Nov 20, 2019

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

The party for Salesforce's Dreamforce is tonight at the local baseball stadium, which was recently renamed Oracle Park. Or, as Salesforce calls it, the place where the San Francisco Giants play baseball.

Meanwhile, today's Login is 1,147 words, a 4-minute read

1 big thing: TikTok looks to downplay its China ties

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As lawmakers and regulators zero in on issues around Chinese tech companies and U.S. tech companies' ties to China, the longstanding low U.S. profile of Chinese tech brands is beginning to change.

The big picture: Our devices are made in China but our software and services, for the most part, aren't. TikTok is a big exception — and now the video-sharing network is under fire amid concerns over its Chinese ownership and the potential for censorship or risks to user data.

For its part, the company has broken its silence and is on a media campaign to distance itself from the Chinese government, an effort that could include a rebranding to disassociate the service from its Chinese ownership, per the Wall Street Journal.

  • Meanwhile, CEO Alex Zhu told the New York Times that he would go as far as to personally reject an appeal for user data even if it came from Chinese leader Xi Jinping. He also reiterated that TikTok doesn't store U.S. user data in China and doesn't share such data with its Chinese parent company.

As TikTok looks to play down its Chinese roots, it is following a path similar to the few Chinese companies who have gone after the U.S. consumer market.

  • TCL is a Chinese hardware giant that sells a ton of consumer devices in the U.S., but mostly under other, more American-sounding brands. With phones, for example, it sells under the Alcatel and BlackBerry brands. In TVs TCL now uses its own name in the U.S., but sold for a long time under the RCA moniker.

Yes, but: Chinese companies aren't the only tech firms that don't trumpet their ownership of high-profile brands. A surprising number of people fail to connect Instagram and WhatsApp with Facebook, which owns them. Ditto for Google and YouTube.

History lesson: The first Chinese tech company to make a serious run at the U.S. consumer market was Lenovo, which bought IBM's PC business back in 2005.

  • It initially had the rights to use the IBM brand on computers for five years but switched over to ThinkPad after three years. It now sells tablets and PCs under the Lenovo brand.
  • On the phone side, it uses the Motorola name exclusively in the U.S., even though in other countries it sells under both brands.

Meanwhile: U.S. brands, outside of Apple, have largely struggled in China, where the internet is dominated by homegrown brands like Tencent, Baidu and Alibaba. The Chinese hardware scene is also dominated by domestic players such as Oppo, Xiaomi and Huawei.

2. Amazon details Ring's police ties

In separate responses to congressional inquiries released Tuesday, Amazon disclosed the breadth of its Ring subsidiary's partnerships with local police departments, and admitted that it used sales data from third-party products to help decide which products to start selling under its own name.

Why it matters: Both disclosures will give fresh ammunition to the company's critics.

On Ring, in response to an inquiry from Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Amazon noted that it now has partnerships with more than 600 police agencies across the country, with few guide rails on how data from Ring's video doorbells will be used.

  • Markey blasted Amazon's disclosures. "Connected doorbells are well on their way to becoming a mainstay of American households, and the lack of privacy and civil rights protections for innocent residents is nothing short of chilling. Amazon Ring's policies are an open door for privacy and civil liberty violations."

As for the products, Amazon told House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline (D-R.I.) that it doesn't use data from individual sellers to inform its own product plans, but it does use aggregated data to make such decisions.

The FTC is also said to be looking into Amazon's relationships with its marketplace sellers.

3. Tim Cook opens up at Dreamforce

Photo: Salesforce

Not surprisingly, Tim Cook and Marc Benioff found plenty of common ground in their Tuesday fireside chat at Dreamforce, Salesforce's annual developer conference. After all, the two CEOs are close business allies and share a passion for civil rights issues.

It wasn't the kind of environment likely to produce news or answer tough questions. But the setting did allow Cook to drop his guard more than he typically does.

  • He opened up a bit about his relationship with Steve Jobs, noting that the Apple co-founder perennially left work before Cook, typically stopping by Cook's office before departing for the day.
  • He talked about getting nostalgic appearing at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the same stage where Jobs debuted many Apple products, including the iPhone 5, several iPods and iPads.
  • He shared what he says is life's purpose: to help others. "Wouldn't it be great if everyone woke up one day and said, from now on I am treating everyone with dignity and respect?" Cook said. "There would be so many problems that would go away."

The CEOs talked tech, too.

  • Benioff said he does all his out-of-office work on the phone these days and doesn't use a computer at home.
  • Cook asked at one point how many people in the audience used an iPhone and nearly every hand went up. He said it was OK if you had an Android — the Apple Store can take them and recycle them, he quipped.
4. Disney+ looks upward, beyond glitches

The Disney+ streaming service's launch was met with technical issues, compromised passwords and a whole lot of demand.

What's next: The company is looking forward, not back, with a top executive saying that the company won't rely as heavily on data as rival Netflix did in building its service or creating its content.

  • "We might have great, creative ideas that don’t fit right into where the data would point you to make a program, so we’re going to use both our judgment or the ideas we have in place, the capacities that we have in place, and the data that tells us what to make," Kevin Mayer, chairman of direct-to-consumer and international at Disney, said in an interview at Code Media on Tuesday.

Yes, but: Mayer did concede that Disney needed to invest more in its technology in order to make its product as functional as Netflix for users. He said that he thinks that Disney will be able to match Netflix's engineering capabilities in a couple of years.

  • He also noted for the first time publicly that the company is in the process of uniting its two separate pieces of platform tech — BAMTech (which powers ESPN+ and Disney+) and Hulu's tech — to create one unified tech platform for all of Disney's streaming platforms.
  • "We're going to take a harmonized platform approach at some point," he said. "There's nothing to announce, but it's something we're talking about."

The bottom line: Disney has a lot riding on Disney+, and the company wants to reach 60 million to 90 million subscribers by 2024.

5. Take Note

On Tap

Trading Places

  • Algolia, a startup that powers search for various web sites, has hired Kristie Rodenbush as chief people officer and Iian Hassall as CFO.

ICYMI

  • The NTSB found that a distracted test driver was largely to blame for an Uber self-driving car crash that killed a pedestrian. The safety board also found fault with Uber's procedures. (CNN)
  • Facebook quietly released Whale, an experimental meme-generating app, in Canada last week. (The Information)
  • Boost Mobile's founder wants to buy the company back from Sprint. Sprint has already announced a deal to sell its entire prepaid business and other assets to Dish Network. (Axios)
6. After you Login

Would your smartphone take a bullet for your? This Pixel 3 took one for its owner.

Ina Fried