Tech update: Yahoo sacks staff; Google software is car ‘driver’; RIP Twitter?

Yahoo Inc. announced Wednesday it will lay off 107 employees in the first of what is expected to be more than 1,500 job cuts.

The layoffs take effect April 11 and affected employees received 60-day advance notice of the move, Yahoo said in a notice filed with the California Employment Development Department. The layoffs were spread across a range of departments and job titles.

Yahoo shares closed up 1 percent at $27.10 on Wednesday and are down about 18.5 percent so far this year.

Yahoo Chief Executive Officer Marissa Mayer said during the company's fourth quarter earnings call this month it will cut roughly 15 percent of its workforce as part of a strategy to revamp its core Internet business.

Yahoo had about 11,000 employees as of June 30, according to its website, down from a Dec. 31, 2014, total of about 12,500 full-time employees and what it called fixed-term contractors.

Google says US guidance crucial to development of self-driving cars

Alphabet Inc.'s Google unit told US auto safety regulators that the government's interpretation of motor vehicle safety rules is "extremely important" to its further development of fully self-driving cars.

In a Nov. 12 letter to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reviewed by Reuters on Wednesday, the director of Google's self-driving car project said the agency's decision on how to construe safety regulations "will have major impact" on its development.

NHTSA told Google in a Feb. 4 letter that it agreed it could consider a Google self-driving computer system as the "driver" of the vehicle – a major boost to getting self-driving cars on the road. But the agency but stopped short of agreeing to immediately waive all safety rules needed to allow fully self-driving cars on the roads as sought in Google's letter.

In a statement on Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said: “We are taking great care to embrace innovations that can boost safety and improve efficiency on our roadways. Our interpretation that the self-driving computer system of a car could, in fact, be a driver is significant. But the burden remains on self-driving car manufacturers to prove that their vehicles meet rigorous federal safety standards."

In the Nov. 12 letter, Chris Urmson, head of Google's self-driving car project, said the company's driverless vehicle was designed to "meet or exceed" U.S. safety standards. Urmson also noted that automated systems, such as Google's, "react faster than human-driven cars" and "will not be subject to driver distraction or impairment."

In its Feb. 4 response, NHTSA offered its most comprehensive map yet of the legal obstacles to putting fully autonomous vehicles on the road. It noted existing regulations requiring some auto safety equipment, requirements for braking systems activated by foot control, cannot be waived immediately. Federal regulations requiring equipment like steering wheels and brake pedals would have to be formally rewritten before Google could offer cars without those features.

On Wednesday, longtime advocate Clarence Ditlow who is head of the Center for Auto Safety, told Reuters: "It's better to write a stand-alone rule for driverless vehicles. It may take more work, but the end result is better for the consumer and the driverless vehicle maker. And it may take less time than rewriting all the standards."

Twitter’s user growth hots wall

Twitter Inc. reported its first quarter with no growth in users since it went public, stoking fresh concerns on how long it will take for the company to reverse the trend.

The stalled growth in the average number of active monthly users came despite a series of changes to make Twitter easier and more engaging.

While the company said it is taking additional steps – including launching changes to the timeline of tweets earlier Wednesday – it told investors not to expect immediate results.

“Our work will take time” before the company can create long-term shareholder value, said Executive Chairman Omid Kordestani on a call with analysts.

Twitter shares fell in after-hours trading as its revenue forecast for the current quarter missed analysts' expectations. They were down 2.5 per cent after a call with analysts ended.

The company's share price has declined more than 50 per cent since Jack Dorsey, one of the founders, returned to Twitter in July. They closed up 4 per cent at $14.98 in regular trade.

"The platform's overall growth is underwhelming," said Randy Guisto, vice president and lead analyst with Outsell, a research and advisory firm. "They have plateaued and can't look to India or China as those markets are dominated by messaging apps like WhatsApp, as well as Apple and Google's proprietary, pre-installed platforms."

The microblogging service forecast first-quarter revenue of between $595 million and $610 million, well below the average analyst estimate of $627.1 million, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Twitter said in a filing it had 320 million average monthly active users in the quarter, unchanged from the third quarter and lagging a forecast for 323 million users from RBC Capital Markets.

But Dorsey said that monthly active usage in January "has bounced back to Q3 levels."

Facing slowing user growth, Twitter has been experimenting under Dorsey, who became interim CEO in July and then CEO in October, to make its website more engaging.

The change to the timeline made Wednesday is the most dramatic since his return. Twitter is altering the way it displays tweets on its home page - customizing them to individual users.

The change is designed to appeal to advertisers by giving more prominence to tweets that advertisers pay for.

It is not clear whether the new timeline will work. Guisto said that "so far beta testing comments are not favorable. So far, we don't see these changes attracting new users."

Van Wiemer (@shidolido) tweeted on Wednesday: "Twitter strongest trait was getting news up-to-date. Popular tweets on timeline are of no use. Users are leaving, soon me. #RIPTwitter."

On Wednesday, the hashtag #RIPTwitter was used roughly 20 times per minute, according to social media analytic firm Zoomph. The hashtag had previously been the top trending item in the U.S. on Twitter over the weekend, when rumors of the changes first emerged.

"Can only assume @Jack has had a bet with Marissa Mayer who can bankrupt their company first. #RIPTwitter #Yahoo," tweeted Matthew O. Edwards (@Matt_Edwards95).

And some analysts have said the earlier efforts, including Moments, which showcases Twitter's best tweets and content, have not taken off.

"It's still unclear how Twitter will monetize Moments. Most likely it will be some form of sponsored or native ads wrapped around individual moments," said Guisto.

An exodus of some top executives last month added to concerns about its ability to reignite growth. The departures came as investors have already raised concerns about Dorsey's dual role as CEO of mobile payments company Square Inc.

"We have a structure that allows me to see what's happening in the week (at Twitter and Square)," Dorsey told analysts. "We set off the week together at both companies and we have checkpoints and then the balance of my time is really spent on recruiting."

Revenue rose 48.3 percent to $710.5 million in the quarter ended Dec. 31.

Twitter's net loss shrank to $90.2 million, or 13 cents per share, in the fourth quarter ended Dec. 31 from $125.4 million, or 20 cents per share, a year earlier. Excluding items, it earned 16 cents per share.

Analysts had expected a profit of 12 cents per share on revenue of $709.9 million.


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