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With iOS 13, Apple delivers new features to court users in India

Posted by | alibaba, Apple, apple news, Apple Pay, Apps, Asia, india, iPhone, language, Languages of India, Mobile, Netflix, smartphone, writing | No Comments

Apple has finally listened to its small, but slowly growing user base in India. The iPhone-maker today announced a range of features in iOS 13 that are designed to appease users in the world’s second largest smartphone market.

First up, the company says its Siri voice assistant now offers all new and “more natural” Indian English male and female voices. It has also introduced a bilingual keyboard, featuring support for Hindi and English languages. The keyboard offers typing predictions in Devanagari Hindi that can suggest the next word as a user types and it learns from their typing over time.

Additionally, the keyboard in iOS 13 supports all of 22 Indian languages, with the inclusion of 15 new Indian language keyboards: Assamese, Bodo, Dogri, Kashmiri (Devanagari, Arabic), Konkani (Devanagari), Manipuri (Bangla, Meetei Mayek), Maithili, Nepali, Sanskrit, Santali (Devanagari, Ol Chiki), and Sindhi (Devanagari, Arabic).

The addition of these features comes as Apple cautiously grows more serious about India, where it holds about just 1% of the smartphone market share, according to research firm Counterpoint. Even as smartphone shipment is declining in much of the world, India has emerged as the fastest growing market for handsets in recent years. According to Counterpoint, more than 145 million smartphones shipped in India last year, up 10% year-over-year.

But users in India have long complained about Apple services not being fully optimized for local conditions. Siri, for instance, has so far offered limited functionalities in India, and many Apple services such as Apple Pay and Apple News are yet to launch in the nation.

The upcoming version of iOS, which will ship to a range of iPhone handsets later this year, also includes four new system fonts in Indian languages: Gurmukhi, Kannada, Odia, and Gujarati. These will “help deliver greater clarity and ease when reading in apps like Safari, typing in Messages and Mail, or swiping through Contacts,” the company said in a statement.

Additionally, there are 30 new document fonts for Indian languages Hindi, Marathi, Nepali, Sanskrit, Bengali, Assamese, Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati, Kannada, Gurmukhi, Malayalam, Odia, and Urdu.

Apple says iOS 13 will also enable improved video downloading option for patchy networks. It says users in India can now set an optimized time of the day in video streaming apps such as Hotstar and Netflix for downloading videos. Consumption of video apps is increasingly skyrocketing in India. Just last week, Alibaba said it was investing $100 million in its short video app called Vmate in the nation.

In recent months, Apple has also improved Apple Maps in India. Earlier this year, Apple Maps added support for turn-by-turn navigation, and enabled users to book a cab — from Ola or Uber — directly from within the maps app. The company has also been aggressively hiring people to expand its maps and other software teams in  the country, according to job postings on the its site.

Improvements to software aside, Apple has also been working to reduce the cost of iPhones in India, the single major factor for their poor sales in the country. Two years ago, Apple started to assemble the iPhone 7 handset in India. It plans to ramp up its local production in the coming weeks, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

As part of local government’s ‘Make in India’ program, phone vendors that assemble phones in the country are offered tax and other benefits. Ravi Shankar Prasad, an Indian minister who oversees law and justice, telecom, and electronics and IT departments, said at a press conference earlier today (local time) that Bharatiya Janata Party, the ruling party which was reelected last month, will work on expanding Make in India program as one of its top priorities.

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Alibaba pumps $100 million into Vmate to grow its video app in India

Posted by | alibaba, Apps, Asia, bytedance, Disney, funding, Google, india, Media, Mobile, Social, Startups, tiktok, Vmate, YouTube | No Comments

Chinese tech giant Alibaba is doubling down on India’s burgeoning video market, looking to fight back local rival ByteDance, Google and Disney to gain its foothold in the nation. The company said today that it is pumping $100 million into Vmate, a three-year-old social video app owned by subsidiary UC Web.

Vmate was launched as a video streaming and short-video-sharing app in 2016. But in the years since, it has added features such as video downloads and 3-dimensional face emojis to expand its use cases. It has amassed 30 million users globally, and will use the capital to scale its business in India, the company told TechCrunch. Alibaba Group did not respond to TechCrunch’s questions about its ownership of the app.

The move comes as Alibaba revives its attempts to take on the growing social video apps market, something on which it has missed out completely in China. Vmate could potentially help it fill the gap in India. Many of the features Vmate offers are similar to those offered by ByteDance’s TikTok, which currently has more than 120 million active users in India. ByteDance, with a valuation of about $75 billion, has grown its business without taking money from either Alibaba or Tencent, the latter of which has launched its own TikTok-like apps with limited success.

Alibaba remains one of the biggest global investors in India’s e-commerce and food-tech markets. It has heavily invested in Paytm, BigBasket, Zomato and Snapdeal. It was also supposedly planning to launch a video streaming service in India last year — a rumor that was fueled after it acquired a majority stake in TicketNew, a Chennai-based online ticketing service.

UC Web, a subsidiary of Alibaba Group, also counts India as one of its biggest markets. The browser maker has attempted to become a super app in India in recent years by including news and videos. In the last two years, it has been in talks with several bloggers and small publishers to host their articles directly on its platform, many people involved in the project told TechCrunch.

UC Web’s eponymous browser rose to stardom in the days of feature phones, but has since lost the lion’s share to Google Chrome as smartphones become more ubiquitous. Chrome ships as the default browser on most Android smartphones.

The major investment by Alibaba Group also serves as a testament to the growing popularity of video apps in India. Once cautious about each megabyte they spent on the internet, thrifty Indians have become heavy video consumers online as mobile data gets significantly cheaper in the country. Video apps are increasingly climbing up the charts on Google Play Store.

In an event for marketers late last year, YouTube said that India was the only nation where it had more unique users than its parent company Google. The video juggernaut had about 250 million active users in India at the end of 2017. The service, used by more than 2 billion users worldwide, has not revealed its India-specific user base since.

T-Series, the largest record label in India, became the first YouTube channel this week to claim more than 100 million subscribers. What’s even more noteworthy is that T-Series took 10 years to get to its first 10 million subscribers. The additional 90 million subscribers signed up to its channel in the last two years. Also fighting for users’ attention is Hotstar, which is owned by Disney. Earlier this month, it set a new global record for most simultaneous views on a live-streaming event.

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India’s largest mobile wallet company Paytm now offers a credit card

Posted by | alibaba, Asia, Berkshire Hathaway, citibank, Finance, india, Mobile, Online lending, payments, Paytm, Softbank, Uber, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, warren buffett, zomato | No Comments

Paytm, India’s largest mobile wallet app, has branched out to several businesses in recent years as threat from Google and Facebook grows. On Tuesday, it added another category to the list: credit cards.

The firm, operated by One97 Communications, today unveiled Paytm First Credit Card with lofty benefits as it races to bulk up its financial offerings. The cards, issued by Citi Bank, will be the first in the country to offer unlimited, one percent cashback on purchases, Paytm claimed in a statement. The company is hoping to rope in about 25 million credit card customers in the coming months.

The penetration of credit cards remains very low in India with under 50 million people possessing one. With people conducting most of their businesses through cash in the nation, banks have little understanding of a customer’s credit history and score. And it also doesn’t help that banks in India are still wary of issuing credit cards to those who don’t perfectly fit the traditional blue collar job.

But why is a company that made its name through a mobile payment wallet open to its customers engaging with credit card companies? Paytm itself is struggling to grow its business and retain existing customers. Some of its recent major bets haven’t exactly paid off. Its ecommerce business Paytm Mall remains tiny despite bleeding money.

Yo! The First. Paytm First. pic.twitter.com/5kAxozc2IH

— Vijay Shekhar (@vijayshekhar) May 13, 2019

But more importantly, payments itself has become a commoditized space. Users park their money in Paytm and do transactions from there. Paytm makes money from this accumulated sum. This business flourished for years, especially in the months after the Indian government invalidated much of the cash in the nation. But then the government launched its own payment infrastructure called UPI, which removes the need for a middleman.

This has made payments more convenient for users, who are increasingly jumping ship. UPI apps such as PhonePe that have emerged in the last two and a half years now see more transactions than wallet apps. To make matter worse for Paytm, Google and Facebook — two companies that have larger userbase in India — have entered the payments space. Google Pay reached 100 million installs on Google Play Store recently, and WhatsApp plans a nation-wide roll out of its payment feature in India later this year.

So Paytm is now expanding its financial offerings and credit card play fits well in it. With more than 200 million active users, Paytm rivals banks on both the number of customers and volume of transaction it processes.

“Our new offering is designed to bring utmost flexibility to our customers in their digital payment options and will help spur large-ticket cashless payments,” Vijay Shekhar Sharma, chairman and CEO of One97 Communications said in a statement.

Backed by SoftBank, Alibaba, and most recently Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, Paytm has the capital to spur the adoption of its new credit card. As part of the package, Paytm’s credit card holders will be able to avail dining, shopping, travel and other offers that Citi Bank provides to its privilege customers. In the first four months of issuing a card, the company will offer its customers discounts worth Rs 10,000 ($142) on spending of Rs 10,000.

Paytm First Credit Card will work both in India and elsewhere and support contactless transactions. Like any other credit card, customers will be able to pay back a sum in multiple monthly instalments. Paytm First Credit Card will charge users a nominal fee of Rs 500 ($7.1) that will be waived off if their spendings through the card exceeds Rs 50,000 ($710) in a year.

If the gamble works, Paytm will be able to retain some customers and convince many to do big-ticket transactions. For Citi Bank, this partnership is just an easy ploy to acquire some customers.

In the meantime, Paytm continues to aggressively expand its financial offerings. In recent years, it has launched a digital payments bank, and has started to offer prepaid Forex cards for international purchases. It also lets customers buy gold, and employers issue food allowance wallets for their staff. Last year, the company announced Paytm Money to facilitate purchase of mutual funds.

Earlier this year, the company launched Paytm First, a subscription bundle that includes access to subscriptions from other services such as Zomato, Uber, Gaana, and Eros Now. In an interview with TechCrunch late last month, Paytm’s Sharma said payments is the moat around which you can build a number of services. “Now that’s a business model… payment itself can’t make you money.”

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Alibaba will let you find restaurants and order food with voice in a car

Posted by | alibaba, alibaba group, alipay, Android, Asia, automotive, AutoNavi, Baidu, Beijing, China, Emerging-Technologies, in-car apps, online marketplaces, operating system, operating systems, order food, shanghai, taobao, Tencent, Transportation | No Comments

Competition in the Chinese internet has for years been about who controls your mobile apps. These days, giants are increasingly turning to offline scenarios, including what’s going on behind the dashboard in your car.

On Tuesday, Alibaba announced at the annual Shanghai Auto Show that it’s developing apps for connected cars that will let drivers find restaurants, queue up and make reservations at restaurants, order food and eventually complete a plethora of other tasks using voice, motion or touch control. Third-party developers are invited to make their in-car apps, which will run on Alibaba’s operating system AliOS.

Rather than working as standalone apps, these in-car services come in the form of “mini apps,” which are smaller than regular ones in exchange for faster access and smaller file sizes, in Alibaba’s all-in-one digital wallet Alipay . Alibaba has other so-called “super apps” in its ecosystem, such as marketplace Taobao and navigation service AutoNavi, but the payments solution clearly makes more economic sense if Alibaba wants people to spend more while sitting in a four-wheeler.

There’s no timeline for when Alibaba will officially roll out in-car mini apps, but it’s already planning for a launch, a company spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Making lite apps has been a popular strategy for China’s internet giants operating super apps that host outside apps, or “mini-apps”; that way users rarely need to leave their ecosystems. These lite apps are known to be easier and cheaper to build than a native app, although developers have to make concessions, like giving their hosts a certain level of access to user data and obeying rules as they would with Apple’s App Store. For in-car services, Alibaba says there will be “specific review criteria for safety and control” tailored to the auto industry.

alios cars alibaba

Photo source: Alibaba

Alibaba’s move is indicative of a heightened competition to control the operating system in next-gen connected cars. For those who wonder whether the e-commerce behemoth will make its own cars given it has aggressively infiltrated the physical space, like opening its own supermarket chain Hema, the company’s solution to vehicles appears to be on the software front, at least for now.

In 2017, Alibaba rebranded its operating system with a deep focus to put AliOS into car partners. To achieve this goal, Alibaba also set up a joint venture called Banma Network with state-owned automaker SAIC Motor and Dongfeng Peugeot Citroen, which is the French car company’s China venture, that would hawk and integrate AliOS-powered solutions with car clients. As of last August, 700,000 AliOS-powered SAIC vehicles had been sold.

Alibaba competitors Tencent and Baidu have also driven into the auto field, although through slightly different routes. Baidu began by betting on autonomous driving and built an Android-like developer platform for car manufacturers. While the futuristic plan is far from bearing significant commercial fruit, it has gained a strong foothold in self-driving with the most mileage driven in Beijing, a pivotal hub to test autonomous cars. Tencent’s car initiatives seem more nebulous. Like Baidu, it’s testing self-driving and like Alibaba, it’s partnered with industry veterans to make cars, but it’s unclear where the advantage lies for the social media and gaming giant in the auto space.

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Snap is channeling Asia’s messaging giants with its move into gaming

Posted by | alibaba, Apps, Asia, Australia, Bitmoji, Canada, China, computing, e-commerce, epic games, Evan Spiegel, Facebook, food, France, game developers, Gaming, instagram, Instant Messaging, Japan, josh constine, Kakao, Los Angeles, messaging apps, Messenger, nhn japan, Nintendo, operating systems, player, Snap, Snapchat, Social, social media, social network, Software, Southeast Asia, Startups, Tencent, United Kingdom, United States, WeChat, WhatsApp | No Comments

Snap is taking a leaf out of the Asian messaging app playbook as its social messaging service enters a new era.

The company unveiled a series of new strategies that are aimed at breathing fresh life into the service that has been ruthlessly cloned by Facebook across Instagram, WhatsApp and even its primary social network. The result? Snap has consistently lost users since going public in 2017. It managed to stop the rot with a flat Q4, but resting on its laurels isn’t going to bring back the good times.

Snap has taken a three-pronged approach: extending its stories feature (and ads) into third-party apps and building out its camera play with an AR platform, but it is the launch of social games that is the most intriguing. The other moves are logical, and they fall in line with existing Snap strategies, but games is an entirely new category for the company.

It isn’t hard to see where Snap found inspiration for social games — Asian messaging companies have long twinned games and chat — but the U.S. company is applying its own twist to the genre.

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Tencent Q4 profit disappoints, but cloud and payments gain ground

Posted by | alibaba, alibaba group, alipay, Asia, Baidu, China, cloud computing, e-commerce, Earnings, games publisher, Gaming, iQiyi, online payments, Snap, Tencent, WeChat, weixin | No Comments

China’s Tencent reported disappointing profits in the fourth quarter on the back of surging costs but saw emerging businesses pick up steam as it plots to diversify amid slackening gaming revenues.

Net profit for the quarter slid 32 percent to 14.2 billion yuan ($2.1 billion), behind analysts’ forecast of 18.3 billion yuan. The decrease was due to one-off expenses related to its portfolio companies and investments in non-gaming segments like video content and financial technology.

Excluding non-cash items and M&A deals, Tencent’s net profit from the period rose 13 percent to 19.7 billion yuan ($2.88 billion). The company has to date invested in more than 700 companies, 100 of which are valued over $1 billion each and 60 of which have gone public.

Quarterly revenue edged up 28 percent to 84.9 billion yuan ($12.4 billion) beating expectations.

tencent revenue

The Hong Kong-listed company is best known for its billion-user WeChat messenger but had for years relied heavily on a high-margin gaming business. That was until a months-long freeze on games approvals last year that delayed monetization for new titles, spurring a major reorg in the firm to put more focus on enterprise services, including cloud computing and financial technology.

Tencent has received approvals for eight games since China resumed the licensing process, although its blockbusters PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds and Fortnite have yet to get the green light. The firm also warned of a “sizeable backlog” for license applications in the industry, which means its “scheduled game releases will initially be slower than in some prior years.”

Video games for the quarter contributed 28.5 percent of Tencent’s total revenues, compared to 36.7 percent in the year-earlier period. Despite the domestic fiasco, Tencent remains as the world’s largest games publisher by revenue, according to data compiled by NewZoo. The firm has also gotten more aggressive in taking its titles global.

Social network revenues rose 25 percent on account of growth in live streaming and video subscriptions. The segment made up 22.9 percent of total revenues. Tencent has in recent years spent heavily on making original content and licensing programs as it competes with Baidu’s iQiyi video streaming site. Tencent claimed 89 million subscribers in the latest quarter, compared with iQiyi’s 87.4 million.

Tencent has been relatively slow to monetize WeChat in contrast to its western counterpart Facebook, though it’s under more pressure to step up its game. Tencent’s advertising revenue from the quarter grew 38 percent thanks to expanding advertising inventory on WeChat. Ads accounted for 20 percent of the firm’s quarterly revenues.

All told, WeChat and its local version Weixin reached nearly 1.1 billion monthly active users; 750 million of them checked their friends’ WeChat feeds, and Tencent recently introduced a Snap Story-like feature to lock users in as it vies for eyeball time with challenger TikTok.

The “others” category, composed of financial technology and cloud computing, grew 71.8 percent to generate 28.5 percent of total revenues. WeChat’s e-wallet, which is going neck-and-neck with Alibaba affiliate Alipay, saw daily transaction volume exceed 1 billion last year. During the fourth quarter, merchants who used WeChat Pay monthly grew more than 80 percent year-over-year.

Meanwhile, cloud revenues doubled to 9.1 billion yuan in 2018, thanks to Tencent’s dominance in the gaming sector as its cloud infrastructure now powers over half of the China-based games companies and is following these clients overseas. Tencent meets Alibaba head-on again in the cloud sector. For comparison, Alibaba’s most recent quarterly cloud revenue was 6.6 billion yuan. Just yesterday, the e-commerce leader claimed that its cloud business is larger than the second to eight players in China combined.

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NetEase is the latest Chinese tech giant to lay off a big chunk of its staff

Posted by | alibaba, Amazon, Asia, business, China, Didi Chuxing, e-commerce, eCommerce, Gaming, JD.com, layoff, netease, public relations, Southeast Asia, Tencent | No Comments

NetEase, China’s second-biggest online games publisher with a growing ecommerce segment, is laying off a significant number of its employees, adding to a list of Chinese tech giants that have shed staff following the Lunar New Year.

A NetEase employee who was recently let go confirmed with TechCrunch that the company had fired a large number of people spanning multiple departments, including ecommerce, education, agriculture (yes, founder and executive officer Ding Lei has a thing for organic farming) and public relations, although downsizing at Yanxuan, its ecommerce brand that sells private-label goods online and offline, had started before the Lunar New Year holiday.

Multiple Chinese media outlets covered the layoff on Wednesday. According to a report from Caijing Magazine, Yanxuan fired 30-40 percent of its staff; the agricultural brand Weiyang got a 50 percent cut; the education unit downsized from 300 to 200 employees; and 40 percent of NetEase’s public relations staff was gone.

A spokesperson from NetEase evaded TechCrunch’s questions about the layoff but said the company is “indeed undergoing a structural optimization to narrow its focus.” The goal, according to the person, is to “boost innovation and organizational efficiency so NetEase can fully play to its own strengths and adapt to market competition in the longer term.”

NetEase CEO Ding Lei pictured picking Longjing tea leaves in Hangzhou. Photo: NetEase Yanxuan via Weibo

Oddly, ecommerce and education appear to be some of NetEase’s brighter spots. The company singled them out alongside music streaming during its latest earnings call as the three sectors that saw “strong profit growth potential” and “will be the focus of [the company’s] next phase of strategic growth.” The staff cuts, then, may represent an urgency to tighten the purse strings for even NetEase’s rosiest businesses.

The shakeup fits into market speculation about company staff cuts to save costs as China copes with a weakening domestic economy. JD.com, a rival to Alibaba, is firing 10 percent of its senior management to cut costs, Caixin reported last week. Ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing plans to let go 15 percent of its staff this year as part of a reorganization to boost internal efficiency, though it’s adding new members to focus on more promising segments.

Alibaba took an unexpected turn, announcing last week that it will continue to hire new talent in 2019. “We are poised to provide more resources to our platforms to help businesses navigate current environment and create more job opportunities overall,” the firm said in a statement.

2018 was a tough year for China’s games companies of all sorts. The industry took a hit after regulators froze all licensing approvals to go through a reshuffle, dragging down stock prices of big players like Tencent and NetEase. These companies continue to feel the chill even after approvals resumed, as the newly minted regulatory body imposes stricter checks on games, slowing down the application process altogether and delaying companies’ plans to monetize lucrative new titles.

That bleak domestic outlook compelled NetEase to take what Ding dubs a “two-legged” approach to game publishing, with one foot set in China and the other extending abroad. Tencent, too, has been finding new channels for its games through regional partners like Sea’s Garena in Southeast Asia.

NetEase started in 1997 and earned its name by making PC games and providing email services in the early years of the Chinese internet. More recently the company has intended to diversify its business by incubating projects across the board. It has so far enjoyed growth in segments like music streaming and ecommerce (which is reportedly swallowing up Amazon China’s import-led service) while stepping back from others such as comics publishing, an asset it is selling to youth-focused video streaming site Bilibili.

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Apple is offering interest-free financing to boost iPhone sales in China

Posted by | alibaba, alibaba group, Android, Ant Financial, Apple, apple inc, apple store, Asia, China, india, iOS, iPhone, iphone 6s, mobile phones, product red, Xiaomi | No Comments

Apple is looking to get over its sales woes in China by offering prospective customers interest-free financing with a little help from Alibaba.

Apple’s China website now offers financing packages for iPhones that include zero percent interest packages provided in association with several banks and Huabei, a consumer credit company operated by Alibaba’s Ant Financial unit, as first noted by Reuters.

The Reuters report further explains the packages on offer:

On its China website, Apple is promoting the new scheme, under which customers can pay 271 yuan ($40.31) each month to purchase an iPhone XR, and 362 yuan each month for an iPhone XS. Customers trading in old models can get cheaper installments.

Users buying products worth a minimum of 4,000 yuan worth from Apple would qualify for interest-free financing that can be paid over three, six, nine, 12 or 24 months, the website shows.

Apple is also offering discounts for customers who trade in devices from the likes of Huawei, Xiaomi and others.

The deals are an interesting development that comes just weeks after Apple cut revenue guidance for its upcoming Q1 earnings. The firm trimmed its revenue from the $89 billion-$93 billion range to $84 billion on account of unexpected “economic deceleration, particularly in Greater China.”

Offering attractive packages may convince some consumers to buy an iPhone, but there’s a lingering sense that Apple’s current design isn’t sparking interest from Chinese consumers. Traditionally, it has seen a sales uptick around the launch of iPhones that offer a fresh design, and the current iPhone XR, XS and XS Max line-up bears a strong resemblance to the one-year-old iPhone X.

The first quarter of a new product launch results in a sales spike in China, but Q2 sales — the quarter after the launch — are where devices can underwhelm.

It’ll be interesting to see if Apple offers similar financing in India, where it saw sales drop by 40 percent in 2018 according to The Wall Street Journal. Apple’s market share, which has never been significant, is said to have halved from two percent to one percent over the year.

Finance is a huge issue for consumers in India, where aggressively priced but capable phones from Chinese companies like Xiaomi or OnePlus dominate the market in terms of sales volume. With the iPhone costing multiples more than top Android phones, flexible financing could help unlock more sales in India.

China, however, has long been a key revenue market for Apple, so it figures that this strategy is happening there first.

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Amazon, Western Union debut PayCode to sell goods in emerging markets and let shoppers pay in cash

Posted by | alibaba, Amazon, Asia, developing markets, eCommerce, emerging markets, Finance, Mobile, payments, qr code, TC, western union | No Comments

While Amazon has been methodical (read: a little slow) in launching local versions of its site for various global markets, it has now embarked on a secondary track to snag more business outside the 14 countries where it has built out full operations.

Amazon has partnered with Western Union to set up a service called PayCode, which lets people shop and pay for Amazon items using local currencies that would not have been accepted on the site before, starting with services in 10 countries: Chile, Columbia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Kenya, Malaysia, Peru, Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand.

Specifically, shoppers in these markets will now be able to go into Western Union outposts and pay for their Amazon purchases in cash, which also means that payment cards or other virtual payment methods will also not be required to buy from Amazon — one of the barriers to expanding the service up to now into more emerging economies, where card and bank account penetration is much lower than in developed markets like the U.S. and Europe.

“Amazon is committed to enabling customers anywhere in the world to shop on Amazon.com, and a big part of that is to allow customers to pay for their cross-border online purchases in a way that is most convenient for them,” said Ben Volk, director, Payment Acceptance and Experience at Amazon, in a statement. “Amazon PayCode leverages the reach of Western Union to make cross-border online shopping a reliable and convenient experience for customers who do not have access to international credit cards, or prefer to pay in cash.”

In terms of what they will be able to buy, people can shop across the breadth of the Amazon marketplace, but Amazon notes that they will only be able to use PayCode if it’s offered as an option at checkout (which will only happen in the markets where PayCode is supported); if the item that is chosen is “export eligible,” and if the item’s value “exceeds the maximum value allowed for use on this payment type” — although Amazon doesn’t appear to specify what that maximum value is. Once you complete the purchase online (or possibly more likely, on mobile), you get a “PayCode” QR code that you will have 48 hours to take to a Western Union to pay for the goods; otherwise your order gets cancelled.

The deal between Amazon and Western Union was initially announced last October, with very little detail and fanfare. The PayCode name then appeared to leak out a month later around what appeared to be a test in India (where it has not launched… yet). Today was the first time that the companies unveiled the first launch countries.

PayCode is a significant advance for Amazon as it seeks to step up to the next level of being a global e-commerce powerhouse to compete against the likes of Alibaba.

The latter company has made a lot of inroads to work in a wider array of markets beyond its home base of China, specifically tapping into a long tail of supply from its home market and demand for those goods abroad. Alibaba is also taking care of business when it comes to making more seamless transactions related to those trades. Just today, its financial services affiliate Ant Financial announced that it would acquire U.K.’s WorldFirst, which provides foreign money transfer for businesses and individuals, for a price that we heard from sources was in the region of $700 million.

Amazon currently operates 15 Amazon websites globally: in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Spain and Turkey. (It appears also to have a Prime-only site in Singapore.) Up to now, these would have been the only countries where Amazon would offer goods in local currencies.

Adding a new tranche of countries using PayCode will potentially massively expand how many people can shop on Amazon without Amazon going through the steps of setting up full-fledged operations in those countries to serve those consumers and sellers. (Or, this being Amazon, this would be a key way for the company to start testing the waters to figure out which market might do best with a full-fledged store.) Over time, you might imagine that Amazon might extend PayCode to markets where it has sites, too, to give shoppers more flexibility in how they pay for goods for themselves or that they are buying for others.

It’s a big market opportunity. Amazon cites estimates from Forrester Research that say cross-border shopping will represent 20 percent of e-commerce by 2022, accounting for $630 billion.

For Western Union, this is a potentially big partnership, too.

Today, PayCode allows people to use Western Union to act as a physical pay station for their Amazon goods, giving Western Union a small cut on those transactions. But you might imagine how this could evolve over time, where remittances sent from family members abroad via Western Union — a very common use of remittance networks — might immediately get redeemed to cover purchases on Amazon.

Similarly, Western Union is working closer with MPesa, the African mobile wallet service that lets people essentially use their phone top-up account as a payment account, and you could imagine how this too could get incorporated into the PayCode experience to facilitate buying and paying on devices, without having to go into Western Union shops and use actual cash.

“We’re helping to unlock access to Amazon.com for customers who need and want items that can only be found online in many parts of the world,” said Khalid Fellahi, SVP and General Manager of Western Union Digital, in a statement. “This is a great example of two global brands innovating and collaborating to bring customers more convenience and choice. In a world where cross-border buyers and sellers are often located on different continents and in completely different financial ecosystems, our platform is ideally suited to solving the complexity of collecting local currency and converting it into whatever currency merchants need on the other end.”

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First China, now Starbucks gets an ambitious VC-funded rival in Indonesia

Posted by | alibaba, alibaba group, Android, Apps, Asia, carsharing, China, East Ventures, funding, Fundings & Exits, go-jek, Google, grab, Indonesia, Insignia Ventures Partners, internet access, Jakarta, JD.com, managing partner, mcdonalds, online food ordering, online marketplaces, pizza hut, Singapore, Southeast Asia, starbucks, temasek, Tencent, United States, WeWork | No Comments

Asia’s venture capital-backed startups are gunning for Starbucks .

In China, the U.S. coffee giant is being pushed by Luckin Coffee, a $2.2 billion challenger surfing China’s on-demand wave, and on the real estate side, where WeWork China has just unveiled an on-demand product that could tempt people who go to Starbucks to work or kill time.

That trend is picking up in Indonesia, the world’s fourth largest country and Southeast Asia’s largest economy, where an on-demand challenger named Fore Coffee has fueled up for a fight after it raised $8.5 million.

Fore was started in August 2018 when associates at East Ventures, a prolific early-stage investor in Indonesia, decided to test how robust the country’s new digital infrastructure can be. That means it taps into unicorn companies like Grab, Go-Jek and Traveloka and their army of scooter-based delivery people to get a hot brew out to customers. Incidentally, the name “Fore” comes from “forest” — “we aim to grow fast, strong, tall and bring life to our surrounding” — rather than in front of… or a shout heard on the golf course.

The company has adopted a similar hybrid approach to Luckin, and Starbucks thanks to its alliance with Alibaba. Fore operates 15 outlets in Jakarta, which range from “grab and go” kiosks for workers in a hurry, to shops with space to sit and delivery-only locations, Fore co-founder Elisa Suteja told TechCrunch. On the digital side, it offers its own app (delivery is handled via Go-Jek’s Go-Send service) and is available via Go-Jek and Grab’s apps.

So far, Fore has jumped to 100,000 deliveries per month and its app is top of the F&B category for iOS and Android in Indonesia — ahead of Starbucks, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut .

It’s early times for the venture — which is not a touch on Starbuck’s $85 billion business; it does break out figures for Indonesia — but it is a sign of where consumption is moving to Indonesia, which has become a coveted beachhead for global companies, and especially Chinese, moving into Southeast Asia. Chinese trio Tencent, Alibaba and JD.com and Singapore’s Grab are among the outsiders who have each spent hundreds of millions to build or invest in services that tap growing internet access among Indonesia’s population of more than 260 million.

There’s a lot at stake. A recent Google-Temasek report forecast that Indonesia alone will account for over 40 percent of Southeast Asia’s digital economy by 2025, which is predicted to triple to reach $240 billion.

As one founder recently told TechCrunch anonymously: “There is no such thing as winning Southeast Asia but losing Indonesia. The number one priority for any Southeast Asian business must be to win Indonesia.”

Forecasts from a recent Google-Temasek report suggest that Indonesia is the key market in Southeast Asia

This new money comes from East Ventures — which incubated the project — SMDV, Pavilion Capital, Agaeti Venture Capital and Insignia Ventures Partners, with participation from undisclosed angel backers. The plan is to continue to invest in growing the business.

“Fore is our model for ‘super-SME’ — SME done right in leveraging technology and digital ecosystem,” Willson Cuaca, a managing partner at East Ventures, said in a statement.

There’s clearly a long way to go before Fore reaches the size of Luckin, which has said it lost 850 million yuan, or $124 million, inside the first nine months in 2018.

The Chinese coffee challenger recently declared that money is no object for its strategy to dethrone Starbucks. The U.S. firm is currently the largest player in China’s coffee market, with 3,300 stores as of last May and a goal of topping 6,000 outlets by 2022, but Luckin said it will more than double its locations to more than 4,500 by the end of this year.

By comparison, Indonesia’s coffee battle is only just getting started.

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