Apple Doesn’t Have Prime’s Number

26 March 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

 Apple ’s extravagant unveiling on Monday of AppleTV+, its new video content streaming service, unveiled very little. Celebrities talked about their must-see shows without showing any clips. Apple executives trumpeted their plan to offer a bundle of content from different content partners without offering any details on pricing. So what to make of this newest entrant into the fiercely competitive and crowded streaming race?

Apple’s service will offer original shows in addition to content from companies like HBO, Starz, and Showtime. In that respect, it looks a lot like what consumers get on Amazon Prime—a mix of original and partnered content—curated by a tech company that has decided to maximize its current business by leveraging mass desire for incessant entertainment. For Amazon Prime members, however, viewing is free; Apple’s service almost certainly won’t be.

And does it make sense for the iPhone maker to be getting into content anyway? The company first put out its streaming box in 2007, but it has never commanded much market share. (Around 13% of connected TV users use the Apple box, according to eMarketer). The new service is mostly a way to draw more revenue out of Apple’s existing users.

That said, Apple is going to be writing big checks. The main point of its glitzy event seemed to be to showoff the talent it already has signed: names like Steven Spielberg, Oprah, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston, M. Night Shyamalan and J.J. Abrams.

. . . .

If Netflix investors were worried, however, they didn’t show it. At the end of the big day, Apple shares were down 1.21% and Netflix’s were up 1.45%. Beneath all the glitz and fanfare, that may be the core takeaway: Apple is late to the game, and Netflix has an enormous lead. The newcomer also will be competing against media stalwarts such as Disney , Hulu and CBS. Consumers opt in and out of services with a few clicks, tuning in for a show on one service only to drop it after a few weeks in favor of another.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Walmart Builds a Secret Weapon to Battle Amazon for Retail’s Future

21 March 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

Epiphany Davis arrived at work in lower Manhattan on a recent morning, consulted her cellphone and set off by foot in search of products ordered via text message by wealthy New Yorkers.

From her company’s loft-like headquarters, Ms. Davis walked to a health food store to get SmartyPants Kids vitamins, but the variety was out of stock. Checking her cellphone often for instructions, she walked to a grocery store for a single bag of Guittard milk chocolate chips. She rode the subway to a Nespresso store for three boxes of coffee pods, then walked to Bloomingdale’s to pick up a $245 navy blue MZ Wallace backpack.

Ms. Davis works for Jetblack, a personal-shopping company targeted at mothers launched last summer by a surprising newcomer to the field— Walmart Inc. A few hundred shoppers in New York City pay $600 a year to order anything by text message except for fresh food. Members were invited by Walmart, or referred by current members, and need to have a doorman to join.

Their orders go to Jetblack headquarters where dozens of agents sit at computers and field requests, from reordering diapers to making suggestions on high-end cribs, organic snacks and yoga attire. Couriers fetch the items and bring them back to a Manhattan delivery hub, where they are wrapped in black packaging and hand delivered, usually the same day.

It’s a labor-intensive operation that loses money. But making money isn’t the goal, at least not right away.

. . . .

Walmart is using Jetblack’s army of human agents to train an artificial intelligence system that could someday power an automated personal-shopping service, preparing Walmart for a time when the search bar disappears and more shopping is done through voice-activated devices, said Jetblack CEO Jenny Fleiss.

“It’s the tech of the future, right? It’s not what everyone is doing today,” said Ms. Fleiss, who previously co-founded apparel rental company Rent The Runway. The CEO said it could be five to seven years before the system is mostly automated and less reliant on humans. “This is a long journey,” she said. “And I think we were aware of that going in.”

Walmart is competing with Amazon, which has $233 billion in annual sales, including web services. In addition to Prime, the online giant has same-day grocery delivery from Whole Foods stores in some cities, plans to open dozens of small physical grocery stores and has sold millions of Echo speakers that let shoppers skip stores and websites altogether, and shop for products or request music with their voice.

Walmart is the world’s biggest retailer by revenue, with $514 billion in annual sales, but e-commerce makes up only a small percentage. That’s out of sync with where retail is growing fastest. Across the U.S., online shopping accounted for 9.7% of total retail sales last year and grew 14.2% from the previous year, according to the Commerce Department.

. . . .

Jetblack is a small piece of Walmart’s online investments, but it is one of the biggest gambles Walmart is making to attract wealthy shoppers and burnish its tech credentials.

Walmart primarily views the company as a research hub on AI and voice shopping. Some pieces of the business “could very readily be applied to the broader ecosystem in time,” she said. Jetblack’s software is learning to make agents more efficient, already suggesting language to use for many text interactions, said Ms. Fleiss.

Jetblack’s goal is that over time, through these interactions, the computer algorithm will learn to respond to requests with humanlike nuance but machine efficiency.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Most Amazon Brands Are Duds, Not Disrupters, Study Finds

18 March 2019

From Bloomberg:

The explosion of Inc.’s private-label products — batteries, baby wipes, jeans, tortilla chips, sofas — has prompted concern that the world’s biggest online retailer could use its clout to promote these house brands at the expense of merchants selling similar products on the web store. The issue even surfaced in Senator Elizabeth Warren’s recent proposal to breakup big technology companies.

Turns out most Amazon-branded goods are flops that don’t threaten other businesses at all, according to Marketplace Pulse. In a study, the New York e-commerce research firm examined 23,000 products and found that shoppers aren’t more inclined to buy Amazon brands even when the company elevates them in search results.

The study suggests popular political and media narratives about Amazon’s market power are overblown, despite the company capturing 52.4 percent of all online spending in the U.S. this year, according to EMarketer Inc.

. . . .

“This idea that Amazon can introduce a product and magically use data to dominate a category is just a conspiracy theory,” says Juozas Kaziukenas, founder of Marketplace Pulse. “There are a couple of successful examples everyone uses, but most of their products aren’t successful at all and many other companies continue to outsell Amazon even after it introduces its own competing brands.”

The study used sales rankings and the number of customer reviews as indicators of sales volume for different products, including Amazon’s own brands and brands sold exclusively on the site. Amazon’s success has been limited to basic products like batteries where shoppers are inclined to seek generic alternatives to save money, the study found.

Link to the rest at Bloomberg

Walmart Tipped to Take on Ipad with Its Own Android Tablet

16 March 2019

From Slashgear:

Walmart plans to launch an Android tablet designed to compete with the cheapest iPad model, according to a new report. The sources claim Walmart’s tablet will be ‘kid-friendly’ and sold under the retailer’s ONN store brand. The company has confirmed plans to offer this tablet, but didn’t provide any official details about it, such as price and launch date.

Walmart already offers a number of electronics under its ONN brand, though they are primarily accessories like headphones. The company reportedly plans to focus on electronics and home items over the following year, at least according to alleged senior management presentations leaked by Bloomberg.

Among its alleged tablet plans is said to be a model designed for — or at least capable of being used by — kids. This model will supposedly undercut Apple’s cheapest iPad model, which is currently priced at $329 USD. It’s unclear whether the model will offer anything special as an attractive lure from Apple’s 9.7-inch slate.

. . . .

It’s unclear whether Walmart’s kid-friendly tablet will target older kids or come with the same protection features and parental controls as the Amazon Kindle Fire Kids Edition.

Link to the rest at Slashgear

Do Corporations like Amazon and Foxconn Need Public Assistance?

15 March 2019

From The New York Review of Books:

A few years ago, Nick Buchheit, a maintenance technician in southeast Wisconsin, started to notice a disturbing pattern. After working five years or so at a manufacturing plant, he’d reach what seemed to be a wage ceiling, around $25 per hour, and get laid off. It happened once, then twice: he arrived at a factory, learned the shape and rhythm of the machines, and designed a maintenance program to make things easier for everyone else. But once “everything’s already set up,” Buchheit told me, “they go back to the $18-an-hour guy.”

He had found factory work soon out of high school, in Janesville, a city that has come to symbolize post-industrial decline. In 2017, with a wife and two children to support, he realized, “I can’t go further without having a degree.” That year, Buchheit enrolled in a local community college, squeezing classes around his job at an injection-molded plastics company. It was around this time that Buchheit’s corner of the state began to get international attention.

Taiwan-based Foxconn, the world’s largest maker of electronics components, had selected Milwaukee as its North American headquarters and Racine County as the site for its first American plant, an LCD television-screen factory that would, as the Journal Sentinel reported, eventually “create thousands of jobs.” In exchange, Foxconn would receive the largest corporate-incentives package for a foreign company in US history—between $219,000 to half a million dollars for every position created, according to the independent research group the Wisconsin Budget Project.

It was an odd choice for a cutting-edge campus, and an extraordinary gamble. Though manufacturing still exists in the area, it tends to be low-tech, and the job market is tight: just 3 percent of the local population is unemployed. It wasn’t unusual to offer tax breaks to a major employer, but the Foxconn package was so big that special legislation was required (though the Republican-controlled legislature had no trouble passing the bill). Many Wisconsinites, however, were furious: there had been no public debate about such a generous handout. Meanwhile, local schools and state universities were suffering from years of budget cuts, and inner-city communities had been hit by rising levels of incarceration and long-term unemployment not reflected in labor statistics.

Then, in 2018, the controversy over corporate mega-deals went national. Amazon announced that it would build new secondary headquarters (“HQ2”), in Long Island City, New York, and Crystal City, Virginia, with the help of tax incentives, outright gifts, and environmental and land-use exemptions. New Yorkers rebelled, protesting the size of the deal and its lack of democratic process, as well as Amazon’s hostility to union organization. To everyone’s shock, Amazon responded last month by cancelling its plans for New York.

. . . .

With the Wisconsin deal continuing to draw skepticism, Amazon’s proposed HQ2 plan in Long Island City became the most hyped and hotly contested subsidy program in the country. In 2017, Amazon, like Foxconn, had solicited bids from all over the US and Canada, in search of the best combination of tax rebates, land grants, and worker-friendly infrastructure like mass transit and housing.

. . . .

New York is an immigrant-friendly, pro-union town: Why subsidize a company that does business with ICE and busts worker-organizing? In addition, the deal contained no provision for local hiring; nor was there a strategy to prevent the displacement that would surely result from a sudden influx of high-earners.

Seattle, Amazon’s hometown, was a cautionary tale: there, the company has long attracted criticism for causing gentrification and avoiding taxes—it paid zero federal taxes on profits of $11.2 billion in 2018. Last spring, Amazon threatened to stop construction on a new tower, unless the Seattle City Council repealed a tax on large corporations. Then, in late February, having won the repeal, Amazon stopped construction anyway. Bezos wants to eat the carrot and wield the stick.

. . . .

According to Timothy Bartik, though, an economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute in Michigan, these big-ticket incentives packages only became common practice in the 1990s. Research by Bartik and others has shown that tax rebates and land grants seldom pay off. In a paper he authored last summer, he found that incentives were decisive in “tipping a location, expansion, or job retention decision toward that state or local area” in only 2–25 percent of the cases examined. “In the other 75 percent to 98 percent of the time, the same decision would have been made without the incentive.”

Proponents of subsidies note that most deals are structured to claw back benefits from companies like Foxconn and Amazon if intermediate goals—in hiring or construction, say—are not met. When advocacy groups in New York suggested, after Amazon’s retreat, that the $3 billion could now be spent on public services, the New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin responded with a tweet about a crisis in “financial literacy”: “Quick lesson: NYC wasn’t handing cash to Amazon. It was an incentive program based on job creation, producing tax revenue. There isn’t a $3 billion pile of money that can now be spent on subways or education.” Similarly, when I pressed the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and the County of Racine about Foxconn’s failure to meet its hiring goals, both agencies replied with a shrug: the company would be ineligible for subsidies through at least 2020—and that would change only when it met the agreed targets.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

PG has another question – Do cities like New York and Chicago and Detroit and Racine need employers like Amazon?

Taming Facebook, Google and Amazon

14 March 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

 The internet, the web, all things digital are officially in beta. Because they’re in beta, everything is forgiven—there is absolution for the infelicities, the flaws and the wrongs, intended and unintended. Here we are in the midst of e-evolution, looking for a moral and intellectual GPS at a time when our phone is supposed to measure heartbeat, steps walked, stairs climbed and hours slept, but gives no true sense of perspective or place. Yet there is an awakening, and we are on the cusp of a reckoning.

. . . .

Almost 12 years ago, as editor of the Times of London, I testified to a House of Lords committee: “Facts are incidental if not accidental, and the problem that we have as a society is that there is a significant number of people who have grown up in a different information environment . . . surrounded by much more information, but whose provenance is not clear. . . . The rumors will be believed; the fiction will be thought of as fact; and the political agendas, among other agendas, will be influenced by interest groups who are coming from some quite strange trajectory to issues based on collective understanding that is founded on falsity.”

The digital world has brought manifold benefits, but it shouldn’t surprise us that there are problems with provenance and opportunities for bad actors to damage democracies.

. . . .

A few facts about the media: Some 1,800 U.S. newspapers have closed in the past 15 years. An industry that employed 412,000 people in 2001 declined to 166,000 in 2017. Have the digital natives succeeded where the traditional titles have failed? No. In recent weeks, BuzzFeed, Vice, the Verizon digital properties and others laid off more than 2,100.

The creators are still being slain by the distributors, who are publishers, though they find it hard to pronounce the word. If you are intervening to filter out offensive material, you’re editing, and if you are editing, you should aspire to be a great editor, not selective and reactive but proactive.

. . . .

There is generally an understanding in business that connections lead to partnerships, which lead to relationships with responsibilities. But digital partnerships quickly descended into abusive relationships—serial cheating, digital denials, haughtiness, smugness, playing content creators for suckers. Allowing rampant piracy, sometimes actually encouraging it, was at the core of the business model for some.

. . . .

I’ll highlight one more egregious example—the Amazon Book Summary. These are blatant rip-offs, unauthorized bastardizations of best sellers that sometimes use the same cover art and for which authors and publishers receive no compensation. Amazon leveraged these unauthorized summaries by including them in its Kindle Unlimited and “Audible” subscription services. After complaints from publishers, the company promised to take action—but complaint compliance is not a sustainable strategy for Amazon, Facebook or Google.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG just searched Amazon Books for “Summary” and he was appalled at what he found.

Amazon Pulls Two Books Claiming “Cures” for Autism

14 March 2019

From Book Riot:

 Amazon removed two books claiming to provide “cures” for autism on Tuesday. Both books were written several years ago and together had hundreds of reviews. A day earlier, Wired published a report on dangerous pseudoscientific titles for sale on Amazon, which included two of the books that were later removed. The book Healing the Symptoms Known as Autism contained the instruction that autistic children bathe in and drink chlorine dioxide, a very strong bleach used in industrial water treatment. The other book, Fight Autism and Win, supported giving children an antidote for mercury poisoning, a treatment known as chelation, which can cause potentially fatal kidney damage. Chelation is a response to the thoroughly debunked theory that vaccines cause autism. Earlier this month, the New York Times covered (another) recently-published study that confirmed that there is no link between the measles vaccine and autism.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

Amazon Launches New Ebook Quality Dashboard in Kdp

12 March 2019

From The Digital Reader:

I just got an email from Amazon informing me that the retailer has added a new section to KDP called the eBook Quality Dashboard.  This is where Amazon will communicate any formatting issues. complaints, or errors reported by users.

I can’t see that page right now (neither of my workbooks have problems ATM) but I get the impression from the related help page that the EQD is intended to make it easier for those who have dozens or hundreds of titles in KDP to respond to multiple bug reports. The EQD will let users sort and filter the reported issues by attributes like:

  • Title
  • Author
  • Status (e.g., suppressed, warning)
  • Issue type (e.g., eBook content, metadata)

Link to the rest at The Digital Reader

PG received the same email and thinks the Ebook Quality Dashboard is  a good idea.

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