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What matters in tech, in your inbox every morning.

Slack’s bid to out-Slack the competition

Good morning! This Thursday, Slack makes moves in the messaging wars, Facebook lays out its coronavirus plans, and the best piracy app ever comes back online.

Don't forget, our first Virtual Meetup is today at 3 p.m. EDT / noon PDT! I'll be talking about the future of work with a great group of people: Protocol's Lauren Hepler, Alley CEO Noelle Tassey, former Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel, and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group's Peter Leroe-Muñoz. You can register here — and make sure you come with thoughts and questions.


People Are Talking

Bill Gates worries about how coronavirus will affect poorer countries that can't afford to self-isolate, he said in a fascinating Reddit AMA:

  • "With the right actions including the testing and social distancing (which I call "shut down") within 2-3 months the rich countries should have avoided high levels of infection. I worry about all the economic damage but even worse will be how this will affect the developing countries who cannot do the social distancing the same way as rich countries and whose hospital capacity is much lower."
  • Also: Bill Gates is … extremely good at Reddit.

The HR software industry is about to take a big hit, Morgan Stanley's Steven Wald thinks:

  • "The human capital management market stands to see either much slower growth or outright shrinkage if current trends persist, from fewer dollars spent on employment and more platforms to serve those dollars."

At least one tech exec is fervently against social distancing. Here's what Microstrategy's Michael Saylor said:

  • "It is soul-stealing and debilliating [sic] to embrace the notion of social distancing & economic hibernation. If we wish to maintain our productivity, we need to continue working in offices."

The Big Story

The race to become the best messaging app

Slack revealed its biggest redesign yet on Wednesday, based on a timely bet: that Slack was too complicated, a lot of people are about to start using it, and so it was time to make it simpler.

  • "If the software makes them feel stupid, they'll bail," Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield told Protocol's Tom Krazit.

Slack grew on the back of power users — particularly tech workers — who didn't mind the work of understanding an app's deepest efficiencies. To gain broader appeal, though, it was always going to have to get easier.

  • The company didn't plan to take advantage of coronavirus, but the opportunity to get more people hooked is glaring. As is the presence of Slack rivals.

Slack is experiencing "unprecedented, explosive growth in everything," Butterfield told Tom, but after rough earnings last week and the fact that Microsoft Teams is growing fast, it needs a lift. With a simpler interface, Slack hopes to get more people joining more quickly.

  • For a company trying to kill email, though, its big new feature is decidedly emailish: a new compose button that lets you type out a message and then select who to send it to. No more "David Pierce is typing" while I awkwardly edit myself in the text-entry box.
  • Part of the redesign was Slack solving some of its tech and design debt, too. About 80% of Slack's features were invented after the basic UI.

Slack VP Brian Elliot told Tom that Slack pioneered "channel-based" messaging. But being the first doesn't guarantee you'll be the biggest:

  • Microsoft has also seen a huge uptick in Teams usage, with users multiplying week-on-week in certain countries.
  • And Facebook's giving its Workplace Advanced tools to government and emergency services free for the next 12 months.
  • It's surely not lost on any of the three that while self-isolation will end someday, many companies will keep using whichever tool they land on now.

Got the new Slack? You have to let me know what you think. Love? Hate? Don't even notice? david@protocol.com.

Also: Tom's launching a weekly newsletter, Protocol Cloud, starting next week. Subscribe now to make sure you get the first issue!

Facebook

Even Zuck is working from home

Mark Zuckerberg held an unusually candid call with reporters on Wednesday while working from home, and talked widely about the company's plan to deal with and combat coronavirus. Here's the greatest hits:

  • Facebook's putting a "coronavirus information center" at the top of everyone's News Feed, with data from the WHO and other resources. The primary goal is to make people take social distancing seriously. This is a big deal: There may be no more looked-at place on the internet than the top of the Facebook News Feed.
  • For the immediate future, Facebook's moderation goal is to get rid of content that could cause "imminent harm." Some full-time employees are being reassigned to moderation, but in general Facebook's AI is doing more of the lifting there.
  • Facebook's also allocating more moderation staff to looking for signs of self-harm, monitoring for isolation that turns into depression for users.
  • Contrary to reports, Zuck said the government hasn't asked for user data to track coronavirus. "I don't think it would make sense to share people's data where people didn't opt into doing that," he said.
  • And usage has spiked: Voice call volume on Messenger and WhatsApp are more than double normal levels in Italy, for instance. Zuckerberg framed coronavirus as not yet a major outbreak, but said the company needs to work to make sure "things don't melt down."

For a company that tends to err on the side of doing nothing, Facebook seems unusually emboldened right now. Zuckerberg partly attributed that to the fact that things are more "black and white" in fighting coronavirus misinformation than they are with politics.

  • At the same time, though, companies across the tech industry seem to sense a moral obligation to do the right thing in these scary times, even when it might be difficult and less than ideal for shareholders.

JOIN US TODAY

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Our job is to help you — tech and business executives — do your job. Join our weekly Protocol Virtual Meetup on what we are seeing across the tech landscape. The first is TODAY at noon Pacific/3 p.m. Eastern and then join us at the same time every week.

Manufacturing

Companies are developing a new definition of "risky"

Dave Evans, CEO of manufacturing-tech company Fictiv, told Protocol's Shakeel Hashim that with supply chains going haywire, tech execs are already rethinking how they manufacture. Their changes will shape the manufacturing world long after coronavirus.

  • The problem is that manufacturing has concentrated in too few locations, Evans said. It always seemed possible that something bad could happen in China, but when it did, it was eye-opening.
  • "Folks are too reliant on a couple key sources, and that whole thing just cascades," he said. "When you have something like tariffs, when you have something like coronavirus, the dominoes all topple over."

Still, there's a (semi) good reason for the lack of diversity. "The majority of supply chains are run on spreadsheets and email," Evans said. Making the same product in multiple locations quickly adds up to a big logistical headache. That's Fictiv's thing: Its tech helps businesses quickly shift manufacturing from one factory to another. Fictiv said that soon after the virus shut down Chinese factories, it moved 15% of overseas orders to India and Taiwan.

Not everything can move, of course. Only China has the infrastructure to make some electronic components, and when companies like Apple have tried to move production to India, they've had to contend with poor quality control. In time though, that might change:

  • "30 years ago, Shenzhen was a fishing village," Evans told Shakeel. "I think India represents a similar opportunity."

Even as Chinese factories ramp production back up, changes will continue. Evans said that because businesses stockpile components, we've not seen the full effect of what the shutdown in China — which led the country's industrial output to plunge by 13.5% — will do to the supply of finished goods. That, he thinks, will come next quarter.

Number of the Day

46%

That's how much office visits declined in San Francisco over the last month, according to Foursquare's foot-traffic data. (The Bay Area has been ahead of the rest of the country in mandating remote work.) But other parts of life go on: Traffic increased 39% nationally to stores like Sam's Club and Costco (which anyone who's stood in a grocery line could tell you), while general nightlife and sit-down restaurants only tailed off a few percent. Of course, Foursquare's data ends on March 13th. And this Foursquare user hasn't been … anywhere … since then.

In Other News

  • Today in coronavirus: There were no new cases in Wuhan yesterday. President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to make more masks, gloves and ventilators. Elon Musk said that Tesla would make ventilators if there was a shortage. Amazon confirmed its first case in a U.S. warehouse, in New York. The FDA is trying desperately to understand testing shortages, and it's turning to Twitter to understand more. WhatsApp donated $1 million to fighting fake news. Vodafone's network traffic is way, way up. So is Reddit's site traffic. Russia is peddling coronavirus disinformation online. Scooter and bike companies are feeling squeezed by lockdowns. Australia's not in lockdown, no matter what you read. And Nextdoor is rolling out new tools to help communities cope. Stay safe out there, everybody.
  • Protocol's Hayden Field sends this in: Grassroots aid tools are popping up for service industry workers and gig economy workers affected by coronavirus restrictions. People are sharing Google Drive folders full of mutual aid information, collaborative lists of grants and funding for freelancers, and even scalable peer-to-peer online crowdfunding tools. For example: Leveler.info is a way for salaried workers to distribute wealth to those who have been laid off or forced to cut back. The tool cycles through a database 10 people at a time, and each donating participant is assigned a group to send funds to (suggested: $5 each). So far, about 870 people are listed in the database, according to Leveler's creator — and that number has doubled each day since the platform went live Saturday morning.
  • Meanwhile, Jack Dorsey took another approach: he just asked for people's Cash App names and offered deals and discounts to those who responded.
  • Popcorn Time, the streaming app for piracy fans, is back online. But it probably won't be for long.
  • The FDIC approved Square for deposit insurance, which means it can now act as a full-fledged bank. The bank, Square Financial services, is scheduled to launch in 2021, and plans to focus particularly on small business loans.
  • Sequoia is trying to raise $7 billion to invest in the U.S., China, and India, according to the Wall Street Journal. The coronavirus crisis hasn't changed its plans, the Journal reports.
  • Apple launched a new MacBook Air and a new iPad Pro. The big news: The iPad has a trackpad, which makes it much more computer-y. The bigger news: They both have decent keyboards, which make them less infuriating to use.
  • LinkedIn is building with innovative concrete. For its giant new Mountain View campus, it's working with a startup called CarbonCure to make a new kind of concrete that actually traps carbon dioxide inside during production. And it still holds the building up!

One More Thing

Facebook's hot new product: a … clock?

Time is very important to Facebook. And not just in the "whose Facebook-iversary is it today?" sense. The company has actually been building its own time-keeping mechanism, accurate to 100 microseconds, that it's now using to manage infrastructure around the world. It uses a mix of satellites, atomic clocks, and servers, to keep everything in closer-to-perfect sync. Meanwhile here I am, still finding clocks in my apartment I forgot to change for Daylight Savings Time.

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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