Jun 21, 2021

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1 big thing: Tech's war for your wrist

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Tech's biggest companies are ramping up competition for the real estate between your hand and your elbow, Axios' Scott Rosenberg writes.

The big picture: The next big hardware platform after the smartphone will likely involve devices for your eyes, your ears and your wrists.

One big challenge for designers of this wearable computer of the future is where to put the central processor and the battery needed to power it.

Your forearm looks like the best candidate, right now.

Driving the news: Facebook is readying a competitor to Apple's Watch for release next summer, The Verge recently reported.

  • Facebook's watch, per that report, will have a video camera on the front and will also be detachable, allowing users to deploy a second camera on the back.
  • Facebook can also leverage big investments in VR hardware and a dominant consumer position with its Oculus Quest product line.
  • Further down the road, Facebook researchers are exploring watch-like devices that will "virtualize" input by working with smart glasses to simulate keyboard and mouse data entry in AR.

State of play: Tech giants are rapidly staking claims to different pieces of the next-platform puzzle, involving different visions of the roles watches, earbuds and glasses or goggles will play.

Apple has a big lead in smart watches. So far it has tied the Apple Watch heavily to the health market. Apple's Watch depends on a linkage to an iPhone to work.

  • Apple's wireless AirPods also have a strong market share.
  • Apple has long been rumored to be hatching a smart glasses project, but the secretive company offers no clues to whether or when it might launch a product.
  • Apple's prowess at integrating hardware and software could give it an edge. It could first tie all these peripherals together through the iPhone — then, later, figure out how to remove the phone from the equation.

Google's efforts to match Apple in the watch market with a competing operating system have largely stuttered.

  • At this year's Google I/O, the company announced plans to merge its Android Wear platform with Samsung's Tizen-based watch ecosystem.
  • The company took an early shot at the glasses market with Google Glass, but that's now become chiefly an industrial product.
  • The company's strongest wearables play is probably its acquisition of Fitbit, which has a loyal following for its fitness-oriented devices.

Snap, with its focus on cameras, has shown a determination to stake out turf in the AR glasses realm.

  • Its latest products are available for AR developers but not yet for the public.

The bottom line: Right now this is a fight between Facebook, which wants to depend less on hardware providers in the post-smartphone era, and Apple, which aims to dominate whatever product category takes the iPhone's place. Google is down, but thanks to Fitbit, not necessarily out.

Why it matters: Hardware transitions only come every decade or two, and in the past they've given upstart contenders an opportunity to knock off the Goliaths who dominated the current generation.

Yes, but: So far, this time around, the Goliaths are fully in command of the field.

2. Industry groups line up against antitrust bills

Thirteen tech and free-market groups oppose new bipartisan antitrust bills from the House Judiciary committee, the groups write in a letter Monday, exclusively shared with Axios' Ashley Gold.

Driving the news: The House Judiciary committee plans to mark up the new antitrust bills Wednesday.

Why it matters: The pushback shows that the industry is gearing up for a fight against the five proposed new laws.

What they're saying: "We believe that voters want Congress to fix things that are broken — not break or ban things that they feel are working well. We strongly encourage you to reject these proposals," the groups wrote to committee members.

  • The groups say some of the bills would ban Amazon Prime and Amazon Basics, bar Apple from preinstalling iMessage and FaceTime on iPhones, and block Google from including Google Maps in its search results.

Details: The letter is signed by Chamber of Progress, Americans for Prosperity, the Computer and Communications Industry Association, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, TechFreedom, NetChoice and others.

What to watch: Pushback against the bills is brewing on the Hill as well. The New Democrat Coalition, a group of centrist Democrats, wrote to party leadership last week urging additional hearings before a markup.

3. Co-ops aim to make gig economy worker-friendly

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A new crop of gig economy companies are trying to see if they can offer a more worker-friendly approach, Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva reports. Ride-hailing service The Drivers Cooperative recently debuted in New York City, claiming that its lack of VC funding would result in better driver pay and lower passenger costs.

Why it matters: TDC's approach is a direct rebuke to the venture capital-fueled gig economy model.

Details: TDC is incorporated as a "worker cooperative corporation" and currently lets every signed-up driver enroll as a member of the co-op, which means receiving one share in the company and one shareholder vote.

  • The co-op takes a 15% cut of rides (compared to Uber and Lyft's roughly 20%) to fund its operations, and any leftovers at the end of the year will go back to drivers via profit-sharing.
  • The company says its drivers currently make on average about 30% more than they would driving for Uber or Lyft, and that riders pay slightly less.

The big picture: A number of companies have tried (and often failed) to reform the model popularized by Uber and Lyft, including Juno, a New York startup that couldn't deliver its promise of sharing equity with drivers, and Dumpling, which charges drivers a monthly fee instead of taking a cut of each transaction.

Between the lines: "We're actually selling things for the price that they cost," says TDC co-founder Erik Forman, adding that Uber and Lyft's lack of profits are a sign that their approach isn’t actually working.

Yes, but: It remains to be seen how smaller, local upstarts can fare in the face of multibillion-dollar public companies that are already household names.

4. Facebook doubles down on audio

Facebook is rolling out long-awaited audio features today, including a live audio product and a new tool that allows users to listen to their favorite podcasts while browsing its app, Axios' Sara Fischer reports.

Why it matters: Facebook is in a race with other companies for creators' attention in the audio space, including Twitter, Spotify and Clubhouse.

Details: Facebook's new "Live Audio Rooms" feature debuted Monday in the U.S., allowing users to connect with their friends or public figures via real-time audio chats. It closely mimics the app Clubhouse or Twitter Spaces.

  • For now, public figures and select Facebook groups can create Live Audio Rooms on iOS. They can invite anyone who follows them, other public figures with a verified badge, and listeners in the room to join as a speaker. 
  • Live Audio Room hosts will be able to select a nonprofit or existing fundraiser to support during their conversation that listeners can donate to in real time.

Between the lines: Facebook is also rolling out a new podcasting feature. It includes an initial slate of podcasts from podcasters like Joe Budden and Nicaila Matthews Okome. It says it will add more podcasts in coming weeks.

The big picture: Audio has become a table stakes feature for tech giants, following an audio explosion during the pandemic.

5. Take note

On Tap

ICYMI

  • Some people who signed up for smart energy programs in Texas were caught off guard when their Nest thermostats were automatically set to higher temperatures. (The Verge)
  • While 25 states (and D.C.) have launched phone-based COVID-19 exposure notification apps, the apps are only used widely enough to be meaningful in 13 states. (MIT Technology Review)
  • The IRS says companies can deduct ransomware payments from their taxes. (Axios)
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Ina and "Anger" from Inside Out. Photo: Ina Fried/Axios