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Second opinion: Ars readers’ picks for the Deathwatch errata

EnlargeDerek Bacon / Getty Images
Welcome to 2018! We'r..

EnlargeDerek Bacon / Getty Images

Welcome to 2018! We're less than a week into the New Year, and we've already got a number of new dumpster fires fully ablaze. Apple's BatteryGate PR disaster is now burning as hot as a Samsung Galaxy Note 7. Microsoft's Kinect died, and nobody knew it—no wonder I couldn't find an adapter for my new Xbox One S. ("Hey Cortana, find me another way to let you surveil my household!") And Hooters is now serving crypto currency with its burgers. What a time to be alive!

Last week, we published the Ars 2018 Deathwatch—the list of companies and other entities most at risk of a fiscal, technological, or cultural-relevancy death in the coming year. We asked readers to share their own picks in the comments, just in case we missed any candidates. And, not surprisingly, many of you have strong opinions about this sort of thing.

Some of your picks matched up with companies we had debated putting on the list ourselves. Some were… shall we say, wishful thinking. Some were well-reasoned rejoinders to revive companies we've dropped off the list. Others were… not. But who are we to judge? We keep putting HTC on our list even though it keeps coming back year after year somehow, so we're willing to entertain a little debate.

Uncontroversial choice: Oh, Snap!


Snap, Inc. (first offered up by reader Ushio) was the biggest up vote amongst reader-contributed contenders. The corporate vessel that contains Snapchat (and calls itself ''a camera company") went public in March of 2017 at $17 a share. It soared to $27 in initial trading, as investors snapped it up in its first weeks. But by August, reality set in—and the value of shares has been bouncing below the IPO price ever since. And part of the reality is that nobody really understands how Snap is going to make money. (Something tells us it doesn’t involve sunglasses.)

It's generally expected for new companies to burn through cash after going public, because going public costs money. Snap burned through $3.1 billion in the first nine months of 2017—including "$2.5 billion of stock-based compensation expense, primarily due to the recognition of expense related to [restricted stock units] with a performance condition satisfied on the effectiveness of the registration statement for our initial public offering." That is, Snap had to make good on its promise of stock to some of its investors and employees—and pay the payroll taxes on that compensation.

So, not a big deal, right? Snap just sold $3.4 billion in stock in September, right? This is what most of Ars' staff thought—too early to start worrying when the company has $2.2 billion in cash (and "cash equivalents") it's sitting on, and Snap is not spending cash as fast as it was prior to launch.

The fundamental problem Snap faces is that it is a free social media platform built for sharing photos and snarky asides—and it doesn’t even have the luxury Twitter has of being a publicly accessible stream of said content on the Web to generate ad revenue off of.

Snap is currently earning about $1.17 in revenue per user per quarter, which means it can expect (with some modest revenue enhancements) to bring in about $5 per user in 2018. It does this through selling custom photo filters with embedded advertising and advertising embedded in the "stories" of content from third parties. Snap's future depends on continuing to grow its user base and finding more ways to "monetize" those duck-faced selfies from the 178 million daily active users it currently has.

That should be a snap, right? My daughter, a regular Snapchat user, thinks it's no problem, because she consumes a fair amount of media within Snap's walled garden. I, as a member of Generation Orkut, am somewhat doubtful about the long-term viability of the business model­—what with Facebook and Instagram (also Facebook) and a herd of other services providing "stories" and selfie photo filters of various sorts.

But, like I said: Snap has $2.2 billion in cash and a cash burn rate of about $20 million over current quarterly revenue. So Snap has a long ramp to slide down before it qualifies as financially troubled. The biggest risk is being made irrelevant by some other platform.

When my teenage daughter starts using something else, I'll throw Snap on Deathwatch—an event I anticipate will happen sooner rather than later.

Bring it back: Gearbox

RIP, <em>Battleborn</em>
Enlarge/ RIP, Battleborn

There was some confusion about whether we had listed Gearbox this year—it was a 2017 alumnus of the list, and we were taking a wait-and-see approach for 2018. But there was enough debate amongst readers to warrant giving it a mention in the Errata.

Gearbox's Battleborn died a widely unmourned death last fall—though the servers are still up, the company ended updates to the game after an 18-month run. Even offering the characters from the game as downloadable content on Rock Band 4 could not stem the bleeding on that game. And the re-release Bulletstorm Full Clip Edition, which arrived with a hefty price tag and offered a $5 upgrade to skin the main character as Duke Nukem, was not a soaring success. As Sam Machkovech wrote in April, "I have felt more interactive excitement holding a burning $5 bill in my hand."

Protests about Gearbox's inclusion in 2017's list and responses to those protests explain why we were on the fence about including Gearbox in the 2018 list—the company essentially has everything riding on Borderlands 3 in order to end a string of bad news.

Borderlands 3 was announced in April of 2016. But the lead writer for the game, Mickey Neumann—who also voiced one of the game's characters—resigned in June due to health issues (Neumann was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2012). The game is now rumored to be on track for release some time after April of this year as hinted in a statement by the CEO and chairman of Borderlands publisher Take-Two (the company that owns 2K Games). But Gearbox has not made any official announcements as of yet.

So, we're not ready to break out the pine box for Gearbox quite yet. But a lot is riding on the company's next release.

Super-controversial choice: Tesla

The Tesla Model 3 has been slow in coming.
Enlarge/ The Tesla Model 3 has been slow in coming.

If Snap was somewhat questionable but reasonable as a pick, the biggest fight amongst Ars readers was over the future of electric car manufacturer Tesla. Some readers proposed that Tesla's failure to deliver the Model 3 in volume (and it won't hit full volume production next quarter, either) was a sign that the company was doomed, doomed, doomed. Random John Smith Guy commented:

I might swim against the current on this site and suggest that Tesla might deserve to go on the Deathwatch list. They're announcing new products with dubious market appeal (you really think people in the pickup truck market want electric, for crying out loud) while having massive production problems. The Republican killing of the electric car tax credit is also probably going to cut into their bottom line, too.

Tesla was projecting something like 30K cars made in Q3. They made about 200. They don't even seem capable of operating the equipment.

Tesla might not be dead by the end of the year, but it's probably a matter of time. Tesla is the Blackberry of electric cars and we might as well admit it.

Others chimed in voicing their dissent, and the up and down votes were divided on this opinion. But there were other voices shouting doom for Tesla—some of which were from one reader who admitted to shorting Tesla's stock.

If you look at Tesla's financial reports, there's evidence that some could use to justify being bearish about the company's future: TSLA net income has been negative for a while, and the company's books bled especially hard the last two years. The Gigafactory battery production plant in Nevada has not scaled up fast enough.

But none of these outweigh the momentum that Tesla has built with both sales and mindshare. The company massively expanded its charging station network, and despite GM's entry into the market, it is still the market leader in electric car sales. Despite the shortage of the more modest Model 3, Tesla's top-end vehicles sold in record numbers.

We're not saying that Tesla doesn't face challenges. But we stand by our call to give the company a little more rope before we start calling it a Deathwatch candidate, thanks.

Confirmation bias

Among the choices we made ourselves, our selection of Twitter got mixed reviews. Some agreed with our nihilistic view of Twitter's continued existence. Deputy Cartman wrote:

I pray to the pantheon of deities that Twitter either dies or somehow changes so much that it's practically unrecognizable. It seems to turn people into a bunch of narcissistic ragefit-throwing twits, the 2010s equivalent of street preachers, so small wonder Trump took to it like a fatso to a third hamburger. Impotently bitching about subway delays here in NYC instead of reading a book, or the news, or anything else. Blithering on about fake news and crooked Hillary. Providing yet another attack vector for political malfeasance and subterfuge. Oh thank God you were there for us, Twitter!

Others… well, not so much. They have some other social media platform in mind for the Deathwatch. The Ulterior writes:

I disagree about Twitter. Don't think it's ever going away. Isn't MySpace still around? It has its place in social media. Great news feed. Horrible for connecting with friends or as a forum for discussions. Facebook is a bigger "bubble". Massively overvalued its only value is in the massive amount of personal data they collect on people and share with advertisers. Twitter is probably "right sized" in that it is what it is, and never will be more (or less) than it is. Facebook could CRASH. I don't think people like what they are doing even if they use it. Something else could replace it as fast as Facebook replaced MySpace. Other than in international growth, there is nowhere for it to go but down.

Unfortunately, the MySpace comparison may be a bit too much on the nose. Sure, it's still there…owned by the holding company Specific Media and "part of the People / Entertainment Weekly Network." And it is not a "social network" anymore, per se. As another reader rebutted:

If you think Twitter is going to become the next MySpace, you're confirming the Deathwatch listing, not disputing it.

As for Facebook being a "bubble," as much as some people would like to see Facebook tumble into the ocean in flames like a failed North Korean submarine missile launch, Facebook is actually profitable, and it has been for years. Facebook has figured out how to make its users into a revenue-producing army, to the tune of more than $27 billion a year, and $10 billion of that is actual profit. Twitter brings in, at best, a tenth of that revenue and loses hundreds of millions of dollars every year (though it is "profitable" if you ignore taxes, interest on loans, and the $600-plus million a year in stock-based compensation doled out to some employees).

We'll be keeping an eye out for other emerging candidates for Deathwatch assessment throughout the year. If there's a company or thing you think we've missed, let us know in the comments.

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