Power

Facebook wants to know how much money you have

Plus, Apple has patented the interior design of some potted plants next to a table; Microsoft plans to track workers through their office; Alphabet wants a folding device, too; and Amazon will sell the Platonic ideal of products.

An eyeball looking at a screen

This week, the big tech companies filed patents for new ways to surveil people and new ways for tech to be helpful.

Illustration: PM Images/Getty Images

The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, others end up defining the future. Every week, we round up the most interesting to emerge from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's weekly drop of new patents, which it is still doing every Tuesday, and which, in these uncertain times, allows me to know what day it is at least once a week.

This week, the big tech companies filed patents for new ways to surveil people and new ways for tech to be helpful, from providing better job applications, smarter speaker assistants, or, you know, implantable brain-monitoring devices. Hopefully that last one is a few years out.

Alphabet

Foldable Google phone?

Making phones, tablets and computers with foldable displays is all the rage these days. This week, Google received a patent that's basically a twofer, outlining a hinge mechanism for a folding device and software to determine what state the phone is in (such as whether the display is folded open or closed). Google hasn't publicly said that it's working on a foldable Pixel phone or computer, but it started working on support for foldable devices in Android in late 2018. Perhaps soon Google will join the ranks of device-makers that haven't quite figured out how to make a folding screen work, but would still like to charge you a lot of money for the pleasure of owning one.

Upgrade your body

There are already implantable medical devices on the market that can be used to monitor your glucose levels or stimulate your heart, but what about to interact with your brain? It sounds like something ripped from a cyberpunk movie, but many organizations are looking into exactly this idea, from Elon Musk's Neuralink to Facebook. And it's something Verily has also been working on in the background. This patent outlines an implantable device that links up to "a neural interface comprising a plurality of electrical leads." The patent goes into few details over what the brain interface could be used for, beyond "monitoring," but I'm guessing it won't be to store illegal hard drives or jack into a computer simulation, or anything else Keanu Reeves may have tried in the '90s.

Fixing your mistakes for you

If you've ever applied to a bunch of similar jobs or sent the same email to a lot of individual people, you've almost certainly had that mortifying moment when you realize you forgot to change who the email was addressed to, and your stomach drops when you see that you've emailed Sheila and called her Jeff. Google's new patent outlines a copy-paste system that recognizes the context in which text is being pasted. It could swap out names based on the email addresses and other cues.

Amazon

Computer-generated ideal products

Amazon's new patent sounds like it's working on using computers to create the Platonic ideal of the products it sells. The system it outlines suggests taking images of several of the items it sells within a given category, and merging them together to create one generic image that represents that category. This could be marginally useful for brands listing on Amazon, I guess? If you sell shoes and you're not Nike, you'd probably be slightly miffed if a retailer's website puts a picture of Nikes up to represent the "shoe" part of their site. But I could also see it being super confusing for customers who actually want to buy that amalgam of every shoe design Amazon sells. Perhaps that's a future product line for AmazonBasics.

Apple

Speaker zones

Say your kids are on the couch trying to watch TV while you're at the table in the same room trying to watch something on your laptop. It's virtually impossible, as the sound will be clashing, unless you pop in some headphones. Apple's new patent imagines a helpful scenario to keep the kids happy if you've forgotten your headphones: connected speakers that can blast different audio streams to different parts of a room. It's similar to how HomePod speakers can be connected to form audio zones in a house, but in the patent, each unit has speakers pointing in every direction, allowing some of them to fire one type of audio in one direction and another in the other. It's not clear how insane this would sound if you were standing directly in the middle of where the two zones met, but I'm guessing pretty insane.

Potted plants?

Apple is meticulous about its brand image, and that means trying to manage every single aspect of what it does. That includes, apparently, trademarking some potted trees next to some display tables for Apple stores. Apple's former head of retail, Angela Ahrendts, made it her mission to add a ton of greenery to Apple's stores (or "town squares," as she liked to call them), but it remains to be seen whether her successor, Deirdre O'Brien, will be as interested in green spaces.

Facebook

Measuring your lot in life

Facebook knows so much about the people that use its social networks, so perhaps this isn't that surprising a patent, but it's still a bit jarring. Facebook's new patent describes using data it has on people to guess their socioeconomic status. It suggests taking "biographic, demographic and other types of descriptive information, such as work experience, educational history, gender, hobbies or preferences, location and the like" from posts and information shared by a user to determine whether they're working class, middle class or upper class. And the end goal? To provide "sponsored content" for a "product or service to target users of the online system belonging to a particular socioeconomic group." I can't wait to find out which direct-to-consumer brands target me on Facebook based on my lot in life.

Microsoft

Tracking you through the office

This new patent sounds both deeply futuristic and invasive. Microsoft's patent outlines a system of sensors dotted around an office building, in lighting fixtures and other unassuming places, that are all meshed together and talking to each other. As a person passes by the sensors, they'll try to determine who they are, by comparing speech to stored recordings of the employee's voice, as well as things like "height, shoulder width, stride length, and/or facial features," according to the patent. Once the system figures out who is walking by, it can do things like preemptively turn on the lights when they walk into their office. Seems like a fair trade-off for constant biometric surveillance!

Making VR headsets a little less gross

It's far from the only thing keeping AR and VR headsets from hitting the mainstream, but have you ever thought about everyone who's ever sweated on a headset that's handed to you in a public setting? Microsoft's patent outlines how a headset like its HoloLens could wick sweat away from a wearer's forehead and the heat-generating system they're wearing in front of their eyes. The system has a "vapor-permeable spacer" between the device and the wearer that helps evaporate sweat and dissipate heat from the device. But I'd still probably wipe any headset down before putting it on.

"You don't want to work here — this job goes nowhere"

When you're interviewing for a new job, it's pretty common to ask what the prospects for growth at the company are. Microsoft's new patent would give people that information before even applying. It envisions a function on a job-seeking social network — Microsoft just happens to own one of those — that could show potential applicants what the likelihood for job growth is beyond the role they're applying for and what the attrition rate is for people with similar skills and backgrounds.

A real keyboard for your touchscreen device

All-screen laptop-shaped devices are apparently the future, whether we want them or not. Lenovo, Apple and Microsoft itself (which was conveniently awarded a patent on the topic this week!) are all in various stages of thinking about devices that don't have physical keyboards. Microsoft is thinking of way to have and not have a keyboard all at once: a physical keyboard that flips out from underneath the bottom of its folding tablet. It's like when Ryan Seacrest invested in that case company that turned your iPhone into a BlackBerry. Eventually, people do new things because they're easier overall, or they just don't do them. Time will tell if all-screen laptops are truly where we're heading.
Policy

Musk’s texts reveal what tech’s most powerful people really want

From Jack Dorsey to Joe Rogan, Musk’s texts are chock-full of überpowerful people, bending a knee to Twitter’s once and (still maybe?) future king.

“Maybe Oprah would be interested in joining the Twitter board if my bid succeeds,” one text reads.

Photo illustration: Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images; Protocol

Elon Musk’s text inbox is a rarefied space. It’s a place where tech’s wealthiest casually commit to spending billions of dollars with little more than a thumbs-up emoji and trade tips on how to rewrite the rules for how hundreds of millions of people around the world communicate.

Now, Musk’s ongoing legal battle with Twitter is giving the rest of us a fleeting glimpse into that world. The collection of Musk’s private texts that was made public this week is chock-full of tech power brokers. While the messages are meant to reveal something about Musk’s motivations — and they do — they also say a lot about how things get done and deals get made among some of the most powerful people in the world.

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Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

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Great products are built on strong patents

Experts say robust intellectual property protection is essential to ensure the long-term R&D required to innovate and maintain America's technology leadership.

Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

From 5G to artificial intelligence, IP protection offers a powerful incentive for researchers to create ground-breaking products, and governmental leaders say its protection is an essential part of maintaining US technology leadership. To quote Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo: "intellectual property protection is vital for American innovation and entrepreneurship.”

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James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.
Fintech

Circle’s CEO: This is not the time to ‘go crazy’

Jeremy Allaire is leading the stablecoin powerhouse in a time of heightened regulation.

“It’s a complex environment. So every CEO and every board has to be a little bit cautious, because there’s a lot of uncertainty,” Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire told Protocol at Converge22.

Photo: Circle

Sitting solo on a San Francisco stage, Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire asked tennis superstar Serena Williams what it’s like to face “unrelenting skepticism.”

“What do you do when someone says you can’t do this?” Allaire asked the athlete turned VC, who was beaming into Circle’s Converge22 convention by video.

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Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Enterprise

Is Salesforce still a growth company? Investors are skeptical

Salesforce is betting that customer data platform Genie and new Slack features can push the company to $50 billion in revenue by 2026. But investors are skeptical about the company’s ability to deliver.

Photo: Marlena Sloss/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Salesforce has long been enterprise tech’s golden child. The company said everything customers wanted to hear and did everything investors wanted to see: It produced robust, consistent growth from groundbreaking products combined with an aggressive M&A strategy and a cherished culture, all operating under the helm of a bombastic, but respected, CEO and team of well-coiffed executives.

Dreamforce is the embodiment of that success. Every year, alongside frustrating San Francisco residents, the over-the-top celebration serves as a battle cry to the enterprise software industry, reminding everyone that Marc Benioff’s mighty fiefdom is poised to expand even deeper into your corporate IT stack.

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Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a writer-at-large at Protocol. He previously covered enterprise software for Protocol, Bloomberg and Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JoeWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

Policy

The US and EU are splitting on tech policy. That’s putting the web at risk.

A conversation with Cédric O, the former French minister of state for digital.

“With the difficulty of the U.S. in finding political agreement or political basis to legislate more, we are facing a risk of decoupling in the long term between the EU and the U.S.”

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Cédric O, France’s former minister of state for digital, has been an advocate of Europe’s approach to tech and at the forefront of the continent’s relations with U.S. giants. Protocol caught up with O last week at a conference in New York focusing on social media’s negative effects on society and the possibilities of blockchain-based protocols for alternative networks.

O said watching the U.S. lag in tech policy — even as some states pass their own measures and federal bills gain momentum — has made him worry about the EU and U.S. decoupling. While not as drastic as a disentangling of economic fortunes between the West and China, such a divergence, as O describes it, could still make it functionally impossible for companies to serve users on both sides of the Atlantic with the same product.

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Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

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