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Big Tech, big money

Image: Apple / Protocol
iMac Dollars

Good morning! This Friday, Big Tech companies go from blockbuster hearings to blockbuster earnings, how algorithms might choose your office schedule, and apps for getting out of your filter bubble.

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The Big Story

Nothing can slow Big Tech down

No wonder the big tech companies wanted to have this week's hearing before they reported earnings. It'd be hard for Jeff Bezos to say "we're so small and have lots of competitors" while causally reporting $88.9 billion in sales on the platform, a cool $8 billion more than analysts expected. Especially on the same day the government reported the largest quarterly economic decline in the 70 years it's been reporting that data.

Apple had a monster quarter, too. And neither is terribly surprising. Crappy webcams and all, Apple products were always going to do well as the world shifts to work-from home. (Looks like "we fixed the horrible MacBook keyboard" was worth a billion or so, too.) And for all of Amazon's issues this year, it's obviously a crucial part of the COVID economy.

The other two companies that reported yesterday, Google and Facebook, have similar businesses but had somewhat different quarters.

  • Google reported the first revenue decrease in the history of the company, with the ad businesses down more than $2 billion year-over-year. Other Bets, Google's term for "all the cool projects we burn money on," lost more than $1.1 billion. To be fair, though, Google warned this was coming and said there are already signs of a return to normal.
  • Facebook's ad revenue was up nearly $2 billion, meanwhile, which the company seemed to attribute largely to small businesses buying ads on the platform — though it's also forecasting a return to normal, in this case downward.
  • Before you say, "so much for that ad boycott, huh?" remember that Facebook said it'll likely show up on the current quarter's results rather than the last one. But still.

So what's the takeaway? Well, never read too much into pandemic results. But it seems clear that social ads are a powerful business even in the worst of times, because the only thing people won't stop doing is talking to each other. And that there's no substitute for having more than one money maker — Facebook's hardware and Oculus businesses are growing, as is YouTube, but neither makes a proper dent in their company's revenue yet.

Oh, and it never hurts to have a cloud business. That's doing well for *checks notes* everybody.

For lots more on these earnings, check out this week's Index newsletter. If you subscribe now, you'll get today's issue right on time.

WFH

Who's in the office today? Ask the algorithm

Kevin McAllister writes: When offices open again (someday), they won't be open to everyone. So who gets to come in, and when? SquareFoot President Michael Colacino said his company has been developing an in-house model to figure it out.

  • To start, the company asked managers to grade four "impact categories" — amenities, location, communication and professional development — in terms of their importance to productivity. Each gets a score from zero to three, and the algorithm produces a weighted ranking of who needs to be in and when.
  • Take amenities, for instance: "We have desktops, we have whiteboards, we have conference rooms, we have certain software licenses that have to be used in the office," Colacino said. "The real focus should be on project teams, which are intrinsically cross-departmental, and trying to figure out how we put together specific groupings."

Like any algorithm, this one will learn over time once new inputs around efficiency are defined. SquareFoot's also starting to take into account other organizations' reopening plans and broader trends, such as school openings, that could shift the balance come September.

  • "There's a penalty function," Colacino said, highlighting one of the internal metrics that will help fine-tune the model. "If you use more than your allocated time by the algorithm, it actually biases against you and lowers your priority."

The next frontier is to have the algorithm harness even more of those data inputs and ultimately get it into the hands of clients. "We have a lot of data about how people communicate within the office — their email traffic, their Slack traffic — which we've never really done much with," Colacino said. "I think the next thing that we're going to do is look at how people interact electronically and try to add that into the overall system."

Social

Two ways to get out of your social bubble

A lot of people have spent the last, say, four years realizing that their version of the internet is not like the rest of the internet. Algorithmic timelines, news feeds and recommendations mean we live deeper and deeper inside our own bubbles.

This week, two tools got some attention for giving users a way out.

  • TheirTube lets you see YouTube from a number of different perspectives: a liberal, a conservative, a fruitarian, a climate denier. In every case, it's a fascinating mix of pop culture, YouTubers, and a slow deep fall into a very niche part of the platform.
  • Remember on Monday, when you were getting tons of Twitter notifications that random strangers were adding you to Lists? That was Vicariously, which makes it possible to see the exact Twitter timeline of another person.

Jake Harding, the creator of Vicariously, told me it's just a weekend project that caught fire. He used to work at Twitter, and after years as a heavy user said "it was just feeling exhausting, my following list is just polluted." Rather than unfollow everyone and start from scratch, he thought he'd start by seeing who his favorite tweeters were following.

  • He made the simple tool public a couple of weeks ago, but on Monday Vicariously just randomly took off. "Then, obviously, the viral nature of it – well, you can say viral, you can say spammy, whatever you want to call it" put it in front of a lot of new people.
  • Lists are a tricky thing, though, and have been used in the past to target harassment against users. Also, Twitter got in touch, saying Harding was breaking its terms of service by automating list creation. He's working on adapting to all this new knowledge.

Harding said he has no intention of turning Vicariously into a business, beyond buying himself a nice dinner every now and then. But he's thought about building a tool that lets users see all social platforms — Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, YouTube, you name it — through someone else's eyes.

Or maybe the platforms should do it. How users see social is increasingly how they see the world. Instead of walking a mile in someone else's shoes, maybe we should spend an hour in their YouTube feed.

A MESSAGE FROM HEY

Hey

Email's overwhelming, but it doesn't have to be. Introducing HEY — a radical refresh of email. Screen your emails like you screen your calls, block spy pixel tracking, merge threads together, newsfeed-style reading, and much more. Try it today at HEY.com.

People Are Talking

On Facebook's earnings call, Mark Zuckerberg went on some post-hearing offense about reducing ad targeting:

  • "This would reduce the opportunities for small businesses so much that it would probably be felt at a macroeconomic level. Now is that really what policymakers want in the middle of a pandemic and recession?"

Going all-remote might actually be easier than a hybrid working setup, Quora CEO Adam D'Angelo said:

  • "With a hybrid set-up, a lot can go wrong because you are always going to get a little bit of an advantage from being at the office. And that could just be because your boss is there and you can build a stronger relationship with them by being right next to them, in-person."

Joe Biden tweeted out his social media strategy:

  • "You won't have to worry about my tweets when I'm president."

If you want to make it in the music biz (or any biz, really), Spotify CEO Daniel Ek said an every-few-years release schedule won't cut it:

  • "The artists today that are making it realize that it's about creating a continuous engagement with their fans. It is about putting the work in, about the storytelling around the album, and about keeping a continuous dialogue with your fans."

Number of the Day

27

That's how many months the U.S. government wants Anthony Levandowski to spend in prison, after he pled guilty to stealing Google's tech as he left to found Otto and eventually go to Uber. Levandowski's lawyers say he shouldn't be in jail at all. Instead, they wrote, "He proposes to offer himself as an object lesson in 'what not to do,' by candidly sharing the story of his misdeeds and speaking about the devastating consequences that followed."

In Other News

  • NASA sent the Perseverance rover into space yesterday, hoping the six-wheeled craft will spend the next decade searching Mars for signs of life. It's basically Wall-E.
  • Huawei is officially the world's largest smartphone maker, after selling 55 million phones in the last quarter. That number's actually down from last year, but Samsung's down even further. It may not last, but at least for now it's bigger than Samsung despite all the tensions with the U.S. and other countries.
  • The EU wants to take a hard look at Google's Fitbit acquisition. We kind of knew this was coming, and it's been months in the making, but now Reuters reported the real investigation will start next week.
  • Google's bricking everyone's North glasses today, a month after it acquired the company. It's offering full refunds to anyone who bought the $600 glasses, but I know some excited early adopters who are going to be bummed by the news.
  • Here's a good explainer from Vox about Microsoft's ultra-ambitious climate change goals. It gets into exactly what the company's trying to do, and whether other big and small tech companies should be trying to do the same.
  • The FCC approved Amazon's satellite-internet plans. It'll let the Project Kuiper team send up to 3,236 satellites into space, and the company plans to spend upwards of $10 billion to get things running.
  • We have a small truce in the Amazon / HBO Max fight. HBO Now was scheduled to go away today as the two sides continue to argue over the new service, but now the app gets to stay. Here's hoping Bezos was right in this week's hearing and a real fix is coming soon.

One More Thing

Is your flight-sim rig ready for this?

Microsoft's new Flight Simulator game is coming in a bit over two weeks. And from the sound of this great preview and story about the game's creation, it's going to be worth the absurdly long wait. (I mean, seriously, there have been like 11,000 Assassin's Creed games since Flight Simulator X.) You have just enough time to clear some space in the home office, get your sim rig ready, and clear your calendar because you've got some flying to do.

A MESSAGE FROM HEY

hey

Email's overwhelming, but it doesn't have to be. Introducing HEY — a radical refresh of email. Screen your emails like you screen your calls, block spy pixel tracking, merge threads together, newsfeed-style reading, and much more. Try it today at HEY.com.

Today's Source Code was written by David Pierce, with help from Shakeel Hashim. Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to david@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Have a great weekend, see you Sunday.

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