Start Up No.1303: NHS considers pivot to Apple-Google API, Uber cuts 14% of staff, Magic Leap on the edge, the shape of business post-Covid, and more

This person hooked his smart doorlock up to a Wink Hub in 2014. Now the company wants $5 a month, or the hub dies. CC-licensed photo by Marcus Kwan on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

NHS tracing app in question as experts assess Google-Apple model • Financial Times

Tim Bradshaw, Sarah Neville and Helen Warrell:


The UK’s decision to go it alone has been criticised by privacy campaigners and technologists, who say the app will be less effective than incorporating Apple and Google’s software, while also gathering too much personal information in a central database. It has also raised concerns about whether the UK app will be compatible with those under development by other countries which are using the Apple and Google model. If not, this could present barriers for Britons travelling abroad in the future.

Contract documents obtained by Tussell, a data provider on UK government contracts and expenditure, and shared with the Financial Times, show that the London office of Zuhlke Engineering, a Switzerland-based IT development firm, has been awarded a new multimillion pound contract by NHSX, the state-funded health service’s digital innovation arm. The six-month contract to develop and support the Covid-19 contact tracing app is worth £3.8m and was due to begin on Wednesday, the documents show. 

The contract includes a requirement to “investigate the complexity, performance and feasibility of implementing native Apple and Google contact tracing APIs [application programming interfaces] within the existing proximity mobile application and platform”. The work is described as a “two week timeboxed technical spike”, suggesting it is still at a preliminary phase, but with a deadline of mid-May. An application programming interface is the means by which software developers access certain functions of a device’s operating system.

…Downing Street has been tracking developments in Australia, which like the UK has developed its own contact-tracing app without Apple and Google software, but has now run into technical difficulties. One person close to the NHS development process said British officials had been concerned when Germany, which had also been developing its own app, suddenly reverted to the Apple and Google-assisted model last month, leaving Britain more of an outlier within Europe.


Germany hasn’t put a foot wrong through the whole crisis, so maybe Downing Street might want to catch a clue on this one, at least.

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Introducing Wink Subscription • Wink Blog

Somebody Who Understandably Doesn’t Want To Put Their Name To This:


Wink has taken many steps in an effort to keep your Hub’s blue light on, however, long term costs and recent economic events have caused additional strain on our business. Unlike companies that sell user data to offset costs associated with offering free services, we do not. Data privacy is one of Wink’s core values, and we believe that user data should never be sold for marketing or any purpose.

We have a lot of great ideas on how to expand on Wink’s capabilities and satisfy the many requests from our user base. In order to provide for development and continued growth, we are transitioning to a $4.99 monthly subscription, starting on May 13, 2020. This fee is designed to be as modest as possible. Your support will enable us to continue providing you with the functionality that you’ve come to rely on, and focus on accelerating new integrations and app features.

Should you choose not to sign up for a subscription you will no longer be able to access your Wink devices from the app, with voice control or through the API, and your automations will be disabled on May 13. Your device connections, settings and automations can be reactivated if you decide to subscribe at a later date.


So basically they sold them at too low a price, and now they’re holding a gun to folks’ heads to pay up. (Also, what are “long term costs”?) An absolutely disastrous tactic. Five years old and linked to “more than 4 million connected devices”: that suggests, what, 1-2 million hubs? Given the short deadline, it looks more like an attempt to say “oh well we tried” when some miniscule number of people (10,000?) sign up, and it has to declare bankruptcy, as it did in 2015. Apparently it was bought from Flextronics in July 2017 by’s company.

I think though that two things will happen: lots of people will migrate away; and some hackers will try to create an open source version that can be installed instead. If Wink doesn’t reverse this decision, it’s dead. But possibly it’s dead if it does too.
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Magic Leap in talks to raise money from ‘major health care company,’ CEO tells staff • The Information

Alex Heath:


The deal is in due diligence, the emails said, and could still fall apart. The potential health care investor would use the headsets in surgical procedures and training, [Magic Leap founder and CEO Rony] Abovitz said in a recent memo to employees seen by The Information. Abovitz’s previous company, which made technology for use in surgeries, sold for $1.65bn in 2013.

The funding talks, which Abovitz disclosed last week to employees, follow the company’s decision to lay off roughly 1,000 employees and abandon its plan to sell its headsets to consumers. Remaining Magic Leap employees have been told that if the company is “unable to obtain financing or realize an alternative corporate option” by June 21, they, too, would be let go. Abovitz also recently told employees that the company would postpone a plan to pay their 2019 bonuses over monthly installments.


So Magic Leap has six weeks, or it’s toast. (Noticing any trends lately?)

Though the potential for surgical training sound good, there would be a ton more investment needed to turn that into a real product: what are you trying to train people to do, how do you create the scenarios and objects, and so on. And it always runs up against the question: haven’t we been doing this more cheaply and just as effectively for ages?
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Uber layoffs: 3,700 employees, or 14% of workforce due to coronavirus • CNBC

Lauren Feiner:


Uber said Wednesday it will lay off 3,700 employees and that CEO Dara Khosrowshahi will forgo his base salary for the rest of the year.

The layoffs to its customer support and recruiting teams represent about 14% of its 26,900 employees, based on Uber’s most recent headcount.

Khosrowshahi made $1m in base salary in 2019 but gained the vast majority of his compensation from bonuses and stock awards.

The moves were announced in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Uber’s stock was down more than 2% Wednesday.

Uber has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, which has crushed the travel industry because of lockdowns to stop the spread of the virus. Uber’s global gross bookings are down 80%, according to a report from The Information last month. Investors will get a greater sense of the impact on Thursday when Uber reports earnings.

Khosrowshahi hinted in a memo to employees Wednesday that more cost cuts are on the way.


AirBnB, now Uber. Who’s next? (Also, that’s quite a base salary, isn’t it?)
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COVID and cascading collapses • Benedict Evans


We are having a similar kind of external shock to the one that reset the print ad market in 2008/9, and a lot of new services and infrastructure have built up penetration and capability that is not perhaps captured by gravity. And now we’re all forced to try to use all of them. A bunch of industries look like candidates to get a decade of inevitability in a week.

The really obvious one is retail. Everything that the internet did to print media is happening to retail – a lot of retailers, like newspapers or magazines, are fixed-cost bundles that are now being unbundled, and are defended by barriers to entry that are now meaningless. Hence we’ve been talking about the ‘retail apocalypse’ for a year or two now, as the internet reached a level of penetration that made those fixed costs unsustainable and consumer behaviour peeled off more and more of the bundle. This is a ‘boiling the frog’ chart – you can’t see the collapse yet, but…

We all know that this next chart will not look good this year (and it will show a lot of human suffering), but the real question is whether in 5 years it looks like the print advertising chart we began with – except that this will affect 10% of the work force. Is today’s step down followed by a step back up?


America, as he points out, is particularly overserved for retail space. Not a good time to own an American mall, or stocks in a company that owns an American mall.
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Will we shrug off coronavirus deaths as we do gun violence? • The New York Times

Charlie Warzel:


The coronavirus scenario I can’t stop thinking about is the one where we simply get used to all the dying.

I first saw it on Twitter. “Someone poke holes in this scenario,” a tweet from Eric Nelson, the editorial director of Broadside Books, read. “We keep losing 1,000 to 2,000 a day to coronavirus. People get used to it. We get less vigilant as it very slowly spreads. By December we’re close to normal, but still losing 1,500 a day, and as we tick past 300,000 dead, most people aren’t concerned.”

This hit me like a ton of bricks because of just how plausible it seemed. The day I read Mr. Nelson’s tweet, 1,723 Americans were reported to have died from the virus. And yet their collective passing was hardly mourned. After all, how to distinguish those souls from the 2,097 who perished the day before or the 1,558 who died the day after?

Such loss of life is hard to comprehend when it’s not happening in front of your own two eyes. Add to it that humans are adaptable creatures, no matter how nightmarish the scenario, and it seems understandable that our outrage would dull over time. Unsure how — or perhaps unable — to process tragedy at scale, we get used to it.

There’s also a national precedent for Mr. Nelson’s hypothetical: America’s response to gun violence and school shootings.


As he points out, Americans fail to impose the view of the majority on the minority in so many instances, especially around guns (you could ban AR-15s, you know) and public health. It’s a country in thrall to extremists.
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Ousted vaccine director files whistleblower complaint alleging coronavirus warnings were ignored • CNN Politics

Kaitlan Collins, Jeremy Diamond and Kevin Liptak:


Dr. Rick Bright, the ousted director of the office involved in developing a coronavirus vaccine, formally filed an extensive whistleblower complaint Tuesday alleging his early warnings about the coronavirus were ignored and that his caution at a treatment favored by President Donald Trump led to his removal.

“I was pressured to let politics and cronyism drive decisions over the opinions of the best scientists we have in government,” Bright said on a call with reporters after filing his complaint.

Bright said in the complaint he raised urgent concerns about shortages of critical supplies, including masks, to his superiors in the Trump administration but was met with skepticism and surprise.

While Bright said some officials shared his concerns – including top White House trade adviser Peter Navarro – he describes an overall lack of action at the top of the administration even as the virus was spreading outside of China.

Bright had led the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority since 2016 when he was reassigned last month to a narrower position at the National Institutes of Health.

An attorney for Bright told reporters on Tuesday he was scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill next week. Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo of California, the chairwoman of the House’s Health Subcommittee, told CNN last month she planned to call in Bright to testify before her panel as she reviews the circumstances of his removal.
In his whistleblower complaint, Bright says he raised concerns about US preparedness for coronavirus starting in January but was met with “indifference which then developed into hostility” by leaders at the Department of Health and Human Services.


Should make for a fun hearing.
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What is the value of exposure when exposure is all there is? • Music Industry Blog

Mark Mulligan:


Streaming has been the change agent that turned around 15 years of decline. But it also completely reframed artist income from recorded music. In the old sales model artists would get a large sum of money in a relatively short period of time. Streaming income is more like an annuity, a longer-term return where the music keeps paying long after release. In the old model artists had smaller but high-spending audiences. With streaming they have larger but lower-value audiences.

For example, a recouped independent artist might expect to earn $4,500 for selling 1,500 copies of an album. That is roughly how much an artist would get from 5,000 people streaming the album 20 times each. The average revenue per user (ARPU) has gone from $3.00 to $0.90 for streaming. The artist has traded ARPU for reach.

This model worked fine when live and merch were booming because more than three times as many monetised fans meant three times more opportunity for selling tickets and t-shirts. This of course is the ‘exposure’ argument streaming services are fond of, which works until it does not. Now that live and merch have collapsed, as the trope goes ‘exposure does not pay the rent’. The previously interconnected, interdependent model has become decoupled.

Put simply, artist streaming economics do not work without live.


The solution doesn’t lie in changing royalty structures (because that would wreck the streaming companies; they go bust or give up). See if you can figure out what the solution is.
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SARS-CoV-2 has not mutated into different types, new research confirms • University of Glasgow


Recent research had suggested that more than one type of SARS-CoV-2 was now circulating in the pandemic, with one strain being more aggressive and causing more serious illness than the other. Now, using analysis of SARS-CoV-2 virus samples from the pandemic, scientists have been able to show that only one type of the virus is currently circulating. Their research is published in the journal Virus Evolution.

Viruses, including the one causing COVID-19, naturally accumulate mutations – or changes – in their genetic sequence as they spread through populations. However, most of these changes will have no effect on the virus biology or the aggressiveness of the disease they cause.

Earlier this year, it was reported that scientists had found two or three strains of SARS-CoV-2 circulating in the population, evidenced by certain mutations that had been detected. However, thanks to extensive analysis of the virus genomes annotated by the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research’s CoV-GLUE resource, scientists at the University of Glasgow have demonstrated that these detected mutations are unlikely to have any functional significance, and importantly, don’t represent different virus types.

CoV-GLUE tracks SARS-CoV-2’s amino acid replacements, insertions and deletions, which have been observed in samples from the pandemic. To date the database has catalogued 7,237 mutations in the pandemic. While this may sound like a lot of change, scientists confirm that it is a relatively low rate of evolution for an RNA virus, and they expect more mutations will continue to accumulate as the pandemic continues.


This is the thing that I didn’t write about yesterday, because there was doubt about its accuracy. Didn’t stop a ton of much bigger sites writing it with huge certainty that OMG VIRUS EVIL CALAMITY. In science like this, it does pay to hold off sometimes.
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Michigan security guard killed in mask dispute; suspect said he ‘disrespected’ them • NBC News

Ben Kesslen and Corky Siemaszko:


Three people were charged Monday with killing a Michigan store security guard who they say “disrespected” a relative by insisting that she don a mask to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Two of the suspects, Ramonyea Bishop, 23, and Larry Teague, 44, were still being sought, Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton said.

The third suspect, Sharmel Teague, 45, has been arrested, Leyton said.

All are charged with first-degree murder in Friday’s shooting of Calvin Munerlyn, 43, a father of eight, at a Family Dollar store in the city of Flint.

“From all indications, Mr. Munerlyn was simply doing his job in upholding the governor’s executive order related to the COVID-19 pandemic for the safety of store employees and customers,” Leyton said in a press release.


Following up from Monday.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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