Bulletins

Facebook is getting more serious about cloud gaming with US expansion

The company says it's expanding its cloud gaming service to nearly all U.S. users.

The Android game Asphalt 9: Legends playing on a tablet, phone, and computer uses Facebook's cloud service.

Facebook says its cloud service now features more than 25 games.

Image: Facebook

Facebook on Thursday announced an expansion of its cloud gaming service, which launched last October in a private beta. The company says users of the Facebook mobile app can now stream more than 25 different games, with its coverage area now including the vast majority of the U.S.


"We've now scaled our infrastructure significantly, and today we're announcing coverage to over 98% of people in the mainland United States," said Jason Rubin, Facebook's gaming chief. "We're on track to hit 100% by fall of this year. We're also beginning our rollout in Canada and Mexico, and will reach Western and Central Europe by early 2022." The company says it has more than 1.5 million monthly players streaming a game from the cloud.

Rubin says Facebook is sticking to the commitments it made last year at launch, including not building out its cloud gaming service as a subscription product to try and compete with console, mobile or PC and focusing on free-to-play mobile games best enjoyed on a smartphone screen. "For us, cloud-streaming is a way to deliver cross-device, instant access to games, wherever people want to play. People play our cloud-streamed games right alongside games in HTML5. And they shouldn't have to think too hard about how the games are delivered so long as we do our jobs right," Rubin said.

While it doesn't make mention of it by name, Facebook is in effect talking about competing cloud gaming services like Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass, which now includes Xbox Cloud Gaming as a free add-on, and Google Stadia. Both have a subscription element that costs money, whereas Facebook is clearly focused on a more casual gaming audience and is choosing to focus on experiences already designed for mobile. The justification there is that players might want o jump instantly into a free game that's at home on a smartphone screen without the fuss of downloading, instead of paying for a service to stream an Xbox or PC game not built originally on mobile in a situation that might require a Bleutooth controller.

Recent additions to Facebook's platform including RollerCoaster Tycoon Touch and Lego Legacy: Heroes Unboxed. The company is also announcing a partnership with Ubisoft to bring the existing Assassin's Creed Rebellion mobile game to its cloud platform, marking a more premium offering now available to stream for free with more Ubisoft titles to come.

Latest Bulletins

It’s a famous startup saying that the next big thing will start out looking like a toy. And there’s no toy that VCs have been more excited about playing around with recently than DALL-E and other generative AI image tools.

Put in a few key words into a tool like Midjourney, Stable Diffusion, or DALL-E and it’s easy to see why the whimsical (and often wacky) images have captured investors’ imagination. An AI-generated artwork even recently won an art competition at the Colorado State Fair, a result that didn’t go over well among more traditional artists. It’s become disruptive enough that this week Getty announced a ban of AI-generated images on its platform, following similar moves by some online art communities.

What looks like an interesting art tool has become a prime feeding ground for investors. Investor interest has been nearly overwhelming for Poly’s Abhay Agarwal, who is building a “DALL-E for design assets” company. “It has literally been like dropping yourself into the Ganga River and fully being bathed in it,” Agarwal said of the interest. He’s already had over 80 meetings with VCs and is only halfway done following YC’s Demo Day.

  • The challenge now for investors is finding the business case in AI-generated imagery. Already, some companies like Stitch Fix have been experimenting with the technology, but with mixed success. “I feel quite strongly that these technologies are quite world-changing,” Khosla Ventures partner Kanu Gulati told me. “They’re still early. A lot of their shortcomings are known, but the community is super, super active and trying to resolve them.”
  • Perhaps unsurprisingly, the initial startup applications have been around design, marketing and ecommerce, like a company doing AI-generated stock imagery or a startup building AI models for fashion brands so they can skip photoshoots. Gulati has invested in startups like Rosebud, which is doing AI-generated photos and videos (including NFTs), while Khosla Ventures has directly backed research lab OpenAI, the creator of DALL-E. Poly is pitching itself as a way for designers to use AI to generate textures.
  • Already looking ahead, Gulati thinks AI imagery will be used in combination with other forms of generative AI like text, and that’s where more value can be created. “There will be huge industries out there giving Adobe a run for their money because of using these latest technologies,” Gulati said. “And these will be built on a new stack of AI-first companies.”

The hype wave is similar to GPT-3, a generative AI text tool with an API that businesses can build off of. The problem is that investors can easily fall into the trap of thinking the two generative models are the same.

  • For generative text, there can be a lower bar for quality and also a lower bar for utility. If the AI makes mistakes, it’s easy to clean up typos. But plenty of people can also write their own mediocre copy if needed, so the value of some tools is diminished if replacing a human with AI doesn’t really save much cost or work.
  • The bar for images is much higher, because if an image comes back where something is wrong, then it has to be tossed out — you can’t correct it easily. But at the same time, the utility is high because, frankly, most humans can’t create a drawing anywhere near the quality of the output of the AI, Agarwal explained.
  • “For text modeling, someone can do a mediocre job of it on their own,” Agarwal said. “With image modeling, you can't. 99.9% of people in this world cannot create a convincing illustration, even given an infinite amount of time.”

Just because it’s magical doesn’t mean it can magic away its shortcomings. As Charlie Warzel pointed out in a smart piece, “What feels like magic is actually incredibly complicated and ethically fraught.”

  • The black box algorithms behind much of the programs have already raised serious concerns about copyright and other legal claims as it’s not known what imagery the models were trained off of. Stable Diffusion recently did release its training model, and much of it came from Pinterest imagery and Thomas Kinkade’s art, per Andy Baio’s analysis.
  • Already, there’s a lot of bias in the models. Run a search for a startup founder or venture capitalist and it almost always returns a white male as the image. Even a search that included “teacher,” a predominantly female profession, returned images of men. “Bias will continue to be a big challenge, which investors and founders have to solve before these become sustainable enterprises,” Gulati said.
  • And with every tool on the internet, what can be used for good can also be used for evil. Stable Diffusion recently open-sourced its technology in a way that could allow people to circumvent safeguards and create pornography, deepfakes, and violent imagery — something tools like DALL-E block. There are websites and Discord forums popping up specifically around AI-generated pornography already, and people posting images of Bernie Sanders in a “Mad Max” deepfake.

Creating a future for generative AI startups won’t be as easy as painting a picture of the opportunity. Founders and investors will have to both take responsibility for understanding the shortcomings of generative AI and solving them. It takes more than “hustling and flipping when you see a quick opportunity to leverage an open-source technology,” said Agarwal. Instead, he argued technologists need to become stewards of the technology and build it for whatever business application is needed. For Poly, that means creating and training its models around textures and design elements so that it can responsibly tailor the model in a way that allows it to build a business. “I don't believe that once a model was released into the open-source public that somehow that means that everybody can jump on that and start using it for whatever use case,” Agarwal said.

A version of this story appeared in Protocol's Pipeline newsletter. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Saturday.

We know there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Still, the idea that many corporate benefits aren’t always a benefit recently touched a nerve on Twitter.

“Been thinking about anti-perks in tech jobs. What perks *sound* good but are a hard no from you?”

The tweet came from Jessica Rose, a developer relations advocate, founder of a meetup series for programmers and aspiring programmers and co-founder of Trans*Code, a hacker org devoted to drawing attention to transgender issues and opportunities.

Rose’s “hard no” was to those so-called benefits that have been around since time immemorial (or at least since the dot-com era). “Don't give me food or hammocks or video games, just let me work remotely or go home on time,” said Rose.

'Don’t touch me'

The tweet thread was full of varied responses, but the paradox of unlimited vacation was the clear favorite. “Wow, people are just so suspicious about unlimited paid time off,” Rose told Protocol when we caught up with her to ask about the tweet.

Other workers balked at in-office massages (“don’t touch me”), free booze, open-plan offices (did anyone in the history of the world ever call this a benefit?), fitness rooms, nap rooms, escape rooms (really any rooms), and something called “blameless retrospectives.” Um, what?

If employees are going to be suspicious of whatever perks you offer, why offer any perks at all?

“So I'm aware of how wonderfully spoiled it is to complain about perks being given out in some kinds of tech workplaces,” said Rose. “I'm the most unimpressed by ‘perks’ which either directly undermine employment rights (like unlimited paid time off can do in some regions) or are intended to throw work/life balance out of kilter in the workplace's favor.”

Unlimited or flexible vacation time can work, but it helps when the culture is one where people are encouraged to take time off and experts agree that mandatory minimums go a long way in helping create that kind of culture.

Your best interests or mine? Why can’t it be both? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

A director of engineering at Google who formerly worked at Microsoft and Zillow called employer-sponsored coaching an anti-perk. “I’ll spring for a coach who is looking out for my best interests, not the company’s, thanks,” she said, adding, “I know I am lucky to be offered this, but it always feels like a trap.”

There’s good reason to be at least a little wary of these programs. Last year Protocol reported that when tech companies work with coaching programs like BetterUp and Bravely the conversations themselves are confidential, but the company often receives aggregated reports on the issues workers are expressing in general, the topics they’re discussing, what's going well for them at work, and what's not.

When Protocol spoke to Twilio’s VP of talent management Andrew Wilhelms about the company's coaching partnership, Wilhelms explained that BetterUp provides a set of Twilio-specific priorities to coaches and Twilio can update those priorities and goals based on what kind of culture change the company needs to see.

This might feel overly controlling, or it might be a great way to help change a company’s culture for the better, especially if a majority of employees are feeling stressed and burned out and are more likely to tell this to a coach than their manager. Twilio told Protocol that 99% of the employees who used the coaching service last year said the sessions were a valuable use of their time, and that 94% said the sessions made them more effective at their job.

“Thoughtful, meaningful perks can benefit both employers and team members, by helping keep their team members happy and hopefully keep them in their role for longer,” Rose said.

Free SunChips < values-based work culture

Research shows that today’s employees don’t want snacks as much as they want work that aligns with their values, and that extends to benefits.

  • “I love work perks that demonstrate an employer's ethics and commitment to meaningfully supporting their team members,” said Rose.
  • These benefits can include big structural benefits like location-agnostic pay and support for different kinds of employee leave, but also smaller things like “sending people a small bonus on their birthday to buy a cake,” Rose added.
  • Rose also looks for “employers who don't subcontract out cleaning or security staff, to make sure that all of their team members get access to the same kinds of pay and support.”

What your 'perks' say about your corporate culture

Some “anti-perks” are just common decency and respect, such as believing your employees are telling the truth when they call in sick. In response to Rose’s prompt, one senior system admin pointed out a job listing that offers an “honor-based sick leave policy” in addition to its “commitment to an open, inclusive and diverse work culture.”

And think twice about listing your game room in your job description, tweeted a product designer from Miro:

“When they advertise a ping-pong table in the job listing, it's a huge 🚩 for me. And I love ping-pong. If a silly perk like this [is] such a relevant part of your benefits package, that says a lot about what the company values, and likely its culture."

A version of this story appeared in Protocol's Workplace newsletter. Sign up here to get it in your inbox three times a week.

Brisk political winds are chilling tech business relations between the U.S. and China, and perhaps more than anything right now, companies with business in China are fretting over one thing the U.S. government could do: change the rules for investments flowing from China into the U.S.
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This year is on track to be a record for global electric vehicle adoption. EVs are expected to make up 13% of light duty vehicle sales, and the world is on track to hit a 2030 milepost en route to net zero by mid-century. Yet the road ahead is far from smooth in other industries.

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The popularity of VAs has grown dramatically over the past couple of years. And we’re not talking about virtual assistant tech; we’re talking about real people.

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Apple called its employees back to the office as the company’s three-day-per-week hybrid schedule finally began in early September. Many tech companies have eased up on requiring office work, making Apple somewhat of an outlier when it comes to RTO.

Another outlier, Google, has been in hybrid mode since April, reportedly leading to outbreaks of COVID-19 at the office. Yet for all the talk about Google’s three-day-a-week RTO policy, two workers who spoke to Protocol anonymously say it’s not much of a mandate. An employee and a contractor both told Protocol that the hybrid policy doesn’t seem to be imposed across the board.

“The impression I have is that it’s basically not enforced,” the employee said. The Google contractor said attendance varied across different teams, noting that while some of their teammates go to the office three days a week, most only go in once. (Neither Google nor Apple returned emails inquiring about how their hybrid policies are enforced.)

Sundar Pichai’s plan to make Google “20% more efficient” may lead nervous workers to choose to go to the office more often. (An August survey found that CBRE tenants were “evenly split” on whether a recession would drive more workers to the office out of anxiety for their job security.)

As of now, most companies’ hybrid requirements are only enforced as a “very soft mandate,” said Brian Kropp, distinguished VP of research at Gartner. About half of companies with a hybrid mandate are tracking office attendance, Kropp said, but even those that are doing so “have no real plans to fire people for not coming to the office, as long as they’re getting their work done.”

More than 40% of HR leaders surveyed by Gartner last month said they weren’t tracking office attendance. Thirty-five percent said they were gathering attendance data from key fob or badge swipes, while 22% said managers were tracking their teams’ attendance. Another 10% said employees were self-reporting their attendance.

Companies that selectively enforce attendance requirements may wind up with unfair outcomes, Kropp said.

“If you have a mandated set of days where you have to come to the office, but it’s unevenly enforced across the company, then you run into issues of fairness,” Kropp said. “That just creates more variability across the company, which then creates more risk as well in terms of that inconsistency.”

And while flexibility puts companies at an advantage when it comes to competing for talent, it also requires more sophisticated management, Kropp said. “The question you should really be asking is: Does our managerial population, on average, have the capability to manage much more flexibility, or not?” Kropp said. “If the answer is ‘yes, they do,’ you should push for as much flexibility as you can.”

To run high-performing teams in a flexible environment, managers need to be “half social worker, half engineer,” Kropp said. That means more empathy and more capacity for planning and organization.

While companies may seem settled into their hybrid ways of working, many leaders are leaving policies open to change with time rather than overcommitting themselves. The world is unpredictable, as we’ve learned in the last 2.5 years. “A lot of these executives — the way that they’re framing it now is, ‘This is our hybrid strategy for now, and it could evolve and could change,’” Kropp said.

Amazon falls into that category. As Andy Jassy put it at the Code Conference on Wednesday, Amazon doesn’t have a plan to force employees back to the office: “We’re going to proceed adaptively as we learn.”

A version of this story appeared in Protocol's Workplace newsletter. Sign up here to get it in your inbox three times a week.

If you truly want to gauge a company’s culture before accepting a job offer, you have to become a bit of a sleuth. A journalist, even. Troll Blind and Glassdoor. Browse LinkedIn for current employees who seem trustworthy, or former employees who seem not to have an agenda.

But not everyone has the time to investigate companies in this way. Instead, they may rely on company-sponsored chats with current employees.

  • Ian Royer, a public relations specialist with Amazon Canada, took Amazon up on its “Candid Chats” program that connects candidates with members of employee resource groups.
  • He was on a mission to determine whether he fit with Amazon’s culture. “I am at a point in my career where when I do interviews, I interview for my fit, not the company,” Royer said.
  • Royer spoke with representatives from Amazon’s Black Employee Network and LGBTQ group Glamazon after encouragement from his recruiter. Those conversations ultimately won him over.

Steve McElfresh, founder of HR Futures, said it’s worth it for employers to offer to connect candidates with current employees. The more information, the more helpful to candidates. Still, it’s impossible for company-sponsored candidate-employee chats to be completely candid. Those chats are not entirely trustworthy.

  • “In most cases you’ve got to assume they’re using a stable of people who are prepped and primed to be positive about the company,” McElfresh said. “There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that, but I think you've got to take it with a grain of salt.”

For those who want to connect with employees on their own, scouring LinkedIn and similar sites might be the best option. Professional platform Candor, a new startup trying to be the “more authentic LinkedIn,” was built with job sleuthing in mind.

  • “Especially in a remote world, it's so hard to figure out and so hard to get to know people and know if that culture fit is going to be there at your next opportunity,” said Candor founder Kelsey Bishop.
  • Candor profiles look kind of like corporate mood boards, with descriptors like “my core values,” “teammates that really inspire me” and “things that motivate me.” Bishop said the service is meant for casual networking, and to help people suss out the working styles of their potential future co-workers.

Bishop added that anonymous platforms can quickly turn toxic, hence Candor’s model with private profiles. But without anonymity, how candid will someone really be?

  • “As a candidate, you have to dig beyond what’s publicly available,” McElfresh said. “I would certainly be looking for more of the anonymous material.”
  • On the other hand, you can’t verify the identity, and therefore validity, of anonymous reviews. “The problem with anonymous material is you get the extremes,” McElfresh said. “You get people who are clearly unhappy, resentful and are almost assuredly overrepresented.”

The most prepared candidates will do all of the above. Just perusing Glassdoor or talking to one company-sponsored employee won’t give you the full picture. You’ve got to really do your research to figure out the fit.

A version of this story appeared in Protocol's Workplace newsletter. Sign up here to get it in your inbox three times a week.

The SEC reportedly will not push for a total ban on payment for order flow, a proposal that chair Gary Gensler said was "on the table" just a year ago.

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The FDA this week announced that cooking chicken in NyQuil isn’t safe, which seems obvious; it came from a “NyQuil cooking challenge” video that went viral — more than a year ago.

Government warnings about viral online fads may come too late to be effective. The NyQuil chicken challenge resurfaced in January after starting as a joke on 4chan in 2017.

  • In June, the FDA warned of the dangers of keeping avocados fresh by placing them in water. That video was popular a couple years ago.
  • Schools and lawmakers took a few weeks to catch wind of, and warn parents about, a “devious licks” video that resulted in students damaging school property.
  • The Tide Pod challenge, which started as a joke on Twitter in late 2017 before making its way to YouTube and elsewhere, got the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s attention about a month after it went viral.
  • And French lawmakers needed a few months to warn against the 2018 “InMyFeelings” challenge, which involved getting out of a moving car and dancing.

Government leaders need a lesson on virality. The timing of these warnings highlights the difficulty of staying on top of potentially dangerous challenges, which can go viral in a matter of days. “The FDA is always playing catch-up with these things,” Jeffrey Blevins, a professor at the University of Cincinnati’s journalism department, told me. “It’s impossible for them to be ahead of it. Who in their right mind would have thought of NyQuil chicken?”

  • But the fact that the FDA and other government agencies need months — even years — to identify and warn people about dangerous viral trends defeats the purpose of the warning. Once the alert comes around, the damage may have already been done.
  • The way in which the FDA responds to harmful viral videos might not be that effective anyway: The ones making the posts go viral — kids — probably aren’t following government alerts, Blevins said. “I would really encourage these agencies to think about being a little more creative in how they respond,” he said.
  • The FDA could post TikToks or poke fun at the absurdity of cooking chicken with NyQuil while also explaining the harms, for example. (The FDA didn’t immediately return a request for comment.)

It’s not just the government; pediatricians, schools, and other organizations are aware of the dangers of social media trends and are trying to catch on to them quickly. But word spreads fast, and in order for the government’s warnings to be effective, they need to happen sooner.

A version of this story appeared in Thursday's Source Code. Sign up here to get it in your inbox each morning.

Kraken CEO Jesse Powell is stepping down and will be replaced by chief operating officer David Ripley, the company announced Wednesday.

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Privacy groups are outraged at New York's plan to install cameras in all subway cars in a bid to stop crime. The proposal, announced by Gov. Kathy Hochul on Tuesday, is an expansion of an earlier pilot project that the governor said was “working very well.” Under her expanded plan, there will be two cameras in each of New York’s 6,455 subway cars.

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Call it a reconnaissance mission to Europe’s future Silicon Steppe.

Eric Schmidt, Alphabet’s technical adviser and former Google CEO, just returned from a personal mission to Ukraine where he scoped out its military tech operation and met with the country’s minister of defense. A tireless advocate and funder of emerging tech for defense and national security uses, Schmidt sees the war in Ukraine as a launch pad for fast-moving tech implementation.

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ByteDance VR subsidiary Pico is getting ready to unveil its new headset next week: The company is holding an online event on Sept. 22, it revealed on social media Thursday. "We can’t wait to show you what we have in store for you," Pico teased in a posting on LinkedIn that promised a "new product announcement" and featured the silhouette of a VR headset.

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Bulletins