Each Friday, Farhad Manjoo and Mike Isaac, technology reporters at The New York Times, review the week’s news, offering analysis and maybe a joke or two about the most important developments in the tech industry.
Mike: Ahoy, Farhad! Thanks for handling the newsletter while I was gone on vacation. I mostly hung around the Bay Area, which went through a heat wave of epic proportions. Despite paying obscene amounts of money to live here, none of us have air conditioning. So what I’m saying is that I basically spent my vacation in a well-ventilated Starbucks.
Farhad: Mike, every week we get one or two readers telling us they’re unsubscribing because they hate our mindless chit-chat. It’s sad, because mindless chit-chat is all we have to offer. But to keep it to a minimum this week, I won’t say anything about how bad I feel for your fellow Starbucks refugees.
Mike: Right, well, please hang in there readers. I promise our personal anecdotes can occasionally be amusing. Sometimes I even visit the gym!
A Controversial Start-Up Pops Up
Mike: So let’s get back into tech. This week, as you are quite well aware, is new iPhone week. That usually means all other tech news is absorbed into the black hole that is the iPhone news cycle. But other interesting things happened this week, so let’s get to those first.
Can we start with Bodega? It’s my favorite tech story of the week.
Farhad: Yes, definitely — it instantly became a classic example of tech founders stepping into it on Day 1.
Mike: It has everything: Two ex-Google employees decided to launch a start-up focused on providing the items you’d normally find in a corner store — or bodega, as New Yorkers call them — but inside of a large, Ikea-like box. Their stated goal is to bring many of the daily items to people outside urban environments who don’t have nearby, accessible corner stores. It’s aided by machine learning and computer vision, two big Silicon Valley buzzwords.
But that is, uh, not how it came off to New Yorkers. The start-up called itself “Bodega,” and the headline on the first big article about the comapny focused on the potential elimination of mom-and-pop corner stores. Not exactly an endearing way to come out of the gate.
The internet went insane, and many, many follow-up articles condemning the company soon followed. Alas, the obligatory apologetic Medium post came just a few hours later, though I’m not sure how much that has assuaged the initial concerns.
Farhad: People were justifiably upset that the founders seemed to be targeting mom-and-pop shops. What happened to the Silicon Valley idea that innovations were supposed to disrupt big guys, not struggling family-run businesses?
But even beyond that, Bodega’s business model sounds rather questionable. As Helen Rosner argued in Eater, Bodega’s plan to maintain thousands of these kiosks that each stock a slightly different mix of items seems pretty unworkable. Who will stock and maintain all those boxes? What sort of logistical pipeline will it involve? Beyond a branding fail, this sounds like a logistical nightmare.
Mike: Right. And while they claim they didn’t really see the backlash coming, I like my friend Bobby McKenna’s take on this: Every start-up needs a vice president of common sense, with complete veto power over any controversial ideas. Perhaps that could be Bodega’s next hire!
That iPhone Event
Mike: Moving right along, let’s talk Apple a bit. After months of rumors and leaks, the company unveiled its new iPhones on Tuesday, making the biggest splash with the iPhone X. It’s the 10th anniversary of the iPhone this year, so they wanted to make this release special.
You were there, in Apple’s fancy new office complex, to take the whole thing in. Was it, in fact, special?
Farhad: It was one of the more interesting Apple events I’ve been to in several years. The iPhone X is genuinely different from iPhones that have come before — it has a new interface, a new kind of screen technology, and it really does seem to mark a foundation for the future of these supercomputers. Also, the new headquarters is a sight to behold.
I’m not sure I loved the headquarters — it’s very pretty but in an imposing, slightly scary way — but everything about it sure does ooze Apple’s sensibility.
Mike: It was… interesting to see the whole thing play out on Twitter. It was like office porn, Pinterest-style. But I admit, I want to go check the place out now. Maybe they’ll let me inside?
But back to the phone: Other than facial recognition technology and an improved screen, should I spend $1,000 to buy a new iPhone? Mine is only a year old, and from what I could glean, this doesn’t seem like an enormous step up in features. But perhaps I’m jaded and need something whiz-bang fancy from new each release cycle to get me excited.
Farhad: I only got to hold it for a few minutes. It seems like a very nice phone — the screen looked great, unlocking through facial-recognition seemed to work very well — but let’s wait till the reviews are out.
Mike: Fair enough. I don’t usually need to buy things right out of the gate, anyway.
Facebook’s Political Role
Farhad: OK, let’s talk about Facebook. Ever since the company disclosed that a Russian troll farm had purchased ads on the site that may have influenced the election, Facebook has been under the gun from lawmakers to become a lot more transparent about what it plans to do to combat propaganda through the site. Now there are reports that Robert Mueller, the special counsel looking into what happened in the 2016 election, has been focusing on the role of social media in the race.
So, what do you think? Should we expect Mark Zuckerberg to take the hot seat on Capitol Hill?
Mike: While I’m not sure if Mr. Zuckerberg will go to Washington, the pressure on Facebook is certainly mounting in ways I have not seen before. You’ve got Senator Mark Warner’s office pressing intensely on this Russia issue. And, like you said, Facebook has finally disclosed what many have suspected for some time.
I think the biggest takeaway for me has been the general shift in sentiment toward technology in general over the past year. It seems like the election was an inflection point for many who question whether Silicon Valley, which has completely changed the course of our world over the past few decades, is actually changing things for the better. While that may not be a new question, it’s seeing new momentum in a world where Facebook ads and fake news may be more influential than we had thought.
Anyway, I’m staying away from politics and am on the hunt for my first Bodega in San Francisco, as I’ve run out of toothpaste. Till next time!