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Zoom game night is big business, but tough to build

Zoom game night is big business, but tough to build

Good morning! This Wednesday, it's good to be an entertainment company, it's tough to make games that work over Zoom, and it's time for Sonos to do more than sell speakers.

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People Are Talking

Neither coronavirus nor coronavirus conspiracy theories can stop 5G progress, said Vodafone CTO Johan Wibergh:

  • "We will continue to expand increased capacity and increased coverage. We will also continue to deploy 5G. Let's see if we need to do some adjustments overall depending on the economic climate. But we are continuing with our investment program for now."
  • He also called the 5G-causes-coronavirus conspiracies "the worst type of fake news."

Even in a downturn, a small IPO window could open later this year, according to Goodwin's Rick Kline:

  • "I don't think anybody has a crystal ball to know what's going to happen in September, but I think the view is there may be a window, the typical post-Labor Day window, September, maybe early October."

Epic Games put Fortnite back into Google's Play Store after 18 months of keeping it out, but the company's not happy about it:

  • "Google puts software downloadable outside of Google Play at a disadvantage, through technical and business measures such as scary, repetitive security pop-ups for downloaded and updated software, restrictive manufacturer and carrier agreements and dealings, Google public relations characterizing third-party software sources as malware, and new efforts such as Google Play Protect to outright block software obtained outside the Google Play store."

The Big Story

How much video are we watching? Here's how much

We're entering an uncommonly interesting earnings season, in which much of the tech industry will answer the same question: What's coronavirus doing to your business? Protocol is covering it all right here.

Yesterday, two very different entertainment companies — Netflix and Snap — answered that question with very big numbers.

  • Netflix added 15.8 million subscribers in the last quarter, up to 182.8 million overall, which is its biggest three-month jump ever. (Also, 64 million people have now watched "Tiger King." Which, what?!)
  • Snap added 11 million daily active users, up to 229 million. But the big jump was in how much people are using it to watch stuff: Snap said viewership of its original shows more than doubled from a year ago, and Discover content was up 35%.

Some tech companies are compressing several months of growth into a few days or weeks. But that pace can't last forever.

  • Netflix is already preparing for a slowdown, said Reed Hastings: "We expect viewing to decline and membership growth to decelerate as home confinement ends, which we hope is soon."

And a looming challenge for streamers is their content pipeline.

  • Netflix insisted that it's not a problem. "Our 2020 slate of series and films are largely shot and are in post-production in remote locations all around the world," Ted Sarandos told reporters. "We're actually pretty deep in our 2021 slate. We don't intend on moving things around."
  • Snap has it easier, since Discover productions are less complex. Many of its shows have already figured out how to keep going remotely. (Snap's real unknown will be whether its growth can continue translating into money. The ad market is a mess, and about 98% of Snap's revenue comes from advertising.)

All that said, it's clear there's room for more than one winner in the quarantine-entertainment space — because the truest winner is screen time.

  • Five of the top 10 most popular subscriptions in America are for entertainment services, according to a new study.
  • Just to put that in perspective: More American adults have Hulu (43%) than home insurance (41%).

Oh, and there's another one coming: WarnerMedia announced HBO Max is coming May 27, and will cost $15 a month.

Quarantine

Zoom game night is big business — but tough to build

Every Friday night, my wife's family gathers for a game night over Zoom, powered by Jackbox Games. (Quiplash and Fibbage are the best, in case you're wondering.) And we're not alone: Jackbox said its current daily traffic would normally count as the best day of the year. Even Jimmy Fallon's playing!

Jackbox has some clever remote-friendly infrastructure, centering games on a single main screen and each player's phone, that you're likely to see copied widely. But the games are really intended for people to play together in the same room. And going fully virtual hasn't been easy:

  • "That's probably been one of our harder scaling challenges," Jackbox CEO Mike Bilder told Protocol's Sofie Kodner. Even small things like balancing the game's volume against each player's has been tricky. The company's hired more people to help, and published a guide to help people play remotely that it updates almost every day.
  • Change takes time, though. Jackbox greenlit the last game of its next party pack at the beginning of March, before social distancing started. Those games weren't envisioned for the coronavirus world, but they're being tested in it. "If this somehow becomes the new norm or becomes a majority play pattern of our games," he said, "we'll modify settings in the game or maybe change the design a little bit."
  • It helps that Jackbox now has to dog-food its own new use case: "The same way that people might fire up one of our games right now and share the screen and play it over a Zoom meeting" is how they're developing the games for the next party pack, Bilder said.

Even so, Jackbox is trying to think long-term, Bilder said, because eventually remote gaming won't be the only gaming.

  • "One of the challenges we're going to have when this is all said and done is to educate consumers of our games that, hey, you can still play our games. Sure, you can keep doing them over Zoom. We love that and we embrace it. But like, remember, that's not the only way you can play our games."

A MESSAGE FROM EXCELLA

Excella

If you can't see how AI makes its decisions, how can you trust the results?

The answer lies in Explainable AI or XAI.

Explainable models provide transparency — so you can stay accountable to customers, build trust, and make decisions with confidence.

Learn more about Explainable AI (XAI)

Music

A speaker maker enters the radio business

Sonos always used to say it wouldn't make its own music service. It couldn't, really: It was able to corral Apple and Amazon and Google and Spotify onto a single platform precisely because Sonos itself didn't compete with those companies. It just made them all sound better.

Now, Sonos is changing tack and finally trying out content:

  • It launched Sonos Radio, a set of human-curated stations with names like "Reggae Roots" and "New Lords of Metal." There's also a series of stations from iHeartRadio and TuneIn. They're all ad-supported, which in itself is a totally new business for Sonos.
  • Sonos GM Ryan Taylor told Protocol's Janko Roettgers the company's been working on this for 18 months, and was very careful to say "they're not playlists, they're actually radio stations."

The move's not dissimilar from what Roku did with the Roku Channel, which competes with Netflix and Hulu but also drives viewers to those apps as well. It also seems like Sonos is borrowing heavily from Apple's Beats One playbook.

  • CEO Patrick Spence told The Verge that part of Sonos' plan for its services is to "provide our music streaming service partners an opportunity to highlight their best content."

Sonos is trying hard to be more than just a company that sells expensive speakers, by partnering with Ikea and others. Taylor even hinted to Protocol that the company's thinking about devices for outside the home. Giving people something to listen to from the first moment they plug in their speaker could help it get there — if it doesn't anger Spotify and Apple in the process.

Making Moves

Patreon laid off 30 employees, about 13% of staff. "Although the business is in a strong cash position, we want to ensure that we can continue to support creators for many years to come," the company said in a statement.

Casper laid off 21% of its own staff, which adds up to 78 employees. It's also refocusing on its North American business, and winding down its operations in Europe.

LendingClub laid off 460 people, about 30% of its workforce. Executives are taking a paycut, too.

Cruise named Jeff Bleich its new chief legal officer. The former ambassador to Australia is one of a number of recent executive hires as the company tries to keep up its fast growth.

Microsoft hired GE's Tom McGuinness to run its commercial healthcare business in Azure. He'll show up with a lot on his plate, trying to get clients through the pandemic.

In Other News

  • Today in coronavirus: The Senate passed a $484 billion coronavirus relief bill that will replenish small business loans, as well as funding hospitals and testing. Facebook's 2020 internship program will be all virtual. Gaming convention PAX West is still scheduled to happen live in September. Ticketmaster will refund tickets for postponed events, after previously refusing to do so. Xerox is now in the hand-sanitizer business. And Peloton instructors will now record new classes from home.
  • Facebook invested $5.7 billion in Jio, the digital platforms business owned by Mukesh Ambani, one of India's richest people. Jio is integrated into the online lives of millions of people in India — it makes sense Facebook would want to be part of that, especially given how popular WhatsApp is in the country.
  • Epic Games is looking to raise as much as $1 billion, at a valuation "significantly higher" than its current $15 billion figure. That's a big bet on Fortnite, the gaming industry, and the idea that the future of, well, everything might happen in a place like Fortnite.
  • Google made it free for merchants to list their wares on Google Shopping. Is this a nice thing to do for struggling small businesses? Sure. Is it also a big swing at Amazon? You bet.
  • GM shut down its Maven car-sharing service, after previously suspending service last month. It blamed, you guessed it, coronavirus and the resulting crash in demand.
  • From Protocol: Facebook's news team, led by Campbell Brown, has been working to try to get reliable coronavirus news to Facebook users. When a team member was diagnosed with the virus, it became an even more urgent job.
  • The U.K. government officially decided to allow Huawei to be part of the country's 5G plans. There are "strict conditions" on its involvement, though.
  • Don't miss this story from The Wall Street Journal about what's going on at Palantir, which has been working with governments on coronavirus tracking but is still struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic.

One More Thing

A case study in excellent brand Twitter

If I were to sit down and make a list of "important voices in the time of coronavirus," I don't think I'd ever get to @steak_umm. And yet: The frozen steak company has been sharing truth on Twitter for weeks now. The Washington Post profiled the 28-year-old behind the Twitter account, and what happens when tens of thousands of people decide they can't really trust anything but sliced steak.

A MESSAGE FROM EXCELLA

Excella

If you can't see how AI makes its decisions, how can you trust the results?

The answer lies in Explainable AI or XAI.

Explainable models provide transparency — so you can stay accountable to customers, build trust, and make decisions with confidence.

Learn more about Explainable AI (XAI)

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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