Jan 4, 2021

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Situational awareness: Hundreds of Alphabet workers have unionized in what could be a watershed moment for the labor movement in Silicon Valley.

Today's Login is 1,385 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: 2021 will demand new kinds of video conferencing

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Last year entrenched videoconferencing at the center of our work and private lives — but also showed us the limits and drawbacks of the tools we now depend on.

What's happening: Services like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and WebEx were a lifeline in 2020, channeling everything from work and school to parties and doctor's appointments into our homebound lives.

The more we got to know these tools, however, the more we could see that putting a bunch of kids on Zoom sure doesn't make it a party. For every conceivable use of videoconferencing, there's a need for more nuanced and specialized software to deliver more enjoyable, less fatiguing experiences.

As we head into another year likely to be filled with online substitutes for in-person gatherings, most of us are still using the same basic software for K-12 school, religious services, family gatherings, work meetings and book clubs.

  • It doesn't have to be that way.
  • Imagine, for example, an app built for birthday parties that offered kids some interactive fun — anything from a digital version of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey to built-in-access to Super Mario or Minecraft. One can easily envision adult-themed possibilities as well.

Where it stands: The space has already seen some innovation, with Zoom adding much-needed security features and Microsoft Teams experimenting with a "together mode" — including venues like virtual coffee shops and lecture halls to give different types of gatherings a more appropriate digital space.

  • Cisco has started to offer custom versions of its WebEx software, including one designed for parliaments and state legislatures trying to conduct government business online.
  • Meanwhile, startups are also taking note. Mmhmm is among those offering tools to people who want to customize video meetings with more than just fun virtual backgrounds.
  • Other startups, including Spatial, are trying to use VR to make digital gatherings more immersive, though doing so takes away one of the few benefits of virtual meetings — being able to easily multitask.

Yes, but: Much is still lacking in these offerings — especially the ability to capture the whimsy, serendipity and intimacy of in-person events.

The big picture: Customized videoconferencing tools may be what users need, but the tech industry usually coalesces around one-size-fits-all platforms that substitute the power of scale for the appeal of tailor-made services.

  • From office-document software to search engines and social networks to e-commerce, tech remains a winner-take-all world. Videoconferencing requires a lot of bandwidth and technical overhead, and the ability to deliver that may win out over subtler improvements in interface and social features.

Between the lines: Better hardware can also play an important role in making video conferencing more satisfying.

  • Already we've seen Zoom come to smart displays such as Facebook's Portal and Amazon's Echo Show. TV set-top-boxes are probably next. Amazon already added camera support to its FireTV Cube device.
  • Dedicated video-conferencing devices could also break into the consumer market after being aimed almost entirely at businesses.
  • Meanwhile, 2021's laptop models may get serious camera upgrades, coming after device makers have had time to address the rise of remote work in their development and production cycles.

What's next: In the meantime, expect another year of people buying add-on microphones, cameras and ring lights to improve their at-home set-ups.

2. Samsung to hold Galaxy event on Jan. 14

Image: Samsung

Samsung will hold a Jan. 14 event to unveil a new crop of mobile devices, where it's expected to launch the Galaxy S21, thought to be the name for its next set of flagship smartphones.

Driving the news: Samsung's phone launches have been creeping earlier and earlier in recent years, erasing the opportunity for rivals to get a leg up by announcing competing phones at CES.

Samsung announced the event in a blog post and teaser video on Sunday. But you don't have to wait until then to get a good sense of what Samsung has planned, thanks to a combination of statements from the company and the usual surfeit of rumors and leaks.

  • In a blog post late last year, the company offered hints on what to expect from this year's flagship, including the ability to use ultra-wideband technology to open car doors and find lost items. Apple has already announced a similar car-unlocking feature and has been rumored to be readying dedicated devices for object tracking à la Tile.
  • Rumors and leaks have taken things further, offering still images, detailed specifications and even videos of what the new devices should look like.

The bottom line: Expect at least three capable smartphones covering the higher end of the market along with a range of new accessories.

  • The big uncertainty: Whether anything Samsung has in store can make people shift from "that's nice" to "I need to own this."
3. FireEye says Russia hack was waged inside U.S.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Russian hackers staged their sprawling attacks from servers inside the U.S. — sometimes using computers in the same town or city as the victims, cybersecurity company FireEye told the New York Times.

Why it matters: This helped the intruders evade the eyes of the National Security Agency, which is legally prohibited from engaging in domestic surveillance, and also elude Department of Homeland Security defenses, which focus on threats from beyond U.S. borders.

Catch up quick: The attack, attributed to Russia, began with the targeting of the software of IT contractor SolarWinds. Gaining access there allowed the nation-state hackers access to information from a variety of high-profile agencies and companies, including the Treasury, Commerce and Homeland Security departments.

  • Experts warn the attack could have severe repercussions, given it went on for months, targeted key companies and government agencies, and gained access to a wide swath of substantive information.
  • The attack lasted for at least nine months and affected roughly 250 businesses and federal agencies, per the Times.

Between the lines: "The government's emphasis on election defense, while critical in 2020, may have diverted resources and attention" from protecting networks against the Russian hackers' "supply chain" attack, according to the Times report.

What's next: Experts are digging in for what's likely to be months if not years of detective work to figure out whether the Russian attackers simply read documents from compromised companies and government agencies or riddled their targets with secret backdoors.

  • With the attackers likely still at large within U.S. networks, resecuring them will be slow and tricky.
4. Qualcomm brings 5G to its lowest-end chip family

Image: Qualcomm

Even budget smartphones will start getting 5G support this year, with Qualcomm announcing today that devices running its new Snapdragon 480 chip will soon hit the market.

Why it matters: The 400 series is the company's lowest-end chip family and the inclusion of 5G is a sign that the technology will become the norm for new devices.

Of note: The new chip supports the fast-but-finicky millimeter-wave frequencies needed for the fastest 5G speeds. Many of last year's 5G phones supported only the more ubiquitous low-band 5G that offers only a modest speed boost over 4G.

  • The Snapdragon 480, first teased last year, also supports the use of up to three cameras simultaneously, a recognition of another big trend in smartphones: multiple lenses.

Yes, but: That doesn't mean that all new phones will support 5G in all its flavors, so it pays to look beyond the 5G label to make sure that a new phone gives you what you are looking for.

What's next: The first devices with this chip are expected early this year. Qualcomm's press release includes quotes from Chinese phone makers Oppo and Vivo, as well as HMD Global, which sells phones under the Nokia brand, so it's likely that those brands will be among the the first to offer phones based on the chip.

Go deeper: Get up to speed with Axios' online Short Course on 5G

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • It's National Spaghetti Day. Whatever you are doing to celebrate, I guarantee it's not as much as this guy.
  • CES is virtual this year — and doesn't officially start until next week — but expect some news to trickle out this week as companies look to jump the gun and grab some air time in what will be a very different year for the annual consumer electronics event.

Trading Places

ICYMI

  • The shift to remote work is propelling startups outside of major hubs to get a more serious look from investors. (Axios)
  • Roku is said to be near a deal to acquire the content library of failed mobile video startup Quibi. (WSJ)
  • The New York Stock Exchange plans to delist three Chinese telecom companies this week to comply with an executive order. (Bloomberg)
  • Bitcoin charged past $30,000 for the first time Saturday, though it was trading below its weekend highs on Monday morning. (Axios)
  • Billionaire Alibaba founder and Beijing critic Jack Ma hasn't been seen publicly in months, stirring speculation that the Chinese government has detained or otherwise silenced him. (Reuters)
6. After you Login

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