Monday Moves v1.6: Space Race 2.0

Sam: America is hurting right now and there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed. In these moments of sadness and chaos I hope we can come together as a nation to recognize a great achievement: for the first time in almost a decade, American astronauts launched into orbit from American soil on an American rocket. Well done America! Now let’s keep innovating, solving problems, and moving forward, it is what we are good at.

Raj: Elon Musk has done America proud. Meanwhile I’m just trying to get through all my Slack notifications. "Un-Bold Slack" is the new "Inbox Zero", says Nick Martell from the Robinhood Snacks podcast (of which Sam and I are ardent fans). Slack and the omnipresent Jeff Bezos made some major moves this past week.

Sam: SpaceX has bested a venerable industry leader.

Throughout the period of Space Exploration if you asked “who will be the first private company to launch a crew into orbit” the answer would be unanimous: Boeing. However, with the successful launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon that mark in history goes to an underdog that many people doubted. SpaceX and Boeing were both awarded contracts in 2014 to develop a commercial crew program to send astronauts into space. The established and well trusted Boeing received $4.2 billion, and the comparatively young and risky SpaceX received $2.6 billion. Both companies faced serious setbacks, but in the end SpaceX was the first to have a successful mission, to the surprise of many government officials and industry experts. The new rivalry between the two companies is an example of the Space Race 2.0, where private companies have taken the place of countries for rule of the stars. As SpaceX proved, this competition will be beneficial to the entire industry, generating a new level of innovation and accelerating advancement. (Make sure to check out the Washington Post article above for more details on the rivalry including funny anecdotes on Elon Musk’s leadership style, and Boeing's opinions on his success)

Sam: Facial recognition is (highly) likely in our future, but IBM is washing their hands from it.

IBM’s CEO, Arvind Krishna, sent a letter to congress explaining the issues with facial recognition technology and voicing his support for police reform across the country. In the letter he also announced that IBM will no longer be developing or researching any technology related to facial recognition.  “IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and Principles of Trust and Transparency,” Krishna stated in the letter. “We believe now is the time to begin a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be employed by domestic law enforcement agencies.” 

Facial recognition has suffered issues with bias along lines of race and gender, which obviously has implications in a law enforcement setting, not to mention the numerous privacy concerns. I have to give IBM kudos for their decision to walk away from a profitable industry they had heavily invested in. Krishna is showing strong leadership by upholding IBM’s values over corporate profits, and I hope other technology figureheads take notice (I am looking at you Bezos).

Raj: Amazon and Slack are cozying up in a clear sign of aggression toward Microsoft.

Slack and Amazon’s new partnership isn’t just about drawing on each others’ tech. There are many large industry-wide implications to break down here. 

According to a deal last week, all Amazon employees will be able to use Slack’s chat room software. In turn, Slack will “deepen its reliance on AWS, revamping its video-calling feature to take advantage of an AWS service called Chime.” Chime is not particularly well known, and Slack’s own video conferencing feature is virtually unknown. Working on Chime’s existing infrastructure might be the catalyst that launches Slack video conferences as a viable alternative to Zoom.

But whenever Jeff Bezos is involved there is always a much longer play at work. It’s hard not to think of this deal as a play against Microsoft by both parties. Microsoft Teams has zoomed past Slack despite Slack having a multi-year head start, while Slack’s recent earning report failed to impress and caused a >10% drop in its stock price. CEO Stewart Butterfield claim that Teams is an “existential threat” to his company doesn’t seem far-fetched anymore, and aligning with AWS sends a clear anti-Azure signal. Recall that Microsoft had considered buying Slack back in 2016 for $8 billion. Microsoft’s move to keep Skype while cultivating an appealing Slack alternative in Teams now appears prescient.

In Monday Moves v0.1, I wrote that Amazon loves to go to war with everyone. So I believe this partnership is an expected signal of aggression from Amazon against Microsoft. An acquisition may be the only way that Slack defeats the Goliath that is Teams, and chat rooms is a significant market in which Amazon has yet to make a splash. If I’m right, the world may be saved from a Microsoft-dominated monopoly, but a Microsoft-Amazon duopoly doesn’t sound much more appealing. 

Raj: A border tussle between India and China is spilling over into tech and may have broader geopolitical implications for American tech giants.

Over the past few weeks, tensions have flared between neighboring India and China over a border dispute on several locations along the Line of Actual Control, the demarcated border between the two countries. The military standoff needs to be recognized by the global community as a key advancement in global relations with the backdrop of China’s deteriorating global image after the coronavirus outbreak. 

In a show of support for its military, Indians have rallied en masse to boycott Chinese goods and to delete Chinese apps including TikTok. If successful, this could be a huge blow to the viral app as India has by far its largest user base. But an Android app called Remove China Apps, which does exactly what its name suggests, has just been removed from the Google Play Store after being downloaded over 5 million times. Also, a popular Indian alternative to TikTok called Mitron was removed from the Play Store over dubious claims of copying a Pakistani app by the name of TicTic (verrrrry original names here, folks). 

These Play Store mishaps don’t help Google in rectifying its global stereotype of bowing to Chinese pressure. A recent controversy arose because YouTube was deleting all comments including the term 五毛 (50-cent party), a derogatory term for Internet users paid to deflect online criticism of the CCP. And in 2018 Google was reported to be building a censored search engine to be launched in China. Outside of the world Google, Twitter curiously restricted the account of Indian dairy company Amul after posting a cartoon expressing anti-China sentiment. All this is puzzling at best, and it remains to be seen whether India’s anti-China boycott will engender lasting change or merely expose dubious tech alliances. 

Sam: Rivian insurance will help streamline the customer experience

Last August Tesla introduced an in-house insurance product for their customers. Only available in California for now, Tesla has plans to take the service nationwide. Rivian, who is putting the final touches on their electric truck and SUV models (along with a rumored van and a smaller crossover), recently posted a job which indicates they will likely be offering a similar in-house insurance product. This move makes sense, as premium brands attempt to streamline their customer service and control more aspects of a product’s experience. For example, when you buy an iPhone you purchase it at the Apple store, buy their insurance, use their apps, and go back to the Apple store when you need help or a new phone. Apple controls nearly 100% of the customer experience. Will Tesla and Rivian be able to do the same for cars?

That’s all for this week. Keep on moving.

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Until next Monday, 

Raj & Sam