March 24, 2020
Good morning! This Tuesday, Uber asks the federal government for more money and new laws, your boss might be spying on your home office, and internet balloons are coming to Kenya.
People Are Talking
Companies not ready for remote workneed to get on board fast, said ServiceNow CEO Bill McDermott:
- "Many companies today are still non digital. Their workflows are paper-based, and they're doing things to spreadsheets and paper-based processes. These are proving inadequate at a time when the world is vulnerable to shocks like the coronavirus crisis."
Surveilling people to track coronavirus is a slippery slope, believes Albert Fox Cahn of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project:
- "We could so easily end up in a situation where we empower local, state or federal government to take measures in response to this pandemic that fundamentally change the scope of American civil rights."
From Protocol: We have to ensure connectivity for low-income users, said Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance:
- "If you didn't have internet, would you really stay in your house? I think most people, if they're being honest, would not."
The Big Story
Uber asks the government for … something
"My goal in writing to you is not to ask for a bailout for Uber," Dara Khosrowshahi wrote in a letter to President Trump on Monday, "but rather for support for the independent workers on our platform and, once we move past the immediate crisis, the opportunity to legally provide them with a real safety net going forward."
- Khosrowshahi's main request: immediate financial assistance for drivers and delivery workers, and new laws along with the economic stimulus package that would allow companies such as Uber to give gig workers more benefits without classifying them as employees.
- He urged the President to consider a "third way" that is neither unprotected gig work nor protected shift work — a way that would require companies like Uber to give benefits like unemployment insurance without making their workers full-time employees.
- What exactly would that look like? Khosrowshahi didn't really say.
You could read Uber's timing as cynical. Is the company using a pandemic to ask for money to prop up an unprofitable business model, and thread the gig-economy needle that would keep it from being crushed by AB 5 and other attempts to classify gig workers as employees? The optics don't get any better when you remember Uber recently touted its billions in cash reserves.
- William Gould, a Stanford professor and former chief of the NLRB, told Protocol's Levi Sumagaysay that "the so-called third way would undercut a floor which is already fragile and weak."
- Still, Khosrowshahi is speaking to an important truth. While Uber's taking a hit now, the company will survive. The threat is far more existential for the people who drive for Uber, many of whom are rapidly losing their primary source of income. Some people would like to make that Uber's problem; Uber wants to make it the government's.
Khosrowshahi also met with Senator Chuck Schumer last week, who has since pushed to add unemployment insurance for freelancers and gig workers to the stimulus bill that's still being debated. Uber said Khosrowshahi is reaching out to Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell as well.
Uber's far from the only company asking for a bailout, by the way. Our friends at POLITICO rounded up a bunch of the recent requests.
Even when you're remote, your boss might be watching
At the office, it's easy to tell when your manager is watching. Things are trickier at home. Protocol's Adam Janofsky found employers can use in-app tracking in ways that are surprisingly specific … sometimes without employees being aware.
- Zoom, for instance, has an attention-tracking feature that alerts hosts when users switch away from the app for more than 30 seconds (like when you're browsing Twitter during a call). On Asana, administrators can sort users by their activity to see who uses the app the most, and how. Dropbox, meanwhile, logs the time, date, location, and IP address of every file edit.
- Some oversight has legitimate compliance and security uses, of course. But many users seem to be surprised by the extent to which they can be watched from afar.
Not all employers even try to be coy about seeing what workers are doing while remote. Time Doctor, an app that can track employees' internet usage and even take screenshots of their computer every few minutes, has had more sign-ups in the last week than it did in the last quarter. Liam Martin, the company's co-founder and CMO, told Adam demand is so high that Time Doctor's service infrastructure is barely holding together.
- Time Doctor also makes all that data available to employees, which Martin said can be crucial for helping workers know when to disconnect while working remotely. "The biggest thing we need to track right now is mental health, not if people are getting a 5% or 10% productivity boost," he said.
And a word to bosses: "If you try to manage a group of knowledge workers the way that like a shift supervisor manages fast food employees, you're not going to get the best out of people," Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield told Protocol in an interview.
A MESSAGE FROM ORACLE
We deliver insights through data and provide applications that help businesses see information in new ways. Oracle's second generation cloud infrastructure and Oracle Autonomous Database make securing and managing data simpler.
A smart ring could help predict coronavirus
It's one of Jack Dorsey's favorite wearables, and the company that makes it has become a powerhouse in the sleep-tech industry. Now, the Oura ring is part of a UCSF study that could help predict coronavirus before symptoms really start to show.
A source tells me UCSF initially approached Oura for a partnership to get rings for medical workers to help them track their own vitals and try to catch any coronavirus symptoms quickly. More than 2,000 people at UCSF and San Francisco General will soon be wearing the rings.
- The conversation quickly birthed a study to see if using the wearable to track body temperature and other vitals could help detect the virus sooner. That would make it easier for people to self-quarantine before spreading it, or get treatment more quickly.
- More than 5,000 Oura users already signed up, I'm told.
In addition to helping predict illness, Oura also said the study will use the data to "build an algorithm to help UCSF identify patterns of onset, progression, and recovery" for coronavirus.
Uber added a new board member: Bob Eckert, the former Mattel and Kraft CEO. He was chosen for his leadership experience, financial expertise and regulatory knowhow — all things Uber will need more of in the coming months.
Box, meanwhile, is adding three members to its board, after pressure from the activist investor Starboard. Only one has been named so far: Jack Lazar, the former CFO at GoPro and board member at a number of other tech companies.
April Underwood is now a venture partner at Obvious Ventures, having previously held the role of chief product officer at Slack. "Obvious has a unique focus on backing companies with world positive impact," she said, "which couldn't possibly feel more needed than it does in this particular moment."
Amanda Langowski is Microsoft's new lead for the Windows Insider Program. She's been at the company for two decades, and will oversee a huge part of the Windows testing and feedback organization.
From Protocol: Compass laid off 15% of its staff, about 375 employees, as a cost-cutting move during coronavirus times. CEO Robert Reffkin and the rest of the leadership team also took big pay cuts.
In Other News
- Today in coronavirus: Instacart is hiring 300,000 more delivery workers. Amazon is delaying shipments of non-essential goods by as much as a month. Amazon's also going to pick up and deliver coronavirus test kits in Seattle. The DOJ filed its first enforcement action against coronavirus fraud. Verizon's giving all customers 15GB of extra data. Elon Musk donated 1,000 ventilators. Zillow stopped buying homes. Hospitals need your 3D printer. Amazon is making kid-friendly Audible books, and Prime Video shows, free. Facebook's lowering its video quality in Latin America. Netflix is doing the same thing in India. Microsoft canceled the in-person part of its Inspire conference. Microsoft and the CDC built a chatbot that can help you decide whether you need medical attention. (I hope it's better than Tay.) And check out the bug-out bunker of your dreams.
- After yesterday's newsletter about app upheaval, SensorTower sent me a few more big movers in the App Store. Fast food is way down — McDonald's installs fell 48% last week compared to the beginning of the month, and Starbucks' by 51%. Dating apps, too, are plummeting in the rankings. "If you can imagine it would be adversely affected by COVID-19, it is," SensorTower's Randy Nelson told me.
- Amazon sent $600 jackets to all the VIP guests of its now-canceled MARS conference. Which is … not a great look for the company at the moment.
- The Trump administration granted a tariff exception for the Apple Watch, after Apple argued it couldn't find a way to make the device outside of China and still meet demand. Apple's now avoided tariffs on virtually all of its most popular products.
- Microsoft uncovered a new Windows vulnerability, and said this one's being actively exploited. Even scarier? It works on completely up-to-date systems. Microsoft is working on a fix, but didn't say when it's coming.
- Another big-budget streaming deal:FuboTV merged with virtual entertainment company FaceBank, in a deal that valued FuboTV at $700 million.
- Speech recognition may have a racial bias. Researchers found that software behind services such as Siri and Alexa made far more errors with black users than white ones — suggesting, among other things, that training data isn't as diverse as it should be.
- The Kenyan government approved Loon's internet balloons for use in the country. Loon's been working in the nation for years, but ran into regulatory complications until coronavirus worries moved things along much faster.
Protocol Cloud is your weekly guide to the future of enterprise computing, launching March 25. Protocol senior reporter Tom Krazit will give you the latest on how cloud computing is turning the technology world on its head, and how you and your company can capitalize on it.
One More Thing
Did VR just get its killer app?
For all the fun, cool stuff there is to do in virtual reality, it hasn't really had its Big Thing yet. But based on early reviews, Half-Life: Alyx has a chance to be that Big Thing. The first Half-Life game in 13 years is a critical smash: Polygon loved it, Ars Technica really loved it, Game Informer gave it a 9, and on and on the list goes. The challenge, as always with VR, is that it requires a lot of expensive and specific gear to make the most of — but this could be the first VR game worth buying a headset for. After all, we've all got some time to fill at the moment.
Between this and Doom: Eternal, it's been a big week for games everybody played 15 years ago and thought would never be the same again.
Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to me, firstname.lastname@example.org, or our tips line, email@example.com. Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.