Opinion

Another fine mesh

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon buys Eero, Eero, Gadgets, hardware, M&A, Opinion, Routers | No Comments

Amazon’s acquisition of mesh router company Eero is a smart play that adds a number of cards to its hand in the rapidly evolving smart home market. Why shouldn’t every router be an Echo, and every Echo be a router? Consolidating the two makes for powerful synergies and significant leverage against stubborn competition.

It’s no secret that Amazon wants to be in every room of the house — and on the front door to boot. It bought connected camera and doorbell companies Blink and Ring, and of course at its events it has introduced countless new devices from connected plugs to microwaves.

All these devices connect to each other, and the internet, wirelessly. Using what? Some router behind the couch, probably from Netgear or Linksys, with a 7-character model number and utilitarian look. This adjacent territory is the clear next target for expansion.

But Amazon could easily have moved into this with a Basics gadget years ago. Why didn’t it? Because it knew that it would have to surpass what’s on the market, not just in signal strength or build, but by changing the product into a whole new category.

The router is one of a dwindling number of devices left in the home that is still just a piece of “equipment.” Few people use their routers for anything but a basic wireless connection. Bits come and go through the cable and are relayed to the appropriate devices, mechanically and invisibly. It’s a device few think to customize or improve, if they think of it at all.

Apple made some early inroads with its overpriced and ultimately doomed Airport products, which served some additional purposes, like simple backups, and were also designed well enough to live on a table instead of under it. But it’s only recently that the humble wireless router has advanced beyond the state of equipment. It’s companies like Eero that did it, but it’s Amazon that’s made it realistic.

Build the demand, then sell the supply

It’s become clear that in many homes a single Wi-Fi router isn’t sufficient. Two or even three might be necessary to get the proper signal to the bedrooms upstairs and the workshop in the garage.

A few years ago this wasn’t even necessary, because there were far fewer devices that needed a wireless connection to work. But now if your signal doesn’t reach the front door, the lock won’t send a video of the mail carrier; if it doesn’t reach the garage, you can’t activate the opener for the neighbor; if it doesn’t reach upstairs, the kids come downstairs to watch TV — and we can’t have that.

A mesh system of multiple devices relaying signals is a natural solution, and one that’s been used for many years in other contexts. Eero was among the first not to create a system but to make a consumer play, albeit at the luxury level, rather like Sonos.

Google got in on the game relatively soon after that with the OnHub and its satellites, but neither company really seemed to crack the code. How many people do you know who have a mesh router system? Very few, I’d wager, likely vanishingly few when compared with ordinary router sales.

It seems clear now that the market wasn’t quite ready for the kind of investment and complexity that mesh networking necessitated. Amazon, however, solves that, because its mesh router will be an Echo, or an Echo Dot, or an Echo Show — all devices that are already found in multiple rooms of the house, and seem very likely to include some kind of mesh protocol in their next update.

It’s hard to say exactly how it will work, since a high-quality router necessarily has features and hardware that let it do its job. Adding these to an Echo product would be non-trivial. But it seems extremely likely that we can expect an Echo Hub or the like, which connects directly to your cable modem (it’s unlikely to perform that duty as well) and performs the usual router duties, while also functioning as an attractive multipurpose Alexa gadget.

That’s already a big step up from the ordinary spiky router. But the fun’s just getting started for Amazon.

Platform play

Apple has powerful synergies in its ecosystems, among which iMessage has to be the strongest. It’s the only reason I use an iPhone now; if Android got access to iMessage, I’d switch tomorrow. But I doubt it ever will, so here I am. Google has that kind of hold on search and advertising — just try to get away. And so on.

Amazon has a death grip on online retail, of course, but its naked thirst for an Amazon-populated smart home has been obvious since it took the smart step to open its Alexa platform up for practically anyone to ship with. The following Alexavalanche brought garbage from all corners of the world, and some good stuff too. But it shipped devices.

Now, any device will work with the forthcoming Echo-Eero hybrids. After all it will function as a perfectly ordinary router in some ways. But Amazon will be putting another layer on that interface specifically with Alexa and other Amazon devices. Imagine how simple the interface will be, how easily you’ll be able to connect and configure new smart home devices — that you bought on Amazon, naturally.

Sure, that non-Alexa baby cam will work, but like Apple’s genius blue and green bubbles, some indicator will make it clear that this device, while perfectly functional, is, well, lacking. A gray, generic device image instead of a bright custom icon or live view from your Amazon camera, perhaps. It’s little things like that that change minds, especially when Amazon is undercutting the competition via subsidized prices.

Note that this applies to expanding the network as well — other Amazon devices (the Dot and its ilk) will likely not only play nice with the hub but will act as range extenders and perform other tasks like file transfers, intercom duty, throwing video, etc. Amazon is establishing a private intranet in your house.

The rich data interplay of smart devices will soon become an important firehose. How much power is being used? How many people are at home and when? What podcasts are being listened to, at what times, and by whom? When did that UPS delivery actually get to the door? Amazon already gets much of this but building a mesh network gives it greater access and allows it to set the rules, in effect. It’s a huge surface area through which to offer services and advertisements, or to preemptively meet users’ needs.

Snooping ain’t easy (or wise)

One thing that deserves a quick mention is the possibility, as it will seem to some, that Amazon will snoop on your internet traffic if you use its router. I’ve got good news and bad news.

The good news is that it’s not only technically very difficult but very unwise to snoop at that level. Any important traffic going through the router will be encrypted, for one thing. And it wouldn’t be much of an advantage to Amazon anyway. The important data on you is generated by your interactions with Amazon: items you browse, shows you watch, and so on. Snatching random browsing data would be invasive and weird, with very little benefit.

Eero addressed the question directly shortly after the acquisition was announced:

Hi Steve! eero and Amazon take customer privacy very seriously and we will continue to protect it. eero does not track customers’ internet activity and this policy will not change with the acquisition.

— eero support 👋 (@eerosupport) February 11, 2019

Maybe they would have eventually as a last-ditch effort to monetize, but that’s neither here nor there.

Now the bad news. You don’t want Amazon to see your traffic? Too bad! Most of the internet runs on AWS! If Amazon really cared, it could probably do all kinds of bad stuff that way. But again it would be foolish self-sabotage.

Free-for-all

What happens next is an arms race, though it seems to me that Amazon might have already won. Google took its shot and may be once bitten, twice shy; its smart home presence isn’t nearly so large, either. Apple got out of the router game because there’s not much money in it; it won’t care if someone uses an Apple Homepod (what a name) with an Amazon router.

Huawei and Netgear already have Alexa-enabled routers, but they can’t offer the level of deep integration Amazon can; there’s no doubt the latter will reserve many interesting features for its own branded devices.

Linksys, TP-Link, Asus, and other OEMs serving the router space may blow this off to start as a toy, though it seems more likely that they will lean on the specs and utilitarian nature to push it with budget and performance markets, leaving Amazon to dominate a sliver… and hope that sliver doesn’t grow into a wedge.

One place you may see interesting competition is from someone leaning on the privacy angle. Although we’ve established that Amazon isn’t likely to use the device that way, the fear doesn’t have to be justified for it to be taken advantage of in advertising. And anyway there are other features like robust ad blocking and so on that, say, a Mozilla-powered open source router could make a case for.

But it seems likely that by acquiring an advanced but beleaguered startup that was ahead of the market, Amazon will be able to make a quick entry and multiply while the others are still engineering their responses.

Expect specials on Eeros while stock lasts, then a new wave of mesh-enabled Echo-branded devices that are backwards compatible, mega-simple to set up, and more than competitive on price. Now is the time and the living room is the place; Amazon will strike hard and perhaps it will set in motion the end of the router as mere equipment.

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Instagram thinks you want IGTV previews in your home feed

Posted by | Apps, Creators, IGTV, instagram, Mobile, Opinion, Social, Video | No Comments

If you can’t beat or join them… force feed ’em? That appears to be Instagram’s latest strategy for IGTV, which is now being shoved right into Instagram’s main feed, the company announced today. Instagram says that it will now add one-minute IGTV previews to the feed, making it “even easier” to discover and watch content from IGTV.

Uh.

IGTV, you may recall, was launched last year as a way for Instagram to woo creators. With IGTV, creators are able to share long-form videos within the Instagram platform instead of just short-form content to the Feed or Stories.

The videos, before today, could be viewed in Instagram itself by tapping the IGTV icon at the top-right of the screen, or within the separate IGTV standalone app.Instagram’s hope was that IGTV would give the company a means of better competing with larger video sites, like Google’s YouTube or Amazon’s Twitch.

Its users, however, haven’t found IGTV as compelling.

As of last fall, few creators were working on content exclusively for IGTV, and rumor was the viewing audience for IGTV content remained quite small, compared with rivals like Snapchat or Facebook. Many creators just weren’t finding it worth investing additional resources into IGTV, so were repurposing content designed for other platforms, like YouTube or Snapchat.

That means the bigger creators weren’t developing premium content or exclusives for IGTV, but were instead experimenting by replaying the content their fans could find elsewhere. Many are still not even sure what the IGTV audience wants to watch.

IGTV’s standalone app doesn’t seem to have gained much of a following either.

The app today is ranked a lowly No. 228 on the U.S. App Store’s “Photo and Video” top chart. Despite being run by Instagram — an app that topped a billion monthly users last summer, and is currently the No. 1 free app on iOS — fewer are downloading IGTV.

After seeing 1.5 million downloads in its first month last year — largely out of curiosity — the IGTV app today has only grown to 3.5 million total installs worldwide, according to Sensor Tower data. While those may be good numbers for a brand-new startup, for a spin-off from one of the world’s biggest apps, they’re relatively small.Instagram’s new video initiative also represents another shot across the bow of Instagram purists.

As BuzzFeed reporter Katie Notopoulos opined last year, “I’m Sorry To Report Instagram Is Bad Now.” Her point of concern was the impact that Stories had on the Instagram Feed — people were sharing to Stories instead of the Feed, which made the Feed pretty boring. At yet, the Stories content wasn’t good either, having become a firehose of the throwaway posts that didn’t deserve being shared directly on users’ profiles.

On top of all this, it seems the Instagram Feed is now going to be cluttered with IGTV previews. That’s. Just. Great.

Instagram says you’ll see the one-minute previews in the Feed, and can tap on them to turn on the audio. Tap the IGTV icon on the preview and you’ll be able to watch the full version in IGTV. When the video is finished, you’re returned to the Feed. Or, if you want to see more from IGTV, you can swipe up while the video plays to start browsing.

IGTV previews is only one way Instagram has been developing the product to attract more views in recent months. It has also integrated IGTV in Explore, allowed the sharing of IGTV videos to Stories, added the ability to save IGTV Videos and launched IGTV Web Embeds.

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My product launch wishlist for Instagram, Twitter, Uber and more

Posted by | 2018 Year in Review, Apps, instagram, iOS, Lyft, Mobile, Opinion, Pinterest, product design, Snapchat, Social, Spotify, Startups, TC, Twitter, Uber | No Comments

‘Twas the night before Xmas, and all through the house, not a feature was stirring from the designer’s mouse . . . Not Twitter! Not Uber, Not Apple or Pinterest! On Facebook! On Snapchat! On Lyft or on Insta! . . . From the sidelines I ask you to flex your code’s might. Happy Xmas to all if you make these apps right.

Instagram

See More Like This – A button on feed posts that when tapped inserts a burst of similar posts before the timeline continues. Want to see more fashion, sunsets, selfies, food porn, pets, or Boomerangs? Instagram’s machine vision technology and metadata would gather them from people you follow and give you a dose. You shouldn’t have to work through search, hashtags, or the Explore page, nor permanently change your feed by following new accounts. Pinterest briefly had this feature (and should bring it back) but it’d work better on Insta.

Web DMs Instagram’s messaging feature has become the defacto place for sharing memes and trash talk about people’s photos, but it’s stuck on mobile. For all the college kids and entry-level office workers out there, this would make being stuck on laptops all day much more fun. Plus, youth culture truthsayer Taylor Lorenz wants Instagram web DMs too.

Upload Quality Indicator – Try to post a Story video or Boomerang from a crummy internet connection and they turn out a blurry mess. Instagram should warn us if our signal strength is low compared to what we usually have (since some places it’s always mediocre) and either recommend we wait for Wi-Fi, or post a low-res copy that’s replaced by the high-res version when possible.

Oh, and if new VP of product Vishal Shah is listening, I’d also like Bitmoji-style avatars and a better way to discover accounts that shows a selection of their recent posts plus their bio, instead of just one post and no context in Explore which is better for discovering content.

Twitter

DM Search – Ummm, this is pretty straightforward. It’s absurd that you can’t even search DMs by person, let alone keyword. Twitter knows messaging is a big thing on mobile right? And DMs are one of the most powerful ways to get in contact with mid-level public figures and journalists. PS: My DMs are open if you’ve got a news tip — @JoshConstine.

Unfollow Suggestions – Social networks are obsessed with getting us to follow more people, but do a terrible job of helping us clean up our feeds. With Twitter bringing back the option to see a chronological feed, we need unfollow suggestions more than ever. It should analyze who I follow but never click, fave, reply to, retweet, or even slow down to read and ask if I want to nix them. I asked for this 5 years ago and the problem has only gotten worse. Since people feel like their feeds are already overflowing, they’re stingy with following new people. That’s partly why you see accounts get only a handful of new followers when their tweets go viral and are seen by millions. I recently had a tweet with 1.7 million impressions and 18,000 Likes that drove just 11 follows. Yes I know that’s a self-own.

Analytics Benchmarks – If Twitter wants to improve conversation quality, it should teach us what works. Twitter offers analytics about each of your tweets, but not in context of your other posts. Did this drive more or fewer link clicks or follows than my typical tweet? That kind of info could guide users to create more compelling content.

Facebook

(Obviously we could get into Facebook’s myriad problems here. A less sensationalized feed that doesn’t reward exaggerated claims would top my list. Hopefully its plan to downrank “borderline content” that almost violates its policies will help when it rolls out.)

Batched Notifications – Facebook sends way too many notifications. Some are downright useless and should be eliminated. “14 friends responded to events happening tomorrow”? “Someone’s fundraiser is half way to its goal?” Get that shit out of here. But there are other notifications I want to see but that aren’t urgent nor crucial to know about individually. Facebook should let us decide to batch notifications so we’d only get one of a certain type every 12 or 24 hours, or only when a certain number of similar ones are triggered. I’d love a digest of posts to my Groups or Events from the past day rather than every time someone opens their mouth.

I so don’t care

Notifications In The “Time Well Spent” Feature – Facebook tells you how many minutes you spent on it each day over the past week and on average, but my total time on Facebook matters less to me than how often it interrupts my life with push notifications. The “Your Time On Facebook” feature should show how many notifications of each type I’ve received, which ones I actually opened, and let me turn off or batch the ones I want fewer of.

Oh, and for Will Cathcart, Facebook’s VP of apps, can I also get proper syncing so I don’t rewatch the same Stories on Instagram and Facebook, the ability to invite people to Events on mobile based on past invite lists of those I’ve hosted or attended, and the See More Like This feature I recommended for Instagram?

Uber/Lyft/Ridesharing

“Quiet Ride” Button – Sometimes you’re just not in the mood for small talk. Had a rough day, need to get work done, or want to just zone out? Ridesharing apps should offer a request for a quiet ride that if the driver allows with a preset and accepts before you get in, you pay them an extra dollar (or get it free as a loyalty perk), and you get ferried to your destination without unnecessary conversation. I get that it’s a bit dehumanizing for the driver, but I’d bet some would happily take a little extra cash for the courtesy.

“I Need More Time” Button – Sometimes you overestimate the ETA and suddenly your car is arriving before you’re ready to leave. Instead of cancelling and rebooking a few minutes later, frantically rushing so you don’t miss your window and get smacked with a no-show fee, or making the driver wait while they and the company aren’t getting paid, Uber, Lyft, and the rest should offer the “I Need More Time” button that simply rebooks you a car that’s a little further away.

Spotify/Music Streaming Apps

Scan My Collection – I wish I could just take photos of the album covers, spines, or even discs of my CD or record collection and have them instantly added to a playlist or folder. It’s kind of sad that after lifetimes of collecting physical music, most of it now sits on a shelf and we forget to play what we used to love. Music apps want more data on what we like, and it’s just sitting there gathering dust. There’s obviously some fun viral potential here too. Let me share what’s my most embarrassing CD. For me, it’s my dual copies of Limp Bizkit’s “Significant Other” because I played the first one so much it got scratched.

Friends Weekly Spotify ditched its in-app messaging, third-party app platform, and other ways to discover music so its playlists would decide what becomes a hit in order to exert leverage over the record labels to negotiate better deals. But music discovery is inherently social and the desktop little ticker of what friends are playing on doesn’t cut it. Spotify should let me choose to recommend my new favorite song or agree to let it share what I’ve recently played most, and put those into a Discover Weekly-style social playlist of what friends are listening to.

Snapchat

Growth – I’m sorry, I had to.

Bulk Export Memories – But seriously, Snapchat is shrinking. That’s worrisome because some users’ photos and videos are trapped on its Memories cloud hosting feature that’s supposed to help free up space on your phone. But there’s no bulk export option, meaning it could take hours of saving shots one at a time to your camera roll if you needed to get off of Snapchat, if for example it was shutting down, or got acquired, or you’re just bored of it.

Add-On Cameras – Snapchat’s Spectacles are actually pretty neat for recording first-person or underwater shots in a circular format. But otherwise they don’t do much more, and in some ways do much less, than your phone’s camera and are a long way from being a Magic Leap competitor. That’s why if Snapchat really wants to become a “Camera Company”, it should build sleek add-on cameras that augment our phone’s hardware. Snap previously explored selling a 360-camera but never launched one. A little Giroptic iO-style 360 lens that attaches to your phone’s charging port could let you capture a new kind of content that really makes people feel like they’re there with you. An Aukey Aura-style zoom lens attachment that easily fits in your pocket unlike a DSLR could also be a hit

iOS

Switch Wi-Fi/Bluetooth From Control Center – I thought the whole point of Control Center was one touch access, but I can only turn on or off the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It’s silly having to dig into the Settings menu to switch to a different Wi-Fi network or Bluetooth device, especially as we interact with more and more of them. Control Center should unfurl a menu of networks or devices you can choose from.

Shoot GIFs – Live Photos are a clumsy proprietary format. Instagram’s Boomerang nailed what we want out of live action GIFs and we should be able to shoot them straight from the iOS camera and export them as actual GIFs that can be used across the web. Give us some extra GIF settings and iPhones could have a new reason for teens to choose them over Androids.

Gradual Alarms – Anyone else have a heart attack whenever they hear their phone’s Alarm Clock ringtone? I know I do because I leave my alarms on so loud that I’ll never miss them, but end up being rudely shocked awake. A setting that gradually increases the volume of the iOS Alarm Clock every 15 seconds or minute so I can be gently arisen unless I refuse to get up.

Maybe some of these apply to Android, but I wouldn’t know because I’m a filthy casual iPhoner. Send me your Android suggestions, as well as what else you want to see added to your favorite apps.

[Image Credit: Hanson Inc]

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How Juul made vaping viral to become worth a dirty $38 billion

Posted by | e-cigarettes, eCommerce, funding, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, Health, juul, nicotine, Opinion, Policy, Recent Funding, Social, Startups, TC, tobacco, vaporizers | No Comments

A Juul is not a cigarette. It’s much easier than that. Through devilishly slick product design I’ll discuss here, the startup has massively lowered the barrier to getting hooked on nicotine. Juul has dismantled every deterrent to taking a puff.

The result is both a new $38 billion valuation thanks to a $12.8 billion investment from Marlboro Cigarettes-maker Altria this week, and an explosion in popularity of vaping amongst teenagers and the rest of the population. Game recognize game, and Altria’s game is nicotine addiction. It knows it’s been one-upped by Juul’s tactics, so it’s hedged its own success by handing the startup over a tenth of the public corporation’s market cap in cash.

Juul argues it can help people switch from obviously dangerous smoking to supposedly healthier vaping. But in reality, the tiny aluminum device helps people switch from nothing to vaping…which can lead some to start smoking the real thing. A study found it causes more people to pick up cigarettes than put them down.

Photographer: Gabby Jones/Bloomberg via Getty Images

How fast has Juul swept the nation? Nielsen says it controls 75 percent of the U.S. e-cigarette market up from 27 percent in September last year. In the year since then, the CDC says the percentage of high school students who’ve used an e-cigarette in the last 30 days has grown 75 percent. That’s 3 million teens or roughly 20 percent of all high school kids. CNBC reports that Juul 2018 revenue could be around $1.5 billion.

The health consequences aside, Juul makes it radically simple to pick up a lifelong vice. Parents, regulators, and potential vapers need to understand why Juul works so well if they’ll have any hope of suppressing its temptations.

Shareable

It’s tough to try a cigarette for the first time. The heat and smoke burn your throat. The taste is harsh and overwhelming. The smell coats your fingers and clothes, marking you as smoker. There’s pressure to smoke a whole one lest you waste the tobacco. Even if you want to try a friend’s, they have to ignite one first. And unlike bigger box mod vaporizers where you customize the temperature and e-juice, Juul doesn’t make you look like some dorky hardcore vapelord.

Juul is much more gentle on your throat. The taste is more mild and can be masked with flavors. The vapor doesn’t stain you with a smell as quickly. You can try just a single puff from a friend’s at a bar or during a smoking break with no pressure to inhale more. The elegant, discrete form factor doesn’t brand you as a serious vape users. It’s casual. Yet the public gesture and clouds people exhale are still eye catching enough to trigger the questions, “What’s that? Can I try?” There’s a whole other article to be written about how Juul memes and Instagram Stories that glamorized the nicotine dispensers contributed to the device’s spread.

And perhaps most insidiously, vaping seems healthier. A lifetime of anti-smoking ads and warning labels drilled the dangers into our heads. But how much harm could a little vapor do?

A friend who had never smoked tells me they burn through a full Juul pod per day now. Someone got him to try a single puff at a nightclub. Soon he was asking for drag off of strangers’ Juuls. Then he bought one and never looked back. He’d been around cigarettes at parties his whole life but never got into them. Juul made it too effortless to resist.

Concealable

Lighting up a cigarette is a garish activity prohibited in many places. Not so with discretely sipping from a Juul.

Cigarettes often aren’t allowed to be smoked inside. Hiding it is no easy feat and can get you kicked out. You need to have a lighter and play with fire to get one started. They can get crushed or damp in your pocket. The burning tip makes them unruly in tight quarters, and the bud or falling ash can damage clothing and make a mess. You smoke a cigarette because you really want to smoke a cigarette.

Public establishments are still figuring out how to handle Juuls and other vaporizers. Many places that ban smoking don’t explicitly do the same for vaping. The less stinky vapor and more discrete motion makes it easy to hide. Beyond airplanes, you could probably play dumb and say you didn’t know the rules if you did get caught. The metal stick is hard to break. You won’t singe anyone. There’s no mess, need for an ashtray, or holes in your jackets or couches.

As long as your battery is charged, there’s no need for extra equipment and you won’t draw attention like with a lighter. Battery life is a major concern for heavy Juulers that smokers don’t have worry about, but I know people who now carry a giant portable charger just to keep their Juul alive. But there’s also a network effect that’s developing. Similar to iPhone cords, Juuls are becoming common enough that you can often conveniently borrow a battery stick or charger from another user. 

And again, the modular ability to take as few or as many puffs as you want lets you absent-mindedly Juul at any moment. At your desk, on the dance floor, as you drive, or even in bed. A friend’s nieces and nephews say that they see fellow teens Juul in class by concealing it in the cuff of their sleeve. No kid would be so brazen as to try smoke in cigarette in the middle of a math lesson.

Distributable

Gillette pioneered the brilliant razor and blade business model. Buy the sometimes-discounted razor, and you’re compelled to keep buying the expensive proprietary blades. Dollar Shave Club leveled up the strategy by offering a subscription that delivers the consumable blades to your door. Juul combines both with a product that’s physically addictive.

When you finish a pack of cigarettes, you could be done smoking. There’s nothing left. But with Juul you’ve still got the $35 battery pack when you finish vaping a pod. There’s a sunk cost fallacy goading you to keep buying the pods to get the most out of your investment and stay locked into the Juul ecosystem.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

One of Juul’s sole virality disadvantages compared to cigarettes is that they’re not as ubiquitously available. Some stores that sells cigs just don’t carry them yet. But more and more shops are picking them up, which will continue with Altria’s help. And Juul offers an “auto-ship” delivery option that knocks $2 off the $16 pack of four pods so you don’t even have to think about buying more. Catch the urge to quit? Well you’ve got pods on the way so you might as well use them. Whether due to regulation or a lack of innovation, I couldn’t find subscription delivery options for traditional cigarettes.

And for minors that want to buy Juuls or Juul pods illegally, their tiny size makes them easy to smuggle and resell. A recent South Park episode featured warring syndicates of fourth-graders selling Juul pods to even younger kids.

Dishonorable

Juul co-founder James Monsees told the San Jose Mercury News that “The first phase is proving the value and creating a product that makes cigarettes obsolete.” But notice he didn’t say Juul wants to make nicotine obsolete or reduce the number of people addicted to it.

Juul co-founder James Monsees

If Juul actually cared about fighting addiction, it’d offer a regimen for weaning yourself off of nicotine. Yet it doesn’t sell low-dose or no-dose pods that could help people quit entirely. In the US it only sells 5% and 3% nicotine versions. It does make 1.7% pods for foreign markets like Israel where that’s the maximum legal strengths, though refuses to sell them in the States. Along with taking over $12 billion from one of the largest cigarette companies, that makes the mission statement ring hollow.

Juul is the death stick business as usual, but strengthened by the product design and virality typically reserved for Apple and Facebook.

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Samsung’s dual-screen folding phone is very strange and probably doomed

Posted by | foldable, Gadgets, hardware, Opinion, Samsung | No Comments

Let me just say that I love the idea of a folding phone/tablet device. I was a Courier fanboy when Microsoft floated that intriguing but abortive concept device, and I’m all for unique form factors and things that bend. But Samsung’s first real shot at a folding device is inexplicable and probably dead on arrival. I’d like to congratulate the company for trying something new, but this one needed a little more time in the oven.

I haven’t used it, of course, so this is just my uninformed opinion (provided for your edification). But this device is really weird, and not in a good way. It’s a really thick phone with big bezels around a small screen that opens up into a small tablet. No one wants that!

Think about it. Why do you want a big screen?

If it’s for media, like most people, consider that nearly all that media is widescreen now, either horizontal (YouTube and Netflix) or vertical (Instagram and Facebook). You can switch between these views at will extremely easily. Now consider that because of basic geometry, the “big” screen inside this device will likely not be able to show that media much, if any, larger than the screen on the front!

(Well, in this device’s case, maybe a little, but only because that front display’s bezel really is huge. Why do you think they turned the lights off? Look where the notification bar is!)

It’s like putting two of the tall screens next to each other. You end up with one twice as wide, but that’s pretty much what you get if you put the phone on its side. All you gain with the big screen is a whole lot of letterboxing or windowboxing. Oh, and probably about three quarters of an inch of thickness and half a pound of weight. This thing is going to be a beast.

Power users may also want a big screen for productivity: email and document handling and such is great on a big device like a Galaxy Note. Here then is opportunity for a folding tablet to excel (so to speak). You can just plain fit more words and charts and controls on there. Great! But if the phone is geared toward power users, why even have the small screen on the front anyway if any time that user wants to engage with the phone they will “open” it up? For quick responses or dismissing notifications, maybe, but who would really want that? That experience will always be inferior to the one the entire device is designed around.

I would welcome a phone that was only a book-style big internal screen, and I don’t think it would be a bother to flip it open when you want to use it. Lots of people with giant phones keep book-like covers on their devices anyway! It would be great to be able to use those square inches for the display rather than credit card slots or something.

The Courier had tons of great ideas on how to use two screens.

There are also creative ways to use the screen: left and right halves are different apps; top half is compose and bottom is keyboard; left half is inbox and right half is content; top half is media and bottom is controls and comments. Those sprang to mind faster than I could type them.

On the other hand, I can’t think of any way that a “front” display could meaningfully interact with or enhance a secondary (or is it primary?) display that will never be simultaneously visible. Presumably you’ll use one or the other at any given time, meaning you literally can’t engage the entire capability of the device.

You know what would be cool? A device like this that also used the bezel display we’ve seen on existing Galaxy devices. How cool would it be to have your phone closed like a book, but with an always-on notification strip (or two!) on the lip, telling you battery, messages and so on? And maybe if you tapped once the device would automatically pop open physically! That would be amazing! And Samsung is absolutely the company that I’d say would make it.

Instead, they made this thing.

It’s disappointing to me not just because I don’t like the device as they’ve designed it, but because I think the inevitable failure of the phone will cool industry ambition regarding unique devices like it. That’s wrong, though! People want cool new things. But they also want them to make sense.

I’m looking forward to how this technology plays out, and I fully expect to own a folding phone some time in the next few years. But this first device seems to me like a major misstep, and one that will set back that flexible future rather than advance it.

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Assassin’s Creed Odyssey falls far short of its own wondrous sandbox

Posted by | Gaming, Opinion, TC | No Comments

It’s hard to imagine a better demonstration of the state of AAA gaming today than Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, a game where the whole of the wine-dark Classical Aegean is available for you to ply with your oars — but which operates according to a risible, cartoonish video game logic that seems, if possible, even more anachronistic. Should you play it? Absolutely.

(Very minor spoilers ahead.)

In case you haven’t been following the Assassin’s Creed… well, odyssey, the last few years, the game took some time off following the lavishly produced but ambivalently received Unity and Syndicate games, set in revolutionary Paris and Victorian London, respectively. The series, critics said, was wearing itself a bit thin despite the fabulous set dressing.

You can imagine everyone’s surprise when AC returned in Origins, set in an enormous swathe of ancient Egypt. New systems nudged the game from the stealth action of its roots toward the expansive, open-world RPG currently in vogue. It was a little rough around the edges, but the scale was welcome, as was the shift away from the increasingly turgid Assassins versus Templars secret society scramble.

The news that the next game would take place in Ancient Greece at the time of the Peloponnesian War thrilled me to no end. I’ve always been a fan of the Classical era, Homer and Herodotus and Periclean Athens and all that. I’ll also admit to an unironic love of “300” and the story of Leonidas’s last stand — the graphic novel, not the movie, which was awful.

Are you kidding me? Look at this.

Here, then was that world brought to life with all the fidelity that Ubisoft’s hundreds of artists and modelers could bring, with a narrative combining secret societies with classical warfare, historical figures and high-seas adventure (I loved the pirate-themed AC Black Flag). On paper this is the greatest game ever to grace the screen.

And in a way, it is. Ubisoft’s rendering of the Classical world is so beautiful, so massive, so obviously a labor of love and skill and intensive research that I have spent much of my time in the game simply gawking.

The costumes! The statues! The landscapes! The light! It’s a feast of details at every location, from the idyllic backwater of Kephallonia, where your hero begins their story, to the sprawling, bustling Athens just approaching the zenith of its glory. I (that is to say, my character) walked past the Theatre of Dionysus in its construction, which I have visited in person (now ruined and restored, of course), and on up to the Acropolis, where I scaled the Parthenon and looked out over the tiled roofs under one of which, for all I know, I may find Plato sitting and writing The Symposium.

Seriously.

Then I meander to the harbor, board my black ship and split the seas to explore any of the islands in the entire Aegean — any of them. The whole Aegean! Well, most of it, anyway. Enough that you won’t ask for more. Here be mythical creatures, political machinations, stormy seas and sunny shanties.

The world that Assassin’s Creed Odyssey inhabits, I feel confident in saying, is the largest and most impressive that I have encountered, with special credit given for having to reflect reality to a certain extent, which is not a limitation shared by its eminent competition in the open-world genre, like Horizon: Zero Dawn and Breath of the Wild.

In my opinion, both as a gamer and a lover of antiquity, it is worth the price of admission to experience this world, to see and hear Ancient Greece in a way that was heretofore impossible, and simply to revel in the almost inconceivable level of craft that was so obviously put into this mind-boggling world.

And now, having made that judgment, I will proceed to trash the game I just recommended for about two thousand words.

The game itself

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, the game itself, is embarrassing to play. The characters you interact with and the minute-by-minute gameplay are so uneven that I truly believe that Ubisoft simply didn’t have time to adequately play-test it. It feels like the game was just too big to run through once they’d made it so they just shipped. If someone from Ubisoft were sitting next to me as I played, I would expect them to be cringing constantly.

It’s an incredibly lopsided collection of old and new ideas, balanced and unbalanced systems, good and bad UI, intuitive and baffling combat, beautiful and repulsive graphics, and excellent and laughable voice acting. I haven’t finished the game, let alone all the side quests, but although I expect to encounter more good things as I go, the bad things were apparent pretty much from the first few minutes and haven’t abated.

The AI of the people in this game seems to have regressed 10 years to a simpler age. They are truly idiots all, from people on the street to elite soldiers.

Good old Adrastos the Logician, engaging in hand to hand combat.

One of the first things that happened when I got my horse and learned to have it follow a road was that it mowed down a few laborers. This, I found, would happen everywhere I went: every character in the game walks right in the center of the road and dives madly out of your way as you canter down it, screaming and cursing. Wild animals cluttered the road, and reacted confusedly as I approached, throwing themselves under the hooves of my steed, Phobos.

This was my first taste of what would become a theme. Why, I asked myself, wouldn’t these people just walk on the side of the road? The developers clearly accounted for horses riding down it, and have behaviors and barks for when that happens. But it’s so weird, so unrealistic, so video gamey. Surely in this lovingly rendered world it is not unusual for a horse to run down a mountain road? Why then do they behave in this way? Because the people were not created intelligently — it’s as simple as that. None of them.

I once emptied a military camp of guards and then set about looting the place. A woman was being held captive in a cage — not an uncommon thing to find — so I let her out. As she escaped, thanking me, I turned to take the items out of a nearby chest. The woman, mid-escape, screamed with rage at me for this theft, snatching a nearby spear and rushed me in righteous anger. What?

Perhaps I can’t expect every peasant to be a genius, but guards too (of all ranks) are unbelievably dense. They will step over the corpses of their fellow men to get to their post and not say a word. They will fail to hear the clashing of swords, or not notice a guy being violently flipped over and disemboweled, a matter of feet away. They will follow you one by one around corners where you can dispatch them individually and fail to see or care about the ever-widening pool of blood. They are as dumb as the dumbest guards from games that came out 10 years ago.

“Mother of Spiders”

Not much better are the much-ballyhooed mercenaries, who come after you if you do too many bad things. It’s not really clear what the bad things are, but eventually you’ll see a red helmet icon on your map and know you’ve been naughty. They’re basically guards with special weapons and a few characteristics like “weak to fire” or “takes 20 percent less ranged damage.” Technically they have backstories but you have to drill down to their description to find them, and by the time you’re doing that you’ve probably already killed them. You can recruit them for your ship, like you can recruit anyone, but they generally amount to stat bonuses with funny names like Demos the Drunk. He didn’t act drunk — just had a spear I wanted, so I took him out. I mean, the variation is welcome, but it’s nothing like, for example, the nemesis system in the Mordor series.

Combat is a real mix. You are no longer a fragile assassin who can be killed from a few good hits, but a powerful warrior with supernatural skills like instant mid-battle heals and teleportation. This is combat between equals, but your equals are generally stiff types with two or three attacks they repeat over and over, glowing a bright red or gold before doing so.

A slippery-feeling dodge system zips you through these attacks, or you can parry some of them, then slash away at your attacker. Some guards or targets, especially if they’re a level or two above you, will take minutes of patient slashing before they drop. I was sent on a hunt to kill a legendary boar that I gave up on after a couple minutes because I had only taken its health down by a quarter while not being hit myself.

Compared with other action RPGs it’s pretty listless stuff. More appealing is the stealth, which the fools of guards are obviously there to encourage, since you can empty a camp or fort of its occupants systematically and it can be quite satisfying. But with the perfect knowledge effected by scouting such a place with your eagle’s x-ray vision, it feels more like bullying than anything.

The Peloponnesian War is going on around you, though you’d be hard-pressed to notice most of the time. You don’t exactly take sides, since whatever area you’re in, your enemies are the ones in control. You can weaken the faction in power by various means and force a battle (a melee in which the combat, now against dozens, feels frustratingly sloppy), but ultimately the guards and camps feel much the same as one another — Spartans have different helmets from Athenians.

I thought at first this would be deeper than it is. I had looted a variety of armor pieces, several of which suggested I could use them to blend in among the Athenians whom I was at that moment working to undermine. So I donned them and headed to the nearest camp, hoping to walk about unsuspected, Hitman-style, sowing chaos by releasing caged animals and setting fire to supplies. Nope: I was immediately attacked on approaching the gate, before I’d even come in or done anything suspicious. The guard that had never seen me before apparently recognized me as the bloodthirsty mercenary who’d wiped out a camp a mile or so away, minutes earlier. No espionage for me.

It’s never really clear who you’re fighting or why, because the locations and people are just names. It doesn’t matter if they’re Athenian or Spartan, just that they’re the ones between you and the treasure chest. I guess that’s the life of a mercenary, but it doesn’t make you care a lot.

That was a quest?

The RPG elements, from gear to abilities, have almost no integration with the game itself. From the very beginning you can see your whole skill tree, including things involving the magic spear that you don’t yet know is magic. You gain new abilities and upgrade your ship not through interesting quests or meeting interesting people, but simply by spending points and resources.

When your ship’s captain says the hull ought to be upgraded, it’s not the start of a quest to find some cool big trees or visit his hometown where he left his ship-building tools and pals. It’s literally just a reminder to stock up on wood and iron and press the button to upgrade in the pause screen.

When you meet a talented carpenter whose brother is being held by bandits, it isn’t a quest to reunite these guys for a power team that enables a ship repair superpower. He just turns out to be a regular guy who increases your hull strength by a couple of percentage points.

Quests, talked up ahead of release as being fully voiced and emergent, as though you’re receiving a request from help from a needy merchant or the like, are nothing of the sort. Every one I’ve encountered so far has been a variant of: Kill these five wolves specifically. Kill these three Spartan elite guards specifically. Kill these bandits. Sink these ships.

Each has a flimsy justification (they’re blocking the road; they stole money from me) and are often atrociously acted. In one I found the quest giver asleep; he obligingly woke me up to say he wanted to take the fight to some bandits who had been demanding money from him. As soon as I agreed, those very bandits appeared not 10 feet away and instantly ran him through. Quest failed.

There are deeper side quests, to be sure. But the hundreds of quests you’ll see on quest boards or appearing randomly in the wild are like this, and rarely give more than a spritz of XP and gold. Sometimes you can recruit the quest-giver, though they might or might not be helpful on your crew.

I wish that they had taken the time and effort that went into creating 20 or 30 of these quests and made one single side quest with multiple steps, characters that mattered a bit, and provided substantial rewards like a new ability for your ship.

Even main story quests, such as the targets you’ll be taking on, can be disappointingly shallow. You’re supposed to be following threads and clues, but several are just handed to you: Here’s some lady. Here’s her exact location. Go kill her. No dialogue, no footwork, no alternatives. Stab this person and take their shiny thing. Shouldn’t I at least try to get some information out of her? Why isn’t there even a death cut scene like in so many of the other games?

The writing is hit and miss. The main story and its immediate side quests are fine — I’m perhaps 25 hours in and I’m interested to see where it’s going, even if it’s not particularly surprising. And it helps that the writing and voices for the main characters are leaps and bounds above the rest.

I chose to play as Kassandra, as opposed to Alexios, for a lot of reasons. And I love her. She’s well-acted, her writing is funny and occasionally realistic, and I like that she is indistinguishable from her male alternative in every way. Your companions, especially Herodotos and your exuberant captain Barnabas, are great.

Yet other characters are ridiculous: badly written, worse acted. Even major ones. I remember one exchange with a soon-to-be-target who was pressuring me to torture some poor sap. His voice acting was so bad, especially compared to his interlocutor Kassandra’s, that I was laughing out loud. He was far from the only example of this.

Games like The Witcher 3 have spoiled us on the quality of the writing and quests, but that should be a new bar to meet, not a high-water point. It’s sad that Ubisoft hasn’t upped its game here, so to speak; it feels like 90 percent of the game I’ve played so far is purely mechanical, and even at its best it sits like a layer of butter spread thinly across an enormous Greek piece of toast. But what toast!

It’s tantalizing to see how good a game like this could be, only to be let down again and again with elements that would feel out of date 10 years ago. I’m having a great time when I’m not shaking my head at it, and enjoying the scenery when I’m not being attacked by one of the evidently 50,000 bears out for my blood in the Classical world.

As I wrote earlier, to me it is worth buying just for the good parts. But as someone who cares about games and loves the idea of this one, I can’t help but observe how dated and baffling it is at the same time. It doesn’t live up to the world it was created to inhabit, but that world is practically a complete game in itself, and one that I immediately loved.

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Instagram denies it’s building Regramming. Here’s why it’d be a disaster

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, instagram, Instagram algorithm, Mobile, Opinion, Social, TC | No Comments

Instagram tells me Regramming, or the ability to instantly repost someone else’s feed post to your followers like a retweet, is “not happening”, not being built, and not being tested. And that’s good news for all Instagrammers. The denial comes after it initially issued a “no comment” to The Verge’s Casey Newton, who published that he’d seen screenshots of a native Instagram resharing sent to him by a source.

Regramming would be a fundamental shift in how Instagram works, not necessarily in terms of functionality, but in terms of the accepted norms of what and how to post. You could always screenshot, cite the original creator, and post. But Instagram has always been about sharing your window to the world — what you’ve lived and seen. Regramming would legitimize suddenly assuming someone else’s eyes.

The result would be that users couldn’t trust that when they follow someone, that’s whose vision would appear in their feed. Instagram would feel a lot more random and unpredictable. And it’d become more like its big brother Facebook whose News Feed has waned in popularity – susceptible to viral clickbait bullshit, vulnerable to foreign misinformation campaigns, and worst of all, impersonal.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Newton’s report suggested Instagram reposts would appear under the profile picture of the original sharer, and regrams could be regrammed once more in turn, showing a stack of both profile thumbnails of who previously shared it. That would at least prevent massive chains of reposts turning posts into all-consuming feed bombs.

Regramming could certainly widen what appears in your feed, which some might consider more interesting. It could spur growth by creating a much easier way for users to share in feed, especially if they don’t live a glamorous life themself. I can see a case for this being a feature for businesses only, which are already impersonal and act as curators. And Instagram’s algorithm could hide the least engaging regrams.

These benefits are why Instagram has internally considered building regramming for years. CEO Kevin Systrom told Wired last year “We debate the re-share thing a lot . . . But really that decision is about keeping your feed focused on the people you know rather than the people you know finding other stuff for you to see. And I think that is more of a testament of our focus on authenticity.”

See, right now, Instagram profiles are cohesive. You can easily get a feel for what someone posts and make an educated decision about whether to follow them from a quick glance at their grid. What they share reflects on them, so they’re cautious and deliberate. Everyone is putting on a show for Likes, so maybe it’s not quite ‘authentic’, but at least the content is personal. Regramming would make it impossible to tell what someone would post next, and put your feed at the mercy of their impulses without the requisite accountability. If they regram something lame, ugly, or annoying, it’s the original author who’d be blamed.

Instagram already offers a demand release valve in the form of re-sharing posts to your Story as stickers

Instagram already has a release valve for demand for regramming in the form of the ability to turn people’s public feed posts into Stickers you can paste into your Story. Launched in May, you can add your commentary, complimenting on dunking on the author. There, regrams are ephemeral, and your followers have to pull them out of their Stories tray rather than having them force fed via the feed. Effectively, you can reshare others’ content, but not make it a central facet of Instagram or emblem of your identity. And if you want to just make sure a few friends see something awesome you’ve discovered, you can send them people’s feed posts as Direct messages.

Making it much easier to repost to your feed instead of sharing something original could turn Instagram into an echo chamber. It’d turn Instagram even more into a popularity contest, with users jockeying for viral distribution and a chance to plug their SoundCloud mixtapes like on Twitter. Personal self-expression would be overshadowed even further by people playing to the peanut gallery. Businesses might get lazy rather than finding their own styles. If you want to discover something new and unexpected, there’s a whole Explore page full of it.

Newton is a great reporter, and I suspect the screenshots he saw were real, but I think Instagram should have given him the firm denial right away. My guess is that it wanted to give its standard no comment because if it always outright denies inaccurate rumors and speculation, that means journalists can assume they’re right when it does “no comment.”

But once Newton published his report, backlash quickly mounted about how regramming could ruin Instagram. Rather than leaving users worried, confused, and constantly asking when the feature would launch and how it would work, the company decided to issue firm denials after the fact. It became worth diverging from its PR playbook. Maybe it had already chosen to scrap its regramming prototype, maybe the screenshots were just of an early mock-up never meant to be seriously considered, or maybe it hadn’t actually finalized that decision to abort until the public weighed in against the feature yesterday.

In any case, introducing regramming would risk an unforced error. The elemental switch from chronological to the algorithmic feed, while criticized, was critical to Instagram being able to show the best of the massive influx of content. Instagram would eventually break without it. There’s no corresponding urgency to fix what ain’t broke when it comes to not allowing regramming.

Instagram is already growing like crazy. It just hit a billion monthly users. Stories now has 400 million daily users, and that feature is growing six times faster than Snapchat as a whole. The app is utterly dominant in the photo and short video sharing world. Regramming would be an unnecessary gamble.

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The iPhone SE was the best phone Apple ever made, and now it’s dead

Posted by | Apple, Gadgets, hardware, iPhone, iPhone SE, Mobile, Opinion | No Comments

I only wanted one thing out of 2018’s iPhone event: a new iPhone SE. In failing to provide it Apple seems to have quietly put the model out to pasture — and for this I curse them eternally. Because it was the best phone the company ever made.

If you were one of the many who passed over the SE back in 2015, when it made its debut, that’s understandable. The iPhone 6S was the latest and greatest, and of course fixed a few of the problems Apple had kindly introduced with the entirely new design of the 6. But for me the SE was a perfect match.

See, I’ve always loved the iPhone design that began with the 4. That storied phone is perhaps best remembered for being left in a bar ahead of release and leaked by Gizmodo — which is too bad, because for once the product was worthy of the lavish unveiling Apple now bestows on every device it puts out.

The 4 established an entirely new industrial design aesthetic that was at once instantly recognizable and highly practical. Gone were the smooth, rounded edges and back of the stainless original iPhone (probably the second-best phone Apple made) and the jellybean-esque 3G and 3GS.

In the place of those soft curves were hard lines and uncompromising geometry: a belt of metal running around the edge, set off from the glass sides by the slightest of steps. It highlighted and set off the black glass of the screen and bezel, producing a of specular outline from any angle.

The camera was flush and the home button (RIP) sub-flush, entirely contained within the body, making the device perfectly flat both front and back. Meanwhile the side buttons boldly stood out. Volume in bold, etched circles; the mute switch easy to find but impossible to accidentally activate; the power button perfectly placed for a reaching index finger. Note that all these features are directly pointed at usability: making things easier, better, more accessible, while also being attractive and cohesive as parts of a single object.

Compared to the iPhone 4, every single other phone, including Samsung’s new “iPhone killer” Galaxy S, was a cheap-looking mess of plastic, incoherently designed or at best workmanlike. And don’t think I’m speaking as an Apple fanboy; I was not an iPhone user at the time. In fact, I was probably still using my beloved G1 — talk about beauty and the beast!

The design was strong enough that it survived the initially awkward transition to a longer screen in the 5, and with that generation it also gained the improved rear side that alleviated the phone’s unfortunate tendency towards… well, shattering.

The two-tone grey iPhone 5S, however, essentially left no room for improvement. And after 4 years, it was admittedly perhaps time to freshen things up a bit. Unfortunately, what Apple ended up doing was subtracting all personality from the device while adding nothing but screen space.

The 6 was, to me, simply ugly. It was reminiscent of the plethora of boring Android phones at the time — merely higher quality than them, not different. The 6S was similarly ugly, and the 7 through 8 somehow further banished any design that set themselves apart, while reversing course on some practical measures in allowing an increasingly large camera bump and losing the headphone jack. The X, at least, looked a bit different.

But to return to the topic at hand, it was after the 6S that Apple had introduced the SE. Although it nominally stood for “Special Edition,” the name was also a nod to the Macintosh SE. Ironically given the original meaning of “System Expansion,” the new SE was the opposite: essentially an iPhone 6S in the body of a 5S, complete with improved camera, Touch ID sensor, and processor. The move was likely intended as a sort of lifeboat for users who still couldn’t bring themselves to switch to the drastically redesigned, and considerably larger, new model.

It would take time, Apple seems to have reasoned, to convert these people, the types who rarely buy first generation Apple products and cherish usability over novelty. So why not coddle them a bit through this difficult transition?

The SE appealed not just to the nostalgic and neophobic, but simply people who prefer a smaller phone. I don’t have particularly large or small hands, but I preferred this highly pocketable, proven design to the new one for a number of reasons.

Flush camera so it doesn’t get scratched up? Check. Normal, pressable home button? Check. Flat, symmetrical design? Check. Actual edges to hold onto? Check. Thousands of cases already available? Check — although I didn’t use one for a long time. The SE is best without one.

At the time, the iPhone SE was more compact and better looking than anything Apple offered, while making almost no compromises at all in terms of functionality. The only possible objection was its size, and that was (and is) a matter of taste.

It was the best object Apple ever designed, filled with the best tech it had ever developed. It was the best phone it ever made.

And the best phone it’s made since then, too, if you ask me. Ever since the 6, it seems to me that Apple has only drifted, casting about for something to captivate its users the way the iPhone 4’s design and new graphical capabilities did, all the way back in 2010. It honed that design to a cutting edge and then, when everyone expected the company to leap forward, it tiptoed instead, perhaps afraid to spook the golden goose.

To me the SE was Apple allowing itself one last victory lap on the back of a design it would never surpass. It’s understandable that it would not want to admit, this many years on, that anyone could possibly prefer something it created nearly a decade ago to its thousand-dollar flagship — a device, I feel I must add, that not only compromises visibly in its design (I’ll never own a notched phone if I can help it) but backpedals on practical features used by millions, like Touch ID and a 3.5mm headphone jack. This is in keeping with similarly user-unfriendly choices made elsewhere in its lineup.

So while I am disappointed in Apple, I’m not surprised. After all, it’s disappointed me for years. But I still have my SE, and I intend to keep it for as long as possible. Because it’s the best thing the company ever made, and it’s still a hell of a phone.

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Snapchat adds new styles as Spectacles V2s get used 40% more than V1

Posted by | Apps, eCommerce, Evan Spiegel, Gadgets, hardware, Mobile, Opinion, Snap, snap inc, Snapchat, snapchat spectacles, Social, TC, Wearables | No Comments

Snapchat isn’t revealing sales numbers of version 2 of its Spectacles camera sunglasses, but at least they’re not getting left in a drawer as much as the V1s. The company tells me V2 owners are capturing 40 percent more Snaps than people with V1s.

And today, Snapchat is launching two new black-rimmed hipster styles of Spectacles V2 — a Wayfarer-esque Nico model and a glamorous big-lensed Veronica model. Both come with a slimmer semi-soft black carrying case instead of the chunky old triangular yellow one, and are polarized for the first time. They look a lot more like normal sunglasses, compared to the jokey, bubbly V1s, so they could appeal to a more mature and fashionable audience. They go on sale today for $199 in the US and Europe and will be sold in Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom later this year, while the old styles remain $149.

 

The new Spectacles styles (from left): Veronica and Nico

Spectacles V2 original style (left) and V1 (right)

Snap is also trying to get users to actually post what they capture, so it’s planning an automatically curated Highlight Story feature that will help you turn your best Specs content into great things to share. That could address the problem common amongst GoPro users of shooting a ton of cool footage but never editing it for display.

The problem is that V1 were pretty exceedingly unpopular, and those that did buy them. Snap only shipped 220,000 pairs and reportedly had hundreds of thousands more gathering dust in a warehouse. It took a $40 million write-off and its hardware “camera company” strategy was called into question. Business Insider reported that less than 50 percent of buyers kept using them after a month and a “sizeable” percentage stopped after just a week.

The new styles come with a slimmer semi-soft carry case

That means the bar was pretty low from which to score a 40 percent increase in usage, especially given the V2s take photos, work underwater, come in a slimmer charging case, and lack the V1s’ bright yellow ring around the camera lens that announces you’re wearing a mini computer on your face. Snap was smart to finally let you export in non-circular formats which are useful for sharing beyond Snapchat, and let you automatically save Snaps to your camera roll and not just its app’s Memories feature.

I’ve certainly been using my V2s much more than the V1s since they’re more discrete and versatile. And I haven’t encountered as much fear or anxiety from people worried about being filmed as privacy norms around technology continue to relax.

But even with the improved hardware, new styles, and upcoming features, Spectacles V2 don’t look like they’re moving the needle for Snapchat. After shrinking in user count last quarter, Snap’s share price has fallen to just a few cents above its all-time low. Given most of its users are cash-strapped teens who aren’t going to buy Spectacles even if they’re cool, the company needs to focus on how to make its app for everyone more useful and differentiated after the invasion of Instagram’s copy-cats of its Stories and ephemeral messaging.

Whether that means securing tentpole premium video content for Discover, redesigning Stories to ditch the interstitials for better lean-back viewing, or developing augmented reality games, Snap can’t stay the course. Despite its hardware ambitions, it’s fundamentally a software company. It has to figure out what makes that software special.

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For IGTV, Instagram needs slow to mean steady

Posted by | Apps, Casey Neistat, Facebook, IGTV, instagram, Josh Elman, Kevin Systrom, Media, Michael Sayman, Mobile, Opinion, shots, Social, TC, Tiffany Zhong, YouTube | No Comments

Instagram has never truly failed at anything, but judging by modest initial view counts, IGTV could get stuck with a reputation as an abandoned theater if the company isn’t careful. It’s no flop, but the long-form video hub certainly isn’t an instant hit like Instagram Stories. Two months after that launched in 2016, Instagram was happy to trumpet how its Snapchat clone had hit 100 million users. Yet two months after IGTV’s launch, the Facebook subsidiary has been silent on its traction.

“It’s a new format. It’s different. We have to wait for people to adopt it and that takes time,” Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom told me. “Think of it this way: we just invested in a startup called IGTV, but it’s small, and it’s like Instagram was ‘early days.’”

It’s indeed too early for a scientific analysis, and Instagram’s feed has been around since 2010, so it’s obviously not a fair comparison, but we took a look at the IGTV view counts of some of the feature’s launch partner creators. Across six of those creators, their recent feed videos are getting roughly 6.8X as many views as their IGTV posts. If IGTV’s launch partners that benefited from early access and guidance aren’t doing so hot, it means there’s likely no free view count bonanza in store from other creators or regular users.

They, and IGTV, will have to work for their audience. That’s already proving difficult for the standalone IGTV app. Though it peaked at the #25 overall US iPhone app and has seen 2.5 million downloads across iOS and Android according to Sensor Tower, it’s since dropped to #1497 and seen a 94 percent decrease in weekly installs to just 70,000 last week.

Instagram will have to be in it for the long haul if it wants to win at long-form video. Entering the market 13 years after YouTube with a vertical format no one’s quite sure what to do with, IGTV must play the tortoise. If it can avoid getting scrapped or buried, and offer the right incentives and flexibility to creators, IGTV could deliver the spontaneous video viewing experience Instagram lacks. Otherwise, IGTV risks becoming the next Google Plus — a ghost town inside an otherwise thriving product ecosystem.

A glitzy, glitchy start

Instagram gave IGTV a red carpet premiere June 20th in hopes of making it look like the new digital hotspot. The San Francisco launch event offered attendees several types of avocado toast, spa water and ‘Gram-worthy portrait backdrops reminiscent of the Color Factory or Museum of Ice Cream. Instagram hadn’t held a flashy press event since the 2013 launch of video sharing, so it pulled out all the stops. Balloon sculptures lined the entrance to a massive warehouse packed with social media stars and ad execs shouting to each other over the din of the DJ.

But things were rocky from the start. Leaks led TechCrunch to report on the IGTV name and details in the preceding weeks. Technical difficulties with Systrom’s presentation pushed back the start, but not the rollout of IGTV’s code. Tipster Jane Manchun Wong sent TechCrunch screenshots of the new app and features a half hour before it was announced, and Instagram’s own Business Blog jumped the gun by posting details of the launch. The web already knew how IGTV would let people upload vertical videos up to an hour long and browse them through categories like “Popular” and “For You” by the time Systrom took the stage.

IGTV’s launch event featured Instagram-themed donuts and elaborate portrait backdrops. Images via Vicki’s Donuts and Mai Lanpham

“What I’m most proud of is that Instagram took a stand and tried a brand new thing that is frankly hard to pull off. Full-screen vertical video that’s mobile only. That doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Systrom tells me. It was indeed ambitious. Creators were already comfortable making short-form vertical Snapchat Stories by the time Instagram launched its own version. IGTV would have to start from scratch.

Systrom sees the steep learning curve as a differentiator, though. “One of the things I like most about the new format is that it’s actually fairly difficult to just take videos that exist online and simply repost them. That’s not true in feed. That basically forces everyone to create new stuff,” Systrom tells me. “It’s not to say that there isn’t other stuff on there but in general it incentivizes people to produce new things from scratch. And that’s really what we’re looking for. Even if the volume of that stuff at the beginning is smaller than what you might see on the popular page [of Instagram Explore].”

Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom unveils IGTV at the glitzy June 20th launch event

Instagram forced creators to adopt this proprietary format. But it forget to train Stories stars how to entertain us for five or 15 minutes, not 15 seconds, or convince landscape YouTube moguls to purposefully shoot or crop their clips for the way we normally hold our phones.

IGTV’s Popular page features plenty of random viral pap, foreign language content, and poor cropping

That should have been the real purpose of the launch party — demonstrating a variety of ways to turn these format constraints or lack thereof into unique content. Vertical video frames people better than places, and the length allows sustained eye-to-lens contacts that can engender an emotional connection. But a shallow array of initial content and too much confidence that creators would figure it out on their own deprived IGTV of emergent norms that other videographers could emulate to wet their feet.

Now IGTV feels haphazard, with trashy viral videos and miscropped ports amongst its Popular section alongside a few creators trying to produce made-for-IGTV talk shows and cooking tutorials. It’s yet to have its breakout “Chewbacca Mom” or “Rubberbanded Watermelon” blockbuster like Facebook Live. Even an interview with mega celeb Kylie Jenner only had 11,000 views.

Instagram wants to put the focus on the author, not the individual works of art. “Because we don’t have full text search and you can’t just search any random thing, it’s about the creators” Systrom explains. “I think that at its base level that it’s personality driven and creator driven means that you’re going to get really unique content that you won’t find anywhere else and that’s the goal.”

Yet being unique requires extra effort that creators might not invest if they’re unsure of the payoff in either reach or revenue. Michael Sayman, formerly Facebook’s youngest employee who was hired at age 17 to build apps for teens and who now works for Google, summed it up saying: “Many times in my own career, I’ve tried to make something with a unique spin or a special twist because I felt that’s the only way I could make my product stand out from the crowd, only to realize that it was those very twists and spins that made my products feel out of place and confusing to users. Sometimes, the best product is one that doesn’t create any new twists, but rather perfects and builds on top of what has been proven to already be extremely successful.”

A fraction of feed views

The one big surprise of the launch event was where IGTV would exist. Instagram announced it’d live in a standalone IGTV app, but also as a feature in the main app accessible from an orange button atop the home screen that would occasionally call out that new content was inside. It could have had its own carousel like Stories or been integrated into Explore until it was ready for primetime.

Instead, it was ignorable. IGTV didn’t get the benefit of the home screen spotlight like Instagram Stories. Blow past that one orange button and avoid downloading the separate app, and users could go right on tapping and scrolling through Instagram without coming across IGTV’s longer videos.

View counts of the launch partners reflect that. We looked at six launch partner creators, comparing their last six feed and IGTV videos older than a week and less than six months old, or fewer videos if that’s all they’d posted.

Only one of the six, BabyAriel, saw an obvious growth trend in her IGTV videos. Her candid IGTV monologues are performing the best of the six compared to feed. She’s earning an average of 243,000 views per IGTV video, about a third as many as she gets on her feed videos. “I’m really happy with my view counts because IGTV is just starting” BabyAriel tells me. She thinks the format will be good for behind-the-scenes clips that complement her longer YouTube videos and shorter Stories. “When I record anything, It’s vertical. When I turn my phone horizontal I think of an hour-long movie.”

Lele Pons, a Latin American comedy and music star who’s one of the most popular Instagram celebrities, gets about 5.7X more feed views than on her IGTV cooking show that averages 1.9 million hits. Instagram posted some IGTV highlights from the first month, but the most popular of now has 4.3 million views — less than half of what Pons gets on her average feed video.

Fitness guides from Katie Austin averaged just 3,600 views on IGTV while she gets 7.5X more in the feed. Lauren Godwin’s colorful comedy fared 5.2X better in the feed. Bryce Xavier saw the biggest differential, earning 15.9X more views for his dance and culture videos. And in the most direct comparison, K-Pop dancer Susie Shu sometimes posts cuts from the same performance to the two destinations, like one that got 273,000 views in feed but just 27,000 on IGTV, with similar clips fairing an average of 7.8X better.

Again, this isn’t to say IGTV is a lame horse. It just isn’t roaring out of the gates. Systrom remains optimistic about inventing a new format. “The question is can we pull that off and the early signs are really good,” he tells me. “We’ve been pretty blown away by the reception and the usage upfront,” though he declined to share any specific statistics. Instagram promised to provide more insight into traction in the future.

YouTube star Casey Neistat is less bullish. He doesn’t think IGTV is working and that engagement has been weak. If IGTV views were surpassing those of YouTube, creators would flock to it, but so far view counts are uninspiring and not worth diverting creative attention, Neistat says. “YouTube offers the best sit-back consumption, and Stories offers active consumption. Where does IGTV fit in? I’m not sure” he tells me. “Why create all of this unique content if it gets lower views, it’s not monetizable, and the viewers aren’t there?”

Susie Shu averages 7.8X more video views in the Instagram feed than on IGTV

For now, the combination of an unfamiliar format, the absence of direction for how to use it and the relatively buried placement has likely tempered IGTV’s traction. Two months in, Instagram Stories was proving itself an existential threat to Snapchat — which it’s in fact become. IGTV doesn’t pose the same danger to YouTube yet, and it will need a strategy to support a more slow-burn trajectory.

The chicken and the IG problem

The first step to becoming a real YouTube challenger is to build up some tent-pole content that gives people a reason to open IGTV. Until there’s something that captures attention, any cross-promotion traffic Instagram sends it will be like pouring water into a bucket with a giant hole in the bottom. Yet until there’s enough viewers, it’s tough to persuade creators to shoot for IGTV since it won’t do a ton to boost their fan base.

Fortnite champion Ninja shares a photo of IGTV launch partners gathered backstage at the press event

Meanwhile, Instagram hasn’t committed to a monetization or revenue-sharing strategy for IGTV. Systrom said at the launch that “There’s no ads in IGTV today,” but noted it’s “obviously a very reasonable place [for ads] to end up.” Without enough views, though, ads won’t earn enough for a revenue split to incentivize creators. Perhaps Instagram will heavily integrate its in-app shopping features and sponsored content partnerships, but even those rely on having more traffic. Vine withered at Twitter in part from creators bailing due to its omission of native monetization options.

So how does IGTV solve the chicken-and-egg problem? It may need to swallow its pride and pay early adopters directly for content until it racks up enough views to offer sustainable revenue sharing. Instagram has never publicly copped to paying for content before, unlike its parent Facebook, which offered stipends ranging into the millions of dollars for publishers to shoot Live broadcasts and long-form Watch shows. Neither have led to a booming viewership, but perhaps that’s because Facebook has lost its edge with the teens who love video.

Instagram could do better if it paid the right creators to weather IGTV’s initial slim pickings. Settling on ad strategy creators can count on earning money from in the future might also get them to hang tight. Those deals could mimic the 55 percent split of mid-roll ad breaks Facebook gives creators on some videos. But again, the views must come first.

Alternatively, or additionally, it could double down on the launch strategy of luring creators with the potential to become the big fish in IGTV’s small-for-now pond. Backroom deals to trade being highlighted in its IGTV algorithm in exchange for high-quality content could win the hearts of these stars and their managers. Instagram would be wise to pair these incentives with vertical long-form video content creation workshops. It could bring its community, product and analytics leaders together with partnered stars to suss out what works best in the format and help them shoot it.

The cross-promo spigot

Once there’s something worth watching on IGTV, the company could open the cross-promo traffic spigot. At first, Instagram would send notifications about top content or IGTV posts from people you follow, and call them out with a little orange text banner atop its main app. Now it seems to understand it will need to be more coercive.

Last month, TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong spotted Instagram showing promos for individual IGTV shows in the middle of the feed, hoping to redirect eyeballs there. And today, TechCrunch researcher Matt Navarra found Instagram getting more aggressive by putting a bigger call out featuring a relevant IGTV clip with preview image above your Stories tray on the home screen. It may need to boost the frequency of these cross-promotions and stick them in-between Stories and Explore sections as well to give IGTV the limelight. These could expose users to creators they don’t follow already but might enjoy.

It’s still early but I do think there’s a lot of potential when they figure out two things since the feature is so new,” says John Shahidi, who runs the Justin Bieber-backed Shots Studios, which produces and distributes content for Lele Pons, Rudy Mancuso and other Insta celebs. “1. Product. IGTV is not in your face so Instagram users aren’t changing behavior to consume. Timeline and Instagram Stories are in your face so those two are the most used features. 2. Discoverability. I want to see videos from people I don’t follow. Interesting stuff like cooking, product review, interesting content from brands but without following the accounts.” In the meantime, Shots Studios is launching a vertical-only channel on YouTube that Shahidi believes is the first of its kind.

Instagram will have to balance its strategic imperative to grow the long-form video hub and avoid spamming users until they hate the brand as a whole. Some think it’s already gone too far. “I think it’s super intrusive right now,” says Tiffany Zhong, once known as the world’s youngest venture capitalist who now runs Generation Z consulting firm Zebra Intelligence. “I personally find all the IGTV videos super boring and click out within seconds (and the only time I watch them are if I accidentally tapped on the icon when I tried to go to my DMs instead).” Desperately funneling traffic to the feature before there’s enough great content to power relevant recommendations for everyone could prematurely sour users on IGTV. 

Systrom remains optimistic he can iterate his way to success. “What I want to see over the next six to 12 months is a consistent drumbeat of new features that both consumers and creators are asking for, and to look at the retention curve and say ‘are people continuing to watch? Are people continuing to upload?,’” says Systrom. “So far we are seeing that all of those are healthy. But again trying to judge a very new kind of audacious format that’s never really been done before in the first months is going to be really hard.”

Differentiator or deterrent?

The biggest question remains whether IGTV will remain devout to the orthodoxy of vertical-only. Loosening up to accept landscape videos too might nullify a differentiator, but also pipe in a flood of content it could then algorithmically curate to bootstrap IGTV’s library. Reducing the friction by allowing people to easily port content to or from elsewhere might make it feel like less of a gamble for creators deciding where to put their production resources. Instagram itself expanded from square-only to portrait and landscape photos in the feed in 2015.

My advice would be to make the videos horizontal. We’ve all come to understand vertical as ‘short form’ and horizontal as ‘long form,’” says Sayman. “It’s in the act of rotating your phone to landscape that you indicate to yourself and to your mobile device that you will not be context switching for the next few minutes, but rather intend to focus on one piece of content for an extended period of time.” This would at least give users more to watch, even if they ended up viewing landscape videos with their phones in portrait orientation.

This might be best as a last-ditch effort if it can’t get enough content flowing in through other means. But at least Instagram should offer a cropping tool that lets users manually select what vertical slice of a landscape video they want to show as they watch, rather than just grabbing the center or picking one area on the side for the whole clip. This could let creators repurpose landscape videos without things getting awkwardly half cut out of frame.

Former Facebook employee and social investor Josh Elman, who now works at Robinhood, told me he’s confident the company will experiment as much as necessary. “I think Facebook is relentless. They know that a ton of consumers watch video online. And most discover videos through influencers or their friends. (Or Netflix). Even though Watch and IGTV haven’t taken the world by storm yet, I bet Facebook won’t stop until they find the right mix.”

There’s a goldmine waiting if it does. Unlike on Facebook, there’s no Regram feature, you can’t post links, and outside of Explore you just see who you already follow on Instagram. That’s made it great at delivering friendly video and clips from your favorite stars, but leaves a gaping hole where serendipitous viewing could be. IGTV fills that gap. The hours people spend on Facebook watching random videos and their accompanying commercials have lifted the company to over $13 billion in revenue per quarter. Giving a younger audience a bottomless pit of full-screen video could produce the same behavior and profits on Instagram without polluting the feed, which can remain the purest manifestation of visual feed culture. But that’s only if IGTV can get enough content uploaded.

Puffed up by the success of besting its foe Snapchat, Instagram assumed it could take the long-form video world by storm. But the grand entrance at its debutante ball didn’t draw enough attention. Now it needs to take a different tack. Tone down the cross-promo for the moment. Concentrate on teaching creators how to find what works on the format and incentivizing them with cash and traffic. Develop some must-see IGTV and stoke a viral blockbuster. Prove the gravity of extended, personality-driven vertical video. Only then should it redirect traffic there from the feed, Stories, and Explore.

YouTube’s library wasn’t built overnight, and neither will IGTV’s. Facebook’s deep pockets and the success of Instagram’s other features give it the runway necessary to let IGTV take off. With 1 billion monthly users, and 400 million daily Stories users gathered in just two years, there are plenty of eyeballs waiting to be seduced. Systrom concludes, “Everything that is great starts small.” IGTV’s destiny will depend on Instagram’s patience.

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