Beijing

Tencent’s new alternative to PUBG is already topping the revenue chart

Posted by | Asia, Beijing, bluehole, China, communist party, game design, games publisher, Gaming, Government, quora, sensor tower, shenzhen, south korea, Tencent, video gaming | No Comments

In a move clearly driven by economic interests and an urgency to meet stringent regulations, the world’s largest games publisher Tencent pulled its mobile version of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds on Wednesday and launched a new title called Game for Peace (the literal translation of its Chinese name 和平精英 is ‘peace elites’) on the same day.

As of this writing, Game for Peace is the most downloaded free game and top-grossing game in Apple’s China App Store, according to data from Sensor Tower data. That’s early evidence that the new title is on course to stimulate Tencent’s softening gaming revenues following a prolonged licensing freeze in China. Indeed, analysts at China Renaissance estimated that Game for Peace could generate up to $1.48 billion in annual revenue for Tencent.

Tencent licensed PUBG from South Korea’s Krafton, previously known as Bluehole, in 2017 and subsequently released a test version of the game for China’s mobile users.

Game for Peace is available only to users above the age of 16, a decision that came amid society’s growing concerns over video games’ impact on children’s mental and physical health. Tencent has recently pledged to do more ‘good’ with its technology, and the new game release appears to be a practice of that.

Tencent told Reuters the two titles are from “very different genres.” Well, many signs attest to the fact that Game for Peace is intended as a substitute for PUBG Mobile, which never received the green light from Beijing to monetize because it’s deemed too gory. Game for Peace received the license to sell in-game items on April 9.

For one, PUBG users were directed to download Game for Peace in a notice announcing its closure. People’s gaming history and achievement were transferred to the new game, and players and industry analysts have pointed out the striking resemblance between the two.

“It’s basically the same game with some tweaks,” said a Guangzhou-based PUBG player who has been playing the title since its launching, adding that the adjustment to tone down violence “doesn’t really harm the gamer experience.”

“Just ignore those details,” suggested the user.

For instance, characters who are shot don’t bleed in Game for Peace. A muzzle flash replaces gore as bloody scenes no longer pass the muster. And when people are dying, they kneel, surrender their loot box, and wave goodbye. Very civil. Very friendly.

“It’s what we call changing skin [for a game],” a Shenzhen-based mobile game studio founder said to TechCrunch. “The gameplay stays largely intact.”

Other PUBG users are less sanguine about the transition. “I don’t think this is the correct decision from the regulators. Getting oversensitive in the approval process will prevent Chinese games from growing big and strong,” wrote one contributor with more than 135 thousand followers on Zhihu, the Chinese equivalent of Quora.

But such compromise is increasingly inevitable as Chinese authorities reinforce rules around what people can consume online, not just in games but also through news readers, video platforms, and even music streaming services. Content creators must be able to decipher regulators’ directives, some of which are straightforward as “the name of the game should not contain words other than simplified Chinese.” Others requirements are more obscure, like “no violation of core socialist’s values,” a set of 12 moral principles — including prosperity, democracy, civility, and harmony — that are propagated by the Chinese Communist Party in recent years.

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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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Selfie app maker Meitu eyes overseas gaming market with $340 million deal

Posted by | Asia, Beijing, China, Gaming, Garena, hardware, huawei, meitu, netease, New York, smartphone, smartphones, Southeast Asia, spokesperson, Tencent, Xiaomi | No Comments

China’s largest selfie app maker Meitu has been busy working to diversify itself beyond the beauty arena in China. On Wednesday, the Hong Kong-listed company announced in a filing that it has agreed to pay about HK$2.7 billion ($340 million) for a 31 percent stake in game publishing company Dreamscape Horizon.

Dreamscape Horizon, a subsidiary of Hong Kong-listed games group Leyou, specializes in making video games for personal computers and consoles, and owns 97 percent of Canada-based studio Digital Extremes. This global connection will potentially hasten Meitu’s overseas expansion, and the foray into games, on the other hand, will help the Xiamen-based firm capture more male users. (Operating out of Xiamen might have also been convenient for Meitu to meet the coastal city’s booming hub of game developers.) Out of Meitu’s 110 million monthly active users overseas, only 30 million are male.

“The collaboration with Leyou is not only focused on mainland China but also the global market,” says a Meitu spokesperson in a statement. “Mainland China currently accounts for the majority of Meitu’s earnings. The acquisition will broaden our business scope and diversify the geographic streams of our income.”

The overseas move appears to be a tactical one as the domestic gaming market is crowded with established players like Tencent, NetEase and hundreds of smaller contenders. The local environment has also turned hostile to gaming companies as Beijing steps up scrutiny amid concerns of titles being violent and harmful to young players. The result was a months-long halt in game approvals that dragged down Tencent’s stock prices and prompted a major reshuffle in the giant. And before long, Tencent announced it would deepen its ties with Garena to distribute games in Southeast Asia. The hiatus ended in December, but companies are still feeling the chill as China is reportedly mulling a further pause this week.

Meitu is most famous for its suite of photo-editing and beautifying apps, but hardware has been its major income source for years. For the first half of 2018, the company generated 72 percent of its revenues from selling smartphones optimized for taking selfies, a category proven popular in a country where touched-up photos have become the norm. But Meitu’s hardware business is shrinking as smartphone shipment slows in China and phones from mainstream brands like Xiaomi and Huawei now come equipped with filters. It has, however, found a new home for its barely mainstream smartphone brand after Xiaomi gobbled it up in November to lure more female users.

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China finally grants a game license to Tencent

Posted by | Asia, Beijing, China, game publisher, Gaming, ma huateng, netease, shenzhen, Software, Tencent, WeChat | No Comments

Tencent has finally come out of a prolonged freeze on game approvals as Beijing granted licenses to two of its mobile games this month.

According to a notice published Thursday by China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, Tencent is one of nearly 200 games assigned licenses in January.

That’s big news for the Shenzhen-based firm, which has seen its share price plummet in the past months because the licensing halt crippled its ability to generate gaming revenues. Tencent is best known for its immensely popular WeChat messenger, but games contribute a bulk of its earnings.

Both games approved are for educational purposes so are unlikely to generate income at the level of Tencent’s more lucrative role-playing titles, such as Honor of Kings. Tencent has been at the center of government criticisms on games deemed harmful and addictive, and the firm has subsequently introduced so-called “utility games” in 2018 designed to promote traditional Chinese culture, science and technology.

That said, the tech giant could be raking in big bucks from a third-party game that also got approved this week. The title comes from China’s third-largest game publisher, Perfect World, with exclusive publishing rights handled by Tencent.

“The game is the mobile version of the extremely successful massively multiplayer online role-playing game with the same name,” Daniel Ahmad, an analyst at market research firm Niko Partners, suggests to TechCrunch. “We note that Perfect World Mobile is a core game that is set to be a high revenue generating title when it launches.”

China resumed its game approval process in December after a nine-month hiatus during which it worked to reshuffle its main regulating bodies for games. However, it left Tencent, the country’s biggest game publisher, and runner-up NetEase off its first batch of approved titles that month.

NetEase also scored its first post-freeze license in January and had better luck than Tencent, winning a nod for a multiplayer online role-playing game.

Despite the thawing, industry experts warn that approvals will come at a much slower rate than before as Chinese regulators look to more closely monitor game content, putting the burden on developers and publishers to decipher new industry rules.

“The size of the gaming company does not matter. It matters how fast the company can be adapting to the new set of rules and guidelines,” Shenzhen-based game consultant Ilya Gutov told TechCrunch in December.

“As the review and approval process for games resumes, we are confident that Tencent will be producing more compliant and higher-quality cultural work for society and the public,” a Tencent spokesperson said in December, highlighting its plan to churn out content that fits into China’s ideological agenda.

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Epic Games, the creator of Fortnite, banked a $3 billion profit in 2018

Posted by | 2018 Year in Review, Android, Apps, Beijing, China, computing, epic games, fortnite, fortnite battle royale, game publisher, Gaming, Google, Google Play Store, Kleiner Perkins, lightspeed, Nintendo, sensor tower, smartphone, Software, Tencent, the wall street journal, unreal engine, wall-street-journal | No Comments

Epic Games had as good a year in 2018 as any company in tech. Fortnite became the world’s most popular game, growing the company’s valuation to $15 billion, but it has helped the company pile up cash, too. Epic grossed a $3 billion profit for this year fueled by the continued success of Fortnite, a source with knowledge of the business told TechCrunch.

Epic did not respond to a request for comment.

Fortnite, which is free to play but makes money selling digital items, has popularized the battle royale category — think Lord of the Flies meets Hunger Games — almost single-handedly, and it has been the standout title for the U.S.-based game publisher.

Founded way back in 1991, Epic hasn’t given revenue figures for its smash hit — which has 125 million players — but this new profit milestone, combined with other pieces of data, gives an idea of the success the company is seeing as a result of a prescient change in strategy made six years ago.

This past September, Epic commanded a valuation of nearly $15 billion, according to The Wall Street Journal, as marquee investors like KKR, Kleiner Perkins and Lightspeed piled on in a $1.25 billion round to grab a slice of the red-hot development firm. However, the investment cards haven’t always been stacked in Epic’s favor.

China’s Tencent, the maker of blockbuster chat app WeChat and a prolific games firm in its own right, became the first outside investor in Epic’s business back in 2012 when it injected $330 million in exchange for a 40 percent stake in the business.

Back then, Epic was best known for Unreal Engine, the third-party development platform that it still operates today, and top-selling titles like Gears of War.

Why would a proven company give up such a huge slice of its business? Executives believed that Epic, as it was, was living on borrowed time. They sensed a change in the way games were headed based on diminishing returns and growing budgets for console games, the increase of “live” games like League of Legends and the emerging role of smartphones.

Speaking to Polygon about the Tencent deal, Epic CEO Tim Sweeney explained that the investment money from Tencent allowed the company to go down the route of freemium games rather than big box titles. That’s a strategy Sweeney called “Epic 4.0.”

“We realized that the business really needed to change its approach quite significantly. We were seeing some of the best games in the industry being built and operated as live games over time rather than big retail releases. We recognized that the ideal role for Epic in the industry is to drive that, and so we began the transition of being a fairly narrow console developer focused on Xbox to being a multi-platform game developer and self publisher, and indie on a larger scale,” he explained.

Tencent, Sweeney added, has provided “an enormous amount of useful advice,” while the capital enabled Epic to “make this huge leap without the immediate fear of money.”

LOS ANGELES, CA – JUNE 12: Gamers ‘Ninja’ (L) and ‘Marshmello’ compete in the Epic Games Fortnite E3 Tournament at the Banc of California Stadium on June 12, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Epic never had a problem making money — Sweeney told Polygon the first Gear of Wars release grossed $100 million on a $12 million development budget. But with Fortnite, the company has redefined modern gaming, both by making true cross-platform experiences possible and by pulling in vast amounts of money.

As a private company, Epic keeps its financials closely guarded. But digging beyond the $3 billion figure — which, to be clear, is annual profit not revenue — there are clues as to just how big a money-spinner Fortnite is. Certainly, there’s room to wonder whether analyst predictions this summer that Fortnite would gross $2 billion this year were too conservative.

The most recent data comes from November when Sensor Tower estimates that iOS users alone were spending $1.23 million per day. That helped the game bank $37 million in the month and take its total earnings within Apple’s iOS platform to more than $385 million.

But, as mentioned, Fortnite is a cross-platform title that supports PlayStation, Xbox, Switch, PC, Mac, Android and iOS. Aggregating revenue across those platforms isn’t easy, and the only real estimate comes from earlier this year when Super Data Research concluded that the game made $318 million in May across all platforms.

That is, of course, when Fortnite was fresh on iOS, non-existent on Android and with fewer overall players.

We can deduce from Sensor Tower’s November estimate that iOS pulled in $385 million over eight months — between April and November — which is around $48 million per month on average. Android is harder to calculate since Epic skipped Google’s Play Store by distributing its own launcher. While it quickly picked up 15 million Android users within the first month, tracking that spending off-platform is a huge challenge. Some estimates predicted that Google would miss out on around $50 million in lost earnings this year because in-app purchases on Android would not cross its services.

There are a few factors to add further uncertainty.

Fortnite spending tends to spike around the release of new seasons — updated versions of the game — since users are encouraged to buy specific packages at the start. The latest, Season 7, dropped early this month with a range of tweaks for the Christmas period. Given the increased velocity at which Fortnite is picking up players and the appeal of the festive period, this could have been its biggest revenue generator to date, but there’s not yet any indicator of how it performed.

More broadly, Fortnite has undoubtedly lost out on revenue in China, which froze new game licenses nine months ago, thereby preventing any publishers from monetizing new titles over that period.

Tencent, which publishes Fortnite in China, did release the game in the country but it hasn’t been able to draw revenue from it yet. The Chinese government announced last week that it is close to approving its first batch of new titles, but it isn’t clear which games are included and when the process will be done.

Already, the effects have been felt.

Games are forecast to generate nearly $40 billion in revenue in China this year, according to market researcher Newzoo. However, the industry saw its slowest growth over the last 10 years as it grew 5.4 percent year-over-year during the first half of 2018, according to a report by Beijing-based research firm GPC and China’s official gaming association CNG.

Fortnite and PUBG — another battle royale title backed by Tencent — have perhaps suffered the most since they are universally popular worldwide but unable to monetize in China. It seems almost certain that those two titles will receive a major marketing push if, as and when they receive the license and, if Epic can keep the game competitive as Sweeney believed it could back in 2012, then it could go on and make even more money in 2019.

Epic Games is taking on Steam with its own digital game store, which includes higher take-home revenue rates for developers.

But Epic isn’t relying solely on Fortnite.

A more low-key but significant launch this month was the opening of the Epic Games store, which is aimed squarely at Steam, the leader in digital game sales.

While Fortnite is its most prolific release, Epic also makes money from other games, Unreal Engine and a recently launched online game store that rivals Steam. Epic’s big differentiator for the store is that it gives developers 88 percent of their revenue, as opposed to Value — the firm behind Steam — which keeps 30 percent, although it has added varying rates for more successful titles. Customers are promised a free title every two weeks.

Either way, Epic is betting that it can do a lot more than Fortnite, which could mean that its profit margin will be even higher come this time next year.

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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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There’s more: Google is also said to be developing a censored news app for China

Posted by | Android, app-store, Apps, artificial intelligence, Asia, Beijing, bytedance, censorshit, China, cloning, computing, Facebook, files go, Google, internet service, JD.com, search app, search engine, Software, Tencent, Toutiao, United States, WeChat, world wide web | No Comments

Can Google’s week get any worse? Less than a day after the revelation that it is planning a censored search engine for China, so comes another: the U.S. firm is said to be developing a government-friendly news app for the country, where its search engine and other services remain blocked.

That’s according to The Information which reports that Google is essentially cloning Toutiao, the hugely popular app from new media startup ByteDance, in a bid to get back into the country and the minds of its 700 million mobile internet users. Like Toutiao, the app would apparently use AI and algorithms to serve stories to readers — as opposed to real-life human editors — while it too would be designed to work within the bounds of Chinese internet censorship.

That last part is interesting because ByteDance and other news apps have gotten into trouble from the government for failing to adequately police the content shared on their platforms. That’s resulted in some app store suspensions, but the saga itself is a rite of passage for any internet service that has gained mainstream option, so there’s a silver lining in there. But the point for Google is that policing this content is not as easy as it may seem.

The Information said the news app is slated for release before the search app, the existence of which was revealed yesterday, but sources told the publication that the ongoing U.S.-China trade war has made things complicated. Specifically, Google executives have “struggled to further engage” China’s internet censor, a key component for the release of an app in China from an overseas company.

There’s plenty of context to this, as I wrote yesterday:

The Intercept’s report comes less than a week after Facebook briefly received approval to operate a subsidiary on Chinese soil. Its license was, however, revoked as news of the approval broke. The company said it had planned to open an innovation center, but it isn’t clear whether that will be possible now.

Facebook previously built a censorship-friendly tool that could be deployed in China.

While its U.S. peer has struggled to get a read on China, Google has been noticeably increasing its presence in the country over the past year or so.

The company has opened an AI lab in Beijing, been part of investment rounds for Chinese companies, including a $550 million deal with JD.com, and inked a partnership with Tencent. It has also launched products, with a file management service for Android distributed via third-party app stores and, most recently, its first mini program for Tencent’s popular WeChat messaging app.

As for Google, the company pointed us to the same statement it issued yesterday:

We provide a number of mobile apps in China, such as Google Translate and Files Go, help Chinese developers, and have made significant investments in Chinese companies like JD.com. But we don’t comment on speculation about future plans.

Despite two-for-one value on that PR message, this is a disaster. Plotting to collude with governments to censor the internet never goes down well, especially in double helpings.

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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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Google brings its ARCore technology to China in partnership with Xiaomi

Posted by | Android, Apps, ARCore, Asia, Beijing, China, Google, Google Play Store, HTC, huawei, miui, Tencent, Xiaomi | No Comments

Google is ramping up its efforts to return to China. Earlier this year, the search giant detailed plans to bring its ARCore technology — which enables augmented reality and virtual reality — to phones in China and this week that effort went live with its first partner, Xiaomi.

Initially the technology will be available for Xiaomi’s Mix 2S devices via an app in the Xiaomi App Store, but Google has plans to add more partners in Mainland China over time. Huawei and Samsung are two confirmed names that have signed up to distribute ARCore apps on Chinese soil, Google said previously.

Starting today, #ARCore apps are available on Mix 2S devices from the Xiaomi App Store in China. More partners coming soon → https://t.co/16QoOTgqve pic.twitter.com/lT4TYXrzwF

— Google AR & VR (@GoogleARVR) May 28, 2018

Google’s core services remain blocked in China but ARCore apps are able to work there because the technology itself works on device without the cloud, which means that once apps are downloaded to a phone there’s nothing that China’s internet censors can do to disrupt them.

Rather than software, the main challenge is distribution. The Google Play Store is restricted in China, and in its place China has a fragmented landscape that consists of more than a dozen major third-party Android app stores. That explains why Google has struck deals with the likes of Xiaomi and Huawei, which operate their own app stores which — pre-loaded on their devices — can help Google reach consumers.

ARCore in action

The ARCore strategy for China, while subtle, is part of a sustained push to grow Google’s presence in China. While that hasn’t meant reviving the Google Play Store — despite plenty of speculation in the media — Google has ramped up in other areas.

In recent months, the company has struck a partnership with Tencent, agreed to invest in a number of China-based startups — including biotech-focused XtalPi and live-streaming service Chushou — and announced an AI lab in Beijing. Added to that, Google gained a large tech presence in Taiwan via the completion of its acquisition of a chunk of HTC, and it opened a presence in Shenzhen, the Chinese city known as ‘the Silicon Valley of hardware.’

Finally, it is also hosting its first ‘Demo Day’ program for startups in Asia with an event planned for Shanghai, China, this coming September. Applications to take part in the initiative opened last week.

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