Apr 6, 2020

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

Brrrring. Brrrring. Time to take off the weekend clothes and put on your dress PJs. It's another work week.

Today's Login is 1,349 words, a 5-minute read, assuming you have both eyes open.

1 big thing: Government tech struggles to dole out CARES Act cash

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Tech challenges are hampering federal and state government efforts to get funds from the $2 trillion coronavirus relief law into the hands of newly unemployed workers and struggling small businesses who need it.

Why it matters: Many businesses and individuals need the money now for essentials, including meeting payroll and paying rent.

Here are three major issues:

  1. The CARES Act expands unemployment eligibility to gig workers and freelancers but many states’ unemployment programs run on antiquated systems. New Jersey, for example, put out a call for people who have experience with Cobol, a now ancient programming language still used in some states' systems. In Florida, a web-based system went down, forcing some applicants back to pen and paper. Meanwhile, some applicants were told to use a fax machine or outdated browser, such as Netscape or Internet Explorer.
  2. Applications for $350 billion in small business loans launched Friday, but there were a host of problems. Not all banks were ready to accept applications, including Wells Fargo. There were also problems with the back-end system needed to process loan requests at the Small Business Administration, among other issues. Because the system is first-come, first-served, some businesses that badly need the aid could be left high and dry.
  3. Some small business owners say they saw other people's data on the Small Business Administration web site when they went to check on their own applications. The agency confirmed the problem to CyberScoop.

The big picture: While the strain on the health systems is getting the most attention, governments are also being pressured as record numbers of people apply for aid programs.

  • "We hear about those particular things quite a bit," Code for America founder Jen Pahlka told Axios. Many agencies are trying to embrace the challenge and "move at the speed of need," she said.

To help, Pahlka recently launched a volunteer effort called U.S. Digital Response. It's already completed 25 projects for government agencies and has dozens more in the works.

  • For example, USDR volunteers helped create an "emergency assistance eligibility wizard" for the state of New Jersey to help residents see what benefits they might be eligible for.

Yes, but: It's easier to stand up a new informational site than to change the coding in an old unemployment system. Work to modernize such systems has been under way for some time. But, as this map shows, states are in widely different places in their progress.

At the federal level, the U.S. Digital Service, created under the Obama administration and now led by former Googler Matt Cutts, also aims to solve problems like these when (or before) they arise.

  • In an email, Cutts said he couldn't comment on his agency's COVID-19 work.

Our thought bubble: It's not surprising that agencies are struggling to adapt their systems to these sudden new demands.

  • Governments usually have months or years to make system changes, while the details of the CARES Act only emerged shortly before it passed, and the law went into effect almost immediately as the coronavirus crisis accelerated.

Go deeper: America's small business bailout is off to a bad start

2. Quibi launches mid-pandemic

Quibi, the mobile-only video subscription streaming service, made its highly-anticipated consumer debut Monday, launching its new app globally in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, Axios' Sara Fischer reports.

Why it matters: Executives say they are confident in the app's launch at this work-at-home moment, even though the short-form video product was built to be consumed on-the-go.

What they're saying: "I kind of find that with my work day now, I'm looking to take small breaks more than ever before," said Quibi chief technology officer Rob Post in a briefing with reporters last week.

  • "I think our use case is these in-between moments, whether you're on-the-go or not. I think now more than ever, our use case is consistent," said Post.

The pandemic has forced Quibi to scramble to the finish line from home. Like most other American companies, Quibi employees started working from home three weeks ago, still determined to meet their April 6 launch debut.

  • While many of Quibi's documentaries and entertainment shows at launch have already been produced, its "Daily Essentials," 5–6 minute news and information shows, are now mostly being shot in the homes of the show hosts.

Axios has demoed the app over the past few days. Here are our takeaways:

  • Quibi's flagship "Turnstyle" function, which changes video from vertical viewing to horizontal viewing as you rotate your device, is as seamless as the company has billed it to be, albeit the functionality is a little clunkier on older iPhones.
  • Quibi has put several mega-stars out front, making them tough to miss. Within seconds of scrolling through the app, we encountered a satirical show starring Chrissy Teigen, a documentary starring LeBron James, and a revamped version of MTV's 2000s hit "Punk'd" starring Chance the Rapper.
  • The video quality is good and consistent, but the library of 50 shows seems jarringly small compared to the endless feeds of content that users are used to getting on other platforms.

The big picture: Quibi's launch serves as a litmus test for other streamers that were planning to launch this spring.

  • AT&T executives say they still plan to launch its AT&T's new streaming service, HBO Max, this spring.
  • Comcast's NBCUniversal plans to launch its new streaming service, Peacock, in July.

Go deeper:

3. More trouble piles on for Zoom

Concerns continue to mount over video chat provider Zoom, with New York City's school district, the largest in the country with more than a million students, advising teachers not to use its software. Zoom was also forced to issue yet another apology, this time for routing some calls through China.

Why it matters: Zoom has seen a massive increase in adoption amid the coronavirus lockdowns, but it has also repeatedly been forced to apologize for security lapses and other problems.

In a blog post, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan said that in a rush to add capacity, the company sent some calls through China, in violation of its usual procedures. Zoom attempts to host most calls on servers in the region in which they operate, but sometimes uses a different region to ease spikes in demand. However, calls from outside China aren't supposed to be handled there.

Meanwhile, in other virus-related tech news:

  • Apple CEO Tim Cook said the company has now procured 20 million masks to donate and is also working with employees and its suppliers to build face shields, the first of which went to Kaiser hospital facilities in Silicon Valley this week.
  • The Internet Association launched a website highlighting the COVID-19 efforts of its member companies.

Go deeper: Zoom's tarnished moment of glory

4. Virus sidelines self-driving cars

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

In two weeks, the coronavirus has brought the entire U.S. auto industry to a screeching halt. When it finally sputters back to life, many companies may be forced to change, defer their ambitious plans for self-driving vehicles, Axios' Joann Muller reports.

The big picture: Auto factories are shut down across North America to prevent the spread of the virus among workers, while stay-at-home orders have kept car shoppers away from showrooms. The resulting financial shock means carmakers have shifted their focus to survival, not investing in expensive technologies with no clear payoff.

Where it stands: Most carmakers, tech giants and startups racing to develop the technology assume urban robotaxis are a good place to start, because their 24/7 operation makes the economics work better.

  • But after this pandemic, shared anything seems less appealing, especially a car where there's no driver available to disinfect between passengers.
  • The pandemic may instead push the industry further into autonomous delivery. Small delivery robots like Starship, Kiwibot and Amazon's Scout were already piloting delivery services before the coronavirus hit — and Nuro, whose low-speed driverless delivery vans just received federal approval, could be the beneficiary of exquisite timing.

Yes, but: When the economy does begin to recover, investment capital could be hard to come by, and carmakers and startups may have to rein in their ambitions.

What's next: Industry consolidation is likely to accelerate within the next six to 12 months.

Go deeper: Read the full story from Joann.

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • New America is hosting an online event on "Easing the home connectivity crunch" that includes FCC chairman Ajit Pai and representatives of the cable and WiFi industries, among others.

Trading Places

  • Arvind Krishna officially takes over as IBM's 10th CEO, replacing Ginni Rometty. The longtime IBM software chief was one of the architects of the company's Red Hat acquisition.

ICYMI

  • Apple bought Voysis, a startup that helps digital assistants process complex natural language queries. (Bloomberg)
  • Amazon reportedly plans to delay its Prime Day shopping event until later in the year due to the coronavirus outbreak. (Reuters)
  • Here are some ways people who depend on Silicon Valley's tech events scene are trying to cope. (CNBC)
  • The U.K. government is pressing social media companies to crack down on misinformation linking 5G to the coronavirus, following a spate of arson attacks on cell towers. (The Guardian)
6. After you Login

I'm obviously not recommending anyone use precious toilet paper on this, but it is fun to watch.

Ina Fried