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Why tech suddenly loves gift cards

Tech companies are helping gift cards become a survival solution for restaurants.Image: Square

Good morning! This Monday, how tech is helping gift cards become a survival solution for restaurants, Quibi actually exists, and why people are setting fire to phone poles in the U.K.

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People Are Talking

From Protocol: Atlassian's Scott Farquhar says not all digital transformations are created equal:

  • "There's a big gulf between that company that can produce and deliver software to the terminals 10 times a day, and the company that produces once a quarter, in terms of how fast they can react to customer feedback and how fast they can adapt to the changing world."

As Zoombombing becomes more popular, Michigan's government is taking it seriously:

  • "Whether you run a business, a law enforcement meeting, a classroom or you just want to video chat with family, you need to be aware that your video conference may not be secure and information you share may be compromised. Be careful. If you do get hacked, call us."

In a really fun oral history of MySpace Music, record label exec J Scavo lamented how fragmented the music world has become:

  • "When it was working, you really just had to try to get your feature on MySpace at the right time and that could really change your career … Now you don't have that. You have YouTube numbers and Spotify numbers, but the river turned into a bunch of creeks and succeeding in the world of the creeks is hard."

New Jersey's unemployment systems are so old Gov. Phil Murphy is asking for volunteers who know a long-dead coding language:

  • "Literally, we have systems that are 40-plus years old. We'll have lots of post-mortems, and one of them on our list will be how the heck did we get here where we literally needed COBOL programmers."
  • In related news: Don't miss Mike Murphy's story on the company trying to help states upgrade their similarly terrible systems.

The Big Story

How gift cards became part of the coronavirus response

Square's had a tool for years that lets businesses sell and accept gift cards. Electronic ones are the best, Saumil Mehta, a GM for Square's point-of-sale products, told me: They don't cost anything to make or offer, and everything runs seamlessly through Square. (Even if they do make for crappy gifts: "You mean the world to me, now here's a piece of paper with a number on it!")

Still, gift cards weren't necessarily top of Square's product roadmap. But as it became clear that coronavirus was going to devastate small businesses, the company noticed a big uptick in gift card sales. Usually they're seasonal, for obvious lazy-gift-giving reasons, but suddenly it was March and things were at Christmas levels.

  • Within Square, one phrase is drilled into everyone's heads: Cash flow is king.
  • So when its marketing team told Mehta they were seeing businesses promote their gift cards, they wondered: What if Square made a gift card directory so people could buy them to support their favorite places?
  • Over the course of eight days, largely in a Slack room that ballooned to 120 people, Square got its Give & Get Local site up and running.
  • Mehta said most of the tech was already built, except for search. "Boy, we are not a search company," he said.

Mehta said the site's already been a huge success, and that more businesses than ever are signing up to offer e-gift cards. I've already seen companies on Twitter saying gift cards have helped them pay bills even while things are closed.

And Square's not the only company that's identified this as a crucial way to help businesses. Mike and Kaitlyn Krieger built SaveOurFaves for the same purpose, and tools like Help Main Street are popping up all the time. Facebook built a gift card discovery tool, too, powered by Square's database.

It's a perfect, if slightly old-fashioned, fix for businesses that don't have enough coming in right now.

Google

The fake blog post that went viral inside Google

Last week, I came this close to including a blog post by Sundar Pichai in this newsletter. It was a doozy of a blog post! "We will stop our funding of organizations that deny or work to block action on climate change, effective immediately," Pichai wrote.

Except Pichai didn't write that. An activist organization called Extinction Rebellion wrote it, under Pichai's name, on a website with the same name as Google's blog, under the URL "agreenergoogle.com."

As Protocol's Hayden Field found, the post didn't just trick me. It tricked Googlers, too:

  • After seeing the site, a member of the group Google Workers for Action on Climate sent a note around saying they were thrilled with the message. "Sorry for the delay," the email said, "we were surprised too!"
  • Pretty quickly, people figured out it was fake — it was published on April Fools' Day, after all, and Extinction Rebellion's name was at the bottom of the page for anyone who looked. But not everyone looked!

Googlers told Hayden the company had no idea this was coming. But the Workers for Action on Climate group latched onto the ideas, calling it "a glimpse of a beautiful future." Others told Hayden the story was a genius example of culture-jamming, where a brand's language and looks are used to critique it. (Honestly, whoever wrote the note does a heck of a Pichai impression.)

  • Google's Sam Kern told Hayden she found it surreal to see employee demands written out from the perspective of Pichai, the person who could make them happen. And she said it was an inspiration to keep working to make the words appear on Google's real blog someday.

A MESSAGE FROM SLACK

Learn more at slack.com

Streaming

Ready or not, here comes Quibi

It has $1.8 billion in funding. Two big-name executives at the helm. Shows created by and starring A-list talent. And an unmissable marketing campaign that doesn't really make any sense.

It's Quibi! And after what feels like a decade of buildup, it's here.

  • The app launched with two dozen shows. There's a bit of everything: house flipping, rom-coms, dating shows, action movies, nature docs, the works. The shows have only one thing in common: The episodes are all only a few minutes long.
  • Eventually, Quibi will cost $5 or so a month, but it's giving everyone a 90-day free trial. (If you're a T-Mobile customer it'll be free for even longer.)

Quibi has talked up two things: its content and its tech. Protocol's Janko Roettgers has been playing with the app for a few days, and I've been watching non-stop since last night.

  • We both agree the app is polished and easy to use. Quibi's much-hyped Turnstyle system works well at making the app feel … correct in every orientation. Quibi's shtick seems to be making sure you have a comfortable viewing experience, however you like it.
  • Quibi has talked about Turnstyle as some futuristic creative innovation, though, and I haven't seen that anywhere yet.
  • The content in general seems a bit underwhelming so far. Janko said the "daily essentials" news briefings just featured the same headlines served up everywhere else, and we both found the "Punk'd" reboot a little mean-spirited.

Quarantine won't be kind to Quibi. The company has always pitched itself as a service for on-the-go moments, not for a work-from-home world where a TV is always close by. And the shows are meant to be watched in pieces on the subway, not binged all at once on your couch.

  • Still, the company has deep pockets, and can ride out our self isolation for now. As soon as things get back to normal, we'll find out if its business model really can be successful.

Coming This Week

The virtual Voice of The Car Summit, a deep-dive conference into the automobile of the future, starts tomorrow.

There will be lots of Virtual Passovers and Virtual Easters this week, and I want to hear about yours. How does your family get together? Send me pictures and details: david@protocol.com.

This week's Protocol Virtual Meetup: Mike Murphy talks with Ericka Leslie of Goldman Sachs and Lars Ottersgard of Nasdaq about what it's taken to keep markets running and functional.

In Other News

  • Today in coronavirus: Facebook threatened to ban people offering DIY face mask ideas — but said it was an AI-created mistake. Amazon employees are furious about the way the company treated Christian Smalls, the Staten Island strike organizer. Tim Cook is doing a virtual commencement address at Ohio State in May. Apple is making and shipping a million face shields a week. People who make their living from conferences and tech events are suddenly struggling to find work. A "reimagined" E3 is coming next year — and I suspect a lot of other conferences are undergoing change too. Google Docs has become something like a social network for locked-down socializing. And, yeah, there's a lot of bad stuff on Zoom, but there's some seriously creative stuff, too.
  • Google is providing huge amounts of location data to help policymakers and health organizations see how people are moving and interacting now. The company says it's all anonymized and aggregated, but anyone with "Location History" turned on is fair game for collection.
  • People are setting fire to phone poles in the U.K. based on a conspiracy theory that says 5G spreads coronavirus. (To be clear, it doesn't.) YouTube is trying to suppress videos driving the theory.
  • A study identified 12,706 Android apps that "contained a variety of backdoors such as secret access keys, master passwords, and secret commands." They could allow developers, hackers and others access to user accounts.
  • With in-person arguments suspended indefinitely, the Supreme Court has to figure out how to use technology to keep working. And the Court is, let's say, not historically great at doing so.
  • From Protocol: Hollywood productions may be largely shut down, but some parts of the industry — animators, editors, effects artists and more — are still very much at work. And trying desperately to figure out how to work at home.
  • Apple acquired Voysis, a natural-language-processing startup, as it continues to look for ways to make Siri better. Vosysis' main thing was helping people shop with their voice — so it's almost surprising Amazon didn't beat Apple to the acquisition.

One More Thing

Meet the maskfluencers

So far, coronavirus content seems to fall into two buckets. First, there's the time-killing stuff — TikTok dances and virtual concerts and so, so many bread-making videos. Given that "coronavirus tips" is the top virus-related trend on Google right now, expect quarantine lifestyle content to keep growing. But the more surprising new genre? Deep, thorough medical science turned viral content. The New York Times profiled the professors, doctors and health-agency employees who are suddenly thrust into the spotlight, and Mashable tracked the way mask-making tutorials have flooded YouTube and TikTok. Go on: Fold that cotton and smash the like button!

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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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