What Do You Call a Reporter Who Doesn’t Report the News? Bob Woodward

VICE / Laura Wagner / Sep 11, 2020
https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/7kp3v9/what-do-you-call-a-reporter-who-doesnt-report-the-news-bob-woodward

Legendary Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward reveals in his new book that Donald Trump told him in February of this year that he knew exactly how deadly the novel coronavirus was, and that he was deliberately downplaying the threat to the public. In a bizarre year in media, it’s perhaps the most bizarre development of all: The most famous investigative reporter in the United States getting the most explosive scoop imaginable, and declining to publish it at a time when doing so could have saved lives.

Why did he do this? A day after the information came out, no one knows. Woodward has no convincing explanation for why he didn’t tell the public about this, and the strongest defense his own nominal employer will mount is a narrow, mechanical one.

Here’s the Washington Post yesterday, reporting on the reporting that a Washington Post reporter did not report when it could have most mattered:

“This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency,” national security adviser Robert O’Brien told Trump, according to a new book by Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward. “This is going to be the roughest thing you face.” Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser, agreed.

Ten days later, Trump called Woodward and revealed that he thought the situation was far more dire than what he had been saying publicly. “You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump said in a Feb. 7 call. “And so that’s a very tricky one. That’s a very delicate one. It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flu…This is deadly stuff,” the president repeated for emphasis.

The next month:

Trump admitted to Woodward on March 19 that he deliberately minimized the danger. “I wanted to always play it down,” the president said.

(The taped conversation was published by CNN.)

Woodward—despite having, he said, no agreement with the White House requiring him to hoard information from the interviews for the book—did not report that the president was, by his own admission, deliberately downplaying the seriousness of the crisis. Nor did he pass along the information to one of his colleagues so they could try and track down the information and report it themselves.

His main defense for sitting on the information was that he didn’t know if what the president was saying about the deadliness of the coronavirus was true. His second line of defense was to downplay the value of his own explosive scoop. (“If I had done the story at that time about what he knew in February,” he told the Associated Press, “that’s not telling us anything we didn’t know.”)

Neither line of argument is remotely believable. Woodward had weeks and then months to determine that what Trump said was true and significant and still didn’t report it, even as it became clear that the president’s commitment to carrying out the plan he described in February was costing lives. (Bear in mind the timeline here: As late as March 15, more than a month after Trump described his strategy to Woodward, New York mayor Bill de Blasio was encouraging people to go to bars. Four days later, as cities and states were deciding whether and how to lock down, Trump told Woodward, “I still like playing it down.”) At an even more basic level, it is difficult to conceive of anything more newsworthy than the president secretly telling an elite member of the Washington press corps that he was lying to the public while telling the public to relax and check out hydroxychloroquine and investigate bleach. It’s unclear what there needed to be “nailed down.” Over at Esquire, Charlie Pierce put it as plainly as it can be put:

The interviews with the president* were conducted on the record. As early as January, Woodward could have broken a huge story quoting the president* himself about how the president* was lying to the public and risking the public health. Maybe it would have forced a change of policy that would have saved lives. (Probably not, given what we know about this president’s modus operandi.) Woodward knew the truth behind the administration’s deadly bungling—and worse—and he saved it for his book, which will be released to wild acclaim and huge profits after nearly 200,000 Americans have died because neither Donald Trump nor Bob Woodward wanted to risk anything substantial to keep the country informed.

Woodward’s feeble defense is that what he knew didn’t matter. Defenses of Woodward have been oriented narrowly around his relationship to the Post and his publishers, and around the idea that he, as someone writing a book, was primarily beholden to his book project and not his fellow humans dying in droves.

For example, Post media reporter Erik Wemple launched a wised-up argument that amounted to scolding people for being angry about preventable deaths and implying that they simply don’t understand the way of the world. Publishing the scoop would have prevented Woodward from getting future scoops, he argued; Trump flacks would have denied it was newsworthy at all; and, finally, he pointed out, Woodward isn’t really a Post reporter anyway, but merely someone who publishes scoops in the Post in exchange for a $25 monthly salary. Per Wemple, this is the system working as designed. (Its design perhaps explains why, with early access to Woodward’s book, the Post didn’t report his scoop, reported by Business Insider today, that Trump bragged about “saving” Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, believed by Western intelligence agencies to have been involved in the murder of Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.)

What any of this has to do with the moral question at the heart of the matter—Should someone who had potentially life-saving evidence that Trump was lying about the coronavirus have shared it with the public, or no?—Wemple didn’t bother addressing. He did pass on Woodward’s insistence that the president’s lies were not a “legitimate public health issue.” If Wemple did ask what Woodward would consider a public health issue, he didn’t include it in his Twitter thread.

Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan aptly summarized the brouhaha while carefully avoiding anything that could be read as criticism of Woodward or the Post. “[Woodward’s] no longer in the daily journalism business,” she wrote, as if reporting critical information in service of the public being somehow below such a towering giant of the craft excused him not doing it. Other journalists, on the right and the left, provided equally callous and craven excuses for Woodward, arguing that even if he had reported the information, it wouldn’t have mattered because people wouldn’t have cared. Why people with such a low estimation of the public and disdain for the idea that giving the public information can effect change are even in journalism is unclear; the only conceivable answers are bleak ones.

The Post, which enjoys the benefits of its branding association with Woodward’s scoops (conversely, the association allows Woodward, whose author page displays five Washington Post bylines this century, to pretend he’s still an active newspaperman, at least until that becomes inconvenient) essentially denied having anything to do with Woodward. A Post flack told me that she’d “need to refer you to Bob or his publisher on this as his book work is done independently of The Post.” When I followed up asking to speak to editor in chief Marty Baron or get an on-the-record statement about Woodward failing to report information of incredible significance in a timely way, the flack emailed me this Twitter statement from another flack, again asserting that Woodward’s book projects have nothing to do with the Post. This neatly sidestepped the question of whether a nominal Post reporter should report critical news.

Post staffers were generally unwilling to touch this topic with a 20-foot pole. One, who was granted anonymity so they could speak freely, said “[It] seems like a trend that feels especially unethical and selfish right now, to save material to sell book copies with everything that’s going on, and it’s disappointing that it’s no different at our place.”

If Woodward reporting his scoop when he got it would have saved even one life, it would have been worth it; this is the criticism of him that matters and the one that has not been answered. The Washington Post’s tagline is “democracy dies in darkness.” People do, too.

Photographer Documents How People Live in Cramped Rented Rooms in Seoul

My Modern Met /  Sara Barnes
https://mymodernmet.com/sim-kyu-dong-goshiwon-photos/

Seoul is one of the world’s most expensive cities to live in. These high prices make it a challenge for many people to find affordable housing. As a result, an alternative to the conventional apartment has emerged. Called goshiwons, these are not apartments but tiny rooms that are large enough for a twin-sized bed and some prized belongings. Photographer Sim Kyu-Dong showcased these units—and the people that inhabit them—in a fascinating series of images.

Goshiwons can be a cheap place for a student to study or a housing option for someone who can’t afford an apartment and might otherwise be homeless. There’s no deposit required to live in one; it’s unlike a studio in Seoul, where one would need to come up with money before moving in. Plus, it has some privacy. A room typically has a bed, desk, and closet that affords someone the opportunity to keep their things safe and space to eat and work. But the facilities, such as the bathroom, are shared with other residents.

Like their larger counterparts, a goshiwon varies based on who is living in it. Some folks are neat and tidy while others have carved just enough space for them to sit and nothing else. The room might have a window (for an added fee) and wallpaper to give the room a homier feel. Scroll down to see how people have chosen to live in their goshiwon.

Why Nokia or Ericsson might be the West’s best bet against Huawei

South China Morning Post / Winston Mok / Sep 9, 2020
https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3100608/why-nokia-or-ericsson-might-be-wests-best-bet-against-huawei

Rajeev Suri, Nokia’s CEO, speaks at the 2018 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Photo: Reuters

The US has continued to pressure countries around the world not to use Huawei equipment in their 5G networks. When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s talking head is the US’ key competitive weapon against Huawei, something is not quite right.

Two decades ago, Lucent, an American company, was once the world’s largest telecoms equipment company, until, a shadow of its former self, it was absorbed into Nokia. Still, Lucent’s fate was better than that of Canada’s Nortel, which went bankrupt in 2008. What went wrong?

While the US government is fighting Huawei today, earlier in the last century, it did the opposite – dismembering Western Electric, AT&T’s equipment arm, long before the break-up of AT&T. Its actions led to the creation of two Western Huaweis – Nortel and Alcatel – which became leading competitors of Lucent, the stand-alone American successor of Western Electric.

ITT, a US company which acquired Western Electric’s international operations in 1925, was a key telecoms equipment maker. In the 1960s, through leveraged buyouts, ITT diversified into a range of unrelated businesses, including the Sheraton Hotels chain. Once the largest shareholder of Ericsson, it sold its interests in the company in 1960.

In 1986, an overleveraged ITT sold its telecoms equipment businesses to a French company that would become Alcatel. Meanwhile, the sale of Northern Telecommunications, established by Western Electric to serve the Canadian market, to Bell Canada, resulted in the formation of Nortel.

When Lucent went public in 1996, Alcatel was the world’s largest telecoms equipment company. But in 2006, a struggling Lucent merged with Alcatel; a decade later the combined entity was acquired by Nokia.

More than technological changes and international competition, the fall of the once mighty Lucent may be understood primarily in the American regulatory context and how incentives provided by US capital markets shaped management decisions.

Lucent’s demise was far from inevitable upon its separation from AT&T. Western Electric owed its dominance to being an integral part of AT&T for more than a century. Globally, however, telecoms equipment suppliers usually compete for business outside the umbrella of service providers. Ericsson and Nokia, both from small countries without large service markets, thrive independent from telecoms companies.

More consequential were antitrust actions decades earlier – in 1925 and 1956 when Western Electric’s international and Canadian operations were hived off, resulting in the formation of Nortel and eventually Alcatel which began to compete with Western Electric. Had its limbs not been cut off decades earlier, Western Electric would have been a more dominant global company facing less international competition when it became Lucent.

Lucent, a notable casualty in the dotcom bubble, was a classic case of overextended growth. With aggressive equipment financing, Lucent underwrote a good chunk of capital for new telecoms companies which eventually went bankrupt. Lucent was just as aggressive in engaging in sales and accounting malpractices to deliver “consistent” growth.

Instead of focusing on developing its core products, Lucent spent lavishly on acquisitions which mostly proved to be futile. After the bubble, it made overly drastic cuts to deliver short-term results to the irreparable detriment of its core strengths. Lucent, and ITT earlier, epitomised Anglo-Saxon capitalism’s excesses.

Even though the US lacks a major fully fledged telecoms equipment supplier, it remains a leader in key segments and upstream. Although Huawei may appear to be the global leader in telecoms equipment, market share by segment offers a more useful picture.

For example, Cisco remains the leader in routers. In optical networks, Ciena is a leading competitor. Perhaps, more importantly, the US continues to occupy the top spot in intellectual property, software and chips, through companies such as Qualcomm, Broadcom, Google and Intel. The US can be a much bigger threat to Huawei than the other way around.

Foreign firms’ know-how helped the development of China’s telecoms equipment industry. Technology transfer started with Shanghai Bell, a join venture with Belgium’s Bell Telephone Manufacturing of Belgium, then an ITT subsidiary. Many foreign companies followed suit to gain access to a large and growing market.

Over time, Huawei learned from a range of international peers, through joint ventures with Lucent, Motorola, Siemens and NEC. Nevertheless, the rise of Huawei was probably a contributing factor, rather than the decisive one, in the fall of some of its teachers in the waves of global industry consolidation.

Lucent’s demise is a uniquely American story. The decisions made by its management were shaped by US capital markets which reward short-term results. In contrast, operating in continental European capitalism, Ericsson and Nokia survived the dotcom crisis as they pursued long-term objectives, subject less to the vicissitudes of capital markets. More than competition from dismembered parts of its former self and Huawei, Lucent was destroyed by American capitalism.

From Microsoft to Facebook, Anglo-Saxon capitalism has fostered radical innovations. But it lacks the patience to cultivate incremental innovations over the long term, as the telecoms equipment industry often requires. This patient capital has supported the unrelenting development – through the ups and downs of markets – of the likes of Ericsson and Nokia.

If the US wants Ericsson and Nokia to remain strong Western alternatives to Huawei and ZTE, it would do best to leave them alone, in safe Nordic hands. Otherwise, these last bastions of defence against “Chinese technological domination” may risk perishing under the warped incentives of Anglo-Saxon capitalism.

Europe is making faster cars and better batteries than Tesla

Sifted / Marie Mawad, Mimi Billing, Maija Palmer /
Sep 7, 2020
https://sifted.eu/articles/musk-tesla-rivals-europe-1/

At $390bn, Tesla is worth a lot to investors. In fact, it’s worth more than all of Germany’s carmakers combined.

Europe started out as the birthplace of the automobile, but it has become the laggard — and not just as far as stock market valuations go.

In the 12 years since Elon Musk released his first full-electric sports car, he’s expanded into battery production at Tesla’s Gigafactory, deployed dedicated charging infrastructure worldwide and developed products that let consumers generate and store energy. His Roadster has become the reference for super-fast travel on a battery and his electric sedans have climbed the rankings to compete with Nissan for the world’s most sold electric car.

Tesla Roadster. Credit: Tesla

In that time frame, prestigious brands in Europe, the likes of Volkswagen and Daimler in Germany but also Renault and Peugeot in France, have mostly struggled with a diesel emissions scandal and displayed a sluggish attitude to shifting to battery-powered cars.

Pessimists say the fate of European carmakers shows the region’s inability to transform even the most brilliant ideas and finest engineering talent into disruptive innovation at scale.

“It’s not lack of vision that is plaguing Europe — carmakers like Renault have long had the vision of a future with electric, connected and autonomous vehicles,” says Francois Veron, the cofounder of investment fund Newfund. “But they failed at industrialising that vision, at adapting their production and supply chains to the new business models of electric cars.”

“Real disruption is more likely to come from an independent player than from the incumbents,” says Veron. “A heavily financed independent player.”

But while Europe does not have a single Tesla equivalent, it does have several companies doing parts of what Tesla does and in many cases doing it better.

Without the media might of the Musk empire, they are less well known, but there are companies such as Rimac making faster electric roadsters, companies like Skeleton Technologies making more powerful ultracapacitors and Einride making electric self-driving trucks.

Here’s part one of our series looking at Elon Musk’s empire and the European technology companies emerging as its rivals. Part one is focusing on cars and batteries, part two on space and part three on hyperloop.

Part one: vroom

Cars are one of the most visible parts of Tesla, and make up the majority of its revenues. In the second quarter of 2020, car sales accounted for 86% of its reported $6bn sales. A newly launched Model Y has got car pundits salivating.

But perhaps the most emblematic of Tesla’s successes lies in its ability to deploy a wide-spanning network of dedicated, ultra-fast chargers called superchargers. They’ve played a key role in helping Tesla’s cars stand out from the rest, by addressing consumers’ fear of running out of juice in an electric vehicle.

In fact, infrastructure that allows for a relatively short charging pit stop along the way is perhaps the only segment where Tesla truly has no equivalents in Europe.

The company boasts nearly 2,000 stations in Europe and the Middle East. Alternatives, even added together and helped by state subsidies, form a smaller network of disparate chargers that are all less powerful — hence slower to refill a battery — and are often faced with compatibility issues.

Every other part of the electric car ecosystem has Europeans in the ring, battling it out with Tesla. Here are the names worth knowing:

Tesla’s hypercar challengers in Europe

Rimac (Croatia)

Tesla’s Roadster makes claims on being the quickest car in the world. According to the company, it’s able to go from 0-60 mph in just 1.9 seconds, and has a top speed of more than 250 mph.

Croatia’s Rimac may be able to just pip Tesla’s record, with claims that its C_Two electric hypercar can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 1.85 seconds, a whisker faster than the Roadster. And the C_Two claims a top speed of 258 mph.

Mind you, Rimac’s C_Two isn’t in production yet. Any prospective customers will have to wait for 2021 to take delivery, and there are likely to be only a very limited number of vehicles made. Your likelihood of owning a C_Two is probably a lot lower than owning a Roadster.

Rimac C_Two. Credit: Rimac

Rimac, which began with Mate Rimac trying to pimp up his own very beat-up 1984 BMW when he was just 19, is clearly a very different (and much smaller) business than Tesla. But its mission to build electric motor cars that are, well, super fast, is having a surprisingly big reach across the car industry.

Porsche owns around 15% of the company, and Hyundai Motor Group recently invested €80m as part of a new partnership which will see the two companies collaborate on a range of performance electric cars. A number of other carmakers, including Aston Martin and Pininfarina already use Rimac’s battery packs for their own electric supercars.

With serious investors coming in now, Rimac is professionalising and gearing up to go much bigger. Plus, it just recently hired ex-Tesla engineer Chris Porritt as CTO.

Piëch (Switzerland)

Piëch is based in Switzerland but it has deep roots in Germany and links back to Volkswagen.

The company was founded by Toni Piëch, the son of former Volkswagen chairman Ferdinand Piëch, whose own ancestors include Volkswagen founder Ferdinand Porsche.

It’s out to build on Germany’s history of top-notch engineering, combined with an electric motor and reviving iconic elements of classic sports car designs, to become the “leading luxury electric mobility brand”.

Piëch Car. Credit: Piëch

“In spirit, we go back to Ferdinand Porsche’s 1931 vision,” the company says on its website. “We aim to build a company that recaptures the artistry, craftsmanship and heritage of the past, but we emerge into 21st century with a new powertrain, a new business model, and an appetite for technology and disruption.”

The company’s Mark Zero all-electric model, scheduled to go on sale in 2022, can get to 100km/h in 3.2s, charges 80% of its battery in 4 minutes 40 seconds, and boasts a range of 500km on a single charge.

One specific: Piëch has no plans to invest in its own manufacturing and relies instead on a network of partners for production — carmakers with factories, assembly and supply chains already set up.

Nikola (US-based, with ties to Germany and Italy)

The other, much-hyped challenger to Tesla is Nikola.

Admittedly that’s partly because of the name of the company, which refers to Nikola Tesla, the engineer and inventor who made important contributions during the 1900s to what we know about electrical supply systems. His surname inspired Musk’s company, and Nikola of course picked up on his first name.

Nikola is going head-to-head with Tesla in electric trucks. The company is US-based, but it does have a big European connection.

Germany’s Robert Bosch and Italy’s Iveco, the truck-maker backed by the Agnelli family, each own 6% of Nikola and were instrumental in building the important parts of the company’s trucks.

More than 200 Bosch employees were involved in building important parts of Nikola’s trucks, including the electric motor for the axle, the vehicle-control unit, the battery and the hydrogen fuel cell. The trucks themselves are being built in an Iveco factory in Germany.

Tesla’s trucks challengers in Europe

The Tesla programme for trailer trucks, dubbed Tesla Semi, has been pushed back a bunch of times and the first units are now expected to be delivered sometime in 2021.

Einride (Sweden)

Stockholm-based Einride’s trucks are not for consumers, but for the logistics industry. The company started off focused on developing self-driving trucks that would transport goods entirely autonomously or controlled remotely. Recently it has acknowledged that the transition to full autonomy may take some time, so it is also building trucks that have space for human drivers.

The trucks will still be all-electric, however, and deals with big companies may do more to speed along the battery-powered revolution than any consumer-focused business. Einride recently signed a deal to supply trucks to German supermarket group Lidl, supporting Lidl’s ambition to make its supply chain emission-free.

Picture of Robert Falck, founder of Einride, for Sifted's Tech Innovators List
Robert Falck, founder of Einride.

Others include:

Volta Trucks (Sweden)

The company recently launched a purpose-built 16-tonne electric truck that can drive up to 200 km on a single charge. The company is expecting to sell 500 of the Volta Zero trucks in 2022, rising to 5000 by 2025. It is expecting to find strong demand in cities like London and Paris where diesel vehicles have been banned from the city centres.

Tesla’s Gigafactory challengers in Europe

Musk called the Gigafactory “the machine that builds the machine” — where everything needed by Tesla would be made, most notably a huge number of lithium-ion batteries for its vehicles. Tesla has three such factories in operation so far, in Nevada, New York and Shanghai, with a factory near Berlin expected to be completed next year.

The idea of the Gigafactory was not only to decrease Tesla’s reliance on overseas suppliers of batteries but bring the cost of production down to under $100 per KWh of energy storage, a level at which it becomes cheaper to build an electric powertrain than an internal combustion engine.

The Nevada Gigafactory had a goal of producing 35 GWh per year by 2020. Opened in 2016, the Tesla facility has a clear head start, but in the past year or two a number of challengers have emerged in Europe:

Northvolt (Sweden)

One of Europe’s biggest battery startups was founded by ex-Tesla employees. Peter Carlsson, who was global head of sourcing and supply chain at the company, worked closely with Musk to launch the Model S. Another Tesla alumnus, Paolo Cerruti, helped Carlsson launch Northvolt, which is building a giant battery factory in northern Sweden, aiming to produce 32GWh of capacity annually — just short of Tesla’s Nevada Gigafactory levels —  once it is fully up and running. The company raised $1bn last year from investors led by Volkswagen and Goldman Sachs.

Carlsson says that while China and the US have been in the lead so far when it comes to producing the batteries needed for electric cars, Europe now has an opportunity to catch up.

What the Northvolt battery factory in northern Sweden will look like when ready.

“At present, we don’t have enough factories but looking at the projects being planned and constructed as we speak the future looks promising in Europe,” he says. “In Europe, there is a new momentum. We have seen actions in the regulatory space and Europe has started to flex its muscles by backing and financing car manufacturers and others along the supply chain – and the dynamics are strong. To be frank, the US has lost a bit of headway between the shift from Obama and Trump.”

“Europe now has to decide whether it will focus on satellite factories that rely on supplies from Asia or will it build its own ecosystem. There are advantages to the region to have its own ecosystem with all the actors across the supply chain including subcontractors, factories, support to universities and so on.”

“Strategically, it is possible to build it but we don’t have it ready for raw materials as yet. We have the conditions to create nickel and cobalt but it will take time. We are not alone, even in China they are dependent on building supply chains of raw materials, just look at what they are doing in parts of Africa and South America.”

In the meantime, Northvolt is developing patent-protected ways of recycling batteries more efficiently, so that part of Europe’s raw material needs could be supplied this way.

Verkor (France)

The startup exited stealth mode and unveiled ambitious plans to deliver up to 50GWh of battery production capacity. Production in Verkor’s first gigafactory is scheduled to begin in 2023 with 16GWh capacity and ramp up from there.

Backed by French industrial Schneider Electric, real estate group IDEC and the EU’s European Institute of Innovation & Technology (EIT), Verkor is currently looking for land to set up a gigafactory in France. The initial investment in the project is about €1.6bn.

It’s not the only French project of the sorts. Energy giant Total and carmaker PSA have set up a joint venture called Automotive Cells Company, which is also aiming to start deliveries in 2023. The first phase of the project involves a €200m investment and a pilot plant built around an existing facility in Nersac, France, owned by Saft, Total’s battery production arm. Total took over startup Saft in 2016 for €950m.

Fast charging 

Europe is also developing breakthrough technologies that could significantly increase the charging speeds for electric vehicles. Charging an electric car at a public charging point can still take several hours — even a Tesla Supercharger station will take at least half an hour — so getting charging times down to a point where they can compete with a few minute petrol refuelling stop is crucial.

Ulracapacitors, which discharge energy much faster than batteries, have been seen as a potential part of the solution. Tesla bought ultracapacitor company Maxwell Technologies for $218m in 2019, in hopes of improving the batteries used in its cars. Battery experts speculated that Musk might be looking to apply some of the technologies used in Maxwell’s ultracapacitors to improve the cost, performance and lifespan of its lithium-ion batteries.

Skeleton ultracapacitors

Skeleton Technologies (Estonia)

A European challenger, Estonian Skeleton Technologies, may be close to this already. The company is developing the SuperBattery, a ground-breaking graphene battery with a 15-second charging time and the capability of being recharged hundreds of thousands of times.

The company has just partnered with the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology to complete the development of the battery. If this is successful, it would eliminate the three main anxieties of electric car owner: slow charging time, battery degradation over time, and limited range.

Skeleton Technologies chief executive Taavi Madiberk says the technology will “blow existing EV charging solutions out of the water”. He also notes that, unlike Tesla, which seeks to do everything itself, in Europe the key to energy storage breakthroughs will be a collaboration between companies.

87% Of TikTok Users: Instagram Reels Is “Basically The Same”

Forbes / John Koetsier / Sep 7, 2020
https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnkoetsier/2020/09/07/87-of-tiktok-users-instagram-reels-is-basically-the-same/#4cb0a6ea6967

Watch out, TikTok.

Almost nine in ten TikTok users who have used Instagram Reels say that Facebook’s TikTok competitor is basically the same as TikTok. And 61% said they’ll be spending more time in Instagram as a result.

“This strong number for Instagram is driven by the fact that TikTok users who have used Instagram Reels do not think that TikTok is inherently special,” says Tommy Walters, research and insights managers at social media content company Whistle.

That is my sentiment exactly.

TikTok, of course, is being forced to sell to an American company by the Trump administration, although the company is contesting that order in court. That controversy doesn’t have appeared to hurt TikTok: it is still the third most-downloaded app in the United States, according to AppFigures data.

But the controversy is also helping other apps.

Instagram usage is up, but so is Snapchat and other apps.

34% of TikTok users say they’ll spend more time on Snapchat, which is currently the ninth most-downloaded app in the U.S. Only 10% say they’ll spend more time on Triller, a TikTok competitor, and another 10% say they’ll spend more time on Byte.

Interestingly, people don’t seem more worried about Chinese companies getting and using their personal data, which is ostensibly driving the government ruling requiring TikTok’s sale.

Rather, they don’t like it across the board.

“75% are worried about an American company obtaining their personal data,” Whistle says while 67% are very or somewhat worried about a Chinese company obtaining their personal data,” Whistle says, adding that TikTok users aren’t super-happy about copycats. “63% agree that larger social media companies like Facebook, who owns Instagram, should not be allowed to copy newer social media companies like TikTok.”

The sample size is not huge — 686 18-34 year olds — but Whistle says it is nationally representative.

Ultimately, the results cast doubt on whether any company that buys TikTok, if a sale proceeds, will be able to maintain the company’s incredible growth rate, or if that growth might be captured by existing market players like Facebook and Instagram.

And, of course, the news shows once again that no publicity is bad publicity. Even though Tiktok has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, usage is up.

“Since a TikTok ban has been discussed in the news, 44% of daily or weekly TikTok users have been spending more time on the platform, with only 10% reporting spending less time on the platform,” says Tommy Walters.

Trump Ended 2018 France Trip Having Art Loaded on Air Force One

Bloomberg /  Jennifer Jacobs, Nick Wadhams, and Katya Kazakina / September 6, 2020
https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-09-06/trump-ended-2018-france-trip-having-art-loaded-on-air-force-one

Figurines of Greek mythical characters Trump ordered removed from the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Paris in November 2018, now on display in the Oval Office. Photographer: Justin Sink/Bloomberg

After Donald Trump’s planned trip to a French cemetery for fallen Marines was canceled in November 2018, the U.S. leader had some extra time on his hands in a mansion filled with artwork. The next day, he went art shopping — or the presidential equivalent.

Trump fancied several of the pieces in the U.S. ambassador’s historic residence in Paris, where he was staying, and on a whim had them removed and loaded onto Air Force One, according to people familiar with the matter. The works — a portrait, a bust, and a set of silver figurines — were brought back to the White House.

The decision to cancel Trump’s visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery outside Paris is under new scrutiny after the Atlantic magazine on Thursday published a bombshell report that Trump belittled the American servicemen buried there, part of a broader history of disparaging certain people who’ve served in the military. Trump has vehemently denied making the comments about “suckers” and “losers” in the armed forces.

Never previously reported is Trump’s spur-of-the-moment art caper before leaving the ambassador’s residence.

The incident was met with a mixture of amusement and astonishment at the time, but caused headaches for White House and State Department staffers, according to several people familiar with the episode who asked not to be identified due to its sensitivity.

Chic Mansion

The story unfolded like this: While in Paris with other world leaders to commemorate the centennial of the end of World War I, Trump stayed at the official residence of U.S. Ambassador Jamie McCourt, the palatial Hôtel de Pontalba. The mansion, in Paris’s chic 8th arrondissement, dates to 1842. It has served as a flagship of the State Department’s “Art in Embassies” cultural diplomacy program, and is open to tours.

The president’s planned visit to the Belleau Wood cemetery was canceled when rainy weather grounded the presidential helicopter, according to a redacted email the White House released to rebut the Atlantic story. The U.S. Secret Service ruled out a motorcade for the 56-mile drive, according to two people familiar with the matter.

That left Trump with about six hours of free time in the ambassador’s residence.

The next day, Trump pointed out a Benjamin Franklin bust, a Franklin portrait and a set of figurines of Greek mythical characters, and insisted the pieces come back with him to Washington.

The People’s House
McCourt, the ambassador, was startled, but didn’t object, according to people briefed on the incident. Trump later quipped that the envoy would get the art back “in six years,” when his potential second term in office would be winding down.

The art, worth about $750,000 according to one of the people familiar with the episode, was loaded aboard Air Force One while Trump visited another cemetery before the flight back to Washington.

“The President brought these beautiful, historical pieces, which belong to the American people, back to the United States to be prominently displayed in the People’s House,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in response to questions from Bloomberg News.

Trump’s move prompted some hair-pulling and a furious exchange of emails back home between the State Department’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations and White House officials who organized the art transfer. Ultimately, because the art is U.S. government property, the move was deemed legal.

Purchase Policy

Trump, who once used his charity to purchase a large portrait of himself, is known to display in his private West Wing dining room mementos from various official trips and encounters. Over time that’s included a pair of shoes gifted by musician Kanye West and an Ultimate Fighting Championship belt.

A senior White House official said presidents are permitted to display personal gifts from Americans or heads of state while they’re in office, but must purchase them if they want to keep the presents after they depart.

The figurines that caught Trump’s eye found a new home on the fireplace mantel in the Oval Office. Depicting Greek gods, they date to the early 20th century and were made by Neapolitan artist Luigi Avolio, who was trying to pass them off as sculptures from the 16th or 17th centuries, according to London-based art dealer Patricia Wengraf.

Portrait Gallery

In an “Antiques Roadshow” moment, Wengraf described the figurines as “20th century fakes of wannabe 17th century sculptures,” and of little value.

The French art-collection episode comes with a curious footnote. After White House art curators examined the pieces Trump brought home, the president was told that the Franklin bust was a replica. He joked that he liked the fake better than the original, two people familiar with the episode said.

The Franklin portrait snagged from Paris was also a copy — of the one Joseph Siffred Duplessis painted in France in 1785, which was then held by the National Portrait Gallery a mile from the White House.

The curators removed a different portrait of the founding father from the Oval Office and borrowed the original Duplessis from the gallery. That one now hangs in the Oval, not the replica Trump ferried out of France.

How Abe’s right-hand man made his play for Japan’s top job

Reuters / Mari Saito, Ju-min Park, Antoni Slodkowski
https://www.reuters.com/article/us-japan-politics-suga-insight/how-abes-right-hand-man-made-his-play-for-japans-top-job-idUSKBN25U38C

TOKYO (Reuters) – In the days leading up to Shinzo Abe’s surprise resignation last month as rumors of his ill health swirled in Japan, the prime minister’s right-hand man, Yoshihide Suga, was courting a ruling party boss whose backing could make him king.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga arrives at the ceremony site where Emperor Naruhito will report the conduct of the enthronement ceremony at the Imperial Sanctuary inside the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan, October 22, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Hong-ji

In a secluded dining room in an upscale Tokyo hotel, Suga met with Toshihiro Nikai, the secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), for a traditional Japanese meal. They shared stories from their youth when they both worked as secretaries for powerful politicians, according to a columnist who dined with them.

The dinner, Nikai’s third with Suga in as many months, came little over a week before Abe stepped down as Japan’s longest-serving premier and highlighted the kind of alliance-building that has made Suga the leading candidate to replace him.

At the dinner, Suga thanked Nikai for keeping a firm grip over the LDP, saying it had allowed Abe’s administration to execute its policies with ease, according to Fumiya Shinohara, the political columnist who was there with them.

Two weeks later, Nikai’s group was the first among the party’s factions to endorse Suga for the top job, support that makes him almost certain to be Japan’s next prime minister.

“In an environment where human relationships are paramount, that has been Mr. Suga’s best weapon,” said Shinohara, adding that their exchange over dinner cemented an alliance now poised to control the ruling party.

Suga’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the dinner. Suga has said, when asked on television about their discussion, that he and Nikai share a similar background and that he had introduced him to various people.

Nikai could not immediately be reached for comment.

For the past eight years, Suga, 71, has been the public face of the Abe administration as the government’s top spokesman but long kept a relatively low profile. He became better known to the public when he unveiled the name, Reiwa, of the new imperial era last year, a celebratory moment that marked the ascension of the new emperor and went viral, earning him the nickname “Uncle Reiwa”.

Behind the scenes, associates and analysts say Suga has been instrumental in shifting elements of decision making from Japan’s sprawling bureaucracy to the premier’s office and taming factional rivalries within the ruling party.

Suga is widely expected to stay the policy course set out by his predecessor, maintaining the “Abenomics” pro-growth stimulus policies aimed at pulling Japan out of deflation and keeping the economy afloat during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Suga will carry on the vision Abe is handing over to him,” said Takashi Ryuzaki, a political analyst and former TV journalist. “So there is no need for Suga to have his own vision.”

‘SOMEONE YOU WOULDN’T NOTICE’

In contrast to Abe, the scion of a political dynasty in Japan who staked his career on constitutional reform, Suga began his political career an outsider and rose through the ranks in local politics.

At a news conference on Wednesday where he officially announced his bid, Suga spoke about growing up in a farming community in Japan’s northern Akita prefecture.

“He was very quiet,” said Hiroshi Kawai, a former high school classmate who still lives in Suga’s hometown of Yuzawa and works as a local tour guide. “He was someone you wouldn’t notice if he was there or not.”

Suga left town soon after finishing high school and worked in a cardboard factory in Tokyo to save money for university. After graduation, he worked as a secretary for a prominent national lawmaker from Yokohama, home to Japan’s busiest port.

During his time in local politics, Suga pushed an ambitious project to redevelop Yokohama’s waterfront, according to Isao Mori, an author who published Suga’s biography in 2016. In the eight years he spent in the city assembly, Suga rose to be known as Yokohama’s “shadow mayor,” Mori said.

‘ACTOR ON A STAGE’

Suga has said he begins most days at 5 a.m., checking the news before doing 100 sit-ups and taking a 40-minute walk. Even among staffers used to the grueling schedules of politicians, he was seen as an outlier for his relentless work ethic.

Daisuke Yusa first met Suga in 2004 when he was working as a salesman for a garbage company. Suga soon recruited him to work as his secretary.

“He used to say, think of yourself as an actor on a stage and think objectively about what position you’re in now,” Yusa said, when asked about perceptions that Suga is more of a lieutenant than a leader.

Yusa, now a local politician, said Suga always emphasized the importance of doing one’s best no matter what the job.

“I think he’s been able to remain in such a position without school ties or political faction because he doesn’t try to stand out,” he said.

Under Abe’s first administration in 2006, Suga headed the ministry of internal affairs where he introduced a hometown tax program, offering tax deductions for those who donate money to local municipalities.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) speaks to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga before Suga answers questions during a lower house budget committee session at the parliament in Tokyo, Japan, February 20, 2014. REUTERS/Yuya Shino

Matsushige Ono, who served as a vice minister under Suga, said the program met fierce resistance from some bureaucrats, who opposed introducing a novel tax scheme without precedent.

“He continued to make his case because he saw how this would help rural communities,” Ono said.

NAVIGATING BUREAUCRACY

When Abe regained the premiership at the end of 2012, he again tapped Suga.

In 2016, facing an ever-stronger yen, Suga created a framework for joint Bank of Japan, finance ministry and banking regulator meetings to signal to investors Tokyo’s alarm over spikes in the yen.

Officials had wanted to create such a framework for years, but friction between ministries prevented it from being implemented.

Mitsumaru Kumagai, chief economist at the Daiwa Institute of Research who frequently speaks to Suga, said Suga has been particularly adept at navigating Japan’s complex bureaucracy.

“He is aware of who and where the key person is in any ministry and he understands how to move organisations by instructing that person,” Kumagai said.

This year, support for the administration went into freefall as the coronavirus pandemic battered an already slowing economy. When Abe’s health began to visibly falter, speculation grew over Suga’s ambitions.

Shinohara, who joined the August dinner between Suga and Nikai, said the two men had bonded over their similar backgrounds.

“There are a lot of politicians now who can give good speeches and others from bureaucracies who can manage policy, but he’s the kind of professional politician who has his own distinct smell,” he said.

After dinner, the men left the hotel separately as journalists snapped pictures. A day later, Suga was asked on a TV programme whether he was interested in running for the prime minister’s job. Laughing, he said: “Not at all.”

美感,无需靠金钱堆砌 ——专访著名空间设计师兼华住集团首席产品官周光明

「花有限的钱把酒店设计得更有美感。」他说,「美感不一定要用钱去堆砌。」汉庭 15 周年,我们和著名空间设计师兼华住集团首席产品官周光明聊了聊经济型酒店和汉庭3.5的故事。本月,汉庭酒店迎来了品牌创建的十五周年。自2005年首家汉庭酒店在昆山开业,从最初的1.0版本到如今的3.5版本,汉庭始终坚守初心,坚持经济型酒店的定位,为每位用户提供优质体验。7月初,首家汉庭3.5版本的西南旗舰店在成都武侯祠永丰酒店开业,8月18日,西北首家旗舰店也在兰州落地。在华住集团首席产品官周光明看来,汉庭作为华住的主力品牌,此次的3.5版本是华住集团的“王者归来”——面对经济型酒店的巨大市场,汉庭3.5无论从智能化体验还是美感升级,都足够让人眼前一亮。

汉庭3.5:坚持服务大众经济型消费

从最初的1.0版本到如今的汉庭3.5,在周光明看来,产品的持续迭代是自然且必需的,而大众生活方式的改变始终是迭代的首要驱动力。

“一个品牌如果想要永续地经营下去,就必须持续为用户创造价值,满足用户的需求。”周光明说道,“而并不只是‘昙花一现’。”因为大众的需求始终在改变着。如今,人们早已习惯了互联网时代,从生活方式到知识结构,从思考模式到生活习惯,这一切都在飞速变化。所以,汉庭也随着人们的步伐坚持迭代创新,来满足持续变化的市场需求,为大众提供更好的体验。

提到市场需求,周光明认为,经济型酒店在中国有将近10亿人口需求量,但对于如此巨大的市场需求,大家似乎并不十分关注。这背后的原因,则是五六年前开始被全面热议的“消费升级”——“几乎所有的酒店品牌,无论经济型还是高端型,都往中档酒店‘砸重兵’。“周光明说,“越来越少的人去关注经济型酒店,它们的迭代就渐渐变成了一个刚需。”

在经济型酒店日渐缓慢的发展过程中,汉庭3.5犹如新型的火箭升空,承担了引领市场转折的重任:为需要经济型酒店的大众创造了更优质的体验。“华住集团之前叫汉庭酒店集团。”周光明说道,“汉庭是华住的主力品牌,这次的汉庭3.5版,就是华住集团的王者归来。”

智能化体验:人的服务越少越好

汉庭3.5版本中,“智能化体验”和“美感升级”是让这一“新型火箭”升空的两个关键动力。

“智能化不是个噱头。”周光明说,“智能化的加入不仅可以控制和节约人力成本,还能让酒店住客拥有更高效、更方便的入住体验。”首先,智能化的自助check in、订房选房等环节,不仅保护个人隐私,还能让入住登记更加快速便利:手机上就能完成一切,脸部扫描后就能快速入住。入住酒店后,还有送外卖、送水、送物的机器人随时服务,在为住客提供便捷体验的同时,还大大降低了酒店服务员的人员配比。

当酒店减少人工服务,住客获得的服务也会更优质。“智能化的加入,让酒店能够更有效地对住客服务。”周光明说。首先,智能化服务的出错率极低,不会因为人工延误而消耗住客的时间。另外,酒店的智能化机器人可以同时为几百位住客拨打电话进行服务,而店长只用一部手机就能完成智能化管理,可以看到所有房间的状态,更加全面和完善。对于住客来说,可以通过房间内的智能化产品来呼叫前台、控制灯光、选择想看的节目在房间投屏等,都会让住客的体验得到提升。

不过,也会有人产生疑问:当汉庭3.5版本中增加了更多的智能化应用,人的服务也相对减少了,那么,入住酒店的体验会不会因此少了些“人情味”,住客会因此觉得不习惯?

周光明谈道,其实这就像十几年前人们对智能手机的争议一样:我们会不会用不惯智能手机?答案当然是不会的。时至今日,当智能手机被大量普及,我们已经被培养成为一种习惯,从而获得了快速习惯智能化生活方式的能力。当我们享受到智能化工具带来的便捷,就可以获得更自由、更惬意的生活体验。

“其实人的服务在经济型酒店的设计里越少越好。”周光明说,“当我们没有预算去请高端的服务人员提供接近完美的服务时,智能化机器的服务可以让住客感到更加的舒服——这样的服务简单又明确、不掺杂个人情绪、住客也不需要看其他人的脸色。”这样一来,住客无疑会获得更好的体验。

美感并不是金钱的堆砌

除了智能化产品的加入,汉庭3.5另一个让人眼前一亮的地方就是其美感的升级,即“颜值的提升”。

但对于经济型酒店而言,花有限的钱还要把酒店设计得更有美感,这是一件在外人看来非常有难度的事情。但周光明认为,花钱做颜值没有任何意义。“美感不一定要用钱去堆砌。”周光明解释道,“何况,一旦需要花钱去把酒店打造的很漂亮,它就不符合经济型的状态。”

在控制成本的同时,还能利用审美来增加记忆点,对于周光明而言,这像是于一滩沉寂的水面上制造波澜,无疑需要很大的力量。但这是汉庭3.5的使命——让人记住、让人眼前一亮。于是,周光明团队用心设计,尽心努力,终于做到了这点:利用非常有限的材料完成最佳的设计,用恰当的色彩、温柔的弧形角与温暖的灯光等,让住客处处能感受到酒店贴心的细节设计与空间美感。

“不加价的消费升级”:让每个人都能获得美好的入住体验

除了“智能化”与“高颜值”,汉庭3.5版本还成功做到了在不加价的情况下实现消费升级,诠释了中国经济型酒店的新标杆。

周光明告诉记者,能做到这点主要通过两种方式:第一,量足够大,薄利多销。“我们以前一年能做出一百家店,现在我们用设计实现了复制加速,一年可以开出五百家店,相当于多了五万个房间。”周光明解释道。

第二,三个维度的成本控制让汉庭3.5实现了“不加价”的消费升级:首先,工厂模组化的使用为物业节省时间,还可以大量减少装修时间,提前了开业时间;第二,因为有工厂化的制作,产品制作周期大幅提升,所以产品造价会降低,于是节约了造价成本;第三,人的管理成本因为“智能化机器人”的应用而大大降低。“这个机器人不是长得像人,而是一台可以跟人沟通的电脑。”周光明说道。这样的机器人在服务时无需“人的判断”介入,从而节约了服务时间,还减少了抱怨投诉。毕竟,投诉越多,就需要花费更多时间去处理。

所以,当在这三个维度都做到了降低、控制成本,就做到了不涨价,汉庭3.5让消费者可以用同样的价格,享受到好产品和好体验。

如今,汉庭在全国已拥有2600多家门店,遍布300多座城市,未来三年里,汉庭也将进一步拓展下沉市场。“汉庭有信心做到让三四线城市的用户享受跟一线城市一模一样的产品和服务。同时,在智能化工具的旁边,我们永远会准备一个人工服务,这样一来,无论在几线城市,会不会用智能产品,每位用户都能享受同样优质的酒店服务。”周光明说道。

中式设计哲学:人和空间的关系

除了贴心的服务,酒店的设计细节也对提升住客体验十分重要。此次汉庭3.5版本的设计中,周光明在细节里融入了许多以中国传统哲学为框架的设计思路,这些思路无疑会让国内消费者感觉到更舒服、更自在。

“中国人特别注重隐私、偏好私密,不喜欢接触,但又想要看到别人。”他说道,“我们在设计中很注意这点。比如,汉庭3.5中一些公共区域也采用了隔断式的设计,座位是背靠背的,而非一组大沙发,这样的空间设计会让人觉得舒服。”

周光明认为,唯有理解这样的用户心理,做出的空间才会令人倍感舒适。“而不是违背这种心理只为了设计一个好看、漂亮的空间。”周光明解释道,“就像在公共卫生间放置一个很贵的马桶,但却远不如实在的蹲坑让人用着安心和舒服,那种设计就是徒劳。”

谈到设计,每个设计师都会遭遇的难点是:如何平衡自己的设计理念与客户的需求。对于这点,周光明说,解决问题的关键在于彼此观念的沟通。“大家需要通过沟通来统一观念,在观念一致的情况下再进行大量的资源投入。”他解释道,“这样启动起来才能不同凡响,也更容易成功。第一家店一定会花费超出预期的预算,但可以等它发动起来,再控制成本。”

坚持初心:让更多消费者回归品牌

不仅在设计上尽心细心,周光明面对市场也始终有所坚持——汉庭3.5版本需要维持住性价比,让消费者回归到“汉庭”这一经济型酒店品牌。

“3.5版本一定会维持住卖价。”周光明说,“希望用性价比来重新地收拢客户对我们的信心。”汉庭希望能让消费者花相对少的价钱,得到好的产品的体验跟感受,所以,旧版本的酒店会迅速升级,来让3.5版本遍地开花。“当1.0的产品跟3.5的产品同样都叫‘汉庭’,一定会伤害消费者的感受,也会伤害他对品牌的印象。”周光明说。

另外,一旦当酒店拥有出色的性价比时,就能够吸引更多客人。“我们要让全季的客人住到汉庭,也没有任何违和感,也不会觉得不好。”周光明说,“当把全季的客人引导到汉庭,也可以推着全季继续往前跑。”

在未来两年之内,汉庭计划淘汰大部分2.7以下的产品,将3.5版本在全国铺开,形成网络并会进一步下沉布局三四五线城市,在三年内计划开到5000家左右,计划在2028年将酒店数量扩至1万家。

在“千城万店”宏伟战略的指导下,汉庭将进一步焕新本土消费者和投资商的品牌认知。凭借华住集团平台优势和高效运营模式,汉庭也将继续让住客用优惠的价格享受高效、安心、舒服、友好的住宿体验,成为全球最大的单一酒店品牌,重新定义经济型酒店的深刻内涵。王者归来,从此刻开始。

Japan’s ‘Flying Car’ Takes First Piloted Test Flight Off the Ground

My Modern Met / Jessica Stewart
https://mymodernmet.com/skydrive-flying-car-japan/

SkyDrive eVTOL in Flight

We’ve all seen old science fiction films where, in the future, people are zipping around on their flying cars. Well, the future is now! In Japan, the Toyota-backed startup SkyDrive conducted the first public run of their flying vehicle. Whizzing around the Toyota test field, the single passenger flying car made quite an impression.

Looking like an enormous drone, the vehicle was manned by a pilot and hovered several feet above the ground while maneuvering around the test field. Though the flight lasted just four minutes, it is an incredible achievement for SkyDrive. Designed to be the world’s smallest electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing (eVTOL) vehicle, SkyDrive’s SD-03 model takes up the space of just two parked cars. The sleek cabin is surrounded by eight rotors powered by individual engines, which ensures safety during emergency situations.

While the test drive is certainly a breakthrough, there’s still work to be done. SkyDrive is hoping to complete enough test flights in the enclosed area to meet safety provisions that will allow the team to take it for flights outside the test field. Currently, this futuristic mode of transit can only fly for just five to 10 minutes. SkyDrive president Tomohiro Fukuzawa hopes that this can be expanded to 30 minutes, which would make the vehicle helpful in exports.

SkyDrive Flying Car

“We want to realize a society where flying cars are an accessible and convenient means of transportation in the skies and people are able to experience a safe, secure, and comfortable new way of life,” says Fukuzawa.

The aim of SkyDrive is to have its flying car on the market by 2023. To do so, the company will be making a big push in the coming years, helped in part by Toyota’s funding and the expertise of its engineers. Whatever hurdles it faces, one thing is for certain, they’ve brought us one step closer to living out our Jetsons fantasy.

Why Does Walmart Want TikTok? Looking to China May Explain

The New York Times / Raymond Zhong
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/28/technology/tiktok-walmart-ecommerce.html?action=click&block=more_in_recirc&impression_id=0535c833-eb3b-11ea-af23-17b0514b0966&index=4&pgtype=Article&region=footer

Walmart’s late entry this week into the scramble to buy TikTok’s U.S. operations left some people with a question.

Two questions, actually:

Walmart? Really?

But the proposed teaming up of the giant retailer and Microsoft to run the video app in the United States makes more sense in light of the direction TikTok’s owner has taken its sibling app in China, its home country.

That version of the app, Douyin, which works much like TikTok but is available only in China, has become not only a platform for goofy videos but also an e-commerce destination with the kind of reach among young buyers that Walmart would love to have.

The Chinese social media giant that runs both apps, ByteDance, began testing e-commerce features on Douyin in 2018. That was well before the company rolled out a “Shop Now” button on TikTok in recent months that redirects users to shopping sites.

Smartphone users in China have taken, in a big way, to buying things while they watch people hawk the products — think QVC and late-night television infomercials reinvented for the mobile age. Chinese e-commerce platforms have for years been adding livestreaming to their apps, and video apps have been adding shopping functions. In all, $140 billion in merchandise could be sold in China this year via livestreaming, more than double last year’s amount, according to estimates by the research firm Bernstein.

The sheer size of the Chinese consumer market has created a vast field for retail experiments of other kinds as well. One of the country’s newest e-commerce giants, Pinduoduo, has turned internet shopping into something more like a surreal video game. For Pinduoduo’s fans, the process of stumbling across strange new products, at ludicrously low prices, is a big part of the experience. Actually receiving those products is almost secondary. Currently, nearly 570 million people use Pinduoduo’s app every month.

Douyin started out by allowing video creators to post links to their stores on China’s largest online bazaar, Alibaba’s Taobao platform. Eventually, it allowed users to set up storefronts within the Douyin app itself, and now it is more aggressively pushing creators to sell through those native stores instead of on outside sites.

For most Chinese consumers, Douyin is not about to replace Taobao and other full-fledged shopping sites entirely. The design of the app means the products that sell best are cheap impulse buys, said Fabian Bern, the head of Many, a marketing company that works with creators on Douyin and TikTok.

“You’re scrolling very quick through content,” Mr. Bern said, which means that few people on the app are going to buy, say, a pricey wristwatch. “You will think twice about it, then basically the video is gone already.”

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“That’s why I think the Walmart thing is pretty interesting,” he added. “They can sell their cheaper products directly to that audience in TikTok.”

Bargain-bin prices do not guarantee customer satisfaction. Last year, an anonymous author wrote a widely shared account of buying a half-pound of dried shrimp on Douyin and feeling cheated. The app showed plump, palm-size specimens that had supposedly been grilled at home by a kindly-looking lady. But the shrimp that came in the mail were tiny and smelly, the person wrote. Then, when the person tried to get a refund, little information was to be found.

Mr. Bern acknowledged that ByteDance had much to learn when it came to customer service in retail. He said that if TikTok’s e-commerce features were not yet as advanced as Douyin’s, it was in part because Chinese influencers were more entrepreneurial about trying to convert their appeal as video stars into sales of physical products.

TikTok’s more global audience has also forced ByteDance to be more cautious about making changes to the platform than it is with Douyin.

“We’ve seen that TikTok is going to be exactly like Douyin. It’s just a little bit slower,” Mr. Bern said. “There’s nothing unique to TikTok that was not on Douyin.”