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What matters in tech, in your inbox every morning.

Facebook the robocaller?

Image: Protocol
Facebook phone call

Good morning! Hope you had a great weekend. This Monday, Amazon can't make games work, Facebook might be a robocaller, and Clubhouse has lots of questions for Clubhouse.

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People Are Talking

You probably saw all the tweets about whether it's fair to compare the TikTok privacy threat to basically any other app. For my money, Vicky Xiuzhong Xu had the best take:

  • "TikTok mines private data on a level that Facebook would only wish it dares to. By law, TikTok has to hand over data to the Chinese government when needs be, which can be used for purposes much worse than selling you a desk."
  • Really, though, the whole conversation was fascinating (and impossible to follow, because Twitter is ridiculous). Sar Haribhakti did a good job of collating some of the responses.

VC Brad Feld is trying a new calendar experiment this week, and it sounds … delightful:

  • "I'm going to try something I've never done before. I'm going to have a No Scheduled Meeting week … I often feel oppressed by my calendar and I've tried lots of different approaches to managing it. However, I've never had a week of no scheduled meetings."

Don't trust companies that make money from users' work but call themselves communities, researcher Britney Gil said:

  • "It's like when people say, 'Beware the boss who says family.' Beware the platform that says it's a community."

Venture capital? Easy. At least compared to running a forum, Paul Graham said:

  • "The single biggest source of stress, for me at least, was not picking startups or advising them or Demo Day or even fighting with people on the startups' behalf. It was running [Hacker News]. Don't start a forum."

The Big Story

Amazon's blowing it in the games biz

Remember Crucible? Of course you don't: Amazon's big-budget, Fortnite-competing, future-of-gaming game lasted barely a month on the games market, made roughly zero impact, and then disappeared back into closed beta. Which meant that instead of launching from the rocketship of a smash success, Amazon's next game — called New World — was tied to a falling anvil.

  • And so Amazon's pulling back. It delayed New World to next spring, in order to make sure that players "feel completely immersed in the game, and know that our studio stands for quality and lasting gameplay you can trust."
  • This is pretty clearly a response to the Crucible feedback, too, which was that the game didn't seem finished or fully realized. It was a mash-up of seemingly every game style, with few ideas of its own.

To give you a sense of how badly Crucible launched: A few days before the game went back into beta, there were roughly 150 people playing the game at any given time on Steam. (For context: PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, the most popular game on the platform, hovers around 250,000.) In closed beta, the player numbers have barely gone down.

Obviously, Amazon can afford a high-profile gaming flop or two. Or three: Amazon announced Crucible and New World in 2016, along with a third game, Breakaway, that was shelved back in 2018. And the company's famous for trying a million things, seeing what sticks, and happily moving on from what doesn't. (See: Fire Phone.)

The stakes are higher than a small handful of games for Amazon, though, because those titles seem to be part of a bigger strategy:

  • Amazon is reportedly working on a cloud gaming service called Project Tempo, similar to Stadia or xCloud, and a homegrown tentpole game would be a heck of a way to get customers.
  • Crucible and New World were supposed to be tech demos as much as anything — yet another idea Amazon borrowed from Epic, which has used Fortnite to show off what the Unreal Engine can do.

A successful Amazon game-streaming service would be a win for AWS, for Twitch, for Fire TV, even the shopping website itself. (I can already imagine the "buy this look" stickers on all the Fortnite skins.)

But the signs don't look good for that happening right now, and it's costing Amazon "hundreds of millions of dollars" to try, The New York Times reported back in April. To be fair, that's about what Jeff Bezos has in his couch cushions, but it's still a big swing at the gaming biz. And, so far, a huge miss.

Regulation

Facebook heads to the Supreme Court – for a surprising reason

It's been a big couple of weeks for robocalls, which are getting more time in front of America's highest court than you might expect. After telling government debt collectors that they can't robocall people anymore (a win for anti-robocallers, though a fairly narrow one), the Supreme Court said it will hear a robocall case involving … Facebook.

  • Here are the basics: In 2014, a guy named Noah Duguid started getting texts from Facebook, despite the fact that he doesn't have a Facebook account. Eventually, Duguid sued Facebook for violating the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, essentially by robo-texting him. He wins $1,500 per text he received. Facebook says nuh-uh. And now here we are.

There are basically two questions here. First: Is the auto-dialer question really a free speech question? The Supreme Court neatly dodged this in its last ruling, and will do so again here. Instead it will consider the case's other question: What constitutes an auto-dialer? Does it have to methodically go through every number in existence, or can any automatic dialing mechanism qualify? In one extreme reading, the thing where you say "Call Anna" and Siri dials for you could be an auto-dialer, in violation of the statute.

One way or another, this ruling will modernize the rules. In 1991, for instance, people argued for the TCPA because "the machines invade privacy, tie up phone lines, cause havoc with corporate switchboards and have even paralyzed electronic paging services." Most of those problems are no longer problems, but robocalls are a scourge nonetheless.

Personally, I got three texts from Facebook this weekend about people and posts I don't care about. I'm rooting for Duguid.

A MESSAGE FROM PHILIPS

Philips

In the face of COVID-19, many healthcare providers turned to remote patient monitoring and virtual visits to continue caring for vulnerable patients while minimizing risk of virus transmissions and reducing the strain on scarece hospital resources. At Philips, we're pioneering stronger care networks with technologies we've spent decade innovating - and we believe our homes are destined to play a central role in the healthcare system of the future.

Read more.

Social

Clubhouse tries to explain itself

For an app that technically hasn't launched yet, Clubhouse has already raised way more than its share of both money and controversy. And, ironically, the app that lets anyone say anything to anyone — though "anyone" right now is pretty much just VCs and Kevin Hart that one time he was there — hasn't had much to say publicly.

But on Friday, co-founders Paul Davison and Rohan Seth published a post that attempts to address some of the questions about Clubhouse. The whole thing's worth a read, but here are a few salient bits:

  • On why it's audio-only: "With no camera on, you don't have to worry about eye contact, what you're wearing, or where you are … You can still challenge each other and have tough conversations — but with voice there is often an ability to build more empathy."
  • On the questions left to answer: "How will we evaluate complaints of abuse or harassment when we don't record user conversations? Will we consider suspending Clubhouse users for bad behavior on another network, or only for things that happen on Clubhouse?"
  • Oh, and more questions: "What does it mean to block one person in a conversation where multiple people are talking? Should we store conversations on our servers to help us investigate future complaints?"

It's a lot of questions, without many answers. But it's a good set of questions, and includes many things that every company should be thinking about. "Opening up to everyone" isn't just about scaling up servers and customer-support teams: It's about making sure your product can be productive, useful and successful for everyone who uses it. Not just the people who think like you and your beta testers.

Coming Up This Week

Protocol's Health Care Summit is tomorrow! Mike Murphy and a rockstar group of panelists will talk about the post-pandemic future of wearables, data, surgery, regulation, telehealth, and why my knee hurts. (Probably not that last one.) There's still time to RSVP, too.

Earnings season is BACK. Netflix and TSMC both report this week, as does Domino's, everybody's favorite pizza-tech company. This is the first time we'll get a real sense of what COVID-19 did to the tech world.

VentureBeat's VB Transform conference runs tomorrow through Friday.

In Other News

  • TikTok is banned, and also not banned. Amazon tried to walk back its instructions that employees should delete the app, while The Information reported that Wells Fargo is sticking to similar instructions.
  • Facebook is considering banning political ads in the days leading up to the U.S. election, Bloomberg reported, as a way to mollify the ad boycotters and others.
  • Reliance Jio raised another $97 million, this time from Qualcomm. I am officially never going to believe this company when it says "we're done raising money."
  • Amazon hired Brad Schwartz to help it take on Spotify in podcasting, but changed its mind after less than a month when a sexual-harassment lawsuit surfaced.
  • A number of Ubisoft execs, including CCO Serge Hascoët, are leaving the company after a series of allegations about harassment and abuse. Now, CEO Yves Guillemot "will personally oversee a complete overhaul of the way in which the creative teams collaborate."
  • Here's a name you should know: Ime Archibong, Facebook's head of new product experimentation, who is its lone Black VP, and, per CNBC, a crucial player in Facebook's attempt to address racial issues.
  • President Trump authorized a 2018 cyberattack against Russia, he told The Washington Post, to disrupt the country's plans to meddle in the 2018 election. "Look, we stopped it," he said.
  • Analog Devices is reportedly in talks to buy Maxim Integrated for around $20 billion. That would be the biggest U.S. merger this year, and would create a semiconductor powerhouse to take on Texas Instruments.
  • Google announced a $10 billion fund to invest in Indian tech "over the next 5-7 years." Sundar Pichai said the fund would invest in companies, partnerships, and infrastructure, and said Google would work closely with the Indian government.

One More Thing

The tech that tech people hate

Paul Graham may not like running Hacker News, but I love reading it. And this weekend's best thread there started with a simple question: "What's the worst piece of software you use everyday?" Over 1,400 comments later, the answers are in. Lots of votes for Jira, AWS, Git, more Jira, Jira again, some more AWS, every other cloud platform, Microsoft Teams, Outlook (tough thread for Microsoft and Atlassian, this one), the whole idea of CAPTCHA, Dropbox, Google Chrome, WhatsApp, and so many more. The thread's also full of tips for improving all these apps, but the takeaway is simple: If you make a product, someone will hate it with a fiery passion. And if you make an edtech product? According to this thread, everyone will hate it with a fiery passion.

A MESSAGE FROM PHILIPS

Philips

In the face of COVID-19, many healthcare providers turned to remote patient monitoring and virtual visits to continue caring for vulnerable patients while minimizing risk of virus transmissions and reducing the strain on scarece hospital resources. At Philips, we're pioneering stronger care networks with technologies we've spent decade innovating - and we believe our homes are destined to play a central role in the healthcare system of the future.

Read more.

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. Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.

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