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'Tis the Sun and Nothing More

I have a day job these days. I joined a solar company called Sunpreme. I have a day job and a deadline for this column and I’m writing this during work hours. So, I say to myself, self why not kill two birds with one stone and write about my job.

This is the first time I’ve worked for a company that makes widgets since I can remember. Almost 25 years ago, I worked for a Harley Davidson distributor, which was…cool. Before that, I must have been a teenager. It is a strong reminder of how much of our economy (and employment) is constituted of services. Most of my career has been in the financial industry with some consulting and number crunching before that. This is my first time at a real Silicon Valley firm. The headquarters are in Sunnyvale. There are solar panels installed in the parking lot, one vertical panel on the roof. No one is wearing a suit. The office is usually quiet and people don’t make small talk. There are no Game of Thrones jokes. And when I really need to get some social in during the day, I go to our Chief Scientist for a lecture on valance bands and cell architecture.

So, partly because Beting wants me to turn in my column early, I’m going to do a plug for Sunpreme. Solar is a compelling solution for the Philippines…if they only stopped installing cheap Chinese panels that delaminate upon installation. Solar is a good solution for the Philippines because the sun delivers itself. You only install the power plant once and you never have to feed it with a piece of coal, a gas supply or some petroleum distillate. You can put the power plant on the top of a mountain and walk away. That’s the simple, obvious beauty of it.

The solar industry is considered a young industry, maybe 15 years old. Nevermind that it had some fits and starts in the 1970s with technologies that were too expensive to commercialize in volume. Remember the panels President Carter installed in the White House that President Reagan had taken down? Nevermind that Thomas Edison came across this technology and said, “I hope we commercialize it some day.”

Here we are. No amount of political positioning could stop the last 15 years. The technology is well past arrival. Underline this: entire systems, panels and land and steel and everything, are being installed in the US today at $1 per watt peak . That is, depending on location, 1.2-1.8 kWh a year can be generated indefinitely for an upfront cost of $1 (or less). To put that in perspective, my highest electric rate on my PG&E bill is $0.44 per kWh. At that rate, for the cost of 2.3 kWh of electricity from PG&E, I can get 1.2-1.8 kWh per year for as long as the system will last.

AWS catapulted Amazon into a breakout 2016 on Wall Street

Posted Dec 22, 2016 by Matthew Lynley (@mattlynley)
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You could argue that 2016 was the breakout year for Amazon’s cloud computing service, AWS — and Wall Street knows that an even bigger wave is coming next year.

Amazon’s retail business continues to grow, and chug along, and gobble up share from offline commerce and other companies desperately trying to up their e-commerce game. And that’s all fine and good — that’s what Wall Street has come to expect from Amazon. What might not have been expected, though, was just how big AWS would be and how fast it would grow to become that big.

We got a brief taste of it in April this year in the company’s earnings report, which showed Amazon Web Services was clearly on a great clip and on its way to being a business that generates more than $10 billion on a regular basis. And since then, it seems more and more obvious that the AWS bet that Amazon made years ago is going to pay off in spades as a strong core business that’s going to have great scale without the insane overhead costs of its core retail business. Each quarter we seem to see continuous success from AWS — and continuing heavy investment in that operation.

Here’s a quick snapshot of the current state of AWS from the company’s most recent earnings presentation:

aws performance

The raw efficiency of AWS is going to be something that Wall Street is salivating over as Amazon continues to diversify itself beyond just its standard retail operations. Wall Street loves companies that have multiple different kinds of revenue streams that operate efficiently in parallel or are even perpendicular to the core business, but still give the company a strong way to continue to deliver value.

And Amazon knows it. Earlier this year, Amazon held an event where it unveiled a slew of new products designed to give AWS users more flexibility, streamlining the process of getting their data into Amazon’s servers. One extreme example is literally driving a truck to the front door of an office to transfer that data, but that just goes to show the lengths that the company is going to go to in order to get more and more companies signing up for AWS.

It’s hard to understate the importance of AWS, especially as competition aggressively ramps up. Microsoft and Google are increasingly trying to encroach on Amazon’s turf, where the company essentially defined what this style of cloud computing looks like and offered startups a way to quickly roll out their products for a much lower cost than buying their own infrastructure. And now, Amazon is looking at a business that is already generating more than $10 billion on a trailing twelve-month basis.

So, in short, it’s going to be a way that Wall Street is going to be looking for continuous growth from Amazon much in the same way it’s always looking for growth in its retail operations. We’re coming up on the holiday quarter, so we’re going to see what Core Amazon looks like in the face of a critical season, but nonetheless AWS represents one of the most important elements of the company as it goes into 2017 and a growth moment that pretty much defined Wall Street’s observations of the company in 2016.

So, that’s enough about AWS. Let’s talk about Amazon proper.

This year another rather special thing happened for Amazon, too: It recorded multiple straight quarters of profit. Sure, it wasn’t the same kind of profitability you might see from Alphabet or Apple. For a company that is known to just rapidly invest and not worry too much about profits, it gave Wall Street a taste of what a profitable and efficiently operating Amazon might look like:

FindTheCompany | Graphiq
Online retail is still just cracking the surface of pulling dollars away from brick and mortar, so the overhead for Amazon’s retail business remains very high. If Amazon continues to close that time gap of getting a product in the hands of consumers following an order, it’s going to continue to see additional traction there. Wall Street is naturally looking for that continued innovation, but it’s clear that Amazon’s proper business is continuing to grow. (And maybe that will come from drones, even — though let’s hope your new Amazon Echo doesn’t fall on your head.)

Amazon, also, has the advantage of being able to stay ahead of traditional brick and mortar that are trying to expand to e-commerce. Walmart realizes the potential existential threat it faces and is trying to expand its e-commerce operations, but it might just simply not be fast enough to get to Amazon. It will to some extent come down to the number of SKUs each company can offer, but Amazon has a huge lead on Walmart in terms of an e-commerce branding and also in terms of the ancillary services it can offer on the back of that branding and the efficient operations that it’s set up.

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So, all looking good for Wall Street again. But we have to pivot back to AWS for just a second, which as we can see while Amazon is now generating an income though small, it’s pretty clear that AWS is a significant contributor to that income.
So, now we have a company that in 2016 had a core new business that continues to not only grow rapidly but also at a very efficient rate. And we have Amazon retail operations that continue to grow, and an income stream that once again allows the company to continue to invest in new operations, like once again closing that time gap from an order to getting a product in a user’s hands. We’re looking at an Amazon that in 2016 showed a huge amount of continued potential while those bets are starting to play out materially.

Understandably so, Amazon’s stock has seen a rather spectacular rise on the year as we start to get a look at what Amazon looks like after all its huge bets are starting to pay off. The company’s shares are up around 15 percent in the past year.

FindTheCompany | Graphiq
Amazon is, of course, not just going to rely solely on its retail operations. And even though AWS is wildly successful, getting users to get stuck to the Amazon brand — whether that’s through Prime or something else — gives it the ability to monetize its users in new and unique ways. One of the most natural ones is a strategy that’s played out well for Apple and Amazon: sell media products. And so far, it looks like it’s generating a decent amount of revenue:


Apple leaps into AI research with improved simulated + unsupervised learning

Posted 6 hours ago by John Mannes (@JohnMannes)
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Corporate machine learning research may be getting a new vanguard in Apple. Six researchers from the company’s recently formed machine learning group published a paper that describes a novel method for simulated + unsupervised learning. The aim is to improve the quality of synthetic training images. The work is a sign of the company’s aspirations to become a more visible leader in the ever growing field of AI.

Google, Facebook, Microsoft and the rest of the techstablishment have been steadily growing their machine learning research groups. With

Snapchat has quietly acquired an Israeli startup for a reported $30 million to $40 million

Posted yesterday by Connie Loizos (@cookie)
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Snapchat sewed up its first acquisition in Israel this week, according to the outlet Calcalist News. It acquired four-year-old Cimagine, whose augmented reality platform lets consumers instantly visualize products they want to buy in their intended location, paying what Calcalist says was between $30 million and $40 million.

According to its LinkedIn page, Cimagine currently works with brands like Jerome’s, a furniture store franchise in Southern California; the U.K.-based digital retailer Shop Direct; and the global giant Coca-Cola — its cloud-based mobile platform aiming to help these companies augment their sites and mobile apps and boost online conversion rates and in-store sales in the process.

Presumably, Snapchat will use the tech to further enhance campaigns like we’ve seen in the past with, say, Starbucks, which launched a Snapchat chilled summer drinks campaign last summer, giving Starbucks drinkers the ability to superimpose a lens over a picture of their icy Frappuccino beverage and send it to their friends.

2016’s top programming trends

 by Martin Puryear


But in the software development world, things can change very quickly. It can be difficult to see the high-level trends clearly through all the chatter about shiny new development languages, frameworks and tools.

So, as we near the end of 2016, how accurate were my predictions?

Growth of the latest version of JavaScript

JavaScript/ECMAScript version 6 (commonly known as ECMAScript 2015 or ES6) launched in June of 2015, and I predicted that 2016 would see widespread adoption of its new features as web developers adjusted to the new version of this web standard. I was mostly correct. All the major browsers and Node.js (an open-source JavaScript runtime) are more than 90 percent ES6-compliant. Nowadays, we see significantly more ES6 syntax in production and not just internal utilities and smaller low-stakes systems, but the primary customer-facing systems, as well. Companies not dependent on legacy clients, like Airbnb and Google, are enforcing ES6 syntax in their internal style guides.

However, ES6 has not been universally adopted. Some developers need to support the old version of JavaScript for legacy reasons. Developers who want to use ES6 notation but still need to reach customers using legacy browsers can use tools such as transpilers or polyfills to convert modern ES6 code to the older syntax. Also, some ES6 features have not been fully implemented in every JavaScript environment, such as proper tail-recursion (Safari 10 and iOS 10 are happy exceptions). This table is a great resource to see if your target platform is ES6-compliant. The old version of JavaScript isn’t going to disappear overnight, but we saw significant growth in ES6 usage over 2016, and I expect most redeveloped sites in the new year will use it as well. I’d say this prediction was pretty good!

Backend as a service

Backend as a service, or BaaS, increased in 2016, as predicted. BaaS is the practice of using third-party services to perform certain repetitive tasks for a project — tasks like cloud storage or push notification. By using these services, developers can focus on their specialty while these services do what they do best. Backend API services are thriving because frontend frameworks are changing to more easily interact with these services. Developers are also increasingly using a technique called composition, where an overall system is composed of several smaller applications. In such a system, these small applications are easily provided by third-party services.

I’m intrigued to see how software norms will progress in the coming year.
Note: In my last post I mentioned a popular BaaS named Parse. Shortly after the article ran, Facebook (its owner) announced that Parse would soon be shut down. Those using it will need to create their own Parse servers and migrate before January 28, 2017.

Easy image management and deployment

What's your take on how augmented reality will affect business?

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