TIME Social Media

Facebook Is Playing a Brilliant Long Game for Your Attention

Facebook Messenger Platform F8
Bloomberg via Getty Images Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook Inc., speaks during the Facebook F8 Developers Conference in San Francisco, Calif., on March 25, 2015.

Remember Facebook Deals? How about Beacon, the ad-sharing feature that collapsed in a privacy scandal? Did you ever use Facebook Gifts while it was around? And when was the last time you fired up the Flipboard-like Paper app, if you ever downloaded it at all?

Facebook’s track record in releasing new apps or features is spotty at best, with a trail of outright failures running through the company’s history. This week, as the company announces new initiatives at its F8 developers conference, you have to wonder which ones will end up falling by the wayside.

And yet, taking the long view, you also have to wonder whether any new crop of failures will matter at all. Because when Facebook conceives new ideas and turns them into apps or platforms, the company is taking the long view. Facebook isn’t trying to bat 1.000, or even have a .407 season. Even with its collective failures, Facebook remains beloved by investors, who have pushed its stock up 232% over the past two years.

From that perspective, it’s more important to see what Facebook is trying to accomplish with its newly announced offerings, rather than looking too closely at the announcements themselves. With that in mind, here’s a quick summary of what Facebook has announced so far at F8:

Messenger Platform, which features a compose window loaded with third-party apps (40 for now), and a new customer-support communication with businesses.

Parse. The mobile platform Facebook bought a couple of years ago will let developers build apps for the Internet of things, including wearable devices and smart appliances.

Embedded videos. In a clear threat to Google, videos uploaded to Facebook’s site can be embedded YouTube-like, on other sites.

LiveRail. Facebook is launching a mobile ad exchange that lets publishers sell display and video ads using Facebook data alongside cookies.

Spherical videos. Shot with 24 coordinated cameras, the immersive, 360-degree videos bring an element of virtual reality to the news feed.

These are only the latest announcements. On Tuesday, Facebook unveiled On This Day, a feature showing users archived posts as their anniversaries roll by. On Monday, Instagram announced Layout, a new app that combines multiple photos into a single image. Over the weekend, word leaked out that Facebook was talking with media companies about hosting content inside its platform. And last week, Messenger added the ability for friends to send payments to each other.

Tech keynotes have become like Christmas stockings, a grab bag of new goodies that, handled right, fill gadget lovers and developers with either glee or disappointment. Facebook’s stocking this week wasn’t as squeal-inducing as some of Apple’s have been. But again, that’s not the goal. The goal is to keep innovating, to keep iterating, until something gels with user behavior, gaining enough traction to become a part of their daily lives.

In fact, many of Facebook’s newer initiatives are largely do-overs of its past misfires. Beacon was re-engineered in Facebook Connect, which also shared user information on third-party sites–and AppLinks, a feature mentioned in the F8 Keynote, takes that integration a step further with deep linking. Facebook Places, launched in 2011 to kill off Foursquare and shuttered a year later, was reborn this year as Place Tips, aiming once again squarely at Foursquare.

In the weekly tech news cycle, these little revelations seem ephemeral, even trivial. Take a few steps back and look at the longer-term perspective and something more significant emerges: Facebook is mutating, virus-like, to adapt to how we interact with each other online. In conference calls with investors, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg repeatedly warn they won’t monetize products until they resonate with a large base of users. That was the case with Facebook’s original Web site, and it’s still the case with Instagram and WhatsApp.

Facebook’s own Messenger app is a clear example. After launching as a “Gmail killer” in 2010, the original Messages feature became a staple of the site and, eventually, a distinct app. When the company later bought WhatsApp, some worried Facebook would spoil it by turning it into an all-in-one messaging platform like WeChat or Line. Instead, WhatsApp remains largely unchanged, while Facebook is amping up Messenger from app to platform, with an ecosystem of third-party apps on top.

Of all the F8 announcements, Messenger is the most interesting. By letting users download apps directly inside conversations, Facebook is making it easy to distribute apps virally–a huge draw for developers considering Facebook’s platform. If this plan succeeds, Facebook would be hard to rival in the messaging space.

But Facebook didn’t stop there. Messenger is also becoming a line of communications with companies. Deals and Gifts were attempts to anchor ecommerce inside Facebook that largely fell short of Facebook dream of getting consumers to interact as closely with brands as they do their friends. If Messaging–which chronicles transactions from purchase to delivery inside a single thread, aiming to make ecommerce as personal as in-store buying–doesn’t achieve that original goal, it’s a big step toward it.

Not all of Facebook’s new efforts are very far along. In opening Parse up to the Internet of things, Facebook cited examples like push notifications when garage doors open or close, or reminders that a plant needs to be watered. These feel like applications that make people dread push notifications or wired homes in general. But Facebook is working with chipmakers to build Parse support inside processors, so there’s clearly a long-term game being played here as well.

Some of these new features may fall by the wayside, prompting snickers by observers. But the real question–as is usually the case in Silicon Valley–is how will Facebook respond? If you don’t love the new Messenger or embedded videos, Facebook is all right with that. It doesn’t need you to love them. It just needs them to be just useful enough among your friends that you start using it yourself.

And when it does, Facebook will have wormed its way that much more tightly into your daily life. Because at Facebook, it’s never been about being loved. It’s aways been about being used.

TIME Autos

How Silicon Valley Suddenly Fell in Love With Cars

Tesla Model S.
Tesla Tesla's battery makes it cleaner than gas-guzzling alternatives—but think about what else it's made of.

The last great remaining American preoccupation tech hasn't yet tackled is the automobile. That's about to change

“The American really loves nothing but his automobile,” Gavin Stevens says in Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust. “Because the automobile has become our national sex symbol.” Given that longtime infatuation, you’d think Silicon Valley’s tech companies would have been eager to get into the auto industry before now. Instead, many are surprised that it’s happening at all.

Ever since the personal computer became mainstream, Silicon Valley has been inventing or reinventing new gadgets: the music player, the phone, the computer itself, first as a portable, now as a tablet. Amazon remade the shopping mall and put it on a screen. Netflix and YouTube subverted the TV set, and now Google’s Nest is going after other household appliances. This year, Apple is reworking the wristwatch, casting tech as jewelry.

The last great remaining American preoccupation that tech hasn’t yet tackled is the automobile. Much of this has to do with logistics–selling phones or music players is child’s play next to the expensive, highly regulated business of manufacturing cars–but there’s also a historical mindset at work. Detroit, with its combustion engines and metallic gears, was the epitome of an analog era that Silicon Valley displaced. The car was an anachronism, however beloved.

No longer. Google has been working on self-driving cars for a number of years. Uber has started looking into them as well. Now, according to the ever-churning Apple rumor mill, the Cupertino giant is working on a stealth car project. For tech companies, the automobile has gone from a super-sized docket to park a smartphone while you drive to a gadget that can be reimagined from the ground up with digital technology.

The sudden shift is happening for a few reasons. First, with PCs, tablets and smartphone markets close to saturation, tech giants are looking for new markets to invade with their innovations. Second, the car market seems ripe for a makeover. American automakers like GM may be reviving post-financial crisis, but the U.S. looks to have reached “peak driving:” Annual miles driven per person is down 9% from 1995, and even more among young drivers.

But the biggest single reason tech suddenly loves the car is Tesla. The company founded by Elon Musk in 2003 to make electric cars has become much more: It has fused the automaker with the tech company, and not only built a cultural bridge between Detroit and Silicon Valley but showed that both were converging toward each other.

Tesla was a wake-up call to automakers that had grown complacent about innovation. It showed that technology was a powerful way to differentiate a particular model from the herd, and that if automakers wanted to reach out to younger consumers, they should embrace the kinds of technology they enjoy. Soon, you began to hear auto executives talk about “smarter cars” and roadways as “connected networks” structured like the Internet (15 years ago, that simile ran mostly in the opposite direction).

Read more: How Apple Is Invading Our Bodies

Google CEO Larry Page has said his interest in driverless cars stems from the inefficiency of roadways, which not only cost lives but waste worker time in traffic jams. (It doesn’t hurt, either, that driverless cars could offer commuters more opportunity to look at Google ads.) Uber is also researching self-driving cars to lower costs for its passenger service as well as a planned delivery service.

The loudest buzz surrounds Project Titan, a rumored Apple car that in reality could be pretty much anything: an electric vehicle, a leased minivan, a driverless car, a ploy to acquire Tesla, a bluff to pressure automakers into putting its CarPlay software in their vehicles, or a clever Apple hoax trolling Apple rumor-mongers. Wall Street analysts, though, think an Apple car is the likely bet, and if so the marriage of Detroit and Silicon Valley is a matter of time.

If nothing else, Apple’s rumored entry into automobiles seems to have turned up the heat. Last week, Musk said Tesla would start offering “autopilot” technology in its cars this summer. Google said its more ambitious driverless-car system would be ready for broad consumption in five years.

But the dark-horse in this new race may be Samsung, which according to Thomson Reuters has “has the largest and broadest collection of patents in the automotive field including a very large interest in batteries and fuel cells for next generation vehicles.” If automobile technology boils down to a patent race, Samsung may end up having an edge. Samsung even has some history in car manufacturing.

The end goal of these tech aspirations in the automotive industry may well be partnerships with established manufacturers. After all, what company is dying to break into a low-margin heavy industry? Many auto executives scoff at the idea that jumping from smartphones to cars is good idea. They may be surprised. Cars are just another form of technology, albeit one in need of an upgrade. And who is better positioned to upgrade them Apple or Google?

TIME Apple

Apple Is Turning Itself into a Fashion Company

New Product Announcements At The Apple Inc. Spring Forward Event
David Paul Morris—Bloomberg/Getty Images Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, speaks during the Apple Inc. Spring Forward event in San Francisco, Calif. on March 9, 2015.

That's the real meaning of "more personal" technology

So much of Apple’s “Spring Forward” event last week has been analyzed to death, but I’d like to focus for a moment on the outfit that CEO Tim Cook wore. Yes, I know, such trivial considerations like executive fashion are inane when discussing a company like Apple–or at least they used to be–but bear with me.

The costumes CEOs wear during keynote events have become a part of the marketing message, especially when they involve multibillionaires slumming in something you could buy for $100 at Ross. For years, Steve Jobs wore rumpled, fading 501s, New Balance sneakers and the now-iconic black mock turtleneck. Early on in his keynotes, Tim Cook wore an untucked button-down shirt over nondescript jeans. (Fashion writers sniped that he had “no fashion.”)

That changed this week. Cook announced the sale of the Apple Watch not only with his shirt tucked in, but enveloped by a dark zip cardigan. The jeans looked to be upgraded to selvage denim. The message–coming during a week when Apple’s stock entered the blue-chip Dow Industrials and the company itself started pushing $17,000 gold watches–was clear, if fitting: Fashion now matters at Apple. I’m talking about, of course, much more than Tim Cook’s jeans.

None of this is much of a surprise. In fact, it’s been a long time coming. After Steve Jobs died, Cook’s Apple began caving to shareholder demands to offer dividends and split its stock–moves that Jobs vocally opposed during his tenure. And under Jobs, Apple products were high-end devices to give consumers the highest-quality personal computers available, not to become luxury fashions.

But if the change has been gradual and low key, Apple under Tim Cook is beginning to make some radical breaks with the Apple according to Jobs. For decades, Apple fanboys fought against the Microsoft hegemony of the PC industry and for the purity of Apple’s vision for personal computing. To be an Apple fanboy in 2015, however, is to be a fan of The Man. The ultimate corporate outsider is, under Cook, becoming the consummate insider.

There is of course much that remains unchanged under Cook. The corporate culture is largely intact despite a sixfold increase in headcount. Design is as paramount a factor as ever in both hardware and software. (Perhaps even more so than before as some of Jobs’ whimsy has been thankfully abandoned.) Above all, the user remains the focus of all products, which are never released until fully baked. Cook called the Watch “the most personal device we’ve ever created”—and that’s all Apple has really done: make personal computing as personal as possible.

And yet it’s hard to ignore the subtle but significant ways Apple is changing. The old Apple disdained the idea of giving billions of dollars to investors when it could be stockpiled for innovation. The Dow was closer to a cabal of incumbents to be disrupted and not a place for rebel companies. And the idea of splitting Apple’s shares to fit into an anachronistic, price-weighted stock index conceived in the 19th Century would have seemed silly.

These changes at Apple are understandable. With $178 billion in cash (mostly overseas), Apple would be facing intense shareholder pressure not to distribute some of that largesse. But the old Apple took a cavalier attitude about investors. They weren’t just sitting in the back seat, they were put in the back-back seat of a station wagon, and should consider themselves lucky to be along for the ride. Growth was the goal Apple strove for. Dividends were paid by sissies.

The sale of expensive gold Apple Watches is also logical. There is no killer app, or even a killer function, for the smartwatch yet. But there won’t be until a lot of people start using them regularly. But they won’t wear one until there’s a killer app, and so on. To break this catch-22, Apple is pitching the watch as a luxury fashion item. Wear it because it makes you look good–because it’s fashion–and then Apple can tweak the technology inside once it figures out what features are most popular.

So the fashion factor of the Watch is enmeshed with the same goal Apple has for every product: a more personal technology. But even the idea that fashion is a goal that Apple should be pursuing at all marks a departure. iPods were once a cool, coveted gadget, and that image was played up in memorable TV ads. But in the end fashion was simply a byproduct of the design Apple used to make the iPod more personal.

Later, when Jobs unveiled the iPhone in 2007, he would have laughed at the idea it was a fashion accessory. Its purpose was to let you carry the Web itself around in your pocket. The sleek design on the outside told you about all the smart design inside.

With the smartwatch, Apple–along with everyone else – is still working on how to make what’s inside as compelling and intuitive as the iPhone. And so to many, its primary allure is as a status symbol. That notion strikes a lot of longtime Apple users as kind of odd, with many people joking that the $17,000 gold Watch has displaced Google Glass as the new gold standard for douchebags.

Cook and Apple will be able to brush off such jokes. The more expensive watches are not immediately visible on Apple’s site, and retail shoppers need to seek them out. It’s the same with the other changes Cook is making. They aren’t immediately visible, but they add up to a new Apple that’s very different from the company that Steve Jobs built.

Apple still thinks like a startup but, in many ways, it’s acting more and more like a blue-chip giant. It still clings to counterculture ideals and yet it’s become the company that, more than any other, defines cultural norms. A big, interesting question facing Tim Cook’s Apple is, how long can it continue to straddle such contradictions?

TIME Smartphones

Why Xiaomi Terrifies the Rest of the Tech World

Xiaomi Mi Note
ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images Lei Jun, chairman and CEO of China's Xiaomi Inc. presents the company's new product, the Mi Note on Jan. 15, 2015 in Beijing, China.

China's top smartphone maker has set its sights on tech's biggest companies

You can tell a lot about the state of the tech industry by looking at the company that’s currently scaring the crap out of everybody. A decade ago, it was Google. More recently, Facebook became the 800-pound gorilla in social media and photo sharing. This year, the heavy is one that was unknown in the US until a year or so ago: Xiaomi.

Out of countless smartphone makers that have emerged to build on the Android mobile operating system, Xiaomi has not only broken apart from the herd, it’s quickly given other smartphone manufacturers a run for their money. Xiaomi’s share of the global smartphone market rose to 5.3% in late 2014 from 2.1% a year earlier, according to Statista.

A big reason for Xiaomi’s sudden success is that it designs its own hardware as well as the firmware that rides on top of Android’s open-source software. Xiaomi’s MIUI interface evokes the speed and sleekness of an iPhone or a high-end Samsung phone, but often retails for half the price. Most Android phone sellers, by contrast, rely on similar design templates offered by third-party manufacturers like Foxconn.

Xiaomi’s simple strategy of high-quality gadgets at lower prices is threatening the business models of some of the biggest names in technology, including:

Samsung. In China, where the bulk of Xiaomi’s phones have been sold to date, the company’s market share has risen to 15% from 5% a year earlier. Samsung’s, meanwhile, has fallen to 12% from 19%. According to IDC, Samsung’s smartphone shipments in China declined by 22% in 2014, while Xiaomi’s surged 187%.

Samsung has been a big presence in other emerging economies, but Xiaomi announced in January that it would be pushing aggressively into Brazil, Russia and other emerging markets. After launching in India in July, Xiaomi already has a 4% market share. And the company raised $1.1 billion in December, proceeds that could go to building manufacturing and marketing presences in new countries.

Apple has emerged as the predominant smartphone company at the high end of the market. So with Xiaomi offering stylish phones at lower prices, Samsung may find itself pinched between iPhones and low-cost commodity Android phones. Now Xiaomi is gunning for another core Samsung market: TV sets. In November, Xiaomi paid$200 million for Midea Group, a maker of consumer electronics, and said it would spend $1 billion to build out its TV ecosystem.

GoPro. Xiaomi is also planning on launching a site to sell its goods in the US. But for various reasons like the complex subsidies US carriers pay to offset sticker prices, Xiaomi won’t sell smartphones here but instead will sell its fitness tracker, headphones and other accessories.

Earlier this month, Xiaomi said it would also start selling the Yi Camera, a 1080p high-definition action camera that sounds a lot like the best-selling Hero sold by GoPro. Only the Yi will sell for $64, or about half the price of the Hero. The Yi even improves on the Hero with a 16-megapixel camera shooting 60 frames a second. So again, high-end quality at half the price.

GoPro’s brand is much stronger in the US than Xiaomi’s. If that changes, GoPro faces a tough choice between slashing the Hero’s price or watching its market share erode. GoPro’s stock has already lost 39% this year amid concerns about whether it can maintain its torrid growth pace. The bigger the splash that Xiaomi’s camera makes in the US, the more those concerns will grow.

Google. As a thriving smartphone company built on Android, you’d think Xiaomi’s success would be a positive for Google, which still makes the vast bulk of its revenue from online ads. But Google’s services and mobile apps are either blocked or hamstrung in China, so local companies like Alibaba and Baidu have long since learned to work on Android phones without Google’s API.

Google has never had a strong footprint in China. What isn’t clear is what role Google apps will play on Xiaomi’s phones sold outside of China. On the one hand, Google takes a hard line on companies that use Android without its services. On the other, Xiaomi VP (and former Googler) Hugo Barra indicated last week that Xiaomi may not export to new markets the app store it uses for its Chinese customers.

Apple. Given the popularity of the iPhone 6 in China and across the globe, Apple seems to be immune for now to any threat posed by Xiaomi. But glance a few years down the road and it’s not hard to imagine the Chinese manufacturer competing with the best products offered by the reigning king of Silicon Valley.

Xiaomi’s MIUI is several years younger than Apple’s iOS. But despite Apple’s early lead, Xiaomi has quickly created an interface that is not only drawing more comparisons with the look and feel of iOS, it’s designed to be used on a wide array of devices from phones to tablets to wearables.

Xiaomi’s expansion trajectory also looks a lot like Apples: a smart TV console that streams digital content, a fitness tracker that could easily mature into a smartwatch, headphones that offer stylish looks and gold-colored metal. There were even reports this week of a Xiaomi electric car–spurious, to be sure, but it fits the idea that the most innovative companies are interested in the car market.

Apple’s earlier iPhones suffered phases when their features weren’t terribly distinctive from other top phones on the market. If that happens again, and Mi’s user experience comes closer to that of the iPhone, Xiaomi could steal some of Appple’s market share. In the meantime, the two emerging rivals have already taken tothrowing shade on each other.

Xiaomi is sure to face speed bumps as it races forward, like the patent suits it’s already facing in India. Competitors may use patent litigation to slow Xiaomi’s global expansion, but then again, a company worth $45 billion and planning an IPO can easily raise enough cash to buy a substantial patent portfolio of its own. Beyond that, it’s hard to see what will slow Xiaomi’s steady march ahead.

Read next: The Biggest Misconception About Apple

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TIME Companies

The Real Meaning of Etsy’s Initial Public Offering

The logo of Etsy Inc., is displayed for a photograph in Tiskilwa, Illinois, U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. Etsy Inc., where people sell handmade crafts and vintage goods, may be the biggest technology IPO to come out of New York since 1999. Etsy is working on an IPO that could take place as soon as this quarter, people familiar with the matter said. Photographer:  Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
Daniel Acker—Bloomberg via Getty Images The Etsy logo is displayed on a smartphone in front of sewing machine in Tiskilwa, Ill., on Jan. 20, 2015

Twee jokes aside, the handmade marketplace's IPO is a test for Wall Street

Etsy’s decision to go public seems to have unleashed a wave of jokes about Portlandia, yarn crafts, and Brooklyn hipsters on Wall Street. Go ahead and get it out of your system, and when you’re done consider for a moment what this stock offering, which could come as early as April, will mean for the tech IPO market at large.

Founded in 2005, Etsy has aged better than many of the startups that have emerged during the past decade, like Yelp or Groupon. With revenue still growing close to 60% a year, the company seems to have a fair amount of gas in its growth engine. That’s because Etsy was designed to do something that didn’t really exist at scale before: create a marketplace devoted to connecting those who love to make handcrafted goods with consumers who love buying them.

Etsy’s origins lie in real-world craft fairs, tightly connecting the creators who drove the maker movement in ways that a broader marketplace like eBay couldn’t. The marketplace charges sellers a 3.5% fee on completed transactions plus a 20 cents per item to list fees on the site for four months. Sellers can also pay extra for shipping labels, direct checkout and promoted listings, and these value-added services now make up 47% of Etsy’s total revenue.

But while Etsy is one of the more successful communities to have emerged on the Internet in the past decade, it’s not exactly counted among the so-called “unicorns”, the rare and wildly popular startups, like Uber or Airbnb, that can raise megaround after megaround of private financing, skirting the need for an IPO and all the regulation and scrutiny that come with a publicly traded stock.

When Etsy filed its S-1 Wednesday, it became clearer why. Airbnb is reportedly near a $20 billion valuation, while Uber is valued at twice that amount. Etsy didn’t indicate what the company may be worth after its IPO, but it’s hoping to raise $100 million, and given that many Internet IPOs float only 5% or 10% of their outstanding shares, that could lead to an IPO that values the company between $1 billion and $2 billion.

The Etsy offering could be an important testing of the IPO waters for other companies that have growing businesses and devoted followings, but that are not able to secure large rounds of private financings. The coming months may well see more of these companies seeking IPOs if US interest rates begin to edge higher. That could bring an end to the six-year stock rally, prompting investors in both public and private markets to be choosier about where they put their money.

For Etsy, the challenge is in extending the growth in its core market to a broader range of consumers. Nearly 80% of Etsy’s sales come from repeat buyers, many of whom prefer to buy from individual producers. Etsy has 1.4 million active sellers, 95% of them running Etsy shops from their homes.

To keep growing, Etsy has had to implement changes that have alienated some longtime sellers, like expanding from handmade goods to those manufactured in small batches. And it’s decided it can’t rely mostly on the word-of-mouth referrals that drove its early growth. As a result, Etsy’s spending on search engines and other kinds of marketing rose 122% in 2014 to $40 million.

That aggressive spending caused Etsy to swing from an operating profit of $733,000 in 2013 to a $6.3 million operating loss last year. Despite the loss, Etsy still generated $12 million in operating cash flows. Meanwhile, the company’s cash on hand increased to $70 million at the end of 2014 from $37 million a year earlier. Both figures are indications of healthy business operations.

The prospectus, however, also warned of two “material weaknesses” in the way Etsy controls its financial reporting—one related to how it accounts for certain unnamed expenses and another related to “period-end accruals.” It’s not clear that either will lead to a restatement of earnings, but normally companies wait until these kinds of financial kinks are ironed out before going public. The presence of these disclosures may suggest Etsy is under pressure to complete its IPO quickly.

Another question is how Wall Street will receive Etsy’s corporate idealism. Unlike Groupon, Etsy doesn’t play up its quirkiness—a streak of humor that ultimately fell flat with investors—but its prospectus makes clear it marches to the beat of its own drum. The company’s name is taken from a phrase repeated through Fellini’s 8 ½, and its independent spirit remains strong today.

Which is why Etsy’s S-1 contained sentences like, “We eat on compostable plates, and employees sign up to deliver our compost by bike to a local farm in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where it is turned back into the soil that produces the food we enjoy together.” Or the risk factor that the company’s “focus on long-term sustainability” may hamper its short-term performance.

Google and Facebook both issued such warnings, but Etsy is raising the ante by citing sustainability and environmental concerns, rather than innovation, as the long-term objective that weigh on short-term profits. These goals are laudable and worthy in the real world, but inside the rarefied, profit-obsessed realm of Wall Street they will either be glossed over—or zeroed in on when it comes time to cut costs.

For now, though, Etsy is likely to receive a warm welcome on Wall Street. Internet IPOs with brand names familiar to consumers are a rare item these days, unlike the legion of obscure if promising drug startups. Etsy’s first test will be in showing that the spending on marketing is translating into new and loyal users. Handcrafted goods are as old as commerce itself, and Etsy has given them a modern twist. Whether that can scale up to a mainstream market remains to be seen.

TIME Spending & Saving

Budget-Minded Travelers Have to Look Harder for Deals

airplane-landing-runway
Getty Images

Consolidation means would-be deal hunters must turn to new sites for savings

One of the ways the TV show The Americans makes it clear that it’s a period piece is by showing its Soviet spies working at a travel agency. Yes, those were indeed different times when a family could support a decent lifestyle by booking trips for tourists. When the web emerged in the 90s, travel agencies were one of the first to fall by the wayside.

A generation of web startups emerged helping travelers to quickly find the cheapest fares on their own PCs: Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz. Priceline offered its distinctive “name your own price” model before giving in and adopting the basic discount business model of the others. Meanwhile, independent travel agents in North America and Europe closed up shop.

After a while, consolidation became inevitable and it grew harder to differentiate between the myriad travel sites. A generation of younger startups like Kayak and Trivago emerged to improve on things, by offering meta-search engines that searched the travel search engines for deals that were getting harder to find. Airlines and hotels wised up to the game, inserting add-on fees onto their posted fares or offering deals available exclusively through their own sites.

In time, consolidation gobbled up the young startups: Priceline bought Kayak and Expedia acquired Trivago. Many of the older sites are still around , for anyone loyal to them–Travelocity, Hotels.com, Cheaptickets.com–only they’re owned by either Expedia and Priceline.

And earlier this month, when Expedia said it would pay $1.3 billion for Orbitz, it left basically two major online-travel sites. There are a few mid-sized travel companies remaining but some, like TripAdvisor, have seen their stocks rise on speculation that its shares could soon be in play.

For consumers, the trend probably isn’t a positive one. It may well make finding the best travel deals that much harder, now that there’s less incentive for Expedia and Priceline to compete with others for the best deals. The Justice Department may review the proposed Expedia-Orbitz deal for antitrust concerns. If regulators act to derail the transaction, Expedia will owe Orbitz $115 million, so Expedia has a strong incentive to see the acquisition go through.

In the meantime, competition from other web giants hasn’t really emerged. There have been reports that Amazon would enter the online-travel space in January, but they haven’t panned out yet, and Amazon’s plans may be as modest as some package deals as part of Amazon local. Google’s purchase of ITA hasn’t made it a huge presence in online travel, but it allowed it to create a spiffier interface for the same flight data that can be found on Kayak, Orbitz and others.

If there’s any hope for bargain-hunting travelers, it may come from the ever flowing emergence of new travel startups. The clearest example is Airbnb, the accommodation-rental marketplace that more than any other startup of the past decade has shown there’s still growth for new entrants. Airbnb was recently valued around $13 billion, or slightly less than the combined market value of Expedia and Orbitz and about a fifth of Priceline’s.

For airfares–or for hotels and vacation rentals that can’t be found in the lodging-sharing economy pioneered by Airbnb–there are mostly smaller players. HomeAway, which offers through VRBO.com and other sites vacation rentals that avoid Airbnb, has a $2.9 billion market cap. CheapOair and Skyscanner represent a new, more-meta kind of airfare engine that scours fares available to online travel agents.

In the end, consolidation may simply push budget-minded travelers away from the biggest companies and toward new startups that are figuring out new angles for finding travel values. Vayable, for example, connects travelers with locals who can act as tour guides, while Gogobot uses a social model to help tourists plan trips based on their interests.

And then there’s Flightfox. The San Francisco-based startup, sensing the difficulty of finding the best travel deals online in an era of consolidation, uses crowdsourcing to tap the expertise of others who know the tricks of finding deals. In a way, Flightfox has brought the online-travel industry back full circle to the traditional travel agent. After two decades of online travel sites, having a human book your itinerary may be the once again the best option.

TIME stock market

Here’s the Biggest Change in Technology in Recent Memory

Yelp Yelp. If you’re on vacation or new in town (or even not-so-new in town) and you want to learn about what’s around you — shops, restaurants, dry cleaners, gas stations, bars, you name it — Yelp has you covered, complete with user reviews so you can separate the good from the bad.

It's not some new, slick gadget or big idea

With the bulk of the earnings season behind us, the stock market appears to be in a much better mood than it was a month ago. The S&P 500 is up 3.8% over the past month, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq 100 is up an even healthier 5.9%. Tech, it seems, is a popular sector refuge in the sea of uncertainty facing 2015.

But a closer look at the tech earnings from the past month shows a more complex story as not all tech names are being favored equally. In fact, some of the companies that dished out disappointing forecasts were hammered hard. If there is one key trend that emerged from the recent parade of fourth-quarter earnings, it’s that 2015 is turning into a stockpicker’s market for tech shares.

This is in contrast to the past couple of years, when waves of enthusiasm or caution swept across the tech sector at large. Last year, for example, an early rally for tech led to concerns that another bubble would emerge–concerns that were quickly dispelled by a brutal selloff come April. By June, stocks were recovering, and the Nasdaq 100 ended last year up 18.5% and the S&P 500 up 11.8%.

One trend from 2014 that’s continuing into this year is the outperformance of larger-cap tech stocks. Smaller tech shares tend to do well in the several months following their IPOs, then have a harder time pleasing investors. A good example is GoPro, which went public at $24 a share in June, surged as high as $98 in October and and fell back to $43 last week in the wake of its earnings report.

GoPro’s post-earnings performance illustrates the selective mood of investors. The company blew past analyst expectations with revenue growth of 75% and higher profit margins. But the stock plummeted 15% the following day as analysts raced to lower price targets. Why? GoPro’s outlook was seen as too weak to support its lofty valuation and its chief operating officer was leaving.

That pattern played out in other smaller tech companies. Yelp slid 20% after its own earnings report that beat forecasts but that showed worrisome signs of slower growth and slimmer profits this year. Pandora fell 17% to a 19-month low after disappointing revenue from the holiday quarter. Zynga finished last week down 18% after warning this quarter will be much slower than expected.

What all of these companies also have in common are uncomfortably high valuations. Even after the post-earning selloff, GoPro is trading at 37 times its estimated 2015 earnings. Pandora is trading at 75 times its estimated earnings, while Yelp is trading at an ethereal 371 times. The S&P 500 has an average PE of just below 20.

So which companies did the best this earnings season? As a rule, it was big cap names serving the consumer market: Apple, Twitter, Amazon and Netflix. What these four companies have in common beyond strong earnings last quarter is that all were seen as struggling by investors during some or all of 2014.

Compare them to big-cap tech names that posted decent financials in the fourth quarter but that weren’t seen as struggling before, but instead were seen as thriving tech giants. Google, for example, is up 6% over the past month, while Facebook is up 1%. Both are enjoying steady growth that was so consistent with their past performance it has a ho-hum quality to it.

By contrast, Apple, which had been portrayed by critics as a gadget giant past its prime, has seen its stock rally 21% in the past month to a $740 million market cap, the first US company to be worth more than $700 billion. Amazon, which investors feared would suffer prolonged losses because of its expansion plans, is up 29%. So is Twitter, another object of investor worry in 2014. Netflix, a perennial target of bears, is up 40%.

So what have we learned about the technology sector so far this year? On the whole, investors are favoring tech stocks in a world of uncertainty – where negative interest rates have become bizarrely commonplace, and where the next market crisis could come from a crisis involving the Euro’s value, or China’s economy, or oil’s volatility, or Russia’s military aggression.

But at the same time, investors have grown more selective about the tech names they invest in. They might snap up hot tech IPOs, but they’ll drop them quickly if those companies can’t deliver over time. They prefer big tech, especially companies that cater to consumers. And if those tech giants can engineer a turnaround, they’re golden.

TIME eBay

The Rise and Fall (and Rise and Fall) of eBay

Ebay Reports Quarterly Earnings
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

The online auctions site is being carved up to keep investors happy. What will be left won't be pretty

Remember when people seriously talked about their eBay addictions? You might not, because you’d have to go back a dozen years or more. And anyway, it was really more of a compulsion, the way mobile games or chat apps have more recently become. Still, if you look you can still find multiple confessions of self-described eBay addicts.

“Hard to believe it’s only been six months since I met my great love,” began one addict’s confession in the heady days of 1999. “I refer, of course, to eBay.” Of course. The site’s manic youthfulness was captured back then in a TV ad where a pudgy Bezos-ish man danced and sang how “I did it eBay!”. Quirky, yes, but eBayers got it. eBay was the “it” company, the rare dot-com that saw its stock surge after the tech bust, fueled in large part by the compulsions of its buyers.

No fad lasts, though, and eBay had to weather a rough transition as our online addictions moved to MySpace, then to Facebook, then to Angry Birds and beyond. Its stock peaked at $59.21 a share in late 2004 before entering into a tailspin after it became clear the broad enthusiasm for online auctions was fading. Within five years, the share price had fallen below $10 a share.

In the rare turnaround for an Internet company, eBay came back–reaching as high as $59.70 a year ago–because of two key factors. The first was PayPal, which eBay bought for $1.5 billion in 2002. The second was CEO John Donahoe, who realigned the company at great effort to not only keep PayPal ascendant but also to revive eBay’s original marketplace.

Today, the stock is still performing well, trading around $55 a share. But don’t read too much optimism into that. Shareholders aren’t bailing because the company has worked so hard to please them. Stock buybacks trimmed eBay’s share count by 5% in 2014–enough, its CFO reckons, to add 8 cents a share to the bottom line this year. And eBay is ready with another $3 billion to spend on repurchasing more shares if necessary. Meanwhile, 2,400 workers are being laid off this week.

Beneath such investor-pleasing maneuvers, there remains a renewed and growing conviction that the decline of eBay’s core operations is starting all over again. It’s not at all uncommon for Internet companies to see a meteoric rise and fall (it’s practically become the rule), but eBay seems to be charting a different narrative: The rise and fall. And rise. And fall.

eBay’s decline this time is happening differently. The company is literally splintering apart in the form of corporate spinoffs. Last September, under pressure from boardroom bully Carl Icahn, eBay unveiled a plan to break off PayPal into a separate company later this year. Last week, after the company reported earnings, eBay announced another surprise spinoff: its Enterprise business, which will either launch an IPO or be partially sold to another company.

eBay Enterprise is a modestly growing division that is less visible to consumers using PayPal and the e-commerce site. As part of Donahoe’s turnaround, eBay began helping traditional retailers manage their online sites. Chains like Toys’R’Us, Ace Hardware and Dick’s Sporting Goods have signed up, bringing eBay $1.2 billion in revenue last year. Last quarter Enterprise revenue rose 9%, against a 1% decline in the year-ago quarter.

PayPal is also thriving, growing steadily at around 19% for the past couple of years. And so the weak part of the post-spinoff trio will clearly be eBay itself, the lean marketplace rump that will be left once the choicer meat is sliced away. Its revenue grew by 6% in all of 2014 and only 1% in the fourth quarter–the big quarter for retailers because it includes the holiday shopping season.

Excluding volatile foreign exchange rates, eBay’s marketplace rose 5% last quarter, but even that is disappointing considering the performance of other online retailers. ChannelAdvisor, which has long tracked sales on e-commerce sites, estimated that eBay’s sales during the holiday season–basically, November and December–rose 7.3%, well below the mean growth of 16% for all sites it tracks. Amazon’s grew 27% in the period. But what ChannelAdvisor calls “third party” retailers, everything from BestBuy to NewEgg to Tesco to Rakuten, rose 34%.

Parsing e-commerce sales is still a matter of guessing at a fragmented market, but here’s the bottom line for eBay: It’s not just that auctions aren’t popular now, it’s more that eBay’s transition to regular e-commerce has hit a wall. Its Web site redesign is already dated. It’s struggling to stay high in Google searches. Many of its most trusted sellers can also be found on other sites, like Amazon. eBay is just one of many shingles they hang out these days.

Which is too bad for online shoppers because often the prices and shipping charges on eBay make for cheaper than Amazon and elsewhere. But shoppers are often too harried to compare prices these days. Sites like Etsy and Alibaba seem to have more momentum, while Pinterest and Zulilly are where many go to impulse buy online. Meanwhile, Best Buy and others are doing better at reaching out to their customers online.

The result is that there’s little momentum left for eBay, once the champion of e-commerce momentum. No one dances around and sings “I did it eBay!” anymore. Even Donahoe & Co. are throwing in the towel to a certain extent. The site remains a very nice place to buy—rather useful if you bother to figure it out—but at the end of the day just one of many online marketplaces. The addiction that made eBay a star has left eBay behind.

So, it seems, have PayPal as well as the Enterprise business that Donahoe built. That’s okay with shareholders because they now have a chance to invest in PayPal and the non-consumer ecommerce business, while selling their shares in the good old eBay that once ruled our online shopping impulses. The legendary auction site will soon become the auctioned goods, only with fewer and fewer bids as the clock ticks away.

TIME Companies

This Brilliant 29-Year-Old Has the Hardest Job in Silicon Valley

Box, Inc. Chairman, CEO & co-founder Aaron Levie, second from right, gets a high-five during opening bell ceremonies to mark the company's IPO at the New York Stock Exchange on Jan. 23, 2015.
Richard Drew—AP Box, Inc. Chairman, CEO & co-founder Aaron Levie, second from right, gets a high-five during opening bell ceremonies to mark the company's IPO at the New York Stock Exchange on Jan. 23, 2015.

Well, one of the hardest. The CEO of recently IPO'ed Box faces tough competitors and a quickly changing market

Well, so much for that first-day pop. After pricing at $14 a share on Jan. 22, Box saw it stock rise as much as 77% on its first day of trading. In the six trading days since then, it’s lost more than a quarter of its peak value, closing just above $18 a share on Monday.

The first-day pop is both an honored Wall Street tradition and a sucker’s bet that individual investors keep falling for. Most tech IPOs that start out the gate overvalued yet with momentum behind them are as a rule trading significantly below those initial highs several months later. It only took Box a matter of days, not months.

The success of Box’s IPO isn’t important just for the company’s shareholders, buy for other tech companies – especially those in the enterprise market – planning on going public in coming months. The thing is, the outlook for Box is devilishly hard to predict because it’s a grab bag of challenges and opportunities, of promise and peril alike.

Box is a company growing revenue by 80% a year but it’s lost in aggregate nearly half a billion dollars, mostly on sales and marketing costs to win customers. It has one of the most respected young CEOs in Silicon Valley, influential partners and blue-chip customers but it’s toiling in a market that’s fragmented, changing quickly and growing more competitive by the week.

The bear case on Box is easier to articulate and so it may be gaining the upper hand among investors right now. First there are the losses, shrinking but still substantial. Net loss totaled $129 million in the nine months through October, down from $125 million in the year-ago period.

The hope is that as Box grows, losses will keep declining and eventually disappear as the company pushes into the black. But that may not happen as quickly as some expect. In the most recent quarter, net loss grew by 21% from the previous quarter, nearly double the 10% growth in revenue for the same period.

Then, there’s the valuation. Without profits, defenders point to the price-to-sales ratio but even here Box’s valuation is high. Box’s market value of $2.2 billion is equal to 11 times its revenue over the past 12 months. Even at its $14 a share offering price, Box was priced at 9 times its revenue.

Finally, in a stock market where the most coveted private tech companies are delaying IPOs, Box’s approach to the public market had more than its share of glitches. The company disclosed its IPO plans last March then delayed the offering until this year. Box initially planned to raise $250 million in the offering, then lowered the take to $175 million.

And yet there is reason to think that, if enough goes right for Box in the next year or so, Box could still have a bright future ahead of it. That’s because – unlike IBM, Oracle and other enterprise software giants – Box is well positioned to benefit from the inevitable shift from bloated, aging old business productivity software to an era where content is not just stored securely in the cloud but is created and collaborated there.

One unusual twist about Box’s long journey to its IPO is that, even while people disparaged the company’s worrisome financials, few if any had bad things to say about its CEO. Aaron Levie has a knack for seeing market shifts in advance. He founded Box in 2005 after seeing that online storage was finally ready to take off.

As Box competed with popular startups like Dropbox and, increasingly, with giants like Microsoft, Levie pushed Box away from simple online storage to areas of the enterprise cloud that will grow. Lower costs and stronger security are enticing companies in most industries to conduct more internal communications on the cloud as opposed to local networks that have been vulnerable to outside hackers.

Of course, Dropbox, Microsoft and others are also gunning toward this online-collaboration market. So rather than a generalized service like Office 365, Box is pushing to tailer its offerings to individual industries. In October, it bought MedXT, a startup working to allow sharing of radiology and medical imaging with doctors and patients. Box is also working on other industry-specific software for retail, advertising and entertainment.

To move quickly and reach out to customers in these industries, Box has had to spend more on sales and marketing than it was bringing in in revenue. That meant burning through about $23 million a quarter, which meant tapping public and private markets quickly to finance the sales push.

So Box, as ugly as the financials look now, is also an bet that the company is sitting on the edge of a big shift in the way companies communicate internally and externally -from desktops to mobile, from LANs to the cloud – and can provide a platform that helps them do it privately and securely. That bet is expensive and risky, but the payoff is possible.

That first-day pop was meaningless, as they so often are. Box will need time to prove its mettle, but it may well do so. For now, the uncertainty surrounding its prospects is likely to bring its stock price lower over the coming months. But for investors who are inclined to believe Box can execute on its vision, a cheaper stock may make taking the risk more worthwhile.

Read next: Amazon’s Plan to Buy Old RadioShacks Is a Brilliant Master Stroke—If It Happens

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TIME Companies

Apple, Facebook, Google and More: Get Ready for Earnings Season

Apple Unveils iPhone 6
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images Apple CEO Tim Cook shows off the new iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch during an Apple special event at the Flint Center for the Performing Arts on September 9, 2014 in Cupertino, California.

Intel beat expectations. What else does earnings season have in store?

So which will it be? Another banner year for tech stocks, or a period of disappointment? The next couple of weeks will provide investors plenty of clues.

Technology stocks in general enjoyed a good 2014, but the first couple of weeks of the new year have brought a sense of uncertainty. Now, as many companies in the sector gear up for the quarterly ritual of earnings announcements, investors will be scouring numbers for any signs to dispel uncertainty.

Analysts are expecting all earnings in the S&P 500 to rise a mere 1.1% in the quarter, according to Factset. For tech stocks, the growth will be slightly better: up 2.3%. Tech companies themselves aren’t feeling terribly confident: Of the 24 tech companies in the S&P 500 that have offered earnings guidance to investors, only four have given positive guidance, while 20 are taking a more cautious stance.

Factset was forecasting 4% growth in tech earnings and 8% growth for all S&P 500 sectors just a few months ago. But that was before oil prices started to plunge and the economic situation in Europe and Asia started looking as sketchy as it does now. That all adds up to uncertainty, and people tend to brace for bad news when they don’t know what to expect.

However, tech can be a safe haven in bad economic times, as it proved to be fairly resilient during the 2008-09 recession. And with investors’ expectations already lowered, strong earnings in tech could spark a more widespread rally.

The first tech giant to report was Intel. It’s an important company to watch because chipmakers’ orders rely on other tech companies’ plans for growth, making them industry bellwethers.

Intel was an under-performer for years while PC sales were in decline, but that market has finally stabilized after years in freefall. Accordingly, Intel handily beat expectations Thursday, posting Q4 2014 earnings of 74 cents per share, up 39% year-over-year, on $14.72 billion in revenue. Outside the consumer PC market, Intel has been making inroads on chips for mobile devices and sensors powering the Internet of Things, while the growth of cloud computing is creating more demand for its servers.

“The fourth quarter was a strong finish to a record year,” said Intel CEO Brian Krzanich in a statement. “We met or exceeded several important goals: reinvigorated the PC business, grew the Data Center business, established a footprint in tablets, and drove growth and innovation in new areas.”

However, Intel’s Q1 2015 guidance was lighter than expected, sending its stock down about 2% in after-hours trading. That post-earnings decline isn’t good news for other tech companies, because it suggests investors want more than just good news — they want the kind of great news that’ll spark a bigger rally.

The next notable tech names will report on Tuesday, when IBM and Netflix share their financials. This week, three analysts cut their earnings estimates and price target for IBM, following a report in the Register that said the enterprise IT giant is on the verge of its biggest restructuring ever.

Any news on a restructuring will reshape how investors assess IBM’s long-term prospects. But Big Blue’s earnings report may also offer insight on how demand and competition are faring in the enterprise tech market. If IBM’s challenges reflect an industry-wide slowdown, or if its results suffer significantly from the strength of the U.S. dollar, it could signal problems for other multinational enterprise tech stocks.

Meanwhile, Netflix’ earnings could add yet another volatile chapter in that company’s history. Netflix’s stock plummeted 25% last quarter on sluggish subscriber growth. Next week’s earnings could be just as tumultuous: One analyst said the stock could drop 15%, but urged investors to buy anyway because its international growth and original content are looking stronger than ever. To Netflix investors, such wild swings are nothing new.

Tech earnings will heat up in the final week of January when five of the most closely watched tech companies are all slated to report: Microsoft on Jan. 26, Apple on Jan. 27, Amazon and Facebook on Jan. 28, and Google on Jan. 29. Investors will scrutinize each company for different reasons, yet each will add up to a clearer picture of the health of the tech sector.

Some analysts have been increasing their estimates for Apple and Amazon. Not only is Apple valued attractively after several years as a lagging stock, iPhone sales were strong in the holiday quarter. One analyst says the company could vow to return $202 billion in dividends and buybacks in the next two years. Amazon, meanwhile, could pull back on spending, reversing its recent net losses.

For other tech giants, this quarter may show how they are maturing beyond their core markets: Google in search and Facebook in its mobile-feed ads. All are global companies, so the strong dollar could blunt any international growth. But all are consumer-focused, so they may benefit from the extra spending money consumers have left over from falling energy prices.

Public companies disdain the quarterly earnings process, with the open questionings and the swings in stock prices they can bring. But they also offer each other, their customers and shareholders insight into how the industry at large is faring. We got our first peak Thursday, but there’s plenty more to come.

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