Supreme Court opens the legal floodgates on Apple

Apple is potentially on the verge of facing a tidal wave of lawsuits as the Supreme Court agrees the iLeader is allowed to be challenged on a potential abuse of power in the app economy.

The pivotal case the Supreme Court has been ruling on is Apple vs. Pepper. Robert Pepper and other plaintiffs, various iPhone owners, filed an antitrust lawsuit against Apple claiming the firm monopolised the app market through the App Store, with developer licence fees and the 30% commission ultimately driving the price up for consumers.

One the other side of the argument, Apple suggested iPhone owners were actually customers of the developers, while the developers were customers of Apple. This nuanced argument leans on legal precedent set in doctrine known as Illinois Brick where ‘indirect purchasers’ of a product don’t have the power to file antitrust cases. In distancing itself from the end-user in the app economy, Apple was hoping to protect itself.

In the first instance, the district court ruled in favour of Apple, dismissing the case, while the Ninth Circuit Court reversed the decision, ruling that consumers are purchasing from Apple not the developers. The fight was then escalated up to the Supreme Court, with the highest legal battleground in the US ruling 5-4 in favour of the iPhone owners.

What is worth noting is this is not a ruling which states Apple’s App Store is a monopoly, but a decision which allows users to file antitrust lawsuits against the iLeader. It’s a step towards another legal headache but is by no means a sign of guilt.

For Apple, this will come as an unwanted distraction as it attempts to scale it software and services business, in which the App Store is a key cog. The last few years have seen the Apple team attempt to create a more balanced business, with less of a reliance on the staggering hardware segment and reaping the rewards of the blossoming software world.

This decision from the Supreme Court might not assign guilt to Apple, but it certainly creates a monumental migraine. Such is the lawsuit culture in the US it won’t be long before miffed customers just on the bandwagon in pursuit of compensation.

Jaguar Land Rover takes a rewarding approach to the sharing economy

Jaguar Land Rover is testing out a new rewards scheme that will see drivers rewarded with cryptocurrency for sharing data.

Like many automotive companies around the world, Jaguar Land Rover has seemingly identified the future of the industry lies beyond purchasing a vehicle, and this is certainly an interesting approach. In return for sharing data with Jaguar Land Rover, such as traffic congestion or potholes, drivers will earn cryptocurrency.

“The connected car technologies we are developing will be transformative and truly turn your Jaguar or Land Rover into a third space, in addition to your home or office,” said Russell Vickers, Software Architect at Jaguar Land Rover.

“In the future an autonomous car could drive itself to a charging station, recharge and pay, while its owner could choose to participate in the sharing economy – earning rewards from sharing useful data such as warning other cars of traffic jams.”

Partnering with the IOTA Foundation, to make use of distributed ledger technologies, by sharing relevant driving information with either Jaguar Land Rover or a local authority, cryptocurrency will be deposited into the driver’s smart wallet. These rewards could be used for a variety of different things, such as paying for tolls, parking and electric charging.

The technology is currently being trialled at the new Jaguar Land Rover software engineering base in Shannon, Ireland, forming part of part of Jaguar Land Rover’s Destination Zero strategy which aims to achieve zero emissions, zero accidents and zero congestion. Like many manufacturing companies, Jaguar Land Rover is attempting to carve itself a slice of the increasingly profitable sharing economy.

Apple investors hope short-term pain will lead to long-term gain

16% growth in the steadily growing software and services business seems to be enough to rally investor confidence in the face of declining revenues.

Perhaps this is another lesson Apple can teach the world; how to effectively manage investor expectations. Total revenues are declining faster than the service division is growing, but with a 5.4% jump in share price in overnight trading, Apple investors seem to be buying into the short-term pain, long-term gain message from the technology giant.

For some the earning call might have been a shock to the system, explaining the immediate 1.93% drop in share price before markets closed. Total revenues for the quarter ending March 30 declined to $58 billion, down 5.2% year-on-year, while iPhone revenues dropped to $31 billion, a 17.8% dent in the same shipment figures from 2018. But the services division is the glimmer of hope.

“We had great results in a number of areas across our business,” said CEO Tim Cook during the earnings call. “It was our best quarter ever for Services with revenue reaching $11.5 billion.

“Subscriptions are a powerful driver of our Services business. We reached a new high of over 390 million paid subscriptions at the end of March, an increase of 30 million in the last quarter alone. This was also an incredibly important quarter for our Services moving forward.

“In March, we previewed a game-changing array of new services each of them rooted in principles that are fundamentally Apple. They’re easy to use. They feature unmatched attention to detail. They put a premium on user privacy and security. They’re expertly curated personalized and ready to be shared by everyone in your family.”

Although the Apple DNA is not rooted in the software and services world, this has to be the future. Overarching trends are indicating hardware is becoming increasingly commoditized, refreshment cycles are growing, and consumers are less likely to pay a premium for trusted brands. Apple is a company which defied these trends for a period, though not even the iLeader could deny the inevitable.

This is the critical importance of the software and services division; renewed, recurring and new revenues to replace the increasingly difficult, demanding and diversified hardware world, which is epitomised by the dreary global smartphone market.

Although Apple recently decided against releasing shipment figures during its earnings calls, it is still breaking out the revenues associated with products. The iPhone, the segment which drove growth in recent years, declined by 17.8% year-on-year. Part of this can be pinned on changing consumer behaviour, though you also have to look at the individual markets.

In China, Apple has been struggling. Canalys estimate smartphone shipments in the market have declined 3% year-on-year for Q1, though the locals are turning towards domestic brands. In years gone, Apple was a brand seen as somewhat of a status symbol, though it appears this is a concept which is quickly dissipating as the firm only collected 7.4% of market share over the first three months of 2019, a year-on-year decline of 30%.

Total revenues for China have not declined quite as dramatically, a 21.6% year-on-on-year dip to $10.2 billion, though Apple is not alone. OPPO, Xiaomi and Vivo also saw their year-on-year sales dip, with only Huawei coming out on the up. Here, Huawei managed to grow its shipments by 41%, taking 34% of the Chinese market share for Q1.

Another challenging market for Apple has been India. The story here is more forgiving however, as this is a much more cash-conscious market. Apple will of course want to maintain it position as a premium brand, therefore India, despite all the promise it offers, is not tailor made for its ambitions. Until consumer attitudes shift towards more premium devices, Apple will struggle.

Globally the smartphone market has not been helping either. According to Strategy Analytics, shipments decreased 4% year-on-year for the first quarter, with Apple slipping to third place overall.

Market share Q1 2019 Market share Q1 2018
Samsung 21.7% 22.6%
Huawei 17.9% 11.4%
Apple 13% 15.1%
Xiaomi 8.3% 8.2%
OPPO 7.7% 7%

These figures are not the end of the world, but it is a demonstration of consumer trends. There might still be an appetite for purchasing new devices, though there is seemingly a preference for those brands which might are cheaper. Such is the minimal differentiation between brands these days, why spend a premium when there is little need?

However, there is hope for Apple. Consumers might be getting frustrated over a lack of innovation in the hardware space, leading to longer refreshment cycles and a preference towards cheaper or refurbished devices, but the introduction of 5G might well change this.

With 5G devices being launched consumers will have something different to think about. Although 5G-capable devices are certainly not a necessity, and won’t be for a considerable amount of time, the ability to shout about something genuinely new might reinvigorate consumer appetite for purchasing new, and premium, devices. This could work in Apple’s favour.

That said, with Apple unlikely to release a 5G-capable device until 2020, the next few quarters could also demonstrate similar year-on-year declines. Apple seem to be happy to swallow this decline, sacrificing the ‘first to market’ accolade, but this how Apple traditionally approaches the market; it doesn’t aim to be first, but best.

For the moment, and the long-term health of the company, this does not seem to be the central point however. Apple is seemingly attempting to slightly shift the focus of the business, becoming more reliant on software and services, and it does seem to be working. As you can see from the table below, the ratio is shifting.

Product revenue Services Revenue Ratio
Q2 2019 46,565 11,450 81.3/19.7
Q1 2019 73,435 10,875 88.2/12.8
Q4 2018 52,919 9,981 84.1/15.9
Q3 2018 43,717 9,548 82.1/17.9
Q2 2018 51,947 9,190 85/15
Q1 2018 79,768 8,471 90.4/9.6
Q4 2017 44,078 8,501 85.9/16.1

The results in the table above do look quite confusing, though you have to consider that Q4 is usually the period for Apple’s flagship launch, skewing the figures towards the product segment, while Q1 accounts for Christmas, again tilting the figures. The general trend is looking favourable for the software and services division.

The last couple of months have seen Apple release several new services which will continue to bolster this division also. Whether it’s the content streaming service, news subscriptions, credit cards, iTunes or the App Store, the business is driving more investment and attention to this strange new world of software and recurring revenues. The ratio should continue to balance out, though we strongly suspect it will never get close to parity.

Another factor which you have to consider when it comes to the investors is the monetary gain. Yes, the long-term picture is looking healthier, but the firm has also announced it is increasing the dividend by 5%. This will keep cash-conscious and short-term investors happier, encouraging more to hold onto shares despite the downturn in revenues. The team has also announced a share buy-back scheme, up to $75 billion, which could be viewed as another move to protect share price. Although these could be viewed as short-term measures to cool the market, the overall business is looking healthier.

Apple is recentring the business, with more of a focus on software and services. The firm has defied the global hardware trends for some time, but they do seem to be catching up. What is important however is the management team recognising hardware will not be a suitable floatation device for Apple in the long-run. To continue dominating the technology world, Apple will have to spread its wing further into software, just as it is doing.

And perhaps the most critical factor of this transformation; investors seem to have confidence in the team’s ability to evolve.

Uber sheds light on operations ahead of IPO

Uber is not a company which shares huge insights into its business traditionally, but a filing ahead of a planned IPO has unveiled some very interesting details.

In chasing its long-awaiting debut on the New York Stock Exchange, the curtain has been pulled aside and the cogs laid bare. $11.27 billion in revenue across 2018, 42% growth on 2017, net income of $997 million and 91 million active users around the world. This is a company which will attract some interest from the market, though an adjusted EBITDA loss of $1.85 billion might concern some.

“Building this platform has required a willingness to challenge orthodoxies and reinvent – sometimes even disrupt – ourselves,” said CEO Dara Khosrowshahi. “Over the last decade, as the needs and preferences of our customers have changed, we changed too. Now, we’re becoming different once again; a public company.”

With an IPO comes a lot more information on a company as executives attempt to woo potential shareholders. The S1 form filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission has unveiled some very interesting details.

Starting with the customer base. Uber currently has 91 million active users across 700 cities around the world, though this number also include Uber Eats. This is a 33% increase compared to the previous year as the numbers show increasing momentum over the last three years.

With a presence in 63 countries, Uber estimates it serves roughly 2% of the population across this footprint, clocking up 26 billion miles in journeys across the year. This might sound like a monstrous number, though it is in fact less than 1% of the total, with the team pointing to significant headroom for growth. In fact, Uber estimates the total addressable market is a $5.7 trillion opportunity in 175 countries.

On the R&D front, Uber has been very aggressive, investing $1.5 billion across 2018 in autonomous vehicles, flying cars, which is known as Uber Elevate, and other ‘technology programs’. The autonomous and flying cars portion of the pie was $457 million. Future tech will clearly play a significant role in the future of the business, with some suggesting the firm will not make a profit until autonomous vehicles have been integrated into operations.

At the end of the final quarter of 2018, Uber estimates there are roughly 3.9 million drivers on the platform, earning $78.2 billion since 2015. In 2018, Gross Bookings grew to $49.8 billion, up 45% from $34.4 billion in 2017, while revenues grew 42% to $11.3 billion. Clearly the drivers are the biggest expense of the business, though with autonomous vehicles there will major challenges alongside the profit gain.

“Along the way to a potential future autonomous vehicle world, we believe that there will be a long period of hybrid autonomy, in which autonomous vehicles will be deployed gradually against specific use cases while Drivers continue to serve most consumer demand,” Uber stated in the filing. “As we solve specific autonomous use cases, we will deploy autonomous vehicles against them.

“Such situations may include trips along a standard, well-mapped route in a predictable environment in good weather. In other situations, such as those that involve substantial traffic, complex routes, or unusual weather conditions, we will continue to rely on Drivers.”

The future might be autonomous, but that dream is likely to be a very long-time away. For drivers that might be worried about becoming redundant, there are some glimmers of hope. Autonomous vehicles will take a long-time to be accepted across the mass market, some customers will refuse to use them in the first instance, while certain situations will continue to demand human intervention; the technology simply isn’t there yet.

While there are rumours about the total valuation of the company, some are suggesting a $100 billion target while others point closer to $120 billion, Uber executives are remaining quiet.

Apple under more antitrust scrutiny in Europe

The Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) has launched an investigation into whether Apple is abusing its power through the App Store, favouring its own apps over rivals.

The Dutch regulator has reported back after receiving several complaints regarding Apple’s behaviour surrounding the App Store, suggesting there might be some foul play afoot. The initial foray has led the ACM into a larger investigation to understand whether Apple, and Google for that matter, are abusing dominant positions in the app economy to drive more favourable positions for their own apps and services.

“To a large degree, app providers depend on Apple and Google for offering apps to users. In the market study, ACM has received indications from app providers, which seem to indicate that Apple abuses its position in the App Store,” said Henk Don, an ACM board member. “That is why ACM sees sufficient reason for launching a follow-up investigation, on the basis of competition law.”

The news will not be welcomed by Apple, which is also under investigation at European level following disagreement with music streaming app Spotify. Spotify is suggesting Apple deliberately disadvantages other app developers, and while the complaint lodged with the European Commission is confidential, it has created a website listed the five ways Apple does not play fair in the app economy:

  1. The 30% fee which is applied to in-app purchases
  2. Apple won’t allow developers to communicate deals and promotions directly to customers
  3. Users cannot upgrade to premium services in app
  4. Apple rejects app enhancements for unknown reasons
  5. Spotify cannot be installed on all devices in the Apple portfolio

Some of the reasons might sounds a little moany but Apple does not seem to be laying the same rules on its own apps and services. For example, Spotify cannot be played on the Homepod, but iTunes can. This point might be of interest to the Dutch authorities.

While the original complaints received by the Dutch regulator have mainly been directed towards Apple and the App Store, the ACM also notes the dominant position Google is currently in for the Android app ecosystem. This investigation will be wide enough to assess the position of both companies and their knock-on activities in the developing ecosystem.

The initial investigation, which the ACM admits has not been in-depth enough, has uncovered some worrying elements of the business, we can’t imagine it will be difficult to dig up much more dirt on the pair.

Although both the App Store and Play Store are critical gateways in connecting developers to millions of consumers, that doesn’t mean developers need to be happy about the terms. Many are becoming increasingly frustrated with conditions, notably the 30% commission, with the larger developers looking to avoid working with the pair entirely.

There are few titles which have the brand recognition to achieve success without the reach of the App Store or Play Store, but Fortnite is one. Last August, Fortnite announced it would only offer downloads through its own website as opposed to the app stores. Estimates suggest it would save the firm $50 million in commission paid to Apple and Google.

The ACM has been keen to point out it has not come to a conclusion, despite some worrying findings in the initial investigation, and it may well find no antitrust violations. Despite pleas of impartiality, Apple and Google should certainly be worried; Europe has been pretty hot on antitrust cases recently.

Instagram’s garden is starting to blossom

Just as Facebook’s core platform is beginning to wilt, Instagram is launching an assault on the shopping market built on the walled garden business model which bloomed in by-gone years.

A few people might have scoffed at Facebook handing over $1 billion for Instagram in 2012, but this acquisition is looking to be a clever bit of business. Facebook’s core social media platform, and the business model which underpins it, might be looking a bit jaded after recent attacks, but Instagram is maturing into a very attractive proposition.

Launched today (March 19), users can now purchase products from certain brands in the Instagram app. The team has been working hard to create a marketplace in Instagram over the last 12-18 months, and while the digital advertising model has been paying off, you get the impression the narcissistic tendencies of the app lend itself well to the online shopping arena, especially when it comes to fashion.

“When you tap to view a product from a brand’s shopping post, you’ll see a ‘Checkout on Instagram’ button on the product page,” the team said in a blog post. “Tap it to select from various options such as size or color, then you’ll proceed to payment without leaving Instagram. You’ll only need to enter your name, email, billing information and shipping address the first time you check out.”

For retailers, this could be a very interesting route to potential customers, both old and new. Instagram has proven to be a very effective tool for brands to engage consumers from a brand marketing perspective, but in terms of direct sales, the risk of navigating to another website comes with shopping carts being abandoned. Through in-app purchases, one purchasing hurdle is removed, simplifying the buying process.

Customer information will be stored with Instagram, and while it has been reported the details will not be pre-populated in other Facebook platforms, it would not surprise us if this is in the pipeline. Instagram will receive payments as a percentage of the total spent in-app, though in Facebook’s typically transparent fashion, the waters have been muddied with the team not revealing how much this percentage is.

This is perhaps another perfect example of Facebook’s ability to create a walled garden and charge third-parties to access the cultivated digital customers.

For years, Instagram has been creating an incredibly user-orientated platform, which is simple but very usable and addictive. The only way for users to access these users, to try and pry open wallets, is to strike a deal with Facebook. Facebook is not monetizing its users directly but charging third-parties entry at the gate. This model worked incredibly well for years, putting Facebook is the dominant and influential position it is in today.

The beauty of this plan is that Facebook/Instagram seems to have struck at the right time. Users are becoming increasingly used to using the app as an online catalogue, geared around window shopping not purchases. Another update launched last year, allows users to click on products which might features in posts or stories to see more information. Taking it one step further is a logical step, as long as its not done too aggressively.

While the raw materials are certainly there, the challenge which Instagram will face is not to over commercialise the platform. This is what happened with Facebook’s core social media platform, the focus was less on engagement and more on advertising revenues, resulting in the new generation ignoring and traditional users spending less time on it. If Instagram has learned from prior mistakes, this could be a very interesting proposition, with plenty of room for growth.

That said, learning from mistakes is one thing but keeping under-pressure executives in-line is another. Slowing growth figures have put the Facebook management team under pressure from investors, while scrutiny placed on the traditional business model in ever-increasing. New regulations to remove some of the freedoms granted in the data-sharing economy put profits under threat, and as with any other publicly traded company, they will have to be replenished somehow.

Recent attempts to carve out new revenue streams, such as Watch or Today In, have seemingly not produced the hoped-for bonanzas. In the case of news app Today In, the team is ironically struggling because Facebook and Google effectively destroyed the commercial viability of so many regional news sources. The ‘locusts are complaining there is no more corn’ one Twitter user commented.

Another development which is worth keeping an eye on is the change in management. After 14 years working for Facebook and Instagram, Chief Product Officer Chris Cox announced he was leaving last week. A replacement has not been announced, but the experience of this individual might give some insight as to how aggressively commercial elements of Instagram will appear.

Despite criticisms which might be directed towards Facebook and Instagram, this looks to be an excellent strategy. The team have been cultivating this audience for some time and seem to have created the perfect conditions for growth… just as long as the team learn from previous mistakes.

Qottab, Quindim or Quesito? Google releases Android Q beta

Every year Google releases a new version of Android, and while it is marginally entertaining to guess what sweetie it will be named after, it also provides a very useful roadmap for the future of mobility.

In controlling roughly 74% of the global mobile Operating System (OS) market share, Android is in a unique position to dictate how the ecosystem develops over the short- and medium-term. This year’s update appears larger and more wide-ranging than previous iterations, perhaps representing the significant changes to the industry in recent months.

“In 2019, mobile innovation is stronger than ever, with new technologies from 5G to edge to edge displays and even foldable screens,” said Dave Burke, VP of Engineering for Android. “Android is right at the centre of this innovation cycle, and thanks to the broad ecosystem of partners across billions of devices, Android’s helping push the boundaries of hardware and software bringing new experiences and capabilities to users.”

Privacy updates, gaming enhancements, features to accommodate for new connectivity requirements and addressing the foldable phone phenomenon, there is plenty for developers to consider this year.

Privacy as a product

New demands are being placed on developers around the world when it comes to privacy, but in truth, they have no-one to blame for the extra work than themselves.

This is not to say all developers have abused the trust of the consumer, but numerous scandals over the last 18 months and the opaque manner in which society was educated on the data-sharing machine has created a backlash. Privacy demands have been heightened through regulation and consumer expectations, meaning these elements are slowly becoming a factor in the purchasing process.

There are numerous privacy and security updates here which suggests Google has appreciated the importance of privacy to the consumer. Privacy could soon become a selling point, and Google is on hand with many of the updates based on its Project Strobe initiative.

Perhaps one of the most important updates here is more granular control of the permissions for individual apps. Users will not only have more control on what data is shared with which apps, but developers can no-longer request for consent for a catch-all data hoovering plan, while Google is also cracking down on un-necessary permissions. The team is updating its User Data Policy for the consumer Gmail API to ensure only apps directly enhancing email functionality have authorisation, while the same is being done for call functionality, call logs and SMS.

Data Privacy Survey

Source: GDMA: Global data privacy: What the consumer really thinks

Aside from the permissions updates noted above, users will also have more control over when apps can get location data. While some developers have abused the trust of users by collecting this data when irrelevant as to whether the app is open or not, users will now have the power to give apps permission to see their location never, only when the app is in use (running), or all the time.

There are other updates to the permissions side including audio collections, access to cameras and other media files. All of these updates represent one thing; privacy is a real issue and (theoretically) the power is being handed back to the consumer.

That said, Ovum’s Chief Analyst Ed Barton notes the critical importance of privacy features today, however, as Google could be considered one of the main contributors to the root problem, you must question how much trust the consumer actually has.

“It is noteworthy that privacy is something one might reasonably assume to have in most situations in modern life except in one’s digital life where the default expectation is that a vast digital platform knows more about you than your life partner and immediate family,” said Barton. “It is these circumstances which enables the concepts of privacy, personal data control and trust to be highlighted and used as marketing bullets.

“Privacy in something like an OS is meaningless unless you can trust the entity which made it so with Android Q the question, as always, is ‘how much do you trust Google’?”

Gaming enters the mainstream

Another major update to Android Q looks to target the increasingly popular segment of mobile gaming.

“Gaming remains one of the most popular genres on the app stores, while smartphones have allowed the industry to connect with the masses,” said Paolo Pescatore of PP Foresight.

“This has led to emergence of new games providers and a surge in casual and social gamers, while the arrival of 5G will open further opportunities for cloud based multiplayer games due to faster and more reliable connections and low latency. Mobile devices will be key in this new wave that also promises to bring virtual and physical worlds closer together providing users with immersive experiences.”

Capture

Source: KPMG: The Changing Landscape of Disruptive Technologies report

Here, there are two main updates which we would like to focus on. Firstly, Vulkan and ANGLE (Almost Native Graphics Layer Engine) to improve more immersive experiences. And secondly, improved connectivity APIs.

Starting with the graphics side, Android Q will add experimental support for ANGLE on top of Vulkan on Android devices to allow for high-performance OpenGL compatibility across implementations. The team is also continuing to expand the impact of Vulkan on Android, with the aim to make Vulkan on Android a broadly supported and consistent developer API for graphics.

In short, this means more options and greater depth when it comes to creating immersive experiences.

On the connectivity front, not only has Google refactored the wifi stack to improve privacy and performance, developers can request adaptive wifi in Android Q by enabling high performance and low latency modes. There are of course numerous usecases for low latency throughout the connectivity ecosystem, but from a consumer perspective, real-time gaming and active voice calls are two of the most prominent.

Gaming has slowly been accumulating more support and penetrating the mass market, and some of the features for Android Q will certainly help this blossoming segment.

Foldable phones; fad or forever?

Considering the euphoria which was drummed up in Mobile World Congress this year, it should hardly come as a surprise the latest edition of Android addresses the new demands of the products.

“To help your apps to take advantage of these and other large-screen devices, we’ve made a number of improvements in Android Q, including changes to onResume and onPause to support multi-resume and notify your app when it has focus,” the team said in the blog announcement.

There are of course a number of useful features which come with the increased real-estate, one of which is being able to run more than one app simultaneously without having to flick back and forth, as you can see from the image below.

Google Update

There are of course advantages to the new innovation, but you have to question whether there are enough benefits to outweigh the incredible cost of the devices. The power of smartphone and the astonishing tsunami of cash in the digital economy is only because of scale. With Samsung’s foldable device coming in at $1,980, and Huawei’s at $2,600, these are not devices which are applicable for scale.

Google is preparing itself should the foldable revolution take hold, but mass adoption is needed more than anything else. The price of these devices will have to come down for there to be any chance of these devices cracking the mainstream market, and considering recent trends suggesting the consumer is becoming more cash conscious, they will have to come down a lot.

The price might also impact the development of the subsequent ecosystem. Developers are under time constraints already, and therefore have to prioritise tasks. Without the scale of mainstream adoption, few developers will focus on the new form factor when creating applications and content. With little reward, what’s the point? Price will need to come down to ensure there is appetite for the supporting ecosystem to make any use of this innovation.

We’ve been complaining about a lack of innovation in the devices market for years, so it is a bit cruel to complain when genuine innovation does emerge, but a lot of work needs to be done to give foldable screens as much opportunity for widespread consumer adoption.

Europe has not been great at net neutrality – report

Nearly three years after the EU net neutrality regulations came into effect, neither service providers nor national regulators have been role models in following the rules, a new report concluded.

The Vienna-based non-profit organisation Epicenter.works recently published a report to present its multi-year research into how the EU’s net neutrality regulation has been implemented. The report, titled “The Net Neutrality Situation in the EU: Evaluation of the First Two Years of Enforcement”, examined how the regulation was interpreted differently by the regulators and how the service providers have taken it into their own hands to decide what to implement, or not implement in the 28 EU member states as well as the three EEA nations ((Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein). The results were not the most encouraging reading.

The EU regulation on net neutrality came into effect on 30 April 2016. The Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communication (BEREC) was mandated to lay down guidelines on the implementation for the national regulators. However, unlike other laws like GDPR, the net neutrality rules give member states the authority to decide the level of penalties if the rules are broken.  “This has lead (sic.) to a situation where some member states have not laid down rules for violations of net neutrality protections two years after the regulation entered into force,” the report says.

More specifically, 17 out of the 31 countries examined have not defined “effective and dissuasive penalties”, while in those countries that have defined monetary penalties, the amounts varied from a symbolic €9,600 in Estonia, to up to 10% of relevant turnover in the Netherlands or the UK. The report finds that, as a result of the less than strict implementation, “the largest telecom companies in Europe can choose not to comply with the law because it is financially advantageous for them.”

The area that the most offences were committed was differential pricing practices, in particular zero-rating data for selected applications and services. Although only Bulgaria and Germany have excluded “illegal commercial practices” (price discrimination when providing access to specific applications and services, in this case, zero-rating certain apps or services) from their penalty provisions, a total of 186 differential pricing products are being offered in all but three member states (Finland, Slovenia, Bulgaria), the majority (144 offerings) of them zero-rating (the rest are application-specific data volume). 17 countries’ regulators have started formal assessment processes into the differential pricing products offered by the service providers in their countries since the regulation came into effect, while the other 14 have not.

The report went on to analyse the impact of zero-rating offers on the consumer data price, and discovered that over a two-year period, the average data price (€/Gb) in countries with zero-rating offers largely held or slightly rose while the comparable price in those countries without zero-rating products went down by about 10%.

net neutrality data price

The reason for the steady price can be attributed to competition dynamics created by zero-rating, according to the report. Since the large service providers (e.g. Deutcshe Telokom) often have the biggest sway in partnering with content and application providers, the authors reckon, they create a “unique selling proposition” to attract consumers and no longer need to compete on the data package size or prize, which MVNOs and smaller operators can match their offers. This in effect has led to a slow-down in the growth of data package sizes or drop in prices in these markets.

It is not only the consumers that have been denied benefits by zero-rating, the authors find, there is also cost on the content and apps providers. In most zero-rating deals, the content and app providers will pay the fee for the traffic to the service providers (according to a report published by the Polish regulator UKE), which will then offer it to consumers at zero-rating. In this case, zero-rated data is actually sponsored data.

On top of the fees, in order for the billing to be correctly done, operators would require the content and app providers to make special data transport setup for the partnerships, e.g. change CDN contracts. This will also add operational cost to the content providers. In a high-profile case, when Vimeo did not participate in Deutsche Telekom’s “StreamOn” programme, it stated in an open letter to the German regulator that, although they are a 200 employee strong company, they cannot sustain co-operations with all the service providers whose customers they want to reach with their service through special programmes like this.

Two knock-on effects also come out of such partnerships. Due to the demand on fees and increased operational cost, most app and content providers can only afford to enter into limited deals. By the authors’ count, the large majority of app and content providers entered no more than three pricing programmes.

net neutrality number of programs

On the other hand, more often it would only be the Silicon Valley heavyweights that could afford to tie multiple partnerships with different operators in different markets, they occupy most of the spots on the leader table of differentially priced services being offered. “Among the top 20 zero-rated applications only three are from the EEA,” the report calculated.

net neutrality Silicon Valley heavy

The findings by the organisation has caught some attention. The Austrian regulator RTR will conduct its own research into the impact of zero-rating on data prices into more recent years and on operator level. The European Commission will also provide an evaluation report of the net neutrality provisions of the regulation by 30 April 2019, three years after the regulation came into effect.

Apple slaps Google and Facebook on the wrist

One day after Facebook had its enterprise developer certificates revoked by Apple, Google ran into similar troubles with the iOS and App Store owner.

It turned out that Facebook was not the only naughty player attempting to circumvent Apple’s rules to forbid apps developed under enterprise certificates to be distributed outside of the company. Google was found to have distributed a data monitoring and survey app called Screenwise Meter. The app comes with Apple’s enterprise developer certificate granted to Google and has been distributed to a “panel” selected and maintained in partnership with the research firm GfK. The panel may include users as young as 13, or with the parents’ consent, those under 13 though the data monitoring method will be modified.

It is not clear if it was a reaction to the revocation of Facebook’s certificates, but Google stopped the distribution of Screenwise Meter before Apple acted. “The Screenwise Meter iOS app should not have operated under Apple’s developer enterprise program — this was a mistake, and we apologize,” Google said in a statement on Wednesday. “We have disabled this app on iOS devices. This app is completely voluntary and always has been. We’ve been upfront with users about the way we use their data in the app, we have no access to encrypted data in apps and on devices, and users can opt out of the program at any time.”

However, Google’s developer certificates were still made invalid by Apple on Thursday, reported first by The Verge. This resulted in Google’s pre-release beta apps as well as employee-only apps, for example those for using Google’s shuttle bus or coffee shops, stopping working. (One cannot help but wondering how many employees in Google, which controls Android and releases its own Pixel smartphones, are using iPhone as their primary devices.) The tone from Apple, however, was much reconciliatory. “We are working together with Google to help them reinstate their enterprise certificates very quickly,” said the statement from Apple to BuzzFeed.

In comparison, Apple was much sterner when pulling the plug on Facebook. “We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization. Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple.”

To look at the two cases together, there are two types of issues Apple needs to deal with. To borrow the economics jargons, one is normative, i.e. based on principles, another is positive, i.e. based on facts. On the normative side, Apple should clarify whether Facebook and Google were punished for launching apps gathering users’ private data or for distributing the apps under the wrong type of certificates and through unofficial channels, i.e. not using the App Store.

Although most media coverage was focused on the Facebook app gathering user data, it looks that Apple was more annoyed by the fact that Facebook (and Google) has abused its enterprise developer certificates. It said in the statement related to Facebook: “Any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked, which is what we did in this case (of Facebook) to protect our users and their data.”

However, what drove Facebook to distribute “Facebook Research”, the app in question through unorthodox channels, looks to be that Apple has banned apps to gather user data as detailed as app history, private messages, and location, from being listed in the App Store. In its “App Store Review Guidelines”, Apple stated “5.1.1 Data Collection and Storage: (iii) Data Minimization: Apps should only request access to data relevant to the core functionality of the app and should only collect and use data that is required to accomplish the relevant task. Where possible, use the out-of-process picker or a share sheet rather than requesting full access to protected resources like Photos or Contacts.”

The rule above would be caught in a paradox in cases where the “core functionality” of an app is to gather detailed user data and is explicit with it. That was the case with “Facebook Research”. Facebook said in its statement: “Key facts about this market research program are being ignored. Despite early reports, there was nothing ‘secret’ about this; it was literally called the Facebook Research App. It wasn’t ‘spying’ as all of the people who signed up to participate went through a clear on-boarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate. Finally, less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms.”

As an aside, despite the repeated furore towards Facebook recently, neither users nor advertisers seem to be deterred. The Q4 results recently published showed that in Europe, where GDPR went into effect mid-2018, Facebook’s monthly active users went up from 375 million in Q3 to 381 million, and the average revenue per user in Europe jumped from $8.82 in Q3 up to $10.98.

If Apple was unhappy with companies distributing apps developed under enterprise certificates to users outside of the enterprises, there would come the positive side of the issues, i.e. related how Apple implements the rule. Whether Apple was punishing Facebook and Google as a deterrent to other companies that have or might have distributed apps externally using enterprise certificates, or it will go after all offenders, remains to be seen.

If it was the former tactic, an old Chinese saying that goes “Kill the chicken to scare the monkey” would summarise it well, though the two chickens Apple has put the knife in are much fatter than most monkeys. On the other hand, if Apple were true to its word that it would act on “any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers”, it may find a long line of chickens (or monkeys) standing in the line. Alex Fajkowski, a Twitter user and iOS app developer, suggested that both Amazon and DoorDash were distributing apps to recruit temporary deliverers. Then a longer list of companies suspected of doing the same thing was drawn up, including companies like Square and Sonos (though Sonos looks to have removed the page recently).

Looking at it either way, it is clear that Apple is tightening the control over its already tightly controlled ecosystem. With Services becoming increasingly important, Apple would not want to see any loss of revenues from iOS apps distributed outside of App Store, nor would it want to be seen complacent or even complicit in any comprise of users’ privacy. Or, standing up to the internet giants which have been on the receiving end of much anger, could score a PR victory for Apple.

Both Facebook and Google had their enterprise certificates restored by Thursday evening.

Facebook can’t seem to keep itself out of trouble

Facebook has apparently been paying customers $20 each to trade away their privacy to install a VPN which analyses usage, sidestepping Apple’s App Store policies.

The research initiative is similar to Onavo Protect, which was effectively banned by Apple last year, rewarding teenagers and adults to download the app to give the social media giant root access to network traffic which most likely would have been decrypted otherwise. According to TechCrunch, this is a violation of the App Store policies.

While $20 per user might seem like a huge amount, the data which is collected is incredibly valuable. Not only will it be able to identify usage habits, it will also contribute to competitor research. In theory, Facebook would be able to build a much more detailed competitor landscape, identifying potential threats to its business. The UK government has already unveiled documents which confirm Facebook uses the platform to inhibit competitive threats, so this type of data collection simply adds another nefarious cog to the devious machine.

According to the TechCrunch investigation, if Facebook makes full use of the freedoms granted through this app it would be able to access private messages from social media and other messaging apps, photos and videos, emails, web browsing activity and location information. What is worth noting is that is has not been confirmed whether this is the case, though Facebook could be heading for another privacy debacle.

This is of course not the first time Facebook has ventured into the murky world of surveillance. Back in 2014, the increasingly suspect social media giant acquired Onavo for $120 million. This VPN allowed users to minimize data leakage and improve the effectiveness of tariffs, but it also allowed Facebook to access deep analytics about what other apps they were using. This insight reportedly gave Facebook the confidence to make such a significant bet on WhatsApp.

The app came under pressure when it was revealed Facebook was stepping across the line, collecting information when the screen was off for example. Apple changed the App Store policies to ensure apps could only collect information which was critical to functionality, though by this point Facebook had a huge amount of competitive intelligence, and seemingly lit the fires of ambition.

One question which you really have to ask is how many lives Facebook has left. The last 12 months have been a carousel of scandal, saga and suspicion. Whether it is Cambridge Analytica, Friendly Fraud, fake news, influencing elections, violating privacy or snooping on customers, Facebook has poked and prodded the confidence and trust of the digital society. How much longer can this go on for?

Every time a new headline emerges about some nefarious or suspect activity from Facebook, the world much be getting closer to taking disruptive action. More and more people distrust the brand, but due to its influence in and penetration through digital society, usage of its applications have not been damaged much. You have to wonder how many more of these headlines the business can take; maybe it won’t be long before the Facebook empire is broken up.