Image: Marco Verch
May 21, 2020
Good morning! This Thursday, a look inside the stores of the future, the game you better be playing in quarantine, and a fun future for streaming movies.
Don't forget to register for today's Virtual Meetup! Protocol's Issie Lapowsky and Emily Birnbaum are talking with Rep. Will Hurd about cybersecurity, coronavirus, tech regulation and more. It kicks off at noon PDT / 3 p.m. EDT. See you there!
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People Are Talking
Facebook and Shopify may be working together now, but Om Malik said Shopify should be wary:
- "It is not like that hasn't happened before — ask all those gaming companies, music startups, media companies, and everyone else who fell for the promise of Facebook's reach. Facebook's DNA is that of anything goes as long as Facebook keeps growing. It gobbles and destroys everything in its way."
Josh Hawley took to the Senate floor to take China to task:
- "The international order as we have known it for 30 years is breaking. Now imperialist China seeks to remake the world in its own image, and to bend the global economy to its own will."
The Big Story
Get in, get milk, get out
When we all go back to stores, we're going to want to touch fewer things, interact with fewer people, and generally just get in and get out as quickly as possible. Doesn't it sound like every brick-and-mortar shop is going to turn into a cashierless Amazon Go store?
We're about to find out. Jordan Fisher, the CEO of Standard Cognition, a company working on ways for stores to go cashierless, said the first Standard-equipped partner stores will open in the coming weeks. (He said four to 12 will open initially, but was being conservative.)
- Standard is all about retro-fitting existing shops, so store owners don't have to rip everything down just to get rid of cashiers. Fisher said the company has been working on the tech for more than three years, and was planning to roll it out this year – those plans were delayed by COVID-19, but not by much.
- Even as the crisis rattles the retail industry, Fisher told me Standard's plan hasn't changed. "Checkout is the moment you're most close to other shoppers," he said. "That's where the line is." Throw in proximity to cashiers and those grimy credit-card machines, and you have a lot of virus spots Standard can help avoid.
Standard is mostly focused on "high-velocity retail sectors," the phrase Fisher uses to describe places that people shop all the time. (Think bodegas and Walgreens, not Macy's or Home Depot.) That's what Standard's tech handles best, and where Fisher thinks it can be most helpful.
- Just this week, Standard acquired Checkout Technologies, one of its competitors. Fisher said there was some tech and talent synergy, and that Checkout had good relationships in Europe, including "an impressive client that we're very happy to welcome on board."
- The challenge for the company, though, will be convincing stores that are just trying to survive that it's worth making a long-term investment in new tech. Fisher said that in the long run, he's hoping to build a more self-serve setup — buy a bunch of cameras from the website, follow the instructions, boom you're cashierless — but that's a ways off.
Its first job is rebooting checkouts, but as Standard gets into stores, Fisher and his team are already full of new ideas for what a post-COVID shopping experience might look like.
- He imagines real-time maps to help shoppers from platforms like Instacart get around faster, and giving customers a constantly updated store inventory. "I like to call it ecommerce level insight for the physical world," he said.
When your brick-and-mortar hits the open web
For shopping experiences you want to savor, for now you'll have to settle for the internet. At least you've got options: We already talked about Facebook Shops here. And yesterday, Shopify announced new features, while former Stitch Fix COO Julie Bornstein launched a new shopping app called The Yes.
All of a sudden, there's a much larger race to win ecommerce. The reason seems obvious: Coronavirus is keeping storefronts closed.
- So far more than a third of small businesses have moved sales completely online, according to a Facebook survey. Some are setting up online stores and figuring out shipping for the first time: To many business owners, an online store is more appealing than closing up shop altogether.
- And new tools from Facebook, Shopify and The Yes all make it easier for retailers to sell and for customers to shop online. "The better the experience, the greater the opportunity," PNC's Chief Economist Gus Faucher told Protocol's Sofie Kodner.
But when physical stores open again, their online counterparts won't just go away.
- "Even before the crisis, ecommerce sales were growing much more rapidly than brick-and-mortar sales," Faucher said. "This just speeds up the process. Instead of taking place over a period of three or four years, it's going to take place over a period of three or four months."
- And many closed stores might never open again: UBS retail analyst Michael Lasser thinks we are looking at 100,000 brick-and-mortar closures in the next five years.
But there is a tradeoff for business owners using new tech tools to move sales online: They hand over some control of their business in the process.
A MESSAGE FROM 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.
The clue is 'glue' for two
If you haven't played Horsepaste, you're not quarantining correctly. The oddly named site is an online way to play the game Codenames. It works over video chat and it's great for groups — it's the perfect lockdown board game.
But that wasn't even the goal. Jackson Owens, the game's developer, told me he built Horsepaste in 2016 for playing in a room with his friends. "I wanted to be able to have the words on a TV or on a computer," he said, "and I also found it kind of annoying mapping the little cards to the words." It was also a way to try coding in React.
- Oh, and the name? "I remembered this one game where I'd played where someone had connected horse and paste with glue, and I liked that clue. It also felt memorable."
Fast forward a few years, and Owens gets a notification one day this March. "Someone opened a GitHub issue saying 'Hey, I love your site, but I think it's down right now.'" So Owens loaded his stats on DigitalOcean and saw that Horsepaste was taking off.
- Traffic peaked in late April, he said, at about 1.5 million monthly active users. Owens doesn't log data, but he's seen more than 15,000 games happening simultaneously.
I asked Owens if he'd thought about going all-in on Horsepaste. Raise money, launch Horsepaste Pro, the whole thing. He said no. "I think a lot of the appeal of Horsepaste is how it's just really accessible. You just put in a URL and you can instantly have a game. I can't think of a way where you can turn that into a company and still maintain that experience."
- The only way Owens makes money is from a tiny link inviting people to "tip the developer." He said enough people have done so that Horsepaste is paying for itself.
But while the rest of us are playing his game, Owens said he's kind of over it. "I went through a Codenames phase, and that phase has kind of ended," he said. Working on the game seems to be more fun than playing it.
Ola cut 1,400 jobs, about 35% of its workforce, as the Indian ride-hailing company said it's lost 95% of revenue in the last two months. "It is going to take a long time for people to go out and about like before," CEO Bhavish Aggarwal wrote to the Ola team.
Paul Copioli is the new CEO of Sphero. Meanwhile, former COO Jim Booth is spinning off a company called Company Six, which will take what Sphero learned from building tiny robots based on Star Wars characters and apply it to firefighting, EMT, military and other uses.
Intercom laid off 39 people, and is moving another 47 jobs to Dublin (where Intercom was founded) as a cost-cutting move.
In Other News
- On Protocol: Want to know TikTok's plan for taking over the U.S.? Just look at what it did in India. (Spoiler: It worked. No wonder private trades have apparently valued its parent company, ByteDance, as high as $140 billion.)
- DoorDash launched a new, location-aware pickup feature after finding that takeout ordering is way up. It's a good reminder: As we talk about fees and the fight with restaurants, there's also a huge amount of product innovation left in this space.
- Alibaba is planning to spend more than $1 billion to improve the AI and IoT services for its smart speaker, Tmall Genie. The speaker's only available in China, but is already getting big market share.
- Google Cloud signed a deal with the Department of Defense for various cybersecurity purposes. It's not a huge, Maven-level deal, but some Googlers surely won't like the tie-up with the government.
- Twitter's testing a way for users to limit who can reply to their tweets. (Though you'll still be able to quote-tweet, so dunking continues.) And because of course everyone's going to troll this feature, Twitter started the trolling off strong.
- 22 countries have already requested to test Apple and Google's exposure-notification system, the two companies said. They released the first version of the API yesterday.
- AT&T will stop with its whole "5G Evolution" branding silliness, after the Better Business Bureau called the language misleading. (Because, uh, it's not 5G.) But AT&T's going to keep using the 5G E icon on people's phones — which is odd, because it seems like that's the place it's most misleading?
One More Thing
Release the alternate endings!
Sometime in 2021, the whole of Twitter is going to lose its mind. Because finally, after years of begging and pleading and hashtagging, we're getting the Snyder cut of "Justice League" on HBO Max. (Which may, by the way, be the single most anticipated thing coming to the service.) I'm hoping this is just the beginning. What if Disney+ had every cut of every "Star Wars" flick? Or you could watch every version of "Blade Runner" back to back? Bring on the director commentaries, the blooper reels, the deleted scenes, all the things that made DVDs worth owning back in the day. Worst-case scenario, this is just a chance to spend more miserable hours watching Superman be unhappy. Best-case? It's the beginning of a new, weirder, more fun streaming era.
A MESSAGE FROM WALMART
Walmart COVID-19 testing: 100+ sites by the end of May
By the end of May, Walmart is working toward more than 100 sites, which will allow the company to deliver 20,000 tests a week to people who need them, especially in underserved areas and hot spots.
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