This article was written by Natasha Stokes and originally appeared on Techlicious.
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This article was written by Natasha Stokes and originally appeared on Techlicious.
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Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox wants to take over Time Warner. Comcast wants to buy Time Warner Cable. AT&T and DirecTV may hook up to compete against them. T-Mobile and Sprint are looking to connect, as are any number of other large communications firms, not to mention technology and pharma giants. We are in a new golden age of mergers and acquisitions–M&A activity was up sharply in 2014 and is already at pre-financial-crisis levels. Now bankers are salivating at the billions of dollars in fees such deals generate. The question is, Will the deals be any good for the rest of us?
Since the early 1980s, antitrust regulators like the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission have tried to answer that question by asking another: Will a given merger bring down prices and improve services for consumers? If the answer was even remotely yes, then the merger–no matter how big–was likely to go through. But voices on all sides of the antitrust debate are beginning to question whether that rationale is actually working anymore.
Nobody would argue that the megamergers that have taken place over the past 30 years in pharmaceuticals, for example, have brought down drug prices. Or that the tie-ups between big airlines have made flying more enjoyable. Or that conglomerate banks have made our financial system more robust. “Merging companies always say that they’ll save money and bring down prices,” says Albert Foer, president of the American Antitrust Institute, a think tank devoted to studying competition. “But the reality is that they often end up with monopoly power that allows them to exert incredible pressure in whatever way they like.” That can include squeezing not only customers but also smaller suppliers way down the food chain.
Take the book business, for example. Though publishing is minuscule as a percentage of the economy, it has recently become a focal point in the debate over how our antitrust system works (or doesn’t), mostly because it illustrates the incredible power of one corporation: Amazon. In 2012, the Department of Justice went after tech giant Apple and a group of five major book publishers for collusion, winning a case against them for attempting to fix the prices of e-books. The publishers argued their actions were a response to anticompetitive monopoly pricing by Amazon. Apple is appealing.
Did the verdict serve the public? Many people, including star trial attorney David Boies, say no. Boies, who’s been representing large firms on both sides of the antitrust issue as well as the DOJ over the past several decades, says the verdict is “a failure of common sense and analysis.” Regulators often bring collusion cases, for example, because they are relatively easy to prove. Yet in this case, argues Boies, it led to an outcome in which the entrenched market participant, Amazon, was strengthened, and new participants–Apple and the book publishers–that hoped to create a competing platform in the e-book industry were shot down. “The result is that Amazon gets bigger, and eventually regulators will have to go after them,” says Boies. “We really need a more realistic, commonsense view of antitrust enforcement.” Amazon declined to comment.
The “Bigger Is Better” ethos of the 1980s and 1990s grew not only out of conservative, markets-know-best thinking. It was also fueled by a belief on the left that antitrust enforcement was wasteful and that regulating big companies was preferable to trying to stop them from becoming too big in the first place. Neither side got it right. Big companies aren’t always concerned first about the welfare of their customers–or particularly easy to regulate. The idea of letting companies do whatever they want as long as they can prove that they are decreasing prices may be far too simplistic a logic to serve the public–or even the corporate–good. Amazon shares have tumbled as investors worry about the future of a company that has so successfully compressed prices that it generates as much as $20 billion in revenue a quarter but no profit.
How to fix things? We need a rethink of antitrust logic that takes into consideration a more complex, global landscape in which megamergers have unpredictable ripple effects. We also need a new definition of consumer good that encompasses not only price but choice and the kind of marketplace diversity that encourages innovation and growth. Tech and communications firms today are like the railroads of old: it will take a strong hand to rein them in. That’s a task not for regulators but for Congress and a new Administration. Until then, with corporate coffers full and markets flying high, the big are only likely to get bigger.
The Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport is installing a first-in-the-nation system to monitor security checkpoint wait times using travelers’ smartphones and other Wi-Fi-enabled devices, Bloomberg Businessweek is reporting.
The system, known as BlipTrack, works by tracking the unique Media Access Control (MAC) addresses of phones and other devices actively searching for a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection in the airport. The location of your phone will only be tracked as it moves through certain pre-defined areas, and no personally identifying data will be collected. Airport officials claim the system poses no threat to your privacy.
The nuts and bolts behind BlipTrack are virtually identical to the customer-tracking system tested by retailer Nordstrom early last year.
The choice to move forward with the BlipTrack system is curious, given that Apple is removing the ability for MAC addresses to be tracked in iOS 8. Should Google’s Android OS follow suit, Cincinnati’s system could be obsolete just months after it’s installed.
BlipTrack, already in use in major international airports worldwide, is expected to go live in Cincinnati next month.
This article was written by Fox Van Allen and originally appeared on Techlicious.
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One of the features of Protect — aside from being Internet-connected and able to send alerts to your smartphone — was a trick that let you wave your hand underneath it to silence it.
The thought was that people have a tendency to accidentally set off their smoke alarms while cooking, and getting the alarms to pipe down is more cumbersome than it should be.
However, the company found that the feature might have been at risk of malfunctioning, which in certain cases could have silenced the alarm when it was supposed to be making noise. So in early April — a few months after Nest was acquired by Google for $3.2 billion — nearly half a million Nest smoke detectors were recalled; the wave-to-dismiss feature was able to be deactivated via a software update as well, making physically sending the smoke detector back to Nest unnecessary.
Now, the Nest Protect is back on the market, with the wave-to-dismiss feature disabled altogether. The company had originally alluded to trying to fix it via a future software update, so we’ll see if and when that comes to fruition. The price of the Nest Protect has also dropped from $130 down to $99 as well.
Former Daily Show funnyman John Oliver’s recent 13-minute net neutrality rant ended with a plea to Internet commenters the world over to “once in your lives, focus your indiscriminate rage in a useful direction.” Oliver used his new HBO comedy news show Last Week Tonight to try to convince people to take advantage of the FCC’s initial open commenting period regarding the net neutrality debate, which runs from May 15 to June 27.
Oliver’s call to action seems to have worked. The FCC’s comments section under the title “Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet” currently has over 47,000 comments and counting, prompting the FCC’s Twitter account to send out two tweets yesterday saying that “technical difficulties” had been affecting its commenting servers.
Things seem to be running smoothly now, however.
We’ve been experiencing technical difficulties with our comment system due to heavy traffic. We’re working to resolve these issues quickly.—
The FCC (@FCC) June 02, 2014
We’re still experiencing technical difficulties with our comment system. Thanks for your patience as we work to resolve the issues.—
The FCC (@FCC) June 02, 2014
Hate your television or Internet provider? You’re far from alone: Time Warner Cable and Comcast earned bottom-of-the-barrel scores in a consumer satisfaction survey published Tuesday.
Subscription TV-wise, Time Warner Cable scored the lowest of the companies included in the report, with a 56 (a 7% decline from last year’s report). Comcast came in second to last, at 60 (a 5% decline from last year’s report). In terms of Internet service, TWC got a 54 (a 14% decline from last year’s report) while Comcast earned a 57 (an 8% decline from last year’s report).
The numbers come by way of the American Consumer Satisfaction Index (ACSI)’s 2014 Telecommunications and Information Report, a survey of 70,000 customers about their satisfaction levels with commonly used products and services. The results span 230 companies across 43 industries.
DirecTV, AT&T, Verizon (FiOS) and Dish scored highest for TV providers, with their scores tightly bunched at between 67 and 69. FiOS ran away with the Internet crown: it scored a 71, with AT&T’s U-verse service and CenturyLink both a distant second at 65. If we’re talking grades in a school setting, we’re still in D+/C- range for all of these, so let’s not get too excited just yet.
So why are people so down on Comcast and Time Warner Cable? According to the report:
High prices, poor reliability, and declining customer service are to blame for low customer satisfaction with pay TV services. The cost of subscription TV has been rising 6% per year on average—four times the rate of inflation. But now, dissatisfied pay TV customers have more alternatives than ever before. The rise of streaming video from companies like Netflix and Amazon, combined with pay TV’s deteriorating service quality and higher prices, has led to the first-ever net loss of television service subscribers for a full year in 2013.
Among the largest subscription TV providers, the customer satisfaction decline is broad and pronounced—every company experiences a drop between 3% and 7%. Still, customer satisfaction varies greatly depending on the type of service. Fiber optic and satellite providers typically beat the industry average and perform much better than cable companies.
People are also generally pretty happy with TV sets (and accompanying video players), credit unions and soft drinks – which scored 85, 85 and 84 out of 100, respectively.
You can download the full report here, though you’ll need to register first.
Online storage provider Pogoplug offers what seems like an incredible deal for keeping your data safe in the cloud. For $50 per year, the company promises “unlimited” data backups, supposedly ideal for preserving your cherished photos and videos.
But over the last few weeks, some Pogoplug users have run into a previously undisclosed catch: If you upload more than 1 TB of data, your upload speeds could be throttled.
Jimmy Cohrssen, a professional photographer, discovered this while using Pogoplug to back up his pictures. Cohrssen signed up for Pogoplug roughly eight months ago, and had stored 6 TB worth of photos on Pogoplug’s servers. He had no complaints until earlier this month, when the same 500 photo uploads that used to take an hour or two were suddenly taking days to complete.
“Their advertising is very deceptive, really pushing the idea that they are one of the only services out there that provides unlimited services, when the truth is the opposite,” Cohrssen said in an e-mail.
Cohrssen spent weeks hassling Pogoplug tech support, until they finally offered him a pro-rated refund. He’s still deciding what to do, and isn’t thrilled with the prospect of re-uploading 6 TB of files to another service like Backblaze or Drivepop.
Eventually, in response to weeks of complaints, Pogoplug gave an explanation to affected users. In a message drafted by Chief Product Officer Jed Putterman and distributed by the company’s tech support, Pogoplug said that it has to divvy up its limited bandwidth among heavier users to keep things fair for everyone:
Our primary goal is to get people’s initial back up done as fast as possible. In order to do this, for the first 1TB of storage we allow files to be backed up as fast as our users can send them. We chose this amount of storage because we felt it was well beyond the initial amount that people would need to back up to feel safe. For users beyond 1TB, we take our remaining bandwidth and evenly distribute it across those users. We are constantly adding additional bandwidth and infrastructure, and when we do everybody benefits.
In an interview, Pogoplug CEO Daniel Putterman further explained that the company uses lots of other factors to prioritize speeds. For instance, streaming video gets greater priority so that users don’t get any interruptions while watching. The 1 TB throttling cutoff was actually a response to users who wanted fast speeds on their initial backups.
“There’s this long list of QoS-related features, because if you don’t do that, you’re going to have a crummy cloud,” Putterman said.
Danny Dausend, another Pogoplug user, said the sudden throttling was a “huge surprise,” given that there was no indication of the policy before he signed up. Like Cohrssen, he’s also not sure what to do now. “I need to find a new place to house my stuff,” Dausend said in an e-mail. “But I have over 1.8 TB, and that’s not an easy task.”
Putterman said the company debated for several weeks whether to reveal the throttling policy, because it’s just one of many factors that can affect speeds. “The point is, there’s so many of them, why isolate this one?” Putterman said.
Still, Putterman acknowledged that Pogoplug could be more transparent about its policies. He said the company would at least consider adding some disclosure to its terms of service.
“We’re going to be, probably, very open, and dramatically more so than other companies in the space, and hopefully we’ll set an example for others,” Putterman said.
There is another silver lining for affected users: A few days ago, Pogoplug discovered and fixed a failed port that may have caused some of the more drastic speed issues. The fix doesn’t explain the previous weeks of complaints, but some users on Pogoplug’s forums have indeed reported speed improvements over the last few days. Putterman also pointed out that if users were able to upload more than 1 TB in past, that means most of the time, Pogoplug is able to offer a satisfactory level of service.
Still, Pogoplug can’t predict every spike in demand, especially as it works to acquire users in new ways, such as a recent promotional deal with Sprint. With finite bandwidth and no guarantee that users won’t notice slower speeds in the future, the best thing Pogoplug can do is stop leaving its users in the dark.
When I talked to Square CEO Jack Dorsey for a TIME story about his payment-processing company last December, he mentioned receipts and described them in a way I’m not sure anyone ever has before. He called them “amazing.”
To be specific, he said that a “receipt is this amazing confirmation of the activity between buyer and seller. It’s this thing that most people just throw away.”
“What if we saw it as a communication channel,” he asked. “What if we saw it as a publishing medium, what if we saw it as a connection, and a reminder, and a potential for more of those experiences?”
It turned out that Dorsey wasn’t just riffing. He was foreshadowing a bit of news Square is announcing today. It’s introducing a service called Square Feedback, which can turn its e-mail and text-message receipts—it sends 10 million of them a month—into miniature customer-service sessions. Feedback will allow consumers to give instant input after paying for something using Square, and will give small businesses a way to placate unhappy campers before they run off to Yelp to gripe in public.
If a merchant subscribes to Feedback, which will cost $10 a month after a 30-day trial period, its receipts will include a “How was your experience?” section that lets the customer select either a smiley icon or a frowny one. Either response leads to a brief questionnaire that allows the customer to specify what went right or wrong—wait time, quality, customer service and/or environment—and leave a comment.
The seller’s Square dashboard will display all this feedback, tallying up the positive and negative feedback in a chart. If a customer has consented, the merchant can respond to a piece of input, which shows up as a conversation thread with the shopper in question. Other than the fact that feedback is tied to a specific receipt—which allows the seller to issue a refund if warranted—the experience is anonymous.
Of course, the notion of the receipt as a way to invite customer comments isn’t new. Lots of old-fashioned dead-tree ones include a link to an online survey. But the fact that Square’s receipts are digital makes the segue from financial record to feedback form more seamless, and the whole approach is in line with the elegant simplicity seen in Square products such as its tiny mobile credit-card swiper.
At the moment, Feedback is pretty basic. For instance, the canned questionnaire a customer sees after selecting the Smiley or Frowny is the same whether the business in question sells lattes or lingerie. There’s also no way to route complaints to multiple people within an organization, which is a feature larger businesses with actual dedicated customer-service resources will want.
Square says that it plans to expand on the concept over time—and whether or not it ever makes receipts amazing by most folks’ standards, it looks like a great opportunity to make them more useful.
Creating the most popular product of the year will make consumers and investors happy. But making an all-time bestseller can transform an industry and define a business for decades.
Many of the best-selling products were first in a new category. Apple, which has sold more than 500 million iPhones, was the first to introduce a touchscreen smartphone that could seamlessly handle music, web browsing and phone calls. Other bestsellers took a niche market and made it mainstream. Before Star Wars, film was either comedy, romance or drama. The Harry Potter book series was so successful that The New York Times Book Review created a separate children’s bestseller list in 2000 to account for the series’ popularity.
In some cases, top-selling products were a simply better than their competitors. Before the Sony PlayStation, video game consoles were largely cartridge-based. With the advent of the PlayStation, which relied on the new CD-ROM format, game files could be large enough to support 3D gameplay and full-motion video. Lipitor, which has become the world’s best-selling drug with $141 billion in sales, was far more effective than previously-released drugs at lowering bad cholesterol.
A number of these products continue to be dominate their markets. The iPad remains the world’s best-selling tablet, with a 32.5% market share last quarter, despite challenges from Amazon.com’s Kindle Fire and Samsung’s Galaxy tablet lines. The PlayStation 4 has sold over 7 million units since it launched last year, well above the Microsoft Xbox One.
Despite their success, some of these products face challenges. Sales of Pfizer’s Lipitor dropped each year after its maker, Pfizer, lost patent protection on the drug in 2011 and cheaper generic drugs came on the market. The ongoing Star Wars saga may lose its status as the all time best-selling movie franchise to Walt Disney’s Marvel Franchise. The Avengers broke box office records, grossing $203.4 million on its opening weekend.
To determine the best-selling products of all-time, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed categories of products widely purchased by consumers and identified individual products that had the highest sales in their category.In some cases, we gathered figures from multiple sources and estimated the final sales figure. In other instances, where one company had a clear market lead, figures reflect data from previous years.
These are the best-selling products of all time.
> Category: Video game console
> Total sales: 344 million units
> Parent company: Sony
When Sony released the PlayStation in the United States in 1995, its 32-bit processor was the most powerful available on the console market at the time. Sony sold more than 70 million PlayStations worldwide by the time the PlayStation 2 was released in 2000. The PlayStation 2 also sold very well in the U.S. and abroad. Sony released the PlayStation 3 in 2006, and it sold 80 million units to retailers by November 2013. The latest generation, the PlayStation 4, has been wildly successful thus-far, already selling 7 million units as of April.
> Category: Pharmaceutical
> Total sales: $141 billion
> Parent company: Pfizer
Pfizer’s Lipitor is prescribed to lower LDL (or bad) cholesterol — high levels of bad cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease. Lipitor is classified as a statin, a class of drug used to reduce the risk of heart-related ailments. However, Lipitor sales have plummeted in recent years after its U.S. patent expired in 2011. Lipitor has lost patent protection in other major markets since. In 2013, Lipitor sales totaled $2.3 billion, down from $9.6 billion in 2011 according to Pfizer’s 2013 annual report. Still, since its introduction in 1997, no other drug came close to Lipitor’s commercial success. The closest competitor for all time sales is Plavix, which had slightly more than half of Lipitor’s lifetime revenue, according to Forbes.
> Category: Vehicle
> Total sales: 40.7 million units
> Parent company: Toyota (NYSE: TM)
Toyota announced last month it sold 1.2 million Corollas in 2013, a 5% year-over-year increase. Since its introduction in Japan in 1966 — the car became available in the U.S. in 1968 — Toyota has sold more than 40.7 million Corollas, more than any other car model. The Corolla’s success on the market is likely due to its reliability, relatively low gas mileage, and affordability. The newly redesigned 2014 Corolla is the model’s 11th generation, and it claims to have better gas mileage and a slightly larger interior. Brand new, the Corolla’s starting MSRP is $16,800.
4. Star Wars
> Category: Movies
> Total sales: $4.6 billion
> Parent company: 20th Century Fox
Only “Gone with the Wind” brought in more money than the original Star Wars movie. Combined, however, the original trilogy grossed $2.4 billion, accounting for inflation. When Star Wars: Episode I was released more than 20 years later, it grossed $675 million, considerably more than the later installments — episodes two and three — which each still grossed more than $400 million. In total, the Star Wars movies, including special editions and re-releases, grossed $4.6 billion adjusted for inflation in the U.S. While 20th Century Fox still owns the rights to the original Star Wars, Disney purchased the Star Wars universe — Lucasfilms — for $4 billion in 2012. Disney will release the final three movies under J.J. Abrams’ direction. The first of the three is scheduled to hit the box office in 2015.
> Category: Tablet
> Total sales: 211 million units
> Parent company: Apple
Despite losing market share in the first quarter, Apple’s iPad is still the best-selling tablet. The iPad held 40% of the tablet market in the first quarter of 2013, but only 32.5% in the first quarter of this year, according to market research firm IDC. Close rival Samsung picked up much of that market share. IDC analyst reported that iPad lost some of its market share because consumers are holding onto their tablets for longer rather than immediately purchasing the newest version. Apple sold 16.4 million units in the second quarter alone, and more than 211 million since the iPad was first introduced in 2010.
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Using a process known as “additive manufacturing,” 3D printers can take a number of different materials from metal to plastic and even chocolate to create every piece of the final structure from scratch, with no material left over.
Hull sees a bright future for 3D printing, saying it’ll be a $4.5 billion business by the end of the decade.