Jun 26, 2020

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

That loud boom you just heard was Login landing in your inbox. Or fireworks. Yeah, it was probably fireworks.

Today's Login is 1,392 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: The quest to improve email

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Email remains the dominant form of digital communication, especially in business, but the experience has been frozen in time for a decade. Now, however, a new wave of efforts aims to disrupt it.

Why it matters: Many workers still spend hours a day in their inboxes. Anyone who can make that time more efficient and less painful should find a market.

Driving the news:

  • Basecamp last week introduced Hey, a paid service that aims to improve on traditional email by helping people screen new senders, combine multiple threads and highlight new mail from known senders.
  • Slack this week introduced Slack Connect, allowing companies to connect their workers with those of suppliers, customers and other partners.
  • Others, including Superhuman, are focused on offering email as a paid service.

The big picture: Hey and Slack are taking dramatically different approaches.

Hey aims to reform email, eliminating the hazards and inconveniences of a medium that dates back decades to the internet's infancy.

  • The project survived a very public spat with Apple over keeping its app in the iPhone's App Store, and it is now available without needing an invite.
  • CEO Jason Fried told Axios that the goal wasn't to just offer a bunch of features but to bring a fresh approach.
  • "One of the hardest things to do is approach something you are so used to with a newbie mind," said Fried (who has no relation to Login's author).
  • Fried said the response has been strong, with more than 100,000 people having signed up for an account.
  • The real question is how many of those pay up when their two-week trial ends.

Slack aims to replace email altogether.

  • Until recently, the capabilities of Slack's workplace chat application stopped at the edge of a company's own network.
  • The new Slack Connect helps businesses connect with the people they need to interact with, including customers, vendors, contractors and suppliers.
  • In an interview, Slack product chief Tamar Yehoshua noted that users have already found unexpected ways to use Slack Connect, including professors using the service to discuss remote learning and venture capitalists using it to communicate with portfolio companies. Slack itself used the service while it was raising money in a recent debt offering.

Yes, but: Email provision has become the space for giants like Microsoft and Google who own their own huge data center operations and can offer giant inboxes for free to consumers.

  • A small company like Hey's Basecamp faces hurdles including the costs of running its own servers and the challenge of persuading users (or companies) to move their operations to a new provider.
  • If Hey's features gain traction, the big players can copy them.

As for Slack, it offers some advantages over email, but its real-time nature can also increase the pressure on workers to feel like they have to be instantly available.

The bottom line: Email is a relic, one of the last enduring pieces of the pre-web internet. But the same qualities that have made it so universal also make it tough to change and improve.

2. Bill would ban police use of face recognition

Democrats in both houses of Congress said Thursday they are introducing a bill that would ban government use of facial recognition technology.

Why it matters: A handful of cities have banned government use in their jurisdictions, but there are no national laws governing how facial recognition can be used, and there's wide concern over how the tech today encodes racial and other kinds of biases.

Driving the news:

  • Sens. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), along with Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) said they will introduce legislation in both houses to stop government use of biometric technology, including facial recognition tools.
  • The announcement comes after a Michigan man, Robert Williams, was wrongfully arrested due to flawed facial recognition software.
  • Microsoft has said it will stop selling the technology to police until a national law is passed, while Amazon has put a one-year halt to such sales and IBM has exited the business.

What they're saying:

  • Robert Williams, in a Washington Post op-ed: "Why is law enforcement even allowed to use such technology when it obviously doesn't work? I get angry when I hear companies, politicians and police talk about how this technology isn't dangerous or flawed."
  • Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.): "Facial recognition technology doesn't just pose a grave threat to our privacy, it physically endangers Black Americans and other minority populations in our country."

Between the lines: A strictly partisan bill from a quartet of lawmakers that are among the farthest left in their respective chambers is unlikely to gain wide traction anytime soon. But the call to fully ban facial recognition in the U.S. signals where the progressive wing of the Democratic party is on the issue.

3. Verizon joins Facebook ad boycott

Verizon announced Thursday it will pull advertisements from Facebook and Instagram, Axios' Orion Rummler and I report.

Why it matters: Verizon is one of the largest companies to join a growing boycott of the social network over its content moderation policies, including how it polices misinformation about Black Lives Matter protests, and handles content posted by President Trump.

What they're saying: "We have strict content policies in place and have zero tolerance when they are breached, we take action," Verizon's chief media officer John Nitti told Axios in a statement. "We're pausing our advertising until Facebook can create an acceptable solution that makes us comfortable and is consistent with what we’ve done with YouTube and other partners."

  • "We do not make policy changes tied to revenue pressure," Carolyn Everson, vice president of Global Business Group at Facebook, said in an email to advertisers. "We set our policies based on principles rather than business interests."

Catch up quick: Six civil rights groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and NAACP, began urging marketers last week to stop buying Facebook ads, using the hashtag #stophateforprofit.

Our thought bubble: Verizon also stands to benefit from the boycott of Facebook. While best known for providing cellular and wired internet service, Verizon also owns AOL and Yahoo and aims to compete with Facebook for digital ad dollars.

Yes, but: It's also worth remembering there have been attention-grabbing boycotts of other companies, including YouTube, but advertisers quietly returned when the heat died down.

Meanwhile:

4. Report: Amazon to buy self-driving tech firm Zoox

Courtesy: Zoox

Amazon is expected to announce as early as today a deal to purchase self-driving vehicle technology provider Zoox for upwards of $1 billion, according to a report in The Information.

Why it matters: While Apple, Google and others have invested in self-driving technology, Amazon is the one whose core business could benefit the most, given how much the company spends to deliver goods to consumers.

Background: Zoox CEO Aicha Evans told Axios earlier this year that the company was in talks with strategic partners and corporate investors about raising more money. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Zoox and Amazon were in advanced talks.

Between the lines, via Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva and Joann Muller: Zoox has been by far the most ambitious self-driving tech company, as it's been working on developing a fully integrated vehicle, not just the core autonomous technology.

  • Zoox planned from the beginning to develop the technology, build a car and operate a robotaxi service. Not even Waymo is trying to bite off that much (although GM's Cruise is).
  • Developing a car costs billions of dollars, so Amazon will have to invest a lot more if it intends for Zoox to stay on that path.
  • It's unclear what exactly Amazon wants to do with Zoox's technology — use parts of its technology to apply to warehouse robots, delivery vehicles and other needs, or keep its whole project going.
  • Zoox has already raised about $1 billion in funding — and once was valued at $3.2 billion
5. Take Note

On Tap

  • Global Pride is this weekend, with in-person celebrations canceled in many places due to COVID-19.

Errata

  • In yesterday's Login we wrote that Rep. Susan Brooks was working on legislation to make online platforms more transparent about moderation decisions. In fact, it is Rep. Greg Walden developing the bill.

Trading Places

  • Uber is scaling back its financial services plans, with the executive in charge of the push — Peter Hazlehurst — leaving the company.

ICYMI

  • Google Photos is getting a bunch of new features, including a widely requested map view. (The Verge)
  • TikTok said it will stop looking at what iPhone users have stored in their clipboard after Apple said it would start calling out companies that do so. TikTok said it did so to prevent spam abuses. (The Telegraph)
  • Alphabet is said to be buying North, a Canadian maker of smart glasses. (The Globe and Mail)
6. After you Login

It takes some skill to throw two strikes in a row in bowling, but a lot more to do it this way.

Ina Fried