Asia

Open sourcing analysis, plus US, China and HQ2

Posted by | Amazon, Asia, Government, hq2, Mobile, new york city, oppo, Tencent, washington DC, WeChat, WhatsApp, Xiaomi | No Comments

The big news today is that — finally — we have Amazon’s selection of cities for its dual second headquarters (Northern Virginia and NYC). Then some notes on China. But first, semiconductors and open sourcing analysis.

We are experimenting with new content forms at TechCrunch. This is a rough draft of something new — provide your feedback directly to the authors: Danny at danny@techcrunch.com or Arman at Arman.Tabatabai@techcrunch.com if you like or hate something here.

Pivot: Future of semiconductors, chips, AI, etc.

Last week, I focused on SoftBank’s debt and Form D filings by startups. On Friday, I asked what I should start to analyze next. There were several feedback hotspots, but the one that popped out to me was around next-generation chips and the battle for dominance at the hardware layer.

As a software engineer, I know almost nothing about silicon (the beauty of abstraction). But it is clear that the future of all kinds of workflows will increasingly be driven by capabilities at the hardware/silicon level, particularly in future applications like artificial intelligence, machine learning, AR/VR, autonomous driving and more. Furthermore, China and other countries are spending billions to go after the leaders in this space, such as Nvidia and Intel. Startups, funding, competition, geopolitics — we’ve got it all here.

Arman and I are now diving deeper into this space. We will start to post once we have some interesting things to share, but if you have ideas, opinions, companies or investments in this space: tell us about them, as we are all ears: danny@techcrunch.com and Arman.tabatabai@techcrunch.com.

Open-source analysis at TechCrunch

Since I launched this daily “column” last week, I have included the text near the top that “We are experimenting with new content forms at TechCrunch.” One of those forms is what might be called open-source journalism. Definitions are fuzzy, but I take it to mean working “in the open” — allowing you, the audience of this column, to engage in not just feedback around finalized and published posts, but to actually affect the entire process of analysis, from sourcing and ideation to data science and writing.

I am thankful to work at a publication like TechCrunch where my readers are often working in the exact sectors that I am writing about. When I wrote about Form Ds last week, a number of startup attorneys reached out with their own thoughts and analysis, and also explained key aspects of how the law is changing around SEC disclosure for startups. That’s really powerful, and I want to apply it to as many fields as possible.

This thesis is ultimately intentional — now I have to operationalize it. There aren’t good tools (yet!) that I know of that allow for easy sharing of data and notes that don’t rely on a hacked-together set of Google Docs and GitHub. But I’m exploring the stack, and will publish more things publicly as we have them.

Amazon HQ2 — the future of corporate relations with cities

Amazon’s long process for selecting an HQ2 is finally over, and the official answer is two: Northern Virginia and NYC. Tons of words have been spilled about the search, and I am sure even more analysis will strike today about what put those two locations over the top.

To me, the key for mayors is to start using these reverse searches (where a company seeks a city and not vice versa) as leverage to actually get resources to fund infrastructure and other critical services.

This is a theme that I discussed about a year ago:

Take Boston’s bid for GE’s new headquarters. Yes, the city offered property tax rebates of about $25 million , but GE’s move also pushed the state to fund a variety of infrastructure improvements, including the Northern Avenue bridge and new bike lanes. That bridge adds a critical path for vehicles and pedestrians in Boston’s central business district, yet has gone unfunded for years.

Ideally, governments could debate, vote, and then fund these sorts of infrastructure projects and community improvements. The reality is that without a time-sensitive forcing function like a reverse RFP process, there is little hope that cities and states will make progress on these sorts of projects. The debates can literally go on forever in American democracy.

So if you are a mayor or economic planning official, use these processes as tools to get stuff done. Use the allure of new jobs and tax revenues to spur infrastructure spending and get a rezoning through a recalcitrant city council. Use that “prosperity bomb” to upgrade old parts of the urban landscape and prepare the city for the future. A healthier, more humane city can be just around the corner.

Take DC. The city has seen one of the best-run Metro systems deteriorate to abysmal levels over the past few years due to a complete dumpster fire of organizational design (the DC transit agency WMATA is funded by inconsistent revenue sources that ensure it will never be sustainable). Here is an opportunity to use Amazon’s announcement to get the tax framework and operations figured out to ensure that real estate, transportation and other critical urban infrastructure are designed effectively.

China’s mobile internationalization

Timothy Allen/Getty Images

Talking about second headquarters, the technology industry clearly has separated into poles, one based around the United States and the other based around China. Two articles I read recently gave good insights of the benefits and challenges for China in this world.

The first is from Sam Byford writing at The Verge, who investigates the native OS options that Chinese consumers receive from companies like Xiaomi, Huawei, Oppo and others. The headline is much more shrill than the text, so don’t let that frighten you.

Byford provides an overview of the lineage of Chinese mobile OSes, and also notes that what might look like design gaffes in Western consumer eyes might be critical needs for Chinese buyers:

But what is true today is that not all Chinese phone software is bad. And when it is bad from a Western perspective, it’s often bad for very different reasons than the bad Android skins of the past. Yes, many of these phones make similar mistakes with overbearing UI decisions — hello, Huawei — and yes, it’s easy to mock some designs for their obvious thrall to iOS. But these are phones created in a very different context to Android devices as we’ve previously understood them.

The article is perhaps a tad long for what it is, but Byford’s key viewpoint should be repeated as a mantra by any person connected to the technology sector today: “The Chinese phone market is a spiraling behemoth of innovation and audacity, unlike anything we’ve ever seen. If you want to be on board with the already exciting hardware, it’s worth trying to understand the software.”

Of course, while China may be a huge country, its leading technology companies do want to globalize and expand their user bases outside of the Middle Kingdom’s borders. That may well be a challenging proposition.

Writing at Factor Daily, Shadma Shaikh dives into the failure of WeChat to break into the Indian market. The product lessons learned by WeChat’s owner Tencent could be applied to any Silicon Valley company — cultural knowledge and appropriate product design are key to entering overseas markets.

Shaikh gives a couple of examples:

Another design feature in the app allowed users to look up and send add-friend requests to WeChat users nearby. During initial onboarding when users were just checking app’s features, many would tap the “people nearby” feature, which would switch on location sharing by default – including with strangers. Once location sharing with strangers was switched on, it wasn’t very intuitive to turn it off.

“Women used to get a lot of unwarranted messages from men, which was a major turn off and many of them left the platform,” Gupta says. “China probably didn’t have this stalking problem.”

And

In China, where the internet was cheaper than in India in 2012, sending video files of, say, 4 MB was not a challenge. WhatsApp compresses a 5 MB photo to 40 kilobytes. WeChat did not compress the files and took many minutes and data to send and receive media files.

Internationalization will never be easy, but the lessons that Silicon Valley has slowly learned over the past two decades will need to be learned again by Chinese companies if they want to export their software to other countries.

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Rakuten has SoftBank in its sights

Posted by | Asia, KDDI, Mobile, Rajeev Misra, rakuten, Softbank, Vision Fund | No Comments

This week, I’ve tried to do something new at TechCrunch with this experimental column — getting obsessed about a topic broadly in tech and writing a continuous stream of thoughts and analysis about it.

With my research consultant and contributor Arman Tabatabai, we’ve covered two topics: Form Ds, the filing that startups usually submit to the SEC after a venture round closes (although increasingly do not), and SoftBank, which faces all kinds of strategic pressure due to its debt binging. If you missed the other episodes, here are links to the editions from Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

We are experimenting with new content forms at TechCrunch. This is a rough draft of something new — provide your feedback directly to the authors: Danny at danny@techcrunch.com or Arman at Arman.Tabatabai@techcrunch.com if you like or hate something here.

Today, one final round of thoughts on SoftBank and Rakuten (heavily written by Arman) and a lengthy list of articles for your weekend reading.

The Rakuten factor complicates SoftBank’s strategy

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Understanding SoftBank’s competitive strategy requires a bit of a deep dive into Japanese e-commence giant Rakuten.

Rakuten has been struggling to compete with Amazon and others like SoftBank’s Yahoo! Japan. So at the end of 2017, Rakuten announced it would be entering the telco space, hoping that operating its own network could generate user growth through better incentives around mobile shopping, streaming and payments.

Today, Japan’s telco space is a relatively cozy oligopoly dominated by NTT DoCoMo, au-KDDI and SoftBank. A major reason why Rakuten feels it can succeed where others have failed to break in is because it has the government on its side.

Rakuten’s plan to offer prices at least 30 percent lower than incumbent rates has led to favorable treatment from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government, which has been looking for ways to stimulate market competition to force lower the country’s high phone prices.

Though a new entrant hasn’t been approved to enter the telco market since eAccess in 2007, Rakuten has already gotten the thumbs-up to start operations in 2019. The government also instituted regulations that would make the new kid in town more competitive, such as banning telcos from limiting device portability.

Rakuten’s partnerships with key utilities and infrastructure players will also allow it to build out its network quickly, including one with Japan’s second largest mobile service provider, KDDI.

Just last week, Rakuten and KDDI announced an agreement where Rakuten will help KDDI utilize its payment and logistics infrastructure as KDDI turns its head toward e-commerce and payments, while KDDI will give Rakuten access to its network and nationwide roaming services, allowing Rakuten to provide nationwide service as its builds out its own infrastructure.

The agreement with KDDI is especially scary for SoftBank, the country’s third biggest telco and one of Rakuten’s e-commerce competitors, and whose customers seem most vulnerable to churn. The partnership also makes it seem even more likely that SoftBank’s competitors are looking to push it out of the market or turn into a dud its upcoming mobile segments IPO.

While Rakuten’s head-first dive into the market won’t ease investors into an IPO, it’s important we note that Rakuten is targeting a much smaller market share than the incumbents, targeting 10 million subscribers by 2028, a number lower than the company’s original 15 million subs goal and significantly lower than the 76 million, 52 million and 40 million subscribers NTT, KDDI and SoftBank (respectively) hold currently. And even with its agreements, Rakuten faces a serious and expensive uphill battle in building out its network infrastructure quickly enough to compete.

Ultimately, Rakuten’s telco initiative is a splash, but one that seems like it will merely make its competitors wet and not drown them. For SoftBank, it is an annoying distraction on its telco IPO roadshow, but a distraction that is easily explained to potential investors.

SoftBank growth over the past two decades

Rajeev Misra. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Changing gears from Rakuten, emails from readers this week asked us to look deeper into SoftBank’s performance over the last two decades. As we did so, it became clear that SoftBank has had a long history of price competitions and new entrants across its businesses, and it has proven its ability to operate and consistently grow earnings.

Since 2000, SoftBank has grown earnings at a ~30 percent CAGR and experienced revenue growth in all but one year. When eAccess did enter the telco market and picked up four million subscribers, SoftBank bought it and integrated it into its own system.

As we discussed earlier this week, despite having always held on to a clunky amount of debt, SoftBank has managed to deliver consistent growth by making sure its revenue and operating growth outpaced the upticks in its debt and interest expense.

A great example of this came after SoftBank’s acquisition of Vodafone in 2006, when it saw a huge spike in its interest expense, but also in its operating income.

Over the following five years, SoftBank managed to reduce its interest expense at an annual rate of 12 percent while growing its operating income at 16 percent. And regardless of its debt balances, SoftBank has always seemingly been able to secure funding one way or another, as shown by its ability to raise $90+ billion for the Vision Fund in less than a year from when plans for the fund were first reported.

The Vision Fund itself started as a way for SoftBank to continue to invest while its balance sheet was tight due to nearly back-to-back massive acquisitions of Sprint and Arm. Just look at how Rajeev Misra, who oversees the Vision Fund, discussed its creation in an interview with The Economic Times:

We had just bought ARM in June for $32 billion and Masa felt we are on the cusp of a technology revolution over the next 5-10 years with machine learning, AI, robotics and the impact of that in disrupting every industry – from healthcare to financial services to manufacturing.

We felt the world was going through a new industrial revolution. We were constrained financially given that we just did a $32-billion acquisition.

SoftBank, historically over the last 20 years, has invested from its own balance sheet. So, we had two options.

Either monetise some of the gains we made in Alibaba which we decided has a lot more upside… Alibaba has more than doubled in the last 12 months. So we decided to keep it which turned out to be good decision. The second option was to go out and raise money and co-invest with others. We prepared a presentation, went out, and by god’s grace we raised the fund.

Even before the Vision Fund, SoftBank has always had a strategy to make big bets in industries of the future. And while many have failed, the several that have paid off, like its $20 million investment in Alibaba, had massive cash outs that have driven consistent earnings growth for decades. SoftBank seems to be banking its future on the same strategy and, frankly, it’s unclear how much they even care about how competitive their telco is, as shown by this exchange in the same interview with Misra:

Question: What about sectors like telecom?

Misra: Let the dust settle.

What’s next

Our obsession with SoftBank this week is probably going to subside, and we are in the market for our next deep dive topic in tech and finance. Have ideas? Drop us a line at danny@techcrunch.com and arman.tabatabai@techcrunch.com

Thoughts on articles (i.e. weekend reading)

Photo by Darren Johnson / EyeEm via Getty Images

The CIA’s communications suffered a catastrophic compromise. It started in Iran. This is a great follow-up from Yahoo News’ Zach Dorfman and Jenna McLaughlin on one of the most important espionage stories this past decade. The CIA, using an internet-based communications system to connect with spies and sources in the field, failed to keep the security of the system intact, leading to the dismantling of its Iranian, Chinese and potentially other espionage rings. This article advances the story as we know it from the New York Times’ original piece, and Foreign Policy’s excellent follow up also written by Zach Dorfman. Definitely worth a read from a security/technical audience. (3,200 words)

The $6 Trillion Barrier Holding Electric Cars Back. Don’t read — the answer is infrastructure. (1,000 words, but should be one)

The Rodney Brooks Rules for Predicting a Technology’s Commercial Success. A a good reminder that some technologies are much closer to reality than others, and that the key difference between them is our collective experience handling the technology. Rodney Brooks is the right person to cover this subject, although one can’t help but feel that every example is Musk-inspired. (2,800 words)

Uber’s economics team is its secret weapon by Alison Griswold & Soon there may be more economists at tech companies than in policy schools by Roberta Holland, both in Quartz . Griswold does a great job giving an overview of how Uber is using economists not just to improve its product for end users, but also to shape the discussion of public policy around the company. Clearly, Uber is not alone; as Holland notes in her piece, academic economists are very popular in Silicon Valley right now, with salaries that can match the top machine learning experts. (2,750 words and 1,200 words, respectively)

The future’s so bright, I gotta wear blinders. A short piece by Nicholas Carr fighting back against the notion that computing is still “at the beginning.” Many of our devices and pieces of software are already decades old — if they haven’t had an effect on human behavior or productivity, when are they going to? A useful antidote to some ideas we hear from the Valley every single day. (900 words)

The future of photography is code. Yes, yes, I am very late to this — blame Pocket disease. TechCrunch’s own Devin Coldewey writes a candid essay on the transition from improving photography through hardware like lenses to improving photos through computation. The future is looking very bright for beautiful photos, indeed. (2,400 words)

Freedom on the Net 2018 | Freedom House. And if you are looking for some depressing news, Freedom House’s report (which I am also a bit late to) is dreary. China is now increasingly the source of authoritarian internet control technology, and countries across the world are backtracking on internet freedom (including the U.S.). Sobering, but with so much riding on the openness of the internet, we all need to pay attention and build the kind of future for this technology that we want. (32 page PDF with exec summary)

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What we are reading (or at least, trying to read)

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Xiaomi is opening a retail store in London as it extends its Europe push

Posted by | Amazon, Android, Asia, Carphone Warehouse, Europe, Italy, Lei Jun, London, smartphones, spain, United Kingdom, United States, westfield mall, Xiaomi | No Comments

Xiaomi’s expansion into Europe continues at speed after the Chinese smartphone maker announced plans to open its first retail store in London.

The company is best known for developing quality Android phones at affordable prices and already it has launched devices in Spain, Italy and France. Now, that foray has touched the U.K., where Xiaomi launched its Mi 8 Pro device at an event yesterday and revealed that it will open a store at the Westfield mall in London on November 18.

That outlet will become Xiaomi’s first authorized Mi Store. Styled on Apple’s iconic stores, the Mi store will showcase a range of products, not all of which are available in the U.K.

Still, Xiaomi has shown a taste of what it plans to offer in the U.K. by introducing a number of products alongside the Mi 8 Pro this week. Those include its budget-tier Redmi 6A phone and, in its accessories range, the Xiaomi Band 3 fitness device and the £399 Mi Electric Scooter. The company said there are more to come.

That product selection will be available via Xiaomi’s own Mi.com store and a range of other outlets, including Amazon, Carphone Warehouse and Three, which will have exclusive distribution of Xiaomi’s smartphones among U.K. telecom operators.

It’s official, Xiaomi has finally arrived in the UK! We brought our flagship #Mi8Pro which had its global debut outside Greater China. Other products announced include Xiaomi Band 3, our wildly popular fitness band, as well as Mi Electric Scooter. pic.twitter.com/YlOBysFBgM

— Wang Xiang (@XiangW_) November 8, 2018

Xiaomi hasn’t branched out into the U.S. — it does sell a number of accessories — but the European launches mark a new phase of its international expansion to take it beyond Asia. While Xiaomi does claim to be present in “more than 70 countries and regions around the world,” it has recorded most of its success in China, India and pockets of Asia.

CEO Lei Jun has, however, spoken publicly of his goal to sell Xiaomi phones in the U.S. by “early 2019” at the latest.

Still, even with its focus somewhat limited, Xiaomi claims it has shipped a record 100 million devices in 2018 to date. The firm also posted a $2.1 billion profit in its first quarter as a public company following its Hong Kong IPO. However, the IPO underwhelmed, with Xiaomi going public at $50 billion, half of its reported target, while its shares have been valued at below their IPO price since the middle of September.

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The ultimate guide to gifting STEM toys: tons of ideas for little builders

Posted by | adafruit industries, Anki, artificial intelligence, Asia, BBC Micro, Disney, Education, Europe, Gadgets, Gaming, Gift Guide 2018, hardware, Kano, littlebits, makeblock, mattel, robotics, TC | No Comments

The holiday season is here again, touting all sorts of kids’ toys that pledge to pack ‘STEM smarts’ in the box, not just the usual battery-based fun.

Educational playthings are nothing new, of course. But, in recent years, long time toymakers and a flurry of new market entrants have piggybacked on the popularity of smartphones and apps, building connected toys for even very young kids that seek to tap into a wider ‘learn to code’ movement which itself feeds off worries about the future employability of those lacking techie skills.

Whether the lofty educational claims being made for some of these STEM gizmos stands the test of time remains to be seen. Much of this sums to clever branding. Though there’s no doubt a lot of care and attention has gone into building this category out, you’ll also find equally eye-catching price-tags.

Whatever STEM toy you buy there’s a high chance it won’t survive the fickle attention spans of kids at rest and play. (Even as your children’s appetite to be schooled while having fun might dash your ‘engineer in training’ expectations.) Tearing impressionable eyeballs away from YouTube or mobile games might be your main parental challenge — and whether kids really need to start ‘learning to code’ aged just 4 or 5 seems questionable.

Buyers with high ‘outcome’ hopes for STEM toys should certainly go in with their eyes, rather than their wallets, wide open. The ‘STEM premium’ can be steep indeed, even as the capabilities and educational potential of the playthings themselves varies considerably.

At the cheaper end of the price spectrum, a ‘developmental toy’ might not really be so very different from a more basic or traditional building block type toy used in concert with a kid’s own imagination, for example.

While, at the premium end, there are a few devices in the market that are essentially fully fledged computers — but with a child-friendly layer applied to hand-hold and gamify STEM learning. An alternative investment in your child’s future might be to commit to advancing their learning opportunities yourself, using whatever computing devices you already have at home. (There are plenty of standalone apps offering guided coding lessons, for example. And tons and tons of open source resources.)

For a little DIY STEM learning inspiration read this wonderful childhood memoir by TechCrunch’s very own John Biggs — a self-confessed STEM toy sceptic.

It’s also worth noting that some startups in this still youthful category have already pivoted more toward selling wares direct to schools — aiming to plug learning gadgets into formal curricula, rather than risking the toys falling out of favor at home. Which does lend weight to the idea that standalone ‘play to learn’ toys don’t necessarily live up to the hype. And are getting tossed under the sofa after a few days’ use.

We certainly don’t suggest there are any shortcuts to turn kids into coders in the gift ideas presented here. It’s through proper guidance — plus the power of their imagination — that the vast majority of children learn. And of course kids are individuals, with their own ideas about what they want to do and become.

The increasingly commercialized rush towards STEM toys, with hundreds of millions of investor dollars being poured into the category, might also be a cause for parental caution. There’s a risk of barriers being thrown up to more freeform learning — if companies start pushing harder to hold onto kids’ attention in a more and more competitive market. Barriers that could end up dampening creative thinking.

At the same time (adult) consumers are becoming concerned about how much time they spend online and on screens. So pushing kids to get plugged in from a very early age might not feel like the right thing to do. Your parental priorities might be more focused on making sure they develop into well rounded human beings — by playing with other kids and/or non-digital toys that help them get to know and understand the world around them, and encourage using more of their own imagination.

But for those fixed on buying into the STEM toy craze this holiday season, we’ve compiled a list of some of the main players, presented in alphabetical order, rounding up a selection of what they’re offering for 2018, hitting a variety of price-points, product types and age ranges, to present a market overview — and with the hope that a well chosen gift might at least spark a few bright ideas…


Adafruit Kits

Product: Metro 328 Starter Pack 
Price: $45
Description: Not a typical STEM toy but a starter kit from maker-focused and electronics hobbyist brand Adafruit. The kit is intended to get the user learning about electronics and Arduino microcontrollers to set them on a path to being a maker. Adafruit says the kit is designed for “everyone, even people with little or no electronics and programming experience”. Though parental supervision is a must unless you’re buying for a teenager or mature older child. Computer access is also required for programming the Arduino.

Be sure to check out Adafruit’s Young Engineers Category for a wider range of hardware hacking gift ideas too, from $10 for a Bare Conductive Paint Pen, to $25 for the Drawdio fun pack, to $35 for this Konstruktor DIY Film Camera Kit or $75 for the Snap Circuits Green kit — where budding makers can learn about renewable energy sources by building a range of solar and kinetic energy powered projects. Adafruit also sells a selection of STEM focused children’s books too, such as Python for Kids ($35)
Age: Teenagers, or younger children with parental supervision


[inline-ads]

Anki

Product: Cozmo
Price: $180
Description: The animation loving Anki team added a learn-to-code layer to their cute, desktop-mapping bot last year — called Cozmo Code Lab, which was delivered via free update — so the cartoonesque, programmable truck is not new on the scene for 2018 but has been gaining fresh powers over the years.

This year the company has turned its attention to adults, launching a new but almost identical-looking assistant-style bot, called Vector, that’s not really aimed at kids. That more pricey ($250) robot is slated to be getting access to its code lab in future, so it should have some DIY programming potential too.
Age: 8+


Dash Robotics

Product: Kamigami Jurassic World Robot
Price: ~$60
Description: Hobbyist robotics startup Dash Robotics has been collaborating with toymaker Mattel on the Kamigami line of biologically inspired robots for over a year now. The USB-charged bots arrive at kids’ homes in build-it-yourself form before coming to programmable, biomimetic life via the use of a simple, icon-based coding interface in the companion app.

The latest addition to the range is dinosaur bot series Jurassic World, currently comprised of a pair of pretty similar looking raptor dinosaurs, each with light up eyes and appropriate sound effects. Using the app kids can complete challenges to unlock new abilities and sounds. And if you have more than one dinosaur in the same house they can react to each other to make things even more lively.
Age: 8+


Kano

Product: Harry Potter Coding Kit
Price: $100
Description: British learn-to-code startup Kano has expanded its line this year with a co-branded, build-it-yourself wand linked to the fictional Harry Potter wizard series. The motion-sensitive e-product features a gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer and Bluetooth wireless so kids can use it to interact with coding content on-screen. The company offers 70-plus challenges for children to play wizard with, using wand gestures to manipulate digital content. Like many STEM toys it requires a tablet or desktop computer to work its digital magic (iOS and Android tablets are supported, as well as desktop PCs including Kano’s Computer Kit Touch, below)
Age: 6+

Product: Computer Kit Touch
Price: $280
Description: The latest version of Kano’s build-it-yourself Pi-powered kids’ computer. This year’s computer kit includes the familiar bright orange physical keyboard but now paired with a touchscreen. Kano reckons touch is a natural aid to the drag-and-drop, block-based learn-to-code systems it’s putting under kids’ fingertips here. Although its KanoOS Pi skin does support text-based coding too, and can run a wide range of other apps and programs — making this STEM device a fully fledged computer in its own right
Age: 6-13



Lego

Product: Boost Creative Toolbox
Price: $160
Description: Boost is Lego’s relatively recent foray into offering a simpler robotics and programming system aimed at younger kids vs its more sophisticated and expensive veteran Mindstorms creator platform (for 10+ year olds). The Boost Creative Toolbox is an entry point to Lego + robotics, letting kids build a range of different brick-based bots — all of which can be controlled and programmed via the companion app which offers an icon-based coding system.

Boost components can also be combined with other Lego kits to bring other not-electronic kits to life — such as its Stormbringer Ninjago Dragon kit (sold separately for $40). Ninjago + Boost means = a dragon that can walk and turn its head as if it’s about to breathe fire
Age: 7-12


littleBits

Product: Avengers Hero Inventor Kit
Price: $150
Description: This Disney co-branded wearable in kit form from the hardware hackers over at littleBits lets superhero-inspired kids snap together all sorts of electronic and plastic bits to make their own gauntlet from the Avengers movie franchise. The gizmo features an LED matrix panel, based on Tony Stark’s palm Repulsor Beam, they can control via companion app. There are 18 in-app activities for them to explore, assuming kids don’t just use amuse themselves acting out their Marvel superhero fantasies
Age: 8+

It’s worth noting that littleBits has lots more to offer — so if bringing yet more Disney-branded merch into your home really isn’t your thing, check out its wide range of DIY electronics kits, which cater to various price points, such as this Crawly Creature Kit ($40) or an Electronic Music Inventor Kit ($100), and much more… No major movie franchises necessary


Makeblock

Product: Codey Rocky
Price: $100
Description: Shenzhen-based STEM kit maker Makeblock crowdfunded this emotive, programmable bot geared towards younger kids on Kickstarter. There’s no assembly required, though the bot itself can transform into a wearable or handheld device for game playing, as Codey (the head) detaches from Rocky (the wheeled body).

Despite the young target age, the toy is packed with sophisticated tech — making use of deep learning algorithms, for example. While the company’s visual programming system, mBlock, also supports Python text coding, and allows kids to code bot movements and visual effects on the display, tapping into the 10 programmable modules on this sensor-heavy bot. Makeblock says kids can program Codey to create dot matrix animations, design games and even build AI and IoT applications, thanks to baked in support for voice, image and even face recognition… The bot has also been designed to be compatible with Lego bricks so kids can design and build physical add-ons too
Age: 6+

Product: Airblock
Price: $100
Description: Another programmable gizmo from Makeblock’s range. Airblock is a modular and programmable drone/hovercraft so this is a STEM device that can fly. Magnetic connectors are used for easy assembly of the soft foam pieces. Several different assembly configurations are possible. The companion app’s block-based coding interface is used for programming and controlling your Airblock creations
Age: 8+



Ozobot

Product: Evo
Price: $100
Description: This programmable robot has a twist as it can be controlled without a child always having to be stuck to a screen. The Evo’s sensing system can detect and respond to marks made by marker pens and stickers in the accompanying Experience Pack — so this is coding via paper plus visual cues.

There is also a digital, block-based coding interface for controlling Evo, called OzoBlockly (based on Google’s Blockly system). This has a five-level coding system to support a range of ages, from pre-readers (using just icon-based blocks), up to a ‘Master mode’ which Ozobot says includes extensive low-level control and advanced programming features
Age: 9+


Pi-top


Product: Modular Laptop
Price: $320 (with a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+), $285 without
Description: This snazzy 14-inch modular laptop, powered by Raspberry Pi, has a special focus on teaching coding and electronics. Slide the laptop’s keyboard forward and it reveals a built in rail for hardware hacking. Guided projects designed for kids include building a music maker and a smart robot. The laptop runs pi-top’s learn-to-code oriented OS — which supports block-based coding programs like Scratch and kid-friendly wares like Minecraft Pi edition, as well as its homebrew CEEDUniverse: A Civilization style game that bakes in visual programming puzzles to teach basic coding concepts. The pi-top also comes with a full software suite of more standard computing apps (including apps from Google and Microsoft). So this is no simple toy. Not a new model for this year — but still a compelling STEM machine
Age: 8+


Robo Wunderkind


Product: Starter Kit
Price: $200 
Description: Programmable robotics blocks for even very young inventors. The blocks snap together and are color-coded based on function so as to minimize instruction for the target age group. Kids can program their creations to do stuff like drive, play music, detect obstacles and more via a drag-and-drop coding interface in the companion Robo Code app. Another app — Robo Live — lets them control what they’ve built in real time. The physical blocks can also support Lego-based add-ons for more imaginative designs
Age: 5+


Root Robotics

Product: Root
Price: $200
Description: A robot that can sense and draw, thanks to a variety of on board sensors, battery-powered kinetic energy and its central feature: A built-in pen holder. Root uses spirographs as the medium for teaching STEM as kids get to code what the bot draws. They can also create musical compositions with a scan and play mode that turns Root into a music maker. The companion app offers three levels of coding interfaces to support different learning abilities and ages. At the top end it supports programming in Swift (with Python and JavaScript slated as coming soon). An optional subscription service offers access to additional learning materials and projects to expand Root’s educational value
Age: 4+



Sphero


Product: Bolt
Price: $150
Description: The app-enabled robot ball maker’s latest STEM gizmo. It’s still a transparent sphere but now has an 8×8 LED matrix lodged inside to expand the programmable elements. This colorful matrix can be programmed to display words, show data in real-time and offer game design opportunities. Bolt also includes an ambient light sensor, and speed and direction sensors, giving it an additional power up over earlier models. The Sphero Edu companion app supports drawing, Scratch-style block-based and JavaScript text programming options to suit different ages
Age: 8+


Tech Will Save Us

Product: Range of coding, electronics and craft kits
Price: From ~$30 up to $150
Description: A delightful range of electronic toys and coding kits, hitting various age and price-points, and often making use of traditional craft materials (which of course kids love). Examples include a solar powered moisture sensor kit ($40) to alert when a pot plant needs water; electronic dough ($35); a micro:bot add-on kit ($35) that makes use of the BBC micro:bit device (sold separately); and the creative coder kit ($70), which pairs block-based coding with a wearable that lets kids see their code in action (and reacting to their actions)
Age: 4+, 8+, 11+ depending on kit


UBTech Robotics

Product: JIMU Robot BuilderBots Series: Overdrive Kit
Price: $120
Description: More snap-together, codable robot trucks that kids get to build and control. These can be programmed either via posing and recording, or using Ubtech’s drag-and-drop, block-based Blockly coding program. The Shenzhen-based company, which has been in the STEM game for several years, offers a range of other kits in the same Jimu kit series — such as this similarly priced UnicornBot and its classic MeeBot Kit, which can be expanded via the newer Animal Add-on Kit
Age: 8+


Wonder Workshop

Product: Dot Creativity Kit 
Price: $80
Description: San Francisco-based Wonder Workshop offers a kid-friendly blend of controllable robotics and DIY craft-style projects in this entry-level Dot Creativity Kit. Younger kids can play around and personalize the talkative connected device. But the startup sells a trio of chatty robots all aimed at encouraging children to get into coding. Next in line there’s Dash ($150), also for 6+ year olds. Then Cue ($200) for 11+. The startup also has a growing range of accessories to expand the bots’ (programmable) functionality — such as this Sketch Kit ($40) which adds a few arty smarts to Dash or Cue.

With Dot, younger kids play around using a suite of creative apps to control and customize their robot and tap more deeply into its capabilities, with the apps supporting a range of projects and puzzles designed to both entertain them and introduce basic coding concepts.
Age: 6+


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China’s frenzy over League of Legends championship sheds light on esports growth

Posted by | Asia, China, communist party, esports, Gaming, league of legends, online gaming, Riot Games, social media platforms, Tencent, Weibo | No Comments

When China’s Invictus Gaming defeated European squad Fnatic in the League of Legends 2018 finals this past Saturday, China’s social media platforms became awash in ecstasy and pride.

“It’s like winning an Olympic gold, a teenage dream come true,” writes one thirty-something audience of the competition on his WeChat feed.

Many others share that sentiment. So far, the hashtag #IG冠军, which means “IG the champion,” has generated over one million threads on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter with over four million monthly active users. This is a critical moment for China’s first-generation of players who grew up under parents and teachers who too easily dismissed all kinds of video games.

IG’s victory marks the first time a Chinese team has won the world championship for LoL – fondly called so by fans – the world’s most played PC game according to research firm Newzoo. The role-playing and monster-slaying title is run by Riot Games Inc, a Los Angeles-headquartered studio that WeChat operator Tencent fully bought out in 2015.

It wasn’t just gamers and the youth cheering for IG. Chinese mainstream media also rushed to congratulate. An op-ed from the communist party paper Guangming Daily called IG’s victory “an alternative path to the national sports dream.”

China has a history of obsessing over sports, evident in its generous spending on the Summer Olympics back in 2008 and the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics. Now esports – or competitive video gaming – as an officially recognized sporting event, is gaining ground among policymakers.

Esports in China has grown from a 53.2 billion yuan ($7.72 billion) industry in 2016 into one that’s estimated to earmark 88.7 billion yuan ($12.87 billion) in revenue in 2018, according to research firm Gamma Data. Local officials across the country want a share of the booming market. In some cases, the governments have shelled out billions of yuan to turn their no-name towns into “esports hub” that would house competitions and gaming companies in hope of stimulating local economies.

lLeague of legends china ig

Private companies have joined in the game, too. Tencent, China’s largest gaming company by revenue, has invested in NYSE-listed Huya and Douyu, two of China’s leading esports livestreaming services. IG itself is an esports organization that Wang Sicong, son of China’s once richest man Wang Jianlin, founded in 2011 and catapulted to today’s stardom.

But China’s relationship with video games overall has always been murky. While the government is rooting for professional gaming, it’s tightening control over leisure ones, condemning game publishers like Tencent for “poisoning” juveniles with blockbuster titles.

“The Chinese government treats esports and leisure games very differently,” a staff in the esports division of a major global gaming studio who asks to remain anonymous told TechCrunch. “I don’t think IG’s victory will cause big changes to the government’s attitude.”

Tencent, which earns two-thirds of its revenue from online gaming, lost $17.5 billion in market valuation when China’s state newspaper slashed its popular Honor of Kings, widely regarded a mobile copycat of LoL. This year, a hiatus in game license approvals again puts pressure on Tencent stock prices and profitability.

For esports and League of Legends alone, however, IG’s glory could mean a brighter future.

“At least now we will see League of Legends’ popularity continue into a couple more years. Esports’ development may also benefit from the event,” suggests the gaming company staff.

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Chat app Line’s games business raises $110M for growth opportunities

Posted by | anchor equity partners, Apps, Asia, Fundings & Exits, game publisher, Gaming, Indonesia, Japan, Kakao, korea, line, line corp, messaging apps, Nintendo, north america, Software, taiwan, TC, Thailand, Ticket Monster | No Comments

Messaging app firm Line has given up majority control of its Line Games business after it raised outside financing to expand its collection of titles and go after global opportunities.

The Line Games business was formed earlier this year when Line merged its existing gaming division from NextFloor, the Korea-based game publisher that it acquired in 2017. Now the business has taken on capital from Anchor Equity Partners, which has provided 125 billion KRW ($110 million) in financing via its Lungo Entertainment entity, according to a disclosure from Line.

A Line spokesperson clarified that the deal will see Anchor acquire 144,743 newly created shares to take a 27.55 percent stake in Line Games. That increase means Line Corp’s own shareholding is diluted from 57.6 percent to a minority 41.73 percent stake.

Korea-based Anchor is best known for a number of deals in its homeland, including investments in e-commerce giant Ticket Monster, Korean chat giant Kakao’s Podotree content business and fashion retail group E-Land.

Line operates its eponymous chat app, which is the most popular messaging platform in Japan, Thailand and Taiwan, and also significantly used in Indonesia, but gaming is a major source of income. This year to date, Line has made 28.5 billion JPY ($250 million) from its content division, which is primarily virtual goods and in-app purchases from its social games. That division accounts for 19 percent of Line’s total revenue, and it is a figure that is only better by its advertising unit, which has grossed 79.3 billion JPY, or $700 million, in 2018 to date.

The games business is currently focused on Japan, Korea, Thailand and Taiwan, but it said that the new capital will go toward finding new IP for future titles and identifying games with global potential. It is also open to more strategic deals to broaden its focus.

While Line has always been big on games, Line Games isn’t just building for its own service. The company said earlier this year that it plans to focus on non-mobile platforms, which will include the Nintendo Switch among others consoles.

That comes from the addition of NextFloor, which is best known for titles like Dragon Flight and Destiny Child. Dragon Flight has racked up 14 million users since its 2012 launch; at its peak it saw $1 million in daily revenue. Destiny Child, a newer release in 2016, topped the charts in Korea and has been popular in Japan, North America and beyond.

Line went public in 2016 via a dual U.S.-Japan IPO that raised more than $1 billion.

Note: The original version of this article was updated to clarify that Lungo Entertainment is buying newly issued shares.

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Xiaomi opts for sliding camera and no notch for new bezel-less Mi Mix phone

Posted by | artificial intelligence, Asia, Beijing, China, computing, Europe, Mobile, RAM, smartphones, technology, Xiaomi | No Comments

Xiaomi has announced the newest version of its bezel-less Mi Mix family, and it doesn’t sport a notch like its Mi 8 flagship. Indeed, unlike the Mi 8 — which I called one of Xiaomi’s most brazen Apple clones — there’s a lot more to get excited about.

The Mi Mix 3 was unveiled at an event in Beijing and, like its predecessor, Xiaomi boasts that it offers a full front screen. Rather than opting for the near-industry standard notch, Xiaomi has developed a slider that houses its front-facing camera. Vivo and Oppo have done similar using a motorized approach, but Xiaomi’s is magnetic while it can also be programmed for functions such as answering calls.

That array gives it a claimed 93.4 percent screen-to-body ratio and a full 6.4-inch 1080p AMOLED display. The slider, by the way, is good for 300,000 cycles, according to Xiaomi’s lab testing.

The device itself follows the much-lauded Mi Mix aesthetic with a Snapdragon 845 processor and up to 10GB in RAM (!) in the highest-end model. Xiaomi puts plenty of emphasis on cameras. The Mi Mix 3 includes four of them: a 24-megapixel front camera paired with a two-megapixel sensor and on the back, like the Mi 8, a dual camera array with two 12-megapixel cameras.

Xiaomi has also snuck an ‘AI button’ on the left side of the phone, a first for the company. That awakens its Xiao Ai voice assistant, but since it only supports Chinese don’t expect to see that on worldwide models.

The 10GB version — made in partnership with Palace Museum, located at the Forbidden City where the device was launched — also packs 256GB of onboard storage and is priced at RMB 4,999, or $720. That’s in addition to a ceramic design that Xiaomi says is inspired by the museum… better that than a fruity-sounding U.S. company.

That’s the special model, and the more affordable options include 6GB + 128GB for RMB 3,299 ($475), 8GB +128G for RMB 3,599 ($520) and 8GB + 256GB for RMB 3,999 ($575). The company also plans to introduce a 5G version in Europe sometime early next year.

Xiaomi said the phones will go on sale in China from 1 November, there’s no word on international availability or pricing right now.

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Mobvoi launches new $200 smartwatch and $130 AirPods alternative

Posted by | Android, Apple, artificial intelligence, Asia, Assistant, China, computing, Gadgets, Google, indiegogo, Kickstarter, mobvoi, Qualcomm, smartwatches, TC, voice assistant, wearable devices | No Comments

Chinese AI company Mobvoi has consistently been one of the best also-rans in the smartwatch game, which remains dominated by Apple. Today, it launched a sequel to its 2016 TicWatch, which was a viral hit raising over $2 million on Kickstarter, and it unveiled a cheaper take on Apple’s AirPods.

The new TicWatch C2 was outed at a London event and is priced at $199.99. Unlike its predecessor, it has shifted from Mobvoi’s own OS to Google’s Wear OS. That isn’t a huge surprise, though, since Mobvoi’s newer budget watches and ‘pro’ watch have both already made that jump.

The C2 — which stands for classic 2 — packs NFC, Bluetooth, NFC and a voice assistant. It comes in black, platinum and rose gold. The latter color option — shown below — is thinner so presumably it is designed for female wrists.

However, there’s a compromise since the watch isn’t shipping with Qualcomm’s newest Snapdragon Wear 3100 chip. Mobvoi has instead picked the older 2100 processor. That might explain the price, but it will mean that newer Android Wear watches shipping in the company months have better performance, particularly around battery life. As it stands, the TicWatch C2 claims a day-two life but the processor should be a consideration for would-be buyers.

Mobvoi also outed TicPods Free, its take on Apple’s wireless AirPods. They are priced at $129.99 and available in red, white and blue.

The earbuds already raised over $2.8 million from Indiegogo — Mobvoi typically uses crowdfunding to gather feedback and assess customer interest — and early reviews have been positive.

They work on Android and iOS and include support for Alex and Google Assistant. They also include gesture-based controls beyond the Apple-style taps for skipping music, etc. Battery life without the case, which doubles as a charger, is estimated at 18 hours, or four hours of listening time.

The TicPods are available to buy online now. The TicWatch C2 is up for pre-sale ahead of a “wide” launch that’s planned for December 6.

Mobvoi specializes in AI and it includes Google among its investors. It also has a joint venture with VW that is focused on bringing Ai into the automotive industry. In China it is best known for AI services but globally, in the consumer space, it also offers a Google Assistant speaker called TicHome Mini.

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Indonesian fintech startup Moka raises $24M led by Sequoia India

Posted by | Android, Asia, East Ventures, eCommerce, fenox, Finance, funding, Fundings & Exits, Indonesia, moka, PayPal, softbank ventures korea, Southeast Asia, Vertex Ventures | No Comments

Indonesia’s Moka, a startup that helps SMEs and retailers manage payment and other business operations, has pulled in a $24 million Series B round for growth.

The investment is led by Sequoia India and Southeast Asia — which recently announced a new $695 million fund — with participation from new backers SoftBank Ventures Korea, EDBI — the corporate investment arm of Singapore’s Economic Development Board — and EV Growth, the later stage fund from Moka seed investor East Ventures. Existing investors Mandiri Capital, Convergence and Fenox also put into the round.

The deal takes Moka to $27.9 million raised to date, according to data from Crunchbase.

Moka was started four years ago primarily as a point-of-sale (POS) terminal with some basic business functionality. Today, it claims to work with 12,500 retailers in Indonesia and its services include sales reports, inventory management, table management, loyalty programs, and more. Its primary areas of focus are retailers in the F&B, apparel and services industries. It charges upwards of IDR 249,000 ($17) per month for its basic service and claims to be close to $1 billion in annual transaction volume from its retail partners.

That’s the company’s core offering, a mobile app that turns any Android or iOS device into a point-of-sale terminal, but CEO and co-founder Haryanto Tanjo — who started the firm with CTO Grady Laksmono — said it harbors larger goals.

“Our vision is to be a platform, we want to be an ecosystem,” he told TechCrunch in an interview.

That’s where much of this new capital will be invested.

Tanjo said the company is opening its platform up to third-party providers, who can use it to reach merchants with services such as accounting, payroll, HR and more. The focus is initially on local services that cater to SMEs in Indonesia, but as Moka targets larger enterprises as clients, he said that it will integrate larger, global solutions, too.

Moka offers services beyond point-of-sale, but the core offering is turning any smart device into a cash machine

Moka itself is expanding its capabilities on the payment side.

Indonesia, the world’s fourth largest country based on population and Southeast Asia’s largest economy, is in the midst of a fintech revolution with numerous companies pioneering mobile-based wallet services aimed at ending the country’s fixation on cash-based transactions. That’s mean that there are a plethora of options available today. Tanjo said Moka is working to support them all in order to help its merchants grow their businesses and consumers to have easier lives.

There are so many wallets here in Indonesia,” he said. “There are more than 10 right now and maybe in the next few months there’ll be 15-20, we want to be the platform that works with all of them.”

Already it works with the likes of OVO, T-Cash and Akulaku, and e-wallets including DANA and Kredivo. The startup is also working in another area of fintech: loans.

As an extension of its platform, it has tied up with SME loan companies who can reach out to Moka businesses using its platform. With the merchant’s consent, Moka can provide business data — including revenue, profit, etc — to help provide data to assess a loan application. That’s important because the process is particularly challenging in Southeast Asia, where few organized credit checking facilities exist — it makes sense that Moka — which has built its business around encouraging business growth and management — uses the information it has access to help its partners.

Tanjo said the company takes an undisclosed cut of the loan in cases where it has successfully connected the two parties. He said that he doesn’t expect that to initially become a major revenue stream, but over time he anticipates it will help its customer base grow and become a more important source of income for the startup.

Sequoia India has some experience in POS startups having backed Pine Labs in India, which recently landed a big $125 million round from PayPal and Singapore sovereign fund Temasek. Still, there are plenty of local players across various markets in Southeast Asia, including StoreHub, which is backed by Temasek subsidiary Vertex Ventures, and Malaysia’s SoftSpace.

While those two competitors have established a presence in multiple markets in Southeast Asia, Tanjo — the Moka CEO — said there are no plans to venture overseas for at least the next 12 months.

“We’re still scratching the service,” he said. “So [it] doesn’t make sense to expand too soon.”

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Google gets more RCS messaging support from Samsung

Posted by | Android, Apps, Asia, Google, imessage, jibe mobile, messaging apps, Mobile, Rich Communications Services, Samsung, samsung galaxy, samsung galaxy s8, smartphones, SMS, WhatsApp | No Comments

Google has secured a bit more buy in from Samsung for a next generation text messaging standard it’s long been promoting.

The Android OS maker’s hope for Rich Communication Services (RCS), which upgrades what SMS can offer to support richer comms and content swapping, can provide its fragmented Android ecosystem with a way to offer comparably rich native messaging — a la Apple’s iMessage on iOS.

But it’s a major, major task given how many Android devices are out there. And Google needs the entire industry to step with it to support RCS (not just device makers but carriers too) if it’s going to achieve anything more than fiddling around the edges.

Zooming out for a moment, the even bigger problem is the messaging ship has sailed, with massively popular platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram having already offloaded billions of users into their respective walled gardens, pulling the center of gravity away from SMS.

Not that that has stopped Google trying, though, even as it has been muddled in its strategy too — spreading its messaging efforts around quite a bit (with false starts like Allo).

Google doubled down on RCS in April when it pulled resources from the standalone Allo messaging app to focus on trying to drum up more support for next-gen SMS instead.

It has also managed to build a modicum of momentum behind RCS. At this year’s Mobile World Congress it announced more than 40 carriers now backed RCS — up from ~27 the year before. The most recent support figure put the carrier number at 55.

But, three years on from its acquisition of RCS specialist Jibe Mobile — and ambitious talk of building ‘the future of messaging’ — there’s little sign of that.

An added wrinkle is that carriers also have to have actively rolled out RCS support, not just stated they intend to. And it’s not clear exactly how many have.

Nor is it clear how many users of RCS there are at this stage. (Back in 2016 carriers were merely talking about building “a path” to one billion users — at a time when SMS had several billions of users, suggesting they saw little chance of creating anything near next-gen messaging ubiquity via the standard.)

The latest Google-backed RCS development, announced via press release, is of an “expanded collaboration” between Mountain View and Samsung — saying their respective message clients will “work seamlessly with each company’s RCS technology, including cloud and business messaging platforms”.

The pair have previously added RCS support to “select Samsung devices” but are now saying RCS features will be brought to some existing Samsung smartphones — including (and beginning with) the Galaxy S8 and S8+, as well as the S8 Active, S9, S9+, Note8, Note9, and select A and J series running Android 9.0 or later.

Which sounds like a fair few devices. But it’s also muddier than that — because again support remains subject to carrier and market availability. So won’t be universal across even that subset of Samsung Android handsets.

They also now say that (select) new Samsung Galaxy smartphones will natively support RCS messaging. But, again, that’s only where carriers support the standard.

“This means that consumers and brands will be able to enjoy richer chats with both Android Messages and Samsung Messages users,” they add, after their string of caveats.

Despite the PR ending on an upbeat note — with the two companies talking about bringing an “enhanced messaging experience across the entire Android ecosystem” — there’s clearly zero chance of that. A clear consequence of the rich ‘biodiversity’ of the Android ecosystem is reduced ubiquity for cross-device standardization plays like this. 

Still, if Google can cherry pick enough flagship devices and markets to buy in to supporting RCS it might have figured that’s critical messaging mass enough to stack against Apple’s iMessage. So added buy in from Samsung — whose high end devices are most often contending with iPhones for consumers’ cash — is certainly helpful to its strategy.

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