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What's behind tech's rebranding spree

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Good morning! This Friday, a company rebrand is rarely just a name change, the FTC wants to stop Nvidia’s Arm deal, and the most popular emoji this year is a real tearjerker (sorry!).

A company by any other name

Everyone’s changing names! Google became Alphabet, Facebook turned into Meta and Square will soon be Block. The question is why. Changing a company’s name is hard and annoying. Alphabet happened six years ago, and people still don’t like it!

But if anyone’s earned a new name, it’s Square. The company just outgrew its old name.

  • Traditionally, companies have changed their names because of a merger (goodbye, Bell Atlantic and GTE, hello Verizon) or a toxic reputation (Altria and its Philip Morris lawsuits).
  • With Alphabet, Google wanted to distinguish its “other bets” from the money-minting search and ads business.
  • Meta had a couple of goals: Lift the Facebook “brand tax” off of units like Instagram and emphasize the company’s investment in VR tech.
  • Square, on the other hand, showed that it could incubate new businesses, like Cash App, which increasingly stands on its own.

Block represents Square’s new reality. The company has grown far from its roots as a white plastic card reader.

  • Square has been looking more and more like a holding company for fintech businesses.
  • There’s Seller — the original business, which will now keep the Square name; Cash App, the peer-to-peer money-sending app that has tacked on bitcoin trading; Square Crypto, now Spiral, a builder of bitcoin tech; and the whimsically named TBD54566975, which is working on other crypto tech.
  • Square isn’t a bad name for a financial technology company; think of offering a square deal, or squaring up the books. But Square was so successful in payments that it needed a new name.
  • The obvious allusion to the blockchain, the distributed-ledger technology behind bitcoin, doesn’t hurt.

But didn’t another big tech company just announce a new name? It’s easy to read Square’s move as a response to, or ripoff of, Facebook’s very recent Meta rebrand. The company even acknowledged as much: “Not to get all meta on you … “ (A bit defensively, it followed up by saying the change had been in the works for a year.)

  • Block CEO Jack Dorsey, who just shed his competing responsibilities at Twitter, made fun of Meta’s name change.
  • There’s also a nod to that other big tech renaming: Block’s corporate website, like Alphabet’s, ends with .xyz.
  • It’s all a reminder that while names have meaning, we can’t take all of this too seriously.

Forget everything you’ve read about why companies rebrand, though. As with so much in Silicon Valley, the real audience for Block is Square’s current and future employees.

  • The war for talent is unending, and candidates are always looking for the next cool project. An open-ended name, unattached to a specific product, glimmers with possibility.
  • Tell someone you’re working at Facebook, Google or Square, and they have an instant assumption about what you do. Meta, Alphabet, Block? Those pages haven’t been colored in yet.
  • Of course, for that strategy to work, the name has to work, and reflect a changed corporate reality. Meta is still a Mark Zuckerberg production, and it’s likely the company will continue to struggle to hire engineers as the social network’s problem clouds the rest of the company. Alphabet would have an easier time convincing people it meant something if Alphabet and Google didn’t share a CEO, CFO and corporate headquarters. Block’s businesses will share a lot of central services like legal, finance and HR — and Dorsey as CEO.

Names don’t fix businesses. Glomming together AOL Time Warner didn’t create synergies; we’ll see if Warner Bros. Discovery is any different. After running through a couple of different owners and names, Yahoo is now Yahoo again, which is something of a relief. And then there was HNG/InterNorth. In 1986, it changed its name to signal its ambitions to be more than an energy company. The result: Enron.

— Owen Thomas (email | twitter)

On the schedule

The year in enterprise tech

Protocol's Tom Krazit will hold a panel discussion at 10 a.m. PT on Wednesday with enterprise tech executives and experts to recap the biggest developments at AWS re:Invent 2021 and preview the trends and events that will shape 2022.


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People are talking

HPE’s Antonio Neri said facing the chip crisis will be hard, but there’s an end in sight:

  • “I actually believe we’re going to be in a much better shape after the summer of 2022.”

Timnit Gebru wants to bring AI “back down to earth” with a new AI research center:

  • “[AI] has been elevated to a superhuman level that leads us to believe it is both inevitable and beyond our control.”

Elizabeth Holmes showed up with friends in court, but attorney Alan Tuerkheimer said to be careful with that move:

  • “She’s going to try and show an image that resonates with the jury, but if they see that as any kind of manipulative ploy to impress them then it could entirely backfire.”

Elon Musk had some thoughts about what age you should be to run for political office:

  • “Let’s set an age limit after which you can’t run for political office, perhaps a number just below 70 …”

Making moves

Amy Ard and Martin Tracey joined Tonal as CFO and chief people officer, respectively. Ard last worked at Proterra, and Tracey most recently worked in HR at Google.

DiDi is de-listing from the New York Stock Exchange. The company plans to move its shares to Hong Kong after a long battle with Chinese regulators.

Elaine Paul is Lyft’s new CFO. Paul most recently worked as CFO and VP of finance for Amazon Studios.

Sarah Acton is the new CMO at She’s held roles at Athos, LinkedIn and Yahoo.

Leon Panetta is joining the Center for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue as an adviser. The former secretary of defense and CIA director also serves on the boards of directors for Oracle and Blue Shield of California.

Google delayed its return to the office. Instead of heading back on Jan. 10, the company is waiting until the new year to figure out when it’s best to go back.

A few advocacy groups launched “Designed with Kids in Mind,” a campaign that pushes for a U.S. design code that protects kids from online harm.

Grab began trading yesterday. The SoftBank-backed ride company is the biggest firm yet to go public via a SPAC.

In other news

Meta’s cross-check system is open for public comment. The company’s Oversight Board is asking the public to weigh in on its process for reviewing posts by well-known users until mid-January.

The FTC is suing to stop Nvidia’s Arm deal. The commission says the acquisition would give the company too much control and limit competition in areas like data networking and advanced driver assistance systems.

Companies are scrambling to work around new ad-tracking rules. They’re using newsletters, sweepstakes, quizzes and other strategies to continue collecting user data as tech giants like Apple change privacy rules, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Apple’s frontline workers don’t feel like they’re being heard, The Verge reported. Employees said they struggle to relay concerns about work or pay, and algorithms or systems are often the only tools keeping tabs on them.

Don’t miss this investigation into “magic dirt,” the nickname for a product that got hugely popular online among those seeking alternative medicine. Subgroups like anti-vaxxers loved the product, but another side of the internet saw plenty of issues.

Some gig workers could be considered employees under a new EU proposal, Bloomberg reported. The plan would classify workers serving a digital platform as an employee, even if their contract says otherwise.

The tears of joy emoji (😂) was the most popular this year, according to the Unicode Consortium. It was the most popular emoji in 2019 (the last time data was released), too, which means that according to this measure, not much has changed since 2019. 🤔

Apple’s award ceremony

No, it’s not Spotify Wrapped, but it’s almost as fun. Apple released its top apps and games of 2021 yesterday, highlighting everything from a longtime kid’s game to a popular weather app. Here are some highlights:

  • Toca Life World took the crown for iPhone App of the Year. Even a decade after Toca Boca launched, the children’s app maker remains popular.
  • “Connection” was a big theme in 2021, with apps like Bumble and Among Us helping to bring people together.
  • People like getting their forecast from Carrot Weather. Apple named the service the Apple Watch App of the Year.
  • And the top game was League of Legends: Wild Rift. The game got an award for its design earlier this year, too.


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