I’ve always found that the If-it-walks-like-a-duck Theory is as good as any for evaluating businesses. Retailers tend to look like each other, no matter what they’re retailing. The same usually is true for software companies and semiconductor makers and so on. The corollary also works. Companies that slapped a “dot-com” on their names in the Internet bubble era weren’t digital wonders just because they said so.
I got to thinking about my theory this week when the European Court of Justice heard a case about just what to call the ride-sharing company Uber. European taxi companies and their political patrons would like Uber to be considered a transportation company, just like them. Naturally, they’d like to see Uber regulated accordingly. For its part, Uber prefers to be thought of as a digital platform, a totally different beast that ought not to be subject to the rules that govern old-fashioned cabs.
As with so many things these days, it's not as simple as it looks. At first blush, Uber obviously is a transportation company. I use it to get a ride to the airport just as I used to call for taxis. It seems just as obvious that Uber drivers are employees of a sort, seeing as they must follow Uber’s rules. So if you follow this logic, Uber is a duck, plain and simple.
But as I said, it’s not simple. Uber doesn’t own cars. Its drivers can work whenever they like; they are subject to nobody’s schedule. So maybe, as Uber argues, it’s not a duck at all. Still, it is most definitely a bird of some sort. Governments have every right to regulate a digital platform that arranges rides and provides work for its citizens. And regulate they will.
The EU court doesn’t plan to rule on this case until the spring. Incidentally, that’s about when the book I’m writing about Uber will be published. If anything about this company or the industry it helped create were straightforward, I’d probably be done by now.
Have an uncomplicated day.
BITS AND BYTES
Amazon's cloud division is investing in more hardware. Last year, Amazon Web Services introduced a hardware "appliance" called Snowball that is literally a truck that transports data from data center to data center. On Wednesday at its annual customer conference, AWS introduced a portable edition. Also the subject of keynote addresses: a portfolio of new artificial intelligence services. (Fortune, Fortune)
GoPro restructures, shrinks workforce by 15%. The digital camera maker is getting back to basics, a move that includes eliminating the entertainment division it created to develop original content. (Reuters, New York Times)
Here's one potential use for old power stations. Amazon is said to be talking to big European utility Enel about converting several Italian facilities designated for closure into data centers. The cloud giant is expanding its footprint aggressively in Europe. (Reuters)
Toyota's top executive is really serious about electric cars. Akio Toyoda, grandson of founder Kiichiro Toyoda, is now in charge of a newly formed division dedicated to the technology. The world's largest automaker has been slower to invest in this area than rivals like General Motors, Ford, and Tesla—in part because of the success of its hybrid efforts. (Fortune, Wall Street Journal)
Soon, you can buy prescription lenses for Snap Spectacles. Because what's the point of recording video of things you can't see all that well? In order to reach mainstream buyers, makers of smartglasses will need to consider people who need vision correction. (Fortune)
Ford exports self-driving car pilots to Europe. The rules of the road are very different from country-to-country, and vehicles are more likely to share streets with cyclists. Ford plans to manufacture vehicles for commercial ride-sharing or on-demand taxi services by 2021. (Fortune)
Here's where you can learn how to manage artificial intelligence projects. The MBA programs at Harvard Business School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as several other top business schools, now include classes centered on machine learning and other AI concerns. (Wall Street Journal)
This self-driving car startup is giving away its software. The founder of Comma.ai—which was working on an aftermarket kit to convert existing autos into autonomous ones but recently ditched that effort—on Wednesday released its code to the open source development community. The company's strategy took a detour about six weeks ago, when the federal transportation agency started asking questions about safety. (Fortune, Wall Street Journal)
Stay tuned: Fitbit may be buying Pebble. The Information (subscription required) reports that the fitness-band maker is close to acquiring the smartwatch startup, which gained notoriety through Kickstarter. TechCrunch suggests the pricetag is around $40 million, far less than what Pebble was offered last year by two potential suitors. (TechCrunch, The Information)
This is how Google wants businesses to make apps. The cloud computing giant is trying to make it easier for companies to create custom applications powered by its suite of business tools and services. Its strategy for doing so comes in the form of a new tool called App Maker. The software was designed for people who aren't necessarily professional developers.
PEOPLE AND CULTURE
Sheryl Sandberg gives away $100 million in stock. Facebook's COO has transferred 880,000 shares to a donor-advised fund that will invest in causes such as grief support groups like Kara, anti-poverty charities, and groups focused on empowering women, like Sandberg's own organization Lean In. (Fortune)
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Expect More M&A Among Machine Learning Companies in 2017, by Aaron Pressman
Tesla Wins Major Regulatory Battle in Virginia, by Kirsten Korosec
Here's What Tim Cook Says About Apple's Values, by Don Reisinger
Why Netflix Is Finally Letting You Download Movies and TV Shows, by Mathew Ingram
Alphabet's Moonshot Factory Executive Talks Failure and Self-Driving Cars, by Jonathan Vanian
Why Every CEO Should Be Moonlighting as a Hacker, by Valentina Zarya
ONE MORE THING
RIP, IBM mainframe creator Erich Bloch. A refugee who came to the United States in 1948 as a Holocaust orphan, Bloch led the introduction of the System/360 operating system, which enabled everything from ATMs to travel reservation systems. He was later the director of the National Science Foundation under President Ronald Reagan. (New York Times)