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Why you can’t buy a webcam
Good morning! This Friday, coronavirus brought some gadgets back from the dead, Facebook wants to help you get off Facebook, and Alphabet is delivering pastries by drone.
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People Are Talking
Elizabeth Warren wants to know much more about how Zoom plans to keep students safe:
- "Precisely because Zoom's technology has become such an invaluable – and in many cases, required — tool for learning and keeping students connected to their school communities during this crisis, we are concerned by recent reports that the platform may not be adequately safeguarding users' data and privacy. "
Now is a good time to be a well-funded startup or to start something new, Max Levchin said — but it's scary in the middle:
- "It's the mid-markets, or the series B unprofitable start-ups, where every investor has to make a decision — 'Do I keep throwing good money after bad or do I back out?' — so I think that's where the situation is the toughest."
Yelp laid off 1,000 employees and furloughed another 1,100, after CEO Jeremy Stoppleman said the company tried everything else it could:
- "We have reduced server costs, deprioritized dozens of projects, and redone our budget based on ensuring company survival (instead of growth). We have implemented cost savings at the top, including 20-30% pay cuts for all execs. Beyond not taking a salary, I also will not vest any of my 2020 stock awards for the remainder of the year."
The Big Story
The gadget sales spike nobody saw coming
One way to figure out how coronavirus is changing technology? Look at the Best Buy shelves. (The virtual ones, of course. Don't go to stores!) Many companies are worrying about falling demand — and a long recession could make things even worse.
But over the last few weeks, as millions of people have changed the way they work, play, and live, some parts of the gadget world are in the midst of an unprecedented boom.
- PC webcams were a dying category in the U.S. a couple of months ago. Dell told me years ago it stopped even thinking about laptop webcams because nobody used them. But today it's one of the fastest-growing electronics categories. Good luck even finding one.
- Sales of computer monitors doubled in March, and orders for desk chairs, Wi-Fi routers, and other basic home-office gear are all up as well. According to one survey, printer supplies were up nearly 12x in France last month. Lots of printing in France right now, apparently.
- Oculus headsets are completely sold out, because I guess everyone is desperate for a way to escape the real world? HTC's Vive is still in stock, though!
- Even simple things like monitor cables are hard to come by. Protocol's Biz Carson told me she had to buy one on Nextdoor after being quoted a three-week delivery time.
These are suddenly wild times for manufacturers, which often order product many months in advance and certainly weren't planning on Black Friday-level sales in the middle of April.
- Increased demand is made harder by ongoing supply problems, Facebook told me. "Like other companies, we're experiencing impact to our hardware production due to COVID-19," a spokesperson said. But after its (previously wildly unsuccessful) Portal suddenly sold out, it has been able to get most models back in stock.
- June CEO Matt Van Horn told me he ordered more of his company's smart ovens before Chinese New Year in January. Then coronavirus derailed manufacturing. "I'm hopeful that we'll be back online soon," he said. But once things are done, there's still the small matter of a 30-day boat ride from China before the products are actually ready to go to customers.
- And lockdown itself is a barrier to progress, because there's nobody physically present to help move things along. "It's a challenge not to have people on the ground," Van Horn said.
Even Facebook's trying to get you off Facebook
On Thursday, Facebook introduced a Quiet Mode you can set for certain hours. It will pause most notifications and dissuade you from even opening the app at the designated quiet time.
- "Setting boundaries for how you spend your time online can be helpful," the company said.
- It's part of a broader effort that Facebook and Instagram are making to try to promote well-being and mental health.
The timing is both perfect and terrible, writes Protocol's Emily Dreyfuss:
- "In quarantine, screen-time limits are laughable. The joke going around is that Apple should suspend Screen Time notifications in iOS until after coronavirus is over."
- "Locked in our homes, people across the world are turning to social media for everything from connecting to their friends to attending live concerts to exercising."
- "My 4-year-old, who in the before times had no idea what Instagram was, now takes an Instagram art class every weekday at 10 a.m. This is the new normal."
"Facebook's success depends on addicting users to its product," Emily adds. "Now, with our nerves frayed and our wits nearing their end, we are overdoing it. Facebook can offer these limits knowing we earnestly need them and even if we use them, we'll keep coming back for more."
A MESSAGE FROM SLACK
Learn more at slack.com.
A streaming network without a studio
Yesterday, my wife attempted to sneak behind me, out of view of my video-chat feed, but instead wound up crawling through our living room in full view of the camera. Luckily, only a few of my co-workers saw it. For people suddenly filming live TV, teaching remote classes, or doing telehealth, the work-from-home stakes are significantly higher. Add the pressure of starting a new business that way, and things get even more intense.
That's what Protocol's Janko Roettgers found is going on at Venn, a company that styles itself as something like the MTV of the video game generation. Or maybe ESPN for esports? Either way, everything was going to be made in studios, run smoothly, feel like TV. Now it's very different.
- Rather than occupy its studios in New York and LA, Venn instead sent its talent an at-home studio in a box, with a camera, a light, and a connection kit. It's planning to make much of its content remotely for the foreseeable future.
- Venn's also been onboarding people virtually, Janko told me. Venn CEO Ariel Horn called it "a very unusual situation for those starting a new job."
Venn's plan was to launch in the fall, but rather than delay it has actually accelerated its schedule. It'll start streaming some content in July, which the company is dubbing Venn Beta. Because when everyone's just trying to figure out how to look good for the webcam, what do you have to lose by trying something new?
Venn, by the way, is very different from the other new media company making noise this week. Here's how Janko compares Venn to Quibi:
- "Quibi sort of built a service for a world that doesn't exist. Maybe never will exist, but we'll see about that. Venn built a network for this world we're in."
Snap hired Peter Naylor as its new VP of Americas, working to grow the company's ad business in North America. Previously, Naylor was Hulu's SVP and head of ad sales.
Apple has hired Matthew Evans to run product for Apple TV Channels, Protocol's Janko Roettgers tells me. Before joining Apple, Evans worked for more than 11 years at Nickelodeon, most recently as the executive vice president for the network's digital businesses.
In Other News
- Today in coronavirus: Microsoft said too many employees are still going to the office, and told them to stop. It's also offering 12 weeks of paid parental leave to help employees cope with schools being closed. Some Instacart users are luring shoppers with big tips, then switching to zero at the last minute. (Don't do this.) Palantir expects to hit $1 billion in revenue this year, helped along by its coronavirus-tracking work with governments. TikTok pledged $375 million to virus relief efforts. Amazon is building an in-house testing lab for employees. DoorDash pledged $100 million to restaurants — but really just meant it's lowering its fees. And Bill Gates said that if we do things right, life could start getting back to normal by June.
- Valorant, the new game from League of Legends-maker Riot, is in closed beta and is already setting streaming records. Business Insider has a good explainer about the game you're going to be hearing a lot about in the future.
- Google helped the state of New York build a tool for people applying for unemployment benefits. It should be up and running today, and has one key feature: It'll work even when lots of people use it.
- Three U.S. cities have reportedly made deals with MIT to use a location-tracking app for coronavirus prevention. As many as 17 others could follow suit.
- Airbnb launched a new Online Experiences section of its site, to help people find stuff to do even when they can't travel. Experiences have been an Airbnb focus for a long time but haven't really caught on yet. With a lot of people looking for something to do remotely, now could be the time.
- That undersea cable Google is allowed to run for the next six months? The U.S. government is only allowing it if the link doesn't run to Hong Kong, saying a connection to the Chinese territory would create a serious national security risk.
- Alphabet's drone delivery company is growing faster than ever. Bloomberg reports that Wing is flying toilet paper, pastries and other essentials to customers in one Virginia city, and has doubled its delivery volume in recent weeks.
- Three astronauts made it to the ISS yesterday. They were quarantined before the launch, and will now be on the Station until October. Hard to beat that for social distancing.
One More Thing
When every business — even the barber — is virtual
I need a haircut. I think we probably all need a haircut? And thus was born You Probably Need A Haircut, a service that pairs people up with barbers over video chat — for $18, they'll coach you through your self-trim. It's a great idea, but also indicative of a fascinating new trend. Everyone's spent the last few weeks making, sharing, and teaching things virtually that in normal times are how they make their living. The longer this goes on, the more those impromptu virtual experiences will turn into actual businesses. Which means all sorts of companies and products will pop up to help facilitate things — even if all they're facilitating is a haircut. Which I'm going to be giving myself this weekend, I think.
The Protocol Braintrust
Experts in Protocol's Braintrust highlight digital reliance, updated policies and communication by answering the question "What are the biggest holes in data privacy that have been exacerbated by coronavirus?"
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