Friday, February 07, 2014

#TechSeven - Sochi sucks & Twitter swoons

It's been a nutty week in tech, and things show no sign of slowing down. Which is precisely the way I like it. Here's a rundown of the things I chatted about with CJAD 800 Montreal's Barry Morgan on our weekly tech segment earlier this afternoon:

ONE - Sochi, lousy hotel rooms, and social media

Gotta love how Vladimir Putin blows $51 billion on history's most expensive Olympics, cracks down on the gay community, stray dogs and anything else that could get in the way of his uber-expensive vanity project, and does everything in his power to put on a happy face for the world. And before the games even get underway, journalists give lie to it all by tweeting in real-time how bad the hotel rooms are, and how unprepared the host country seems to be despite spending all that money. Sure, it's a #FirstWorldProblem, but still.

You've got to love how a clever mix of technology and smart reporting can cut an autocratic, scandalously shirtless leader down to size. The emperor indeed has no clothes, and the rules of despotism are different in the age of social media.

TWO - Twitter almost stops growing

It was a bad week for the popular microblogging service. And if you're an investor who bought into the company when it went public in November, yesterday was a really bad day for you.

The company reported its first quarterly financial results as a publicly traded company, and while most of the numbers were really solid - $243 million in revenue, up 116% year-over-year and well ahead of analyst expectations. The company reported a net loss of $511 million as it invests heavily in marketing, growing its network and other activities unique to a fast-growing tech company. On an adjusted basis, though, it actually turned a small profit: $10 million. It also doubled the amount of money it makes - the so-called CPC, or cost-per-click - every time you click on an ad. Across the industry, EVERYONE is enduring falling CPCs, including Google. Yet Twitter doubles its performance: amazing stuff, but obviously not enough for some investors.

Why the problem? Subscribers. It says it now has 241 million monthly active users (MAUs). That's up only 3.8% over the previous quarter, and represents a significant slowdown in growth - the slowest growth since it began reporting this data. For comparison, it grew 10%, 7%, and 6% in the previous quarters, so trend is somewhat ominous.

If Twitter doesn't grow, investors get nervous that it has no future. Facebook is 5 times as large (1.23 billion MAUs), and if Twitter sputters at 241 million, Houston has a very big long-term problem. CEO Dick Costolo said Twitter needs to become easier to use so it won't just appeal to the techno-savvy users who "get" what it's all about. It needs to become as accessible as Facebook so that folks like my father-in-law don't just sign up for it, give it a half-hearted try and then give up because it doesn't make sense to them. It needs to become a mainstream tool, so expect some major changes in how it works - both on the web and in its mobile apps - over the next few months.

LinkedIn, the social media site that caters to professionals looking to improve their network and career prospects, also had a bad week, as slowing sales and flattening user growth similarly sent investors running for the exits. Makes me wonder if investors will ever be happy. At some point, every company runs up against a maturing market, and the way we value companies in the social media age may need a bit of a re-think.

THREE - Montreal docs call for tech solution to cell phone use at the wheel 

Dr. Barry Pless is professor emeritus of pediatrics and epidemiology at McGill University. He and his son, Dr. Charles Pless, co-authored an editorial this week in the British Medical Journal that says the risks of distracted driving are tremendously high, and the time is now to use technology to solve it. While the research is conflicting - some studies say the risks are tremendously high and a majority of accidents are now attributed to use of mobile devices while driving, while other research is inconclusive - the Montreal doctors say distracted driving laws aren't working because most drivers figure they simply won't get caught, and we can't afford to wait years for the researchers to duke it out.

Some solutions they call for include:
  • Software that prevents drivers from texting while at the wheel - and configured as a factory default
  • Mobile phone pull-out or rest areas that have free Wi-Fi access - a great way to get drivers off the road if they must send texts or chat on the phone
  • Auto-reply messages that tell callers the device owner is currently driving
  • Signal jammers and other sensors that block cellphone reception in a vehicle. On that last point, we've seen some demonstration units that allow passengers to use their mobile devices, and they're so sensitive and context-aware that they apply ONLY to the driver's phone while he/she is at the wheel.
  • Given the pervasiveness of texting at the wheel - on my own commute, it's almost a universal reality, with drivers on all sides of me at red lights tilting their heads down and fiddling with their phones - I can't underscore enough how much these two docs need to be heard.
FOUR - Neknomination - another social media viral scourge for parents to worry about

It's the latest online rage, it's sweeping Facebook, and it's already killed two college students in the UK. It's called Neknomination, and it involves usually college- or university-age students videotaping themselves engaged in some kind of extreme binge-drinking, then posting it to Facebook with the #Neknomination hashtag. They then nominate (hence the name) someone else to do the same, which only contributes to its viral popularity.

Neknomination started in Australia and has since gone global. It isn't the first deadly viral scourge, and it won't be the last. But yet again parents are being reminded how important it is for them to help explain to their kids - of any age - the differences between appropriate and inappropriate online behaviours, and the consequences of crossing over the line.

FIVE - NIMBY - no cell towers here

Industry Minister James Moore made an announcement early this week that could change the look of our urban/suburban landscape. It has to do with cell phone towers. We hate them because they look hideous, but we're the first ones to complain to our wireless carriers when we have lousy service. If you're a carrier, it's a bit of a no-win situation.

Here's the deal: the carriers up until now have had to get regulatory approval from municipalities for any cell tower they wanted built. But there was a loophole: they could build anything as long as it was less than 15 metres in height. So, surprise surprise, they built lots of towers that were just under the height limit.

Now, that loophole is closing: ALL towers will require municipal consultation before they're built. Companies will also have to build them within three years of receiving approval: no more sitting on an approved plot, waiting for a community to spring up around it, then building a tower years later to the shock of residents who had no idea.

The process still isn't perfect: the towers can still be built without direct approval from residents (the rules only say the carriers must consult), but at least the process is more transparent for you and me, and we won't be surprised anymore when a tower goes up right behind the local pharmacy.

SIX - Can Apple's Siri spy on you?

A listener emailed in a question about Apple's Siri after seeing a report that said Apple records your activity and then stores it for five years. The listener wanted to know if I was surprised.

Um, no. Siri is just like any other online search service - like Google - in that it holds onto pretty much your entire history of activity and sticks it in a big database. The official reason is that this information is used to improve the service for you and everyone else. Unofficially, we'd be naive to assume that this couldn't be used for something else. The ongoing controversy over the NSA's overreaching should be a siren call to all of us.

Sure, we could toss all our mobile devices and go live in a cave, but something tells me that outside of the Taliban, that isn't much of an option for us. Siri-ans beware.

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