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As Jeff Bezos steps down, Amazon stakes its future on the cloud

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By Clare Duffy, CNN Business
Updated 2:48 PM ET, Thu February 4, 2021

New York (CNN Business) — In his 2014 annual letter to shareholders, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wrote that a “dreamy business offering” comprises at least four elements: “Customers love it, it can grow to very large size, it has strong returns on capital, and it’s durable in time — with the potential to endure for decades.”

“When you find one of these, don’t just swipe right, get married,” he wrote. Multiple Amazon businesses fit that bill, he added. Seven years later, that’s proven to be true, but perhaps for none more than Amazon Web Services.
AWS started in 2003 as an effort to use technology built to run Amazon’s online store as an alternate revenue stream. It has since become the company’s biggest moneymaker (although consumers may be more familiar with Amazon’s marketplace and its massive distribution network). The service has also become the backbone of much of the internet, providing online infrastructure for everything from Peloton (PMCCF) to the CIA.
In the seven years since Bezos wrote that letter, operating income from AWS has skyrocketed 1,950%, compared with around 715% income growth in Amazon’s other business units combined.
    The growth at AWS occurred under the leadership of Andy Jassy, the 24-year Amazon veteran who helped the company pioneer cloud computing and who has overseen AWS’s ascension to the top of the increasingly competitive cloud market.
    That market is expected to further expand as the pandemic has accelerated a shift by many companies away from the costly and inefficient business of operating their own servers. Jassy told CNN in December that, “virtually every vertical business segment is being reinvented as we speak,” thanks to the cloud.
    And as Bezos prepares to hand over Amazon’s CEO job to Jassy, the company is signaling that the cloud will play a key role in its future.
    While it has been obvious that AWS is Amazon’s future since at least 2015, “this just seals the deal,” said James McQuivey, principal analyst at Forrester.
    “This business grows faster, it scales faster,” McQuivey said. “If you just add it up — yes, a lot of people need to buy things, they need to watch stuff online, they need to ask Alexa what temperature it is outside — but infinitely more people are touched each day by cloud services.”

    The future of AWS

    Jassy was there when Amazon decided to launch AWS as a separate company that served Amazon.com just as it would any external customer.
    “In the beginning, a lot of those same companies would pooh-pooh the cloud and say that nobody was going to use it for anything interesting,” Jassy said in a 2019 CNN documentary on Amazon’s history. Analysts now say AWS is on its way to raking in $50 billion in sales each year.
    And Jassy’s experience growing AWS makes him a good fit to handle the scale of the broader company, experts say.
    “Few people on the planet have the ability to manage the hyper-growth machine that Amazon has been [better] than Andy Jassy,” said Nicholas McQuire, vice president of enterprise research at CCS Insight. “And then of course you layer in the most important thing: the ingrained culture and leadership aspects from inside Amazon, which obviously he displays and has proven himself around.”
    And as the former cloud boss, Jassy is well positioned to understand how to most effectively integrate AWS with Amazon’s other offerings for continued growth, analysts say.
    “He will understand the importance of all the assets, as opposed to, historically, AWS is just this thing on the side that was boring and was a cash cow,” McQuire said.
    Not only is growth in the cloud market accelerating, Amazon now has to defend its outsized market share against increasingly fierce competitors, especially Microsoft (MSFT) Azure. While Amazon Web Services’ year-over-year revenue growth during the three months ended in December accelerated from earlier in the year to 28%, Azure’s revenue grew 50% year-over-year during the fourth quarter.
    Amazon is expected to increase capital expenditures on cloud infrastructure by 11% in 2021, “to reduce the risk that AWS runs out of capacity in light of the strong Cloud demand they’re seeing,” according to Morgan Stanley analyst Katy Huberty.
    “We view this as a major step up in the cloud arms race with crosstown rival Microsoft,” Wedbush analyst Dan Ives said in a note to investors Tuesday. “Jassy is an undisputed cloud titan and has been a key force in getting AWS to the top of the cloud mountaintop over the past decade. That said, we believe the tide is shifting in the cloud arms race as Microsoft … is taking market share vs. AWS.”
    A major question now is who will take over running AWS through its next phase of growth. One possibility is Matt Garman, who was promoted last year to the top sales and marketing role at AWS after working as vice president of the division’s compute services for seven years.
    “He’s very well regarded in the business, understands the technology, particularly the infrastructure side of the business which is core to AWS’s strengths in the market,” McQuire said of Garman.

    Amazon’s future challenges

    As he transitions from leading AWS to running the larger company, Jassy will step into some big shoes — and some big challenges.
    Among them, Jassy has championed one of Amazon’s most controversial products: the facial recognition software, Rekognition.
    Amazon generally doesn’t identify its Rekognition customers, but they have in the past included police departments, according to statements by the company. Amazon said in June that it would stop offering Rekognition to police departments for one year, in the midst of a wave of similar moves by large technology companies as they reckoned with concerns about facial recognition’s potential for inaccuracy and bias.
    Jassy said in a 2019 Frontline interview that the company “never had any reported misuse of law enforcement using the facial recognition technology” and that “simply because the technology could be abused in some way doesn’t mean that you should ban it or condemn it or not use it.” He also said the company would sell the controversial AI application to foreign governments (but added that Amazon would not sell the software to governments that it cannot legally sell to.)
    “It just seems very likely Amazon is now going to double down on their surveillance-based business model,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of digital rights nonprofit Fight for the Future. “He’s sort of saying, ‘Let’s wait and see if something bad happens,’ but if he had been listening he would know that bad things have already happened.”
    Greer added Amazon’s business model is largely is based on surveillance — from its knowledge of what you buy and what you ask Alexa to the data gleaned via Rekognition and its Ring doorbells. “That data is where their power comes from,” she said.
    The leadership transition also comes as Amazon’s workforce has become mobilized around worker safety issues after nearly 20,000 of its front-line US employees got coronavirus as of September 2020. Thousands of Amazon warehouse workers at an Alabama facility are set to vote next month on whether to unionize, potentially paving the way for the company’s first US-based union. Analysts have said a growing push for organized labor could become costly for Amazon.
    The e-commerce giant also faces growing regulatory scrutiny related to the massive size of its business. Bezos appeared before Congress alongside other Big Tech CEOs last summer to testify at an antitrust hearing, where he was grilled on Amazon’s approach to pricing, acquisitions and how it uses data from third-party sellers. And last month, alternative social media platform Parler sued Amazon after being de-platformed alleging, among other things, an antitrust violation.
    Jassy could be just the person to address such concerns because of his experience convincing some of the world’s biggest companies and government agencies to entrust their crucial digital infrastructure to Amazon, CCS Insight’s McQuire said.
      “He understands the importance of trust in the brand,” McQuire said. “He’s willing to kind of pull the veil up a little bit on how Amazon operates that the wider public doesn’t know, for example, how they treat Amazon.com as a customer … That importance of trust, he understands that from the big deals he’s done.”
      –CNN Business’ Rachel Metz contributed to this report

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      Lyft focuses on seniors with new option to book rides by phone call

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      By Sara O’Brien, CNN Business
      Updated 12:50 PM ET, Wed February 24, 2021

      (CNN Business) — Lyft is adding an option to allow people to order a ride in a more retro way — by phone call — a year after Uber tried doing the same before shutting it down.

      The ride-hail company said Wednesday it launched a special service in dozens of Florida cities to allow people to call a number (631-201-LYFT) with a cell phone to book a car on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. It’s geared towards seniors and those without access to its app. Once a ride is booked, Lyft (LYFT) said it will communicate updates via text message.
      The service, which Lyft said it piloted in late 2020 in Miami before expanding to more Florida cities, is similar to one Uber announced last February. Uber’s service was only available in select markets — Arizona, Florida and New York City — for rides or meal deliveries, but by the end of 2020, the company paused the program.
      An Uber (UBER) spokesperson told CNN Business Wednesday that there was declining use of the service, with only a few hundred people a month using it. Uber’s service also allowed users to order food delivery. (Those who call the Uber hotline now are told they can request rides from the mobile site or app.)
        Sam Bond, regional director for Lyft in the Southeast, said in a statement that the company looks forward to “helping seniors access transportation to essential services and resources that may be currently out of reach without a car.”
        The company didn’t directly address why it believes the program will succeed where Uber’s stalled, only reiterated that it is dedicated to serving vulnerable and underserved communities.
          On an earnings call earlier this month, Lyft president John Zimmer said the pandemic “has amplified transportation and security, especially for seniors and vulnerable communities. We are committed to ensuring that transportation access is not a barrier to beating this virus.”
          At the end of 2020, the company announced a vaccine access program with a goal to provide 60 million rides to and from vaccination sites alongside JPMorgan Chase, Anthem Inc. and United Way.

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          Facebook will restore news in Australia after talks with the government

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          By Michelle Toh and Chandler Thornton, CNN Business
          Updated 11:08 PM ET, Tue February 23, 2021

          Hong Kong (CNN Business) — Facebook will restore news pages in Australia after the government agreed on changes to a planned media code that the company said would allow it to retain greater control over what appears on its platform.

          The announcement caps months of bitter dispute between the American tech firm and Canberra, which had been working on legislation that would force tech platforms to pay publishers for news content.
          The initial version of the legislation would have allowed media outlets to bargain either individually or collectively with Facebook and Google (GOOGL) — and to enter binding arbitration if the parties couldn’t reach an agreement.
          On Tuesday, the Australian government said it would amend the code to include a provision that “must take into account whether a digital platform has made a significant contribution to the sustainability of the Australian news industry through reaching commercial agreements with news media businesses.”
            Arbitration, meanwhile, will now only be used as a “last resort” following a period of “good faith” mediation.
            Facebook’s decision to restore news came as the Australian Senate discussed the latest iteration of the media law.
            “It’s always been our intention to support journalism in Australia and around the world, and we’ll continue to invest in news globally, and resist efforts by media conglomerates to advance regulatory frameworks that do not take account of the true value exchange between publishers and platforms like Facebook,” Brown said.
            Google, meanwhile, had already been trying to get ahead of the new legislation by announcing partnerships with some of the country’s largest media organizations, including Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (NWS) and Seven West Media. Facebook revealed its own deal with Seven on Tuesday.
              Asked about Google’s partnerships last week, Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg alluded to the changes that were ultimately announced Tuesday. He said that “if commercial deals are in place, then it changes the equation.”
              — Kerry Flynn contributed to this report.

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              The worldwide web as we know it may be ending

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              By Rishi Iyengar, CNN Business
              Updated 12:00 PM ET, Tue February 23, 2021

              (CNN Business) — Over the last year, the worldwide web has started to look less worldwide.

              Europe is floating regulation that could impose temporary bans on US tech companies that violate its laws. The United States was on the verge of banning TikTok and WeChat, though the new Biden administration is rethinking that move. India, which did ban those two apps as well of dozens of others, is now at loggerheads with Twitter.
              And this month, Facebook (FB) clashed with the Australian government over a proposed law that would require it to pay publishers. The company briefly decided to prevent users from sharing news links in the country in response to the law, with the potential to drastically change how its platform functions from one country to the next. Then on Tuesday, it reached a deal with the government and agreed to restore news pages. The deal partially relaxed arbitration requirements that Facebook took issue with.
              In its announcement of the deal, however, Facebook hinted at the possibility of similar clashes in the future. “We’ll continue to invest in news globally and resist efforts by media conglomerates to advance regulatory frameworks that do not take account of the true value exchange between publishers and platforms like Facebook,” Campbell Brown, VP of global news partnerships at Facebook, said in a statement Tuesday.
                But if such territorial agreements become more common, the globally-connected internet we know will become more like what some have dubbed the “splinternet,” or a collection of different internets whose limits are determined by national or regional borders.
                The stakes will only get higher if more governments jump on the bandwagon.
                “It’s kind of a game of chicken,” said Sinan Aral, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Business and author of “The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy and Our Health.”
                Aral says companies such as Facebook and Google will encounter a slippery slope if they start to exit every market that asks them to pay for its news, which would “severely limit” the content they can serve their global user base.
                “They have a vested interest in trying to force any one market to not impose such regulations by threatening to pull out,” he said. “The other side is basically saying: ‘If you don’t pay for the content, you’re not going to have access to our market of consumers or the content in this market.'”

                As the internet fractures, global regulators coalesce

                A fight over news in Australia is a relatively small part of the clash between tech and governments, which has largely been focused on issues such as censorship, privacy and competition. But the response to Facebook’s move in Australia has shown that a more international effort to rein in Big Tech may be gathering momentum — and with it, the potential for additional fracturing of how internet services function from one country to the next.
                As his government faced off against Facebook last week, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued a warning to the social media giant: what you do here may come back to hurt you in other countries.
                “These actions will only confirm the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behavior of Big Tech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them,” he said in a Facebook post. “They may be changing the world, but that doesn’t mean they run it.”
                On Tuesday, Morrison said Facebook’s decision to restore news was “welcome,” adding that the government remained committed to proceeding with its legislation to ensure “Australian journalists and news organisations are fairly compensated for the original content they produce.”
                Several other countries, including the United Kingdom and Canada are now considering similar legislation against social media companies — and many of those countries are talking to each other about how best to do that.
                “It would be extremely useful if governments would come together in some kind of transnational process and come up with a treaty or some kind of standard about who gets to reach out and affect content and information outside their national territory,” Keller said, “because that’s what a lot of them are trying to do, but they haven’t, and so as a result you get this very fragmented patchwork.”
                  If that increased fragmentation is allowed to reach its natural conclusion, however, the consequences could be dire.
                  “If the eventual outcome of that is that we have social media platforms in every major country or market that are separate, then what we will have is an information ecosystem that is completely bifurcated or splintered across the globe,” Aral said. “What that portends is a citizenry that has completely different sets of information about local events, about world events, and perhaps a very splintered worldview of reality.”

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                  Former WeWork CEO in talks to get nearly $500 million in SoftBank settlement

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                  By Sara Ashley O’Brien, CNN Business
                  Updated 2:29 PM ET, Tue February 23, 2021

                  (CNN Business) — Adam Neumann, the disgraced former CEO and cofounder of WeWork, may soon have a massive payday as part of a possible settlement with SoftBank, the company’s largest investor, but the amount under discussion is far less than the golden parachute originally offered.

                  Neumann, who stepped down in late 2019 after a disastrous attempt to take WeWork public, could be eligible to sell nearly $500 million worth of his shares to SoftBank as part of a $1.5 billion stock buyback program for early WeWork employees and investors, according to a source familiar with the matter. The deal is not yet finalized.
                  The deal is part of a settlement under discussion to resolve a long-simmering legal dispute between Neumann, WeWork and SoftBank after the Japanese conglomerate walked away from a $3 billion WeWork share purchase agreement.
                  The terms of a possible settlement were first reported by the Wall Street Journal. A second source familiar with the matter told CNN Business that the deal is close to being finalized but could still fall through.
                    WeWork, SoftBank, and a representative for Neumann declined to comment.
                    The settlement is half of what was previously on the table when SoftBank agreed to bail out the co-working company after a period of turmoil. As part of the deal in fall of 2019, Neumann departed and had the chance to sell back nearly $1 billion of his shares — an opportunity that infuriated some workers.
                    Under Neumann’s leadership, WeWork raised billions of dollars, scaled its coworking operations to hundreds of cities around the world, and was valued at an eye-popping $47 billion during one investment round. But the company also failed spectacularly in its attempt to go public in large part because IPO paperwork revealed his unchecked power and numerous potential conflicts of interest, as well as WeWork’s staggering losses.
                      In April 2020, SoftBank abandoned plans to buy $3 billion in WeWork stock from Neumann and others, citing certain conditions of the deal that hadn’t been met, including the existence of pending criminal and civil investigations into the company, global restrictions related to the coronavirus, and the failure to restructure a joint venture in China. In response, Neumann and a special committee of WeWork’s board brought lawsuits.
                      News of a possible deal comes as SoftBank and WeWork attempt to turn the page on the Neumann chapter of the company. As the Journal reported, WeWork is in talks about a potential deal to merge with a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, to fulfill its ambitions of becoming a public company at long last.

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                      The hot new thing in tech: speaking into your phone

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                      By Kaya Yurieff and Rishi Iyengar, CNN Business
                      Updated 9:03 AM ET, Wed February 24, 2021

                      (CNN Business) — Before last year, 28-year-old Meredith Giuliani thought voice notes were “kind of weird,” and she mostly stuck to texting. But after the pandemic hit, audio messages became a daily routine for her and many of her friends.

                      “This is my way to debrief and tell everybody what’s going on,” she told CNN Business. “It’s not like it used to be where I would wait until I was going to see my friends over the course of the next week for drinks or for brunch.”
                      For years, Apple and others have offered the option to record short messages and send them via text and chat apps. But the format has gained new appeal for many in the United States during the pandemic as we approach a year of limited opportunities to socialize with friends, family and coworkers.
                      Romina Hyskaj, a 23-year-old recruiter who lives in New York City, uses them mainly to keep in touch with her parents who live six hours away, noting that “it can get your tone, attitude, or joke across.” Nick Hofstadter, a 38-year-old luxury travel adviser in Los Angeles, sends voice notes to a handful of close friends, mostly to tell funny stories with a more “dramatic effect” and to avoid sending long text messages. (He prefers using voice notes on iMessage over Instagram so he can listen to it before sending.)
                        And it’s not just voice messages. Voice is having a moment — and the tech industry is taking notice.
                        Hall said an added part of the appeal — beyond conveying more emotional nuance — is how easy voice notes are to record, store and replay.
                        “Back when we had answering machines, people used to save important messages, particularly from loved ones, sometimes for as long as the machine had space and power to store those messages,” he said. “People don’t use voicemail in the same manner, partly because the phone is not the easiest way to leave a message for another person — that would be a text.”
                          Prior to the pandemic, Giuliani said there were many friends she didn’t talk to daily. Voice notes have changed that.
                          “It’s kept some of my friends and I really close together,” she said. “We send over voice notes and we’re chatting every single day, way more than we ever did before the pandemic.” She added: “I can’t believe that we didn’t before.”

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