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Where is Jack Ma?

Jack Ma

Good morning! This Tuesday, a close look at why Google unionized and what it means for the tech world. Also, where's Jack Ma? And is Microsoft really getting ready to redesign its most important products … again?

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The Big Story

What Google's union means for tech

The Alphabet Workers Union only has a couple hundred members so far, but Dylan Baker, a software engineer at Google and one of the union's organizers, told Protocol's Anna Kramer that virtually everyone they talked to agreed to join. "I think every single person has a lot of reasons and a lot of things that they want to change," they said.

The way the AWU came together, and the way it's structured, looks like it could be a pretty good model for other employees looking to organize across the tech industry. Anna talked to the organizers and reported some of the details:

  • They've been planning this in secret for more than a year, fearing Google management's retaliation if word got out.
  • It's a non-contract union, meaning the AWU doesn't have NLRB certification and it won't bargain for pay contracts for Googlers. That serves two purposes: to make joining more appealing, and to let the AWU include temporary and contract workers.
  • Members will pay 1% of their salary in dues, and the AWU is being organized through the Communications Workers of America, which represents unions as varied as flight attendants and furniture manufacturers. Its largest constituency is telecom employees.

Why unionize? Parul Koul and Chewy Shaw, the executive chair and vice chair of the AWU, made their case in a New York Times op-ed. It'll sound familiar to a lot of disillusioned tech workers:

  • "Our bosses have collaborated with repressive governments around the world. They have developed artificial intelligence technology for use by the Department of Defense and profited from ads by a hate group. They have failed to make the changes necessary to meaningfully address our retention issues with people of color."
  • They mentioned Timnit Gebru's firing, Project Maven, Project Dragonfly and Google's policy on forced arbitration as reasons for believing Google is no longer the company they signed up to work for. "We joined Alphabet because we wanted to build technology that improves the world," they wrote. "Yet time and again, company leaders have put profits ahead of our concerns."

Precisely what the AWU will do seems up in the air. And there will be plenty of detractors, including those who say the AWU doesn't go nearly far enough. But I suspect this kind of union — inclusive, somewhat lower-stakes, easier to be part of for all employees — will be a popular one across the tech industry. And as organizers told Anna, attempts to unionize are happening everywhere in tech right now.

Read more: Here's Anna's full story.

China

Where is Jack Ma?

The questions have been swirling for a few days, but they're starting to hit a new level: Has something happened to Jack Ma?

  • He hasn't been seen or heard from in public since he compared China's banks to "pawn shops" and said the country "lacks a financial ecosystem."
  • China's government shut down the Ant Group IPO and began investigating Alibaba on antitrust grounds after that. Then Ma went dark, and recently was replaced on an African TV show he created.

To be crystal clear, there's no indication yet that something happened to Ma beyond a long and uncharacteristic silence. Alibaba told the FT that the TV show switch was "a schedule conflict." So far, the scariest possibilities are just rumors and over-promising headlines, but they also don't seem totally implausible.

  • "I think he's been told to lay low," Duncan Clark, a tech consultant in China and author of a book on Jack Ma, told Reuters. Ma has always been more front-and-center than your average Chinese tycoon, and this would certainly be a smart time for Ma to pull back given the current scrutiny of him and his companies.

As Ma himself has said in the past, though, being rich and famous in China is a risky proposition. "I think among the richest men in China, few have good endings," he said in 2016. When he retired from Alibaba in 2019, it was widely speculated that tensions with the Chinese government were part of the reason. (Here's a good timeline of Ma's complicated relationship with the CCP.) We'll be keeping an eye on this one.

People Are Talking

On Protocol: Payment apps are booming, and PayPal SVP Jim Magats said it's not just because of COVID:

  • "Especially in a period of low interest, which I think [we] will be in for the foreseeable future, the utility of a bank account becomes relatively smaller, meaning that I think you get a lot more utility in terms of the interoperability of that money."

Autonomous driving is hard and not getting much easier, said Waymo's John Krafcik:

  • "It's an extraordinary grind. I would say it's a bigger challenge than launching a rocket and putting it in orbit around the Earth ... because it has to be done safely over and over and over again."

But getting to space is getting easier, at least for SpaceX, Gwynne Shotwell said:

  • "We said we would get to orbit with Falcon 1, and we did. We said we'd get to orbit with Falcon 9, and we did. We said we'd get to Station, and we did. So the sales pitch became much less difficult."

On Protocol: FinCEN's new crypto rules are a mess, Andreessen Horowitz's Katie Haun said:

  • "It fails to solve the challenges it purports to address, violates the Fourth Amendment by expanding the reach of the Bank Secrecy Act, sweeps in commercial activity beyond its stated focus of self-hosted wallets, and is drafted in such a way as to guarantee uneven application."

A MESSAGE FROM INTUIT

Intuit A MESSAGE FROM INTUIT

Virtualized service business models previously on the horizon waiting for consumer habits to catch up have accelerated at break-neck speed. And consumers are tapping their feet, waiting for more. Now, think about the dilemma that consumers are faced with going into this tax season. Because of the pandemic, many tax situations seem more complex and are sparking questions never before imagined.

Read more

Making Moves

Haven is shutting down, CNBC reported. The joint health-care venture created by Amazon, JPMorgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway will send most of its employees to one of the three partners, each of which is now working on its own thing.

Twitter bought Breaker, a social podcasting app, as it continues to add to its audio products.

Mike Rundle is joining Square's design team, after about a decade at Intuit.

Foxconn and Byton signed a deal to produce electric vehicles together. That'll make it a lot easier for Byton to actually build its cars, and gets Foxconn even deeper into the EV game.

Two big deals in the sensor world: Teledyne bought FLIR for $8 billion and Aeva raised $200 million at a $3 billion valuation ahead of its plan to SPAC into the public markets. (By the way, if you're looking to raise money fast, just start saying "lidar" a lot. People will just start throwing term sheets at you.)

Epic bought an 87-acre former shopping mall. It plans to turn the giant Cary, North Carolina space into its new campus.

In Other News

  • The NYSE backed down from plans to delist China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom. It didn't say why.
  • Florida is using Eventbrite to organize vaccine distribution. It doesn't sound like it's going very well, and some are concerned that bots might be used to snatch up slots.
  • Google and Snap are in talks to invest in ShareChat, according to TechCrunch. Google is reportedly looking to invest over $100 million at a valuation of more than $1 billion.
  • Gojek and Tokopedia are in talks to merge, Bloomberg reports, after Gojek's merger talks with Grab stalled. The combined company would be worth around $18 billion, and would seek to go public, potentially via a SPAC.
  • "Windows is BACK." Or it might be soon, at least: Microsoft said as much in a job ad for a software engineer who will work on "a sweeping visual rejuvenation of Windows experiences."
  • An Apple AR device is coming this year, according to Ming-Chi Kuo. Apple's also reportedly set to release AirTags, mini LED MacBooks with Apple Silicon, and new AirPods.
  • Everybody's resetting (their computers, their brains, their phones) to start the year, but can you top Jack Dorsey's 88-hour fast to start 2021?

One More Thing

My kind of smart car

KITT – the KITT, the super-smart car from Knight Rideris up for auction out of David Hasselhoff's personal collection. With 18 days left to go the price is already close to $1,000,000, but come on: While you could buy a Tesla Roadster, there are going to be lots of those! Nobody in your office lot will be driving one like this. And I can promise none of their cars will have been delivered by The Hoff himself.

A MESSAGE FROM INTUIT

Intuit A MESSAGE FROM INTUIT

Virtualized service business models previously on the horizon waiting for consumer habits to catch up have accelerated at break-neck speed. And consumers are tapping their feet, waiting for more. Now, think about the dilemma that consumers are faced with going into this tax season. Because of the pandemic, many tax situations seem more complex and are sparking questions never before imagined.

Read more

Today's Source Code was written by David Pierce, with help from Anna Kramer and 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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