It was a big week, with the tech industry still trying to come to grips with the COVID-19 epidemic and its impact on the economy. Yelp laid off some folks, GitHub made its core products free to all, and banks are scrambling to hire technologists—and those were just a few of the headlines. Let’s take a look at what else happened this week…
Opendoor, the seven-year-old startup that tried to automate and streamline home-buying, is laying off 35 percent of its employees due to COVID-19. The company makes what it insists are “competitive” offers for houses, then attempts to sell those properties via its own marketplace. It’s an expensive business model (a corporate blog post claimed that Opendoor had bought and sold “thousands” of homes last year) fueled by more than $1.3 billion in equity investment.
In a statement to TechCrunch, Opendoor co-founder and CEO Eric Wu said that his firm has “seen declines in the number of people buying, selling, and moving during this time of uncertainty” and the layoffs are “necessary to ensure that we can continue to deliver on our mission and build the experience consumers deserve.” But long before the pandemic, Opendoor was laying off and shifting around employees, in addition to executive turnover; if anything, COVID-19 may have just exacerbated the existing turmoil.
The Opendoor layoffs also highlight a peculiarity of the tech industry as it faces fallout from COVID-19: Although tech-related hiring in many cities remains strong, and there’s clearly a need for all kinds of cloud, cybersecurity, and infrastructure skills, some tech firms with a business model firmly planted in “real world” assets (i.e., houses, brick-and-mortar stores) are more vulnerable to the downturn in the market. For example, Yelp has also furloughed and laid off employees in order to get through the current difficulties.
Opendoor’s troubles also aren’t good for Softbank, one of its big investors, which is also facing significant losses due to the WeWork boondoggle.
Apple iPhone SE
It’s not exactly a good time to launch a new tech product, but Apple must have decided it was now or never for the next-generation iPhone SE, its smaller smartphone. The new device, billed as the most affordable iPhone in the lineup (starting at $399), features a 4.7-inch display, A13 processor, upgraded camera, and a compact body.
If you want a solid breakdown of how the iPhone SE fits into the broader Apple ecosystem, Daring Fireball has dedicated a couple thousand words to just that sort of exploration: “For all of you who were holding out hope that the rumor mill was wrong and the new SE would be the size of the old one, I feel for you. But it is what it is, and the SE never really was about being tiny.”
With national lockdowns due to COVID-19, and widespread cancelations of big events, it will be interesting to see how Apple launches the latest iteration of its flagship iPhones a little later in the year (if it keeps to the same schedule, that is). Under normal circumstances, Apple likes to unveil the new iPhones with a huge, live event, followed by a flashy in-store rollout. No doubt the company is closely examining how the “virtual” rollout for the iPhone SE goes, and recalibrating its future launch plans accordingly.
Apple and Google: Coronavirus Trackers?
Speaking of Apple and iPhones, the company is reportedly pairing with Google on a way to track people who’ve potentially come into contact with those infected with COVID-19—via their mobile devices. Specifically, the two companies are figuring out how to use the Bluetooth capabilities on iPhones and Android devices to “contact trace”—that is, track who’s come into contact with who, and when.
There are a lot of unanswered questions about this, though. For example, when will the companies unleash this initiative? Will it take the form of a standalone app that people download, or end up baked into an OS update? How will that personal data end up stored, shared, and used? The Verge has taken a stab at some of these questions, but it remains to be seen how any of this will play out.
Have a great weekend, everyone! Keep washing those hands!