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Can Apple Take the Metaverse Mainstream?



Can Apple Take the Metaverse Mainstream?

It’s here (or it will be “early next year”): Apple unveiled its long-awaited entry into virtual reality, or what the tech giant calls “spatial computing,” in the form of the Apple Vision Pro, a $3,500 device that looks like exquisitely designed futuristic ski goggles.

The initial reviews were mixed and skeptics questioned whether even Apple could make virtual reality anything more than a niche technology. But boosters say that if any company can make it mainstream, it’s Apple with its ecosystem of two billion iPhone, iPad and Mac users.

“We believe Apple Vision Pro is a revolutionary product,” Tim Cook told developers and journalists on Monday. It certainly looks like an Apple product: Unlike other virtual reality headsets, an external display shows your eyes to others, and the device is controlled using hand gestures, eye movements and your voice. A dial allows you to adjust how immersed you want to be in the virtual world, which is beamed to your eyeballs via two tiny 4K screens.

Yet what Apple demonstrated on Monday were mostly immersive versions of apps like FaceTime and Safari, as well as 3-D photos and video, rather than a wholly VR experience. Here’s what early testers had to say:

  • “At the end of the demo, I took off the headset and felt two things: 1) Wow. Very cool. 2) Did I just do drugs?” wrote Joanna Stern of The Wall Street Journal.

  • The device’s eye-tracking “is the closest thing I’ve seen to magic,” said the tech reviewer Marques Brownlee.

  • “The most perfect headset demo reel of all time is still just a headset demo reel,” wrote Nilay Patel of The Verge.

These are tough times for virtual reality. Enthusiasm for virtual worlds, often called the metaverse, rose during the pandemic, but waned as lockdowns eased. Investors also appear to have moved onto shinier new technologies like artificial intelligence: Metaverse-related start-ups raised about $664 million in the first five months of 2023, down 77 percent year on year, according to PitchBook.


But Apple has supercharged new product categories before. Remember that the market for portable digital music players was just 3.3 million units in 2000 before Apple released the iPod; four years later, it surged to 26.4 million.

And Apple is often content to play the long game: “They know this is an evolution that’s going to take some time,” Jeff Fieldhack of Counterpoint Research told The New York Times. (Then again, not all Apple products turn out to be hits.)

Others may profit from riding Apple’s coattails. Shares in the game developer Unity jumped 17 percent on Monday on the news, while those in Disney shot up after the media giant said its Disney+ service would be available on the Vision Pro.

Even Meta, which has invested — and lost — billions in trying to make the metaverse go mainstream, may benefit: Could its lower-cost Quest Pro, whose newest version will start at $500, end up becoming the Android to the Vision Pro’s iPhone?

Sequoia will break itself into three. The venture capital firm said on Tuesday that its China and India investment arms would become separate businesses, citing the complexities of running a “decentralized global investment business.” The move comes amid deep geopolitical tensions between the United States and China, though Sequoia executives denied that was a motivation.


A crucial dam in southern Ukraine is destroyed. The attack on the Kakhovka dam and power plant put scores of nearby residents, grain elevators and ports at risk and raised safety concerns about a nearby nuclear power plant. Ukraine and Russia traded blame for the attack; Russian forces control the area.

Elon Musk lets Robert Kennedy Jr. push misinformation on a Twitter broadcast. The social network’s owner on Monday hosted Kennedy, a vaccine skeptic seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, who pushed baseless claims such as the coronavirus being a bioweapon. His comments came as Twitter executives worried that controversial content would continue to hurt the company’s advertising business.

The Hollywood actors union votes to authorize a strike. Roughly 98 percent of SAG-AFTRA members who voted have authorized a work stoppage, days ahead of negotiations with film and television studios. The move comes amid the writers’ strike, now in its sixth week, and follows the Directors Guild of America agreeing to a tentative deal.

The S.E.C. accused Binance, the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange, of mishandling customer funds and misleading investors and regulators about its operations. The case announced on Monday could shake up the sector on the eve of a congressional hearing into new regulations for the industry.

Binance is accused of mixing billions of dollars of customer funds with a separate company owned by its C.E.O., Changpeng Zhao. The S.E.C. also asserts that Binance sold unregistered securities, and its complaint quotes an executive admitting to a colleague that the company was operating an “unlicensed security exchange in the USA bro.”


The company denied the accusations, saying it had been trying to negotiate a settlement and that the case was “misguided.” But the S.E.C.’s latest actions add to a growing list of accusations against Binance after the Commodity Futures Trading Commission sued it in March, saying the company illegally served U.S. customers.

The latest case has echoes of FTX’s demise. Binance helped expedite the collapse of its rival last fall after inspecting the company’s books ahead of a potential acquisition and warning that there were issues. Soon after, federal agencies began investigating FTX’s founder, Sam Bankman-Fried, and issued civil and criminal fraud charges against the one-time crypto industry wunderkind.

Now, Mr. Zhao, Bankman-Fried’s former mentor, is facing his own potential penalties — and industry insiders say the S.E.C. case may not be the last to hit Binance.

Crypto will be debated in Congress on Tuesday. Two House committees jointly released draft crypto legislation last week and are holding a hearing on Tuesday on the future of the sector. The Binance case is poorly timed for the industry’s champions, as they try to shift the narrative after the FTX scandal. Shares in Coinbase, a rival exchange, fell 10 percent after the case was announced.

The industry has been calling for clearer regulation and the new proposal addresses wonky issues, like when a digital asset transforms from a security to a commodity. “We think this is workable and long overdue,” Paul Grewal, Coinbase’s chief legal officer who will testify, told DealBook about the bill. But the latest accusations may dominate the discussion.


Business leaders are closely tracking the battle between the Federal Trade Commission and Illumina, a gene sequencing company that acquired the cancer test maker Grail for $7 billion in 2021.

The case is viewed as a litmus test for vertical mergers, in which a company buys a business in a similar industry, and the fight became spicier on Monday when Illumina accused the F.T.C. of operating unconstitutionally.

The F.T.C. has ordered Illumina to divest Grail. But Illumina says the agency is applying a new standard to vertical mergers and exercising power that goes far beyond what Congress intended for unelected administrators. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear the case and might be inclined to agree, based on its record in two cases last year.

  • The appeals court sided with payday lenders in a case challenging the constitutionality of the C.F.P.B.; the Supreme Court will review it next term.

  • The appeals court agreed with a hedge fund manager charged by the S.E.C. for violating securities laws who said the agency’s enforcement power was unconstitutional; the government is petitioning for review.

A decision could come quickly. The Fifth Circuit recently granted Illumina’s request for expedited review, and a hearing is set for August. The loser will probably appeal. But the Supreme Court has made some decisions that suggest it is not so friendly to regulators, either.

  • In April, the justices ruled unanimously to streamline federal court challenges to the constitutionality of agencies, making it easier to sue administrators.

  • The high court last year found that the E.P.A. exceeded its congressional authority with a rule on emissions.

Some lawyers think Illumina will eventually end up before the Supreme Court, which could rule in the company’s favor. But everything depends on timing: Illumina is also facing opposition in Europe and the company has said that it would sell Grail if it loses on either continent. A decision on Illumina’s appeal of a European Commission move to block the deal could come late this year, which may be why the F.T.C. has been asking the Fifth Circuit to slow down.


Park Hotels & Resorts, operator of two of the most prominent hotels in San Francisco, is handing in the keys on the properties — and, in essence, giving up on a city that has fallen on hard times.

Park Hotel stopped making payments on a $725 million loan tied to the Hilton Union Square and Parc 55 San Francisco, the real estate investment trust said on Monday. The hotels, a few blocks from the once-bustling Moscone Center conference hall, have a combined total of nearly 3,000 rooms.

A slowing economy and a remote-work thunderclap have emptied offices across the country, with some warning of a ticking time bomb in the commercial real estate market. Slammed by a wave of tech layoffs and a steep slowdown in Moscone’s conference calendar, downtown San Francisco has been hit hard.

“Now more than ever, we believe San Francisco’s path to recovery remains clouded and elongated by major challenges,” said the Park C.E.O., Thomas Baltimore, Jr.

Could others follow suit? San Francisco is highly dependent on business travel, which has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. While JPMorgan brought back its annual health care conference this year, other events have moved out, including VMWare’s tech conference.


Not everyone is giving up. “We’re not writing San Francisco off,” James Risoleo, the C.E.O. of the rival Host Hotels & Resorts, parent company of the San Francisco Marquis hotel, told analysts in May. “It is the center of tech and it’s going to be the center of artificial intelligence as the world returns.”



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Tesla sued for ‘widespread and ongoing’ racial harassment at California plant



Tesla sued for ‘widespread and ongoing’ racial harassment at California plant

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is suing Tesla Inc. for “widespread and ongoing” racial harassment of its Black employees and for retaliating against workers who spoke out about the problem, the federal agency announced Thursday.

Since at least 2015, “Black employees at Tesla’s Fremont, California, manufacturing facilities have routinely endured racial abuse, pervasive stereotyping, and hostility as well as epithets,” the commission said in a statement.

The EEOC added: “Black employees regularly encountered graffiti, including variations of the N-word, swastikas, threats, and nooses, on desks and other equipment, in bathroom stalls, within elevators, and even on new vehicles rolling off the production line.”

The lawsuit was brought by the EEOC’s San Francisco District Office, which has jurisdiction over Northern California, northern Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Idaho and Montana.

EEOC officials said the lawsuit is seeking compensatory and punitive damages “and back pay for the affected workers, as well as injunctive relief designed to reform Tesla’s employment practices to prevent such discrimination in the future.”


EEOC Chairperson Charlotte A. Burrows said the lawsuit “makes clear that no company is above the law.”

“The EEOC will vigorously enforce federal civil rights protections to help ensure American workplaces are free from unlawful harassment and retaliation,” she said.

Attempts to reach officials at Tesla for comment were unsuccessful.

Tesla, the world’s most valuable car company, faces similar action on several other fronts.

In February, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing filed a lawsuit on behalf of more than 4,000 current and former Black Tesla workers — the largest racial discrimination suit ever brought by the state based on number of workers affected.


In that suit, three former employees alleged that racist slurs in English and Spanish were often aimed at Black employees by co-workers and supervisors. They said Tesla segregated Black workers into separate areas, gave them the hardest tasks and routinely denied them promotions. And they alleged that when they informed the company about racist treatment, their complaints went ignored or they were fired.

Tesla disputed the former employees’ accounts, stating that the three workers did not complain to the company about racism and that any discipline they received was the result of their own workplace behavior.

“Race plays no role in any of Tesla’s work assignments, promotions, pay or discipline,” attorneys for the company said in a statement at the time. “Tesla prohibits discrimination, in any form.”

Thursday’s lawsuit puts a different kind of pressure on Tesla, said attorney Clifton W. Albright, founding partner and president of Albright, Yee & Schmit, a labor and employment law firm in downtown Los Angeles.

“The EEOC’s preference is to resolve issues quietly…. They don’t have a dog in this fight,” he said, unlike lawsuits filed by private firms or civil rights organizations.


“For the EEOC to come out so strongly, they must think there is significant evidence that the employer refuses or fails to recognize or address.”

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The unionization wave hits L.A. area bubble tea cafes



The unionization wave hits L.A. area bubble tea cafes

Six Boba Guys locations in Los Angeles County will become the first unionized boba stores in California after a successful election, the union said Wednesday.

The bobaristas will join the California Retail & Restaurant Worker Union, which also represents workers at Genwa. The Los Angeles Korean barbecue restaurant chain unionized in 2021.

“When companies remain neutral and do not interfere with anti-union campaigns … the workers will overwhelmingly support unionizing of their workplace,” said CRRWU President José Roberto Hernández.

Hernández said the union had been engaging with workers for the last six months. They filed for a union with the National Labor Relations Board in July and counted the results of the mail-in ballot election Wednesday afternoon. Boba Guys will be the first unionized boba stores in California, if not the country, Hernández said.

CRRWU also represents workers in ongoing unionization efforts at Korean grocery outlet Hannam Chain and at air purifier manufacturer Coway.


“We want to publicly express our support of the labor vote conducted by the National Labor Relations Board and [CRRWU],” Andrew Chau, co-founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Boba Guys, said in a statement. “We have always believed in the right to organize and have cooperated with CRRWU and the NLRB throughout the entire process.”

Chau encouraged other businesses to “follow suit and open up the conversation on the much-needed dialogue surrounding labor in this country.”

Last fall, the boba chain — known for its drinks made with organic milk, loose-leaf teas and homemade syrups — faced backlash after firing a worker from its flagship store in San Francisco’s Mission District; the worker said Boba Guys told her it was because she had made “inappropriate, disparaging” comments to co-workers that were sexual in nature, but she believed she had been fired for posting about unions in a company Slack channel.

At that store, several workers publicly complained of reduced hours, a decrease in time given to open and close stores, and fewer people working per shift. They also spoke of working through heat waves without air conditioning, dealing with vermin and having their hours cut when they took their concerns to management.

The company eventually permanently closed that location.


Carmen Lau, a former manager at Boba Guys’ Culver City shop, said workers had been unhappy for months about their working conditions but weren’t sure what they could do about it.

“How do you fix it? How do you do more than just talk to the people in charge who have heard your complaints a number of times, acknowledge [them], but there’s no follow through?” Lau said.

She left the company in May for another professional opportunity, but also because of increasing demands at work and issues that remained unaddressed, she said.

“The increasing expectations for work, just having less time to prepare and prepare all the ingredients for opening — I found that it was getting really impossible to meet those expectations,” Lau said.

News of what happened at the Mission District store spread rapidly and drove a lot of the desire to push for increased benefits and protections, said Stephen Lightfoot, who works at the Boba Guys location in North Hollywood.


As an actor and sound designer, Lightfoot was well aware of the benefits joining a union could bring workers and was active in spreading the word to his colleagues, who were “very excited,” he said.

Los Angeles has become a center of labor activity as screenwriters, actors, hotel employees and city staffers went on strike over the summer, and there are unionization efforts underway at companies including Starbucks, and Trader Joe’s.

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Column: The FTC is right about Amazon’s monopolistic practices, but struggles with what to do about them



Column: The FTC is right about Amazon’s monopolistic practices, but struggles with what to do about them

Few Amazon customers or sellers could be surprised by most of the allegations in the massive lawsuit filed against the company Tuesday by the Federal Trade Commission and 17 states.

The lawsuit accuses Amazon of a host of anti-competitive practices, all aimed at exploiting its enormous footprint in the online retail market.

These include price manipulation and punitive and coercive behavior against sellers with the temerity to use competing retail platforms or to set their own prices or engage in non-Amazon methods to serve their own customers.

The harms here…have basically created a really distorted and competitive landscape….That may require significant relief.

— FTC Chair Lina Khan, contemplating an Amazon breakup


Then there’s the degradation of the Amazon shopping experience by the infusion of “sponsored” — that is, favored — products that may be inferior or more expensive than those a buyer may be seeking.

The company’s public response to the lawsuit is that it would result in “fewer products to choose from, higher prices, slower deliveries for consumers, and reduced options for small businesses,” its general counsel, David Zapolsky, said in a prepared statement, adding that the agency is “wrong on the facts and the law.”

But most of the FTC’s allegations are familiar enough. Consumers know how hard it is to determine whether Amazon’s prices are the lowest available. They know that when they’re searching for an item on, the varieties pushed at them most assiduously are those from Amazon’s commercial partners or marketed by Amazon itself.

They feel the pressure to sign up for Amazon’s Prime service, now $139 a year, necessary to receive one- or two-day, or even overnight, delivery, in addition to the company’s video and music streaming services.

Sellers who have marketed their merchandise on Amazon are certainly aware of the cost — a share of as much as 50% taken by the company.


They know the consequences of flouting its rules or trying to discount its products from Amazon’s price, which include banishment from the website’s one-click “buy box” or the burying of discounting sellers “so far down in Amazon’s search results that they become effectively invisible,” to quote the lawsuit.

The question is what to do about it.

That’s the question implicit in every one of the FTC complaint’s 174 pages. It’s the same question raised any time the government tries to rein in a big, powerful corporation, but it’s especially important in this case, because there are so very few corporations that dominate their markets so powerfully.

The FTC points to Amazon’s ability to leverage its various businesses, which include its “fulfillment” services — the warehousing, packing and shipping of sellers’ merchandise — and Prime eligibility, which gives sellers’ products preferential placement on the website and by eliminating shipping charges lowers the cost of their products for buyers.

That suggests that one answer would be to break up Amazon, say by forcing it to divest its fulfillment operation. FTC Chair Lina Khan dodged that issue in her statements about the lawsuit, possibly because she knows that the remedy to Amazon’s misdeeds, assuming it’s found guilty, would be in the hands of a federal judge.


“At this stage, the focus is more on liability,” she told reporters in a briefing session Tuesday. On Wednesday, during an appearance at a Washington, D.C., conference sponsored by Politico, she noted that in the lawsuit “we don’t specify any one type of remedy.”

She also observed, however, that “the harms here are really mutually reinforcing, and have basically created a really distorted and competitive landscape … that may require significant relief.”

The lawsuit isn’t entirely silent on possible remedies, mentioning, among other options, “structural relief.” That could only mean a breakup.

Some disclosures are proper here. I am, like many other customers, a willing prisoner of the Amazon ecosystem, or perhaps more accurately, an addict. The books I read for pleasure are almost invariably ebooks, which means they’re Amazon ebooks; I blindly buy the latest version of the company’s Kindle e-reader (up to and including its new large-format Kindle Scribe).

If I’m interested in a book that doesn’t come in a Kindle version, I’ll wait until it does. I can’t remember the last time I bought an ebook not on Amazon. All but two of the books I’ve written come in Kindle versions, for which I’m thankful.


Outside of food and gasoline, I probably do 70% to 80% of my shopping online, and the vast majority of purchases are on Amazon. I’ll make a purchase on Amazon even if the product is available at a store less than a mile away, and especially if it will be delivered the next day or even (increasingly) overnight.

That doesn’t mean that I’m an uncritical fan. I’ve had to train myself to look past the “sponsored” products Amazon thrusts at me when I’m searching for a product. I’ve avoided its Echo/Alexa devices, because I know they exist to push favored products my way, and who wants a device in the home with the capability of listening in to private conversations?

I’m not happy that I can’t own an ebook purchased on Amazon, but only purchase a license giving me the right to read it (but not give it away, like a physical book). Nor that this arrangement gives Amazon rights over my ebook library that I may not even know about, as when it stealthily deleted from customers’ Kindles versions of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and “1984” after copyright issues arose with those versions.

An Amazon ebook generally can be read only on an Amazon Kindle or an Amazon app — another pair of mutually reinforcing near-monopolies.

Quite obviously, Amazon could never get away with such restrictive rules if it had genuine competition in the ebook or e-reader markets.


Amazon and its mouthpieces in Congress have made much of the fact that Khan has had Amazon’s number for years. Exhibit A is her 2017 article in the Yale Law Review titled “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox.” Amazon and Meta (then Facebook) tried to use it to force Khan to recuse herself from FTC proceedings against them. Wisely and properly, she turned them down.

The article delved deeply into Amazon’s anti-competitive strategies, which consisted chiefly in undercutting competitors’ prices and consequently taking losses; the company’s expectation that this would drive rivals out of its markets and leave the field clear for it to turn to extracting profits from consumers by exploiting its near-monopoly bore fruit in the long term.

Khan homed in on, among other tools, Amazon’s fulfillment services. But she noticed how Amazon leveraged its Prime membership by bundling “other deals and perks” into it, turning Prime into its “biggest driver of growth.”

The discussions in the FTC lawsuit of Prime and fulfillment as anti-competitive tools replicate Khan’s 2017 analysis with astonishing fidelity, showing that Khan understood Amazon’s business strategy very well indeed.

The remedies Khan offered in 2017 wouldn’t be adequate to rein in the Amazon of today. She recommended applying especially close scrutiny to merger deals reached by companies that already dominated their markets — but that might not work with a company such as Amazon, which has the ability to expand its market dominance without having to acquire other companies.


What most people overlook is that the 2017 article was a critique not so much of Amazon, but of the failure of antitrust regulators to recognize that the new online retail market was fundamentally different from bricks-and-mortar retailing, and that Amazon had been able to exploit that failure.

The best example, Khan pointed out, involved the efforts by major book publishers to counteract Amazon’s policy, rolled out in 2007, of pricing bestseller ebooks at $9.99, undercutting the publishers’ hardcover and ebook prices. Within two years, Amazon’s share of the ebook market was 90%.

The publishers struck a deal with Apple allowing them to set their own ebook prices for sale on Apple’s iBooks app. Amazingly, the Justice Department sued Apple and the publishers for colluding to fix prices. As Khan noted, the DOJ found “persuasive evidence lacking” that Amazon had engaged in predatory pricing.

Apple eventually settled the lawsuit for $450 million, the three largest publishers — Hachette Book Group, Simon & Schuster, and HarperCollins — settled for a combined $69 million, and the last two, Macmillan and Penguin, settled by agreeing not to set ebook prices. Apple never became a significant player in the ebook market.

As Khan perceived, old-school antitrust regulators failed to understand how the retail market had evolved and Amazon was poised to take advantage: “How steep discounting on a platform … creates a higher risk that the firm will generate monopoly power” than discounting in physical stores, and how Amazon’s business had become so big and varied that it could undercut rivals’ prices, take a temporary loss, and recoup its red ink in multiple ways.


The lawsuit that her FTC filed against Amazon sends a clear signal: She doesn’t intend to make the same mistake.

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