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Why virtual events are here to stay

Photo: Travis Scott
Travis Scott's Fortnite concert

Good morning! This Monday, why virtual events are here to stay, the mighty task in front of AT&T's new CEO, and Facebook's take on the video chat landscape.

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People Are Talking

Stimulus checks are great, Microsoft CTO Kevin Scott said, and tech could make them even more effective in the future:

  • "One of the things I'm hopeful for is that we choose to go a step further, and to invest in the uses of technology to make the costs of subsistence — food, health care, housing, education, and so on — a lot less than they are right now so that those relief checks would go further for everyone who needs them."

It's OK for a CEO to be afraid in scary times like these, Flexport's Ryan Petersen said:

  • "If people feel fear and then they look at the leadership and they think the leadership is not feeling fear, then the fear amplifies. Whereas if people feel fear and they see, 'oh the leaders are feeling fear also?' Then okay, they're going to behave appropriately."

From Protocol: While technology is currently redefining how students learn, Reach Capital's Shauntel Garvey said teachers deserve attention, too:

  • "We're asking teachers to be heroes right now, and this is highlighting that we still have a ways to go in supporting them into making the transition to edtech. What professional development training do we need to do to make sure people can make this transition successfully?"

Google.org's Brigitte Hoyer Gosselink said she's looking for charitable ways to use Google's money — and its employees:

  • "We send teams — often a whole product team — product manager, and engineers, programme managers, maybe someone who does UX — who can actually go embed with that organisation and help them achieve their goals. We're doing that already for a couple of projects under the COVID universe."

The Big Story

Virtual events hit the big time

Right before Travis Scott's much-anticipated concert kicked off in Fortnite on Friday, I overheard a kid who was also in the game to watch the show. He called his mom over: "This is a really special thing!" he yelled, then explained why, as she attempted to understand what he meant.

What he meant was that the A-list rapper was about to do something unprecedented: debut a virtual "concert" that was really more like a trippy 10-minute, interactive music video.

  • Every player who watched the event in Fortnite — 12.3 million were there for the debut concert, and surely millions more attended the four other showings over the weekend — saw a giant, shirtless, hologram of Scott play songs from his new album, and even debut a new track.
  • You can watch the whole thing on YouTube. But having been there, with my Fortnite character head-banging and holding up what I think was an on-fire microphone stand, I can tell you YouTube doesn't do it justice.

One of the most fascinating trends over the last several weeks has been the rise in all sorts of virtual events. They're becoming a normal part of life: I know people who are doing virtual yoga, attending barista classes and even doing wine tastings over Zoom. And as they get more popular, they're getting far better.

Scott's concert wasn't the only super-popular virtual event this weekend:

  • The NFL Draft, which was totally virtual — and not without awkward moments and streaming-lag — reached more than 55 million people over its three days.
  • The Block by Blockwest music festival, staged entirely in Minecraft, was so popular — more than 100,000 people logged in, three times what its organizers planned for — that it crashed the server. BxBW is now rescheduled for May 16.

Of course, it's easier to throw a successful digital event when there are no IRL ones to compete with. But numbers like these are going to make every artist and brand look twice.

  • And I've already heard from a few people that are looking for ways to add higher-touch virtual features to their live events even when people can be together again.

Moves

The daunting task ahead for AT&T's new boss

Most people think of AT&T as a phone company — but that's not entirely right. AT&T certainly doesn't see itself that way. Want proof? John Stankey, whose resume at AT&T includes WarnerMedia, Time Warner, and AT&T's Entertainment Group, is now the company's CEO.

Stankey's predecessor, Randall Stephenson, spent the last several years turning AT&T into an all-things-video company, in the belief that streaming was the future of everything. (He told Fortune of the video push that "controlling your destiny to some degree would be really important.")

  • Stephenson acquired DirecTV, put together the monster Time Warner deal, and started work on HBO Max.
  • "Content is king, I'm an evangelical on that," he said at a conference last year. "But distribution matters."

AT&T's investors have, let's say, not been fans of the strategy. Elliott Management, everybody's favorite activist investor, put out a press release last fall saying that "AT&T has transformed itself into a sprawling collection of businesses battling well-funded competitors, in new markets, with different regulations, and saddled with the financial repercussions of its choices."

  • But Bloomberg reported that Elliott softened on AT&T, and approved of the Stankey appointment, "after the executive promised to run AT&T as more of an operator than an empire builder."

It's like Stephenson took out a loan from the mob, spent it all on lottery tickets, and handed them all to Stankey.

  • Only, Stankey has some control over his destiny, too. His job now is to turn all of AT&T's businesses — and all of its debt — into something that makes sense. And money.

Stankey's also taking over a company trying to figure out how to press on with its 5G plans amid a pandemic, and one that has drawn new fury from the White House because it owns CNN.

  • HBO Max is coming May 27, and while Stankey doesn't take the top job until July 1 he'll be judged immediately by how the service does. And whether it can help stem the tide of cable customers who are leaving AT&T and DirecTV in droves.

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Video

Facebook jumps into the video wars

Mark Zuckerberg said something on Friday that I've been thinking about all weekend. During a Facebook Live product announcement, sitting maybe slightly too close to the camera, Zuckerberg laid out the whole map of the video-chat universe.

There are three kinds of video chat, Zuckerberg said:

  • One is video calling — "when you call someone and their phone or computer actually rings." It's good for quick, ad-hoc interactions.
  • Two is video rooms, "where you create a link, send it out to people, and they can go ahead and join your video chat." It's better for coordinating large groups.
  • And three is live video, "for a person or multiple people to broadcast what they're doing, so that way people can watch them and interact with them in real time." This has the fewest producers, but the most viewers.

"What we're seeing is that these are all related," Zuckerberg said. "But they're also distinct product categories that call for their own products to deliver on the value people are seeking to get."

Zuckerberg set this all up to explain Facebook's new features: Messenger Rooms, bigger groups for WhatsApp, and other ways for people to chat on Facebook.

  • But he also gave a vocabulary to the next phase of the video race — and I bet you'll start seeing those categories in pitch decks all over Silicon Valley before long.

Video chat is currently dominated by a bunch of big companies: Facebook, Google, Cisco, Zoom, Microsoft. But I wrote today about a new breed of startups with a different idea. "I can see your face!" won't be enough to keep users happy forever.

  • Everyone is trying to figure out what people want to do while they video chat, and how to replicate virtual office life in a more complete way.

Someday, we'll all look back at 2020 as the moment video became totally, utterly normal. (Among other things we'll remember about 2020.) That means this race to define what video chat looks like isn't over – it's only just starting.

Coming Up This Week

It's a big earnings week! Alphabet, Samsung, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Twitter, AMD, Qualcomm, Spotify, and others all report over the coming days — and we'll get the clearest picture yet of what coronavirus is doing to the tech world. We'll be following it all.

The virtual Red Hat Summit kicks off tomorrow, and the two-day event is now free.

The also-virtual GamesBeat Summit starts tomorrow as well, and there will be a running livestream for the two-day event.

In Other News

  • Today in coronavirus: Apple and Google updated their contact-tracing plans — and decided to call it "exposure notification" instead of contact tracing. Germany's now using that tech instead of its homegrown plan. Contact tracing in general might be an issue unless Bluetooth gets some security upgrades. The number of coronavirus-related startup layoffs has hit 20,000. Rent the Runway furloughed 35% of its staff. Dyson made a ventilator, but the U.K. government doesn't need it. Uber stopped delivering food to one low-income SF neighborhood, and got a lot of flack for it. And Coursera is working with governments to make its courses freely available to unemployed workers.
  • President Trump told Amazon to "build their own post office," and said that the price the company pays to ship packages through the USPS should be four or five times higher.
  • What happens when a hardware company goes out of business? In Boosted's case, it meant one retailer suddenly got a huge shipment of inventory — and became the best place to buy the electric skateboards.
  • The fastest-growing app in the U.S. isn't Zoom or Instacart or Google Classroom. It's Perfect Cream, a cake-decorating game. SensorTower data shows the game's downloads grew 11,844% in a month.
  • Sophos patched a vulnerability in its XG Firewall, which it said hackers had been exploiting to access user devices. If you use XG Firewall, you should check and see if you were compromised.
  • China is set to release "China Standards 2035," a report apparently two years in the making, that will describe the country's plan to lead the next 15 years of tech innovation. CNBC said it'll touch on AI, cloud computing, 5G, and much more.

One More Thing

Playing Magic: The Gathering by very different rules

Today in "there's a secondary market for everything" news, there's a secondary market for Magic: The Gathering cards. But that's not the wild part. The wild part is how the entirely legal world of insider card trading works. Wired has the terrific story of a few Magic stockbrokers, and how Magic's ever-changing nature birthed a deeply unusual, vaguely sketchy, totally riveting side-hustle. I've never played much Magic: The Gathering, but Magic: The Gathering: The Underworld is something I could get into.

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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