Posts from mobile

The End Of The Level Playing Field

I am old enough to remember the gogo days of cable TV when entrepreneurs who wanted to launch a new cable channel would go, hat in hand and cap table in tow, to the big cable companies and beg to get distribution on their networks. 

When the Internet came along in the early 90s, we saw something completely different. Here was a level playing field where anyone could launch a business without permission from anyone. 

We had a great run over the last 25 years but I fear it’s coming to an end, brought on by the growing consolidation of market power in the big consumer facing tech companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, etc, by the constricted distribution mechanisms on mobile devices, and by new leadership at the FCC that is going to tear down the notion that mobile carriers can’t play the same game cable companies played.

Here is a quote from the incoming FCC Chair:

“Today, the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau is closing its investigation into wireless carriers’ free-data offerings,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement. “These free-data plans have proven to be popular among consumers, particularly low-income Americans, and have enhanced competition in the wireless marketplace. Going forward, the Federal Communications Commission will not focus on denying Americans free data. Instead, we will concentrate on expanding broadband deployment and encouraging innovative service offerings.”

It is certainly true that consumers, particularly low-income consumers, like getting free or subsidized data plans. There is no doubt about that. But when the subsidies are coming from the big tech companies, who can easily pay them, to buy competitive advantage over that nimble startup that is scaring them, well we know how that movie ends.

It is sad to see this era ending. It was a lot of fun and quite profitable too. I am hopeful that some new competitive vector, like the Internet, will come along and make all of this moot and we are spending a lot of our time looking for it. Because backing startups on a field tilted in the favor of the incumbents is not fun and not particularly profitable either.

Feature Friday: Foursquare List Search

If you are looking for a restaurant, a bar, a cafe, a museum, or whatever, there are plenty of ways you can do that on your phone. You can use Foursquare (a USV portfolio company), you can use Yelp, you can use Google or Apple maps, you can do a Google search, or you can stop someone on the street and ask them.

I prefer to use Foursquare because its recommendations are personalized for me based on all of my history with Foursquare over the past eight years. Many others tell me they get the best recommendations from Foursquare too, even if they haven’t been using the app for the past eight years.

But last week, Foursquare launched something that makes searching with their app even better. They now let you search their lists and get user and brand created lists by topic. These searches are geolocated so you always get lists based on where you are.

Here’s a search for sushi lists (in NYC because that’s where I am right now):

Here’s a search for pizza lists:

Here’s a search for museum lists:

If you have never seen a list in Foursquare, this is what they look like:

And if you click on the map icon when you are on a list, you get my all time favorite feature, the list map view:

I find searching for and using lists better than searching for a single venue because a list contains multiple options for that single thing you are looking for. Lists have context, lists have options, and lists are fun.

So the next time you are looking for something local, try using Foursquare and searching by lists. You go to the list tab (second one), and hit the search icon. I think you will find it to be a terrific experience.

What Did And Did Not Happen In 2016

As has become my practice, I will end the year (today) looking back and start the year (tomorrow) looking forward.

As a starting point for looking back on 2016, we can start with my What Is Going To Happen In 2016 post from Jan 1st 2016.

Easy to build content (apps) on a cheap widespread hardware platform (smartphones) beat out sophisticated and high resolution content on purpose built expensive hardware (content on VR headsets). We re-learned an old lesson: PC v. mainframe and Mac; Internet v. ISO; VHS v. Betamax; and Android v. iPhone.

And Fitbit proved that the main thing people want to do with a computer on their wrist is help them stay fit. And yet Fitbit ended the year with its stock near its all time low. Pebble sold itself in a distressed transaction to Fitbit. And Apple’s Watch has not gone mainstream two versions into its roadmap.

  • I thought one of the big four (Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon) would falter in 2016. All produced positive stock performance in 2016. None appear to have faltered in a huge way in 2016. But Apple certainly seems wobbly. They can’t make laptops that anyone wants to use anymore. It’s no longer a certainty that everyone is going to get a new iPhone when the new one ships. The iPad is a declining product. The watch is a mainstream flop. And Microsoft is making better computers than Apple (and maybe operating systems too) these days. You can’t make that kind of critique of Google, Amazon, or Facebook, who all had great years in my book.
  • I predicted the FAA regulations would be a boon to the commercial drone industry. They have been.
  • I predicted publishing inside of Facebook was going to go badly for some high profile publishers in 2016. That does not appear to have been the case. But the ugly downside of Facebook as a publishing platform revealed itself in the form of a fake news crisis that may (or may not) have impacted the Presidential election.
  • Instead of spinning out HBO into a direct Netflix competitor, Time Warner sold itself to AT&T. This allows AT&T to join Comcast and Verizon in the “carriers becoming content companies” club. It seems that the executives who run these large carriers believe it is better to use their massive profits in the carrier business to move up the stack into content instead of continuing to invest in their communications infrastructure. It makes me want to invest in communications infrastructure honestly.
  • Bitcoin found no killer app in 2016, but did find itself the darling of the trader/speculator crowd, ending the year on a killer run and almost breaking the $1000 USD/BTC level. Maybe Bitcoin’s killer app is its value and/or store of value. That would make it the digital equivalent of gold and the likely reserve currency of the digital asset space. And I think that is what has happened with Bitcoin. And there is nothing wrong with that.
  • Slack had a good year in 2016, solidifying its position as the leading communications tool for enterprises (other than email of course). It did have some growing pains as there was a fair bit of executive turmoil. But I think Slack is here to stay and I think they can withstand the growing competition coming from Microsoft’s Teams product and others.
  • I was right that Donald Trump would get the Republican nomination and that the tech sector (with the exception of Peter Thiel and a few other liked minded people) would line up against him. It did not matter. He won the Presidency without the support of the tech sector, but by using its tools (Twitter and Facebook primarily) brilliantly.
  • I predicted “markdown mania” would hit the tech sector hard and employees would start getting cold feet on startups as they saw the value of their options going down. None of this really happened in a big way in 2016. There was some of that and employees are certainly more attuned to how they can get hurt in a down round or recap, but the tech sector has also used a lot of techniques, including repricing options, reloading option plans, and moving to RSUs, to mitigate this. The truth is that startups, venture capital, and tech growth companies had a pretty good year in 2016 all things considered.

So that’s the rundown on my 2016 predictions. I would give myself about a 50% hit rate. Which is not great but not horrible and about the same as I did last year.

Some other things that happened in 2016 that are important and worth talking about are:

  • The era of cyberwars are upon us. Maybe we have been fighting them silently for years. But we are not fighting them silently any more. We are fighting them out in the open. I suspect there is a lot that the public still doesn’t know about what is actually going on in this area. We know what Russia has done in the Presidential election and since then. But what has the US been doing to Russia? I would assume the same and maybe more. If your enemy has the keys to your castle, you had better have the keys to their castle. And as good as the Russians are at hacking into systems, the US has some great hackers too. I am very sure about that.  And so do the Chinese, the Israelis, the Indians, the British, the Germans, the French, the Japanese, etc, etc.  This feels a bit like the Nuclear era redux. Mutually assured destruction is a deterrent as long as both sides have the same tools.
  • The tech sector is no longer the belle of the ball. It has, on one hand become extremely powerful with monopolies, duopolies, or nearly so in search, social media, ecommerce, online advertising, and mobile operating systems. And it has, on the other hand, proven that it is susceptible to the very kinds of bad behavior that every other large industry is capable of. And we now have an incoming President who doesn’t share the love of the tech sector that our outgoing President showed. It brings to mind that scene in 48 Hours where Eddie Murphy throws the shot glass through the mirror and explains to the rednecks that there is a new sheriff in town. But this time, the tech sector are the rednecks.
  • Google and Facebook now control ~75% of the online advertising market and almost all of its growth in 2016:

  • Artificial Intelligence has inserted itself into our every day lives. Whether its a home speaker system that we can talk to, or a social network that already knows what we are about to go out and purchase, or a car that can park itself and change lanes on the highway automatically, we are seeing AI take over tasks that we used to have to do ourselves. We are in the age of AI. It is not something that is coming. It is here. It may have arrived in 2014, or 2015, but if you ask me, I would put 2016 as the year it had its debut in mainstream life. It is exciting and it is scary. It begs all sorts of questions about where we are all going in the next thirty to fifty years. If you are in your twenties, AI will define your lifetime.

So that’s my rundown on 2016. I wish everyone a happy and healthy new year and we will talk about the future, not the past, tomorrow.

If you are in need of a New Year’s Resolution, I suggest moving to super secure passwords and some sort of tool to manage them for you, using two factor authentication whenever and wherever possible, encrypt as much of your online activities as you reasonably can, and not saying or doing anything online that you would not do in public, because that is where you are doing it.

Happy New Year!

Kik Group Video Chat

It seems that adding group video chat is the thing right now. Yesterday our portfolio company Kik added group video chat to its popular mobile messenger and Facebook did the same with its Messenger application on the very same day.

Here’s a screenshot of me and AVC regular William Mougayar video chatting in Kik just now.I was in an Uber (as you can see from my notifications). I believe William was in his home office.

My friend and former colleague Jonathan told me this morning that video chat is now “table stakes” for mobile messengers. That may well be true but it’s more impressive when a small company can keep up with the big ones as a Kik employee tweeted yesterday:

Google Pixel XL

When Google announced their Pixel smartphone a few months ago, I bailed on my plans to move from the Nexus 6P to the iPhone 7 and instead ordered the Pixel XL. This marks the end of several years of going back and forth between Android and iOS. I may start doing that again. Or I might just stay on Android. It’s hard to know. Other than iMessage, there is not much I prefer about iOS these days.

The Pixel XL was backordered and I finally got mine last week. I spent the past few days configuring the Pixel and logging into all of my primary mobile apps. I swapped the SIM card a couple days ago and have been fully on the Pixel for the past two days.

Here is what my Pixel XL looks like:

pixel-xl

Here is the back of the phone:

pixel-xl-back

So here is the thing. I really like the Pixel XL. But it’s not really much different than the Nexus 6P that I’ve been using since this past spring when I went back to Android from iOS. They both have a fingerprint sensor in the upper back of the phone. They both have a large 5.5″ display. They both have really nice cameras, good battery life, and are snappy.

Maybe there is something I will discover about the Pixel XL that will make me appreciate it a lot more than the Nexus 6P. Or maybe one high end Android smartphone is more or less the same as another one.

For me what matters most is the Android software, the Google application suite, and the camera, battery life, and fingerprint unlock. That combo is hard to beat. And that’s why I am sticking with an Android phone this winter instead of going back to iOS.

The New Improved Kik

Our portfolio company Kik quietly pushed out a new improved version of its popular mobile messaging app yesterday. The only press was a short blog post.

But if you are a frequent user of Kik, as I am, you will immediately notice that its cleaner, faster, and lighter. It practically hums in your hand.

For years, Kik has focused on its bot platform and apps that run in its messenger. That continues. I believe that Kik has more bots on its platform than any other messaging platform.

But over the past few months, Kik has been doubling down on its core messenger to address some lingering issues. Now there is less spam and more speed.

If you haven’t been on Kik in a while, give it a shot. I think you’ll agree that they did a nice job with the new version. You can download it here by clicking on the blue download button.

Pixel Envy

I was all set to get the iPhone 7 as part of my six months Android, six months iOS rotation. I am due to get back on iOS.

But yesterday’s announcement of Pixel and Pixel XL by Google has got me thinking about not doing the rotation, at least not now.

I have serious Pixel envy. It looks like exactly the phone I want right now.

Relaunching At Age Fourteen

Our portfolio company Meetup was launched in June of 2002. We invested five years later, in 2007, when the company was already profitable and was approaching double digit revenues. Nine years later they are 3x the size when we invested in revenues, meetups, and more. But the founder and leaders of Meetup feel like they are just beginning to scratch the surface of their mission which is to get people out of the house and into the real world doing things they enjoy with other like minded people.

This video, which they created as part of their re-launch this week, shows the range of things people use Meetup to do with others:

Many people associate Meetup with night time events where people with name tags on them walk around and introduce themselves to others. Those sorts of things happen on Meetup for sure. But the more common uses are runners using Meetup to schedule group runs, moms using Meetup to hang out with other moms, and, apparently, jugglers using Meetup to juggle together.

So Meetup is relaunching the Company this week, fourteen and a quarter years after its initial launch. This means a new logo (the name badge is gone), new mobile apps that use deep learning to understand what you want to do and encourage you to do more of it, a new team (with women leaders in both product and engineering) with lots of new engineers and data scientists, and a sharper focus on marketing.

If you want to see what the new Meetup is all about, download the new app (iOS and Android) and check it out. Maybe you will find yourself juggling in the park this weekend. I sure hope so.

Mobile Matures and Consolidates

comScore released its annual US mobile app report yesterday. The data comes from a large mobile panel of US smartphone users that comScore maintains.

The story is one of maturity and consolidation, themes we have visited a lot on AVC in the last few years.

This is the most interesting slide in my view:

digital-media-time-spent

If I am reading this chart correctly, digital media time spent across desktop web, mobile app, and mobile web only grew 2% in the last year. That is a significant slowdown from prior years when time spent spent was growing 20% per year or more driven by very large growth in mobile.

Again, this is US data only. The US is among the most saturated markets in the world. But even so, this is a pretty significant slowdown.

This is the second most interesting slide in my view:

top-25-mobile-apps

Ten of the top twenty-five mobile apps (also ten out of the top twenty mobile apps) by UV are owned by Facebook, Google, and Apple. That’s not new news. The number was similar last year. But this level of consolidation in a maturing market is quite telling.

So is there a ray of hope anywhere in the comScore report? If there is, it is with Millennials who use all of these top apps frequently, but are also drawn to a different set up apps that are younger and less mainstream:

millennials

Snapchat is the poster child for an app (and a company) that has taken a different approach and built a lasting and defensible mobile franchise in the process. There are some other names on this list that I think are heading in a similar direction and three of them are USV portfolio companies (SoundCloud, Wattpad, and Kik).