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Five Things That Happened This Week

The biggest stories in tech, in tiny snippets.

1. Huawei Cloud and AI Live Europe

Yes, I did spend my Friday night watching this and no, I won’t get that time back.

But I might as well sum it all up, to get some value out of the whole thing.

Huawei held a little virtual “summit” to talk about its latest AI products.

It all had the tone of those BBC World promo videos you see on hotel TVs.

  • Man on phone standing by Wall Street bull; upbeat, sweeping music; rivers and mountains.

The opening sequence was pretty incredible.

It quite literally just said: Trust us.

See, people asked questions about telephones when they came out, and where did that get them? Phones are great and those people look stupid. You’re not an idiot, are you? Then, trust us.

It reminded me of the letter Galileo wrote to Johannes Kepler, in exasperation that people refused to look through his telescope. At the time, people were sure that such a device must be the work of the devil.

“My dear Kepler, I wish we could laugh at the extraordinary stupidity of the mob”, Galileo fumed.

However, in Huawei’s case, it is quite the false equivalence to collimate their 5G phone networks with the railroads.

It’s not that people don’t trust the tech; they don’t trust you to use it responsibly, Huawei.

When Vanderbilt was building railroads, we could at least see where they went.

It is true that many have been myopic in dismissing important technological revolutions, as Galileo’s exasperated letter to Kepler demonstrates.

That doesn’t mean we should all get behind a corporation without asking a few questions.

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Anyway, once the talks got started, the presenters all focused on similar themes. They were surprisingly wooden in their delivery, given the subject matter.

They reported that Huawei is partnering with AI companies around the world to build an open source ecosystem, both for edge and cloud computing. There was a real focus on this open approach to collaboration with developers and manufacturers, at least partly due to the ongoing issues caused by the US blacklisting Huawei.

The talks showed off some Huawei research using the Atlas AI processors, on everything from image recognition to disease detection and self-driving trucks. There was nothing entirely new here and it was all about little updates, but they clearly have a lot of impressive capabilities at their disposal.

I actually quite enjoyed that there was a lot more detail than we usually get from these glossy promotional shows, even if it was lacking in the razzle-dazzle department.

It was boring as all hell, but you can check it out here if you like.

🖥 + Microsoft will invest $1.5 billion in Italy’s digital transformation — Microsoft blog

⏰ 2. The gig is up

California has sued Uber and Lyft for violating the new laws it implemented to give gig-economy workers benefits including overtime and health care.

The complaint “asserts that Uber and Lyft gain an unfair and unlawful competitive advantage by inappropriately classifying massive numbers of California drivers as independent contractors,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said during a virtual press conference.

It’s a very intriguing story with potential repercussions for a lot of companies. We talk of disruption as a competitive advantage, often resident in the business model, but here we see how that can rub up against old laws, or even lead to the creation of new ones.

Uber has suggested that there is a need to go between the binary ‘employee/contractor’ distinction and I would tend to agree with that. As it stands, companies exploit the status of contractors to keep their costs and risks low. However, contractors are clearly different to full-time employees and will want to retain some of their own freedoms.

The changed nature of work needs new legal protections, but these should be designed with an understanding that this new type of work is here to stay.

💳 3. RBS dropped its digital bank Bó

It had many of the features you’d expect from Monzo or Revolut, but from the Royal Bank of Scotland. Except, it actually lacked some really important ones, like Apple Pay support.

This is a tricky time for a digital bank and Bó only launched in late 2019, but this will surely be a business school case study in the near future.

🎥 4. Spotify is testing video podcasts with two YouTube stars

Spotify owns a lot of content companies now and would probably rather not have to upload that content to YouTube. Instead, it is testing video content on the Spotify platform, in line with their founder’s early assertion that “Spotify is a platform. There’s no reason it should be restricted to audio.”

They will need to add some features to make this a viable alternative to YouTube for creators. Moreover, whatever the company’s ambitions, it will take time for users to adapt their behaviors and watch video on Spotify.

+ Twitch (the Amazon-owned games streaming platform) is also planning to launch reality TV shows.

These Twitch shows will be live and unscripted, they say. The focus will be on gamers aged 18–24 and they even want to have a dating show.

In related news, Amazon is developing interactive games for streaming.

I’m calling this the second act of online platforms. They’ve had the initial burst of popularity and now they need to diversify. They also want more control and often, they get hands-on, in contrast with their intiial stance as an open marketplace. We’ll see much, much more of this strategy in the coming months.

  • Google launched Google Podcasts Manager.

It will show a whole load of data about people who listened to your show — if they listened via Google.

Of note, the ‘Smart speaker’ device category in the image below. We’ll see a lot more of that in Google’s reporting tools.

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+ Google launches a whole load of Lens features — Google blog

You can scan text with a smartphone camera and then paste it into a Google Doc. Handy.

+ Shopify’s new app makes it easier for merchants to sell on Pinterest — Engadget

🏙 5. Sidewalk Labs will no longer pursue the Toronto Quayside project — Sidewalk Labs

The Alphabet-owned company had grand designs for the waterside district.

You may recall that we wrote about this in hi, tech. edition 2 (Ah, were we ever that young?), but we weren’t all that convinced that it would work out (Ah, we were always that cynical.)

Author of the world-famous I used to be with it, but then they changed what ‘it’ was.

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