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This early GDPR adtech strike puts the spotlight on consent

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Android, Apps, artificial intelligence, China, data processing, data protection, Europe, european union, Facebook, Fidzup, GDPR, General Data Protection Regulation, Google, location based services, mobile advertising, mobile device, online advertising, privacy, retail, smartphone, TC, terms of service | No Comments

What does consent as a valid legal basis for processing personal data look like under Europe’s updated privacy rules? It may sound like an abstract concern but for online services that rely on things being done with user data in order to monetize free-to-access content this is a key question now the region’s General Data Protection Regulation is firmly fixed in place.

The GDPR is actually clear about consent. But if you haven’t bothered to read the text of the regulation, and instead just go and look at some of the self-styled consent management platforms (CMPs) floating around the web since May 25, you’d probably have trouble guessing it.

Confusing and/or incomplete consent flows aren’t yet extinct, sadly. But it’s fair to say those that don’t offer full opt-in choice are on borrowed time.

Because if your service or app relies on obtaining consent to process EU users’ personal data — as many free at the point-of-use, ad-supported apps do — then the GDPR states consent must be freely given, specific, informed and unambiguous.

That means you can’t bundle multiple uses for personal data under a single opt-in.

Nor can you obfuscate consent behind opaque wording that doesn’t actually specify the thing you’re going to do with the data.

You also have to offer users the choice not to consent. So you cannot pre-tick all the consent boxes that you really wish your users would freely choose — because you have to actually let them do that.

It’s not rocket science but the pushback from certain quarters of the adtech industry has been as awfully predictable as it’s horribly frustrating.

This has not gone unnoticed by consumers either. Europe’s Internet users have been filing consent-based complaints thick and fast this year. And a lot of what is being claimed as ‘GDPR compliant’ right now likely is not.

So, some six months in, we’re essentially in a holding pattern waiting for the regulatory hammers to come down.

But if you look closely there are some early enforcement actions that show some consent fog is starting to shift.

Yes, we’re still waiting on the outcomes of major consent-related complaints against tech giants. (And stockpile popcorn to watch that space for sure.)

But late last month French data protection watchdog, the CNIL, announced the closure of a formal warning it issued this summer against drive-to-store adtech firm, Fidzup — saying it was satisfied it was now GDPR compliant.

Such a regulatory stamp of approval is obviously rare this early in the new legal regime.

So while Fidzup is no adtech giant its experience still makes an interesting case study — showing how the consent line was being crossed; how, working with CNIL, it was able to fix that; and what being on the right side of the law means for a (relatively) small-scale adtech business that relies on consent to enable a location-based mobile marketing business.

From zero to GDPR hero?

Fidzup’s service works like this: It installs kit inside (or on) partner retailers’ physical stores to detect the presence of user-specific smartphones. At the same time it provides an SDK to mobile developers to track app users’ locations, collecting and sharing the advertising ID and wi-fi ID of users’ smartphone (which, along with location, are judged personal data under GDPR.)

Those two elements — detectors in physical stores; and a personal data-gathering SDK in mobile apps — come together to power Fidzup’s retail-focused, location-based ad service which pushes ads to mobile users when they’re near a partner store. The system also enables it to track ad-to-store conversions for its retail partners.

The problem Fidzup had, back in July, was that after an audit of its business the CNIL deemed it did not have proper consent to process users’ geolocation data to target them with ads.

Fidzup says it had thought its business was GDPR compliant because it took the view that app publishers were the data processors gathering consent on its behalf; the CNIL warning was a wake up call that this interpretation was incorrect — and that it was responsible for the data processing and so also for collecting consents.

The regulator found that when a smartphone user installed an app containing Fidzup’s SDK they were not informed that their location and mobile device ID data would be used for ad targeting, nor the partners Fidzup was sharing their data with.

CNIL also said users should have been clearly informed before data was collected — so they could choose to consent — instead of information being given via general app conditions (or in store posters), as was the case, after the fact of the processing.

It also found users had no choice to download the apps without also getting Fidzup’s SDK, with use of such an app automatically resulting in data transmission to partners.

Fidzup’s approach to consent had also only been asking users to consent to the processing of their geolocation data for the specific app they had downloaded — not for the targeted ad purposes with retail partners which is the substance of the firm’s business.

So there was a string of issues. And when Fidzup was hit with the warning the stakes were high, even with no monetary penalty attached. Because unless it could fix the core consent problem, the 2014-founded startup might have faced going out of business. Or having to change its line of business entirely.

Instead it decided to try and fix the consent problem by building a GDPR-compliant CMP — spending around five months liaising with the regulator, and finally getting a green light late last month.

A core piece of the challenge, as co-founder and CEO Olivier Magnan-Saurin tells it, was how to handle multiple partners in this CMP because its business entails passing data along the chain of partners — each new use and partner requiring opt-in consent.

“The first challenge was to design a window and a banner for multiple data buyers,” he tells TechCrunch. “So that’s what we did. The challenge was to have something okay for the CNIL and GDPR in terms of wording, UX etc. And, at the same time, some things that the publisher will allow to and will accept to implement in his source code to display to his users because he doesn’t want to scare them or to lose too much.

“Because they get money from the data that we buy from them. So they wanted to get the maximum money that they can, because it’s very difficult for them to live without the data revenue. So the challenge was to reconcile the need from the CNIL and the GDPR and from the publishers to get something acceptable for everyone.”

As a quick related aside, it’s worth noting that Fidzup does not work with the thousands of partners an ad exchange or demand-side platform most likely would be.

Magnan-Saurin tells us its CMP lists 460 partners. So while that’s still a lengthy list to have to put in front of consumers — it’s not, for example, the 32,000 partners of another French adtech firm, Vectaury, which has also recently been on the receiving end of an invalid consent ruling from the CNIL.

In turn, that suggests the ‘Fidzup fix’, if we can call it that, only scales so far; adtech firms that are routinely passing millions of people’s data around thousands of partners look to have much more existential problems under GDPR — as we’ve reported previously re: the Vectaury decision.

No consent without choice

Returning to Fidzup, its fix essentially boils down to actually offering people a choice over each and every data processing purpose, unless it’s strictly necessary for delivering the core app service the consumer was intending to use.

Which also means giving app users the ability to opt out of ads entirely — and not be penalized by not being able to use the app features itself.

In short, you can’t bundle consent. So Fidzup’s CMP unbundles all the data purposes and partners to offer users the option to consent or not.

“You can unselect or select each purpose,” says Magnan-Saurin of the now compliant CMP. “And if you want only to send data for, I don’t know, personalized ads but you don’t want to send the data to analyze if you go to a store or not, you can. You can unselect or select each consent. You can also see all the buyers who buy the data. So you can say okay I’m okay to send the data to every buyer but I can also select only a few or none of them.”

“What the CNIL ask is very complicated to read, I think, for the final user,” he continues. “Yes it’s very precise and you can choose everything etc. But it’s very complete and you have to spend some time to read everything. So we were [hoping] for something much shorter… but now okay we have something between the initial asking for the CNIL — which was like a big book — and our consent collection before the warning which was too short with not the right information. But still it’s quite long to read.”

Fidzup’s CNIL approved GDPR-compliant consent management platform

“Of course, as a user, I can refuse everything. Say no, I don’t want my data to be collected, I don’t want to send my data. And I have to be able, as a user, to use the app in the same way as if I accept or refuse the data collection,” he adds.

He says the CNIL was very clear on the latter point — telling it they could not require collection of geolocation data for ad targeting for usage of the app.

“You have to provide the same service to the user if he accepts or not to share his data,” he emphasizes. “So now the app and the geolocation features [of the app] works also if you refuse to send the data to advertisers.”

This is especially interesting in light of the ‘forced consent’ complaints filed against tech giants Facebook and Google earlier this year.

These complaints argue the companies should (but currently do not) offer an opt-out of targeted advertising, because behavioural ads are not strictly necessary for their core services (i.e. social networking, messaging, a smartphone platform etc).

Indeed, data gathering for such non-core service purposes should require an affirmative opt-in under GDPR. (An additional GDPR complaint against Android has also since attacked how consent is gathered, arguing it’s manipulative and deceptive.)

Asked whether, based on his experience working with the CNIL to achieve GDPR compliance, it seems fair that a small adtech firm like Fidzup has had to offer an opt-out when a tech giant like Facebook seemingly doesn’t, Magnan-Saurin tells TechCrunch: “I’m not a lawyer but based on what the CNIL asked us to be in compliance with the GDPR law I’m not sure that what I see on Facebook as a user is 100% GDPR compliant.”

“It’s better than one year ago but [I’m still not sure],” he adds. “Again it’s only my feeling as a user, based on the experience I have with the French CNIL and the GDPR law.”

Facebook of course maintains its approach is 100% GDPR compliant.

Even as data privacy experts aren’t so sure.

One thing is clear: If the tech giant was forced to offer an opt out for data processing for ads it would clearly take a big chunk out of its business — as a sub-set of users would undoubtedly say no to Zuckerberg’s “ads”. (And if European Facebook users got an ads opt out you can bet Americans would very soon and very loudly demand the same, so…)

Bridging the privacy gap

In Fidzup’s case, complying with GDPR has had a major impact on its business because offering a genuine choice means it’s not always able to obtain consent. Magnan-Saurin says there is essentially now a limit on the number of device users advertisers can reach because not everyone opts in for ads.

Although, since it’s been using the new CMP, he says a majority are still opting in (or, at least, this is the case so far) — showing one consent chart report with a ~70:30 opt-in rate, for example.

He expresses the change like this: “No one in the world can say okay I have 100% of the smartphones in my data base because the consent collection is more complete. No one in the world, even Facebook or Google, could say okay, 100% of the smartphones are okay to collect from them geolocation data. That’s a huge change.”

“Before that there was a race to the higher reach. The biggest number of smartphones in your database,” he continues. “Today that’s not the point.”

Now he says the point for adtech businesses with EU users is figuring out how to extrapolate from the percentage of user data they can (legally) collect to the 100% they can’t.

And that’s what Fidzup has been working on this year, developing machine learning algorithms to try to bridge the data gap so it can still offer its retail partners accurate predictions for tracking ad to store conversions.

“We have algorithms based on the few thousand stores that we equip, based on the few hundred mobile advertising campaigns that we have run, and we can understand for a store in London in… sports, fashion, for example, how many visits we can expect from the campaign based on what we can measure with the right consent,” he says. “That’s the first and main change in our market; the quantity of data that we can get in our database.”

“Now the challenge is to be as accurate as we can be without having 100% of real data — with the consent, and the real picture,” he adds. “The accuracy is less… but not that much. We have a very, very high standard of quality on that… So now we can assure the retailers that with our machine learning system they have nearly the same quality as they had before.

“Of course it’s not exactly the same… but it’s very close.”

Having a CMP that’s had regulatory ‘sign-off’, as it were, is something Fidzup is also now hoping to turn into a new bit of additional business.

“The second change is more like an opportunity,” he suggests. “All the work that we have done with CNIL and our publishers we have transferred it to a new product, a CMP, and we offer today to all the publishers who ask to use our consent management platform. So for us it’s a new product — we didn’t have it before. And today we are the only — to my knowledge — the only company and the only CMP validated by the CNIL and GDPR compliant so that’s useful for all the publishers in the world.”

It’s not currently charging publishers to use the CMP but will be seeing whether it can turn it into a paid product early next year.

How then, after months of compliance work, does Fidzup feel about GDPR? Does it believe the regulation is making life harder for startups vs tech giants — as is sometimes suggested, with claims put forward by certain lobby groups that the law risks entrenching the dominance of better resourced tech giants. Or does he see any opportunities?

In Magnan-Saurin’s view, six months in to GDPR European startups are at an R&D disadvantage vs tech giants because U.S. companies like Facebook and Google are not (yet) subject to a similarly comprehensive privacy regulation at home — so it’s easier for them to bag up user data for whatever purpose they like.

Though it’s also true that U.S. lawmakers are now paying earnest attention to the privacy policy area at a federal level. (And Google’s CEO faced a number of tough questions from Congress on that front just this week.)

“The fact is Facebook-Google they own like 90% of the revenue in mobile advertising in the world. And they are American. So basically they can do all their research and development on, for example, American users without any GDPR regulation,” he says. “And then apply a pattern of GDPR compliance and apply the new product, the new algorithm, everywhere in the world.

“As a European startup I can’t do that. Because I’m a European. So once I begin the research and development I have to be GDPR compliant so it’s going to be longer for Fidzup to develop the same thing as an American… But now we can see that GDPR might be beginning a ‘world thing’ — and maybe Facebook and Google will apply the GDPR compliance everywhere in the world. Could be. But it’s their own choice. Which means, for the example of the R&D, they could do their own research without applying the law because for now U.S. doesn’t care about the GDPR law, so you’re not outlawed if you do R&D without applying GDPR in the U.S. That’s the main difference.”

He suggests some European startups might relocate R&D efforts outside the region to try to workaround the legal complexity around privacy.

“If the law is meant to bring the big players to better compliance with privacy I think — yes, maybe it goes in this way. But the first to suffer is the European companies, and it becomes an asset for the U.S. and maybe the Chinese… companies because they can be quicker in their innovation cycles,” he suggests. “That’s a fact. So what could happen is maybe investors will not invest that much money in Europe than in U.S. or in China on the marketing, advertising data subject topics. Maybe even the French companies will put all the R&D in the U.S. and destroy some jobs in Europe because it’s too complicated to do research on that topics. Could be impacts. We don’t know yet.”

But the fact of GDPR enforcement having — perhaps inevitably — started small, with so far a small bundle of warnings against relative data minnows, rather than any swift action against the industry dominating adtech giants, that’s being felt as yet another inequality at the startup coalface.

“What’s sure is that the CNIL started to send warnings not to Google or Facebook but to startups. That’s what I can see,” he says. “Because maybe it’s easier to see I’m working on GDPR and everything but the fact is the law is not as complicated for Facebook and Google as it is for the small and European companies.”

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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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Watch Google CEO Sundar Pichai testify in Congress — on bias, China and more

Posted by | algorithmic accountability, Android, artificial intelligence, bias, China, Google, Government, House Judiciary Committee, Policy, Social, Sundar Pichai, United States | No Comments

Google CEO Sundar Pichai has managed to avoid the public political grillings that have come for tech leaders at Facebook and Twitter this year. But not today.

Today he will be in front of the House Judiciary committee for a hearing entitled: Transparency & Accountability: Examining Google and its Data Collection, Use and Filtering Practices.

The hearing kicks off at 10:00 ET — and will be streamed live via our YouTube channel (with the feed also embedded above in this post).

Announcing the hearing last month, committee chairman Bob Goodlatte said it would “examine potential bias and the need for greater transparency regarding the filtering practices of tech giant Google”.

Republicans have been pressuring the Silicon Valley giant over what they claim is ‘liberal bias’ embedded at the algorithmic level.

This summer President Trump publicly lashed out at Google, expressing displeasure about news search results for his name in a series of tweets in which he claimed: “Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good.”

Google rejected the allegation, responding then that: “Search is not used to set a political agenda and we don’t bias our results toward any political ideology.”

In his prepared remarks ahead of the hearing, Pichai reiterates this point.

“I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way. To do otherwise would go against our core principles and our business interests,” he writes. “We are a company that provides platforms for diverse perspectives and opinions—and we have no shortage of them among our own employees.”

He also seeks to paint a picture of Google as a proudly patriotic “American company” — playing up its role as a creator of local jobs and a bolster for the wider US economy, likely in the hopes of defusing some of the expected criticism from conservatives on the committee.

However his statement makes no mention of a separate controversy that’s been dogging Google this year — after news leaked this summer that it had developed a censored version of its search service for a potential relaunch in China.

The committee looks certain to question Google closely on its intentions vis-a-vis China.

In statements ahead of the hearing last month, House majority leader, Kevin McCarthy, flagged up reports he said suggested Google is “compromising its core principles by complying with repressive censorship mandates from China”.

Trust in general is a key theme, with lawmakers expressing frustration at both the opacity of Google’s blackbox algorithms, which ultimately shape content hierarchies on its platforms, and the difficulty they’ve had in getting facetime with its CEO to voice questions and concerns.

At a Senate Intelligence committee hearing three months ago, which was attended by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, senators did not hide their anger that Pichai had turned down their invitation — openly ripping into company leaders for not bothering to show up. (Google offered to send its chief legal officer instead.)

“For months, House Republicans have called for greater transparency and openness from Google. Company CEO Sundar Pichai met with House Republicans in September to answer some of our questions. Mr. Pichai’s scheduled appearance in front of the House Judiciary Committee is another important step to restoring public trust in Google and all the companies that shape the Internet,” McCarthy wrote last month.

Other recent news that could inform additional questions for Pichai from the committee include the revelation of yet another massive security breach at Google+; and a New York Times investigation of how mobile apps are location tracking users — with far more Android apps found to contain location-sharing code than iOS apps.

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Move over notch, the hole-punch smartphone camera is coming

Posted by | Apple, Asia, Canada, China, electronics, Europe, Gadgets, huawei, Mobile, paris, Samsung, Samsung Electronics, samsung galaxy, selfie, Sina, smartphones, TC, technology, United States, Xiaomi | No Comments

First it was the notch, now the hole-punch has emerged as the latest tech for concealing selfie cameras whilst keeping our smartphones as free of bezel as possible to maximize the screen space.

This week, Samsung and Huawei both unveiled new phones that dispense with the iconic “notch” — pioneered by Apple but popularized by everyone — in favor of positioning the front-facing camera in a small “Infinity-O” hole located on the top-left side of the screen.

Dubbed hole-punch, the approach is part of Samsung’s new Galaxy A8s and Huawei’s View 20, which were unveiled hours apart on Tuesday. Huawei was first by just hours, although Samsung has been pretty public with its intention to explore a number notch alternatives, including the hole-punch, which makes sense given that it has persistently mocked Apple for the feature.

The Samsung Galaxy S8a will debut in China with a hole-punch spot for the camera [Image via Samsung]

Don’t expect to see any hole-punches just yet though.

The Samsung A8s is just for China right now, while the View 20 isn’t being fully unveiled until December 26 in China and, for global audiences, January 22 in Paris. We also don’t have a price for either, but they do represent a new trend that could become widely adopted across phones from other OEMs in 2019.

That’s certainly Samsung’s plan. The Korea firm is rolling out the hole-punch on the A8s, but it has plans to expand its adoption into other devices and series. The A8s itself is pretty mid-range, but that makes it an ideal candidate to test the potential appeal of a more subtle selfie camera since Samsung’s market share has fallen in China where local rivals have pushed it hard. It starts there, but it could yet be adopted in higher-end devices with global availability.

As for the View 20, Huawei has also been pretty global with its ambitions, except in the U.S., where it hasn’t managed to strike a carrier deal despite reports that it has been close before. The current crisis with its CFO — the daughter of the company’s founder who was arrested during a trip to Canada — is another stark reminder that Huawei’s business is unlikely to ever get a break in the U.S. market: so expect the View 20 to be a model for Europe and Asia.

Huawei previewed its View 20 with a punch-hole selfie camera lens this week [Image via Huawei]

Samsung hasn’t said a tonne about the hole-punch design, but our sister publication Engadget — which attended the View 20’s early launch event in Hong Kong — said it was mounted below the display “like a diamond” to maintain the structure.

“This hole is not a traditional hole,” Huawei told Engadget.

Huawei will no doubt also talk up the fact that its hole is 4.5mm versus an apparent 6mm from Samsung.

Small details aside, one important upcoming trend from these new devices is the birth of the “mega” megapixel smartphone camera.

The View 20 packs a whopping 48-megapixel lens for a rear camera, which is something that we’re going to see a lot more of in 2019. Xiaomi, for one, is preparing a January launch for a device that’ll have the 48-megapixel camera, according to a message on Sina Weibo from company co-founder Bin Lin. There’s no word on which camera enclosure that device will have, though.

Xiaomi teased an upcoming smartphone that’ll sport a 48-megapixel camera [Image via Bin Lin/Weibo]

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JioSaavn becomes India’s answer to Spotify and Apple Music

Posted by | alibaba, Amazon, Android, apple music, Asia, China, computing, Dhingana, digital audio, digital media, executive, funding, Fundings & Exits, india, Internet, JioSaavn, Media, New York, Pandora, pandora radio, rdio, reliance jio, saavn, Software, Spotify, Tencent, tencent music, tiger global, Times Internet, Walmart | No Comments

India finally has its answer to Spotify after Reliance Jio merged its music service with Saavn, the startup it acquired earlier this year.

The deal itself isn’t new — it was announced back in March — but it has reached its logical conclusion after two apps were merged to create a single entity, JioSaavn, which is valued at $1 billion. For the first time, India has a credible rival to global names like Spotify and Apple Music through the combination of a venture capital-funded business, Saavn, and good old-fashioned telecom, JioMusic from Reliance’s disruptive Jio operator brand.

This merger deal comes days after reports suggested that Spotify is preparing to (finally) enter the Indian market, a move that has been in the planning for more than a year as we have reported.

That would set up an interesting battle between global names Spotify and Apple and local players JioSaavn and Gaana, a project from media firm Times Internet, which is also backed by China’s Tencent.

It isn’t uncommon to see international firms compete in Asia — Walmart and Amazon are the two major e-commerce players, while Chinese firms Alibaba and Tencent have busily snapped up stakes in promising internet companies for the past couple of years — but that competition has finally come to the streaming space.

There have certainly been misses over the years.

Early India-based pioneer Dhingana was scooped by Rdio back in 2014, having initial shut down its service due to financial issues. Ultimately, though, Rdio itself went bankrupt and was sold to Pandora, leaving both Rdio and Dhingana in the startup graveyard.

Saavn, the early competitor to Dhingana, seemed destined to a similar fate, at least from the outside. But it hit the big time in 2015 when it raised $100 million from Tiger Global, the New York hedge fund that made ambitious bets on a number of India’s most promising internet firms. That gave it the fuel to reach this merger deal with JioMusic.

Unlike Dhingana’s fire sale, Saavn’s executive team continues on under the JioSaavn banner.

The coming-together is certainly a far more solid outcome than the Rdio deal. JioSaavn has some 45 million songs — including a slate of originals started by Saavn — and access to the Jio network, which claims more than 250 million subscribers.

JioSaavn is available across iOS, Android, web and Reliance Jio’s own app store

The JioMusic service will be freemium, but Jio subscribers will get a 90-day trial of the ad-free “Pro” service. The company maintains five offices — including outposts in Mountain View and New York — with more than 200 employees, while Reliance has committed to pumping $100 million into the business for “growth and expansion of the platform.”

While it is linked to Reliance and Jio, JioMusic is a private business that counts Reliance as a stakeholder. You’d imagine that remaining private is a major carrot that has kept Saavn founders — Rishi Malhotra, Paramdeep Singh and Vinodh Bhat — part of the business post-merger.

The window certainly seems open for streaming IPOs — Spotify went public this past April through an unconventional listing that valued its business around $30 billion, while China’s Tencent Music is in the process of a listing that could raise $1.2 billion and value it around that $30 billion mark, too. JioSaavn might be the next streamer to test the public markets.

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Xiaomi gobbles up selfie phone brand Meitu as revenue jumps 49%

Posted by | Asia, China, digital marketing, Europe, M&A, meitu, Mobile, smart products, smartphone, smartphones, Xiaomi | No Comments

Xiaomi is diversifying into a new range of phones as the Chinese smartphone maker announced impressive growth with its latest financials.

The company announced it will take over selfie app maker Meitu’s smartphone business to go after new demographics, particularly women, while it lodged impressive 49 percent revenue growth in Q3.

Xiaomi posted a net profit of 2.481 billion RMB ($357 million) for the quarter on total sales of 50.846 billion RMB ($7.3 billion). The bulk of that income came from smartphones sales — 35 billion RMB, $5 billion — as Xiaomi surpassed its annual target of 100 million shipments with two months of the year still to go. The majority of those phones are sold in China, but the company said that international revenue overall was up by 113 percent year-on-year.

The company has ventured into Europe this year, with its most recent launch in the U.K. this month, but now it is taking aim at a more diverse set of customers in the Chinese market through this tie-in with Meitu. Best known for its “beautification” selfie apps, Meitu also sells smartphones that tap its selfie brand with optimized cameras and advanced editing features.

Now Xiaomi is taking over that business through a partnership that will see Meitu paid 10 percent of the profits for all devices sold, with a minimum guaranteed fee of $10 million per year. For other smart products, its cut increases to 15 percent.

Meitu is hardly a mainstream phone brand. Its first device launched in 2013 and has sold 3.5 million units to date. Recently, the company cut back on its hardware — it has launched just one device this year compared to five last year — while the average sell price of its devices has fallen, causing it to forecast a net loss of up to 1.2 billion RMB (or $173 million) up from just 197 million RMB last year. Shifting the heavy-lifting to Xiaomi makes a lot of sense — despite its total cut of sales dropping to just 10 percent, Xiaomi has impressive reach and a sales platform that already features third-party hardware.

Back to Xiaomi, these results are its first “true” financials since the company went public through a Hong Kong IPO back in July. It posted a $2.1 billion profit in the previous quarter but a large chunk of spending and revenue was down to the listing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lLeague of legends china ig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mobvoi launches new $200 smartwatch and $130 AirPods alternative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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U.S. lawmakers warn Canada to keep Huawei out of its 5G plans

Posted by | 5g, Canada, China, huawei, Justin Trudeau, Marco Rubio, mark warner, Mobile, mobile network, TC, U.S. government, United States, zte | No Comments

In a letter addressed to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Senators Mark Warner and Marco Rubio make a very public case that Canada should leave Chinese tech and telecom giant Huawei out of its plans to build a next-generation mobile network.

“While Canada has strong telecommunication security safeguards in place, we have serious concerns that such safeguards are inadequate given what the United States and other allies know about Huawei,” the letter states. The senators warn Canada to “reconsider Huawei’s inclusion in any aspect of Canada’s 5G development, introduction, and maintenance.”

The outcry comes after the head of the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security dismissed security concerns regarding Huawei in comments last month. The Canadian Centre for Cyber Security is Canada’s designated federal agency tasked with cybersecurity.

Next generation 5G networks already pose a number of unique security challenges. Lawmakers caution that by allowing companies linked to the Chinese government to build 5G infrastructure, the U.S. and its close allies (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the U.K.) would be inviting the fox to guard the henhouse.

As part of the Defense Authorization Act, passed in August, the U.S. government signed off on a law that forbids domestic agencies from using services or hardware made by Huawei and ZTE. A week later, Australia moved to block Huawei and ZTE from its own 5G buildout.

Due to the open nature of intelligence sharing between the U.S. and its closest allies, the Canadian government would be able to obtain knowledge of any specific threats that substantiate the U.S. posture toward the Chinese company. “We urge your government to seek additional information from the U.S. intelligence community,” the letter implores.

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