May 26, 2020
Good morning! This Tuesday, what you need to know about tomorrow's SpaceX launch, why we need a better word for "remote work," and an AI that builds Pac-Man from scratch.
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People Are Talking
Planning for an unknown future is one of the hardest parts of surviving this downturn, Airbnb's Brian Chesky said:
- "The problem isn't how far it goes down, it's that you don't know how long it's going to be. I had asked the team to create conservative models … I said, I just want to know the worst-case scenario. And they said, there's a scenario where people just don't travel for 18 months."
- This comes from a great episode of Recode Decode — and there's another one from this weekend, with Dara Khosrowshahi, that's also really worth a listen.
Companies touting their remote-work capabilities should make sure they can back that up, Randall Koutnik said:
- "One of the major reasons for voluntary departures at Slack pre-COVID was 'request to work remotely was rejected' (myself included). Might want to fix that before declaring yourself 'king of remote.'"
On Protocol: The current food-delivery business model doesn't work forever, Slice CEO Ilir Sela said:
- "It's not like all of a sudden [platforms] are just going to operate at a massive loss, more so than they're already doing. Look, we can't have the best of both worlds. The general consumer sentiment is that we want to save restaurants, and we also want that convenience. And the reality is that we can't have both, so we have to pick what we really, truly want."
The Big Story
Big tech heads to orbit
It doesn't technically happen until Wednesday, but the story of the week is Launch America: the mission in which NASA and SpaceX will send two American astronauts into space.
The launch is scheduled for 4:33 p.m. local time at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Two astronauts — Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken — will be sent to the ISS. They've been working on this project for almost as long as it's existed.
- It's the first time astronauts have gone to orbit from the U.S. since 2011. (But Virgin Galactic would like to point out that it took two pilots sub-orbital in 2018 as part of a test of its space-tourism plans.)
- NASA and SpaceX have been working toward this since 2014, when NASA made deals with both Boeing and SpaceX for ISS travel. Things have gone … less well for Boeing and its Starliner project since then, but it's planning another crew-less test soon.
The astronauts will be flying in SpaceX's Crew Dragon, and launching on the company's reusable Falcon 9 rocket.
- It's hard to overstate the size of this moment for SpaceX: NASA is calling it "the final flight test for SpaceX," and the whole mission is as much a test of the craft as anything else. (The mission is also known as Demo-2.)
Unlike most launches, there won't be huge crowds at Kennedy or along the coast watching. Or maybe there will? NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said, "We are asking people to watch from home," but Wayne Ivey, the sheriff of Brevard County (where Kennedy is located) told people to come out as long as they're safe.
- Inside Mission Control, NASA's spreading its team between a number of different rooms, planning to clean them regularly and use glass to separate people. (So far the photos are decidedly less epic than those old-school Mission Control shots.) The team will be in California, Texas and Florida.
As if to preempt SpaceX's excitement, Virgin Orbit set up a demo of its orbital rocket Monday, which is designed to launch off the top of a 747. (It's basically a prop from a Tom Cruise movie.) But "an anomaly then occurred early in first stage flight," and Virgin terminated the mission. Still, the company called it a success — and Elon Musk tweeted his support. "Sorry to hear that," he said. "Orbit is hard. Took us four attempts with Falcon 1."
Launch America passed its final review yesterday, and barring bad weather seems set for Wednesday. It will be one small step for two dudes on a spaceship, one giant leap for NASA, SpaceX, Musk and the idea that private companies might be a part of the future of space travel after all.
Oh, and make sure you block off your calendar and bookmark this link for Wednesday. (We'll remind you, too.) You're not going to want to miss this.
A name for WFH when you're no longer stuck at H
What do we call the non-office (or at least less-office) future of work? It sounds like a dumb question, but we're clearly at a moment in need of a new vocabulary. Here, as best I can tell, are the leading candidates:
- Work from home — Certainly descriptive of right now, as we're all actually at home! But eventually even people who don't go back to offices will work from coffee shops/golf courses/planes/yachts. And there's a big difference between allowing people to work from outside the office and actually requiring it.
- Remote work — Slightly better, but let's save this term for companies where everyone works from somewhere other than an office.
- Hybrid offices — I don't even know what this means.
- Digital by default — That's how Shopify's Tobi Lütke described his company's new setup. Which is a cool term! But not terribly descriptive.
- Distributed work — That's how Jack Dorsey described his plan for Twitter and Square. Also a cool term! Also not terribly descriptive.
- Digital nomad — Hard pass.
- Work from anywhere — My favorite option so far, since it describes the sort of ongoing choice you get to make about where you work. One day the office; next day the beach! But this isn't actually reality, if only because most people have to work from at least one rough location for tax purposes. (Don't forget Mark Zuckerberg lightly threatening people who might mislead Facebook about where they're actually working.)
"Remote" seems to be the term of art for where we're headed next. But that ignores the continued primacy of the office, and the fact that many people are still going to want to find ways to work face-to-face. We're not going remote. Just … sort of remote. But that's definitely not a good term, either.
- So far, the best idea I've had is "flexible work," which also speaks to the way hours and workflows are changing. But I bet we can do better.
What do you think? What do we call the future of work? Let's see if we can do better. Send all your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet them at @pierce.
A MESSAGE FROM WALMART
Walmart Commits to Over $935 Million in Bonuses for Associates this Year
Walmart announced plans to provide another cash bonus for all U.S. hourly associates to recognize them for their many contributions to communities across the country during this unprecedented time.
A search engine for your (too many) business apps
Every business has too many tools. So, of course, we get new tools designed to replace all those tools! Which just adds more tools. (Cue that iconic XKCD comic.)
A company called Command E went the other way: It built what amounts to a search engine for your stuff. It's modeled on a terminal and tools for quick-switching between code files and editors. Instead of people looking for the same thing in three places, Command E hopes they'll just open its app (I bet you can guess the keyboard shortcut) and search in there.
- The app already supports 20-some services, from G Suite to Slack to Airtable to Jira to Salesforce. And now that it's launched, CEO Tom Uebel told me a lot of people want more: "Almost everybody is like, 'Oh yeah, I need that for X.' And there's like one service that it just immediately resonates for."
- He said it's been surprisingly straightforward to plug into most work apps. "At the end of the day, we're making it easy for their customers to get back into their platform," he said.
"We've actually seen partners be really receptive because in some cases it offloads the burden of them making search really great."
Uebel said the company's working on making results more personalized, too, so it could know that you tend to use Jira for task-related stuff but keep your contacts in LinkedIn. It's also thinking about ways to make it easier to create and move things, rather than just find them.
The team's challenge is to get companies to give them access to their most sensitive data — and to help them understand a new way of working.
- "I think people have decades of point and click muscle memory at this point," Uebel said. We've all learned where to find things, even when it's messy. "So it is a very fundamental rethink," he added.
Coming Up This Week
The Augmented World Expo runs today through Friday. You'll need a $199 ticket to get all the content, but many of the main talks are being livestreamed.
HP, Box, Workday, VMware, Salesforce and Dell all report earnings this week.
In Other News
- Christopher Stringer, a longtime Apple designer, is gearing up to compete with his old employer. The Financial Times reported Stringer is starting a company called Syng, and is working on a home-audio system that could take on the HomePod and Sonos. The LA company reportedly has dozens of employees already and should launch later this year.
- Chinese startups are coming for Zoom. Alibaba has DingTalk, Tencent has VooV, and both have their eye on becoming a dominant video-chat platform.
- The U.K. is looking at allowing electric scooters on its streets. After years of blocking them, the country is working on "a green restart of local transport," and plans to start trials in the next few weeks.
- Don't miss this story from The New York Times on fanfic culture, the Omegaverse and MPreg. This was basically all anyone talked about this weekend, and for good reason.
- Audible is getting big into the podcast game. It doesn't call them podcasts — "Audible Originals" is the name — but it's spending big on original audio as it tries to compete with Spotify, Apple and others.
- The Department of Homeland Security is preparing for attacks on American 5G towers, based on the (incorrect, we'll keep reminding everyone) conspiracy theory that 5G is linked to coronavirus.
One More Thing
A game AI that doesn't just try to crush you
Nvidia's GameGAN AI is definitely better than you or me at Pac-Man. (Computers are very good at Pac-Man.) But this model went a step further and actually built its own Pac-Man after watching 50,000 versions of the game being played. Just by watching the game go, it was able to understand how it worked and reproduce it. But wait! Here's the best part! Nvidia's Sanja Fidler said that "the learned GameGAN that reproduces this game has this bias of never killing Pac-Man." An AI that helps you win at games instead of crushing your spirit in them? That's the future I'm here for.
A MESSAGE FROM WALMART
Walmart Repeats Cash Bonus for Associates
Bonuses will be $300 for full-time hourly associates and $150 for part-time hourly and temporary associates, adding up to more than $390 million for hourly associates in stores, clubs, drivers and more.
Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to me, email@example.com, or our tips line, firstname.lastname@example.org. Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.