Start Up No.1,001: Mars One hits zero, automate Google Docs!, Saudi patriarchy app under fire, boo to blitzscaling, and more

11-02-2019 22:02


Mm, tasty! Must be why Amazon snapped up mesh startup eero. CC-licensed photo by Alan Levine on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Really millennium bug-proof, eh? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Amazon buys mesh WiFi startup Eero to connect smart homes • Engadget

Jon Fingas:

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Amazon is still busy snapping up companies to bolster its smart home business. This time it’s acquiring Eero, the startup that has developed a solid reputation for its mesh WiFi routers. There’s no mystery as to why it’s making the move — it likes the thought of an easy-setup WiFi system that can connect all the smart devices in your household, even in remote corners.

“We are incredibly impressed with the eero team and how quickly they invented a WiFi solution that makes connected devices just work,” Amazon’s Dave Limp said.

The company hasn’t said how much it will pay for the deal or when it will close.

While it’s too soon to say exactly what Amazon has planned for Eero, it’s easy to see how the acquisition could help its bottom line. There’s now a vast range of Alexa-aware devices that need reliable internet connections to work properly. Ring’s doorbells and sensors could also benefit, as could Amazon’s streaming services and Fire TV devices. With Eero, Amazon could become a one-stop shop that supplies both smart home gadgets and the routers you need to get them online.

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Wonder if this makes it more or less likely that eero will come to the UK. Also, one reader tells me that Ring-branded equipment is being sold off in corporate auctions: maybe there’s an Amazon rebrand (Echo Video?) on the way. I wonder if eero will also get rebranded.

Also: a missed opportunity for Apple.
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Mars One is dead • Engadget

Daniel Cooper:

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The company that aimed to put humanity on the red planet has met an unfortunate, but wholly-expected end. Mars One Ventures, the for-profit arm of the Mars One mission was declared bankrupt back in January, but wasn’t reported until a keen-eyed Redditor found the listing. It was the brainchild of Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, previously the founder of green energy company Ampyx Power. Lansdorp’s aim was to start a company that could colonize one of our nearest neighbors.

Mars One was split into two ventures, the non-profit Mars One Foundation and the for-profit Mars One Ventures. The Swiss-based Ventures AG was declared bankrupt by a Basel court on January 15th and was, at the time, valued at almost $100 million. Mars One Ventures PLC, the UK-registered branch, is listed as a dormant company with less than £20,000 in its accounts.

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Oh well, have to make do tidying up here rather than messing up there.
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Google Docs gets an API for task automation | TechCrunch

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Google today announced the general availability of a new API for Google Docs that will allow developers to automate many of the tasks that users typically do manually in the company’s online office suite. The API has been in developer preview since last April’s Google Cloud Next 2018 and is now available to all developers.

As Google notes, the REST API was designed to help developers build workflow automation services for their users, build content management services and create documents in bulk.

Using the API, developers can also set up processes that manipulate documents after the fact to update them, and the API also features the ability to insert, delete, move, merge and format text, insert inline images and work with lists, among other things.

The canonical use case here is invoicing, where you need to regularly create similar documents with ever-changing order numbers and line items based on information from third-party systems (or maybe even just a Google Sheet). Google also notes that the API’s import/export abilities allow you to use Docs for internal content management systems.

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That has been a long time coming. It’s quite Javascript-y, and needs a special download and so has to be run from a specific machine (including servers).
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China’s demographic danger grows as births fall far below forecast • WSJ

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Chinese leaders in 2016 scrapped the decades-old one-child policy after economists warned it was creating a demographic time bomb for China, contributing to a shrinking workforce and a rapidly aging population.

New data show the reversal isn’t having the anticipated impact. The number of newborns in China dropped to 15.23 million in 2018, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. That’s two million less than 2017 and 30% below the median official forecast of more than 21 million.

It was also the lowest level of births since 1961, when millions were struggling to survive during China’s Great Famine. Newborns eventually become workers, making them essential to economic growth in the long run.

“The demographic outlook does appear to be deteriorating faster than officials had expected,” analysts at Capital Economics wrote in a recent research note.

That’s making it harder for officials to lower taxes much to stimulate growth, since doing so could make it tougher to shore up underfunded pension programs. It’s also making it harder to encourage consumers to boost spending, as more people worry over health and retirement costs.

The demographic outlook is fueling fears China could grow old before it gets rich, leaving it with too few workers to cover the cost of its aging population. That could stoke economic troubles that far outlast turbulence from trade battles this year.

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China’s median age is about to cross over the US’s (at 38 years old) and start catching up with Japan’s 48 years old. The proportion over 65 compared to those of working age is forecast to pass the US in 2040, though still be behind Japan.
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Apple iPhone sales in China fell by a fifth in fourth quarter, says IDC • Reuters

Brenda Goh, Sonam Rai and Sankalp Phartiyal:

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Apple no longer breaks out detailed numbers on iPhone shipments in its quarterly results, meaning that surveys and channel checks by the likes of IDC are often the clearest indicator of shifts in sales.

The figures in the report showed a 19.9% fall in Apple’s smartphone shipments in the final quarter of 2018, while Huawei’s grew 23.3%. That reduced Apple’s market share to 11.5% from 12.9% a year earlier, the report said.

“Besides regular performance upgrades in 2018 and small changes to the exterior, there has not been any major innovation that supports users to continue to change their phones at the greatly increased price,” the report said.

“The severe macro environment in China and the assault of domestic brands’ innovative products have also been reasons for Apple’s continued decline.”

A separate report from another common industry source, Hong Kong-based Counterpoint, earlier this month confirmed a similar sharp fall in sales in India – another big emerging market where Apple is struggling.

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YouTube attempts to tame self-created conspiracy monster • NY Mag

Madison Malone Kircher:

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David Hogg… survived the Parkland school shooting that left 17 of his classmates and teachers dead, only to have to endure viral videos peddling a conspiracy that he was not a high schooler, but rather a paid crisis actor. Following the shooting, the video of Hogg spiked to the No. 1 trending spot on YouTube before the platform finally took it down. A different video from the same user purporting to show Hogg “forgetting his lines” was left up even after the other video was removed by YouTube. (It has since also been deleted.) This week, Valentine’s Day will mark one year since the Parkland shooting.

[Former YouTube engineer Guillaume] Chaslot wrote [on Twitter] that YouTube has two options when it comes to curbing conspiracy-theory videos: that “people spend more time on round earth videos” or that the company “change the AI.” “YouTube’s economic incentive is for solution 1,” he continued. “After 13 years, YouTube made the historic choice to go towards 2.”

It feels like we’re giving YouTube way too much credit here [for downplaying conspiracy videos]. YouTube didn’t have to give Alex Jones, a man who claims the shooting at Sandy Hook didn’t happen, a platform for as long as it did. (YouTube finally banned Jones in August 2018.) Just like (before January) it didn’t have to let people continue posting scientifically debunked schlock about how vaccines cause autism just because those videos technically weren’t violating the rules. The company isn’t going with option two at great cost to its bottom line. The company is going with option two because the cost of people calling it out for going with option one for so long is becoming untenable.

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Apple, Google criticised for Saudi Absher app that tracks women • INSIDER

Bill Bostock:

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Apple and Google have been accused of helping to “enforce gender apartheid” in Saudi Arabia, by offering a sinister app which allows men to track women and stop them leaving the country.

Both Google Play and iTunes host Absher, a government web service which allows men to specify when and how women can cross Saudi borders, and to get close to real-time SMS updates when they travel.

Absher also has benign functions — like paying parking fines — but its travel features have been identified by activists and refugees as a major factor in the continued difficulty women have leaving Saudi Arabia.

Neither Apple nor Google responded to repeated requests for comment from INSIDER over several days prior to publication.

INSIDER reported on the existence of Absher last week, along with the story of Shahad al-Mohaimeed, a Saudi teen refugee who evaded the system to claim asylum in Sweden.

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Bets on whether this will be removed? It’s a bit like Find My Friends (which we call Stalk My Family), but with added patriarchy: insert woman’s passport number, number of journeys she can make, and a place where they can cancel her permission to travel. It’s had more than a million downloads.

But what app store rule(s) does it break?
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The fundamental problem with Silicon Valley’s favorite growth strategy • Quartz

Tim O’Reilly:

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Hoffman recalls his own success with the “blitzscaling” philosophy during the early days of Paypal. Back in 2000, the company was growing 5% per day, letting people settle their charges using credit cards while using the service for free. This left the company to absorb, ruinously, the 3% credit card charge on each transaction. He writes:

“I remember telling my old college friend and Paypal co-founder/CEO Peter Thiel, ‘Peter, if you and I were standing on the roof of our office and throwing stacks of hundred-dollar bills off the edge as fast as our arms could go, we still wouldn’t be losing money as quickly as we are right now.’”

But it worked out. Paypal built an enormous user base quickly, giving the company enough market power to charge businesses to accept Paypal payments. They also persuaded most customers to make those payments via direct bank transfers, which have much lower fees than credit cards. If they’d waited to figure out the business model, someone else might have beat them to the customer that made them a success: eBay, which went on to buy Paypal for $1.5 billion (which everyone thought was a lot of money in those days), launching Thiel and Hoffman on their storied careers as serial entrepreneurs and investors.

Of course, for every company like Paypal that pulled off that feat of hypergrowth without knowing where the money would come from, there is a dotcom graveyard of hundreds or thousands of companies that never figured it out. That’s the “risks potentially disastrous defeat” part of the strategy that Hoffman and Yeh talk about. A strong case can be made that blitzscaling isn’t really a recipe for success but rather survivorship bias masquerading as a strategy.

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Apple ‘black site’ gives contractors few perks, little security • Bloomberg

Joshua Brustein:

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Apex is one tiny part of a sprawling global network of staffing firms working with Apple; it is not even the only firm staffing the facility at Hammerwood Avenue. For Apple Maps alone, workers are spread across several locations in Silicon Valley, as well as in Austin, Texas; London; the Czech Republic; and India, according to people who worked on the project. The operation involves thousands of contractors. At Hammerwood, the population has exceeded 250 at times, although the number fluctuates and Apple declined to give a current count.

Places like Hammerwood undermine the mythology of Silicon Valley as a kind of industrial utopia where talented people work themselves to the bone in exchange for outsize salaries and stock options. A common perception in the Bay Area is that its only serious tech-labor issue is the high cost of living driven by the industry’s obscene salaries. But many of those poorer residents work in tech, too. For decades, contractors and other contingent workers have served meals, driven buses, and cleaned toilets at tech campuses. They’ve also built circuit boards and written and tested software, all in exchange for hourly wages and little or no job security.

In different forms, temporary labor as an alternative to full-time employment has grown across the U.S. economy. Companies in many industries now use staffing firms to handle work once done by full-time workers. The technology industry offers one of the starkest examples of how the groups’ fortunes have diverged. While companies aren’t required to disclose the sizes of their contingent workforces, there’s ample evidence that tech companies use large numbers of contractors and temps. Last year, Bloomberg News reported that direct employees at Alphabet Inc.’s Google accounted for less than half its workforce. 

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Back in 2012, Alexis Madrigal was let inside one of the places where Google updates Google Maps. “It has all the free food, ping pong, and Google Maps-inspired Christoph Niemann cartoons that you’d expect, but it’s still a low-slung office building just off the 101 in Mountain View in the burbs,” he wrote. Wonder if he just didn’t see the bits where they queued for the toilets, and so on. Clever PR.
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Yeah, Apple is probably building a modem • DIGITS to DOLLARS

Jay Goldberg:

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the fact that the modem team is just now moving likely means that their modem effort is still fairly nascent. There is a lot of work to be done here, especially in building out support for older wireless standards. Any modem today has to support all the existing cellular standards going back to 2G GSM/GPRS/EDGE. That is a time-consuming process. Moreover, to be competitive, Apple’s modem will have to build 5G capabilities. If they are starting from scratch, it is hard to see them finishing all of that in less than a year, even at an incredible sprint. Admittedly, Apple is always full of surprises, so they probably have some clever shortcut that escapes us mere mortals, but even still, it is pretty unlikely that next year’s (2020) iPhone would have an Apple modem.

Second, this is bad news for Intel who is currently the sole source supplier for iPhone modems. Apple has been long rumored to be working on its own laptop CPU to replace Intel, and now it seems Apple is also designing out the Intel modem. We suspect that Intel will still provide something to Apple’s modem, perhaps some form of IP license or sale of software libraries to speed up the development. There is also an outside chance that Apple just buys Intel’s modem team. We have no idea if this is happening, but it would certainly speed up the hiring for Apple’s modem team.

Third, there is a possibility that this is an Apple head fake of some sort. Why did this story leak now and who leaked it? Reuters only cites “two people familiar with the move”. This does not sound like an Apple employee. The author, Stephen Nellis, covers Apple and Qualcomm, and seems to have a pretty broad contact network. So one scenario is that Apple directly leaked this story, probably as a way of ratcheting up the pressure on Qualcomm, any means necessary for World War Patents. Another scenario is that Apple’s modem team has gotten big enough that keeping it secret is just not possible anymore.

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Airpods 2 with grip coating, and AirPower, said to launch this spring • Macrumors

Tim Hardwick:

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Rumor site MySmartPrice said one of its “trusted sources” claims the AirPods 2, tipped for release this year, will offer better bass response thanks to improved internals, and both the earbuds and case will include a special matte coating to enhance grip, similar to a coating used on the glass back of Google’s Pixel 3 phone.

The report also repeats previous rumors suggesting Apple’s second-generation AirPods will feature health monitoring features, including heart-rate monitoring, and claims that battery life is likely to be more or less similar to the current model.

In addition, the site believes the new AirPods 2 earphones will be available in black and white colors and cost around $200, a $40 increase on the current price, although whether this detail comes from the same source or just speculation is unclear.

The site’s source offers no concrete launch window for the AirPods 2, however in a separate report this morning, DigiTimes reiterated previous rumors from its supply chain sources that Apple will release new-generation AirPods in the first half of this year. Apple supplier Inventec is a major assembler of AirPods and expects its shipments to grow further as a result of the launch, which has also been tipped for early 2019 by well-connected Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo.

Meanwhile, MySmartPrice claims Apple’s AirPower wireless charging pad will be thicker than originally planned due to an internal 8-7-7 coil configuration, and will finally be released in Spring this year, “alongside the wireless charging case for the first-generation AirPods.” Apple is expected to release a standalone AirPods case that can be purchased as an upgrade for existing AirPods to enable wireless charging.

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If correct, that separates heartrate monitoring from the Watch, which would imply Apple foresees broader benefits from the health space. Even in the UK, the number of people you see wearing them is surprising: it’s a bit like when the iPod became a sleeper hit almost overnight in 2003.
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Exclusive: undercover spy exposed in NYC was one of many • Associated Press

Raphael Satter on attempts by the mysterious NSO Group, whose software was used to hack activists’ phones in Mexico, to entrap those suing it:

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Who hired the undercover agents remains unclear, but their operational and digital fingerprints suggest they are linked.

The six operatives all began approaching their targets around the same time with individually tailored pitches. Their bogus websites followed the same patterns; all of them were hosted on Namecheap and many were bought at auction from GoDaddy and used the Israeli web design platform Wix. The formatting of the websites was similar; in at least two instances — MGP and Lyndon Partners — it was identical. Even the operatives’ email signatures were the same — consisting of three neatly packed, colorful lines consisting of a phone number, web address and email.

The operatives’ LinkedIn pages were similar, too, featuring men in sunglasses shot from a distance, facing away from the camera, or at unusual angles — a tactic sometimes use to frustrate facial recognition algorithms.

Despite the indications that the undercover agents are all linked, there is no conclusive evidence who they might work for. An Israeli television channel, Channel 12, broadcast a report on Saturday claiming that an Israeli private investigation firm, Black Cube, had been investigating issues around the lawsuits against NSO. The TV channel showed secretly shot footage of the Cypriot lawyer, Markou, and the London journalist, Hamid, which matched the pair’s description of their encounters with undercover agents.

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Lying to people about who you’re working for is much harder now if they intend to check you. Does the company exist? How long has the website existed? Why are the photos odd? All this has changed spycraft dramatically.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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