A Blog by Jonathan Low


Mar 1, 2015

Bye-Bye Bohemian Bump: Have Hipster Fashions Peaked?

For its original incarnation, Pabst was a workingman's brew: 'red necks, white socks and Blue Ribbon beer,' being the title of Hank Thompson's classic 1974 anthem.

But then it became yet another wry hipster nod to authenticity and retro style, along with Converse sneakers, Brooklyn, heavy black eyeglass frames and numerous other odes to irony.

Like all fashions, there is a time and a season for everything from truckers' hats to Gucci bags. And the data are beginning to suggest that the hipster moment may be peaking.

As the following article points out, Brooklyn may be the least affordable urban neighborhood in the US. Basketball star Lebron James has sported eyeglasses without lenses as a personal statement and there are now so many knockoffs of Converse All-Stars that parent company Nike is suing everyone who produces them.

This will entail some uncertainty and insecurity. After all, what's going to be next? JL

Lauren Laughlin reports in Fortune:

For a trend nominally premised on anti-consumerism, the signs of overkill are clear. Sales of eyeglasses are now at their highest in 15 years. RealtyTrac recently cited Brooklyn as the least affordable place to live in the country.

The Battle for the Web's Last Mile

The decision by the US FCC to regulate cable companies as utilities was generally regarded as a significant victory for the forces of net neutrality - and 'the little guy' everywhere whose income is declining while the cost of services on which his family depends is increasing.

So it is interesting to note, as the following article explains, that the price of cable company stocks went up after the announcement.

What's up with that? Did investors read the announcement wrong?

No, they read it right. Exactly right. And what they saw was that this ruling, while eliminating - for the moment - the right of such companies to selectively increase their charges to customers, has further insured the cable companies' monopolies in most markets in the US.

Competition is what will drive prices down but there are few competitive markets for these services in the US at present, nor are there likely to be any new ones in the immediate future. Until new technologies supplant cable, that is. JL

Tim Harford reports in the Financial Times:

Fast lanes and slow lanes are a symptom of market power but the underlying cause is more important. The US needs more internet service providers, and the way to get them is to force cable companies to unbundle the “last mile."(After) the celebrated statement announcing a defence of net neutrality, the share prices of cable companies? They went up.

Tech Is Big Business: Is It Time to Shelve All That March of Human Progress Rhetoric?

Hey, the tech folks started it: all that 'don't be evil,' we're-not-in-it-for-the-money-we're-helping-mankind' rhetoric that sounded so noble for so long.

So, you want to roll your eyes? Go ahead. But the reality is that it was the tech industry itself that conflated a bunch of new products that cause people to spend more money with the human march of progress.

Tech is not supplanting big business, tech is big business. And with that success - and the financial rewards that follow - has come the Milton Friedman-esque claims that everyone who's made money in tech deserves to have done so, those who didn't succeed were flawed and also deserved their fate, and tech companies have no obligation to do anything but make money, just like Uncle Milty said.

And maybe that's right. Maybe these claims of a causal relationship between tech and the betterment of mankind are just so much hooey. It's a business. From which some people enrich themselves and most others do not. It's not illegal. But neither is it a paragon of morality.

So maybe its time to rein in the feel-good rhetoric and start having a rational, fact-based conversation about the socio-economic effects of new technologies and who has an obligation to bear the cost of those outcomes on the civilization that is supposedly benefiting from them. JL

Eric Giannella comments in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology:

We ought to treat the tech industry as any other industry and put aside the association with human progress. Some technologies do improve our lives in general, but the assumption that technology is a force for good has proved harmful. Letting go of the idea of progress would allow us to talk more clearly about the moral consequences of new products and services.

Searching for Google's Future

One of the ways in which we can measure the way technology has changed business is reflected in how we evaluate tech companies themselves.

When Microsoft was at the height of its powers there were occasional rumbles about its future, but the Wintel alliance seemed so strong and so strategically brilliant, Bill Gates so forward thinking and competitive and the future so uncertain that no one doubted they were a company for the ages. Ironically, it was a concerted legal and regulatory assault by perennially hide-bound government bureaucrats that signaled the end of the beginning.

Nowadays, companies receive billion dollar valuations before they generate a single sale and are declared dead and buried before they have a chance to launch their first product.

Technology and its big data offspring have given us what we believe to be unnatural powers of observation and prediction. And so it is that Google, arguably one of the three strongest and most ubiquitous web companies faces constant questioning about its future. Government officials - this time primarily in Europe - are partly to blame, but the larger question is whether the way it manages search, its most significant business, is becoming irrelevant in the mobile era.

It's not that Google's service is worse, it's just that too many others are developing tools that lead consumers directly to them. There is too much money involved to leave it all to Google. An original premise of the web was that it would eliminate the middle man. So it is possible that Google, as a kind of middleman itself, is being supplanted by forces it helped set in motion. Technology devours its own. JL

Tahja Chappellet-Lanier reports in NPR:

Technology giants often meet their end not with a bang but a whimper, a slow, imperceptible descent into irrelevancy.While Google won't disappear, it might not lead the charge into our technological future either.

Feb 28, 2015

Employment in Urban Centers Is Growing While Suburban Jobs Are Shrinking

It's not your imagination. Urbanization is a global megatrend and the jobs are following the people. Especially those with skills: tech, entertainment, media and other new economy services.

Cost is part of the equation: yes, cities are often more expensive, but compared to owning and operating a car in addition to the other expenses of living in the suburbs, the proliferation of transportation alternatives has changed people's behavior.

Finally, it is just more fun to be connected socially in an environment where you can actually connect without having to fight traffic.

Employers have tracked these changes and adjusted accordingly. On top of which, many of those employers now happen to be of the same age as everyone else who finds this lifestyle preferable. JL

Claire Miller reports in the New York Times:

As recently as 2007, employment outside city centers was climbing much faster than inside .In recent years, employment in city centers has grown and employment in the surrounding suburban areas has shrunk,

Apple's New Market

New market? You mean like Antartica, or maybe coffee makers. Or space exploration?

What market - even those it has not officially entered - has it not conquered?

Which takes us back to the meaning of the word market. For as the old saying goes, if you don't like your market share, redefine your market.

Who cares about smartphones? Worrying about share and competition in that business is so, like, 2013.

Apple is redefining the nature of its offering. With rather less fanfare than that to which the faithful are accustomed, the company has been crafting a suite of services that make it simply indispensable. And if convenience is the driver, than indispensability is the lock. Apple wants to facilitate every aspect of its current customers' lives, in hopes, of course, of convincing those who aren't already smitten that they should be.

This strategy has not been lost on Google or Facebook or Amazon either. The question is who is going to get there first. The others have pieces of the puzzle but as the following article explains, Apple has more of them: and they are better designed and better integrated. JL

Ben Thompson comments in Stratechery:

A new market is exactly where the iPhone is headed: Apple is on the verge of leaving the narrowly-defined smartphone market behind entirely, instead making a play to be involved in every aspect of its consumers’ lives.

Why Smart Companies Put People First

It's not just a war for talent, it's a war for survival.

As the economy becomes more global, more technologically driven as well as more dependent on successful innovation, people pay a more important role.

And how they do so can be both obvious and counterintuitive.

The obvious part is that people add value. But in order to do so, the process by which useful technologies are identified and then implemented must become more productive, efficient and effective. This is especially true as more jobs once considered the exclusive domain of homo sapiens fall to algorithmically driven devices.

To realize the return on all that investment, it is essential that the interface between machine and man demonstrate the capacity to work better than anticipated. Because there is no room for error: there are too many competitors emerging too quickly for any consumer to tolerate mediocrity.

So people who have choices need to be convinced that the enterprise to which they pledge their allegiance, however temporary that may be, is worthy of the advantage they convey as the following article explains. And to be considered worthy it must do certain things well: it must make them feel valued, financially and personally; it must offer them a future there, if they wish to avail themselves of it; and it must convince them that what they are doing is meaningful.

The net result, as my colleagues and I found in our research about what factors make startups successful IPOs, is that the employee must believe that her interests and those of the organization must, optimally, be aligned. For that to happen, the people who choose to work there must believe that there is a mutuality of interest in which their needs and desires are considered seriously.

Finally, in the internet age, good people are an enterprise's best advertisement for its products - and its future, which is monetized through its stock. 

Smart companies attract smart people. and smart people provide a decisive competitive advantage. JL

Greg Satell comments in Digital Tonto:

A higher paid workforce results in less turnover, better customer service and greater efficiency. For a business to prosper it must continually innovate how it creates, delivers and captures value. Not just people who come to work to perform tasks, but people who come to work inspired by the mission of the enterprise.