Jul 31, 2020

Axios Login

I'll be on vacation next week, but you will be in good hands with the rest of the Axios tech team, led by Scott Rosenberg and Kyle Daly.

Situational awareness: Pinterest shares opened Friday about a third higher than their last closing price, after the company beat analyst revenue and profit expectations on heavy usage growth in the second quarter.

Today's Login is 1,464 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Tech's take grows as economy tanks

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

While the rest of the U.S. economy was falling off a cliff, Big Tech saw its business soar.

The big picture: Thursday morning, government economists reported a 30% drop in GDP for the second quarter — the largest decline, by far, since the numbers have been reported. Thursday afternoon, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google — whose CEOs had spent Wednesday answering questions from Congress about their market dominance — reported better than expected financial results, despite the pandemic's ravages.

By the numbers:

  • Apple saw iPhone and Apple Watch sales take a bit of a hit due to store closures, but stronger Mac and iPad sales helped the company crush expectations. Apple didn't give specific financial guidance for next quarter, but CEO Tim Cook said the company sees "a strong back-to-school season." However, Apple also confirmed this year's iPhones will ship a few weeks later than in the past.
  • Amazon smashed through analysts' predictions as customers shifted more of their spending online. The company turned a giant $5.2 billion profit, despite $4 billion in coronavirus-related costs. Revenue came in at nearly $88.9 billion, versus the $81.2 billion average forecast from analysts.
  • Facebook topped estimates despite both the impact of the pandemic as well as an advertiser boycott. Engagement numbers were also strong as people spent more time at home. However, Axios' Sara Fischer notes, Facebook's 11% year-over-year ad growth was its slowest quarterly expansion since the social network went public in 2012.
  • Google's parent company Alphabet saw its first-ever revenue decline, but results were generally better than anticipated. Much of Google's ad business is tied to industries like travel and hospitality, which have been devastated by the pandemic. CFO Ruth Porat said the company saw strong growth in Google Cloud and other revenues, and while she is "cautiously encouraged" by a small uptick in ad revenue, Google isn't out of the woods yet.

Yes, but: These giants' fortunes aren't divorced from the broader economy.

  • If the recession intensifies or turns into a long-term downturn, people will have less money to spend on, say, iPhones, and suffering businesses won't have budgets to buy ads on Facebook and Google.

Between the lines: While there was much for investors to cheer, critics may see the profits as a further sign of the companies' stranglehold on their respective markets — reinforcing the lines of attack laid out in Wednesday's House Judiciary Committee hearing.

Our thought bubble: Before the coronavirus, we handed our personal and professional lives over to Silicon Valley giants willingly. Now, as we work, shop, study and socialize via the technology they've built, it can feel like we don't have any choice.

  • That's bound to ratchet up the scrutiny on the companies that Rep. David Cicilline Wednesday called the "emperors of the online economy."
  • Today's fat profits could be denounced tomorrow as crisis profiteering. 

What's next: Beyond the financial results, executives sounded a further cautious note on any return to corporate offices.

  • Cook said Apple has pushed most of its return plans to next year.
  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said there "is no end in sight" to work-from-home.
  • Google has already announced it won't return to its offices until July 2021.
2. Running location-based games during a pandemic

Niantic COO Megan Quinn. Photo: Niantic

The pandemic has disrupted businesses everywhere — just ask Niantic, maker of location-based games like Pokemon Go that typically rely on getting out of the house to move around, often in groups.

The big picture: Companies have to move fast to adjust to the current reality. For Niantic, COO Megan Quinn tells Axios, that means keeping its games playable during the pandemic, while also building toward the augmented-reality future it envisions.

Details: Niantic has quickly rewritten the rules and mechanics of its games, allowing people to do more from home, while still offering options to those who can venture out.

  • Last weekend, Niantic hosted its first ever virtual Pokemon Go Fest. The gathering is typically a physical event but was turned into a global, virtual event this year.
  • In an interview, Quinn, a former venture capitalist who joined the firm in mid-April. called it a "stellar" weekend, noting that the company sold millions of tickets at $15 apiece, with Niantic's share of the proceeds going toward Black Lives Matter and racial justice efforts.

Between the lines: It's hard enough starting a new job as COO, let alone doing so amid a pandemic where no one can be in the office. But Quinn says things have actually gone pretty well, in large part because she has worked with Niantic CEO John Hanke in some capacity for much of the last two decades. As a VC, Quinn was an investor in Niantic and has served as a board member.

What's next: Niantic is focused on building its underlying platform, creating its own new titles and helping other developers build their own apps using Niantic's maps and technology.

  • The company has also started early external testing of its next location-based game, an adaption of Settlers of Catan. The company has said it has 10 titles in the works (and not all are games), with plans to release two each year for the next several years.

Niantic also has ambitions beyond phones, building its platform to be ideally situated in the event augmented-reality glasses finally break through as a mainstream product.

  • As part of that, it announced a partnership with Qualcomm last year to help collaborate on reference hardware, though Quinn told Protocol the company has no interest in getting into the hardware business itself.
3. TikTok sued for patent infringement

Photo Illustration: Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Triller, a short-video making app, sued rival TikTok for allegedly infringing on some of its patents, Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva reports.

Why it matters: It's the latest in a series of problems for TikTok, which is battling government and corporate critics of its ties to China. It's also the latest in the intellectual property wars among apps, following the dispute between Eko and Quibi.

Meanwhile: Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) asked the Justice Department Thursday to open investigations into both TikTok and video conferencing firm Zoom.

  • The lawmakers want DOJ to probe "reported violations of Americans' civil liberties by Zoom and TikTok and the national security implications of both companies' relationships with the People's Republic of China."
  • TikTok's parent company ByteDance is based in China. Zoom drew controversy last month after shuttering the account of a group of U.S.-based Chinese activists at Beijing's request.

Go deeper: Triller waits in the wings

4. The social media census

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

With the U.S. Census Bureau entering its last big push to get people to respond to the 2020 count, the agency has placed a big bet on digital outreach, especially on social media networks, Axios' Kim Hart reports.

The big picture: Not only is this year the first online census, it's also a giant experiment in how to reach people virtually in a fragmented media environment during a public health crisis that sidelined in-person field operations.

Why it matters: The census determines how $1.5 trillion in federal funding gets allocated across state and local governments, and states will use the census to draw political districts, shaping the distribution of power for a decade.

Ten years ago, 8% of the bureau's advertising budget was spent on digital outlets, and that was mostly banner ads on websites.

  • This year, approximately 30% (about $105 million) is getting spent across programmatic, search, site direct and social media advertising, Stephen Buckner, the Census Bureau's assistant director of communications, told Axios.
  • He said about 80% of the people who've responded to the 2020 census so far have done so online — a much higher percentage than the bureau expected.

Details: Census ads (in 13 languages) have appeared on Facebook, Twitter, Google search, YouTube and Nextdoor.

  • The single biggest day for responses was in March, when Facebook displayed a message encouraging people to respond, driving a spike of traffic to 2020Census.gov. Facebook did another push last week.
  • Nextdoor has proven effective in urging people to respond, Buckner said. Census staff members have been posting messages on the social network since March to increase awareness and correct misinformation about the count.

Text messaging has also become an important form of outreach in the mobile era. More than a dozen states have partnered with CommunityConnect Labs and Twilio to provide information about the census to respondents via text.

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • Joan Donovan is hosting a discussion on "The Fight to Ban Facial Recognition Technology: Protest in the Era of Mass Surveillance" as part of her "Big, If True" seminar series.

Trading Places

  • Ina Fried, author of this newsletter, has been named unpaid camp counselor for Harvey next week. She will be doing a weeklong, at-home Lego camp, returning to her role as chief technology correspondent at Axios on Aug 10.

ICYMI

  • The FCC gave Amazon approval for its Kuiper internet satellites, but said the company will have to work with rivals. (GeekWire)
  • Google nearly struck a deal with Flip camera maker Pure Video back in 2006 for a Google-branded camera. (The Verge)
  • Australia issued a draft order that would require Google and Facebook to pay media outlets to distribute their headlines and links. (Axios)
  • Rakuten is shuttering the online commerce site once known as Buy.com, an early e-commerce site that had been running since the 1990s. (TechCrunch)
  • Twitter revealed some fresh details on the recent hack of high-profile accounts, including that the attackers pulled it off in part by conducting social engineering on employees via phone. (Twitter)
6. After you Login

Warning: Allowing a puppy to take over the corporate Twitter account may be adorable.