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How the protests shook up the app store

Image: Rahul Chakraborty
iPhone

Good morning! This Friday, protest apps are climbing the charts, tech IPOs are back, and Slack and Amazon make it (extra) official.

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People Are Talking

On Protocol: The hardest part about taking your company remote is changing how you support employees, Remote's Job van der Voort said:

  • "How do you support those teams? How do you do that in a way that makes your engineers or your remote employees in general feel that they are not making any trade-offs in their own professional development, or in their own career development, by virtue of being remote?"

Outgoing Uber CTO Thuan Pham explained why he stayed at the company after Travis Kalanick left:

  • "For me, it would have been better to back off and let everyone else handle the mess. But the company is about more than just him. It's the blood and sweat of thousands of people. I didn't want it to collapse like Enron."
  • He also said Uber needs to work with its autonomous driving rivals if it's to compete with Waymo.

Want a job at TikTok? Making a TikTok never hurts, HR exec Kate Barney said:

  • "I've interviewed plenty of people who've said, 'Oh no, [the app] is not really for me.' Then it's like, 'Well, what exactly do you think you're interviewing for then.' It's much more difficult to steer a conversation toward product knowledge or business knowledge if someone right off the bat says that they're not in the product's audience group."

Tim Cook wrote an open letter about racism and posted it at the top of Apple.com:

  • "I have heard from so many that you feel afraid — afraid in your communities, afraid in your daily lives, and, most cruelly of all, afraid in your own skin. We can have no society worth celebrating unless we can guarantee freedom from fear for every person who gives this country their love, labor, and life."

The Big Story

Protests and pandemics reshaped the app stores

It's still technically true that most people don't download apps very often — which makes it all the more notable when there's a big shift in the App Store. And this week there have been big shifts.

  • Twitter had a record download day on Wednesday: Apptopia said more than 667,000 people downloaded the app, and 140,000 in the U.S. alone. Which makes sense, right? From Trump to protests to that New York Times op-ed to *gestures broadly* the whole world right now, everything seems to be happening on Twitter.
  • The 5-0 Police Scanner has been at the top of the App Store charts all week, way above its normal spot in the hundreds. Other police scanner apps are spiking in the rankings, too. And Citizen and Nextdoor have both jumped this week as well. (Though Nextdoor, which requires a fairly laborious, offline location-verification process, less so.)
  • The third big category? Encrypted messaging. Signal is at an all-time high, which I bet you already knew from all the "your friend just joined Signal!" notifications. WhatsApp and Telegram haven't moved as much.

Some of these are protest mainstays. Citizen's really the big new name on the list, and the crime-reporting, contact-tracing, map-based app makes perfect sense in these pandemic protest times. But its block-by-block tracking is ripe for abuse, fakery and trouble-stirring, and Citizen has been used for all three. Still, as a way of understanding your neighborhood in real time, it's tough to top.

It's been a big few months for app stores in general, actually: Morgan Stanley's research found that Apple's App Store sales were up 39% this May versus a year before, and predicted the growth will continue this month. That's even as new device sales are faltering, which means people are increasingly downloading new apps.

Me? I've downloaded basically every free game on the App Store, and a bunch of "learn new things!" apps that I don't think I've ever actually opened.

More Apps

The blurry arms race over facial-recognition

Speaking of Signal, the team behind the app released a big update this week, which adds a tool for automatically blurring faces. The app will attempt to detect and blur faces with the touch of a button, and you can augment the process manually, too.

  • "In order to maintain your privacy," Moxie Marlinspike wrote on Signal's blog, "all of the processing happens locally on your own device."

Think about that: The very same tech that your device can use to figure out who you are can also be used to disguise you. How's that for a perfect metaphor to describe the pros and cons of technology?

  • The ongoing protests are filled with cameras – live-streaming cameras, Instagram-sharing cameras, police body cameras, and on and on and on.
  • That footage is, in some cases, being used to identify and prosecute both protesters and police. Tech companies that supply facial-recognition software to governments and law enforcement have been scrutinized for doing so.

Another popular tool has been the Image Scrubber, built by Everest Pipkin, which scrubs metadata from images and can also blur faces and other features. It works fully offline and uploads no information.

  • Pipkin told me they were "fully busy in the codebase," working in part to ensure the blurs can't be reverse-engineered. This is a full-on race, between the image-recognition tools using AI to decode messy images and the image-obscuring ones using AI to make them messier.
  • "In the end it will be legal restrictions on data collection & surveillance that will protect us — a website made in a weekend is a flimsy shield against a surveillance state," Pipkin tweeted. "But we're here now, and we have the tools we have, and we have to take care of one another as best we can."

A MESSAGE FROM WALMART

Walmart

Walmart Continues to Launch COVID-19 Testing Sites

To increase access to COVID-19 testing, Walmart is partnering with Quest and eTrueNorth to bring mobile sites to underserved areas of America and make tests available at no cost to the individual.

Read more here.

IPOS

Everything's crazy, but the IPOs keep coming

Barely a month ago, IVP's Somesh Dash told Protocol's Biz Carson that "the IPO market is dead for 2020."

Call this week a resurrection: Warner Music and ZoomInfo both saw their stock pop when they started trading publicly, on Wednesday and Thursday respectively, amid the busiest week for IPOs so far this year.

The market may be back, but it's still a weird time to hit it. That's what ZoomInfo CFO Cameron Hyzer told Protocol's Shakeel Hashim, anyway:

  • "Investors kept coming to us and saying, 'Look, we understand that this is a weird time, but we're still very interested," Hyzer said.
  • Hyzer said he watched the market for months — remember, volatility was at record levels as recently as March — and toward the end of May decided it was go time. "I think everyone got comfortable that this was as good a time as any," Hyzer told Shakeel.
  • Instead of hopping on a plane to roadshow the IPO, Hyzer hopped on video chat. "For those people that we're meeting for the first time, I think they've gotten a little more used to doing things from home." (If you haven't noticed, by the way, the virtual roadshow is all the rage right now.)
  • And while a virtual bell-ringing isn't quite the visceral experience of doing it on the NASDAQ floor, Hyzer has had other things to keep him on his toes: "Our neighbors apparently have emus," Hyzer told Shakeel, "so I've had to stop calls to go and shoo the emus away."

ZoomInfo is a harbinger of what's to come for Kathleen Smith, Principal at Renaissance Capital. "I think it's drawing attention to the IPO market and the kinds of companies that come out," she told Protocol's Sofie Kodner.

  • "Expect a rush of IPOs, a flood of IPOs coming up, a hot summer for IPOs," she said. She expects pandemic-proof companies to fare best — especially those that benefit from the shift to remote work.
  • "This is the beginning, it's a buildup," Smith told Sofie. "The first acts to come out [after a downturn] tend to be the better performing ones because investors are still a little bit in shock." But given how well both debuts went this week, they should get over that quickly.

Making Moves

Google made some big executive changes. Prabhakar Raghavan is the new head of Search and Assistant; Ben Gomes, who used to run Search, now leads Google Education. Meanwhile Jerry Dischler is the new head of Google Ads, and Jen Fitzpatrick is now running the central engineering team.

VMware acquired Lastline, and now plans to lay off 40% of the company's staff — about 50 people. The acquisition gives VMware even more access to the cloud-security world.

In Other News

  • Slack picked up a big, important customer Thursday: It announced that Amazon will roll Slack out across its entire company. In return, Slack agreed to use AWS's Chime video-calling tool as the underpinning for a revamped video-calling service within Slack, furthering its cloud deal with AWS. (If you're saying, "Wait, Amazon has a video-calling service?" don't worry, most of the Protocol staff had the same reaction.) This is definitely a "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" type of deal, with Microsoft's cloud services and workplace software threatening both companies.
  • On Protocol: Tech companies have been doing a lot of talking this week. But some have backed it up with action, by donating money and resources to groups fighting against racial injustice. We rounded up all the examples we could find, but this list will hopefully grow a lot, and quickly! Let us know if we've missed you or your company's pledge.
  • On Protocol: As tech offices reopen, companies are turning parts of their sprawling tech campuses into custom clinics for employees — which brings up questions of privacy, liability, and much more.
  • Don't miss this story from The Wall Street Journal about how Facebook, Google and Twitter handle political ads. Nothing strictly new, but interesting to see everything in one place.
  • Airhouse is a new company from the founder of Shyp, aiming to help solve shipping for all the direct-to-consumer companies that are just getting started. Everybody's out there trying to solve logistics before Amazon can take it all over.
  • The Trump campaign is spending big on Google, at the same time as feuding with social media. It spent $1.48 million on Google ads in the last week of May, much of it on an "Official Birthday Card for President Trump."

One More Thing

The chef Silicon Valley needs

We already know that tech loves José Andrés. Now Silicon Valley has a José Andrés of its own. Andres Pantoja is an up-and-coming sous chef, who in normal times would be fixing fancy meals for tech luminaries at Taverna in Palo Alto. Now he's helping feed 2,000 people for free every night in East Palo Alto and Redwood City. The operation, facilitated by the local Boys and Girls Club, recently raised $218,000 from a "mostly Peloton" bike-ride fundraiser that included Jeff Weiner (formerly LinkedIn) and Dr. Michelle Sandberg (Sheryl's sister). "Call it tech-to-table," the NYT says.

A MESSAGE FROM WALMART

Walmart

Walmart COVID-19 Testing: 180 Active Testing Sites

Since March, Walmart has opened 180 active sites across 27 states and tested more than 49,000 people as the company continues to scale drive-thru testing to serve as many communities as possible.

Read more here.

Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to me, david@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your weekend, see you Monday.

Correction: an earlier version of this newsletter misstated where Job van der Voort works. He works at Remote, not GitLab. Updated June 5, 2020.

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