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What matters in tech, in your inbox every morning.

Amazon can’t keep up with coronavirus

Good morning! This Wednesday, Amazon struggles to keep up with coronavirus demand, the VR-at-home revolution still isn't here, and Fox buys itself a streaming service.

People Are Talking

The FCC should send hotspots to schools to help kids stay online, FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said:

  • "With schools closing and learning migrating online, this is the right moment to adjust FCC rules to expand how we think about internet access and the traditional classroom. Moreover, there is already support for doing so from major program beneficiaries, like schools and teachers."

Google's still monetizing coronavirus fears, say Senators Warner and Blumenthal:

  • "Browsing in incognito mode across a range of different devices, our staffs were consistently served dozens of ads for protective masks and hand sanitizer – in each case while on a page related to COVID-19 … it became clear that these ads were targeted to users specifically because they were browsing articles on COVID-19."

The only way for the government to get anything done this year? It will have to be coronavirus-related, Bradley Tusk writes for Protocol:

  • "Politicians who have an issue pending in Congress should do everything they can to slip it into coronavirus-related legislation. If they can make the case that their idea helps specifically address the crisis (and, even more important, will make the legislators voting for it look good), they have a shot."

Tesla workers can stay home. But Elon Musk is still going to work:

  • "I'd like to be super clear that if you feel the slightest bit ill or or even uncomfortable, please do not feel obligated to come to work. I will personally be at work, but that's just me. Totally ok if you want to stay home for any reason."
  • Protocol's Lauren Hepler and Levi Sumagaysay report that local sheriffs told Tesla it is "not an essential business," but had no immediate plans to shut down the factory.

Google should do more to protect contract workers, a group of its employees said:

  • "We know that leadership clearly values the health and safety of our workplaces and communities. But when it comes to our 'extended workforce,' Google and its contracting agencies are falling short."

The Big Story

Chaos inside Amazon's warehouses

Amazon is trying to both meet skyrocketing demand, for everything from hand sanitizer to Play-Doh, and keep its hundreds of thousands of employees safe. It's not easy.

  • Warehouse workers in Spain and Italy tested positive for coronavirus, the Washington Post reported. And U.S. workers say Amazon isn't taking enough precautions: More than 1,500 warehouse workers have signed a petition calling for Amazon to take more protective measures.
  • Drivers told BuzzFeed that they've gotten no guidance from Amazon on how to proceed going forward, except for incentives to work harder. Amazon is reportedly demanding employees work even longer hours in the U.K. to keep up with demand.

The company's trying to stem the tide. In addition to hiring 100,000 new people and raising its pay by $2 per hour, Amazon also said on Tuesday that independent sellers will only be able to ship essential goods — think medicine, household staples, dog food, diapers, that sort of thing — to Amazon warehouses until April 5.

  • Merchants can still sell on Amazon, but they'll have to figure out their own inventory and shipping. Which means a lot of people whose businesses rely on Amazon are suddenly scrambling for an alternative.
  • By one estimate, at least 53% of Amazon sellers are affected by the change.

Amazon's also continuing to fight price-gouging, and struggling to keep hand sanitizer, masks and more in stock. Shipping estimates are all over the place (I have one package that's already three days late), and sellers have said that sales have already dropped on many goods amid the coronavirus chaos.

The harder it gets to leave your home, the more important Amazon becomes for millions of people. The company's challenge is to keep up, while still taking care of its own.

Virtual Reality

VR arcades closed, and the revolution is on hold

It's like Benedict Evans said the other day: Everyone's talking about how coronavirus is a big moment for video calls, but why isn't it a big moment for VR?

In reality, it might be a big problem — because so far, the VR industry has largely bet on VR centers and arcades while we wait for truly great in-home headsets. And as malls and movie theaters close their doors across the country, so do the VR spots.

  • Protocol's Janko Roettgers spoke to The Void, the VR company backed by Disney. Its 15 locations in North America temporarily shut down Monday night. Meanwhile, Sandbox VR also closed its Los Angeles and San Francisco outposts Monday, and Zero Latency closed some of its locations as well.

Even still-open VR centers are seeing less interest. "Our location in Singapore is showing a 40% decline in business," Sandbox VR CEO Siqi Chen told Janko. It all spells trouble for the arcade owners, the headset makers, and the content creators. "These are companies with low tolerances for this kind of volatility," said Greenlight Insights VR analyst J.C. Kuang.

  • Even when VR centers do re-open, it might be tough to convince the public that their thoroughly-cleaned headsets are safe. "It may be some time before the public is ready to jump back in," former Nomadic VR CEO Doug Griffin told Janko.

In related news: Facebook has a new version of the Oculus UI that Facebook says is "a step toward VR becoming the next computing platform." So far, that step seems to be "making it all look kind of like Android."

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WFH

The promise — and peril — of a virtual all-hands

I've heard from a few people recently that one uniquely tricky thing about running a newly remote company is having all-hands meetings. For so many tech companies, these are crucial gatherings, a chance to get everyone on the same page and moving in the right direction. That's harder when your gathering space is a video chat.

Foursquare had its first post-remote all-hands on Monday, and its co-founder Dennis Crowley told me it was … an adjustment.

  • Crowley and CEO David Shim ran the meeting over Hangouts, which worked fine but presented a weird product quirk: You can have lots of people in a call, but only the first 250 to join get speaking permission.
  • So Crowley and Shim decided they'd be the only two people to talk — they asked for questions over Google Forms, and monitored a Slack channel for ongoing conversation about the meeting.

The biggest challenge was trying to read the room, Crowley told me. Foursquare's all-hands covered everything from how to access company-provided counselors to the performance and future of the company. Discussing all that from his coffee table, seeing only the screen of his MacBook, made it hard to see how the message was received.

  • It didn't help that Crowley's son picked an inopportune time to wake up from a nap. "I could hear him crying in the next room — and as I'm addressing the company, I'm listening to hear my wife's footsteps going into his room," he said.
  • At the end of the meeting, Crowley noticed someone say in Slack that yesterday was Shim's birthday. So he started singing Happy Birthday, "assuming everyone would join in, but then I realized — I'm the only one who can talk. The moment I realized it, I had such stage fright, and was like 'Happy Birthday we gotta go.'"

Generally, though, feedback on the all-hands was good, Crowley said — and there will almost certainly be more like it in the months to come. Likely with less Crowley karaoke.

Number Of The Day

$440,000,000

That's how much Fox paid for Tubi, the ad-supported streaming service. (Fox paid for the acquisition largely by selling its stake in Roku.) Tubi has 25 million users, and tens of thousands of shows and movies available for free. It gives Fox its own streaming platform, and an immediately serious player in the streaming TV business — which looks poised to explode in the next few months as more people stay home.

In Other News

  • Today in coronavirus: The EU closed its borders for 30 days. The U.S. government is talking with Facebook, Google and others to figure out how to use smartphone location data to track the spread of coronavirus. Facebook is giving employees $1,000, and giving everyone an "exceeds" on their performance review — but contractors won't get the same. Google postponed its Cloud Next conference, which had already been turned into an online event, until further notice. Waymo is stopping its robo-taxi service to protect safety drivers. Microsoft closed its retail stores around the world, as did wireless carriers and many other big brands. And DoorDash lowered its commission fees for restaurants now relying on delivery.
  • Facebook is leaning on AI moderation, and it's already going wrong, deleting huge numbers of posts. Facebook said it wasn't a moderation problem, but rather "an automated system that removes links to abusive websites" that incorrectly removed a lot of other posts too. As Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others send content moderators home and enter this new AI-heavy world, expect more of this.
  • Want a private browser? Use Brave. According to a new study, Brave sends less tracking data to websites than any other popular browser. Chrome, Firefox and Safari came in just below, and Edge and Yandex came in last — the study found that they both send information that could easily identify a user.
  • SoftBank may not bail out WeWork after all. It pledged last fall to buy $3 billion of WeWork shares, including nearly $1 billion from Adam Neumann, but the Wall Street Journal reports that SoftBank thinks regulatory probes give it a chance to back out of the deal.
  • Don't miss this profile of The Wing, which is a beloved "women's utopia" — but has some serious problems lingering below the surface.
  • Need a fun read? Try this one: how Cameo turned every forgotten celebrity into a money making machine, one $15 happy-birthday message at a time.

One More Thing

Before your call, a brief message

On one hand, "an ad that plays before your phone call is completed" sounds like a total dystopian nightmare. On the other, when that ad is a 30-second alert with important coronavirus information, it almost seems like a good idea! Several Indian carriers certainly thought so, since they've replaced the sound of a ringing phone with exactly that kind of alert. Users can stop the message and go back to the ringing, but it's actually a clever way to make sure people hear important information. At least until it becomes a Bud Light ad. Then I'm out.

Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to me, david@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.

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