Finding focus in the mobile ad market

Mobile Summit 2014. Photo by Michael O'Donnell

Mobile Summit 2014. Photo by Michael O’Donnell

VentureBeat held its first event of the year, our annual Mobile Summit, last week in Sausalito.

My summary of the event appeared on our site this morning. If you work in the mobile ad industry, please give it a read and tell me what you think.

One other note: VB is hiring. I’m looking for a couple of ace reporters, either in San Francisco or New York. If you know someone who loves tech and knows how to get news that other writers don’t have, please put me in touch. I’m also looking for a social media manager (job description to come soon) to help us promote our articles and expand our presence on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and beyond. 

To find focus in a ballooning mobile-ad market, industry leaders turn to data

VentureBeat produces half a dozen events each year, every one focused on a different sector within the technology industry — but one of my favorites is the Mobile Summit.

The annual Mobile Summit, which we held last week, brings about 180 mobile industry executives to the lovely Cavallo Point Resort in Sausalito, Calif., just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. The venue offers gorgeous views of the bridge, the bay, and the city across the water.

But mostly, it is a chance for this select group of executives, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists to network and to problem-solve.

A lot of the action happens at “boardroom sessions” that bring together up to 20 people at a time to talk in a focused, extended way about specific issues within the industry.

The Summit this year — our fourth such event — focused on the mobile advertising industry. That was a deliberate choice given how rapidly this sector has grown in the past year. Spurred in large part by Facebook’s rapid and remarkably successful move to make money off its mobile users, the industry at large has realized that there is a lot of money to be made through advertising to people on their smartphones and tablets.

Continue reading….

WhatsApp shows that Facebook & Google are serious about competing with telcos

$19 billion for WhatsApp only makes sense if you view it in the context of the pending battle that Facebook — and Google — are preparing to wage against the telcos that control their access to customers.

If you want to know what Facebook’s strategy might look like for the next five years, read this post: First, hurt the telcos. Second, find a way around them. Third, rally public opinion.

If you had any doubt about Facebook’s and Google’s intentions for the next five years, Facebook’s WhatsApp acquisition makes it clear: These Silicon Valley giants have no intention of remaining dependent on the caprices of the telcos.

In fact, we’re seeing the battle lines being drawn on what will be an epic business battle between telecommunications companies, which have controlled the Internet’s infrastructure for decades; and so-called “content” companies like Facebook and Google, which have been using that infrastructure to deliver their services to consumers.

Facebook was not willing to pay a record $19 billion for WhatsApp just because it’s a Twitter competitor, an SMS alternative, or a way to attract customers among youth in non-U.S. countries — though those are all significant.

The real reason Facebook was willing to pay so much is that WhatsApp represents a real threat to the carriers. That became clear earlier this week when WhatsApp unveiled its plans to offer voice calling within its app.

Read the rest on VentureBeat:  WhatsApp shows that Facebook & Google are serious about competing with telcos | VentureBeat | Business | by Dylan Tweney.

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning,” said Mark Twain.

An editor’s job, at its best, is about turning lightning bugs into lightning.

You can only put so many dents in the universe

This story, from last week, appeared earlier on VentureBeat and on LinkedIn Today, where it’s generated a ton of commentary. I also did a video on the topic with KRON-4 TV, embedded here.

You can only put so many dents in the universe.

This week, Apple unveiled a respectable upgrade of its iPhone line.

So why do I feel so disappointed?

Maybe it’s because we expect so much from Apple. This is the company that brought us the first MP3 player that really mattered, the first smartphone to truly take the world by storm, the first successful touchscreen tablet, and the first ultralight notebook that people were really happy to use. And that’s all just in the past few years — reaching back further than that, Apple is responsible for the first all-in-one PC, the first commercially successful graphical user interface, and many more product design, manufacturing, and retail innovations.

This is what was so amazing about the late Steve Jobs: He drove the company to revolutionize industry after industry. Most successful entrepreneurs only get to change one industry, if they’re lucky; Jobs reinvented half a dozen.

It’s unfair to keep holding Apple to the same high expectations. After awhile, you run out of industries to reinvent. What’s next: Cars? The construction industry? Plumbing?

Not only that, even the best sluggers don’t hit home runs every single time they step up to bat.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This week’s upgrades look like excellent phones. The iPhone 5C has the same elongated, high-resolution screen of the iPhone 5, but it comes in a variety of primary colors and costs somewhat less than the original, at just $100 on contract or $549 off-contract. That should help Apple reach a bit further into the market for lower-cost smartphones.

Meanwhile, the iPhone 5S adds a much more powerful processor (the first in a smartphone to use a 64-bit processing bus), a substantially upgraded camera, and a spiffy new fingerprint sensor.

The company also said it was about to start rolling out iOS 7, the details of which it had fully explained a few months back, and which has been in developers’ hands since June. I’m underwhelmed by iOS 7, but it does offer a host of new features for developers and consumers — as well as some special “floating” effects that will help soak up some of that extra processing power. And iOS remains the most polished, coherent, and well-designed operating system available for a smartphone.

In all, it’s a solid upgrade to the iPhone line that should keep many current customers happy when it’s time to renew their contracts, and this might even attract a few new ones to Apple’s fold.

But the bigger issue is that Apple is facing an existential threat, and this week’s news suggests it has no clue about how to respond appropriately. Android now accounts for more than 80 percent of smartphone sales, while iOS is down in the mid-teens. This is a company that is slowly but surely losing the final stages of its war for the phone industry. Merely keeping the faithful happy is not working. Incremental upgrades are not going to stem the tide.

Consider the pricing of the iPhone 5C. It’s cheaper, yes. But as my colleague John Koetsier has pointed out, its unsubsidized price is still hundreds of dollars more expensive than competing Android phones. That makes a huge difference in countries where a few hundred dollars amount to a month’s worth of wages.

The detail Apple left out.

The detail Apple left out.

And consider the addition of the fingerprint sensor. I joked that Apple left out a key part of its technology diagram by not including the secret NSA backdoor. That’s a timely jab, given the recent news that the NSA has targeted iPhones for hacking and has successfully captured images from intelligence targets via the device. It’s also a bit unfair, since Apple assures us that the fingerprint data is encrypted and will make it out of the phone, let alone into the cloud — so until the iPhone 5S suffers a particularly hostile hack, that data is probably safe. But the real question is: Why? What is so great about a fingerprint sensor? It’s a nice, convenient way to unlock your phone — assuming it works more reliably than prior sensors — but it’s hardly redefining the rules of the smartphone game.

Finally, there’s the question of the iWatch. Many of us expected Apple to launch a wrist-mounted wearable device this week, but there wasn’t a peep about this in Cupertino on Tuesday.

Smartwatches are, for now, kind of a silly category. Fewer than a million of the things are sold each year, mostly to geeky tech enthusiasts. The biggest consumer entry into the smartwatch space was Samsung’s launch, last week, of its Galaxy Gear watch — a news event that got an extra bit of news hype when VentureBeat got an early look at the thing (you’re welcome, Samsung). But the Galaxy Gear is bulky, awkward, only works with Samsung phones (for now), and will probably cost about $300.

One of the reasons we were all hoping for an iWatch is that this is exactly the kind of product category Apple excels at doing. As it did with tablets, we all wanted Apple to come in and show us how to build a product that people will really want. No doubt Apple would come up with something more elegant, more svelte, and more desirable than anything that’s come before, and suddenly no one would mind spending $200 or $300 on a smart watch any more.

But Apple didn’t do that. There was no sign of a watch. So those of us in Silicon Valley are left watching, wondering, and feeling a little empty inside. Maybe it will show us something amazing later this fall, as CEO Tim Cook has promised. Maybe not. In the meantime, we’re left with these multicolored iPhones, and a growing sense that Apple is turning into a more ordinary tech company every day.

Jobs is gone. It looks like Apple’s magic is slowly seeping away now too.

The future of education: Tablets, or hands-on?

Two Bit Circus founder Brent Bushnell with an interactive game.

Two Bit Circus founder Brent Bushnell with an interactive game.

I read the Times story on Amplify, Rupert Murdoch’s 650-person startup aimed at reinventing education via tablet games, with mixed feelings.

On the one hand, as I wrote in a piece today on VentureBeat, this is exactly the vision — shared by One Laptop per Child — first outlined in Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age.” A self-guided curriculum, embedded in a digital book, that could teach children everything they need to know via engaging songs, games, and interactive projects.

Screenshot from an Amplify video.

Screenshot from an Amplify video.

On the other hand, like the Times writer, I have an urge to yell at the tablet-focused kids in the book: Go outside! Climb a tree! And in fact I probably do yell that at my own children, from time to time, when they are on the verge of disappearing into a screen-centric vortex of digital media.

But then it occurred to me that an interactive tablet is perhaps not the best way to use technology to engage children. It’s certainly not the only way.

Earlier this year, I visited the studios of Two Bit Circus, an exciting experiment in “STEAM” education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics — the A is an addition that makes the acronym much more interesting, and inclusive, than the usual STEM). I wrote about Two Bit Circus and their STEAM Carnival project when it was just getting started on Kickstarter. The project achieved its funding goals, and the team has been busy putting together their act since then.

The project, in a nutshell, is to create a traveling “carnival” that would amaze children with steampunk- and Maker Faire-like circus attractions. Instead of slamming a hammer down to make a pellet ring a bell, the hammer would make an electrical arc rise up on a Jacob’s Ladder. Instead of a 3-ring circus with lions and clowns, the circus would offer the chance for kids to pit robots they’ve made against one another.

The Steam Carnival approach to educational technology is to make kids understand that tech is something they can build, not just something they use. I like that approach, and I think it’s increasingly important.

In other words, don’t just go outside and climb a tree. After you come down from that tree, figure out how to make a robot, a computer program, a musical score, or a digital video that you can show others. Put it together, wire it up, program it, direct it, edit it.

The tablet should be a tool for engaging creativity, not just a game that helps kids learn rote lessons mapped out by their state board of education. There’s room for both, I think. But the vision is not fully realized unless children are hacking into their tablets and writing their own software for it.

Or using their tablets to control battlebots.

Twitter adds ‘related headlines’ to embedded tweets

Twitter says, starting today, you’ll see “related headlines” appearing underneath tweets that have been embedded on websites.

There’s some confusion about whether these headlines will appear on websites or not. Some people, like Jay Rosen, hate the idea of embedding links to other people’s websites. Journalists aren’t going to like this.

But Twitter’s Mark S. Luckie says this only applies to tweets on Twitter, not on your website.

Who is right? We should be able to test this by seeing if related headlines show up in this post.

The lovely leather of Walnut Studiolo

About a year ago I wrote about Walnut Studiolo, a Portland-based craft shop that makes leather and wood accessories for bicycles.

If you think it’s reasonable to spend $72 for a leather cup holder that’s the perfect size for a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, then you’ll love Walnut’s work.

I love the way their stuff looks, and their barrel-shaped saddlebag ($126) looks like an amazing piece of kit to tuck behind your Brooks saddle. Some of it is pretty silly though, like the leather six-pack holder ($89).

But now a video crew called Cineastas has made a short, loving documentary of all the hand-crafted labor that goes into making Walnut’s goods. It’s pretty gorgeous, in image and in sound.

You can almost smell the leather as Geoffrey Franklin carves strips of it with his razor-sharp blades.