user, he admitted “Personally, no.” But in a show of respect and solid media training, he told his former employer “Bravo for making a big bet and going for it.”
Then it was time for the hardest hitting question: their thoughts on Presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to regulate big tech and roll back Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram. “Do we get our job back?” Systrom joked, trying to diffuse the tension. Krieger urged more consideration of downstream externalities, and specificity on what problem a break up fixes. He wants differentiation between regulating Facebook’s acquisitions, Amazon white-labeling and selling products, and Apple’s right to run the only iOS App Store.
Acquisition vs Competition
“We live in a time where I think the anger against big tech has increased ten-fold — whether that’s because the property prices in your neighborhood have gone up, whether it’s because you don’t like Russian meddling in elections — there are a long list of reasons people are angry at tech right now and some of them I think are well-founded” Systrom confirmed. “That doesn’t mean that the answer is to break all the companies up. Breaking companies up is a very specific prescription for a very specific problem. If you want to fix economic issues there are ways of doing that. If you want to fix Russian meddling there are ways of doing that. Breaking up a company doesn’t fix those problems. That doesn’t mean that companies shouldn’t be broken up if they get too big and they’re monopolies and they cause problems, but being big in and of itself is not a crime.”
Systrom then took a jab at Warren’s tech literacy, saying “part of what’s surprised me is that generally the policy is all tech should be broken up, and that feels to me again not nuanced enough and it shows me that the understanding of the problem isn’t there. I think it’s going to take a more nuanced proposal, but my fear is that something like a proposal to break up all tech is playing on everyone’s current feeling of anti-tech rather than doing what I think politicians should do which is address real problems and give real solutions.”
The two founders then gave some pretty spurious logic for why Instagram’s acquisition helped consumers. “As someone who ran the company for how many years inside of Facebook? Six? There was a lot of competition internally even and I think better ideas came out because of it. We grew both companies not just one company. It’s really hard question. What consumer was damaged because it grew to the size that it did? I think that’s a strong argument that in fact the acquisition worked out for consumers.” That ignores the fact that if Instagram and Facebook were rivals, they’d have to compete on privacy and treating their users well. Even if they inspired each other to build more engaging products, that doesn’t address where harm to consumers has been done.
Krieger suggested that the acquisition actually spurred competition by making Instagram a role modeI. “There was a gold rush of companies being like ‘I’m going to be the Instagram of X . . . the Instagram of Audio, the Instagram of video, the Instagram of dog photos.’ You saw people start new companies and try to build them out in order to try to achieve what we’ve gotten to.” Yet no startup besides Snapchat, which had already launched, has actually grown to rival Instagram. And seeing Instagram hold its own against the Facebook empire would have likely inspired many more startups — some of which can’t find funding since investors doubt their odds against a combined Facebook and Instagram
As for what’s next for the college buddies, “we’re giving ourselves the time to get curious about things again” Krieger says. They’re still exploring so there was no big reveal about their follow-up venture. But Systrom says they built Instagram by finding the mega-trend of cameras on phones and asking what they’d want to use, “and the question is, what’s the next wave?”
Smartphone sales down 6% as chip shortages begin to impact market – TechCrunch
Canalys reported this morning that global smartphone sales are off 6% this quarter, and it’s not because of lack of demand. It’s due to the worldwide chip shortage.
The pandemic has had a negative impact across supply chains, and chips have been particularly hard hit. Canalys principal analyst Ben Stanton says that manufacturers are trying to keep up as best they can, but the chip shortage is a legitimate roadblock right now. “On the supply side, chipset manufacturers are increasing prices to disincentivize over-ordering in an attempt to close the gap between demand and supply. But despite this, shortages will not ease until well into 2022,” he said in a statement.
What did the market look like this past quarter as a result of these supply chain issues? Well, the usual suspects maintained their market share positions with Samsung holding steady year over year at 23%. Meanwhile Apple saw YoY sales increase 3% to 15% this quarter. Xiaomi held steady in third place at 10% with no change YoY.
Manufacturers have to be concerned at this turn of events, especially as we head into the crucial holiday shopping season. Apple released the new iPhone 13 at the end of September, too late for this quarterly report, but no doubt timed for the shopping season. The chip shortage issues could put a damper on its plans. Even though both Samsung and Apple make their own chipsets for their mobile devices, each company is still feeling the impact of the chip component shortage.
As a result, Stanton says it will be unlikely consumers will see any cost cutting this year, as manufacturing costs continue to spiral upward. Instead, he anticipates that we may see more bundling of phones with other devices as a buying incentive. “Customers should expect smartphone discounting this year to be less aggressive. But to avoid customer disappointment, smartphone brands which are constrained on margin should look to bundle other devices, such as wearables and IoT to create good incentives for customers.”
CNBC reported just yesterday that the consumer chip shortage could persist even longer than Stanton is predicting, perhaps as long as two to three years, according to president of Hisense, Jia Shaoqian, whose company makes devices like home appliances and consumer goods.
Google modernizes US mobile search results with continuous scrolling – TechCrunch
Google announced today it’s changing the way search works on mobile devices, initially in the U.S. Now, when you reach the bottom of a set of search results on your phone, you won’t have to tap to go to the next page. Instead, the next set of results will automatically load so you can continuously scroll down to see more information.
The change will roll out on the mobile web and will be supported on the Google mobile app for both iOS and Android in the U.S. for most English-language searches for the time being. Because it’s a staggered release, you may initially encounter some results which scroll and others that do not.
While most people find what they’re looking for in the first few results, says Google, those who are looking for additional information tend to browse through four pages of search results. That’s why the company is making the change, we’re told. Now, those users will be able to more seamlessly move between pages without having to click the “see more” button at the bottom of the page.
Google notes this could be helpful in particular for searches where people are looking for a variety of ideas or inspiration on a given topic, instead of just quick answers.
However, there are other benefits of this design, as well, which Google did not reference.
For starters, the continuous scroll doesn’t force you to stop at some arbitrary point in your search then tap a link to move forward — a holdover from the desktop era of web search. That “click for more” type of design feels outdated in a world where in-app feeds — like Facebook’s News Feed for instance — present a never-ending stream of information and updates. And by continuing to scroll, Google’s users may end up spending more time in the app where they’ll also see more ads.
The continuous scroll could also give Google more flexibility in terms of ad placement. Instead of limiting ads to the top of a results page, they could be inserted amid the search results as you move down — more like how ads on social networking feeds appear.
While Google didn’t publicly detail its plans for ads with this change, the company told us upon follow up it will redistribute the number of text ads that appear between the top and bottom of pages for U.S.-English mobile queries. Now, text ads will show at the top of the second page and beyond, while fewer text ads will show at the bottom of each page. But, there is no change to how Shopping and Local ads show at this time, we understand.
In addition, as Google Search has become cluttered with info boxes, search suggestions, products to buy, and buttons that take you to other search verticals, like Videos, it’s become more difficult to tap the correct button to move forward in the search results. This is particularly true because Google will shade other buttons darker in hopes of catching your eye and encouraging a click to another destination.
The change to search follows a modern redesign of the results page on mobile announced earlier this year, which focused on making search results easier to read through the use of added whitespace in some areas and color in others; a larger, bolder font (Google’s own, in fact); and a move away from rounded, shaded boxes in favor of straight lines; among other things.
However, that change was more about how the search results looked, not how they functioned.
Google says the new continuous scroll will begin to roll out today in the U.S.
Spotify expands access to its in-car entertainment device ‘Car Thing’ – TechCrunch
Spotify’s in-car entertainment system known as just “Car Thing,” launched this spring on an invite-only basis, is now becoming more broadly available. The company announced today Car Thing will become available to U.S. users who want to purchase the $79.99 device. Previously, Spotify had distributed the product for just the cost of shipping during its limited release testing period, noting that this was Spotify’s first hardware and it wanted to “get things right.”
Now, Spotify says U.S. users who had previously signed up for the Car Thing waitlist will be offered the ability to purchase the device ahead of others. However, any current Spotify user — free or Premium — can sign up for the Car Thing waitlist. The product will roll out to these customers in time.
The device requires a Spotify Premium membership (either an Individual, Family or Student plan). Users will also need a smartphone for the mobile data. But you won’t need a paid subscription in order to enter your name on the waitlist at this time.
The device itself is a lightweight (3.4 oz.), thin (4.6″ x 2.5″ x 0.7″) music and podcast player that offers a combination of voice control, knobs, buttons, and a touchscreen display for navigating its menus and selecting the media you want to hear. Through Car Thing, users can access Spotify’s entire catalog of music and podcasts while in their vehicle.
The idea is to offer a way for vehicle owners without built-in infotainment systems, like Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, to have an easier way to access Spotify’s personalized listening experience.
Car Thing can be mounted inside the car in a number of different ways, thanks to the variety of different mounts that ship alongside the gadget along with a car charger and USB-C cable.
Its main interface features four preset buttons that let you save your favorite content for quick access. By default, these are configured with your Liked Songs and Spotify’s Daily Drive and Morning Commute playlists, with the last preset empty. You can change any of these to match your own preferences.
You can also speak to Car Thing using the “Hey Spotify” voice commands, which the device receives through its four microphones at the top. Currently, Spotify’s policy regarding its use of voice data explains the company will collect recordings and transcripts of what you say along with information about the content it returned to you, and may use the data to improve the feature over time.
Since its limited launch earlier this year, Spotify has already released some software updates aimed at improving the Car Thing experience. The company says it will continue to do so in the future, as well, as the device rolls out to more people.
Spotify did not say how many Car Thing devices have been shipped to date.
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