Sep 16, 2019

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

I was up late watching Comedy Central's roast of Alec Baldwin. For my intro, I decided to quote all of the family friendly parts of the broadcast.

Anyway, today's Login is 1,355 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: Fall is tech's back-to-hardware season

A visitor photographs a display of curved OLED TVs at the LG stand at the 2019 IFA home electronics and appliances trade fair. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

You wouldn't have known it from the summer heat this weekend in the Bay Area, but Silicon Valley's fall hardware season is upon us in full force — with giant companies scrambling to seize a bigger slice of the consumer electronics pie even as the pie itself isn't growing as fast as it used to.

Details:

  • Apple's latest iPhones and Apple Watch hit store shelves on Friday, with a new entry-level iPad due at the end of the month. The company often holds a second hardware event in October, and there's plenty of reason to suspect there is more to come from Apple this year.
  • The Pixel 4 has already been widely leaked, with other new hardware also likely whenever Google decides to formally launch the smartphone.
  • Facebook executives promised at Code Conference earlier this year that the company would expand its Portal line into new categories this year. A recent report suggests a TV set-top version could be among the new options.
  • Amazon typically offers updates to its products as well. It recently updated part of its Fire TV line and is slated to introduce more new products at a Sept. 25 event, per The Verge.
  • Microsoft has a Surface hardware event set for Oct. 2 in New York.

Why it matters: The winter holidays remain the biggest shopping season and consumer electronics are always a hot category, including TVs, smartphones and other gadgets. However, the mix of how much consumer spending goes to each category can vary significantly from year to year.

Yes, but: Each of the major categories faces its own set of headwinds this year.

  • The smartphone market has stalled, as most consumers who can afford a smartphone have one, and people are hanging onto their devices longer. Plus, innovation in the market has slowed, offering fewer compelling reasons to shell out. Demand at the high end of the market is especially sluggish.
  • Many of the newer categories of electronics, such as smart displays and smart speakers, rely heavily on an electronic assistant, meaning sharing lots and lots of data with one or more of the tech giants, with trust having eroded in 2019 amid concerns about Big Tech in general, as well as the specifics around how queries to the various assistants are handled.
  • Interest has also cooled in other categories that have been highly touted in recent years, including VR headsets, which have gradually improved in quality but have failed to attract a mainstream audience.

The bottom line: None of that will stop all the big players from trying their darnedest to land a place under the Christmas tree or other religious/secular shrubbery.

2. Big Tech's 2020 news push

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Tech companies are ramping up efforts to support news companies as they face pressure to elevate quality news and information ahead of the 2020 election, Axios' Sara Fischer reports.

Why it matters: Tech titans, particularly Google and Facebook, have been blamed for their role in spreading misinformation during the 2016 election that may have impacted voter turnout or results. They've also been blamed by publishers for cutting into media ad revenues.

Driving the news: Last week, Google announced it had adjusted its search algorithms and the guidelines its search raters use in an effort to promote more original reporting. With these moves it joins other tech platforms that have recently shifted resources into journalism.

  • There have been multiple reports about Facebook investing millions to pay publishers to provide quality news content for its platform, both via its video tab "Watch" and on a tab dedicated specifically to news that will launch in the U.S. early next year. A new report suggests that it's hiring editors to help curate the tab.
  • Snapchat is creating a dedicated news channel specifically for the 2020 debates. The company is doing more to increase civic and political engagement on its platform as it readies a more aggressive push into news, sources tell Axios.

Yes, but: Snapchat didn't take much heat for fake news during the 2016 election, in part because it has heavily invested in journalists and editors to manage its news and content curation from the start.

  • "This is what happens when a platform actually has values around curation and news," Snapchat's political show host Peter Hamby tweeted in response to Axios' report about Snap's 2020 news push.

Between the lines: Despite the fact that Twitter often takes heat for the misinformation on its platform, it has largely avoided bad skirmishes with news publishers.

  • Publishers that work with Twitter say their partnerships, though smaller in scale than Google and Facebook, have been built to be more equitable and consistent long-term. Twitter takes a cut of ad revenue that publishers sell around their content on Twitter and vice-versa.
3. Qualcomm buys chipmaker to aid 5G efforts

RF360's production line. Photo: Qualcomm

Qualcomm is buying out its joint venture partner to become sole owner of RF360 Holdings Singapore, a chipmaker that specializes in a segment of the cellular communications market known as the RF front end.

RF360 had been a joint venture with Japan's TDK Corp. TDK's interest in the joint venture was valued at $1.15 billion as of August. All told, Qualcomm will have spent $3.1 billion, including its initial investment, payments to TDK based on sales from the joint venture and other items.

Why it matters: With the smartphone market not growing and 5G offering an opportunity to rejigger the competitive landscape, Qualcomm is looking to control as much of the value on each phone as it can, in addition to gaining market share.

  • With the acquisition, Qualcomm says it now has all the pieces it needs to offer the key components for not just smartphones but all of the devices that are incorporating cellular technology, including cars, IoT devices and drones.

What they're saying: "Our goal in the formation of this joint venture was to enhance Qualcomm Technologies’ front-end solutions to enable us to deliver a truly complete solution to the mobile device ecosystem, and we have done exactly that," Qualcomm president Cristiano Amon said in a statement.

4. Border rules hurt U.S. in AI hiring

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

AI experts are pushing the U.S. to ease immigration policies, arguing that the country is hobbling itself in a critical geopolitical race in which American dominance is slipping, as Axios' Kaveh Waddell reports.

The big picture: Two of the Trump administration's major policy goals seem at cross purposes. Clamping down on immigrants and visitors could hamstring AI development in the U.S., which the White House says is a top priority.

Why it matters: The U.S. has long been the clear leader in AI research, but in recent years China and Europe have made vast strides toward overtaking it. Falling behind could have major economic and military repercussions.

  • The majority of AI talent in the U.S. is foreign-born, according to an analysis of submissions to NeurIPS, the top AI conference. "American companies have benefited tremendously from their own ability to attract international talent," says Joy Dantong Ma, the Paulson Institute researcher behind that study.
  • Now, tightening quotas and immigration rules can keep AI experts from coming to the U.S. to work, study or even present at conferences.

What's happening: It's already becoming harder for businesses and academia to invite the best researchers across borders.

Driving the news: The Partnership on AI (PAI) — a group of tech companies, universities and nonprofits — published a paper this week calling for looser immigration rules and easier-to-obtain visas for short visits.

  • "It is worrying to us that it's not possible to get the right people in the room," says Lisa Dyer, PAI's director of policy.

What they're saying: By way of comment, the White House pointed to an administration proposal to increase the percentage of visas issued for employment by reducing family and humanitarian visas.

The bottom line: Restricting immigration has become the drumbeat of the Trump presidency and reelection campaign. The tech industry's needs are unlikely to outweigh the politics here.

Go deeper.

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • Representatives from central banks around the world, including the Federal Reserve, are meeting with Facebook in Basel, Switzerland, to talk about its Libra cryptocurrency plans.
  • Oracle OpenWorld takes place in San Francisco this week.
  • I'm interviewing Microsoft president (and longtime lawyer) Brad Smith tonight at the Churchill Club in Redwood City. Come join us.

Trading Places

  • Disney CEO Bob Iger stepped down from the Apple board as the iPhone maker steps up its efforts in the subscription video space.

Erratum

  • In Friday's Login I said that Facebook had moved from 3 values to 4, but am told it's actually 5 values, with "voice" serving as the overarching value along with the 4 I listed: authenticity, safety, dignity and privacy.

ICYMI

  • MoviePass shut down its consumer service on Saturday after failing to find more capital or a business model that made any sense. (Axios)
  • Opinion: There is no tech backlash (NYT)
6. After you Login

Count. The. Basket. Dearica Hamby's hard, perhaps unnecessarily hard, 3-pointer lifted her Las Vegas Aces into the WNBA's semifinals.

Ina Fried