Baidu

TikTok-parent is getting into mobile search

Posted by | Apps, Asia, Baidu, bytedance, China, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Mobile, Tencent, tiktok, Toutiao, WeChat | No Comments

China’s ByteDance, which owns popular video sharing app TikTok, is already working to enter the smartphone business and the music streaming space. It appears the world’s most valued startup also has ambitions about developing its own search engine. Kind of.

A company spokesperson told TechCrunch on Thursday that it has introduced a search function in ByteDance’s Toutiao news app.

“The function is in line with Toutiao’s mission of ‘information creates value.’ Users can try the function in the app and provide feedback and suggestions on the new function,” the spokesperson said.

The search function gleans information from both content on Toutiao as well as the entire world wide web, TechCrunch understands.

From the looks of it, ByteDance’s current search functionality is more alike WeChat’s in-app search function than local giant Baidu’s or Google’s offering.

On WeChat, when a person looks up a keyword, they see news articles about that topic, followed by mentions of it from their friends. This is followed by random articles about the subject. When a user clicks on any of these article or news links, WeChat serves them the page through its in-app browser, giving them no option to leave the walled-garden.

The idea is to change the way people think about — and use — a search engine altogether. And in China, where apps such as WeChat and TikTok have gained gigantic reach on mobile, it seems logical to add all new functionalities within those apps.

ByteDance’s interest in a search engine became public on Wednesday after it published a recruitment post on its WeChat account. The startup said its “search engine” is aimed at “hundreds of millions of mobile users in China.”

“We will build a universal search engine with a better user experience from 0 to 1. Only you don’t want to search, there is no [info] you can’t find, because we can search the whole network,” the company said in the post.

According to the description in the listing, ByteDance has already hired people from other search engines such as Google, Baidu, Bing and 360.

An analysis of LinkedIn listings by TechCrunch found more than 100 people from Google, Microsoft and Baidu, many of whom worked around search divisions at the previous companies, have joined ByteDance in recent quarters.

ByteDance following Tencent’s WeChat model to create its alternate search business may add more worries to Baidu, which currently holds more than 75% of the search engine market in China, according to third-party web service StatCounter Global Stat. Microsoft’s Bing is also operational in the country, though its market share remains in the low-single digits. Google currently does not offer its search feature in China — though it has attempted to change that in recent months to no luck.

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The need-to-know takeaways from VidCon 2019

Posted by | Baidu, bytedance, Cargomatic, China, digital media, donald trump, DraftKings, events, Gaming, GGV, hans tung, Influencer Marketing, Kylie Jenner, Marketing, Media, musical.ly, new media, oprah winfrey, Singapore, social networks, Startups, STEM, synthetic media, TC, Tencent, tiktok, Twitch, Venture Capital, Video | No Comments

VidCon, the annual summit in Anaheim, CA for social media stars and their fans to meet each other drew over 75,000 attendees over last week and this past weekend. A small subset of those where entertainment and tech executives convening to share best practices and strike deals.

Of the wide range of topics discussed in the industry-only sessions and casual conversation, five trends stuck out to me as takeaways for Extra Crunch members: the prominence of TikTok, the strong presence of Chinese tech companies in general, the contemplation of deep fakes, curiosity around virtual influencers, and the widespread interest in developing consumer product startups around top content creators.

Newer platforms take center stage

GettyImages 1161447217

Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images

TikTok, the Chinese social video app (owned by Bytedance) that exploded onto the US market this past year, was the biggest conversation topic. Executives and talent managers were curious to see where it will go over the next year more than they were convinced that it is changing the industry in any fundamental way.

TikTok influencers were a major presence on the stages and taking selfies with fans on the conference floor. I overheard tweens saying “there are so many TikTokers here” throughout the conference. Meanwhile, TikTok’s US GM Vanessa Pappas held a session where she argued the app’s focus on building community among people who don’t already know each other (rather than being centered on your existing friendships) is a fundamental differentiator.

Kathleen Grace, CEO of production company New Form, noted that Tik Tok’s emphasis on visuals and music instead of spoken or written word makes it distinctly democratic in convening users across countries on equal footing.

Esports was also a big presence across the conference floor with teens lined up to compete at numerous simultaneous competitions. Twitch’s Mike Aragon and Jana Werner outlined Twitch’s expansion in content verticals adjacent to gaming like anime, sports, news, and “creative content’ as the first chapter in expanding the format of interactive live-streams across all verticals. They also emphasized the diversity of revenue streams Twitch enables creators to leverage: ads, tipping, monthly patronage, Twitch Prime, and Bounty Board (which connects brands and live streamers).

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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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The team behind Baidu’s first smart speaker is now using AI to make films

Posted by | AI, alpha, animation, Apple, artificial intelligence, Asia, Baidu, Beijing, california, Entertainment, Entrepreneur, Gaming, HBO, Los Angeles, natural language processing, Pixar Animation Studios, Series A, Speaker, Virtual reality, Westworld, Y Combinator | No Comments

The HBO sci-fi blockbuster Westworld has been an inspiring look into what humanlike robots can do for us in the meatspace. While current technologies are not quite advanced enough to make Westworld a reality, startups are attempting to replicate the sort of human-robot interaction it presents in virtual space.

Rct studio, which just graduated from Y Combinator and ranked among TechCrunch’s nine favorite picks from the batch, is one of them. The “Westworld” in the TV series, a far-future theme park staffed by highly convincing androids, lets visitors live out their heroic and sadistic fantasies free of consequences.

There are a few reasons why rct studio, which is keeping mum about the meaning of its deliberately lower-cased name for later revelation, is going for the computer-generated world. Besides the technical challenge, playing a fictional universe out virtually does away the geographic constraint. The Westworld experience, in contrast, happens within a confined, meticulously built park.

“Westworld is built in a physical world. I think in this age and time, that’s not what we want to get into,” Xinjie Ma, who heads up marketing for rct, told TechCrunch. “Doing it in the physical environment is too hard, but we can build a virtual world that’s completely under control.”

rct studio

Rct studio wants to build the Westworld experience in virtual worlds. / Image: rct studio

The startup appears suitable to undertake the task. The eight-people team is led by Cheng Lyu, the 29-year-old entrepreneur who goes by Jesse and helped Baidu build up its smart speaker unit from scratch after the Chinese search giant acquired his voice startup Raven in 2017. Along with several of Raven’s core members, Lyu left Baidu in 2018 to start rct.

“We appreciate a lot the support and opportunities given by Baidu and during the years we have grown up dramatically,” said Ma, who previously oversaw marketing at Raven.

Let AI write the script

Immersive films, or games, depending on how one wants to classify the emerging field, are already available with pre-written scripts for users to pick from. Rct wants to take the experience to the next level by recruiting artificial intelligence for screenwriting.

At the center of the project is the company’s proprietary engine, Morpheus. Rct feeds it mountains of data based on human-written storylines so the characters it powers know how to adapt to situations in real time. When the codes are sophisticated enough, rct hopes the engine can self-learn and formulate its own ideas.

“It takes an enormous amount of time and effort for humans to come up with a story logic. With machines, we can quickly produce an infinite number of narrative choices,” said Ma.

To venture through rct’s immersive worlds, users wear a virtual reality headset and control their simulated self via voice. The choice of audio came as a natural step given the team’s experience with natural language processing, but the startup also welcomes the chance to develop new devices for more lifelike journeys.

“It’s sort of like how the film Ready Player One built its own gadgets for the virtual world. Or Apple, which designs its own devices to carry out superior software experience,” explained Ma.

On the creative front, rct believes Morpheus could be a productivity tool for filmmakers as it can take a story arc and dissect it into a decision-making tree within seconds. The engine can also render text to 3D images, so when a filmmaker inputs the text “the man throws the cup to the desk behind the sofa,” the computer can instantly produce the corresponding animation.

Path to monetization

Investors are buying into rct’s offering. The startup is about to close its Series A funding round just months after banking seed money from Y Combinator and Chinese venture capital firm Skysaga, the startup told TechCrunch.

The company has a few imminent tasks before achieving its Westworld dream. For one, it needs a lot of technical talent to train Morpheus with screenplay data. No one on the team had experience in filmmaking, so it’s on the lookout for a creative head who appreciates AI’s application in films.

rct studio

Rct studio’s software takes a story arc and dissects it into a decision-making tree within seconds. / Image: rct studio

“Not all filmmakers we approach like what we do, which is understandable because it’s a very mature industry, while others get excited about tech’s possibility,” said Ma.

The startup’s entry into the fictional world was less about a passion for films than an imperative to shake up a traditional space with AI. Smart speakers were its first foray, but making changes to tangible objects that people are already accustomed to proved challenging. There has been some interest in voice-controlled speakers, but they are far from achieving ubiquity. Then movies crossed the team’s mind.

“There are two main routes to make use of AI. One is to target a vertical sector, like cars and speakers, but these things have physical constraints. The other application, like Alpha Go, largely exists in the lab. We wanted something that’s both free of physical limitation and holds commercial potential.”

The Beijing and Los Angeles-based startup isn’t content with just making the software. Eventually, it wants to release its own films. The company has inked a long-term partnership with Future Affairs Administration, a Chinese sci-fi publisher representing about 200 writers, including the Hugo award-winning Cixin Liu. The pair is expected to start co-producing interactive films within a year.

Rct’s path is reminiscent of a giant that precedes it: Pixar Animation Studios . The Chinese company didn’t exactly look to the California-based studio for inspiration, but the analog was a useful shortcut to pitch to investors.

“A confident company doesn’t really draw parallels with others, but we do share similarities to Pixar, which also started as a tech company, publishes its own films, and has built its own engine,” said Ma. “A lot of studios are asking how much we price our engine at, but we are targeting the consumer market. Making our own films carry so many more possibilities than simply selling a piece of software.”

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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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China’s Baidu says its answer to Alexa is now on 200M devices

Posted by | Alexa, alibaba, alibaba group, Android, apollo, artificial intelligence, Asia, AutoNavi, Baidu, China, Ford, Microsoft, search engine, smart home devices, smartphones, Transportation, voice assistant, volvo, Weibo | No Comments

A Chinese voice assistant has been rapidly gaining ground in recent months. DuerOS, Baidu’s answer to Amazon’s Alexa, reached over 200 million devices, China’s top search engine announced on its Weibo official account last Friday.

To put that number into context, more than 100 million devices pre-installed with Alexa have been sold, Amazon recently said. Google just announced it expected Assitant to be on 1 billion devices by the end of this month.

Voice interaction technology is part of Baidu’s strategy to reposition itself from a heavy reliance on search businesses towards artificial intelligence. The grand plan took a hit when the world-renown scientist Lu Qi stepped down as Baidu’s chief operating officer, though the segment appears to have scored healthy growth lately, with DuerOS more than doubling from a base of 90 million installs since last June.

When it comes to how many devices actually use DuerOS regularly, the number is much less significant: 35 million machines a month at the time Baidu’s general manager for smart home devices announced the figure last November.

Like Alexa, which has made its way into both Amazon-built Echo speakers and OEMs, DuerOS also takes a platform play to power both Baidu-built and third-party devices.

Interestingly, DuerOS has achieved all that with fewer capabilities and a narrower partnership network than its American counterpart. By the end of 2018, Alexa could perform more than 56,000 skills. Devices from over 4,500 brands can now be controlled with Alexa, says Amazon. By comparison, Baidu’s voice assistant had 800 different skills, its chief architect Zhong Lei revealed at the company’s November event. It was compatible with 85 brands at the time.

This may well imply that DuerOS’s allies include heavy-hitters with outsize user bases. Baidu itself could be one as it owns one of China’s biggest navigation app, which is second to Alibaba’s AutoNavi in terms of number of installs, according to data from iResearch. Baidu said in October that at least 140 million people had activated the voice assistant of its Maps service.

Furthermore, Baidu speakers have managed to crack a previously duopolistic market. A report from Canalys shows that Baidu clocked in a skyrocketing 711 percent quarter-to-quarter growth to become China’s third-biggest vendor of smart speakers during Q3 last year. Top players Alibaba and Xiaomi, on the other hand, both had a sluggish season.

While Baidu deploys DuerOS to get home appliances talking, it has doubled down on smart vehicles with Apollo . The system, which the company calls the Android for autonomous driving, counted 130 OEMs, parts suppliers and other forms of partners as of last October. It’s attracted global automakers Volvo and Ford who want a foothold in China’s self-driving movement. Outside China, Apollo has looked to Microsoft Azure Cloud as it hunts for international partnerships.

Baidu has yet to prove commercial success for its young AI segment, but its conversational data trove holds potential for a lucrative future. Baidu became China’s top advertising business in part by harnessing what people search on its engine. Down the road, its AI-focused incarnation could apply the same data-crunching process to what people say to their machines.

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Apple’s increasingly tricky international trade-offs

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Android, Apple, apple inc, Asia, Baidu, Bing, China, DuckDuckGo, Europe, France, Google, iOS, iPhone, Mobile, privacy, Qwant, safari, search engine, search engines, siri, smartphone, smartphones, TC, Tim Cook, United States, Yahoo | No Comments

Far from Apple’s troubles in emerging markets and China, the company is attracting the ire of what should really be a core supporter demographic naturally aligned with the pro-privacy stance CEO Tim Cook has made into his public soapbox in recent years — but which is instead crying foul over perceived hypocrisy.

The problem for this subset of otherwise loyal European iPhone users is that Apple isn’t offering enough privacy.

These users want more choice over key elements such as the search engine that can be set as the default in Safari on iOS (Apple currently offers four choices: Google, Yahoo, Bing and DuckDuckGo, all U.S. search engines; and with ad tech giant Google set as the default).

It is also being called out over other default settings that undermine its claims to follow a privacy by design philosophy. Such as the iOS location services setting which, once enabled, non-transparently flip an associated sub-menu of settings — including location-based Apple ads. Yet bundled consent is never the same as informed consent…

6/ and @Apple also defaults to ON, approx 13 location settings the moment a user enables location settings 🤔 that includes using YOUR location to support APPLE’s advertising business interests & $$$. By ‘enabling location based services’ you give your consent to this 🤔@tim_cook pic.twitter.com/scYSg94QgY

— Privacy Matters (@PrivacyMatters) October 19, 2018

As the saying goes you can’t please all of the people all of the time. But the new normal of a saturated smartphone market is imposing new pressures that will require a reconfiguration of approach.

Certainly the challenges of revenue growth and user retention are only going to step up from here on in. So keeping an otherwise loyal base of users happy and — crucially — feeling listened to and well served is going to be more and more important for the tech giant as the back and forth business of services becomes, well, essential to its fortunes going forward.

(At least barring some miracle new piece of Apple hardware — yet to be unboxed but which somehow rekindles smartphone-level demand afresh. That’s highly unlikely in any medium term timeframe given how versatile and capable the smartphone remains; ergo Apple’s greatest success is now Apple’s biggest challenge.)

With smartphone hardware replacement cycles slowing, the pressure on Cook to accelerate services revenue naturally steps up — which could in turn increase pressure on the core principles Cupertino likes to flash around.

Yet without principles there can be no brand premium for Apple to command. So that way ruin absolutely lies.

Control shift

It’s true that controlling the iOS experience by applying certain limits to deliver mainstream consumer friendly hardware served Apple well for years. But it’s also true iOS has grown in complexity over time having dropped some of its control freakery.

Elements that were previously locked down have been opened up — like the keyboard, for instance, allowing for third party keyboard apps to be installed by users that wish to rethink how they type.

This shift means the imposed limit on which search engines users can choose to set as an iOS default looks increasingly hard for Apple to justify from a user experience point of view.

Though of course from a business PoV Apple benefits by being able to charge Google a large sum of money to remain in the plum search default spot. (Reportedly a very large sum, though claims that the 2018 figure was $9BN have not been confirmed. Unsurprisingly neither party wants to talk about the terms of the transaction.)

The problem for Apple is that indirectly benefiting from Google eroding the user privacy it claims to champion — by letting the ad tech giant pay it to suck up iOS users’ search queries by default — is hardly consistent messaging.

Not when privacy is increasingly central to the premium the Apple brand commands.

Cook has also made a point of strongly and publicly attacking the ‘data industrial complex‘. Yet without mentioning the inconvenient side-note that Apple also engages in trading user data for profit in some instances, albeit indirectly.

In 2017 Apple switched from using Bing to Google for Siri web search results. So even as it has stepped up its rhetoric around user privacy it has deepened its business relationship with one of the Western Internet’s primary data suckers.

All of which makes for a very easy charge of hypocrisy.

Of course Apple offers iOS users a non-tracking search engine choice, DuckDuckGo, as an alternative choice — and has done so since 2014’s iOS 8.

Its support for a growing but still very niche product in what are mainstream consumer devices is an example of Apple being true to its word and actively championing privacy.

The presence of the DDG startup alongside three data-mining tech giants has allowed those ‘in the know’ iOS users to flip the bird at Google for years, meaning Apple has kept privacy conscious consumers buying its products (if not fully on side with all its business choices).

But that sort of compromise position looks increasingly difficult for Apple to defend.

Not if it wants privacy to be the clear blue water that differentiates its brand in an era of increasingly cut-throat and cut-price Android -powered smartphone competition that’s serving up much the same features at a lower up-front price thanks to all the embedded data-suckers.

There is also the not-so-small matter of the inflating $1,000+ price-tags on Apple’s top-of-the-range iPhones. $1,000+ for a smartphone that isn’t selling your data by default might still sound very pricy but at least you’d be getting something more than just shiny glass for all those extra dollars. But the iPhone isn’t actually that phone. Not by default.

Apple may be taking a view that the most privacy sensitive iPhone users are effectively a captive market with little option but to buy iOS hardware, given the Google-flavored Android competition. Which is true but also wouldn’t bode well for the chances of Apple upselling more services to these people to drive replacement revenue in a saturated smartphone market.

Offending those consumers who otherwise could be your very best, most committed and bought in users seems short-sighted and short-termist to say the least.

Although removing Google as the default search provider in markets where it dominates would obviously go massively against the mainstream grain that Apple’s business exists to serve.

This logic says Google is in the default position because, for most Internet users, Google search remains their default.

Indeed, Cook rolled out this exact line late last year when asked to defend the arrangement in an interview with Axios on HBO — saying: “I think their search engine is the best.”

He also flagged various pro-privacy features Apple has baked into its software in recent years, such as private browsing mode and smart tracker prevention, which he said work against the data suckers.

Albeit, that’s a bit like saying you’ve scattered a few garlic cloves around the house after inviting the thirsty vampire inside. And Cook readily admitted the arrangement isn’t “perfect”.

Clearly it’s a trade off. But Apple benefitting financially is what makes this particular trade-off whiff.

It implies Apple does indeed have an eye on quarterly balance sheets, and the increasingly important services line item specifically, in continuing this imperfect but lucrative arrangement — rather than taking a longer term view as the company purports to, per Cook’s letter to shareholders this week; in which he wrote: “We manage Apple for the long term, and Apple has always used periods of adversity to re-examine our approach, to take advantage of our culture of flexibility, adaptability and creativity, and to emerge better as a result.”

If Google’s search product is the best and Apple wants to take the moral high ground over privacy by decrying the surveillance industrial complex it could maintain the default arrangement in service to its mainstream base but donate Google’s billions to consumer and digital rights groups that fight to uphold and strengthen the privacy laws that people-profiling ad tech giants are butting hard against.

Apple’s shareholders might not like that medicine, though.

More palatable for investors would be for Apple to offer a broader choice of alternative search engines, thereby widening the playing field and opening up to more pro-privacy Google alternatives.

It could also design this choice in a way that flags up the trade-off to its millions of users. Such as, during device set-up, proactively asking users whether they want to keep their Internet searches private by default or use Google?

When put like that rather more people than you imagine might choose not to opt for Google to be their search default.

Non-tracking search engine DDG has been growing steadily for years, for example, hitting 30M daily searches last fall — with year-on-year growth of ~50%.

Given the terms of the Apple-Google arrangement sit under an NDA (as indeed all these arrangements do; DDG told us it couldn’t share any details about its own arrangement with Apple, for e.g.) it’s not clear whether one of Google’s conditions requires there be a limit on how many other search engines iOS users can pick from.

But it’s at least a possibility that Google is paying Apple to limit how many rivals sit in the list of competitors iOS users can pick out an alternative default. (It has, after all, recently been spanked in Europe for anti-competitive contractual limits imposed on Android OEMs to limit their ability to use alternatives to Google products, including search. So you could say Google has history where search is concerned.)

Equally, should Google actually relaunch a search product in China — as it’s controversially been toying with doing — it’s likely the company would push Apple to give it the default slot there too.

Though Apple would have more reason to push back, given Google would likely remain a minnow in that market. (Apple currently defaults to local search giant Baidu for iOS users in China.)

So even the current picture around search on iOS is a little more fuzzy than Cook likes to make out.

Local flavor

China is an interesting case, because if you look at Apple’s growth challenges in that market you could come to a very different conclusion vis-a-vis the power of privacy as a brand premium.

In China it’s convenience, via the do-it-all ‘Swiss army knife’ WeChat platform, that’s apparently the driving consumer force — and now also a headwind for Apple’s business there.

At the same time, the idea of users in the market having any kind of privacy online — when Internet surveillance has been imposed and ‘normalized’ by the state — is essentially impossible to imagine.

Yet Apple continues doing business in China, netting it further charges of hypocrisy.

Its revised guidance this week merely spotlights how important China and emerging markets are to its business fortunes. A principled pull-out hardly looks to be on the cards.

All of which underscores growing emerging market pressures on Apple that might push harder against its stated principles. What price privacy indeed?

It’s clear that carving out growth in a saturated smartphone market is going to be an increasingly tricky business for all players, with the risk of fresh trade-offs and pitfalls looming especially for Apple.

Negotiating this terrain certainly demands a fresh approach, as Cook implies is on his mind, per the shareholder letter.

Arguably the new normal may also call for an increasingly localized approach as a way to differentiate in a saturated and samey smartphone market.

The old Apple ‘one-sized fits all’ philosophy is already very outdated for some users and risks being caught flat-footed on a growing number of fronts — be that if your measure is software ‘innovation’ or a principled position on privacy.

An arbitrary limit on the choice of search engine your users can pick seems a telling example. Why not offer iOS users a free choice?

Or are Google’s billions really standing in the way of that?

It’s certainly an odd situation that iPhone owners in France, say, can pick from a wide range of keyboard apps — from mainstream names to superficial bling-focused glitter and/or neon LED keyboard skins or indeed emoji and GIF-obsessed keyboards — but if they want to use locally developed pro-privacy search engine Qwant on their phone’s native browser they have to tediously surf to the company’s webpage every time they want to look something up.

Google search might be the best for a median average ‘global’ (excluding China) iOS user but in an age of increasingly self-focused and self-centred technology, with ever more demanding consumers, there’s really no argument against letting people who want to choose for themselves.

In Europe there’s also the updated data protection framework, GDPR, to consider. Which may yet rework some mainstream ad tech business models.

On this front Qwant questions how even non-tracking rival DDG can protect users’ searches from government surveillance given its use of AWS cloud hosting and the U.S. Cloud Act. (Though, responding to a discussion thread about the issue on Github two years ago, DDG’s founder noted it has servers around the world, writing: “If you are in Europe you will be connected to our European servers.” He also reiterated that DDG does not collect any personal data from users — thereby limiting what could be extracted from AWS via the Act.)

Asked what reception it’s had when asking about getting its search engine on the Safari iOS list, Qwant told us the line that’s been (indirectly) fed back to it is “we are too European according to Apple”. (Apple declined to comment on the search choices it offers iOS users.)

“I have to work a lot to be more American,” Qwant co-founder and CEO Eric Leandri told us, summing up the smoke signals coming out of Cupertino.

“I understand that Apple wants to give the same kind of experience to their customers… but I would say that if I was Apple now, based on the politics that I want to follow — about protecting the privacy of customers — I think it would be great to start thinking about Europe as a market where people have a different point of view on their data,” he continued.

“Apple has done a lot of work to, for example, not let applications give data to each by a very strict [anti-tracking policy]; Apple has done a lot of work to guarantee that cookies and tracking is super difficult on iOS; and now the last problem of Apple is Google search.”

“So I hope that Apple will look at our proposal in a different way — not just one-fits-all. Because we don’t think that one-fits-all today,” he added.

Qwant too, then, is hoping for a better Apple to emerge as a result of a little market adversity.

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What China searched for in 2018: World Cup, trade war, Apple

Posted by | Android, Apple, artificial intelligence, Asia, Baidu, China, Entertainment, Facebook, Google, huawei, iQiyi, Netflix, oppo, producer, Qualcomm, quantum computing, search engine, shenzhen, smartphone, TC, Tencent, world cup | No Comments

Soon after Google unveiled the top trends in what people searched for in 2018, Baidu published what captivated the Chinese in a parallel online universe, where most of the West’s mainstream tech services, including Google and Facebook, are inaccessible.

China’s top search engine put together the report “based on trillions of trending queries” to present a “social collective memory” of internet users, said Baidu; 802 million people have come online in China as of August, and many of them use Baidu to look things up daily.

Overall, Chinese internet users were transfixed on a mix of sports events, natural disasters, politics and entertainment, a pattern that also prevails in Google’s year-in-search. On Baidu, the most popular queries of the year are:

  1. World Cup: China shares its top search with the rest of the world. Despite China’s lackluster performance in the tournament, World Cup managed to capture a massive Chinese fan base who supported an array of foreign teams. People filled bars in big cities at night to watch the heart-thumping matches, and many even trekked north to Russia to show their support.
  2. U.S.-China trade war: The runner-up comes as no surprise, given the escalating conflict between the world’s two largest economies. A series of events have stoked more fears of the stand-off, including the arrest of Huawei’s financial chief.
  3. Typhoon Mangkhut: The massive tropical cyclone swept across the Pacific Ocean in September, leaving the Philippines and South China in shambles. Shenzhen, the Chinese city dubbed the Silicon Valley for hardware, reportedly submitted more than $20.4 million in damage claims after the storm.
  4. Apple launch: The American smartphone giant is still getting a lot of attention in China even as local Android competitors like Huawei and Oppo chip away at its market share. Apple is also fighting a legal battle with chipmaker Qualcomm, which wanted the former to stop selling certain smartphone models in China.
  5. The story of Yanxi Palace: The historical drama of backstabbing concubines drew record-breaking views for its streamer and producer iQiyi, China’s answer to Netflix that floated in the U.S. in February. The 70-episode show was watched not only in China but also across more than 70 countries around the world.
  6. Produce 101: The talent show in which 101 young women race to be the best performer is one of Tencent Video’s biggest hits of the year, but its reach has gone beyond its targeted young audience as it popularized a meme, which made it to No. 9 on this list.
  7. Skr: A buzzword courtesy of pop idol Kris Wu, who extensively used it on a whim during iQiyi’s rap competition “Rap of China,” prompting his fans and internet users to bestow it with myriad interpretations.
  8. Li Yong passed away: The sudden death of the much-loved television host after he fought a 17-month battle with cancer stirred an outpouring of grief on social media.
  9. Koi: A colored variety of carps, the fish is associated with good luck in Chinese culture. Yang Chaoyue, a Produce 101 contestant whom the audience believed to be below average surprisingly rose to fame and has since been compared to a koi.
  10.  Esports: Professional gaming has emerged from the underground to become a source of national pride recently after a Chinese team championed the League of Legend finals, an event regarded as the Olympics for esports.

In addition to the overall ranking, Baidu also listed popular terms by category, with staple areas like domestic affairs alongside those with a local flavor, such as events that inspire national pride or are tear-jerking.

This was also the first year that Baidu added a category dedicated to AI-related keywords. The search giant, which itself has pivoted to go all in AI and has invested heavily in autonomous driving, said the technology “has not only become a nationwide buzzword but also a key engine in transforming lives across the globe.” In 2018, Chinese people were keen to learn about these AI terms: robots, chips, internet of things, smart speakers, autonomous driving, face recognition, quantum computing, unmanned vehicles, World Artificial Intelligence Conference and quantum mechanics.

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Chinese tech stocks tumble from more than just trade tensions

Posted by | alibaba group, Android, Asia, Baidu, China, e-commerce, economy, Europe, Google, martin lau, Naspers, pinduoduo, TC, technology, Tencent, United States, world wide web | No Comments

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on TechNode, an editorial partner of TechCrunch based in China.

Reports of trade tensions between China and the US in the past few months have been hard to ignore. In early July, the US imposed $34 billion on Chinese goods, prompting the Shenzhen Component Index, dominated by technology and consumer product stocks, to fall to its lowest point since 2014, igniting fears among investors.

“The U.S. tariffs, coupled with a falling yuan, will significantly increase the cost for many Chinese technology companies that rely on imported raw materials, such as semiconductors, integrated circuits, and electric components,” Zhang Xia, an analyst for China Merchants Bank Securities, told the South China Morning Post.

Additionally, the U.S. commerce department announced yesterday it will place an embargo on 44 Chinese companies—including the world’s largest surveillance equipment manufacturer Hikvision—for “acting contrary to the national interests or foreign policy of the United States.” The move caused the companies’ share prices to fall by nearly six percent.

However, the focus has shifted to more than just the trade war. And a number of big Chinese tech companies have seen their share prices plummet for other reasons.

Pinduoduo, China’s latest e-commerce giant to list on the Nasdaq, found that an initial public offering (IPO) is not a panacea. Conversely, its listing has drawn attention to the company’s counterfeit products. And investors are not happy.

Tencent’s shares have nosedived by over 25 percent since its peak in January, erasing $143 billion in market value over the past seven months.

Search giant Baidu also hasn’t been immune. The company’s stock price dropped by nearly 8 percent this week following news that Google plans to re-enter the Chinese market.

Government crackdowns

While IPOs are usually a cause for celebration, Pinduoduo has proven this past week they can also be bad for business. The company—which has integrated e-commerce and social media—caters to low-income consumers living outside first and second-tier cities. It has been plagued by accusations of facilitating the sale of counterfeit low-quality goods.

Just days after going public, its share price tumbled by 16 percent, falling below its offer price of $19. The drop was, in part, initiated by requests made by television maker Skyworth to remove counterfeit listings of its products from the e-commerce firm’s marketplace.

The company announced (in Chinese) this week that it had removed 10.7 million listings of problematic goods. However, this did little to assuage concerns from investors and regulators after the latter launched an inquiry into Pinduoduo’s product listings. Its stock price dropped to 30 percent below its closing price on its first day of trading, wiping out over $9 billion in value.

This is unlikely to be helped by the fact that seven U.S. law firms have launched investigations into the company on behalf of its investors. The statement issued by the firms shows that investors suffered financial losses after Chinese regulators began looking into the company’s dealings. The company met today with regulators and agreed to improve its products’ vetting procedures.

However, it’s not only e-commerce platforms that have been affected. Video streaming service Bilibili has seen its stock price drop by almost 21 percent since July 20. The decline comes amid renewed efforts led by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) to crack down on what it deems to be “vulgar” or “inappropriate” content.

The company has subsequently had its app removed from app stores in the country for one month. Nasdaq-listed Bilibili responded by saying it is “in deep self-review and reflection.”

Screenshot of the drop in Bilibili’s stock price. Accessed August 3, 2018

Rumored competition

Baidu, which runs China’s biggest search engine, found that even unconfirmed competition can cause stocks to tumble. In a move which could mark its re-entry into the Chinese market, news broke this week that Google has plans to launch an Android app that could provide filtered results to users in China.

Baidu currently commands nearly 70 percent of China’s search market. Google shut down its search engine in China in 2010 over censorship concerns, giving up access to a vast market. China’s online population now exceeds 770 million, double the entire populace of the U.S. and more than that of Europe.

Baidu’s income is still highly dependant on ad revenue, which increased by 25 percent in the second quarter. Google’s return is clearly seen as a threat, causing Baidu’s stock price to fall from $247.18 on July 31 to $226.83 on August 2. This marks the most significant fall since the company announced the departure of its chief operating officer Lu Qi in May.

Steady decline

Nonetheless, all these losses seem insignificant in comparison to Tencent’s. The company saw its stock price increase by 114 percent in 2017, reaching a record high in January 2018. However, since then, the price has dropped by nearly $130 per share, eviscerating a considerable portion of its market value. In July alone, its stock price fell by 9.9 percent. The company’s devaluation tops Facebook’s $130 billion rout following its earnings call last month.

In April, the company lost over $20 billion in value after South African investment and media firm Naspers — an early and loyal backer — announced it was trimming its stake by two percent. Additionally, Martin Lau, the company’s president, sold one million of his shares in the company. This, added to the Naspers sale and warnings of margin pressure, led to a loss of $51 billion in market value.

“Investors are increasingly pricing in lower expectations for Tencent’s interim results,” Linus Yip, a strategist at First Shanghai Securities in Hong Kong, told Bloomberg.

Yip expects the downward trend to continue, and not just for Tencent. “Overall, tech companies are facing a similar problem. They have been enjoying fast profit growth in the past few years, so it will be difficult for them to maintain similar growth in the future as the competition grows and some segments are saturated,” he said.

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Google is quietly formulating a new strategy for China

Posted by | Android, Apple, Apps, artificial intelligence, Asia, Baidu, Beijing, China, computing, Getty-Images, Google, Google Play, Google Play Store, google search, HTC, huawei, mobvoi, photographer, premier, Search, shenzhen, smartphone, smartphones, TC, Tencent, United States, Virtual reality, xi jinping, Xiaomi | No Comments

Google is slowing piecing together a strategy for China to ensure that it doesn’t miss out on the growth of technology in the world’s largest country. It’s been months in the making through a series of gradual plays, but further evidence of those plans comes today via a product launch.

Files Go — a file manager for Android devices released last yearhas made its way to China today. Not a huge launch, for sure, but the mechanisms behind it provide insight into how Google may be thinking about the country, where it has been absent since 2010 after redirecting its Chinese search service to Hong Kong in the face of government pressure.

For Files Go, Google is taking a partner-led approach to distribution because the Google Play Store does not operate in China. The company is working with Tencent, Huawei, Xiaomi and Baidu, each of which will stock the app in their independent app stores, which are among the country’s most prominent third-party stores.

Let that sink in a little: the creator of Android is using third-party Android app stores to distribute one of its products.

On the outside that’s quite the scenario, but in China it makes perfect of sense.

There’s been regular media speculation in recent about Google’s desire to return to China which, during its absence, has become the largest single market for smartphone users, and the country with the most app downloads and highest app revenue per year. Mostly the rumors have centered around audacious strategies such as the return of the Google Play Store or the restoration of Google’s Chinese search business, both of which would mean complying with demands from the Chinese government.

Then there’s the politics. The U.S. and China are currently in an ongoing trade standoff that has spilled into tech, impacting deals, while Chinese premier Xi Jinping has taken a protectionist approach to promoting local business and industries, in particular AI. XI’s more controversial policies, including the banning of VPNs, have put heat on Apple, which stands accused of colluding with authorities and preventing free speech in China.

Political tension between the U.S. and China is affecting tech companies. [Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images]

Even when you remove the political issues, a full return is a tough challenge. Google would be starting businesses almost from scratch in a highly competitive market where it has little brand recognition.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that it hasn’t made big moves… yet at least.

Instead, it appears that the company is exploring more nimble approaches. There have been opportunistic product launches using established platforms, and generally Google seems intent at building relationships and growing a local presence that allows its global business to tap into the talent and technology that China offers.

Files Go is the latest example, but already we’ve seen Google relaunch its Translate app in 2017 and more recently it brought its ARCore technology for augmented and virtual reality to China using partners, which include Xiaomi and Huawei.

Bouquets of flowers lie on the Google logo outside the company’s China head office in Beijing on March 23, 2010 after the US web giant said it would no longer filter results and was redirecting mainland Chinese users to an uncensored site in Hong Kong — effectively closing down the mainland site. Google’s decision to effectively shut down its Chinese-language search engine is likely to stunt the development of the Internet in China and isolate local web users, analysts say. (Photo credit: xin/AFP/Getty Images)

Beyond products, Google is cultivating relationships, too.

It inked a wide-ranging patent deal with Tencent, China’s $500 billion tech giant which operates WeChat and more, and has made strategic investments to back AI startup XtalPi (alongside Tencent), live-streaming platform Chushou, and AI and hardware company Mobvoi. There have been events, too, including AlphaGo’s three-game battle with Chinese grandmaster Ke Jie in Wuzhen, developer events in China and the forthcoming first Google Asia Demo Day, which takes places in Shanghai in September.

In addition to making friends in the right places, Google is also increasing its own presence on Chinese soil. The company opened an AI lab in Beijing to help access China-based talent, while it also unveiled a more modest presence in Shenzhen, China’s hardware capital, where it has a serviced office for staff. That hardware move ties into Google’s acquisition of a chunk of HTC’s smartphone division for $1.1 billion.

The strategy is no doubt in its early days, so now is a good time to keep a keen eye on Google’s moves in this part of the world.

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