Bits: Farhad’s and Mike’s Week in Tech: Uber, Oh Boy.



Mike: Huh. Well, there goes your chance at a can of Spam-flavored macadamia nuts.

So, let’s talk tech news. YouTube, everyone’s favorite way to listen to free music videos at work, unveiled its cord-cutting TV service this week, creatively titled “YouTube TV.” It’s kind of cool, I guess: For $35 a month, you get more than 40 channels, including all four major networks, and others like Disney, FX and ESPN.

But that also means you won’t get a bunch of other channels that weren’t included, some of which might be a dealbreaker for some people. My suggestion: Create a bundle that just included Food Network and HGTV and become rich beyond your wildest dreams.

Farhad: Wait, do you really just watch food and home channels? It sounds like you and my mom could be friends.

The YouTube thing sounds interesting, though not especially novel. DirecTV offers this sort of “skinny bundle,” as does a company called Sling. YouTube argues that although its service offers similar channels as those others, it has better technology, including better recommendation algorithms to tell you what to watch.

This seems like a good idea; lots of people don’t want to pay hundreds of dollars for cable but probably can’t get all their entertainment from Netflix and Amazon. But I do wonder if that’s a TV company pipe dream. Maybe cord cutters will switch entirely and never miss TV. Personally, I pay for cable and almost never watch it. It’s like burning money every month.

Mike: Right. It’s also something you wonder why other tech companies — like, ahem, the hardware giant down the road in Cupertino, Calif. — haven’t already debuted for their set-top boxes. My guess is Apple is holding out to negotiate a better deal with the cable guys.

Moving on, let us return to Uber’s week from hell, Part 2. On Monday, one of Uber’s recently hired high-profile executives was forced to resign after it was discovered that he did not disclose an old sexual harassment claim at his previous employer, Google. Then on Tuesday, a dashboard camera video of Travis Kalanick, the company’s chief executive, emerged after Bloomberg dug it up, showing him in an unbecoming verbal sparring match with a driver. He was forced to apologize to his company and the driver, and said he planned to seek leadership help.

And on Friday, I reported on a longstanding program Uber has used to evade the authorities in a number of markets, and we talked about issues the company had with employee stock options and whether or not Uber will make changes to satisfy frustrated staff.

In all, it has not been a great week for Uber. But I have been saying that a lot lately.

Farhad: Boy, your story is crazy. So they were systematically identifying law enforcement officials’ phones and then essentially serving them up a fake version of Uber, so the cops couldn’t track down Uber cars? Man, oh man.

This reminds me of the time Zenefits, the high-flying human resources start-up, was found to have installed software to let its workers cheat on a licensing course. You know what happened at Zenefits after that? The C.E.O. had to resign, there were hundreds of layoffs, regulators began long-term investigations and imposed millions in fines, the company’s valuation plummeted, and its long-term prospects are still in question.

Or, hey, I just thought of another comparison. It’s like when Volkswagen created software to pretend its cars had low emissions in testing, but they didn’t actually.

In other words: This is bad.

Mike: Yes, quite.

Let’s talk about Snap, the self-styled camera company that debuted on the New York Stock Exchange this week. Snap ended up raising a heck of a lot of money — $3.4 billion — and the stock popped roughly 41 percent the moment it hit the market, surging to $24 a share from the set price of $17 that the bankers ended up deciding upon on Wednesday.

So I’m kind of a Snap bear — and no, that’s not some sort of terrifying euphemism. I believe their marquee product, Snapchat, has some significant challenges in regard to growth, and their thesis of being a camera company is far from borne out. (I will admit, however, that I am waiting for my pair of Snap Spectacles to arrive in the mail.)

But help me understand what I’m missing. You take a company with a product structure comparable to the problem-plagued Twitter’s, which has long been investors’ public market corollary to Snap, and you imagine building products like drones and other things that a company like GoPro is working on. And we all know how GoPro is doing.

How does that add up to a successful company?

Farhad: I could make either case for Snap — that it’s going to be huge, a cultural and business phenomenon that justifies its huge valuation, or that it will sink like a stone. I’m truly of two minds about it. I think anything could happen. (Yeah, I’m a really great tech pundit: Who knows?)

But since you’ve cast yourself as the Snap bear, let me pretend to be the Snap bull. I think it could be a mistake to compare it to Twitter for a simple reason: Snap is visual and Twitter is not. Snap, I think, is thus a more faithful replacement of the world’s most popular pastime: watching TV. The big opportunity for all consumer internet companies is the money that will flow from TV ads to digital ads, and I think Snap has a pretty good shot at capturing a huge slice of that market.

I also wouldn’t compare it to GoPro. Yes, Snap says it’s a camera company, but we’re taking it too literally. It’s a camera company whose main innovation is camera software, not hardware. In this way it is a bit like Apple: Apple’s physical phone hardware is in many cases on par with that of competitors, but the reason that Apple makes essentially all the profit in the smartphone business is that its software keeps people glued to iPhones. Snap, too, is investing in software that hooks you in, and its hardware will be secondary to that. This is very different from GoPro, whose software is at best forgettable — leaving it open to competition from low-end manufacturers.

Anyway, have you decided what car service you’re using to get to the airport?

Mike: Rickshaw.

Farhad: O.K., see you!

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