Get ready for a new era of personalized entertainment

New machine learning technologies, user interfaces and automated content creation techniques are going to expand the personalization of storytelling beyond algorithmically generated news feeds and content recommendation.

The next wave will be software-generated narratives that are tailored to the tastes and sentiments of a consumer.

Concretely, it means that your digital footprint, personal preferences and context unlock alternative features in the content itself, be it a news article, live video or a hit series on your streaming service.

The title contains different experiences for different people.

From smart recommendations to smarter content

When you use Youtube, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, Netflix or Spotify, algorithms select what gets recommended to you. The current mainstream services and their user interfaces and recommendation engines have been optimized to serve you content you might be interested in.

Your data, other people’s data, content-related data and machine learning methods are used to match people and content, thus improving the relevance of content recommendations and efficiency of content distribution.

However, so far the content experience itself has mostly been similar to everyone. If the same news article, live video or TV series episode gets recommended to you and me, we both read and watch the same thing, experiencing the same content.

That’s about to change. Soon we’ll be seeing new forms of smart content, in which user interface, machine learning technologies and content itself are combined in a seamless manner to create a personalized content experience.

What is smart content?

Smart content means that content experience itself is affected by who is seeing, watching, reading or listening to content. The content itself changes based on who you are.

We are already seeing the first forerunners in this space. TikTok’s whole content experience is driven by very short videos, audiovisual content sequences if you will, ordered and woven together by algorithms. Every user sees a different, personalized, “whole” based on her viewing history and user profile.

At the same time, Netflix has recently started testing new forms of interactive content (TV series episodes, e.g. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch) in which user’s own choices affect directly the content experience, including dialogue and storyline. And more is on its way. With Love, Death & Robots series, Netflix is experimenting with episode order within a series, serving the episodes in different order for different users.

Some earlier predecessors of interactive audio-visual content include sports event streaming, in which the user can decide which particular stream she follows and how she interacts with the live content, for example rewinding the stream and spotting the key moments based on her own interest.

Simultaneously, we’re seeing how machine learning technologies can be used to create photo-like images of imaginary people, creatures and places. Current systems can recreate and alter entire videos, for example by changing the style, scenery, lighting, environment or central character’s face. Additionally, AI solutions are able to generate music in different genres.

Now, imagine, that TikTok’s individual short videos would be automatically personalized by the effects chosen by an AI system, and thus the whole video would be customized for you. Or that the choices in the Netflix’s interactive content affecting the plot twists, dialogue and even soundtrack, were made automatically by algorithms based on your profile.

Personalized smart content is coming to news as well. Automated systems, using today’s state-of-the-art NLP technologies, can generate long pieces of concise, comprehensible and even inventive textual content at scale. At present, media houses use automated content creation systems, or “robot journalists”, to create news material varying from complete articles to audio-visual clips and visualizations. Through content atomization (breaking content into small modular chunks of information) and machine learning, content production can be increased massively to support smart content creation.

Say that a news article you read or listen to is about a specific political topic that is unfamiliar to you. When comparing the same article with your friend, your version of the story might use different concepts and offer a different angle than your friend’s who’s really deep into politics. A beginner’s smart content news experience would differ from the experience of a topic enthusiast.

Content itself will become a software-like fluid and personalized experience, where your digital footprint and preferences affect not just how the content is recommended and served to you, but what the content actually contains.

Automated storytelling?

How is it possible to create smart content that contains different experiences for different people?

Content needs to be thought and treated as an iterative and configurable process rather than a ready-made static whole that is finished when it has been published in the distribution pipeline.

Importantly, the core building blocks of the content experience change: smart content consists of atomized modular elements that can be modified, updated, remixed, replaced, omitted and activated based on varying rules. In addition, content modules that have been made in the past, can be reused if applicable. Content is designed and developed more like a software.

Currently a significant amount of human effort and computing resources are used to prepare content for machine-powered content distribution and recommendation systems, varying from smart news apps to on-demand streaming services. With smart content, the content creation and its preparation for publication and distribution channels wouldn’t be separate processes. Instead, metadata and other invisible features that describe and define the content are an integral part of the content creation process from the very beginning.

Turning Donald Glover into Jay Gatsby

With smart content, the narrative or image itself becomes an integral part of an iterative feedback loop, in which the user’s actions, emotions and other signals as well as the visible and invisible features of the content itself affect the whole content consumption cycle from the content creation and recommendation to the content experience. With smart content features, a news article or a movie activates different elements of the content for different people.

It’s very likely that smart content for entertainment purposes will have different features and functions than news media content. Moreover, people expect frictionless and effortless content experience and thus smart content experience differs from games. Smart content doesn’t necessarily require direct actions from the user. If the person wants, the content personalization happens proactively and automatically, without explicit user interaction.

Creating smart content requires both human curation and machine intelligence. Humans focus on things that require creativity and deep analysis while AI systems generate, assemble and iterate the content that becomes dynamic and adaptive just like software.

Sustainable smart content

Smart content has different configurations and representations for different users, user interfaces, devices, languages and environments. The same piece of content contains elements that can be accessed through voice user interface or presented in augmented reality applications. Or the whole content expands into a fully immersive virtual reality experience.

In the same way as with the personalized user interfaces and smart devices, smart content can be used for good and bad. It can be used to enlighten and empower, as well as to trick and mislead. Thus it’s critical, that human-centered approach and sustainable values are built in the very core of smart content creation. Personalization needs to be transparent and the user needs to be able to choose if she wants the content to be personalized or not. And of course, not all content will be smart in the same way, if at all.

If used in a sustainable manner, smart content can break filter bubbles and echo chambers as it can be used to make a wide variety of information more accessible for diverse audiences. Through personalization, challenging topics can be presented to people according to their abilities and preferences, regardless of their background or level of education. For example a beginner’s version of vaccination content or digital media literacy article uses gamification elements, and the more experienced user gets directly a thorough fact-packed account of the recent developments and research results.

Smart content is also aligned with the efforts against today’s information operations such as fake news and its different forms such as “deep fakes” (http://www.niemanlab.org/2018/11/how-the-wall-street-journal-is-preparing-its-journalists-to-detect-deepfakes). If the content is like software, a legit software runs on your devices and interfaces without a problem. On the other hand, even the machine-generated realistic-looking but suspicious content, like deep fake, can be detected and filtered out based on its signature and other machine readable qualities.


Smart content is the ultimate combination of user experience design, AI technologies and storytelling.

News media should be among the first to start experimenting with smart content. When the intelligent content starts eating the world, one should be creating ones own intelligent content.

The first players that master the smart content, will be among tomorrow’s reigning digital giants. And that’s one of the main reasons why today’s tech titans are going seriously into the content game. Smart content is coming.

Spotify’s new ad metrics show what listeners do after they click

Spotify is launching new analytics tools to help artists and their teams better understand how well their ads are working. The company today says it’s rolling out new streaming conversion metrics that will show how Spotify listeners reacted to a particular ad campaign — whether they clicked through to listen, saved the music or added it to a playlist, for example.

The new tools also can detail whether the campaign did better with existing fans who have been streaming the music already, or if an ad worked to hook new fans.

The conversion metrics are being introduced to the Spotify Ad Studio. First launched in 2017, the ad studio is a self-serve platform that allows artists and their labels to share their music by way of short (30-second or less) audio ads that are played for the free users on the Spotify app. These ads are served during ad breaks between songs, and offer an image and URL for a single of the artist’s choosing.

Artists also can use the platform to create ads for concerts, merchandise and other non-music content.

Before, the Ad Studio’s metrics offered general insights — like the age, gender or genre preferences of the audience being served the ad, for example, and how many clicks the ad was seeing.But labels and their artist teams have been asking for more.

They didn’t want to just see who was clicking and how many clicks, but also what happened next — including whether ads were working to turn listeners into fans who take some action, like saving a song or adding it to a playlist. Those sorts of actions indicate the user plans to listen again. This is particularly important to emerging artists who are trying to grow their fan base and rely on ads to get the word out.

“This is the reporting we’ve been wanting to see,” said Jimmy Brunetti, VP of Marketing at independent label services company Croshal Entertainment Group, in a release. “I really like how it gives us an indication about how our ads drive deeper actions. That’s promising for an artist, especially newer artists with room to grow.”

“With Spotify’s new advertising capabilities, we’re getting insight into not just how our campaign is resulting in streams, but deeper actions for an artist like how those listeners are turning into fans and adding a song to their playlist or hearting a song. Those are the holy grail of metrics for an artist to know,” added Conor Clarke, CEO and co-founder of Wavo, a music marketing agency that worked with Rich the Kid.

Using the new tools, the agency said they were able to see that 38 percent of people who heard the ad went on to listen to the artist, and nearly 20 percent of those listeners streamed his music for the first time that month.

The new ad tools are the latest of several releases focused on giving artists more control. This, in turn, helps to keep artists using Spotify as their main platform for reaching music listeners, growing their fan base and boosting their popularity — and more broadly, their revenues.

In September 2018, Spotify announced indie artists could upload their own tracks. It then launched a playlist submission feature that would help artists flag their songs for editorial consideration, and took a stake in music distribution service DistroKid to make cross-platform uploads easier.

More recently, the company turned some of the programmed playlists over to its personalization algorithms — meaning users would each see their own version of things like “Happy Hits” or “Dance Party,” for example. As a result, artists can now grab a custom URL pointing to these personalized versions of the playlist in order to share the playlist on social media and elsewhere.

Apple Music cuts prices in India

This morning, The WSJ reported Apple’s streaming music service overtook Spotify in paid subscribers in the U.S., and now it hopes to do the same in the Indian market by way of a big price cut. The company’s individual plan in India is now 99 rupees per month ($1.43 USD), versus the 120 rupees per month ($1.73 USD) it was previously.

In addition, the price for the Apple Music student plan dropped from 60 rupees per month to 49 rupees; and the Family Plan is now 149 rupees per month versus the 190 rupees per month it was before the price cuts.

The news was first reported by The Indian Express and was shared across social media.

The new, lower prices are available to both existing subscribers and new customers, it appears.

India is a crucial market for streaming services, and one that’s a more recent battleground for major U.S. tech companies in addition to Spotify.

In March, YouTube Music and its paid subscription service, YouTube Premium, launched in India, following Amazon and Google which already operate their music services in the region. This year, Spotify also entered India amid a complicated licensing dispute with Warner Music, which impacted the number of tracks available.

But these companies aren’t just duking it out with one another for domination.

India today has a rich music scene which includes local players like Gaana, JioSaavn (created via the JioMusic and Saavn merger), Wynk, and others.

And recently, JioSaavn and Gaana both slashed their annual subscription prices by 70 percent. Those cuts were focused on locking down customers for a year – keeping them away from YouTube, Spotify and Apple, as a result. The recently discounts saw JioSaavn’s premium tier drop to Rs 299 per year – 70 percent down from Rs 999. Meanwhile,Gaana Plus was discounted to Rs 298 per year instead of Rs 1098, as before.

Apple doesn’t disclose its Apple Music subscriber count in India, but it has 56 million subscribers on a global basis.

The service has been customized for the Indian market with playlists that feature local music, including those popular in regional languages like Malayalam and Tamil, The Indian Express noted. It also has 14 localized radio stations and deals with leading Indian labels like Saregama, T series, Zee Music, YRF, Universal, and Sony.

Slack reportedly chooses the New York Stock Exchange for its direct listing

The ubiquitous corporate messaging service Slack is following in the footsteps of Spotify’s subscription music service and heading to the New York Stock Exchange for trading through a direct listing, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Slack, which reportedly had somewhere near $900 million on hand last October when it was prepping for its initial public offering, is likely choosing the direct listing route for some of the same reasons that Spotify had when it went public.

Here are the reasons we listed for Spotify’s decision last year around this time:

List Without Selling Shares– Spotify has plent of money with $1.3 billion in cash and securities, has no debt since it converted that into equity for investors, and has positive free cash flow

Liquidity – Investors and employees can sell on public market and sell at time of their choosing without investors shorting a lockup expiration, while new investors can join in

Equal Access– Bankers won’t get preferred access. Instead, the whole world will get access at the same time. “No underwriting syndicate, no limited float, no IPO allocations, no preferential treatment”.

Transparency – Spotify wants to show the facts about its business to everyone via today’s presentation, rather than giving more info to bankers in closed door meetings

Market-Driven Price Discovery – Rather than setting a specific price with bankers, Spotify will let the public decide what it’s worth. “We think the wisdom of crowds trumps expert intervention”.

Slack doesn’t need the money that could come from a public offering, but its longtime employees would like to see some liquidity, and so would its longtime investors.

Choosing the New York Stock Exchange likely gives the company some comfort, because unlike the Nasdaq, the NYSE has designated market makers on the floor of the exchange who can manage prices if the stock becomes really volatile in its first day of trading, according to the WSJ.

This year will be a banner year for public offerings in the U.S. and the NYSE and rival Nasdaq exchange are competing to see who can claim the most tech public offerings for the year.

Nasdaq struck an early blow with the Lyft public offering last week. But NYSE has claimed, Pinterest, Uber, and Slack which could be the biggest public offerings of the year.

Whatever the result, the public offering will be good news for investment firms like Accel, Andreessen Horowitz, Dragoneer Investments, General Atlantic, GV, Kleiner Perkins, Social Capital, Softbank Group, and Thrive Capital, which collectively invested roughly $1.2 billion into the company.

Brandwatch turns its war-chest on acquiring market research startup Qriously

In the past few years it’s become increasingly evident that while social media was a fantastic new way to get into the minds of people and understand what they thought in order to sell them things, you couldn’t just rely on the blathering of millions of people. You also had to literally ask them questions. At the darker end of-of the spectrum, this was used by the likes of Cambridge Analytica to first poll questions, then use the data to target audiences for dark political purposes. At the lighter end, it’s a method used every day by legitimate brands and ad agencies. But until now, most social listening agencies and most polling companies plowed different sectors of the tech industry. The news that a major social intelligence company is acquiring a research platform is an indication that these two worlds are about to come together.

Brandwatch, a leading social intelligence company, has acquired London-based SaaS research platform Qriously. Although terms have not been disclosed, the notion is clear: to fuse modern market research methods with social media listening and analytics. Qriously had previously raised $6.2M while Brandwatch has raised $65 million from European VCs Nauta Capital, Highland Europe and Partech.

Brandwatch also needs the tools Qriously has in order to differentiate itself from the legacy social listening players, thus meaning its clients won’t have to go to both a market research firm and a social listening agency.

The acquisition marks a continuation of Brandwatch’s roll-up of services that add to its offering. The October 2018 merger between Brandwatch and Crimson Hexagon created a business with around $100 million in recurring annual revenues.

The Qriously acquisition will add first-party quantitative research to Brandwatch’s total pool of brand and consumer insight and enables its customers to proactively dig deeper into their online research by launching targeted surveys, with global reach and near-immediate results.

The innovation Qriously made was to turn mobile ad-networks into a distribution platform for polling and quizzes. This hadn’t previously been done extensively before, and enabled it to, for example, predict the results of the last US election.

Qriously has developed a next-generation technology to access, via mobile ad networks in particular, over 2 billion devices all over the world in real-time. Clients include Spotify, Coinbase and P&G.

“It’s not often you meet a group of people as fresh and innovative as the Qriously team who have built a deep, technically strong solution to a problem that is on your own roadmap,” said Giles Palmer, co-founder and CEO of Brandwatch. “We’ve never met such a team who saw the world the way we do and want to join up to create something really new, but that’s what happened with Qriously.”

“The future of market research is 100 percent combining different data types,” said Christopher Kahler, co-founder and CEO of Qriously. “Prompted survey and unprompted social data surface different types of insights, and looking at them together gives you a 360-degree picture.”

Spotify is testing Premium Duo for €12.49 per month

Spotify just started selling a new subscription in Ireland called Premium Duo, as The Verge spotted. You guessed it, this subscription tier is designed for couples, roommates and all combinations of two persons who live under the same roof. It is a bit more expensive than a Premium account and a bit less expensive than a Family account.

If you have three or four persons in your family, a Premium for Family account makes sense. For $14.99 per month (or €14.99, £14.99), you can upgrade up to six different accounts to Premium.

But what if you’re just two persons? Many people choose to share a single account because it only costs $9.99 per month (or €9.99, £9.99).

There are some drawbacks and it is against the terms and conditions of the service. For instance, you can only play music on one device at a time, so you might pause music on your friend’s device when you start playing music.

With Spotify Duo, the company would introduce a new price point at €12.49 per month — it would likely cost $12.49 in the U.S. and £12.49 in the U.K., but it’s only available in Ireland for now. The only requirement is that you need to live at the same address.

Based on Spotify’s website, the system works just like Premium for Family. Every user creates a separate Spotify account, the person who pays the bill can send an invitation link so that other can join your group. You can unlink your accounts whenever you want.

It’s clear that the company targets people who share the same account. “And because you’re now on separate accounts, music recommendations are tailored to your individual tastes,” Spotify says on its website.

That’s why the company is also adding a new feature called Duo Mix. This is a shared playlist between the two members of the Premium Duo account. It features songs that you have both liked. You can choose between a chill mix and an upbeat mix. You can also filter out explicit content.

Let’s see if Spotify manages to increase the subscriber base with this new option. In its latest earnings release, Spotify said that the average revenue per premium user was €4.89. Family plans seem to be incredibly popular already.

Cross-border fintech startup Airwallex raises $100M at a valuation of over $1B

Australia-based Airwallex is the tech startup to enter the billion-dollar ‘unicorn club.’ The company announced today that it has closed a $100 million Series C round that values its business above $1 billion.

Started in Melbourne in 2015 by four Chinese founders, Airwallex provides a service that lets companies manage cross-border revenue and financing in their business much like consumer service TransferWise.

Its customers can, for example, set up overseas bank accounts if they have paying customers overseas. When they want to move that revenue back to their HQ, they simply do so through the Airwallex system which uses inter-bank exchanges to trade forex at a mid-market rate. That’s something that can save its clients as much as 90 percent on their foreign exchange rates, and it massively simplifies the challenge of doing business overseas.

This new round of funding is led by DST Global — the high profile investors that’s backed the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, Xiaomi and more — with participation from returning investors that include Sequoia China, Tencent, Hillhouse Capital, Gobi Partners, Horizons Ventures and Australia’s SquarePeg Capital. Airwallex has now raised over $200 million; its previous investment was an $80 million raise around nine months ago.

Most impressively, the company has become a unicorn within three years of its launch — that’s an impressive feat, the company has come a long way since we wrote about its $3 million seed round in late 2016. CEO Jack Zhang told TechCrunch that the company is being public with its valuation for the first time because it provides a major validation that will help it build a reputation and develop additional services in the financial services space.

“We talked to a number of global funds we found interesting but we picked DST because our biggest priority is international expansion and [the firm will] help us opening doors and going after larger opportunities,” Zhang said of the lead investor for the round.

Indeed, the Airwallex vision has grown since that seed round. Today the company, which has eight offices worldwide and over 260 staff, has expanded its focus in terms of both customers and services.

“Traditionally, we served a lot of the internet companies, but now we are saying that it doesn’t matter about size,” Zhang said. “We want to go after small companies and help all businesses to grow and expand globally.”

On the product side, he added that “the vision has evolved and now we’re building a fundamental global finance infrastructure.”

What does that mean exactly? Well, Zhang said Airwallex wants to be more than just a cross-border partner for companies. It already offers services like virtual bank accounts in 50 countries, it plugs in to partners to offer other financial services and its planned future products include credit card issuance to allow companies to manage money overseas with greater granular control.

Indeed, already Airwallex has an internal team nicknamed ‘Alpha/ that helps SMEs and other businesses to grow overseas, while Zhang said it has made undisclosed investments in companies where it sees an aligned ‘global’ vision.

“Alpha identifies early-stage companies and helps them to grow,” Zhang explained. “Whether they work with us or not we don’t care, we help connect them to investors and networks.”

The founders of Airwallex

The idea for the business came to Zhang, who spent time at Australia banks ANZ and NAB, after he grew frustrated of the challenges of importing overseas goods for a coffee business that he invested in with friends.

“We were importing from overseas and paying Western Union a bunch of money,” he recalls. “It was all very slow.”

Airwallex has fixed that problem for any would-be international-minded coffee shop owners/investors, but Zhang is convinced that the future of his business is to be an ecosystem for global banking and financial services. Precisely what that might mean in the future isn’t clear. But looking at companies that work closely with business customers, Airwallex is ideally placed to offer loans and financing, either directly or via partners, and really involve itself in growing its customers and their businesses.

Having started focused on Asia — and China in particular — Zhang is gunning for global growth, and that really means the U.S. and U.K and growing beyond Airwallex’s offices in London and San Francisco. The company is looking to kickstart that push through acquisitions, with Zhang admitting his team is “actively seeking interesting payment startups in the U.K and the U.S.”

Airwallex is also casting its eye on banking licenses in selected markets, which could mean it returns to raise additional capital at the end of this year or the startup of 2020.

Ahead of third antitrust ruling, Google announces fresh tweaks to Android in Europe

Google is widely expected to be handed a third antitrust fine in Europe this week, with reports suggesting the European Commission’s decision in its long-running investigation of AdSense could land later today.

Right on cue the search giant has PRed another Android product tweak — which it bills as “supporting choice and competition in Europe”.

In the coming months Google says it will start prompting users of existing and new Android devices in Europe to ask which browser and search apps they would like to use.

This follows licensing changes for Android in Europe which Google announced last fall, following the Commission’s $5BN antitrust fine for anti-competitive behavior related to how it operates the dominant smartphone OS.

tl;dr competition regulation can shift policy and product.

Albeit, the devil will be in the detail of Google’s self-imposed ‘remedy’ for Android browser and search apps.

Which means how exactly the user is prompted will be key — given tech giants are well-versed in the manipulative arts of dark pattern design, enabling them to create ‘consent’ flows that deliver their desired outcome.

A ‘choice’ designed in such a way — based on wording, button/text size and color, timing of prompt and so on — to promote Google’s preferred browser and search app choice by subtly encouraging Android users to stick with its default apps may not actually end up being much of a ‘choice’.

According to Reuters the prompt will surface to Android users via the Play Store. (Though the version of Google’s blog post we read did not include that detail.)

Using the Play Store for the prompt would require an Android device to have Google’s app store pre-loaded — and licensing tweaks made to the OS in Europe last year were supposedly intended to enable OEMs to choose to unbundle Google apps from Android forks. Ergo making only the Play Store the route for enabling choice would be rather contradictory. (As well as spotlighting Google’s continued grip on Android.)

Add to that Google has the advantage of massive brand dominance here, thanks to its kingpin position in search, browsers and smartphone platforms.

So again the consumer decision is weighted in its favor. Or, to put it another way: ‘This is Google; it can afford to offer a ‘choice’.’

In its blog post getting out ahead of the Commission’s looming AdSense ruling, Google’s SVP of global affairs, Kent Walker, writes that the company has been “listening carefully to the feedback we’re getting” vis-a-vis competition.

Though the search giant is actually appealing both antitrust decisions. (The other being a $2.7BN fine it got slapped with two years ago for promoting its own shopping comparison service and demoting rivals’.)

“After the Commission’s July 2018 decision, we changed the licensing model for the Google apps we build for use on Android phones, creating new, separate licenses for Google Play, the Google Chrome browser, and for Google Search,” Walker continues. “In doing so, we maintained the freedom for phone makers to install any alternative app alongside a Google app.”

Other opinions are available on those changes too.

Such as French pro-privacy Google search rival Qwant, which last year told us how those licensing changes still make it essentially impossible for smartphone makers to profit off of devices that don’t bake in Google apps by default. (More recently Qwant’s founder condensed the situation to “it’s a joke“.)

Qwant and another European startup Jolla, which leads development of an Android alternative smartphone platform called Sailfish — and is also a competition complainant against Google in Europe — want regulators to step in and do more.

The Commission has said it is closely monitoring changes made by Google to determine whether or not the company has complied with its orders to stop anti-competitive behavior.

So the jury is still out on whether any of its tweaks sum to compliance. (Google says so but that’s as you’d expect — and certainly doesn’t mean the Commission will agree.)

In its Android decision last summer the Commission judged that Google’s practices harmed competition and “further innovation” in the wider mobile space, i.e. beyond Internet search — because it prevented other mobile browsers from competing effectively with its pre-installed Chrome browser.

So browser choice is a key component here. And ‘effective competition’ is the bar Google’s homebrew ‘remedies’ will have to meet.

Still, the company will be hoping its latest Android tweaks steer off further Commission antitrust action. Or at least generate more fuzz and fuel for its long-game legal appeal.

Current EU competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, has flagged for years that the division is also fielding complaints about other Google products, including travel search, image search and maps. Which suggests Google could face fresh antitrust investigations in future, even as the last of the first batch is about to wrap up.

The FT reports that Android users in the European economic area last week started seeing links to rival websites appearing above Google’s answer box for searches for products, jobs or businesses — with the rival links appearing above paid results links to Google’s own services.

The newspaper points out that tweak is similar to a change promoted by Google in 2013, when it was trying to resolve EU antitrust concerns under the prior commissioner, Joaquín Almunia.

However rivals at the time complained the tweak was insufficient. The Commission subsequently agreed — and under Vestager’s tenure went on to hit Google with antitrust fines.

Walker doesn’t mention these any of additional antitrust complaints swirling around Google’s business in Europe, choosing to focus on highlighting changes it’s made in response to the two extant Commission antitrust rulings.

“After the Commission’s July 2018 decision, we changed the licensing model for the Google apps we build for use on Android phones, creating new, separate licenses for Google Play, the Google Chrome browser, and for Google Search. In doing so, we maintained the freedom for phone makers to install any alternative app alongside a Google app,” he writes.

Nor does he make mention of a recent change Google quietly made to the lists of default search engine choices in its Chrome browser — which expanded the “choice” he claims the company offers by surfacing more rivals. (The biggest beneficiary of that tweak is privacy search rival DuckDuckGo, which suddenly got added to the Chrome search engine lists in around 60 markets. Qwant also got added as a default choice in France.)

Talking about Android specifically Walker instead takes a subtle indirect swipe at iOS maker Apple — which now finds itself the target of competition complaints in Europe, via music streaming rival Spotify, and is potentially facing a Commission probe of its own (albeit, iOS’ marketshare in Europe is tiny vs Android). So top deflecting Google.

“On Android phones, you’ve always been able to install any search engine or browser you want, irrespective of what came pre-installed on the phone when you bought it. In fact, a typical Android phone user will usually install around 50 additional apps on their phone,” Walker writes, drawing attention to the fact that Apple does not offer iOS users as much of a literal choice as Google does.

“Now we’ll also do more to ensure that Android phone owners know about the wide choice of browsers and search engines available to download to their phones,” he adds, saying: “This will involve asking users of existing and new Android devices in Europe which browser and search apps they would like to use.”

We’ve reached out to Commission for comment, and to Google with questions about the design of its incoming browser and search app prompts for Android users in Europe and will update this report with any response.

Apple addresses Spotify’s claims, but not its demands

Two days after Spotify announced that it had filed a suit against Apple with the European Commission over anticompetitive practices, Apple today issued its own response of sorts.

In a lengthy statement on its site called “Addressing Spotify’s Claims”, Apple walks through and dismantles some of the key parts of Spotify’s accusations about how the App Store works, covering app store approval times, Spotify’s actual cut on subscription revenues, and Spotify’s rise as a result of its presence on iOS.

At the same time, Apple carefully sidesteps addressing any of Spotify’s demands: Spotify has filed a case with the European Commission to investigate the company over anticompetitive practices and specifically to consider the relationship between Apple and Spotify (and by association any app maker) in terms of whether it is really providing a level playing field, specifically in the context of building and expanding Apple Music, its own product that competes directly with Spotify on the platform that Apple owns.

In fact, Apple doesn’t mention the European Commission, nor the suit, even once in its 1,100+ word statement. Here is what it does cover:

App Store updates. Spotify has accused Apple of dragging its feet on updates to its apps and deliberately doing to so impacts its ability to distribute its service effectively. The company made 173 updates to its apps on iOS, and while Apple doesn’t speak to any transparency on just how long it takes to approve changes, it notes that Spotify has had more than 300 million downloads of its app, and “the only time we have requested adjustments is when Spotify has tried to sidestep the same rules that every other app follows.” 

It also says it’s worked with Spotify to bring it to more platforms and devices — although it did not address one of Spotify’s specific claims, that Apple’s HomePod is the only home speaker where Spotify is currently not available.

— App store pricing. The crux of Apple’s belief is that Spotify wants to use the benefits of being a revenue-generating app on the store, without paying any dues to be there, living rent-free, as it were.

Apple points out that 84 percent of apps on the App Store are actually free to use (many of them will be ad-supported) and in those cases, they really do not pay anything to Apple. But it believes that if you are going to use its platform to make money, Apple should get a cut. The question has always been just how much of a cut Apple should get.

The company’s development of payments has been a tricky one for Apple. In some regards that is a blessing. It centralises your billing details in one trusted place, which ultimately makes for a secure experience. In others it’s a curse: it imposes a particularly strict set of rules and commissions that everyone must follow and doesn’t give developers or customers any choice for how to take and make payments within apps.

Apple notes that in the case of Spotify, the company is misrepresenting App Store commissions on a number of counts. For one, right now, Apple takes a 30 percent cut on subscriptions in the first year, but after that it brings that down to 15 percent. Spotify failed to mention that commission change, focusing only on the 30 percent figure that makes Apple look especially greedy.

It also notes that a lot of Spotify’s customers are using the free version of the product, not paying for any subscriptions. And given that Spotify has tried to shift more of its billing to its site instead of within the app, claims of losing out money over Apple’s terms and a lack of choice for how to pay within it — you have to use Apple’s in-app payments to pay for subscriptions and other goods in apps — are not valid: “Even now, only a tiny fraction of their subscriptions fall under Apple’s revenue-sharing model. Spotify is asking for that number to be zero,” it notes.

What Apple fails to respond to is that Spotify identifies a number of other apps that appear to be given provisions to enable payments that do not run through Apple’s billing, and Apple has not been transparent over how it has chosen those.

Apple Music versus Spotify. The suit filed with the European Commission and antitrust accusations are not the only two things that Apple does not cover in its response. It also completely fails to give even one mention of its own music product, Apple Music, which competes directly with Spotify.

It does say that “We share Spotify’s love of music and their vision of sharing it with the world,” and instead goes directly after Spotify in the jugular: its own issues with how it controls those wanting to do business on its own platform. “Spotify’s aim is to make more money off others’ work. And it’s not just the App Store that they’re trying to squeeze — it’s also artists, musicians and songwriters,” it notes, pointing to a recent suit against music creators filed by Spotify after the US Copyright Royalty Board required Spotify to increase its royalty payments. “This isn’t just wrong, it represents a real, meaningful and damaging step backwards for the music industry,” Apple notes.

Trust in antitrust

Indeed, while the case is in progress and remains sealed, Spotify has summed up many of its key points in a site that it is promoting called Time to Play Fair. But to be very clear, some of us might be hard pressed to call Spotify exactly an underdog.

Apple is one of the biggest and most profitable companies in the world, and Spotify is still scrambling to prove out the long-term financial viability of music streaming as a business model. But Spotify is also the world’s biggest music streaming company, and in reality both have had their fair share of accusations related to how they leverage control over those using their platforms — app publishers for Apple; musicians and those in related fields for Spotify — for their better financial gain.

Spotify’s best approach, in my opinion, would be to keep this debate and make its case to the European Commission at as high a level as possible. There have been a number of examples already of how regulators in Europe have broken up companies or business models, enforcing different practices in the name of promoting better competition: telecoms, internet access, computer and mobile operating systems, advertising and television are among the areas where it’s already proven that it will champion first not the platform, but those who are trying to use it, especially in cases where the platform companies also happen to directly compete with their customers: where those who own the playing field are forced to provide terms to visiting athletes that ensure they get the same treatment as the home team.

This case would be the first time that app stores are considered on the same terms, a mark of just how ubiquitous they have become.

In that regard, by going through some of Spotify’s claims to provide its own rebuttals, Apple seems to be trying to paint a very specific picture to the public — one that we imagine will also play out as it presents its case to regulators: Spotify is not exactly a small company and it has most definitely benefitted, not failed, by virtue of being in the Apple App Store. That’s a key image that — if successful — will help Apple deflect from being viewed as a monopoly, and subsequently forced to change its practices.

Samsung’s very good Galaxy S10 is now on sale

The Galaxy S10’s pre-sales were, by all accounts, quite brisk. In fact, the company ran out of the free Galaxy Buds its was bundling with the handset. That’s good news all around for Samsung, after sales for the S9 were reported to be fairly light.

For those waiting for the reviews — or simple wanting to pick one up in-store — the handsets are hitting retail today, and the company’s still offering up some extra perks. The big one is six months of free premium Spotify for “qualified purchases.” That news comes as the company announced that it will be bundling the music app on its devices.

A return to bloatware or strategic partnership in the fight against Apple? Poe-tay-toe, poe-tah-toe, I guess.

As for which purchases qualify, that will vary from region to region and carrier to carrier. There’s a LOT of fine print over here, if you’d like to see if you qualify. As it notes,

This Premium and Samsung 6 Month Trial Offer is available for a limited period only and must be redeemed before any applicable date advertised. Spotify reserves the right to modify or to earlier terminate this Premium and Samsung 6 Month Trial Offer at any time and for any reason. After such time, Spotify shall not be obligated to redeem any further attempts to take up this offer.

In addition to the S10, S10+ and S10e, the company’s new wearables, the Galaxy Watch Active and Galaxy Buds are also now available through Samsung’s site and retail channels.