Welcome to Last Week Was a Beta, our Monday look back on the big stories in tech last week.
I haven’t been reading comic books much lately, but I hope someone has come up with a supervillain native to the tech industry. Someone Lex Luthor-like, madly cackling at their platform’s leviathan-like powers. The villain should have access to vastly more information than any of the heroes, and yet his great weakness should be an incurable myopia. Despite his enormous access to data, he can just never quite see beyond his very privileged and sheltered perspective.
If Marvel Comics hasn’t scratched this cultural itch, one of its writers should take a close look at Uber CEO Travis Kalanick for inspiration. The hits just keep coming from the current king of unicorns. The Information broke a story last week about its software dubbed “Hell,” which would pretend to be Lyft riders all over the place in order to figure out where its competitor had a lot of drivers available.
Cleaning up all of Uber’s messes proved too much for its head of public relations. Rachel Whetstone told Recode that she would step down from the company.
I can’t imagine why.
Meanwhile Facebook crowed that Instagram’s Stories feature had 200 million daily active users, putting it above the 158 million daily active users number claimed by Snapchat in its IPO documents. Instagram Stories is basically Snapchat built inside Instagram (which Facebook owns). In other words, the social media superpower wants to crush the insurgent.
Still, even as the underdog, it is hard to view Snap, Inc as any sort of hero. It’s more like the Green Goblin targeting Dr. Octopus. Last week, an ex-employee claimed that Evan Spiegel had said that the app is for rich people during an internal meeting, according to Variety, and that he didn’t have any interest in growth in the developing world. Spiegel is backpedaling now, but the company’s IPO documents basically said the same thing, as we reported shortly after they were released. The company wants to sell ads and it wants advertisers to know it can reach people with lots of money to spend.
What else would you call it?
Apple CEO Tim Cook is the most secretive of technology’s larger than life characters. His company wants nothing known about what it’s doing until its next product is 100 percent ready. We have long known that it has been hiring experts in autonomous vehicles and last week documents surfaced showing it had sought permission from California regulators to test self-driving vehicles.
Silicon Valley’s illuminati must be in a panic over Apple’s entrance into this market. Lots of companies got into this business a long time ago, but lots of companies had been in cell phones for a long time, too, and then Apple dropped the iPhone.
But the shadowiest egomaniacs may not be in for-profit life. Last week the Shadowbrokers, an elite hacker group, released a massive dump of tools used to exploit vulnerable computers running Windows, which the group had stolen from the National Security Agency. Holding onto vulnerabilities is profoundly antisocial behavior on the part of the government. If the NSA finds a way to break into a computer, anyone else can find it too. The right thing to do is to disclose the vulnerability to the company that makes the compromised product, so that they can issue a patch to protect the public.
The good news: Microsoft says it has fixed all the leaky pipes. Speaking of super-villainy, it’s hard to remember the last time Microsoft did something really evil. It’s a big company, so I’m sure it’s no angel on a day-to-day basis, but it hasn’t done anything like forcing software on people who don’t want it for a very long time. Maybe Microsoft has become sort of like early-90s Magneto, from the X-Men comics: largely reformed, still hugely powerful and always with the potential to turn fully bad again, given the right opportunity or provocation.
The littlest giant of social media, Twitter, got a challenger that broke into the public imagination last week. Following the outrage (outrage, I say!) at Twitter’s update to how replies work, many tech reporters eagerly wrote gushing stories about Mastodon, an open source social network. Most of them got the service wrong, in one way or another. In short, Mastodon is social networking software, and anyone can copy it, modify it and deploy it on their own server. This means that each installation can set up its own norms and rules, but there is no one big set of rules for Mastodon. Just lots of little ones. Like email, they can all interact with each other, too.
Find all the instances here. I’m on a few. It’s fun.
Bad news for the old arch-villains of industry: the fossil fuel monsters. Last year, investors spent twice as much on renewable energy sources as they did on the nasty old kind, according to Ars Technica. Still, it marked a drop in total investment, but don’t fret—developers were able to put more capacity online with less money than ever before, because humanity has been getting better at this.
Speaking of yesterday’s economy, a familiar brand from the pre-internet days had some fun with the king of the web, Google, last week. Burger King made an ad that tricked many Google Home devices into reciting the recipe for its Whoppers aloud.
It’s a nice reminder that when we invite the tech giants to listen all the time inside our homes, there can be unintended consequences. A better way to put it might be: would you buy a smart home from Dr. Doom?