The pandemic will curb office space, one tech investor says
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Egon Durban, the co-CEO of tech-focused private-equity firm Silver Lake, has made memorable appearances at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen over the years. I interviewed him on Thursday over Zoom for a Brainstorm Tech virtual audience. He talked about playing the long game, which makes sense. He has no choice but to do so for ailing entertainment and live-events investments such as AMC movie theaters and the Endeavor talent empire. He also has the long game in mind for two massive travel investments for which his firm got in at Buffett-like markdowns: Airbnb and Expedia.
Some key takeaways: (Huge thanks to Lucinda Shen, who generously shared her notes with me, since I was busy. See Term Sheet’s take on the talk.)
- The 40-some companies in Silver Lake’s portfolio have debt equal to about 2.4 times their earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization, a low figure for private-equity-owned businesses. Those companies bought 70 companies last year.
- Durban professes no special read on when travel will come back beyond that it will come back. Ditto entertainment. It’s good to be an investor who sits above all the rest, particularly lowly common shareholders.
- Durban himself isn’t a big “butt-to-seat person”—people who work with me know I can relate—so he isn’t overly bullish on a recovery in commercial real estate. Like other people I’ve spoken to recently who are blessed with good health and better jobs, he’s busier than ever.
- The investor started tweeting shortly after Silver Lake invested in Twitter—and then stopped a few weeks ago. (Tweeting and big-dollar-value investments don’t necessarily go hand in hand.)
- A metrics-driven guy, Durban ended our chat with a great one: He has had dinner with his family for 43 consecutive nights, surely a record.
Speaking of companies that have been hammered by the slowdown in entertainment, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, whose company owns WarnerMedia, had a great line in an earnings call, as reported in The Wall Street Journal: “We bring in the smartest and the most genius economists in the world, and you can bring a dozen of them in, and the range of possible outcomes just for the second quarter of 2020 is unbelievably wide.”
This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.
The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding. Grocery-delivery service Instacart plans to hire another 250,000 workers to help meet soaring demand. It added 300,000 people last month. At the other end of the spectrum, Google is freezing hiring in its marketing department as it plans to slash that unit's budget by 50%.
In all of the directions it can whizz. The long slog for Apple to transition its computers off of Intel chips could finally reach consumers in 2021, Bloomberg reports. The new in-house chips are faster versions of the processors used in iPhones and are codenamed Kalamata.
As fast as it can go, at the speed of light, you know. True to his word, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan's team is rolling out an update to the popular video conferencing software that focuses on improving security features. The 5.0 update, coming soon to a computer near you, includes enabling passwords by default and giving even basic and free education accounts access to the waiting-room feature to keep would-be Zoombombers out of chats. Zoom is up to 300 million daily users now, Yuan says, from 10 million a day before the pandemic.
That's the fastest speed there is. The latest D.C. problem for Amazon comes from the House Judiciary Committee. After the Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon was using data from third-party sellers to guide its decisions about making private-label products, committee chair Jerrold Nadler says the tech company may have misled Congress. But how about Facebook? The social network on Thursday removed the interest category "pseudoscience" that advertisers could target after it came to light last week. Maybe Congress could look into that one?
When you're feeling very small and insecure. Better news in D.C. came from the Federal Communications Commission, which adopted a final rule freeing the entire 6 GHz band for Wi-Fi. That about quadruples the bandwidth available for all of us to use, and new compatible gear could hit the market by the end of the year. Bottom line: Don't buy a new Wi-Fi router right now. In other cool communications news, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says his Starlink broadband-from-space service will be ready for public beta testing in about six months. Where do I sign up?
How amazingly unlikely is your birth. On Wall Street, Intel beat first-quarter expectations, but after a strong stock run and growing concerns about the rest of the year, still saw its stock price sag. Sales jumped 23% to almost $20 billion, led by massive growth in its datacenter business, but the company also withdrew its financial guidance for the year due to the coronavirus. Intel's stock, up 29% over the past month, dropped 5% in pre-market trading on Friday. Verizon's revenue fell 2% to almost $32 billion. Its shares, up 11% over the past month, were about unchanged in pre-market trading.
(Headline reference explainer video, courtesy of the great Monty Python's Flying Circus.)
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
It's been on the drawing board since 1988, but the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, known as ITER, is finally just a few years away from actually starting up. The 25,000-ton machine will be used to mimic the fusion reaction inside stars and eventually create pollution-free energy. Laura Mallonee reports for Wired on how it will work.
To get the atoms whipping around the inner chamber of the Russian-nesting-doll-like machine, a magnet will drive 15 million amperes of electricity through them. They'll also be zapped by 24 microwave generators and three semitruck-sized particle guns, until they reach 270 million degrees F and, avec optimisme, crash into each other, releasing heaps of energy. There's no guarantee ITER will achieve fusion by 2035, as scheduled. But Edward Morse, who teaches nuclear engineering at UC Berkeley, says it's the “only viable” hope we have to secure the energy we'll need over the next millennia: “It's Rosemary's baby. We have to pray for Rosemary's baby.” And if it fails? As Eddington wrote, if man “is not yet destined to reach the sun and solve for all time the riddle of its constitution, yet he may hope to learn from his journey some hints to build a better machine.”
FOR YOUR WEEKEND READING PLEASURE
A few long reads that I came across this week:
After 20 years of long-distance competition, I ran my fastest. All it took was tech, training, and a new understanding of my life.
For pioneering computer scientist Donald Knuth, good coding is synonymous with beautiful expression.
To spend an afternoon with Neri Oxman is to find yourself on a sort of acid trip.
Fiona Apple’s Art of Radical Sensitivity (New Yorker)
For years, the elusive singer-songwriter has been working, at home, on an album with a strikingly raw and percussive sound. But is she prepared to release it into the world?
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Apple Music is now available on Samsung Smart TVs. Here’s how to get it By Jonathan Vanian
Bill Gates explains how to beat the coronavirus pandemic By Clifton Leaf
4 ways to prepare your career to recover from coronavirus By Anne Fisher
Why Universal beat Warner Bros. for the Lego movie franchise** By Aric Jenkins
(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. There is a 50% discount for our loyal readers if you use this link to sign up. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)
BEFORE YOU GO
My wife and I are not super-fans of Amy Poehler's sitcom Parks and Recreation, but we're outnumbered by those in our house under the age of 22 who absolutely love it. So I'm sure we'll all be tuning in to NBC on April 30 at 8:30 p.m. when Poehler gets the gang back together for a special new episode dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. Meanwhile, try to remember what's important in life: friends, work, and waffles.