Curated Insights 2018.01.28

Amazon Go and the future

In every case a huge amount of fixed costs up front is overwhelmed by the ongoing ability to make money at scale; to put it another way, tech company combine fixed costs with marginal revenue opportunities, such that they make more money on additional customers without any corresponding rise in costs.

To be both horizontal and vertical is incredibly difficult: horizontal companies often betray their economic model by trying to differentiate their vertical offerings; vertical companies lose their differentiation by trying to reach everyone. That, though, gives a hint as to how Amazon is building out its juggernaut: economic models — that is, the constraint on horizontal companies going vertical — can be overcome if the priority is not short-term profit maximization.

Amazon, though, having started with a software-based horizontal model and network-based differentiation, has not only started to build out its vertical stack but has spent massive amounts of money to do so. That spending is painful in the short-term — which is why most software companies avoid it — but it provides a massive moat. That is why, contra most of the analysis I have seen, I don’t think Amazon will license out the Amazon Go technology. Make no mistake, that is exactly what a company like Google would do (and as I expect them to do with Waymo), and for good reason: the best way to get the greatest possible return on software R&D is to spread it as far and wide as possible, which means licensing. The best way to build a moat, though, is to actually put in the effort to dig it, i.e. spend the money.

As for Amazon, the company’s goal to effectively tax all economic activity continues apace. Surely the company is grateful about the attention Facebook is receiving from the public, even as it builds a monopoly with a triple moat. The lines outside Amazon Go, though, are a reminder of exactly why aggregator monopolies are something entirely new: these companies are dominant because people love them. Regulation may be as elusive as Marx’s revolution.

People are using Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime in very different ways

Diet Coke’s moment of panic

A growing consumer focus on health has clearly dented soda’s dominion. Beyond widespread concerns of the dangers of artificial sweeteners, government research has found that daily drinkers of diet soda are at higher risk for strokes and other “vascular events.” While Diet Coke’s new can designs are tall and slender—a possible reference to the body type a diet-beverage drinker seeks—more of them simply don’t trust any kind of soda to be a part of a healthy diet. Between 2000 and 2015, switching from sodas to other beverages saved the country an estimated 64 trillion calories in total—that works out to 71 fewer calories per day, per drinker.

The role of hydration has been outsourced to bottled water and sports drinks, like Gatorade. Getting a jolt of energy has been outsourced to coffee and energy drinks, like 5-Hour Energy. And the satisfaction of a cold liquid fizzing on one’s tongue? That’s been outsourced to the trendy crop of flavored seltzers, like LaCroix.

Nvidia, Western Digital at chips’ frontier

At the same time, Mobley, interestingly, asked if the ISA itself could be an “alternative” to a GPU or a digital signal processor (DSP). O’Connor seemed to indicate that was the case, saying “As they exist today, if you start implementing that kind of functionality — such as vector instructions, for example — you can implement all that functionality using the set of RISC-V extensions, instead of a proprietary instruction set architectures that might have existed up until now.”

That raises an interesting question for Nvidia as it rolls RISC-V out in chips in its next iteration of Falcon. Will an open, shared, standard ISA erode any of the lock-in that Nvidia gets for its GPUs? Or is the “CUDA” programming environment really the important software layer that helps Nvidia maintain and extend its dominance in programming?

Big bets on A.I. open a new frontier for chip start-ups, too

The explosion is akin to the sudden proliferation of PC and hard-drive makers in the 1980s. While these are small companies, and not all will survive, they have the power to fuel a period of rapid technological change.

Nvidia was best known for making graphics processing units, or G.P.U.s, which were designed to help render complex images for games and other software — and it turned out they worked really well for neural networks, too. Nvidia sold $143 million in chips for the massive computer data centers run by companies like Google in the year leading up to that summer — double the year before.

By early 2018, according to a report by Forbes, Cerebras had raised more than $100 million in funding. So had four other firms: Graphcore; another Silicon Valley outfit, Wave Computing; and two Beijing companies, Horizon Robotics and Cambricon, which is backed by the Chinese government.

It is still unclear how well any of these new chips will work. Designing and building a chip takes about 24 months, which means even the first viable hardware relying on them won’t arrive until this year. And the chip start-ups will face competition from Nvidia, Intel, Google and other industry giants.

Sony falls as JPMorgan questions bull case for image sensors

Sony is the global leader in the production of image sensors, camera chips which convert light into digital pictures and videos. Despite a cooling in the smartphone industry, it has benefited from a trend to include multiple image sensors in each phone — a technique used to create better-looking pictures and to power simple augmented-reality functions.

Weak demand for the new iPhone X will hurt Sony, which gets half of its image sensor revenue from Apple, Park wrote. He also said the trend for adopting dual cameras is not as strong as first believed, including among Chinese phone makers, which will further hit Sony’s sales.

In Sony’s latest quarter, image sensors accounted for 9.4 percent of revenue and 22 percent of operating profit.

The biggest electric vehicle company you’ve never heard of

Though it operates in similar sectors as Tesla, the companies are very different strategically. For instance, as Elon Musk’s Boring Company tunnels under cities to address congestion, BYD eyes elevated transportation.

Chinese tariffs and taxes on imported electric vehicles also benefit domestic manufacturers, which capture 93% of the market. BYD has an estimated 30% share. Tesla has 6% share, delivering an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 vehicles to China in 2016. Overall, electric vehicles represent less than 2% of total auto sales in China. Officials, however, aim to phase out fossil-fuel vehicles. BYD chairman Wang Chuanfu was quoted as saying that all vehicles will be electrified by 2030.

Although President Donald Trump has threatened a trade war with China, automobile manufacturing is less susceptible than other industries. Owing to freight rates, manufacturing cars locally within distribution markets makes economic sense. Still, BYD doesn’t currently have plans to sell consumer cars in the U.S. Owing to governmental policies and low fuel prices, Li said the U.S. market isn’t as welcoming to new energy vehicles as China, India, and Europe are.

Electricity from all forms of renewables will be consistently cheaper than fossil fuels by 2020

Today, fossil-fuel power typically costs between $0.05 to $0.17 per kWh. By comparison, consider the global-weighted average cost of electricity generated by various forms of renewables in 2017, as calculated by Irena: hydropower ($0.05 per kWh), onshore wind ($0.06 per kWh), bioenergy and geothermal ($0.07 per kWh), and solar photovoltaics ($0.10 per kWh).

Offshore wind and solar thermal power aren’t yet competitive with fossil fuels, but that should change by 2020, Irena predicts, with the cost of solar thermal falling to $0.06 per kWh and offshore wind to $0.10 per kWh. The drivers will be technology development, competitive bidding systems, and large base of experienced project developers across the world.

Bigger, higher and floating — advances that make wind a better power source

It accounted for close to 40 per cent of Denmark’s electricity mix in 2016 and about 10 per cent across the EU. Wind farms were the leading source of new electricity generating capacity in Europe, the US and Canada in 2015, and the second largest in China.

Despite this, less than 4 per cent of the world’s electricity came from the wind in 2015. That is nowhere near enough to help shift the global economy away from the climate-warming fossil fuels that still supply most of the world’s energy.

The three stumbling blocks to a solar-powered nation

Every hour, our sun bombards the Earth with enough light to satisfy humanity’s energy needs for an entire year.

Cell cost: For solar power to meet 30% of the world’s electricity needs, it will need to fall from its current cost of a dollar per watt of electricity to 25 cents per watt…Perovskite cells can be made from materials that could be radically cheaper than conventional silicon. They can also take on novel forms, such as a tint on windows or thin printable sheets. But they still face significant barriers to commercialization: They tend to rapidly degrade when wet, and scientists can’t create large cells with the same efficiency as the small ones they can make in a lab.

Energy management: It isn’t hard to get to the point where solar is producing too much power at some times of day, and none at all when it’s needed most. The first solar panel added to the grid helps offset midday consumption, but the last one to be added might be completely unnecessary, because the grid might already be saturated when it’s capable of producing the most power.

Soft utility costs: The Energy Department estimates that soft costs contribute as much as 64% of the cost of a solar installation. The rest of the cost is split between mounting hardware for solar panels and the cells themselves.

Why 2017 was the best year in human history

Every day, the number of people around the world living in extreme poverty (less than about $2 a day) goes down by 217,000, according to calculations by Max Roser, an Oxford University economist who runs a website called Our World in Data. Every day, 325,000 more people gain access to electricity. And 300,000 more gain access to clean drinking water.

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