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Tech giants offer empty apologies because users can’t quit – TechCrunch

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A true apology consists of a sincere acknowledgement of wrong-doing, a show of empathic remorse for why you wronged and the harm it caused, and a promise of restitution by improving ones actions to make things right. Without the follow-through, saying sorry isn’t an apology, it’s a hollow ploy for forgiveness.

That’s the kind of “sorry” we’re getting from tech giants — an attempt to quell bad PR and placate the afflicted, often without the systemic change necessary to prevent repeated problems. Sometimes it’s delivered in a blog post. Sometimes it’s in an executive apology tour of media interviews. But rarely is it in the form of change to the underlying structures of a business that caused the issue.

Intractable Revenue

Unfortunately, tech company business models often conflict with the way we wish they would act. We want more privacy but they thrive on targeting and personalization data. We want control of our attention but they subsist on stealing as much of it as possible with distraction while showing us ads. We want safe, ethically built devices that don’t spy on us but they make their margins by manufacturing them wherever’s cheap with questionable standards of labor and oversight. We want groundbreaking technologies to be responsibly applied, but juicy government contracts and the allure of China’s enormous population compromise their morals. And we want to stick to what we need and what’s best for us, but they monetize our craving for the latest status symbol or content through planned obsolescence and locking us into their platforms.

The result is that even if their leaders earnestly wanted to impart meaningful change to provide restitution for their wrongs, their hands are tied by entrenched business models and the short-term focus of the quarterly earnings cycle. They apologize and go right back to problematic behavior. The Washington Post recently chronicled a dozen times Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has apologized, yet the social network keeps experiencing fiasco after fiasco. Tech giants won’t improve enough on their own.

Addiction To Utility

The threat of us abandoning ship should theoretically hold the captains in line. But tech giants have evolved into fundamental utilities that many have a hard time imagining living without. How would you connect with friends? Find what you needed? Get work done? Spend your time? What hardware or software would you cuddle up with in the moments you feel lonely? We live our lives through tech, have become addicted to its utility, and fear the withdrawal.

If there were principled alternatives to switch to, perhaps we could hold the giants accountable. But the scalability, network effects, and aggregation of supply by distributors has led to near monopolies in these core utilities. The second-place solution is often distant. What’s the next best social network that serves as an identity and login platform that isn’t owned by Facebook? The next best premium mobile and PC maker behind Apple? The next best mobile operating system for the developing world beyond Google’s Android? The next best ecommerce hub that’s not Amazon? The next best search engine? Photo feed? Web hosting service? Global chat app? Spreadsheet?

Facebook is still growing in the US & Canada despite the backlash, proving that tech users aren’t voting with their feet. And if not for a calculation methodology change, it would have added 1 million users in Europe this quarter too.

One of the few tech backlashes that led to real flight was #DeleteUber. Workplace discrimination, shady business protocols, exploitative pricing and more combined to spur the movement to ditch the ridehailing app. But what was different here is that US Uber users did have a principled alternative to switch to without much hassle: Lyft. The result was that “Lyft benefitted tremendously from Uber’s troubles in 2018” eMarketer’s forecasting director Shelleen Shum told the USA Today in May. Uber missed eMarketer’s projections while Lyft exceeded them, narrowing the gap between the car services. And meanwhile, Uber’s CEO stepped down as it tried to overhaul its internal policies.

This is why we need regulation that promotes competition by preventing massive mergers and giving users the right to interoperable data portability so they can easily switch away from companies that treat them poorly

But in the absence of viable alternatives to the giants, leaving these mainstays is inconvenient. After all, they’re the ones that made us practically allergic to friction. Even after massive scandals, data breaches, toxic cultures, and unfair practices, we largely stick with them to avoid the uncertainty of life without them. Even Facebook added 1 million monthly users in the US and Canada last quarter despite seemingly every possible source of unrest. Tech users are not voting with their feet. We’ve proven we can harbor ill will towards the giants while begrudgingly buying and using their products. Our leverage to improve their behavior is vastly weakened by our loyalty.

Inadequate Oversight

Regulators have failed to adequately step up either. This year’s congressional hearings about Facebook and social media often devolved into inane and uninformed questioning like how does Facebook earn money if its doesn’t charge? “Senator, we run ads” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said with a smirk. Other times, politicians were so intent on scoring partisan points by grandstanding or advancing conspiracy theories about bias that they were unable to make any real progress. A recent survey commissioned by Axios found that “In the past year, there has been a 15-point spike in the number of people who fear the federal government won’t do enough to regulate big tech companies — with 55% now sharing this concern.”

When regulators do step in, their attempts can backfire. GDPR was supposed to help tamp down on the dominance of Google and Facebook by limiting how they could collect user data and making them more transparent. But the high cost of compliance simply hindered smaller players or drove them out of the market while the giants had ample cash to spend on jumping through government hoops. Google actually gained ad tech market share and Facebook saw the littlest loss while smaller ad tech firms lost 20 or 30 percent of their business.

Europe’s GDPR privacy regulations backfired, reinforcing Google and Facebook’s dominance. Chart via Ghostery, Cliqz, and WhoTracksMe.

Even the Honest Ads act, which was designed to bring political campaign transparency to internet platforms following election interference in 2016, has yet to be passed even despite support from Facebook and Twitter. There’s hasn’t been meaningful discussion of blocking social networks from acquiring their competitors in the future, let alone actually breaking Instagram and WhatsApp off of Facebook. Governments like the U.K. that just forcibly seized documents related to Facebook’s machinations surrounding the Cambridge Analytica debacle provide some indication of willpower. But clumsy regulation could deepen the moats of the incumbents, and prevent disruptors from gaining a foothold. We can’t depend on regulators to sufficiently protect us from tech giants right now.

Our Hope On The Inside

The best bet for change will come from the rank and file of these monolithic companies. With the war for talent raging, rock star employees able to have huge impact on products, and compensation costs to keep them around rising, tech giants are vulnerable to the opinions of their own staff. It’s simply too expensive and disjointing to have to recruit new high-skilled workers to replace those that flee.

Google declined to renew a contract with the government after 4000 employees petitioned and a few resigned over Project Maven’s artificial intelligence being used to target lethal drone strikes. Change can even flow across company lines. Many tech giants including Facebook and Airbnb have removed their forced arbitration rules for harassment disputes after Google did the same in response to 20,000 of its employees walking out in protest.

Thousands of Google employees protested the company’s handling of sexual harassment and misconduct allegations on Nov. 1.

Facebook is desperately pushing an internal communications campaign to reassure staffers it’s improving in the wake of damning press reports from the New York Times and others. TechCrunch published an internal memo from Facebook’s outgoing VP of communications Elliot Schrage in which he took the blame for recent issues, encouraged employees to avoid finger-pointing, and COO Sheryl Sandberg tried to reassure employees that “I know this has been a distraction at a time when you’re all working hard to close out the year — and I am sorry.” These internal apologizes could come with much more contrition and real change than those paraded for the public.

And so after years of us relying on these tech workers to build the product we use every day, we must now rely that will save us from them. It’s a weighty responsibility to move their talents where the impact is positive, or commit to standing up against the business imperatives of their employers. We as the public and media must in turn celebrate when they do what’s right for society, even when it reduces value for shareholders. If apps abuse us or unduly rob us of our attention, we need to stay off of them.

And we must accept that shaping the future for the collective good may be inconvenient for the individual. There’s an oppprtunity here not just to complain or wish, but to build a social movement that holds tech giants accountable for delivering the change they’ve promised over and over.

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Tile secures $40 million to take on Apple AirTag with new products – TechCrunch

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Tile, the maker of Bluetooth-powered lost item finder beacons and, more recently, a staunch Apple critic, announced today it has raised $40 million in non-dilutive debt financing from Capital IP. The funding will be put towards investment in Tile’s finding technologies, ahead of the company’s plan to unveil a new slate of products and features that the company believes will help it to better compete with Apple’s AirTags and further expand its market.

The company has been a longtime leader in the lost item finder space, offering consumers small devices they can attach to items — like handbags, luggage, bikes, wallets, keys, and more — which can then be tracked using the Tile smartphone app for iOS or Android. When items go missing, the Tile app leverages Bluetooth to find the items and can make them play a sound. If the items are further afield, Tile taps into its broader finding network consisting of everyone who has the app installed on their phone and other access points. Through this network, Tile is able to automatically and anonymously communicate the lost item’s location back to its owner through their own Tile app.

Image Credits: Tile

Tile has also formed partnerships focused on integrating its finding network into over 40 different third-party devices, including those across audio, travel, wearables, and PC categories. Notable brand partners include HP, Dell, Fitbit, Skullcandy, Away, Xfinity, Plantronics, Sennheiser, Bose, Intel, and others. Tile says it’s seen 200% year-over-year growth on activations of these devices with its service embedded.

To date, Tile has sold over 40 million devices and has over 425,000 paying customers — a metric it’s revealing for the first time. It doesn’t disclose its total number of users, both free and paid combined, however. During the first half of 2021, Tile says revenues increased by over 50%, but didn’t provide hard numbers.

While Tile admits that the Covid-19 pandemic had some impacts on international expansions, as some markets have been slower to rebound, it has still seen strong performance outside the U.S., and considers that a continued focus.

The pandemic, however, hasn’t been Tile’s only speed bump.

When Apple announced its plans to compete with the launch of AirTags, Tile went on record to call it unfair competition. Unlike Tile devices, Apple’s products could tap into the iPhone’s U1 chip to allow for more accurate finding through the use of ultra-wideband technologies available on newer iPhone models. Tile, meanwhile, has plans for its own ultra-wideband powered device, but hadn’t been provided the same access. In other words, Apple gave its own lost item finder early, exclusive access to a feature that would allow it to differentiate itself from the competition. (Apple has since announced it’s making ultra-wideband APIs available to third-party developers, but this access wasn’t available from day one of AirTag’s arrival.)

Image Credits: Tile internal concept art

Tile has been vocal on the matter of Apple’s anti-competitive behavior, having testified in multiple Congressional hearings alongside other Apple critics, like Spotify and Match. As a result of increased regulatory pressure, Apple later opened up its Find My network to third-party devices, in an effort to placate Tile and the other rivals its AirTags would disadvantage.

But Tile doesn’t want to route its customers to Apple’s first-party app — it intends to use its own app in order to compete based on its proprietary features and services. Among other things, this includes Tile’s subscriptions. A base plan is $29.99 per year, offering features like free battery replacement, smart alerts, and location history. A $99.99 per year plan also adds insurance of sorts — it pays up to $1,000 per year for items it can’t find. (AirTag doesn’t do that.)

Despite its many differentiators, Tile faces steep competition from the ultra-wideband capable AirTags, which have the advantage of tapping into Apple’s own finding network of potentially hundreds of millions of iPhone owners.

However, Tile CEO CJ Prober — who joined the company in 2018 — claims AirTag hasn’t impacted the company’s revenue or device sales.

“But that doesn’t take away from the fact that they’re making things harder for us,” he says of Apple. “We’re a growing business. We’re winning the hearts and minds of consumers… and they’re competing unfairly.”

“When you own the platform, you shouldn’t be able to identify a category that you want to enter, disadvantage the incumbents in that category, and then advantage yourself — like they did in our case,” he adds.

Tile is preparing to announce an upcoming product refresh that may allow it to better take on the AirTag. Presumably, this will include the pre-announced ultra-wideband version of Tile, but the company says full details will be shared next week. Tile may also expand its lineup in other ways that will allow it to better compete based on look and feel, size and shape, and functionality.

Tile’s last round of funding was $45 million in growth equity in 2019. Now it’s shifted to debt. In addition to new debt financing, Tile is also refinancing some of its existing debt with this fundraise, it says.

“My philosophy is it’s always good to have a mix of debt and equity. So some amount of debt on the balance sheet is good. And it doesn’t incur dilution to our shareholders,” Prober says. “We felt this was the right mix of capital choice for us.”

The company chose to work with Capital IP, a group it’s had a relationship with over the last three years, and who Tile had considered bringing on as an investor. The group has remained interested in Tile and excited about its trajectory, Prober notes.

“We are excited to partner with the Tile team as they continue to define and lead the finding category through hardware and software-based innovations,” said Capital IP’s Managing Partner Riyad Shahjahan, in a statement. “The impressive revenue growth and fast-climbing subscriber trends underline the value proposition that Tile delivers in a platform-agnostic manner, and were a critical driver in our decision to invest. The Tile team has an ambitious roadmap ahead and we look forward to supporting their entry into new markets and applications to further cement their market leadership,” he added.

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News aggregator SmartNews raises $230 million, valuing its business at $2 billion – TechCrunch

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SmartNews, a Tokyo-headquartered news aggregation website and app that’s grown in popularity despite hefty competition from built-in aggregators like Apple News, today announced it has closed on $230 million in Series F funding. The round brings SmartNews’ total raise to date to over $400 million and values the business at $2 billion — or as the company touts in its press release, a “double unicorn.” (Ha!)

The funding included new U.S. investors Princeville Capital and Woodline Partners, as well as JIC Venture Growth Investments, Green Co-Invest Investment, and Yamauchi-No.10 Family Office in Japan. Existing investors participating in this round included ACA Investments and SMBC Venture Capital.

Founded in 2012 in Japan, the company launched to the U.S. in 2014 and expanded its local news footprint early last year. While the app’s content team includes former journalists, machine learning is used to pick which articles are shown to readers to personalize their experience. However, one of the app’s key differentiators is how it works to pop users’ “filter bubbles” through its “News From All Sides” feature, which allows its users to access news from across a range of political perspectives.

It has also developed new products, like its Covid-19 vaccine dashboard and U.S. election dashboard, that provide critical information at a glance. With the additional funds, the company says it plans to develop more features for its U.S. audience — one of its largest, in addition to Japan —  that will focus on consumer health and safety. These will roll out in the next few months and will include features for tracking wildfires and crime and safety reports. It also recently launched a hurricane tracker.

The aggregator’s business model is largely focused on advertising, as the company has said before that 85-80% of Americans aren’t paying to subscribe to news. But SmartNews’ belief is that these news consumers still have a right to access quality information.

In total, SmartNews has relationships with over 3,000 global publishing partners whose content is available through its service on the web and mobile devices.

To generate revenue, the company sells inline ads and video ads, where revenue is shared with publishers. Over 75% of its publishing partners also take advantage of its “SmartView” feature. This is the app’s quick-reading mode, and alternative to something like Google AMP. Here, users can quickly load an article to read, even if they’re offline. The company promises publishers that these mobile-friendly stories, which are marked with a lightning bolt icon in the app, deliver higher engagement — and its algorithm rewards that type of content, bringing them more readers. Among SmartView partners are well-known brands like USA Today, ABC, HuffPost, and others. Currently, over 70% of all SmartNews’ pageviews are coming from SmartView first.

SmartNews’ app has proven to be very sticky, in terms of attracting and keeping users’ attention. The company tells us, citing App Annie July 2021 data, that it sees an average time spent per user per month on U.S. mobile devices that’s higher than Google News or Apple News combined.

Image Credits: App Annie data provided by SmartNews

The company declined to share its monthly active users (MAUs), but had said in 2019 it had grown to 20 million in the U.S. and Japan. Today, it says its U.S. MAUs doubled over the last year.

According to data provided to us by Apptopia, the SmartNews app has seen around 85 million downloads since its October 2014 launch, and 14 million of those took place in the past 365 days. Japan is the largest market for installs, accounting for 59% of lifetime downloads, the firm noted.

“This latest round of funding further affirms the strength of our mission, and fuels our drive to expand our presence and launch features that specifically appeal to users and publishers in the United States,” said SmartNews co-founder and CEO Ken Zuzuki. “Our investors both in the U.S. and globally acknowledge the tremendous growth potential and value of SmartNews’s efforts to democratize access to information and create an ecosystem that benefits consumers, publishers, and advertisers,” he added.

The company says the new funds will be used to invest in further U.S. growth and expanding the company’s team. Since its last fundraise in 2019, where it became a unicorn, the company more than doubled its headcount to approximately 500 people globally. it now plans to double its headcount of 100 in the U.S., with additions across engineering, product, and leadership roles.

The Wall Street Journal reports SmartNews is exploring an IPO, but the company declined to comment on this.

The SmartNews app is available on iOS and Android across more than 150 countries worldwide.

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iPhone users will receive iOS 15 update on September 20 – TechCrunch

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Shortly after today’s virtual conference, Apple announced that the next major version of iOS will be ready for prime time very soon. iPhone users will be able to update to iOS 15 on September 20. The company first unveiled iOS 15 earlier this year at its Worldwide Developer Conference.

The biggest change of iOS 15 is a new Focus mode. In addition to “Do not disturb,” you can configure various modes — you can choose apps and people you want notifications from and change your focus depending on what you’re doing. For instance, you can create a Work mode, a Sleep mode, a Workout mode, etc.

There are many new features across the board, such as a new Weather app, updated maps in Apple Maps, an improved version of FaceTime, and more. Safari also has a brand-new look. At first, it was a bit controversial. Since then, Apple has listened to feedback and improved its new take on Safari.

The new version of iOS also scans your photos for text. Called Live Text, this feature lets you highlight, copy and paste text in photos. It could be a nice accessibility feature as well. iOS is going to leverage that info for Spotlight. You can search for text in your photos directly in Spotlight and it’ll pull out relevant photos. These features are handled on-device directly.

You’ll be able to update to iOS 15 if you have an iPhone 6s and later, any model of iPhone SE or the most recent iPod touch model. It’ll be available as a free download.

For users running the iOS 15 beta, the release candidate is rolling out now, ahead of Monday’s public launch.

If you like your iPhone the way it is, Apple has also said that you don’t have to update to iOS 15. For the foreseeable future, the company will still update iOS 14 with security patches.

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