Google’s Deep Mind masters the game of Go and the weekly roundup in tech and retail

News and commentaries

Just to punctuate my love for all things Google (or Alphabet, it will take awhile before I get used to that), Nature magazine just published a paper describing Alphabet-owned artificial intelligence company Deep Mind’s* system which used deep learning to beat the top player in the game of Go. Beating a human in the 2,500 year-old game of Go has long been considered an important milestone in artificial intelligence.

Unlike other strategy games such as chess and checkers, Go has never been beaten by a computer – until now. We all know the famous match between Deep Blue and Kasparov in 1996. Less well known (at least to me anyway) is Chinook, which mapped every possible move in Checkers – 500 billion moves in all – making sure that it can never be beaten by a human.

The game of Go however cannot be beaten by brute force alone. There is simply not enough computing power that exists that can map out every possible move.

In chess, at any given turn, there are an average 35 possible moves. With Go—in which two players compete with polished stones on 19-by-19 grid—there are 250. And each of those 250 has another 250, and so on. As Hassabis points out, there are more possible positions on a Go board than atoms in the universe. (Wired)

The very best human players also rely on intuition, looking at the board and just “knowing” that it “looks” good.

“It’s something subconscious, that you train through years and years of playing. I’ll see a move and be sure it’s the right one, but won’t be able to tell you exactly how I know. I just see it.” (Redmond in Wired)

And that’s sort of what Deep Mind did. They trained the system to learn the game by looking at 30 million Go moves from expert players. And in order to beat those expert players, they then matched the system against itself, coming up with even more winning moves.

So anyway, exciting times to be had. And maybe scary too. Because even if it’s a baby step for AI, who’s to say that the progress from here on out will be limited to baby steps? For more on AI in general, here’s a lengthy, but wonderful read on it, from my favorite blog: The AI revolution: The Road to Superintelligence. And if you want to understand more on deep learning, here’s a great read (haven’t finished it but as a “poet” and non-hacker, I find it very readable): Neural Networks and Deep Learning.

Here are this week’s most relevant news in tech and retail:

In tech:

  1. Scientists make a ‘true’ neural network using brain-like chips
  2. Apple Reports Slowing Growth in iPhone Sales
  3. Walgreens won’t use “unsafe” Theranos lab for tests
  4. SpaceX: Nickelodeon is sponsoring a team in Elon Musk’s Hyperloop competition; SpaceX unfurls its astronaut parachutes for the first time
  5. Oracle’s finally killing its terrible Java browser plugin

In retail:

  1. Amazon: Amazon stock plunging after earnings but analysts predict 27% gain; Your impulse buys are costing Amazon a fortuneAmazon to delivery companies: Yes, we’re building our own service but don’t worry
  2. Under Armour shares jump 17%
  3. Coach: Upbeat 2Q earnings but revenues disappoint
  4. Uber partners with Nordstrom, Google, T-Mobile, SAP for UberRush package delivery service
  5. Chanel CEO Maureen Chiquet leaving company

*Acquired by Google in 2014 and is now part of Alphabet


Clickbait part two and the weekly roundup in tech and retail

News and commentaries

I have talked before of how much I dislike clickbait (so much so that this will have the same title) and sensational headlines. At the same time, I can’t help but click on said ridiculous headlines because I just have to know. This week, I saw two that led the pack.

Google was in the news a lot this week due to disclosures from its five-year battle against Oracle. According to a lawyer for Oracle, Google’s Android operating system has generated $31B in revenues and $22B in profit for Google. Thus the first clickbait above. Not only are iPhones (hardware) and the Android OS (mobile operating system) in entirely different categories, they also differ in how profit margins are generated. Apple sells the iPhone 6 for $649, while only costing $200 in components and manufacturing. Google develops Android as a platform, gives the code for free and makes money from ads supplied by Google on Android phones and via the Google Play Store.

The comparison is so egregious (I have to use a fancy word here because it is that appalling) and unfortunately these days, people glance at headlines like these and wisely nod their heads, “Oh yeah, of course, that completely makes sense.”

The second headline on the other hand is a cry for attention to Tesla to say, “We’re sorry we made a mistake, here’s a Tesla for you at the price we initially agreed with.” Elon Musk did not actually steal the car, rather a car from the test fleet was mistakenly offered for sale.

I get it. There’s so much noise out there that in order to be heard, you have to shout a little louder. It’s like when they tell you, don’t cry “help” to get people’s attention. Scream “fire” instead because people might ignore the former but rarely would they ignore the latter. Unfortunately, it’s up to us readers to discern the facts from sensationalism.

Here are this week’s most relevant news in tech and retail:

In tech:

      1. New prime number discovery breaks record at 22 million digits
      2. Facebook is opening an Oculus research office in Pittsburgh
      3. Google: Google paid Apple $1 billion to be the search engine on your iPhone; Google launches free Wi-Fi service in India with Mumbai Central Station; Google just published a free, three-month course on deep learning
      4. Auto: Apple opening R&D facility in hotbed for driverless car research; Tesla sues German supplier over failed Model X falcon doors; Uber hails victory after Transport for London drops restrictions
      5. Space: 9th planet; Successful drone ship landing proves elusive for SpaceX

In retail:

      1. China: Meituan-Dianping, China’s Largest Group Deals Site, Closes Massive $3.3B Round At $18B Valuation; Alibaba teams up with Nvidia in $1B bet on cloud computing
      2. Walmart: Walmart’s E-Commerce Push: It’s Among Top Companies Posting Jobs For Software Developers; Walmart wants to sell Suburbia clothing chain in Mexico; Walmart to give pay raises to most of its workers
      3. Apple applies to open stores in India
      4. Amazon: Amazon Offering Refunds on Sales of All Two-Wheeled Hoverboards; Amazon exec: Our drones will deliver in 30 minutes or less; Amazon steps up recruitment as it expands in Europe; Amazon veers into labor law fight zone for hurried deliveries
      5. Avon soars after discussing overseas growth, vowing to cut costs

2016 habits and the weekly roundup in tech and retail

News and commentaries

Like any first post for 2016, I will talk about resolutions. As in the fact that they hardly work. My resolution for 2015 was to write more and contribute more to my profile on Seeking Alpha here. But then I got pregnant, purchased a new home and let’s just say my resolutions went down the toilet. Sounds familiar?

The problem with resolutions/goals are that they are so lofty as to be unattainable and can be so vague that we don’t really know where to start. Instead, let’s go for little to-dos. Inspired by this post Your Goals are Overrated, I will instead go for habits. Starting with this weekly roundup. Because after my post-partum hiatus, it became a habit not to post the weekly roundup and I kind of miss it, don’t you? It took a while because every time I though about it, I wanted it to be perfect and then of course it wasn’t because… a starting-to-be-conscious toddler and a newborn. So instead I will just get back to turning the weekly roundup into a habit once again and just do it.

Here are this week’s weekly roundup in tech and retail (Titles are not paraphrased nor added with important details, as I said, let’s just do this and actually start):

In tech:

  1. Samsung May Invest Over $7 Billion to Supply OLED Displays for Future iPhones
  2. Netflix says it will do more to stop customers from bypassing country restrictions
  3. Space: Musk’s SpaceX splits NASA contracts with Orbital, Sierra Nevada; Audi Built A Moon Rover
  4. Uber bows to $7.6M fine in California
  5. Self driving cars: Tesla Car Can Be Summoned And Park Itself; Obama administration unveils $4B plan to jump-start self-driving cars

    In retail:

  1. Euclid Analytics Raises $20M Series C To Track Consumer Behavior In Retail Stores
  2. Amazon is getting into the oceanic freight shipping game
  3. Slump in Hong Kong, Macau Hits Burberry Christmas sales
  4. Shopify brings its point-of-sale system to Android devices
  5. American Apparel is said to reject takeover bid and Dov Charney return

Happy Space Year

News and commentaries, Technology

Happy holidays and all that but let’s talk rockets, shall we? More specifically, let’s talk SpaceX’s historic vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL)* of Falcon 9 on Sunday, December 21. The questions and comments have centered largely around who really is first to do VTVL (Vertical Takeoff, Vertical Landing) – Bezos’ Blue Origin or Musk’s SpaceX.

Blue Origin 

When I first heard of Blue Origin’s launch and landing, I didn’t even bother to check out the video because I thought SpaceX’s Grasshopper have done that already. I’m actually wrong, Grasshopper did eight successful VTVLs but the maximum height it reached was 744 m (2,440 ft) before it was retired.

So, For the category of VTVL rocket to reach space and successfully land, then yes, Blue Origin is the first of its kind. But when Jeff Bezos tweeted:

A lot of people, including me, was incredulous. What club? Because SpaceX right now is on a league all its own.

Space vs. orbit
First of all, where does “space” begin?

Earth's atmosphere

Conventionally, the Kármán line at 100 km (62 mi) above sea level is used to define the beginning of outer space. And Blue Origin did breach space, reaching an altitude of 100.5 km before descending back to Earth.

But putting something into orbit is an entirely different kind of animal. First of all, the rocket does not just shoot straight up, it goes up and then goes sideways really, really fast after reaching a certain altitude. XKCD has done a great explainer on space vs. orbit here.

SpaceX Falcon 9 vs. Blue Origin’s Shepherd

  • Speed – In order to for a rocket to go into orbit and to stay there, it has to reach horizontal speed of ~8 km/s. The International Space Station hovers above Earth at 330-410 km and it goes around the world every 90 minutes at a  speed of 27,000 km/h or 7.5 km/s. SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage (the booster and the one landed) reached a max speed of around ~5,900 km/h while the second stage (the one that put the payload into orbit) reached a max speed of ~25,990 km/h**. Blue Origin reached a maximum speed of ~3,700 km/h.
  • Fuel – Obviously, in order to achieve those speeds, the engines would need a LOT of fuel. In the case of SpaceX Falcon 9, the first stage booster not only need enough fuel to shoot the rocket into space, it needed enough fuel to reorient to come back down to earth, slowdown from its crazy speed, and maneuver to land in an upright position.
  • Size and weight – SpaceX Falcon 9, at 70 m high, not only had to shoot the rocket into space and go into orbit, it had to carry a payload (or cargo) into space, in this case 11 satellites for ORBCOMM. Blue Origin’s New Shepard had no payload at all.

Space race is heating up
Now that we have that cleared up, it is great to see private companies focusing on space. Competition will yield the best technologies and the best practices and also prod the incumbents into action. And that is already happening.

An omnibus spending bill passed by Congress this month appropriates ~$55M and instructs NASA to develop a “prototype deep space habitation module” no later than 2018. It also requires NASA to submit a status report to Congress within 180 days of the bill’s enactment which could be early 2016.

Furthermore, SpaceX’s accomplishment could push Russia to reassess the costs of their own projects in order to maintain market share. The United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Boeing Defense, Space and Security, uses Russian-built engines for most of its rockets. On December 23, 2015, the ULA announced that it had ordered 20 RD-180 engines to power up to 20 launches of the Atlas V rocket.

So, here’s to a wonderful 2016 and to hopefully more space exploration. And let me leave you with this: 

* VTVL is a term used for a form of takeoff for rockets, not to be confused with VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) for aircraft – helicopters, fixed wing aircraft like the Harrier.
**Speed taken from SpaceX launch video

Living in an “uber-ified” service economy

News and commentaries

First, a personal note: After 9 weeks, I’m (hopefully) back to blogging after that hiatus. Caring for a newborn means being dazed with lack of sleep most of the time. It’s hard to explain but I’m not always all “there” and I hardly, if ever, get the “flow” hence not much blogging going on. I don’t know how full-time working moms do it especially in the US where the 12-week mandatory maternity leave (believe it or not) can be uncompensated depending on the company. By the way, the US is completely alone in not mandating paid leave. As things go, I’m starting to get a full night of sleep but every baby is different – for some moms, a peacefully sleeping baby may not come for way longer than that. The next time you see a new mom coming back to the workforce, understand that she may be operating on 4 hours of sleep the night before.

What is Uber-ification?

Beyond 140 characters, uber-ification describes on-demand mobile services (ODMS) which is:

…apps which aggregate consumer demand on mobile devices, but fulfill that demand through offline services.

From the same post with the quote above, it is a closed loop experience from discovery, ordering, payment, fulfillment (performed offline), and confirmation.

My most recent experience

On a Friday, a few weeks ago, my washer broke – while I was trying to wash a half-a-week’s worth of clothes. If I was single, that would not be a problem. With a family, while 8.5 months pregnant, that was a concern. I immediately called the manufacturer, Whirlpool, while searching online for appliance repairmen. The appliance is out of warranty so here’s what I got:

  • From the manufacturer, diagnostic fee of $98 or I could opt to buy an extended 1 year warranty of $360 which will include the service call + any other issues within the year (the washer is worth around $500, new)
  • From Sears, diagnostic fee of $79, no idea on actual repair cost but $79 will go towards repair quote
  • From a local repairman,diagnostic fee of $69 plus repairs/parts cost

I was leaning towards Sears but the next availability would have been on a Wednesday, a full 5 days without a washer and who knows what parts I would need. Then my husband had a brilliant idea, “why don’t you try Thumbtack?” We are involved with a startup that has worked with Thumbtack, a $100M-funded startup that connects consumers with local service professionals – anything from house-cleaning to graphic design.

I opened Thumbtack on my phone’s browser, posted the job and received a response within 30 minutes with this quote: diagnostic rate of $69.95, waived with repairs at a flat rate (repair and parts). The cherry on top? The repairman can come at 9 AM, next day on a Saturday. I clicked on “Hire.” He came the next day, diagnosed it as a washer timer (huh?), ordered the parts and fixed the washer on Wednesday, the same day I would have gotten a service call from Sears. On a side note, it actually would have been fixed the day before but he got into a minor car accident. The point is, a relatively small startup saved me while the major companies (Sears and Whirlpool) couldn’t.

Despite the ubiquity of and obvious value of on-demand services companies like Uber (transportation), Airbnb (hospitality), Postmates (delivery/logistics), etc, I’m surprised when I meet people who either have not heard of them or discount the viability of such business models. By the way, Uber is not the first of on-demand mobile services but its high profile has made the company synonymous with these types of apps. New startups would most likely use the term “Uber for x” when pitching to investors.

Why do I use it?

Like most people glued to their smartphones, I find calling a phone number to schedule something to be such an inconvenience. Most of the time, you’re put on hold, go through a loop of menu options and/or lose the call. Anyone who’s used Uber knows how effortless it is. Sure, you may still have to call if you’re in a weird and difficult-to-find location but this has seldom happened to me.

Beyond the ease of using the app, it is also a seamless experience. You click “Buy” or “Hire,” the service is performed, and most of the time, the payment is also in-app. There’s no need to take out your wallet at all (I paid cash offline for Thumbtack though). If you’re unhappy/happy with the service, you have the option of leaving a starred review. This kind of easy feedback mechanism pushes exceptional service providers at the very top and the not-so-exceptional at the bottom. Such a Darwinian scheme ensures that bad service providers will be pushed out at some point, leaving the consumer with good-to-great choices.

Why startups instead of big companies?

When we talk of ODMS, it’s usually a space populated by startups. This is because the ubiquity of mobile computing took most big companies by surprise. Even Google had to contend with struggling mobile ad revenues in 2014 as it had to adjust to the growth of mobile.  The very notion of on-demand relies on the mobility of the device by which those services are summoned, thus the smartphone.

Furthermore, ODMS operate in fragmented markets – think taxi industry and the bed-and-breakfast industry. What an ODMS does is connect a usually disorganized set of service providers with consumers – an undertaking that requires a lot of agility, something that big companies usually lack.

But are they profitable?

This is where I’m a little stumped. I am absolutely convinced that this model is here to stay but I also know that getting to profitability would be a long hard road. And forget valuations based on funding rounds that turn startups into unicorns – investors simply do not want to lose out so they keep putting up the money.

It’s not just the companies’ investments in technology and marketing but they also face uphill legal battles worldwide – from employee classification (independent contractor vs. employee) to the legality of the business itself (can people rent out their homes?).

Even if profitability is just a speck in the horizon, the relevance of ODMS increases as more and more people become familiar with and comfortable with the services. My sister*, who is probably the last person I know to buy a smartphone (and who recently bought an iPad Air!!), had a great experience with a Manhattan Airbnb a few months ago. I had to book it for her because she didn’t have a profile and was dubious about the whole thing. She even questioned the wisdom of giving her credit card information to a “startup” but came away from the experience very happy and satisfied. I wonder, how many more out there are like her who have yet to use ODMS?

What is the future for ODMS?

The underlying tech of ODMS is such that it can be applied in so many ways. Uber’s way of tracking drivers for example can be translated to deliveries – something that they do in some cities with food and package deliveries. Postmates is experimenting with Postmates Pop, a 15-minute lunch delivery program. It’s quite possible that we will see some consolidation among the startups with similar underlying technologies in a way that we saw the merger between Grubhub and Seamless; and the way that Grubhub Seamless have since acquired two delivery companies since.

In a post about Instacart, I said that it will probably be an acquisition target, giving investors decent returns. The same could be true for most ODMS as the space gets more saturated but it is hard to imagine Uber or Airbnb as acquisition targets – their valuations are simply getting too ridiculous to be viable acquisitions for any company. So at some point, after investing hundreds of millions in R&D, they will have to reach such a scale as to reach profitability. And I mentioned my sister because I think that we have yet to see the kind of massive adoption that would translate to profitability but I believe we are getting there.

When that happens, it would be interesting to see who are left standing – the billion-dollar startups or the old guards who either developed their own tech or acqui-hired ODMS startups.

Another personal note: I saw the stats on top of my WordPress dashboard and noticed that I still get a lot of views even though I haven’t posted in 2 months. If you are one of those readers, thank you for your patience. You are the reason why I try to post as much as I can, as best as I can.

*Apologies to my sister whose history with tech will probably feature several times in this blog as an example of the “laggards” in the technology adoption curve

Baby monitor security, a semi-hiatus and the weekly roundup in tech and retail

News and commentaries

With another life-changing event coming next week in the form of a second baby (!), I have been putting together a few posts to fill the void in the next few weeks. I’m not too optimistic that I will be able to keep posting the weekly roundup considering the inevitable lack of sleep. Although, waking up every 2 hours at night could be prime opportunities to check the news… I’ll have to wait and see. For now, expect sporadic postings from me as I become a mother for the second time.

Speaking of babies, the Wall Street Journal reported research by computer security firm Rapid7 Inc. on the vulnerability of baby monitors. Even if the device owner followed good security procedures, the company still found that hackers can view baby monitor images from anywere in 3 of the 9 Internet-connected baby monitors that they tested. The monitors with the most disturbing flaws are (quotes are directly from Rapid7 Inc report):

  • iBaby M6 – “The web site has a vulnerability by which any authenticated user to the service is able to view camera details for any other user, including video recording details, due to a direct object reference vulnerability”
  • Philips In.Sight B120 – “The method for allowing remote viewing uses an insecure transport, does not offer secure streams protected from attackers, and does not offer sufficient protection for the the camera’s internal web applications.”
  • Summer Infant Baby Zoom WiFi Monitor & Internet Viewing System – “An authentication bypass allows for the addition of an arbitrary account to any camera, without authentication.”

Just in case, you happened to be thinking of which baby monitors to buy.

Here are this week’s most relevant news in tech and retail:

In tech:

  1. Acquisitions: Amazon Web Services buys Elemental Technologies, a video processing services startup for a reported $500M;  Verizon’s AOL unit buys mobile ad network Millennial Media for $238M; Blackberry buys California-based mobile security provider Good Technology Corp. for $425M
  2. Another big week for Google: Google will reportedly re-enter China with special version of Google Play mobile app store for Android smartphones in the country; Google faces another antitrust battle in India over online search; Google changes logo in biggest change since 1999; Google and subsidiary Waze facing lawsuit over stolen map and traffic data from competing app PhantomAlert
  3. Apple, Google, Intel and Adobe settle anti-poaching lawsuit for $415M
  4. Toyota partners with MIT and Stanford for AI and robotics research, pledging $50M over 5 years
  5. Tesla Model X will arrive on September 29, $35K Model 3 to start preorders in March 2016

In retail:

  1. Net-a-Porter founder and chairman Natalie Massenet leaves luxury online retailer midway through company’s merger with e-commerce group Yoox
  2. Alibaba founders Jack Ma and Joe Tsai to borrow more than $2B against company shares
  3. Online fashion retailer Asos shares fall by more than 5% after co-founder and CEO Nick Robertson’s resignation
  4. Limited Brands, Inc. shares rise after August sales exceed expectations, led by Victoria’s Secret brand division
  5. Kering’s Sergio Rossi shoe brand could be possible purchase for Italian private equity firm Investindustrial

“Lugging” furniture around and the weekly roundup in tech and retail

News and commentaries

Even with the global market turmoil this week over fears of China’s market downturn, I have to admit that my mind has been mostly turned inward. Not even an oncoming Hurricane/Tropical Storm Erika is able to turn my focus outward. So pardon this mini-ramble.

One of the effects of pregnancy which I didn’t really experience nor comprehend on my first pregnancy is the urge to nest. Probably because of a new home, I find myself scrambling to put my mark on the new house, which has meant that I’ve also been preoccupied with online furniture stores, home decor tips, etc. which I continue to collate in order to share here later.

Anyway, what I largely found is this: that IKEA rocks in furniture logistics and inventory management (major understatement); that online furniture stores are ready for major disruption and; that I’m highly price sensitive to shipping and returns costs way more than the item price itself. And so, I found myself looking at Craigslist (an oldie but goodie) and despite a late pregnancy, crazy enough to buy on Craigslist and refinish said furniture myself. I would do a lot more except picking up heavier items by myself is a bit impossible – car-space wise and muscle wise.

As always, tech has an answer and pretty soon, there will be an app for that (beyond San Francisco area, I hope). Summer 2015 Y-Combinator graduate Lugg, an app for on-demand short-distance moves that has been operating in the San Francisco Bay area just raised $3.8M to grow its team and expand to new cities. The app connects the user to a local mover with the appropriately-sized vehicle to help lug around an IKEA or Craigslist purchase. Like Uber, payment is handled within the app. At $30 as base fare, plus $0.75 per minute while unloading and loading, and $2 per mile, I would have been more than happy to use this app. Maybe by the time I have the energy to refinish furniture again, Lugg or something similar would be available in my neighborhood. Or, I could also opt to buy from a couple of other startups such as: Greycork Loft, similar to IKEA but with faster set-up, even cheaper and with free shipping; or Campaign, also less assembly time, high quality and with free shipping.

Here are this week’s most relevant news in tech and retail:

In tech:

  1. Physicist Stephen Hawking believes he has solved the Black Hole Paradox
  2. China concerns brought Apple stock down by 10% on Monday, recovers after CEO Tim Cook’s email to “Mad Money” TV host Jim Cramer
  3. Hong Kong-based drone maker Yuneec draws $60M investment from Intel
  4. Facebook starts testing a personal assistant service called “M” within the Messenger app
  5. Tesla agrees to buy lithium from mine in Mexico for its Gigafactory

In retail:

  1. Amazon expands Prime Now, offers alcohol to US customers for the first time; Amazon scales back on development of consumer devices
  2. Teen apparel retailer Aeropostale posts loss for eleventh straight quarter with heavy discounts and store closings
  3. Best Buy posts better than expected profit for Q2, says Apple Watch has been a smash hit
  4. Tiffany forecasts surprise 2-5% decline in full-year profit while posting a 15% drop in quarterly earnings, blames strong dollar and high costs
  5. Walmart gets aggressive with early start to holiday season layaway, program begins on August 28 for “Toy Week”

Amazon work culture and the weekly roundup in tech and retail:

News and commentaries

Are working hard and having a work-life balance mutually exclusive? This question was on top of my mind as the New York Times piece on the working conditions at Amazon take the spotlight this week. I personally know some people who would thrive on an “up-or-out” culture and I bet they would say something like: Working at Amazon is hell, so what? Personally, I think that the NY Times piece was slightly sensationalized:

Instead, Amazonians are instructed to “disagree and commit” (No. 13) — to rip into colleagues’ ideas, with feedback that can be blunt to the point of painful, before lining up behind a decision.

Would you rather work in a place where consensus is always king, up to a point when the sh*t hits the fan because nobody asked the hard questions? There are more snippets like these that criticize Amazon’s leadership principles which is probably quite similar to a lot of prestigious companies. I don’t see anything wrong about that.

It is important to note though that a viral LinkedIn post defending Amazon came from someone in a senior position, male and an engineer. And I believe him when he says it’s a great place to work. For sure, engineers are highly valued and would have no problem leaving if the conditions are bad, but what about everyone else? What if it’s just a regular Joe or Jane in a low-to-mid level position outside of engineering? Just wondering.

Here are this week’s most relevant news in tech and retail:

In tech:

  1. Extramarital dating service Ashley Madison headaches continue as hackers release new data targeting site’s CEO and operators
  2. Ride-sharing: GrabTaxi, an Uber competitor in Asia, raises $350 million to grow its e-hail vehicle service across Southeast Asia; Uber lands strategic investment from India’s Tata Opportunity Funds, a private equity sponsored by Tata Capital; Uber’s fundraising presentation shows it will reach $10.8B in bookings in 2015
  3. Google: Google launches $199 WiFi router OnHub; Life Sciences team graduates from Google X and will be a standalone entity under newly-formed Alphabet; Google’s data center in Belgium is hit by lightning, causes permanent data loss for some users; Same-day delivery service Google Express shuts down two delivery hubs in San Francisco and Mountain View, CA
  4. Gartner: Worldwide iPhone sales grew 36% YoY, while Android YoY growth lowest ever in Q2
  5. Intuit, Inc., maker of TurboTax, to divest itself of Demandforce, Quickbase and Quicken

In retail:

  1. Jeff Bezos responds to New York Times report slamming Amazon’s working conditions, recommends a LinkedIn blog post by Amazon employee Nick Ciubotariu as counterpoint
  2. Home shopping network QVC to buy flash sales site Zulily for $2.4 Billion
  3. Singapore online grocery service RedMart raises $26.7M ahead of Southeast Asia expansion
  4. L Brands, owner of Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works, raises per-share earnings guidance for the year on continued sales growth
  5. India’s fashion discovery site Roposo raises $15M in fresh funding

Google surprises with Alphabet and the weekly roundup in tech and retail

News and commentaries

Google is big – not just in market cap but in the breadth of what it’s trying to do. The ubiquitous use of Google as a verb speaks to how most people think of the company’s business. But the company is way beyond search, Android OS, Maps or Ads. In the past 3 years, the company has acquired companies and started divisions related to home automation (Nest), robotics (Boston Dynamics), drones (Titan Aerospace), AI (DeepMind), satellites (Skybox Imaging) and life sciences (Calico). A division called Google X became the bucket for some of the most “moonshots” of these acquisitions, some of which have spun off to separate divisions such as Google Glass (despite some claims, yes, it is still alive).

Many investors were starting to question Google’s focus and that of its CEO Larry Page. As Box CEO Aaron Levie once tweeted:

Google’s answer? Form a new holding company, Alphabet:

It’s not a name change. It’s a new corporate structure that will put Google as a subsidiary to Alphabet. It separates Google’s core business of search and ads from the “moonshots” and put the guy, Sundar Pichai, who has largely been in charge of that core business anyway, as CEO. A lot has been said on the implications of this move and one of the most succinct and informative articles I found is here. Just to share some highlights:

I personally can’t wait how this reorganization turns out and how it will affect Google’s, or Alphabet’s, pursuit of moonshots.

Here are this week’s most relevant news in tech and retail:

In tech:

  1. More Google: Bill Gates and Google join $120M funding for Massachusetts-based genome editing firm, Editas Medicine, Inc.; Google enters into agreement with DexCom to develop bandage-size glucose monitoring devices
  2. Adobe joins Netflix, Microsoft in expanding maternity leave to 16 weeks for primary caregivers and 4 weeks for secondary caregivers
  3. Tesla to raise $642M in stock offering; Elon Musk to purchase 84,000 shares worth around $20M
  4. Smartphones companies: Samsung unveils Galaxy Note 5, Galaxy S6 Edge+ and Samsung Pay at Galaxy Unpacked 2015 event in New York; HTC announces plans to cut 15% of workforce after warning of an expected third-quarter net loss of up to 4.8B New Taiwan dollars
  5. Researchers in Australia have developed 3D-printed brain tissue to serve as laboratory of the brain for drug testing, studying nerve cell behavior, injury and disease

In retail:

  1. Alibaba: Alibaba reports slowest quarterly revenue growth; partners with Macy’s to launch an online flagship store on Tmall Global; will invest $4.6B in China electronics retailer Suning Commerce Group Co Ltd, equivalent to 19.99% stake
  2. Earnings: Gap reports 2% net sales drop for Q2 fiscal year 2015 compared to last year; Macy’s reports 26% drop in Q2 profit and lowers sales forecast for 2015; Nordstrom Q2 report exceeds expectations, sales up by 9%
  3. Amazon participates in $8M Series B funding round for fashion shopping site Who What Wear
  4. New York-based hedge fund Tiger Global leads $30M investment in e-commerce robotics/logistics firm GreyOrange
  5. Jessica Alba’s Honest Co. raises $100M in new funding round, valuing company at $1.7B

The “great man myth” of Elon Musk and the weekly roundup in tech and retail

News and commentaries

I came across this article at the MIT Technology Review on the “great man myth” around Tesla and SpaceX’s Elon Musk. It argues that the idea of an individual driving history fails to acknowledge other contributors – in this case, public sector support, timing. Even though I agree that public sector investment can be underestimated at times, I found myself frowning at the article’s overall thesis.

To put it another way, do we really think that if Jobs and Musk had never come along, there would have been no smartphone revolution, no surge of interest in electric vehicles? (MIT Technology Review)

It is precisely the ability of some individuals to harness disparate elements: available technology, human and financial resources that drive the success of certain innovations. Some of those people fade into the background and still build successful companies. And then there are a few who transcend the company that they build and drive a whole industry and shine a light on that industry to people who may not even have understood it to begin with. This is what we have with Elon Musk and Steve Jobs.

I suppose I am a proponent of the “great man” myth. I used to watch basketball because of Michael Jordan; rooted for the Yankees because of Derek Jeter and understood golf because of Tiger Woods. My first MP3 player was the iPod and my first smartphone was the iPhone because I believed in the story that Steve Jobs was telling me – that it was beautiful and that I needed it (even at a time when apps were hardly present and network data was slow).

I used to be interested in space travel but more so now because of Musk’s SpaceX. And I don’t think I’m alone because in the end, the extraordinary stories of individuals resonate with us. We hardly get excited by, and in fact are suspicious of government and companies. Apple is riding high on the great man story of Steve Jobs (and on iPhones, of course) but most people would look at Google with suspicion. It’s not just about the power over information that the company holds but Sergey Brin and Larry Page have largely failed to humanize their company to the masses despite the exciting “moonshots” that Google takes. The co-founders don’t give too many interviews and when they do, they tend to talk a lot about their ideas and not themselves.

So, yes, if Steve Jobs and Elon Musk have not come along (or the idea of a Steve Jobs/Elon Musk) have not come along, I don’t think we would be as excited about smartphones and EVs.

Here are the most relevant news in tech and retail:

In tech:

  1. Yahoo to pay $230M for shopping site Polyvore in bid to attract more users and advertisers
  2. Tesla confirms Model X deliveries to begin on September 30; stock price down with warnings of fewer car deliveries by 5,000 for the year
  3. Data storage company EMC is considering a buyout by own subsidiary, VMWare
  4. Healthcare tech: IBM acquires medical imaging company Merge Healthcare for $1B to add to its Watson Health Service; Tencent leads $90M round of investment for Indian healthcare information provider Practo
  5. Adidas acquires European mobile fitness company Runtastic for $239M

In retail:

  1. Earnings: Coach beats Q4 EPS expectations but sales are still declining; Michael Kors profit falls for the second-straight quarter at 7% decline blaming lack of new handbag styles
  2. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos sells 1M Amazon shares valued at more than $500M as part of a divestment plan, still owns 18% of the company
  3. India’s e-commerce company Snapdeal raises $500M in fresh funding from Alibaba, Foxconn and Softbank; will invest $100M in R&D over the next three years
  4. Target launches Bluetooth beacons in 50 stores as part of pilot program to track customers in stores
  5. Neiman Marcus Group, Inc. files for IPO with fundraising target of $100M