Europe fines Google another €1.5 billion after belated Android concession

US search giant Google has received yet another fine from the European Commission, this time for abusing its dominant position in online advertising.

Specifically this ruling refers to ads served against Google search results embedded in third party websites. The EC doesn’t like the way Google used to go about this and, having reviewed loads of historical contracts between Google and these other websites, found the following:

  • Starting in 2006, Google included exclusivity clauses in its contracts. This meant that publishers were prohibited from placing any search adverts from competitors on their search results pages. The decision concerns publishers whose agreements with Google required such exclusivity for all their websites.
  • As of March 2009, Google gradually began replacing the exclusivity clauses with so-called “Premium Placement” clauses. These required publishers to reserve the most profitable space on their search results pages for Google’s adverts and request a minimum number of Google adverts. As a result, Google’s competitors were prevented from placing their search adverts in the most visible and clicked on parts of the websites’ search results pages.
  • As of March 2009, Google also included clauses requiring publishers to seek written approval from Google before making changes to the way in which any rival adverts were displayed. This meant that Google could control how attractive, and therefore clicked on, competing search adverts could be.

EC google ad graphic

Taken at face value this would appear to be a clear abuse of Google’s dominant position and it seems to have got off pretty lightly, since it got a much bigger fine for abusing Android’s dominant position last year, on which more below. The EC has been pretty consistent in its position on dominant US tech players deliberately seeking to restrict competition, just ask Microsoft and Intel, so none of this can have come as a surprise to Google.

“Today the Commission has fined Google €1.49 billion for illegal misuse of its dominant position in the market for the brokering of online search adverts,” said Commissioner in charge of competition policy Margrethe Vestager. “Google has cemented its dominance in online search adverts and shielded itself from competitive pressure by imposing anti-competitive contractual restrictions on third-party websites. This is illegal under EU antitrust rules. The misconduct lasted over 10 years and denied other companies the possibility to compete on the merits and to innovate – and consumers the benefits of competition.”

As the quote indicates, Google isn’t doing this anymore, but only packed it in once the EC flagged it up in 2016, so that’s still a decade of naughtiness. For some reason Google also chose today to show some belated contrition for one of the things it got fined for last year: forcing Android OEMs to preinstall Google Search and the Chrome browser.

In a blog post amusingly entitled Supporting choice and competition in Europe, Google SVP of Global Affairs Kent Walker started by stressing there’s nothing he loves more than healthy, thriving markets. Having said that he went on to make it clear that its most recent move to improve competition was taken solely to get the EC off its back.

“After the Commission’s July 2018 decision, we changed the licensing model for the Google apps we build for use on Android phones, creating new, separate licenses for Google Play, the Google Chrome browser, and for Google Search,” wrote Walker. “In doing so, we maintained the freedom for phone makers to install any alternative app alongside a Google app.

“Now we’ll also do more to ensure that Android phone owners know about the wide choice of browsers and search engines available to download to their phones. This will involve asking users of existing and new Android devices in Europe which browser and search apps they would like to use.”

How touching. Presumably today was some kind of deadline for Google to comply or else. The matter of browser choice is highly reminiscent of Europe’s case against Microsoft for bundling Internet Explorer with Windows. The prime beneficiary of that was, you guessed it, Google, which now accounts for around two thirds of European desktop browser share (see chart), achieved through merit rather than cheating. How sad then, so see history repeating itself on mobile.

So that takes the total amount Europe has fined Google to €8.25 billion. In response to a question after her announcement (below) Vestager revealed the EC has some kind of fine ceiling of 10% of annual revenues so, since Google brought in around €120 billion last year that still leaves plenty of room for further fines if Google keeps getting funny ideas. Incidentally she also revealed that the fines get distributed to member countries, not trousered by the EC itself, which is reassuring.

Source: StatCounter Global Stats – Browser Market Share

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.

Europe cools internet monopoly rhetoric

Almost every politician around the world is currently using Silicon Valley as a metaphoric punching bag, but the European Commission will not be drawn into the monopolies debate.

While 2020 Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has painted a target on the backs on the internet giants, Europe has once again proven it will not be drawn into making such short-sighted and shallow promises. Warren is effectively warming up for the world’s biggest popularity contest, and perhaps hasn’t considered the long-term realities of the dismantling of companies such as Facebook and Google.

Speaking at the South by Southwest festival in Austin (thank you Recode for the transcript), Margrethe Vestager, the European Commissioner for Competition, made a very reasonable and measured statement.

“We’re dealing with private property, businesses that are built and invested in and become successful because of their innovation,” said Vestager.

“So, to break up a company, to break up private property, would be very far-reaching. And you would need to have a very strong case that it would produce better results for consumers in the marketplace than what you could do with sort of more mainstream tools.”

Vestager’s point is simple. Don’t punish a company because of its success. Don’t make rash decisions unless there is evidence the outcome will be better than the status quo. While the fence is proving to be very comfortable, it is a logical place to sit now.

Following up with the European Commission press team, Telecoms.com was told the Commission does not have an official position when it comes to breaking up the internet monopolies. Vestager’s comments are representative of the Commission, and it will evaluate each case on its own merit. Effectively, the breaking up the monopolies is a last resort, and will only be done so in extreme circumstances.

This position is supported by a recent report, put together for HM Treasury in the UK by former Chief Economist to President Obama, Professor Jason Furman. Furman suggests new rules and departments need to be created for digital society, but monopolies, when regulated and governed appropriately, can be good for the progression of products, services and the economy overall.

This will of course be an unpopular opinion, but it makes sense. Sometimes there simply isn’t the wealth to share around. Monopolies are perhaps needed to create efficiencies and economies of scale to ensure progress is made at a suitable pace. However, the right regulatory framework needs to be in place to ensure this dominant position is not abused. A catch-all position should not be welcomed.

This is where the European Commission has been playing a notable role. Numerous times over the last few years, technology giants have been punished for creating and abusing dominant market positions, take Google as an example with Android antitrust violations last June, though it has not gone as far as breaking up these empires. The key here is creating a framework which encourages growth across the board but does not punish success.

Some would argue success in the pursuit of this delicately balanced equation has been incredibly varied, but this should not form the foundation of rash decisions and potential irreversible actions. Big is not necessarily bad.

This is the marquee promise of Senator Elizabeth Warren. In attempting to woo the green-eyed contradictory wannabee capitalists of Middle America, the Presidential contender has promised to split up the internet giants. The complexities and realities of this promise do not seem to have been thoroughly thought out, and it does seem to be a shallow attempt to lure the favour of those who seek fortunes but are unable to congratulate those who have found them.

That said, there are Presidential candidates who are suggesting good ideas. Senator Amy Klobuchar has suggested companies who monetize data through relationships with third-parties should be taxed. This is somewhat of a radical idea, but we do quite like the sound of it.

Firstly, for those companies who say they are collecting data to ‘improve customer experience’, there would be no impact. If the data is being used to enhance current or create new services, and therefore kept in-house, then fair enough. However, if the company is moving data around the digital ecosystem, monetizing personal information, why not place a levy on this type of activity. It might just encourage these companies to be more responsible when more scrutiny is being placed on these transactions.

This is the challenge we are all facing nowadays; the digital economy is a different beast and needs to be tamed using different techniques, regulations and practices. We all know this, but we haven’t actually figured out how to do it.

This is why we kind of like the non-committal, hands-off approach from the European Commission. For an organization which usually likes to run wild with the red-tape, this seems to be a much more sensible approach. Over regulating nowadays could create a patch-work from hell which would only have to be undone. It might seem like a cop-out, but governments should let business be business, while casting a watchful eye over developments.

When no-one really knows how the future is going to evolve, regulation is needed to hold companies accountable and protections are needed to safeguard the consumer. But rash decisions and ridiculous promises are the last thing anyone wants.

Grey clouds gather over Apple as Netflix snubs imminent streaming service

Apple is on the verge of announcing something big, but its TV streaming ambitions have been undermined as Netflix dismisses any tie-up with the iLeader.

Speaking at a press event at the streaming giants HQ, CEO Reed Hastings said Netflix would not be partnering with Apple or allowing its content to be hosted on any streaming service it might announce. There are a lot of unknowns about the Apple announcement on March 25, but at least this has been cleared up.

Rumours suggest Apple is going to create a streaming platform which could potentially compete against Netflix, though this is only one facet of the increasingly fragmented content landscape. With Disney and AT&T’s WarnerMedia also set to weigh-in, consumer frustrations are unlikely to be relieved any time soon.

With content becoming increasingly fragmented, a platform which brings everything together could be the winning formula.

“Content aggregation is the holy grail,” said Paolo Pescatore of PP Foresight. “There is too much fragmentation in video/TV; no-one wants to sign up to different services and have numerous apps. It is a disastrous experience.

“Beyond having the right content, the user experience is key. This means getting the content people want in one place, with one bill, universal search and all that jazz. In reality, this is hard to achieve as typically half of a household wants sport and the other half want entertainment, movies and kids shows.

“Netflix has done a great job to date. However, more content and media owners will pull programming off its offering. This represents a significant opportunity for the likes of Apple who has scale and greater resources. There is a role for a small number of players in the future.”

One question which should get a lot of people thinking is what does an effective content aggregator platform look like?

  1. Single bill
  2. Single sign-in/authentication
  3. Integrated content library
  4. Universal search
  5. Consistent customer experience
  6. An excellent recommendation engine
  7. Buy-in from majority of content owners/creators

However, just because it is easy to set out the conditions for an excellent content aggregator platform, doesn’t mean it will a simple task to figure out. The final point, getting the buy-in from the content owner/creator ecosystem, is where anyone with such grand ambitions will find the biggest issue.

The best effort we have seen so far is Sky in the UK. Why? Because it has somehow managed to convince Netflix to let its content be hosted on the Sky discovery platform not its own.

Some might suggest a disproportionate amount of news in the content world is focused on Netflix, but there is good reason for that; Netflix is the best. Few can compete with the current depth and breath of content, the user experience, marketing clout and foresight of Reed Hastings and his team.

Without Netflix on an aggregator platform, there does seem to be a big hole. One of the issues is Netflix does not like handing across the experience associated with its assets to partners. It knows how to keep its subscribers happy so why would it allow a partner to potentially tarnish this reputation.

This is what has made the Sky partnership all the more impressive. Netflix has allowed its assets to be hosted alongside Sky’s on Sky’s discovery platform, marrying two of the best content libraries available to UK consumers in the same place. This is the sort of partnership which ticks all the criteria listed above.

Sky has made an excellent start on the aggregator model, but it needs to continue to add new partnerships, increasing the depth and breadth of its content library to ensure it continues to dominate the premium TV space. Amazon Prime should be a key target.

An interesting development over the next couple of months will be the impact of Disney’s streaming proposition. It will put a dent into Netflix, but how much remains to be seen. Disney does not have the depth or breadth of content Netflix is able to offer, the ‘originals’ and the newly generated local content around the world take it to another level, though Disney will be an excellent partner to have.

We do not want to decide on the Apple streaming proposition until we have had a chance to actually see it but losing Netflix as a potential partner is a significant dent. However, as long as gathers the buy-in from enough partners, creating a proposition which ticks all the criteria we have listed, there is hope for Apple is the services arena.

Apple issues weak response to Spotify’s claims of discrimination

Apple has presented its side of the dispute with Spotify, claiming it is treating the latter the same as other apps and it is reasonable to charge 30% of premium payment to apps.

Shortly after Spotify filed a claim at the EU against Apple for being discriminated by the latter’s App Store rules and practices, Apple released a statement to deny these claims and throw the accusations back at Spotify.

Apple argued for the 30% charge of premium paid to apps on App Store platform with a few justifications. “Apple connects Spotify to our users. We provide the platform by which users download and update their app. We share critical software development tools to support Spotify’s app building. And we built a secure payment system — no small undertaking — which allows users to have faith in in-app transactions,” the statement said. Apple also hastened to add that Spotify has left out policy that the revenue share will drop to 15% from the second year on.

On Spotify’s argument that Apple has restricted payment methods to Apple’s own payment system only, Apple retorted that it demands all “digital goods and services that are purchased inside the app using our secure in-app purchase system”.

There are a few layers in the reading of the attrition when each side is only talking its own side’s truth, but there are also bigger questions related to the whole digital economy. There are minor inconsistencies in Apple’s statement, for example it claimed that Spotify has made “substantial revenue that they draw from the App Store’s customers”, only to contradict a few lines below by playing down the App Store’s significance by saying “only a tiny fraction of their subscriptions fall (sic.) under Apple’s revenue-sharing model.” And there is no need for Apple to use the dubious accusation that Spotify is suing music creators. They (Spotify, Google, Pandora, Amazon) are not. They are appealing to overturn a court decision to increase royalty payment by 44%.

There is as much left unsaid as said. For example, Apple failed to address Spotify’s concern that Apple is both operating a platform and distributing its own competing products, in this case Apple Music. This was a point brought up in a conversation The Verge had with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who did not include in her first list of companies to “break up”. “It’s got to be one or the other,” Warren told The Verge referring to Apple. “Either they run the platform or they play in the store. They don’t get to do both at the same time.” This resonates with Spotify’s accusation that Apple is being both the referee and a player.

It also does not give out the reason why Spotify, or any apps, should not have the option to handle payments within the app with equally safe payment system (e.g. credit cards).

Then there is the broader question whether app stores should be allowed to collect a commission fee for apps distributed on its platform. Technically Apple, and other applications stores like Google’s Play Store, could argue that they are a distribution channel and a retail outlet. Like other channels and retailers, they must charge a fee to sell the products. This side of the business would not be so significant for Apple earlier, as it was mainly using the app ecosystem to sell, and lock consumers in, iPhones. It is getting more meaning for the company now that the iPhone sales are slowing down while “Services” has become a meaningful part of the business. That is also a key reason why both Apple and Google are actively encouraging apps to move to subscription model to generate recurring income for the platforms.

But there has never been any justification why the fee should be as high as 30%, and Apple and Google have been well synchronised with their charge level (as well as dropping the fee from second year onward to 15%). This has become a significant additional cost for the app developers. Some with deeper pockets could absorb the cost and keep the retail price similar to other platforms (e.g. The Economist magazine). Those businesses operating on low margin or on a loss have to move the additional cost to users who opt to pay for the premium inside the app (e.g. Spotify). Other businesses simply choose to disable the option to upgrade to premium inside their iOS app to avoid the fee (e.g. the Financial Times newspaper).

Apple used Spotify’s partnerships with carriers as a supporting argument for the charge, saying “a significant portion of Spotify’s customers come through partnerships with mobile carriers. (This) requires Spotify to pay a similar distribution fee to retailers and carriers.” This may or may not true as each carrier deal with OTT services is different. Even if this is accurate, mobile carriers most likely are following the Apple’s and Google’s benchmark rather than the other way round.

Facebook reportedly facing criminal charges over data sharing

Facebook’s day started off with a major outage and, should reports turn out to be true, it is ending with the social media giant facing a criminal investigation from Federal prosecutors.

According to the New York Times, a grand jury in New York has obtained records from two smartphone manufacturers, via subpoena, which will detail the data sharing partnerships in or previously in place with Facebook. Sources has retained anonymity and it is not exactly clear who the subpoenaed parties were, though Facebook did have more than 150 such relationships in place before winding-down over the last couple of years.

Although the investigation has not been officially confirmed, it will come as a surprise to few considering the scrutiny those dominating the data-sharing economy are facing. Over the last few months, there have been numerous attempts to weaken the influence of the internet giants, with some even suggesting legal force to break-up the empires. The internet giants created a cosy position, but this is certainly under threat.

That said, while the scandals over the last 18 months might lead some to presume the practice of selling personal data would be scaled back, there seems to be little evidence of this. A recent Motherboard investigation suggests various US telcos are still reaping the benefits, and in some cases, scaling up the practice.

What is worth noting is the concept of selling personal information is not illegal, as long as the right consent has been obtained from the end user. This is what Facebook, and the third-parties who entered into such arrangements, are facing criticism for today. Accusers suggest proper content was not obtained or done so in such a complicated fashion it should not be considered valid.

The data-sharing economy is gaining validity across the world, but only when the practice is managed in a fair and responsible manner. This is what GDPR and other regulations intend to enforce. The idea is not to stop the practice, but to ensure the companies involved act in a responsible manner, with the user properly informed and in control of the situation. The data-sharing economy can work, and can benefit everyone involved, as long as no single party abuses their position.

The partnerships which are reportedly being investigated here, however, have come under criticism for some time. Privacy campaigners suggest the partnerships violate a 2011 consent agreement between Facebook and the FTC, after allegations the social media giant had shared personal information in a way that deceived users. At one point, there were more than 150 such partnerships in place, though Facebook has been phasing out most of the agreements over the last few years.

Although this is a retrospective investigation into the company, it could potentially contradict statements from CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other executives suggesting the business was being more transparent and managing user data responsibly. Facebook has been making this statement for several years. This case could prove Facebook mislead the world with these claims as well.

There is a general feeling of ‘if’ not ‘when’ here. Politicians, governments and regulators are seemingly scouring the Facebook business for any cracks, allowing them to slap a significant fine and parade the streets with a victory on behalf of consumer privacy. Facebook’s lawyers have done a pretty good job of wriggling so far, but there is a bit of a feeling the dam could burst at any point.

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.

The WWW inventor wants to reinvent the web

Father of the web Sir Tim Berners-Lee has launched the “Contract for the Web” initiative to rally the global community to revamp the web for the public good.

30 years after he proposed an “information management system” (pictured) while being a scientist at CERN, Sir Tim Berners-Lee believes that he could stand no longer what the web has become of lately. In 2018 Berners-Lee told the Vanity Fair magazine that he was “devastated” by the state of distortion of his creation. As a result, on the 30th birthday of the WWW, he decided to use his influence to bring the web back on the track he envisioned: it should be recognised as a human right and be built for the public good. “If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web,” Berners-Lee said.

According to Berners-Lee, the dysfunction of the web in recent years has mainly been manifested in three ways:

“1. Deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behaviour, and online harassment.

“2. System design that creates perverse incentives where user value is sacrificed, such as ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation.

“3. Unintended negative consequences of benevolent design, such as the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse.”

To counter these dysfunctional behaviours, the non-profit World Wide Web Foundation (or “Web Foundation”) led by Berners-Lee is launching a civil society initiative, “Contract for the Web”, that calls out to governments, businesses, and private individuals, to pledge their commitments to a better future of the web.

It has different requirements for the three types of constituencies.

It demands governments to ensure everyone can connect to the internet; keep all of the internet available, all of the time; and respect people’s fundamental right to privacy.

It asks businesses to make the internet affordable and accessible to everyone; respect consumers’ privacy and personal data; and develop technologies that support the best in humanity and challenge the worst.

It challenges individuals to hold the governments and businesses accountable; be creators and collaborators on the web; build strong communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity; and fight for the web so the web remains open and a global public resource for people everywhere, now and in the future.

Under these principles, a group of people are working on the specific commitments in each area. The group is open to input from all (institutions and individuals alike) who share the vision, and the results of the work are expected later this year.

Signatories so far include some of the world’s biggest internet companies (e.g. Google, Microsoft, Facebook), other non-profit organisations (e.g. W3C), private citizens and celebrities and former and current politicians (e.g. Sir Richard Branson, Gordon and Sarah Brown), telecom operators (Telefonica), and governments (Die Bundesregierung).

The level of endorsement and commitment the initiative may ultimately garner is yet to be seen and will depend on the specifics being developed. Some governments may be hesitant towards the demand for allowing its citizens to access all the information on the internet without filtering, while others may feel they would prefer to have access to some of the people’s private data to strengthen public security. The demands for businesses may be seen as threatening the very livelihood of some companies whose business models have built on monetising user data.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee never made wealth out of his invention, but his transformational role has been well recognised. Stephen Fry once identified Sir Tim as one of the two living Englishmen that have had the most profound impact on people’s lives worldwide, the other being Apple’s Chief Design Officer Jony Ive.

UK Government mulls new digital competition laws

An independent panel has submitted a new report to HM Treasury which recommends the formation of a new department to tackle anti-competition and the revamp of rules.

Led by former Chief Economist to President Obama, Professor Jason Furman, the lengthy report comes to a conclusion many are already aware of; today’s rules are not fit for purpose to effectively manage and govern the digital economy.

“The United Kingdom has an opportunity to seize the full potential of the digital sector, increasing the benefits for consumers and fostering an even more vibrant ecosystem for businesses,” the report states.

“Competition should be at the heart of this strategy, leading companies to produce better outcomes for consumers, helping new companies enter and grow, and continuing to encourage existing companies to innovate.”

In summing up the current landscape, the message is pretty clear. Furman and his team state the UK is currently reliant on rules and regulations designed for yesteryear. Considering how much society and the economy has evolved through the last decade, since the digital world has engulfed almost every aspect of our lives, rules have to keep pace to ensure fair and reasonable business practises are taking place, to offer benefit to the consumer.

The recommendation of change is based on several presumptions. Firstly, digital is good. It helps the consumer and lowers the barriers for entry for small businesses to be created and scaled. Secondly, most digital markets will be dominated by a single player. Third, there are advantages, low margins and profits can mean sometimes it is better to have a smaller number of providers. Fourth, companies cannot be trusted to self-regulate, and finally, government regulations have limitations.

These presumptions have been identified through months of research from the panel and while some might disagree with the statements, being realistic, they are fair and reasonable assumptions. Just because some will not like the outcome, does not mean it is not true. However, knowledge informs future decisions and these statements can inform more appropriate regulation in the future.

This is the problem which many governments are facing nowadays. They realise the world is changing, and rules have to change with them, but new clauses and considerations are being bolted onto regulations which have been designed for a by-gone era. It creates an incredibly complicated red tape maze, which is not help to anyone except those will well-enough paid lawyers to find the loopholes.

“This is why the Panel is recommending the establishment of a digital markets unit, given a remit to use tools and frameworks that will support greater competition and consumer choice in digital markets, and backed by new powers in legislation to ensure they are effective,” the report states.

Furman envisions this department to have three main responsibilities in the first instance. Firstly, the creation of a code of competitive conduct, which would only be applied to the most powerful companies who could be deemed a threat to the emergence or scale of smaller competitors and competition on the whole. Secondly, the team would be tasked with enabling greater personal data mobility and systems with open standards where these tools will increase competition and consumer choice. Finally, to advance data openness.

Outside of this new department, Furman recommends merger policies should be updated, implying the current framework does not take technological advancements seriously enough. Part of this will include updates to antitrust policy, as while monopolies or dominant market positions can be good for efficiencies and benefits for consumers or businesses, there does need to be a mechanism to ensure this position is not abused.

Overall, this is a report which, firstly, makes a lot of sense, but secondly, doesn’t say anything particularly new. Everything which Furman has said is correct, rules are dated, and the chasm is growing larger, but many have already been stating this for some time. Governments don’t seem to be able to take any action unless an expensive economist is given months to come to a relatively obvious conclusion.

That said, Furman’s advice should be heeded. Hopefully the recommendations of a new unit to tackle these challenges will be listened to, though we suspect new responsibilities will be bundled into an existing department and the good intentions will become lost in the mediocrity. We will be happy to be proved incorrect, though it probably is a long-shot.

Softbank turns its attention to Latin American start-ups

Softbank has announced the launch of yet another investment fund, this time turning its eyes towards the unfulfilled promise of Latin America.

Alongside the fund, the SoftBank Latin America Local Hub will also be created, an operating group which will help companies in the other Softbank portfolios enter Latin America, navigate the local markets and broaden their geographic reach. Yet again, Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son is attempting to prove he wasted decades in the telco space and should have been focusing on investment management.

“Latin America is on the cusp of becoming one of the most important economic regions in the world, and we anticipate significant growth in the decades ahead,” said Son.

“SBG plans to invest in entrepreneurs throughout Latin America and use technology to help address the challenges faced by many emerging economies with the goal of improving the lives of millions of Latin Americans. I am grateful to our Chief Operating Officer Marcelo Claure for leading this initiative, in addition to his other responsibilities at SBG.”

The SoftBank Innovation Fund will aim to raise funds totalling $5 billion, with Softbank contributing the first $2 billion, with a particular focus on e-commerce, digital financial services, healthcare, mobility and insurance.

For years, Latin America has been promised as a land of fortunes. With several economies on the verge of blossoming, the realities of the world have staggered success. Political controversies, violence, poor infrastructure and hostile environments have been some of the reasons this region has yet to properly flourish, however the statistics are on its side.

Since 2000, over 50 million people in the region have entered the middle class, increasing the amount of disposable income flowing around the local economies. Internet and smartphone penetration have grown considerably, to 375 million and 250 million respectively. E-commerce sales have jumped from $29.8 billion in 2015 to $54 billion in 2018, suggesting digital society is bedding in.

Combining all of these factors suggest there are fortunes to be made with the right execution. Many have failed to capitalise on the promise, but there has been renewed enthusiasm in recent years.

Liberty Global is excellent example of a company which seems to think this is a market set to burst. Over the last couple of years, Liberty Global has been trimming back its exposure in Europe, note its recent asset disposals to Vodafone in Germany and Sunrise in Switzerland, as well as spinning off Liberty Latin America as an independent, publicly-traded company. Chairman John Malone has built a successful business over the last few decades, and now he clearly spots something he likes in the Latin American markets.

Another interesting development is over at Telefonica. The Spanish telco is seemingly positioning Aura as a potential competitor to the Google and Amazon digital assistants, fighting to manage the consumer’s digital ecosystem, though initial launches have been focused on its Latin American business units, not its domestic market.

Latin America is a market which has consistently failed to deliver on the promise, but eventually the bubble will burst, and fortunes will be made. Whether this is another false dawn remains to be seen but laying the foundations for the future is not necessarily a bad move.