Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel learned the wrong lessons from China

The Information has a story on Snapchat’s recent stumbles around it’s new app, which users have largely hated.  Because that story is paywalled, I’ll link to a Gizmodo article that has some of the coverage without a paywall. The interesting part for me is learning that CEO Evan Spiegel was visiting China (which is blocking Snapchat AFAIK) and started the redesign based on information he learned from his China visit.

Inspired by apps he’d seen in that country [China], Mr. Spiegel wanted to create a new version separating users’ friends’ content from the professional media. Each category would be sorted by an algorithm rather than Snapchat’s existing chronological feed.

Spiegel, who is only 27, and has had apparently limited experience in China, made the critical error of taking a trend from one market [China] and applying it to another market [Snapchat’s home market] without considering all of the cultural and market differences between the two. I think it is a good lesson to illuminate the differences between China and non-China markets. What works in China often does not directly work in non-China markets, and the opposite is often also true, either due to Chinese government censorship or market differences. That Spiegel is the CEO enabled him to push through this redesign without understanding this shows his naivete wrt both China and how international markets are different. Visiting China a few times a year and then basing drastic changes on your successful app from that limited understanding- just about anyone who had more than cursory experience in China could have seen this disaster coming. It is an expensive lesson for Spiegel and the Snapchat team and a good lesson for those of us who care to learn.

Kimiko Kasai With Herbie Hancock ‎– Butterfly (2018 Be With reissue)

In light of Be With Records re-releasing Kimiko Kasai With Herbie Hancock ‎– Butterfly (1979), I just wanted to call attention to Kasai’s rendition of “I Thought It Was You” which Hancock released on his “Sunlight” album in 1978. ‘Butterfly’ was never released outside of Japan and was therefore hard-to-find until now.

Kasai’s version of “I Thought It Was You” is stronger than Hancock’s own 1978 original. The 1978 Hancock original did well in the UK but never really broke out. Kasai’s 1979 rendition brings her strong vocals to a production led by Hancock himself, and a set of musicians as strong as Hancock had on the original including Alphonse Mouzon on drums (Weather Report, Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner), Webster Lewis on keyboard (George Russell, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock), Bennie Maupin on clarinet (Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Horace Silver), Bill Summers on percussion (Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones). I think this version is tighter, a bit faster and Kasai’s vocals really just enhance the track.

Finally Kasai’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s “As” is really strong as well. I still think that “I Thought It Was You” is the standout track but “As” is a great female rendition of that famous track.

For Americans who want this album, Light in the Attic is taking preorders.

It is a shame that CBS Sony spent what I assume was a significant sum to produce this album for it not to be released outside of Japan. It would have been interesting so see what the public reaction would have been in 1979. That Kimiko Kasai married Richard Rudolph and is now the step-mother of Maya Rudoph makes this all more interesting. It is a shame that Kasai stopped producing music once she married.

Tim Harford – what we get wrong about technology

Tim Harford’s recent article, What We Get Wrong About Technology, (Financial Times version in cache; audio interview with Harford at FT Alphaville) is a great read and does what I think most articles about technology rarely do, which is provide a broader perspective on why some, often modest, cheap technologies are more influential for mankind than the cutting-edge tech that often is on the news. When I read most of the news about tech, the articles rarely have either enough room in the article or the reporter does not have the time to research the broader background behind the tech.

ZOOM ARQ AR-96

Impressive! The most interesting interface I have seen since the Novation Launchpad.

thoughts on Opera’s new VPN features from China

Living as I do in Shanghai (i.e. behind the Great Firewall), and having spent a decade at Mozilla in the browser segment of the technology world, these recent moves by Opera to add VPN features to their browser and to smartphones themselves are very interesting and leave me with a number of questions around data privacy and corporate governance in China.

In April of 2016, Opera added a VPN feature in their browser such that you could route traffic from that one app through Opera’s servers. This month, in May, Opera has released an iOS app which purportedly routes all of your iphone traffic through their servers. This came from Opera’s acquisition of SurfEasy in 2015. I have downloaded both and have tested both and they work as advertised.

This VPN feature is a very smart move by Opera. VPNs are a key feature for many users around the world who need them for various reasons such as using blocked services from China, for watching your Netflix account if you are overseas, more private browsing, etc. More and more web sites and services are using geo-ip checks to prevent fraud and abuse and as such VPNs will only become more important. For those of us in China, VPN access is a regular discussion (whether our VPNs are working well, etc.)

The VPN feature is also a smart move by Opera because browsers are largely interchangeable these days, so having this feature in place is a large differentiation. (One of Chrome’s key differentiation features is their automated translation, which is not easily or cheaply copied.) Commercial VPN services average around $5/mo. but Opera can lower costs of running this feature because they do this already for their Opera Mini service.

It also has been reported that in February of 2016, Opera has been sold to a Chinese consortium including Qihoo 360 (a notorious firm led by an iconoclastic entrepreneur- a longer discussion for a different blog post), Internet firm Beijing Kunlun and investment group Golden Brick and Yonglian. If Opera is now a “Chinese” company (and I don’t know that the deal has closed yet but am writing with the assumption that it will), how will that affect their strategy vis-à-vis these VPN features/products?

If “Foreign-run” VPNs are illegal (at least as reported by the Global Times) in China (as far as I know, even though they are widely used, even recently in public by Fang Binxing the ‘architect’ of the Great Firewall himself) does it matter that a new Chinese consortium is providing a VPN to any user of the Opera browser or to any iPhone user (including the millions of iPhone users in China?) More importantly, to run a VPN is to be able to see the traffic you are routing. Yes, traffic hidden via https is hidden but urls are not. So ‘Opera China’ will have an intimate view of the traffic of their VPN users worldwide, but also specifically of those within China.

I’ve been in the technology industry long enough to know that the vast majority of users care mainly about free services and are quick to give up privacy for free services (see any service that is ad-based.) If you care about your own data privacy, but require VPN services, know that Opera is (will be?) a Chinese entity. With the well-documented increasing pressure the Chinese government is putting on media both online and offline (the April 2016 shutting down of Apple’s media offerings in China is only the most recent and high-profile action) it is unclear to me whether to trust Opera’s VPN services moving forward.

Commercial VPN providers regularly post information about whether they “keep logs” and Torrentfreak has compiled information about popular VPN services. Opera will need to share information about their VPN data-handling practices in the near future to assuage the privacy-paranoid among their users.

Thanks to MB, DG, DL, and CP for their feedback for this piece. All errors are mine alone.

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