For this week’s episode of the Futurum Tech Podcast, I’m joined by Sarah Wallace and Ron Westfall. In our Main Dive discussion, we talked about Zoho, Zoom, Cisco, Intel, Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and other tech brands who are doing good in tough times.
From Cisco offering free Webex licenses to employees working from home to Zoom offering K-12 schools the use of its video conference platform for free, tech companies are stepping up and doing what they can to help businesses, schools, workers, teachers, students, and communities stay connected and try to keep moving forward in uncertain times brought on by the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. Some other notable moves from tech companies include:
Zoho has made its comprehensive suite of business software applications available by way of its Small Business Emergency Subscription Assistance Program (ESAP) to help existing customers with 25 employees or less by waiting the cost of the applications these companies are currently using for up to three months.
Intel’s CEO Bob Swan has made it crystal clear the company intends to be a part of the solution for COVID-19, and that they are working in myriad ways across the country to do just that. As just two examples, Intel teamed with Lenovo and BGI Genomics in China to accelerate research and diagnostics and is also working with customers and partners to facilitate and expedite virtual learning among communities with the greatest needs.
Amazon created a $5 million relief fund to aid small businesses in the Seattle area, which has since been extended nationwide, and the company is hiring thousands of drivers to help meet the needs of its ecommerce site at a time when home deliveries have never been more popular. Apple has created a $15 million fund to help investigate and find other ways to counter coronavirus, testing, and supplies, and Dell’s CEO Michael Dell has warned that if you were spending time in the last few weeks partying on beaches or gathering in other ways rather than practicing social distancing as advised, that you had best not apply for a job at Dell.
Broadband companies (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and others) are waiving late fees, not charging overage fees, removing data caps and throttling, and opening up Wi-Fi spots to help spur connectivity.
Microsoft Research (in partnership with the Allen Institute, the White House, and others) has made the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset (CORD-19) a repository of more than 29,000 scholarly articles on the coronavirus family from around the world available, including machine-readable research from more than 13,000 articles, and Google.org has made a $1 million contribution to facilitate online learning.
These are just a handful of the tech companies stepping up to do good in very difficult times, and it’s encouraging to see those who can, do. Keep it up, friends in tech.
Our Fast Five
We dig into this week’s interesting and noteworthy news:
- Intel CEO Letter. To kick off the Fast Five segment of our show, Ron covered Intel Chief Bob Swan’s letter to customers and partners outlining the company’s commitment to doing everything in its power to help be a part of the solution for COVID-19. Whether related to high performance computing, AI, the deployment of robots for use in hospitals, or enabling technology solutions for schools and businesses, Intel is all in on lending a hand as needed as a result of the pandemic situation we find ourselves in.
- Internet Usage Surges — With No End in Sight. Sarah covered data from OpenVault, a company that collects and analyzes internet usage data, showing how internet usage has surged the world over as a result of work from home, learn from home realities that most of us are immersed in.
- Industry Giants Reduce Streaming Quality in Effort to Reduce Strain on Networks in the EU. EU industry chief Thierry Breton asked industry giants to reduce streaming quality in the EU to reduce traffic overload on the network, as millions are confined at home. Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon prime have responded by reducing their streaming quality from high definition to standard definition.
- Security and Privacy in a Pandemic. Ron covered countries testing new coronavirus surveillance tools that track movements and alert people who have come into contact with someone known to have the virus, and what that means from a security standpoint.
- Ron took us on a quick dive into the importance of certification in assuring secure networks during a worldwide public safety and health crisis.
For the Tech Bites portion of our show, we covered the irony of Facebook establishing a Coronavirus Information Center and how difficult it is, at least for us, to trust Facebook in any way to curate and disseminate the “best” information on the net about COVID-19. Trust is earned, and Facebook? Hasn’t earned a bit. We also touched on Facebook being overwhelmed by a lack of staff and using AI to moderate content and stretching the company to its limits, as personified by thousands of users receiving notifications this past week that content they shared was disallowed. Interesting, and ironic, how Facebook is in some ways an integral part of how we communicate on a daily or weekly basis, yet so largely not trusted by the majority. And deservedly so.
Crystal Ball: Future-um Predictions and Guesses
For the Crystal Ball portion of our show we circle back to the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak, and talk about what we think is next and/or ahead.
Give the show a listen, message us about any tech giants doing good that you think we should know about, and thanks for tuning in each week. We love having you.
Shelly Kramer: Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of the Futurum Tech Podcast. I’m your host, Shelly Kramer, and I’m joined today by my colleagues and fellow analysts, Ron Westfall and Sarah Wallace. Today, we are going to talk about all things coronavirus and there’s anxiety and uncertainty and fear and so many things, we thought that for our main dive of our show today it would be great to talk about some good things happening.
Before we dive into our main dive topic, I want to step back and say we will be mentioning publicly traded companies. We have opinions, we have attitudes, we may share some thoughts about these companies. Please know that this show is intended for entertainment and informational purposes only and nothing that we say should be used as investment guidance because it is not intended as such. With that business out of the way, we’re going to talk about tech companies who are doing great things, who are pitching in, who are trying to make all of our lives a little bit easier as we shift from working in offices to working from home and kids being at home and things like that.
I’m going to start by talking about a few of the things that hit my radar screen this week and one of them is Zoom. Zoom is online video collaboration platform. It’s very, very popular with companies of all sizes and Zoom CEO announced early on, I think it was actually last week giving K through 12 schools his video conferencing tools for free. The minute I saw that news break, the first thing I did was send a link to that article to the principal of my kid’s school because I know that they are immersed in trying to figure out how they’re going to shift from in-person learning to online learning. Her response was immediate, “Already know. Thanks so much. We are all in on this.” I think Zoom deserves props for being early to the table and for doing what they can to make video conferencing and online learning more, certainly for schools because a lot of schools aren’t used to that.
We wrote yesterday about Zoho. Zoho has a CRM offering and actually lots and lots of clients use their CRM tool and they are offering that their platform to their existing customer base at either a reduced price or completely free. I can’t remember which. There’s some parameters involved, but they’re really targeting their small business customers. In order to qualify you have to have a certain company size and meet their parameters, but and I think they’re offering like 20,000 seats or something like that. The minute I shared that news yesterday in one of my social nets, I had several small business owners comment that that was one of the things that was going to allow them to keep their business operating right now. I thought that was really cool.
The last thing I’m going to touch on is Cisco. Cisco is also another very well known online collaboration platform where they do lots of things but collaboration is one of the spaces that Cisco is in with their WebEx product. Of course Cisco has seen a surge in user activity and they have been offered … Cisco offered free WebEx licenses for a certain period of time to help businesses deal with the working from home. And lastly I’ll touch on with regard to Cisco is that Cisco made a contribution of $1 million to the Khan Academy to help improve and expand online learning resources for children. We have, I think, about 47 million students now learning from home. That’s a pretty significant contribution and for me it was really an example of some major tech companies really stepping up. I know you guys have some thoughts on that as well. Sarah, why don’t you talk to us about what you see going on.
Sarah Wallace: One area that we’ll talk about maybe later in this episode is about connectivity as we’re all staying home. All the major broadband providers in the U.S., so around 200. that includes providers like Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Charter and Cox communications. They’ve signed an agreement with the FCC chairman and it’s a 60-day pledge basically saying that if someone can’t pay, they’re not going to be suspending their internet service. They’re going to be waiving late fees and not going to be charging overage fees. They’re also going to be removing, in some cases, data caps as well, temporarily. The other thing they’re going to be trying to do is open up Wi-Fi spots for connectivity for people that need them. Especially as there’s a lot of distance learning going on in the public schools. That’s another thing to notice, just all these major competitors in the communication space coming together and trying to be generous during this time.
Shelly Kramer: Yeah, that’s really cool. I think I saw some other news about that with regard to assistance in rural areas and I don’t know, I can’t remember enough about it, but people in consumers in rural areas have as much need as we do and not in large groups of people, but still obviously everybody needs to be able to use the internet. Ron, talk to us.
Ron Westfall: Yes. It’s remarkable how the tech industry is really stepping up and making a significant contribution to address the worldwide coronavirus crisis. I think it’s worth mentioning, for example, that Amazon is planning to hire up to 100,000 new workers to obviously help with distributing the vital goods and other needs to the citizenry. This is definitely something that can help, not just in terms of battling the coronavirus itself, but also the economic impacts that are occurring.
Obviously we know there’s been a shutdown of social gathering type places or high population community type places, you name it, airports, it can be restaurants, taverns, et cetera. This is something that the high tech industry can actually help alleviate in terms of not just the medical impact but also the overall economic impact. It’s also worth mentioning that Apple is an example of a company stepping up with a $15 million fund to help investigate and find out better ways to counter coronavirus both at the testing level and quite simply getting supplies out to the folks out there. There’s just a myriad of ways the industry is addressing this and hopefully will make a significant difference by later this year.
Shelly Kramer: That’s really cool, Ron. Did we touch on Intel and what they’re doing?
Ron Westfall: Oh, of course. In fact, as part of the whole fabric is the fact that the Intel CEO came out with his address and basically a state of the union type of letter. It’s highlighting the fact that Intel is working with partners in China such as Lenovo and BGI in terms of developing the necessary coding of the genetic characteristics of coronavirus, COVID-19 specifically. This is using, for example, Intel’s AI and ML platforms, that is artificial intelligence and machine learning. These technologies make a dramatic difference in terms of accelerating and automating our knowledge and being able to apply it in order to come up with solutions that much more quickly.
In addition, Intel is also leveraging its platforms to enable the robotics segment to address the social distancing aspects, that is protecting health workers and other public safety workers by having robots perform some of these crucial tasks, whether it’s literally something that we take for granted like street cleaning, but also certainly in terms of medical facilities and so forth. We’ve seen this also in China having a dramatic impact in helping protect people’s lives.
Finally, as part of the initiative, it’s reaching out specifically to the education community to enable better the abilities in terms of remote learning. That is something that will obviously be a hot topic as so many students will be out of school for an open-ended period, so remote learning is going to take on a significant role as we navigate through all the impact that the coronavirus crisis is having.
Shelly Kramer: Yeah, that’s pretty awesome. I just kind of thought that this was such a great opportunity for us to highlight some of the things that these big technology companies that we work alongside all day, every day are doing and really stepping up to make a difference. I have absolutely no doubt we’ll continue to see more of that. These are some really great stories. Thank you guys for bringing those to the fore. Now we’re going to move on to the Fast Five section of our podcast and Sarah is going to tell us a little bit about what’s going on with internet usage.
Sarah Wallace: We actually have some very up-to-date statistics here and it’s not going to be a surprise, right? So there’s been a surge especially this week in internet usage. As students are learning from home and a lot of parents are being told they have to work from home. A company called OpenVault, they actually collect and analyzed household broadband usage data. They found for this week ending in March 20th that the average downstream, so this is a data that’s received, so the average downstream usage per customer in urban areas was 98.3%. That makes sense as students are at home and they’re receiving lessons from their teachers.
Then upstream data, so the data that’s sent over the internet from each computer network climbed about 68%. Then to add to OpenVault statistics, we have that Nielson projects that there’s going to be a 61% increase in U.S. video streaming usage as more people are staying at home. Then Verizon actually did some statistics from this week and said in terms of their data traffic, they saw at a 75% increase in gaming, 34% increase in VPN traffic. That’s mostly people connecting to their work networks. Web traffic itself increase about 20%, video traffic, so that’s our Netflix, Hulu, about 12% and interestingly social media state flat at around 0%.
Shelly Kramer: Always interesting. All right, Ron, bring your Fast Five item to the table because quite honestly I don’t remember what it is.
Ron Westfall: Oh, no worries. It’s about coming up with a surveillance application to obviously track and monitor the coronavirus’ presence at an optimal level. What is intriguing right now is that the U.K. government is looking to use the one that was used specifically in China and that was a Alipay health code app that was an extension of the WeChat application service and it did make a difference in China. In fact, it was also adopted in South Korea.
What it’s going to be different here is with South Korea and U.K. using this application, will it also be able to meet the data privacy mandates that exist in these countries? In China, there is less of a threshold for that. However, in terms of how do we get a better handle on monitoring the virus and doing it without exposing anybody’s information to the broader public and so forth, this application will be a true test case as to how effectively this need can be balanced.
Shelly Kramer: Yeah, I think it’s really interesting and I think that people who live in China are certainly used to not having data privacy be an issue in their lives, but for the rest of us, that really is an interesting topic to watch. For sure.
What I’m going to talk about in my Fast Five is a segue from some of what Sarah mentioned with regard to broadband. The EU commissioner, Thierry Breton, requested yesterday that streaming platforms be mindful of the additional bandwidth demands that are happening as of course Europe, much like the United States faces lockdowns due to coronavirus. People are working from home, kids are home. YouTube, Netflix and Google have agreed to cut back their streaming from high definition as the standard to standard definition as the standard. They’re not having critical problems at this point, but they’re doing this as a measure to say, “You know what? We know we’re going to have all this increased traffic.” Sarah just proved that based on the data points that she showed. “So, let’s take some action now to make sure that we all can operate effectively.”
The reality of it is I was talking with a reporter about this, but the reality of it is we got along with SD viewing for a very long time and we were just fine and then we got used to high definition and how amazing it is. I don’t really think this is like a huge sacrifice that anybody’s asking internet users to make. I think in the big scheme of things it’ll probably be very helpful. Continue to see everybody adapting their behaviors and their lives as a result of what’s going on with a view toward we’re all in this together, so let’s all contribute in ways that we can.
Sarah, you’re also going to talk about your … What’s your next Fast Five topic? Surprise us.
Sarah Wallace: You know Shelly that I like following space tech, right? NASA has temporarily paused, due to the coronavirus, it’s space launch system, an Orion capsule that were to be tested in late April. The whole part of this Artemis mission is to ultimately return the first, or I guess, next American man and woman to the surface of the moon. This was an effort they were doing, but now NASA claims that they’re in Emergency Preparedness Stage Four which means all these people that have been going into the station or near the lunch area and helping to prepare the infrastructure for these tests are now being told to stay at home. I like following space tech in terms of how it’s going to affect the rest of the value chain, the tech industry and obviously, now this has been halted as well. In other areas I’m seeing Virgin Galactic, which is the private space effort with Richard Branson, they haven’t specifically cited coronavirus, but I know they were planning on launching private service this year and they were saying that that seems to be delayed.
Shelly Kramer: Well that kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? Well with that, that wraps up the Fast Five section of our podcast. Now we’re going to move on to the Tech Bites topic that we try to tackle every week. In Tech Bites, what we try to look at is some weird technology thing. Maybe it’s tech gone bad, maybe it’s somebody using tech for evil rather than for good or something that just flat out doesn’t make sense. We were going to talk about Facebook as it relates to Tech Bites. We had a couple of points with regard to Facebook.
The thing that has struck me as slightly ironic is that the other day when I happened to pop over to Facebook, I saw this sort of big sort of, it looked like an ad, but it’s a call to action from Facebook that you know, we want to be your source of all things coronavirus, click here and you’ll be able to get all that information in one place. My first thought was, “You know what Facebook? You are the last company that I trust.”
That doesn’t mean that I don’t spend time on Facebook. I have an incredibly broad network. I have amazingly intelligent friends from all over the world, so Facebook for me is a source of lots of different information. But it’s not coming from Facebook, it’s not being curated by Facebook, it’s not being collected by Facebook, it’s being shared by people that I happen to be connected to. I just thought it was an interesting thing that Facebook asking us to trust them to be a good source of all things. I don’t know how you guys feel. Maybe you trust Facebook more than I do, but yeah, no, not so much. What do you think?
Ron Westfall: I agree. No chance. How quickly events have overtaken the fact that just last summer the FTC fined Facebook $5 billion for violating consumer privacy rights. Also, other organizations such as the EU and EC have also have taken Facebook to task for similar violations. So, there’s a clear pattern here. There’s clear history here and you think, “Oh wow, $5 billion.” I mean that would impact most companies, but for Facebook that was the equivalent of a slap on a wrist. There’s the added issue of, okay, even if they are outsourcing the curation, what are they going to do with the information that’s obviously flowing through their platforms? So, no thanks. I will be taking a pass on whatever Facebook is coming up with in this regard.
Shelly Kramer: Sarah, what do you think?
Sarah Wallace: Yeah, I agree. The one thing we’ll have to keep in mind too is everyone’s Facebook experience is different, right? Because they’re tracking what pages we like, what content we like. Do we tend to like videos versus non-videos. It’s very hard to trust it when we’re all having very unique experiences.
Shelly Kramer: Right. Well and also you know the size of your network too, when you’re not relying just on Facebook for information. One of the reasons that it’s such a valuable source for me is that I have 4,500 Facebook friends. I have a gigantic social footprint across all platforms. What it offers me, I have friends that have very different religious views or political views or business view … I mean, so I have a very big collection of people from all walks of life in all parts of the world. It allows me to kind of be privy to a broad selection that thankfully isn’t from Nextdoor, the neighborhood group that I hate so much.
But one thing I did want to mention Ron, with regard to your comment about being fined and you mentioned contractors, in the news earlier this week, there was a big uproar because all of a sudden people started having the most innocent posts being flagged by Facebook. What happened ultimately was that, at least what they said happened, it was a matter of AI gone wrong.
Facebook had to reduce the human workforce that they were able to employ to moderate content. The AI, again according to Facebook Story, was just starting to flag any single thing that, and sometimes it was related to coronavirus but sometimes it really wasn’t related to coronavirus or I mean there were some of the posts that I had flagged, I had six or seven posts flagged, were really very innocent posts.
Again, Facebook has a problem, some of the same business operational problems that all of us have right now, relying on technology or humans or a combination of both or whatever. But bottom line, I think it’s incredibly difficult to trust Facebook in any sense of the word. I can’t imagine Facebook ever earning my trust. I don’t know that I ever trusted Facebook to begin with, but I really would, that would never happen in a million years.
As we wrap up this discussion, we usually circle back to a crystal ball and we to ask one another what our predictions are. The only thing I can think to ask from the two of you right now is for your common sense gut feeling about what this looks like, what our immediate future looks like. Do you think we’re going to see any semblance of normal operations in 90 days or six months or longer? I’d love to know what you think in terms of what are we in for and I realize also there’s a lot that we don’t know and in the U.S. for sure and the next week to 10 days is going to show us a lot about how we’re able to slow the progression of this, at least as we’re tracking pretty close to what’s happening in Italy at this point. What do you think we’re in for, specific to when we might hope to get a little less crazy, Sarah?
Sarah Wallace: My realistic prediction is I think we’ll be able to actually maybe start interacting socially again, somewhat normally, it’s not going to be until the summertime and I also predict that this is going to come around again, maybe not as severe, but still be an issue in the fall. I think that in the fall we might have to start doing this again and obviously I’m not a medical professional, but that’s just my gut feeling.
Shelly Kramer: Yeah. What do you think Ron?
Ron Westfall: Yeah, that is truly the multi-trillion dollar question since it’s impacting every economy in the world and for the next 90 days, it’s all about flattening the curve, as it’s called, or ensuring that there is minimal contact between those infected and those who are not infected. That will ameliorate the broad health impact of the virus itself.
Six months from now, yes, I think we will have a return to more normal, regular social activities, everything from school attendance, sporting events and so forth. There could very well be pockets in the planet where the coronavirus hasn’t really had an impact yet and hopefully it’ll stay that way, but it could end up sneaking up on the populace.
I guess, the constellation is we’ve seen places like Singapore and Hong Kong, and for that matter finally South Korea, get hit hard and actually do a very effective job at definitely reducing the level of infection and so forth and protecting their society. Hopefully there’ll be object lessons for the rest of the world in looking at what’s happened in those places and why they’ve been so effective and that can shorten these timeframes in terms of getting back to normal.
Shelly Kramer: Yeah, I agree. I think that … I was sitting here counting on my fingers as you were talking and six months is September and I’m thinking about I live in the Midwest and we have very hot, very humid summers and then we move into a regular fall sometime in October and November. To both of your points, I do think it’s very realistic to think we’re a good six months away from really getting back to things that are being any part of what we, any of us call normal. But the tricky thing to your point as well, Sarah, is that then if we move back into this winter season, certainly in the U.S., then does it start all over again and does … We do see some news that heat, maybe the virus doesn’t like heat, but we don’t know that for sure.
All I can say is that what I’ve told my family, my children is that we’re in this for the long haul and I wouldn’t expect a lot of things to go back to normal for a minimum of six months. What I say to them is the same thing that I’ll close this show on and say that we really are all in this together and wherever you are in any part of the world, I mean, this is so serious and that anything any one of us can do to not only keep ourselves as isolated as we can, keep our people as safe as we can, but you know what? This is also a reminder to reach out to your people. I’ve done things in the last couple of days, like I sent a text message to my hairdresser and I said, “How are you doing?” She said, “I’m so scared,” and you know, we’re going to have a virtual happy hour tonight.
My clients, all day long, when I’m talking about business, I start every email and I say, “Before we talk about this, how are you?” I learned that somebody’s college age son is on his way home and she’s very nervous or somebody else … Everybody has a story. I would say that even though we all have our own situations and our own anxiety that we’re dealing with, I think the more that we can reach out and tap our network and the people that we’re connected to, and maybe it’s not just the people that we work with, maybe it’s some of those vendors that we use all the time, I think that a lot of love and a little bit of attention right now can go a long way. Those are my smarmy words of words at closing.
For those of you who are listening, thank you so much for joining us. We love having you and we will see you again next week. Ron and Sarah, thanks for joining us and we’re over and out.
Disclaimer: The Futurum Tech Podcast is for information and entertainment purposes only. Over the course of this podcast, we may talk about companies that are publicly traded and we may even reference that fact and their equity share price, but please do not take anything that we say as a recommendation about what you should do with your investment dollars. We are not investment advisors and we do not ask that you treat us as such.