Taking Intelligence For Granted

There was a point in time when the use of artificial intelligence or machine learning or any other kind of intelligence in a product was a source of competitive advantage and differentiation. Nowadays, however, many people have got so spoiled by the use of intelligence in many products they use that it has become more of a hygiene factor.

Take this morning’s post, for example. One way to look at it is that Spotify with its customisation algorithms and recommendations has spoiled me so much that I find Amazon’s pushing of Indian music irritating (Amazon’s approach can be called as “naive customisation”, where they push Indian music to me only because I’m based in India, and not learn further based on my preferences).

Had I not been exposed to the more intelligent customisation that Spotify offers, I might have found Amazon’s naive customisation interesting. However, Spotify’s degree of customisation has spoilt me so much that Amazon is simply inadequate.

This expectation of intelligence goes beyond product and service classes. When we get used to Spotify recommending music we like based on our preferences, we hold Netflix’s recommendation algorithm to a higher standard. We question why the Flipkart homepage is not customised to us based on our previous shopping. Or why Google Maps doesn’t learn that some of us don’t like driving through small roads when we can help it.

That customers take intelligence for granted nowadays means that businesses have to invest more in offering this intelligence. Easy-to-use data analysis and machine learning packages mean that at least some part of an industry uses intelligence in at least some form (even if they might do it badly in case they fail to throw human intelligence into the mix!).

So if you are in the business of selling to end customers, keep in mind that they are used to seeing intelligence everywhere around them, and whether they state it or not, they expect it from you.

Amazon and Sony Liv

Amazon is pretty bad at design of products they’re not pioneers in. They’ve built a great shopping engine (25 years ago) and a great cloud service (15 years ago), but these were both things they were pioneers in.

Amazon being Amazon, however, they have a compulsive need to be in pretty much every industry, and so they’ve launched clones of lots of other businesses. However, their product design in these is far from optimal, and the user experience is generally very underwhelming.

Prime Video has a worse user experience than Netflix. The search function is much worse. The machine learning (for recommendations) isn’t great. The X-ray is good, but overall I don’t have as pleasant a time watching Prime as I do with Netflix.

However, the degree to which Prime Video is worse than Netflix is far far smaller than the degree to which Amazon Music is worse than Spotify. The only thing going for Amazon Music (which I only use because it comes free with my prime delivery membership in India) is that they have inventory.

Spotify in India has been unable to secure rights to a lot of classic rock and metal bands, such as Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin and Dream Theater. And these form a heavy part of my routine listening. And so I’m forced to use Amazon Music (Apple Music has these bands as well, but I have to pay extra for that).

The product (Amazon Music) is atrocious. The learning is next to nothing. After five months of using the service to exclusively listen to Classic Rock and Heavy Metal, and zero Indian music, the home page still recommends to me Bollywood, Punjabi and Tamil stuff! History is not properly maintained. Getting to the album or playlist (the less said about playlists on Amazon, the better) I want takes way too much more effort than it does on Spotify.

In other words, the only thing that keeps Amazon going in businesses they’re not pioneers in is inventory – Prime Video works because it has movies and shows other streaming services don’t have. Amazon Music is used because it has music that Spotify doesn’t.

I figured it is a similar case with Sony Liv, Sony’s streaming service in India. They sit on a bunch of lucrative monopolies, such as rights to broadcasting Test cricket in a lot of countries (all three Test series being played right now are on Sony, for example), Champions League football and so on. Beyond that it’s an atrocity to watch them.

I remember missing a goal in the Liverpool-Porto Champions League quarterfinal because of a temporary power cut. There was no way in the broadcast to go back and see the goal. If I by mistake pause for a couple of seconds, I’m forever behind “live” (unless I refresh). Yesterday during the classic Ashes Test, the app simply gave up when I tried to load the game.

The product is atrocious (actually more atrocious than Amazon Music), but people are forced to use it only because they have a monopoly on content. And in that way, it is similar to Amazon, which can get away with atrocious products only because they have the inventory!

I’m glad the Premier League is on Hotstar, which is mostly a pleasure to watch! (actually back in the day when I had cable TV, the star sports bouquet had significantly superior production values to the sony-zee-ten bouquet)

Voice assistants and traditional retail

Traditionally, retail was an over-the-counter activity. There was a physical counter between the buyer and the seller, and the buyer would demand what he wanted, and the shopkeeper would hand it over to him. This form of retail gave greater power to the shopkeeper, which meant that brands could practice what can be described as “push marketing”.

Most of the marketing effort would be spent in selling to the shopkeeper and then providing him sufficient incentives to sell it on to the customer. In most cases the customer didn’t have that much of a choice. She would ask for “salt”, for example, and the shopkeeper would give her the brand of salt that benefited him the most to sell.

Sometimes some brands would provide sufficient incentives to the shopkeeper to ensure that similar products from competing brands wouldn’t be stocked at all, ensuring that the customer faced a higher cost of getting those products (going to another shops) if they desired it. Occasionally, such strategies would backfire (a client with extremely strong brand preferences would eschew the shopkeeper who wouldn’t stock these brands). Mostly they worked.

The invention of the supermarket (sometime in the late 1800s, if I remember my research for my book correctly – it followed the concept of set prices) changed the dynamics a little bit. In this scenario, while the retailer continues to do the “shortlisting”, the ultimate decision is in the hands of the customer, who will pick her favourite among the brands on display.

This increases the significance of branding in the minds of the customer. The strongest incentives to retailers won’t work (unless they result in competing brands being wiped out from the shelves – but that comes with a risk) if the customer has a preference for a competing product. At best the retailer can offer these higher-incentive brands better shelf space (eye level as opposed to ankle level, for example).

However, even in traditional over-the-counter retail, branding matters to an extent when there is choice (as I had detailed in an earlier post written several years ago). This is in the instance where the shopkeeper asks the customer which brand she wants, and the customer has to make the choice “blind” without knowing what exactly is available.

I’m reminded of this issue of branding and traditional retail as I try to navigate the Alexa voice assistant. Nowadays there are two ways in which I play music using Spotify – one is the “direct method” from the phone or computer, where I search for a song, a list gets thrown up and I can select which one to play. The other is through Alexa, where I ask for a song and the assistant immediately starts playing it.

With popular songs where there exists a dominant version, using the phone and Alexa give identical results (though there are exceptions to this as well – when I ask Alexa to play Black Sabbath’s Iron Man, it plays the live version which is a bit off). However, when you are looking for songs that have multiple interpretations, you implicitly let Alexa make the decision for you, like a shopkeeper in traditional retail.

So, for example, most popular nursery rhymes have been covered by several groups. Some do the job well, singing the rhymes in the most dominant tunes, and using the most popular versions of the lyrics. Other mangle the tunes, and even the lyrics (like this Indian YouTube channel called Chuchu TV has changed the story of Jack and Jill, to give a “moral” to the story. I’m sure as a teenager you had changed the lyrics of Jack and Jill as well :P).

And in this situation you want more control over which version is played. For most songs I prefer the Little Baby Bum version, while for some others I prefer the Nursery Rhymes 123 version, but there is no “rule”. And this makes it complicate to order songs via Alexa.

More importantly, if you are a music publisher, the usage of Alexa to play on Spotify means that you might be willing to give Spotify greater incentives so that your version of a song comes up on top when a user searches for it.

And when you factor in advertising and concepts such as “paid search” into the picture, the fact that the voice assistants dictate your choices makes the situation very complicated indeed.

I wonder if there’s a good solution to this problem.

Songs for sleeping

As I write this, Berry is fast asleep next to me. It took a long time, and a fair amount of effort, to get her to sleep, as has become the routine everyday. Finally, she fell asleep as Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb was playing. This was no coincidence. This is part of a careful sleeping routine I’ve developed over the last month.

It started with a bit of what I can describe as “reinforcement learning”. We were on the way to the airport sometime last month and Berry was getting cranky in the cab, so I started singing to her. On a whim I started singing Pink Floyd songs (maybe because I know the lyrics of a lot of them). She passed out halfway through Wish You Were Here. A couple of hours later on the flight, she felt drowsy during the same song, and then slept when I started singing Comfortably Numb.

So every time I found that she would sleep to a particular song, I started singing that the next time I was putting her to sleep. Obviously it didn’t work like that – her falling asleep was a random event, which I chose to infer was a cause of my singing. And I’m someone who gives lectures on not mistaking correlation for causation.

Singing got tiring, so soon enough I had created a playlist. The playlist to which she invariably falls asleep every day nowadays is called “lullabies“.

Here is what it looks like.

Now, you might just think that it’s a random list of Pink Floyd songs, with one LedZep song thrown in. It’s not. The songs have all been carefully selected.

The first set of songs have been chosen because they are heavy on lyrics, don’t have long instrumentals and are easy to sing along to. These are songs that play when Berry is about to fall asleep, and I sing them while patting her. And invariably she falls asleep during this time.

The next few songs are long soothing songs, that will keep her asleep until she gets into deep sleep. As I write this, Atom Heart Mother is playing.

But getting Berry to sleep is not easy. I don’t start the evening with these lullabies – they come in only when I know that Berry is sufficiently sleepy and will sleep in the next 10-15 minutes (like the closer in Baseball). When she comes into the bedroom, I start with this playlist that I created a couple of months back, and which I had then named as “Berry’s Education“. 

As you can see, Black Sabbath’s Iron Man heads this list. It is Berry’s favourite song. In fact, when she gets on to the bed, she says “has he lost his mind, appa”.

This playlist is not intended for sleeping, and I randomly choose a few songs to play. When Berry gets into the next stage of her slumber, where she is now ready to sleep, but not sleepy enough, she needs some lullabies. And it’s the time for Iron Man again, except this time it’s the version by RockaBye Baby.

This is the song she used to fall asleep to when she was a baby, from the time when she was barely a couple of days old. And from there I let the album play for a while until she is really ready to sleep. Which is when the lullabies playlist takes over.

As you might imagine, having multiple playlists is a pain. I normally use the kinda old iPad4 to play, and changing playlists means entering my passcode, going up one folder and then going into another playlist. You might wonder why I haven’t created one integrated playlist.

The reason is randomness, on two counts. The amount of time Berry takes to pass each stage of sleepiness is variable. So I don’t know how long I will have to play each kind of music. Also, she is moody and the way she reacts to each kind of music is a bit random. So I need to switch back and forth between the kinds of music, and so having multiple playlists is better.

On good days, I will have my phone with me, which makes it easier to switch playlists (one hand operation, touch ID to login etc) – though it’s invariably the iPad that plays the music.

So as you might have figured out, putting babies to sleep is not an easy task, which is why I’m sharing my method with you, in the hope that it might help you. What do you do to make your baby sleep?

 

Direct listing

So it seems like Swedish music streaming company Spotify is going to do a “direct listing” on the markets. Here is Felix Salmon on why that’s a good move for the company. And in this newsletter, Matt Levine (a former Equity Capital Markets banker) talks about why it’s not.

In a traditional IPO, a company raises money from the “public” in exchange for fresh shares. A few existing shareholders usually cash out at the time of the IPO (offering their shares in addition to the new ones that the company is issuing), but IPOs are primarily a capital raising exercise for the company.

Now, pricing an IPO is tricky business since the company hasn’t been traded yet, and so a company has to enlist investment bankers who, using their experience and investor relations, will “price” the IPO and take care of distributing the fresh stock to new investors. Bankers also typically “underwrite” the IPO, by guaranteeing to buy at the IPO price in case investor demand is low (this almost never happens – pricing is done keeping in mind what investors are willing to pay). I’ve written several posts on this blog on IPO pricing, and here’s the latest (with links to all previous posts on the topic).

In a “direct listing”, no new shares of the company are issued, the stock gets listed on an exchange. It is up to existing shareholders (including employees) to sell stock in order to create action on the exchange. In that sense, it is not a capital raising exercise, but more of an opportunity for shareholders to cash out.

The problem with direct listing is that it can take a while for the market to price the company. When there is an IPO, and shares are allotted to investors, a large number of these allottees want to trade the stock on the day it is listed, and that creates activity in the stock, and an opportunity for the market to express its opinion on the value of the company.

In case of a direct listing, since it’s only a bunch of insiders who have stock to sell, trading volumes in the first few days might be low, and it takes time for the real value to get discovered. There is also a chance that the stock might be highly volatile until this price is discovered (all an IPO does is to compress this time rather significantly).

One reason why Spotify is doing a direct listing is because it doesn’t need new capital – only an avenue to let existing shareholders cash out. The other reason is that the company recently raised capital, and there appears to be a consensus that the valuation at which it was raised – $13 billion – is fair.

Since the company raised capital only recently, the price at which this round of capital was raised will be anchored in the minds of investors, both existing and prospective. Existing shareholders will expect to cash out their shares at a price that leads to this valuation, and new investors will use this valuation as an anchor to place their initial bids. As a result, it is unlikely that the volatility in the stock in initial days of trading will be as high as analysts expect.

In one sense, by announcing it will go public soon after raising its last round of private investment, what Spotify has done is to decouple its capital raising process from the going public process, but keeping them close enough that the price anchor effects are not lost. If things go well (stock volatility is low in initial days), the company might just be setting a trend!