March 27, 2020
Good morning! This Friday, how one accessory maker became a mask manufacturer, what happened when the U.K. government texted a whole country, and why pants are going out of style.
Also, in case you didn't know, we have a Source Code podcast! You can tap the button below to listen to today's briefing, and subscribe to get the show every day — we have big audio plans, so stay tuned.
People Are Talking
Digital communication tools could lead to a future without cities, architect Rem Koolhaas believes:
- "You could argue that basically a lot of work digital communications are used for in cities is to create a kind of bubble. And to, in a way, erode the directness of human contact for human exchange — and therefore, also really erode the whole notion of interaction and physical interaction, which used to be and which I still believe is the point of cities."
Huawei wants to work with Google, but will survive the U.S. ban, Huawei consumer CEO Richard Yu said:
- "For the last 3 years we have had a good contribution to the Android ecosystem, with technology and ideas and everything, but also we enable big profits to US companies. Google uses ideas that are first from Huawei. But unfortunately the U.S. ban influences us a lot."
Forget direct depositing that stimulus money, Jack Dorsey said. Just send it through Cash App:
- "People need help immediately. The technology exists to get money to most people today (even to those without bank accounts). Square and many of our peers can get it done. U.S. government: let us help."
The Big Story
An iPhone case company pivots to face masks
Nomad spent the last several years making gadget accessories — chargers, cases, cables made of Kevlar, that sort of thing. But it spent the last week shifting its focus to a new kind of product: medical supplies, starting with face masks, to help people affected by coronavirus.
Noah Dentzel, Nomad's CEO, told me it just felt like an obvious move:
- "We know how to get things to places, to people who need them fast," he said. "Doing that with a high-in-demand need, like these masks, is not so different than our more typical process of getting consumer electronics to people."
Dentzel and co-founder Brian Hahn decided to make the change last Wednesday. When they reached out to their factory partners in China, they found a number of them had already spun up their ability to make masks, sensing there was going to be huge demand. And the factories were looking for buyers.
- Nomad and its suppliers prototyped a mask over the course of a few days and were able to get production up to speed quickly. The mask isn't FDA-approved, but Nomad said it's being tested now and should be approved soon.
- It was surprisingly easy to switch from making accessories to making masks. "One of the big factories we work with makes cut-and-sew products," Dentzel said. "It's a workshop that you can reconfigure to make pretty much anything within the scope of the capabilities of those products." They quickly built a clean room for mask manufacturing, but didn't have to do much retooling or retraining.
- "It's a very similar material supply chain, very similar tools, very similar people, similar processes," Dentzel added. The biggest challenge, he said, was customs: how goods are categorized as they move across borders is complex and constantly changing.
Nomad has already ordered 50,000 masks. Dentzel said this is just the beginning: they're still tweaking processes, improving the masks, and planning to scale up even more, all while selling the mask at cost to get it to as many people as possible.
- Nomad's not stopping at masks, either. Dentzel said surgery gowns, face shields and other products are on his mind. Thermometers, too. "What is a thermometer, really?" he asked. "It's a consumer electronic. It's exactly within our wheelhouse."
There was "no other option" than layoffs via Zoom
Two days after laying off nearly 300 employees — a quarter of the company — in a series of group Zoom video calls, TripActions CEO Ariel Cohen told Protocol's Biz Carson that there wasn't a much better option for the corporate travel company in the age of video conferencing.
- "Definitely, definitely, definitely not the best way to let people go," Cohen said. "That said, I could see no other options in this case. You need to have the courage to look someone in the eye when you let someone go."
- TripActions followed up the group Zooms with individual meetings, and Cohen has been calling the laid off employees. "Some of them really understand the situation and why we had to do it. Some of them are really hurting. And I respect both."
Like so many travel startups, TripActions has been decimated as business travel abruptly ended. Cohen started the year expecting 4.5x revenue growth. Then three weeks ago, he modeled a 50% decline. Then 70%. Now, nobody is traveling — and Cohen isn't expecting it to normalize until Q4. Like many other startup CEOs, that meant re-adjusting the business for what could be the new norm.
- "I would not expect the same funding environment, the same economy," Cohen said. "I would love to get back to three weeks ago, but my advice to other CEOs is you cannot have wishful thinking."
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How to start a group text with 66 million people
On Tuesday, "UK_Gov" texted every phone in Britain, telling people "you must stay at home." Well, it tried to, at least. It took over two days for all the texts to be delivered.
- Some blamed government infrastructure for the delay. The U.K. doesn't have an emergency messaging system; instead, the government had to work with operators to send the texts, using SMS rather than America's faster Cell Broadcast system.
- But the government told Protocol's Shakeel Hashim that it intentionally staggered the texts, because it didn't want everyone clicking a link to a government website at the same time, in case that crashed servers. Vodafone, meanwhile, said it paused sends overnight to avoid waking children.
Why send text messages? Michael Hallowes, Australia's former National Director of Emergency Communications, told Shakeel that SMS is the only tech that works everywhere.
- Hallowes also highlighted SMS's enhanced data collection. Cell Broadcast just … broadcasts, whereas SMS lets governments see how many people have received the message and solicit replies.
- That could help tackle coronavirus, Hallowes said. "This will prove critical in making it simple to get the public to self report on their [infection] status and minimize the impact, so that we're only tasking resources for policing or medical to where there are anomalies."
- That said: SMS is easier to spoof, resulting in a bunch of scam texts masquerading as government communications this week.
Regardless of which tech is best, everyone's agreed that the U.K. needs something. (Hallowes personally thinks a combination of cell broadcasting and SMS is best, while various U.K. governments have alternately deemed SMS "preferred" and "disappointing.") With the EU mandating all member states to have their own systems in place by June 2022, other countries will soon need a system too.
In related news: When the U.K. government did a focus group on cell broadcasting last year, they asked when people would want to receive a notification. The answers? They included alien invasions, zombie apocalypses, and badger attacks. You know, the biggies.
Facebook's board has a new lead independent director: Bob Kimmitt, the former deputy secretary of the Treasury, and former ambassador to Germany. Jeff Zients, meanwhile, is leaving the board.
Meri Williams, the CTO of Monzo, is leaving the company — reportedly as a cost-cutting move. TechCrunch reports she had already scaled back her time with the company in recent months.
In Other News
- Today in coronavirus: China is closing its borders to foreigners to keep the virus from spreading again. More than 30,000 new creators joined Patreon this month. Two Tesla employees tested positive for coronavirus. Tesla's also furloughing employees in Norway, after the virus led to lower demand. The FBI arrested a man who was marketing a "coronavirus prevention pill" on Instagram and YouTube as it continues to crack down on pandemic hucksters. Airbnb plans to provide 100,000 first responders and health care professionals with housing through the platform. And some good news: You now don't need to upgrade to a RealID until 2021 as a result of the pandemic.
- Suddenly everybody's making ventilators. Dyson designed one in 10 days, named it the CoVent, and already has an order for 10,000 from the U.K. government. Meanwhile, an MIT team finished an old open-sourced ventilator project named the E-Vent. And Tesla's retooling a solar panel factory in Buffalo to make the devices as well.
- The SEC paused trading on Zoom Technologies stock, because it's not the Zoom you're thinking of. Zoom Video is ZM on stock exchanges — but many people had bought ZOOM instead, pumping up the price of a company that hasn't made public disclosures since 2015.
- Epic is now a game publisher, launching with three big developers under what Epic's Tim Sweeney called "the publishing model we always wanted for ourselves when we worked with publishers." Developers keep their intellectual property, Epic fronts the cost, and developers get at least 50% of the profits.
- Huawei launched its own virtual assistant, named Celia, after losing the ability to use Google Assistant on its Android phones. Get used to saying "Hey Celia," and having Siri wake up like it just did when I said it out loud.
- 5G deployment is slowing way down. The 3GPP standards body delayed new standards by three months, which means manufacturers, operators and device makers won't be able to build to spec as quickly as they'd hoped.
- The U.S. Space Force went to space!United Launch Alliance set an $850 million military satellite off toward orbit, where it will complete a new military comms system that's been built over the last decade.
One More Thing
It's time to short … pants
There are two types of work-from-homers: those who actually get dressed in the morning like they're heading into the office, and those who wear the same pair of sweatpants 12 days in a row. (If you're in that first group, please send me an email so I can tell you all about sweatpants.) If Walmart sales are any indication, us sweatpants-wearers are winning. "We're seeing increased sales in tops, but not bottoms," Walmart's Dan Bartlett told Yahoo Finance. I call the look The Dick Costolo.
Protocol Cloud launched this week and is your weekly guide to the future of enterprise computing. 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.
A quick end-of-week thanks to Jamie Condliffe, Source Code's editor, to Sofie Kodner and Shakeel Hashim, its producers, and to the whole Protocol team that makes it happen.
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