Europe

ChargedUp picks up £1.2M seed to grow its mobile charging network across UK

Posted by | Batteries, ChargedUp, Europe, Fundings & Exits, Mobile, Startups, TC | No Comments

ChargedUp, a U.K. startup that offers a mobile charging network that takes inspiration from bike sharing, has closed £1.2 million in seed investment. Leading the round is Sir John Hegarty’s fund The Garage, and the ex-Innocent Smoothie founders fund JamJar. The funding will be used to grow the offering across the U.K. and for international expansion.

Founded by Hugo Tilmouth, Charlie Baron, Hakeem Buge and Forrest Skerman Stevenson, ChargedUp has set out to solve the dead mobile phone battery problem with a charging network. However, rather than offer fixed charging points, the team has developed a solution that lets you rent a mobile charging pack from one destination and return it at a different location if needed. That way, mobile phone use remains mobile.

“It’s annoying and inconvenient to be out and about with a dying phone battery,” says CEO Hugo Tilmouth. We’ve all been there and I was inspired to do something about it through my own experiences. I was at a cricket match at London’s Lord’s Cricket Ground and waiting for a call for a last round interview with a large tech firm, and was running very low on charge! I ended up having to leave the cricket ground, buy a power bank and then rode a Boris Bike home and the light bulb went off in my head! Why not combine the flexibility of the sharing economy with the need of a ‘ChargedUp’ phone!”

The solution was to create multiple distribution points across a city, located in the venues where people spend most of their time. This includes cafes, bars and restaurants. “Our solution uses an app to enable users to find the nearest stations, unlock a sharable power bank and then return it to any station in the network and only pay for the time they use. Our goal is to be never five minutes from a charge,” adds Tilmouth.

In the next six months, ChargedUp says it will expand its network of over 250 vending stations in London’s bars, cafes and restaurants across to other large metropolitan areas in the U.K. Last month, the young startup partnered with Marks & Spencer to trial the platform in its central London stores. If the trial is successful, ChargedUp says it could lead to providing its phone-charging solution to all M&S customers by the end of 2019.

“Since launch we have delivered over 1 million minutes of charge across the network, and our customers love the service,” says Tilmouth. “Like the sharing scooter and bike companies, we operate a time-based model. We simply charge our users a simple price of 50p per 30 mins to charge their phones. We also make revenue from the advertising space both on our batteries and within our app.”

With regards to competition, Tilmouth says ChargedUp’s most direct competitor is the charging lockers found in some public spaces, such as ChargeBox. “We do not see this as a viable alternative to ChargedUp as users are forced to lock their phones away preventing them from using them while it charges. They are also prone to theft and damage. We are also differentiated by our use of green energy offsetting throughout the network,” he says.

Meanwhile, in a statement, investor Sir John Hegarty talks up the revenue opportunities beyond rentals, which includes advertising, rewards and loyalty. “At its simplest, ChargedUp addresses a massive need in the market, mobile devices running out of power. But more than that, ChargedUp provides advertisers with a powerful medium that connects directly with their audience at point of purchase,” he says.

Prior to today’s seed round, ChargedUp received investment from Telefonica via the Wayra accelerator and Brent Hoberman’s Founders Factory.

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Apple is selling the iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 in Germany again

Posted by | antitrust, Apple, apple inc, China, Europe, Federal Trade Commission, Germany, Intel, iPhone, lawsuit, licensing, Mobile, mobile phones, patent litigation, patents, Qorvo, Qualcomm, smartphone, standards-essential patents | No Comments

Two older iPhone models are back on sale in Apple stores in Germany — but only with Qualcomm chips inside.

The iPhone maker was forced to pull the iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 models from shelves in its online shop and physical stores in the country last month, after chipmaker Qualcomm posted security bonds to enforce a December court injunction it secured via patent litigation.

Apple told Reuters it had “no choice” but to stop using some Intel chips for handsets to be sold in Germany. “Qualcomm is attempting to use injunctions against our products to try to get Apple to succumb to their extortionist demands,” it said in a statement provided to the news agency.

Apple and Qualcomm have been embroiled in an increasingly bitter global legal battle around patents and licensing terms for several years.

The litigation follows Cupertino’s move away from using only Qualcomm’s chips in iPhones after, in 2016, Apple began sourcing modem chips from rival Intel — dropping Qualcomm chips entirely for last year’s iPhone models. Though still using some Qualcomm chips for older iPhone models, as it will now for iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 units headed to Germany.

For these handsets Apple is swapping out Intel modems that contain chips from Qorvo which are subject to the local patent litigation injunction. (The litigation relates to a patented smartphone power management technology.) 

Hence Apple’s Germany webstore is once again listing the two older iPhone models for sale…

Newer iPhones containing Intel chips remain on sale in Germany because they do not containing the same components subject to the patent injunction.

“Intel’s modem products are not involved in this lawsuit and are not subject to this or any other injunction,” Intel’s general counsel, Steven Rodgers, said in a statement to Reuters.

While Apple’s decision to restock its shelves with Qualcomm-only iPhone 7s and 8s represents a momentary victory for Qualcomm, a separate German court tossed another of its patent suits against Apple last month — dismissing it as groundless. (Qualcomm said it would appeal.)

The chipmaker has also been pursing patent litigation against Apple in China, and in December Apple appealed a preliminary injunction banning the import and sales of old iPhone models in the country.

At the same time, Qualcomm and Apple are both waiting the result of an antitrust trial brought against Qualcomm’s licensing terms in the U.S.

Two years ago the FTC filed charges against Qualcomm, accusing the chipmaker of operating a monopoly and forcing exclusivity from Apple while charging “excessive” licensing fees for standards-essential patents.

The case was heard last month and is pending a verdict or settlement.

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Europe agrees platform rules to tackle unfair business practices

Posted by | Amazon, Android, antitrust, competition, e-commerce, eBay, EC, eCommerce, Europe, european commission, european parliament, european union, General Data Protection Regulation, Google, google search, Google Shopping, Margrethe Vestager, microsoft store, online marketplaces, online platforms, search engine, search engines, search results | No Comments

The European Union’s political institutions have reached agreement over new rules designed to boost transparency around online platform businesses and curb unfair practices to support traders and other businesses that rely on digital intermediaries for discovery and sales.

The European Commission proposed a regulation for fairness and transparency in online platform trading last April. And late yesterday the European Parliament, Council of the EU and Commission reached a political deal on regulating the business environment of platforms, announcing the accord in a press release today.

The political agreement paves the way for adoption and publication of the regulation, likely later this year. The rules will apply 12 months after that point.

Online platform intermediaries such as ecommerce marketplaces and search engines are covered by the new rules if they provide services to businesses established in the EU and which offer goods or services to consumers located in the EU.

The Commission estimates there are some 7,000 such platforms and marketplaces which will be covered by the regulation, noting this includes “world giants as well as very small start-ups”.

Under the new rules, sudden and unexpected account suspensions will be banned — with the Commission saying platforms will have to provide “clear reasons” for any termination and also possibilities for appeal.

Terms and conditions must also be “easily available and provided in plain and intelligible language”.

There must also be advance notice of changes — of at least 15 days, with longer notice periods applying for more complex changes.

For search engines the focus is on ranking transparency. And on that front dominant search engine Google has attracted more than its fair share of criticism in Europe from a range of rivals (not all of whom are European).

In 2017, the search giant was also slapped with a $2.7BN antitrust fine related to its price comparison service, Google Shopping. The EC found Google had systematically given prominent placement to its own search comparison service while also demoting rival services in search results. (Google rejects the findings and is appealing.)

Given the history of criticism of Google’s platform business practices, and the multi-year regulatory tug of war over anti-competitive impacts, the new transparency provisions look intended to make it harder for a dominant search player to use its market power against rivals.

Changing the online marketplace

The importance of legislating for platform fairness was flagged by the Commission’s antitrust chief, Margrethe Vestager, last summer — when she handed Google another very large fine ($5BN) for anti-competitive behavior related to its mobile platform Android.

Vestager said then she wasn’t sure breaking Google up would be an effective competition fix, preferring to push for remedies to support “more players to have a real go”, as her Android decision attempts to do. But she also stressed the importance of “legislation that will ensure that you have transparency and fairness in the business to platform relationship”.

If businesses have legal means to find out why, for example, their traffic has stopped and what they can do to get it back that will “change the marketplace, and it will change the way we are protected as consumers but also as businesses”, she argued.

Just such a change is now in sight thanks to EU political accord on the issue.

The regulation represents the first such rules for online platforms in Europe and — commissioners’ contend — anywhere in the world.

“Our target is to outlaw some of the most unfair practices and create a benchmark for transparency, at the same time safeguarding the great advantages of online platforms both for consumers and for businesses,” said Andrus Ansip, VP for the EU’s Digital Single Market initiative in a statement.

Elżbieta Bieńkowska, commissioner for internal market, industry, entrepreneurship, and SMEs, added that the rules are “especially designed with the millions of SMEs in mind”.

“Many of them do not have the bargaining muscle to enter into a dispute with a big platform, but with these new rules they have a new safety net and will no longer worry about being randomly kicked off a platform, or intransparent ranking in search results,” she said in another supporting statement.

In a factsheet about the new rules, the Commission specifies they cover third-party ecommerce market places (e.g. Amazon Marketplace, eBay, Fnac Marketplace, etc.); app stores (e.g. Google Play, Apple App Store, Microsoft Store etc.); social media for business (e.g. Facebook pages, Instagram used by makers/artists etc.); and price comparison tools (e.g. Skyscanner, Google Shopping etc.).

The regulation does not target every online platform. For example, it does not cover online advertising (or b2b ad exchanges), payment services, SEO services or services that do not intermediate direct transactions between businesses and consumers.

The Commission also notes that online retailers that sell their own brand products and/or don’t rely on third party sellers on their own platform are also excluded from the regulation, such as retailers of brands or supermarkets.

Where transparency is concerned, the rules require that regulated marketplaces and search engines disclose the main parameters they use to rank goods and services on their site “to help sellers understand how to optimise their presence” — with the Commission saying the aim is to support sellers without allowing gaming of the ranking system.

Some platform business practices will also require mandatory disclosure — such as for platforms that not only provide a marketplace for sellers but sell on their platform themselves, as does Amazon for example.

The ecommerce giant’s use of merchant data remains under scrutiny in the EU. Vestager revealed a preliminary antitrust probe of Amazon last fall — when she said her department was gathering information to “try to get a full picture”. She said her concern is dual platforms could gain an unfair advantage as a consequence of access to merchants’ data.

And, again, the incoming transparency rules look intended to shrink that risk — requiring what the Commission couches as exhaustive disclosure of “any advantage” a platform may give to their own products over others.

“They must also disclose what data they collect, and how they use it — and in particular how such data is shared with other business partners they have,” it continues, noting also that: “Where personal data is concerned, the rules of the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] apply.”

(GDPR of course places further transparency requirements on platforms by, for example, empowering individuals to request any personal data held on them, as well as the reasons why their information is being processed.)

The platform regulation also includes new avenues for dispute resolution by requiring platforms set up an internal complaint-handling system to assist business users.

“Only the smallest platforms in terms of head count or turnover will be exempt from this obligation,” the Commission notes. (The exemption limit is set at fewer than 50 staff and less than €10M revenue.)

It also says: “Platforms will have to provide businesses with more options to resolve a potential problem through mediators. This will help resolve more issues out of court, saving businesses time and money.”

But, at the same time, the new rules allow business associations to take platforms to court to stop any non-compliance — mirroring a provision in the GDPR which also allows for collective enforcement and redress of individual privacy rights (where Member States adopt it).

“This will help overcome fear of retaliation, and lower the cost of court cases for individual businesses, when the new rules are not followed,” the Commission argues.

“In addition, Member States can appoint public authorities with enforcement powers, if they wish, and businesses can turn to those authorities.”

One component of the regulation that appears to be being left up to EU Member States to tackle is penalties for non-compliance — with no clear regime of fines set out (as there is in GDPR). So it’s not clear whether the platform regulation might not have rather more bark than bite, at least initially.

“Member States shall need to take measures that are sufficiently dissuasive to ensure that the online intermediation platforms and search engines comply with the requirements in the Regulation,” the Commission writes in a section of its factsheet dealing with how to make sure platforms respect the new rules.

It also points again to the provision allowing business associations or organisations to take action in national courts on behalf of members — saying this offers a legal route to “stop or prohibit non-compliance with one or more of the requirements of the Regulation”. So, er, expect lawsuits.

The Commission says the rules will be subject to review within 18 months after they come into force — in a bid to ensure the regulation keeps pace with fast-paced tech developments.

A dedicated Online Platform Observatory has been established in the EU for the purpose of “monitoring the evolution of the market and the effective implementation of the rules”, it adds.

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Audio tech supplier to Rolls Royce and Xiaomi secures another $13.2M in funding

Posted by | dirac, Europe, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, Mobile, OnePlus, TC, Xiaomi | No Comments

As autonomous driving eventually transforms cars from transportation devices to mobile theaters or conference rooms we will need better audio inside them. And we’ve already seen that VCs like Andreessen Horowitz say “audio is the future.”

So it’s interesting that Swedish sound pioneer Dirac has completed a new $13.2 million round of financing led by current investors. Previous investors included Swedish Angel network Club Network Investments, Erik Ejerhed and Staffan Persson.

Dirac makes sophisticated audio technology for customers including BMW, OnePlus, Rolls Royce, Volvo and Xiaomi .

Its platform is used by those firms for everything from capture to playback — regardless of device size or form factor.

“As consumer devices decrease in size and expand in complexity, digital signal processing is the key to unlocking their full audio potential and creating premium sound experiences,” says Dirac CEO Mathias Johansson. “With this new funding, we can take our approach to digitizing sound systems even further — creating more intelligent and adaptive audio processing solutions that establish new standards in both audio playback and capture across a variety of applications.”

Dirac has now appointed former Harman International executive Armin Prommersberger as CTO and opened a Copenhagen Research Development Center.

Johansson says new 5G networks are set to create new use-cases for current and emerging technologies, including audio.

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Devialet’s Phantom Reactor turns music into an emotional experience

Posted by | Devialet, Devialet Phantom Reactor, Europe, France Newsletter, Gadgets, Startups | No Comments

French startup Devialet has done it again. The new Phantom Reactor is a smaller, more effective speaker that packs in everything that made Devialet speakers good in the first place.

Devialet’s first speaker, the Phantom, attracted rave reviews a few years ago. The egg-shaped speaker promised no background noise, no saturation and no distortion in a relatively small package.

To be clear, it wasn’t that small when you compared it with an average bookshelf speaker. But when you turned it on, it would feel like a much larger speaker — something that you’d find in a concert hall.

But that speaker wasn’t for everyone. If you live in a tiny apartment, spending $1,700 to $3,500 for a speaker capable of generating up to 4,500 watts of power was overkill.

Hence the Phantom Reactor, a smaller version of the Phantom with the same promises — no background noise, no saturation and no distortion. It still features the iconic egg-shaped design.

The company let me borrow a Phantom Reactor for a few weeks to play with it at home. And I’ve been impressed by the speaker. It’s a tiny beast that makes any all-in-one Bluetooth speaker sound like a joke.

In many ways, this speaker reminds me of the iPod lineup. When Apple first introduced the iPod, it was the perfect device for music enthusiasts. For the first time, you could take all of your music with you, even if you had a large music library.

But that device was heavy, expensive and thick — stack three iPhone XSes and you get the thickness of the original iPod. Everything was great on paper, but it was impractical if you’re not that much into music.

With the iPod mini, Apple created a device that was not only cheaper than the original iPod but also more effective. Music devices, from portable players to connected speakers, are supposed to disappear and integrate perfectly in your daily routine.

The Phantom Reactor is a damn good speaker. Music fills my living room in a way that none of my many other speakers do. When I compare it with another speaker, I can hear that it’s the same song. But, with Devialet’s speaker, it feels like I’m experiencing the song instead of just listening to the song.

The 900W model that I’m using is still too powerful for my apartment — I can’t play music at 60 percent of the volume for too long without thinking about my neighbors. If you live in a crowded city with small living rooms, the cheaper 600W model is probably enough. If you have a house in the suburbs, that’s probably a different story.

The Phantom Reactor isn’t portable per se. It doesn’t have a battery and it still weighs 9.5lbs/4.3kg. You’ll be able to unplug it and carry it to another room every now and then, but you won’t take it with you to your friend’s house.

You can currently play music using AirPlay, Bluetooth, Spotify Connect and UPnP, as well as analog and optical input. You can connect it to your network using Wi-Fi or Ethernet.

The mobile app is quite minimal. It guides you through the setup process and lets you select the source input at any time. You’re supposed to control music from your usual music players. There are also touch buttons on the top of the speaker for basic playback and pairing controls.

I’ve been mostly using Spotify Connect, which lets you stream music on the speaker directly. If you’re not familiar with the protocol, you play a song or playlist in the Spotify app just like you would normally do — you just have to select the Phantom Reactor as the output speaker. Nothing actually happens on your phone or computer, the Spotify app acts as a remote.

As you may have noticed, AirPlay 2 isn’t supported just yet and you can’t pair multiple speakers. The company says those features will come later with a software update. Devialet also says that it isn’t in the business of voice assistants — there’s no microphone on board.

But if you’re looking for a unit that sounds good and you have enough money for the Phantom Reactor, the speaker is available now for for $999/€990/£990 for the 600W model and $1,299/€1,290/£1,290 for the 900W model.

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Is Europe closing in on an antitrust fix for surveillance technologists?

Posted by | Android, antitrust, competition law, data protection, data protection law, DCMS committee, digital media, EC, Europe, european commission, european union, Facebook, General Data Protection Regulation, Germany, Giovanni Buttarelli, Google, instagram, Margrethe Vestager, Messenger, photo sharing, privacy, Social, social media, social networks, surveillance capitalism, TC, terms of service, United Kingdom, United States | No Comments

The German Federal Cartel Office’s decision to order Facebook to change how it processes users’ personal data this week is a sign the antitrust tide could at last be turning against platform power.

One European Commission source we spoke to, who was commenting in a personal capacity, described it as “clearly pioneering” and “a big deal”, even without Facebook being fined a dime.

The FCO’s decision instead bans the social network from linking user data across different platforms it owns, unless it gains people’s consent (nor can it make use of its services contingent on such consent). Facebook is also prohibited from gathering and linking data on users from third party websites, such as via its tracking pixels and social plugins.

The order is not yet in force, and Facebook is appealing, but should it come into force the social network faces being de facto shrunk by having its platforms siloed at the data level.

To comply with the order Facebook would have to ask users to freely consent to being data-mined — which the company does not do at present.

Yes, Facebook could still manipulate the outcome it wants from users but doing so would open it to further challenge under EU data protection law, as its current approach to consent is already being challenged.

The EU’s updated privacy framework, GDPR, requires consent to be specific, informed and freely given. That standard supports challenges to Facebook’s (still fixed) entry ‘price’ to its social services. To play you still have to agree to hand over your personal data so it can sell your attention to advertisers. But legal experts contend that’s neither privacy by design nor default.

The only ‘alternative’ Facebook offers is to tell users they can delete their account. Not that doing so would stop the company from tracking you around the rest of the mainstream web anyway. Facebook’s tracking infrastructure is also embedded across the wider Internet so it profiles non-users too.

EU data protection regulators are still investigating a very large number of consent-related GDPR complaints.

But the German FCO, which said it liaised with privacy authorities during its investigation of Facebook’s data-gathering, has dubbed this type of behavior “exploitative abuse”, having also deemed the social service to hold a monopoly position in the German market.

So there are now two lines of legal attack — antitrust and privacy law — threatening Facebook (and indeed other adtech companies’) surveillance-based business model across Europe.

A year ago the German antitrust authority also announced a probe of the online advertising sector, responding to concerns about a lack of transparency in the market. Its work here is by no means done.

Data limits

The lack of a big flashy fine attached to the German FCO’s order against Facebook makes this week’s story less of a major headline than recent European Commission antitrust fines handed to Google — such as the record-breaking $5BN penalty issued last summer for anticompetitive behaviour linked to the Android mobile platform.

But the decision is arguably just as, if not more, significant, because of the structural remedies being ordered upon Facebook. These remedies have been likened to an internal break-up of the company — with enforced internal separation of its multiple platform products at the data level.

This of course runs counter to (ad) platform giants’ preferred trajectory, which has long been to tear modesty walls down; pool user data from multiple internal (and indeed external sources), in defiance of the notion of informed consent; and mine all that personal (and sensitive) stuff to build identity-linked profiles to train algorithms that predict (and, some contend, manipulate) individual behavior.

Because if you can predict what a person is going to do you can choose which advert to serve to increase the chance they’ll click. (Or as Mark Zuckerberg puts it: ‘Senator, we run ads.’)

This means that a regulatory intervention that interferes with an ad tech giant’s ability to pool and process personal data starts to look really interesting. Because a Facebook that can’t join data dots across its sprawling social empire — or indeed across the mainstream web — wouldn’t be such a massive giant in terms of data insights. And nor, therefore, surveillance oversight.

Each of its platforms would be forced to be a more discrete (and, well, discreet) kind of business.

Competing against data-siloed platforms with a common owner — instead of a single interlinked mega-surveillance-network — also starts to sound almost possible. It suggests a playing field that’s reset, if not entirely levelled.

(Whereas, in the case of Android, the European Commission did not order any specific remedies — allowing Google to come up with ‘fixes’ itself; and so to shape the most self-serving ‘fix’ it can think of.)

Meanwhile, just look at where Facebook is now aiming to get to: A technical unification of the backend of its different social products.

Such a merger would collapse even more walls and fully enmesh platforms that started life as entirely separate products before were folded into Facebook’s empire (also, let’s not forget, via surveillance-informed acquisitions).

Facebook’s plan to unify its products on a single backend platform looks very much like an attempt to throw up technical barriers to antitrust hammers. It’s at least harder to imagine breaking up a company if its multiple, separate products are merged onto one unified backend which functions to cross and combine data streams.

Set against Facebook’s sudden desire to technically unify its full-flush of dominant social networks (Facebook Messenger; Instagram; WhatsApp) is a rising drum-beat of calls for competition-based scrutiny of tech giants.

This has been building for years, as the market power — and even democracy-denting potential — of surveillance capitalism’s data giants has telescoped into view.

Calls to break up tech giants no longer carry a suggestive punch. Regulators are routinely asked whether it’s time. As the European Commission’s competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, was when she handed down Google’s latest massive antitrust fine last summer.

Her response then was that she wasn’t sure breaking Google up is the right answer — preferring to try remedies that might allow competitors to have a go, while also emphasizing the importance of legislating to ensure “transparency and fairness in the business to platform relationship”.

But it’s interesting that the idea of breaking up tech giants now plays so well as political theatre, suggesting that wildly successful consumer technology companies — which have long dined out on shiny convenience-based marketing claims, made ever so saccharine sweet via the lure of ‘free’ services — have lost a big chunk of their populist pull, dogged as they have been by so many scandals.

From terrorist content and hate speech, to election interference, child exploitation, bullying, abuse. There’s also the matter of how they arrange their tax affairs.

The public perception of tech giants has matured as the ‘costs’ of their ‘free’ services have scaled into view. The upstarts have also become the establishment. People see not a new generation of ‘cuddly capitalists’ but another bunch of multinationals; highly polished but remote money-making machines that take rather more than they give back to the societies they feed off.

Google’s trick of naming each Android iteration after a different sweet treat makes for an interesting parallel to the (also now shifting) public perceptions around sugar, following closer attention to health concerns. What does its sickly sweetness mask? And after the sugar tax, we now have politicians calling for a social media levy.

Just this week the deputy leader of the main opposition party in the UK called for setting up a standalone Internet regulatory with the power to break up tech monopolies.

Talking about breaking up well-oiled, wealth-concentration machines is being seen as a populist vote winner. And companies that political leaders used to flatter and seek out for PR opportunities find themselves treated as political punchbags; Called to attend awkward grilling by hard-grafting committees, or taken to vicious task verbally at the highest profile public podia. (Though some non-democratic heads of state are still keen to press tech giant flesh.)

In Europe, Facebook’s repeat snubs of the UK parliament’s requests last year for Zuckerberg to face policymakers’ questions certainly did not go unnoticed.

Zuckerberg’s empty chair at the DCMS committee has become both a symbol of the company’s failure to accept wider societal responsibility for its products, and an indication of market failure; the CEO so powerful he doesn’t feel answerable to anyone; neither his most vulnerable users nor their elected representatives. Hence UK politicians on both sides of the aisle making political capital by talking about cutting tech giants down to size.

The political fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal looks far from done.

Quite how a UK regulator could successfully swing a regulatory hammer to break up a global Internet giant such as Facebook which is headquartered in the U.S. is another matter. But policymakers have already crossed the rubicon of public opinion and are relishing talking up having a go.

That represents a sea-change vs the neoliberal consensus that allowed competition regulators to sit on their hands for more than a decade as technology upstarts quietly hoovered up people’s data and bagged rivals, and basically went about transforming themselves from highly scalable startups into market-distorting giants with Internet-scale data-nets to snag users and buy or block competing ideas.

The political spirit looks willing to go there, and now the mechanism for breaking platforms’ distorting hold on markets may also be shaping up.

The traditional antitrust remedy of breaking a company along its business lines still looks unwieldy when faced with the blistering pace of digital technology. The problem is delivering such a fix fast enough that the business hasn’t already reconfigured to route around the reset. 

Commission antitrust decisions on the tech beat have stepped up impressively in pace on Vestager’s watch. Yet it still feels like watching paper pushers wading through treacle to try and catch a sprinter. (And Europe hasn’t gone so far as trying to impose a platform break up.) 

But the German FCO decision against Facebook hints at an alternative way forward for regulating the dominance of digital monopolies: Structural remedies that focus on controlling access to data which can be relatively swiftly configured and applied.

Vestager, whose term as EC competition chief may be coming to its end this year (even if other Commission roles remain in potential and tantalizing contention), has championed this idea herself.

In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today program in December she poured cold water on the stock question about breaking tech giants up — saying instead the Commission could look at how larger firms got access to data and resources as a means of limiting their power. Which is exactly what the German FCO has done in its order to Facebook. 

At the same time, Europe’s updated data protection framework has gained the most attention for the size of the financial penalties that can be issued for major compliance breaches. But the regulation also gives data watchdogs the power to limit or ban processing. And that power could similarly be used to reshape a rights-eroding business model or snuff out such business entirely.

#GDPR allows imposing a permanent ban on data processing. This is the nuclear option. Much more severe than any fine you can imagine, in most cases. https://t.co/X772NvU51S

— Lukasz Olejnik (@lukOlejnik) January 28, 2019

The merging of privacy and antitrust concerns is really just a reflection of the complexity of the challenge regulators now face trying to rein in digital monopolies. But they’re tooling up to meet that challenge.

Speaking in an interview with TechCrunch last fall, Europe’s data protection supervisor, Giovanni Buttarelli, told us the bloc’s privacy regulators are moving towards more joint working with antitrust agencies to respond to platform power. “Europe would like to speak with one voice, not only within data protection but by approaching this issue of digital dividend, monopolies in a better way — not per sectors,” he said. “But first joint enforcement and better co-operation is key.”

The German FCO’s decision represents tangible evidence of the kind of regulatory co-operation that could — finally — crack down on tech giants.

Blogging in support of the decision this week, Buttarelli asserted: “It is not necessary for competition authorities to enforce other areas of law; rather they need simply to identity where the most powerful undertakings are setting a bad example and damaging the interests of consumers.  Data protection authorities are able to assist in this assessment.”

He also had a prediction of his own for surveillance technologists, warning: “This case is the tip of the iceberg — all companies in the digital information ecosystem that rely on tracking, profiling and targeting should be on notice.”

So perhaps, at long last, the regulators have figured out how to move fast and break things.

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Opera adds a free VPN to its Android browser app

Posted by | Ad blocking, america, Android, Apps, Asia, computing, Europe, freeware, Opera, search engines, Software, vpn, Web browsers | No Comments

Opera became the first browser-maker to bundle a VPN with its service, and now that effort is expanding to mobile.

The company announced today that its Android browser app will begin offering a free VPN. The feature will be rolled out to beta users on a gradual basis. The VPN is free and unlimited, and it can be set to locations in America, Europe and Asia as well as an “optimal” setting that hooks up the fastest available connection. Switching on the VPN means that user traffic data isn’t collected by Opera, while it makes it harder for websites to track location and user data.

There are granular settings too, which include limiting VPN usage to private tabs and switching it off for search engines to get more local results.

Opera previously offered a free VPN app for Android and iOS, but that project was closed last year. The new strategy, it seems, was to bake that technology directly into the browser to give it a more competitive advantage and use the tech to bring more users into the Opera ecosystem. There’s no word on an iOS launch.

“The reason why we are including this built-in VPN in our Android browser is because it gives you that extra layer of protection that you are searching for in your daily mobile browsing,” the company — which listed on the Nasdaq last year — said in a blog post.

The VPN — which is powered by a 2015 acquisition — is one of a number of privacy features that Opera offers. Others include cookie dialog box blocking, cryptojacking and ad blocking. The company has also offered support for crypto with the addition of a crypto wallet, support for Web 3 apps and — as of this week — a feature that lets users buy crypto from inside their browser.

Besides its core apps, Opera also offers a “Touch” browser that is optimized for devices that don’t have a home button. It launched on Android and expanded to iOS late last year.

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Uber competitor Chauffeur-Privé rebrands to Kapten

Posted by | Apps, Chauffeur-Privé, Collaborative Consumption, Europe, France Newsletter, Kapten, Mobile, Transportation | No Comments

French company Chauffeur-Privé is going to expand aggressively over the next couple of years. That’s why the company is changing its name to Kapten — a name that sounds less French.

“We wanted to share with you a very important piece of news,” Kapten co-founder and CEO Yan Hascoet said in a press conference. “We changed our name while keeping the same positioning.”

Kapten is one of the leading ridesharing players in France and recently launched in Lisbon (2 million users in France, 80,000 users in Lisbon). The company is going to launch in Geneva next week and London in the coming weeks. By 2020, Kapten should be in 15 major cities.

Kapten within Intelligent Apps

As a reminder, Daimler AG acquired a majority stake in Chauffeur-Privé/Kapten back in December 2017. Daimler AG and BMW Group later merged their mobility service businesses into a single entity called Intelligent Apps.

Kapten confirmed that Intelligent Apps will become Jurbey. Intelligent Apps’ free-floating services, parking services, charging services and itinerary apps will merge to simplify the product offering.

But Intelligent Apps’ ridesharing services (Chauffeur-Privé, mytaxi, Clever Taxi and Beat) won’t merge for now.

“It seems obvious that there will be some consolidation in five years in one way or another,” Hascoet said. “But this is not on today’s agenda.”

Hascoet thinks that the ridesharing space is still extremely competitive and there’s room for growth. It seems smarter to keep multiple services for now to see how it plays out in the coming years. Kapten is thinking about integrating Intelligent Apps’ scooter service Hive in its app, though.


Update: Kapten co-founder and CEO Yan Hascoet sent us the following statement:

  • Daimler AG and BMW Group are merging their mobility service businesses into a single entity. After completion of the complex transaction on January 31, 2019, the new mobility services company, Daimler AG and the BMW Group, will present the next steps to be taken in the first quarter of 2019.
  • The goal is to jointly create a major player for seamless and intelligently connected mobility services. The 50-50 joint venture will bring together the following five services: a multimodal mobility platform, car sharing, ride hailing, parking, and charging. Ride hailing will be based on mytaxi, Kapten (Chauffeur Privé), Clever Taxi and Beat.
  • As a matter of principle, future brand names are neither confirmed nor commented on.

A new name and some new features

Kapten is also using today’s rebranding to launch an aggressive advertising campaign. The company will spend “millions of euros.”

There will be some tweaks to the service, as well. The minimum price is now €6 instead of €8 just like on Uber. Kapten will compensate that change by paying drivers the equivalent of an €8 ride for the time being. Eventually, Kapten wants drivers to generate as much revenue with €6 rides. In all cases, Kapten takes a 20 percent cut on each ride.

Drivers are also getting new features starting today. Free waiting time has been lowered from 5 minutes to 3 minutes, which should help drivers waste less time. There’s also a new feature to go back home and accept rides on the way.

The company also used this opportunity to share some numbers. Over the past 7 years, the company managed to attract 2 million clients and 200 companies who generated 20 million rides in total. In 2018 alone, Kapten handled 7.5 million rides with an average price of €17 to €18. It currently works with 22,000 drivers and 250 employees. Kapten will hire around 100 employees in 2019.

Kapten generated $54.9 million in revenue in 2016, $113 million in 2017 and $180.8 million in 2018 (€48.6 million, €100 million and €160 million respectively). Kapten wants to multiply its revenue by 5 by 2020.

In its announcement video, Kapten also differentiated its service from Uber by saying that they’ll keep paying taxes in local markets where they operate. The company wants to be the good guy; let’s see if that’s enough to capture some market share.

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Hatch, Rovio’s ‘Netflix for gaming,’ picks up NTT Docomo as a strategic investor

Posted by | Apps, Europe, funding, Gaming, hatch, ntt-docomo, Rovio | No Comments

Rovio’s efforts to diversify beyond its Angry Birds franchise is getting a little investment boost today. The company announced that Japan’s NTT Docomo is taking a stake in Hatch, a Rovio subsidiary that describes itself as the “Netflix of gaming,” providing subscribers with a rotating mix of freemium games from a mix of publishers, with the option of paying a single monthly fee for a wider mix.

Docomo and Rovio are not discussing the size or value of the stake, but a spokesperson for Rovio told TechCrunch that prior to this deal, Hatch was 80 percent owned by Rovio and 20 percent by Hatch personnel. He didn’t specify who had sold shares to Docomo in this latest transaction.

The deal will cover not just investment to expand the Hatch platform and number of games on offer — currently the selection numbers more than 100 — but to bring Hatch specifically to the Japanese market.

This will include, starting next week (February 13), a soft launch of Hatch on Android devices in the country, as well as prominent placement of Hatch on Docomo’s Android TV service, sweetening the deal with three-month free trials of the Premium tier.

The Android TV offering is a key OTT play for Docomo. Known primarily as one of the country’s biggest mobile carriers (and, historically, a trailblazer in mobile services, setting the pace for how much was building in the world of mobile content globally in the earliest days of mobile phones), like other network service providers, Docomo has been hit hard by the huge wave of services that bypass carriers and strike billing deals directly with consumers.

Hatch will be one more feather in Docomo’s cap to try to lure more people to its service, which can be subscribed to and paid for by way of Docomo’s “d Account,” an iTunes-style platform that people can use regardless of which network carrier they contract with.

Like Netflix, Amazon and other OTT video streaming plays, the concept behind Hatch is to offer a mix of games from various publishers, as well as developing its own selection of games in-house that it hopes will be popular enough to help differentiate the service from the rest of the field.

That is critical, because Hatch and Rovio are not the only ones vying for the title of “Netflix for gaming.” Other formidable hopefuls include AmazonMicrosoft, Apple, Google and perhaps maybe even Netflix itself.

The current selection of games on Hatch include Monument Valley, Space Invaders Infinity Gene and Hitman GO, with a new game called Arkanoid Rising — “a bold new reimagining of the arcade classic produced in association with Japanese gaming legends TAITO” — coming in the spring, which will be “the first Hatch Original exclusive to the platform.”

Down the line, there also will be collaborations to develop esports events and more titles, Rovio said.

The move is a natural one for Hatch, given gaming culture and how strong it is in Japan.

“Japan is the world’s third largest games market and where the video games industry as we know it was born. In this extremely competitive market we couldn’t be happier to work with a partner like Docomo to help take our vision of cloud gaming mainstream,” says Juhani Honkala, Hatch founder and CEO, in a statement. “Docomo’s leading contributions to 5G technology and infrastructure and commitment to amazing new 5G-enabled services make the company an ideal strategic partner in Japan, and we look forward to a long and fruitful collaboration.”

“We are excited to work together with Hatch, a great example of the new type of consumer services, which can bring out its potential towards the 5G era,” added Takanori Ashikawa, director, Consumer Business Department of Docomo, in a separate statement. “Hatch’s vision for cloud gaming changes the way people play and discover games, and our shared goal to enrich the everyday lives of our customers makes Hatch an excellent strategic partner for the long term.”

Since its lacklustre public debut in September 2017, Rovio has been facing a lot of growth challenges, in part because of strong competition in the gaming industry and the company’s over-reliance on a nearly 10-year-old franchise amid a bigger industry shift to new tastes in games — marked by the rise of streamed, multiplayer titles like Fortnite.

But while overall profits have continued to decline at the company, sales of some titles have actually grown, with Angry Birds 2 — now almost three years old — surprisingly seeing a surge of growth in 2018.

In that context, a different focus by way of Hatch, with a little financial help from NTT Docomo, could be the bet that helps catapult Rovio to a new level of the gaming playing field.

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Lydia launches shared accounts for its mobile payment app

Posted by | Europe, France Newsletter, Lydia, Mobile, payments, Startups | No Comments

French startup Lydia now lets you share your Lydia sub-accounts with other people. The company wants to make it easier to manage money when you’re traveling with friends, sharing an apartment with someone and more.

When Lydia introduced its premium offering back in March 2018, the company completely rethought the way Lydia accounts worked. Users had a single Lydia account and were basically limited to sending, receiving and withdrawing money — it was all about peer-to-peer payments. Now, you can create as many Lydia accounts as you want, move money around, set money aside and top up each account separately.

That was just the first step as you can now share those accounts with other people. This way, you don’t have to create a Splitwise group and track who owes what to whom. Instead of getting your money back after a while, people chip in and top up the shared account directly. Anybody can then safely spend that money.

As always, Lydia is all about getting money in the app and out of the app as seamlessly as possible. When you create a shared account, each user can top up the account using other Lydia sub-accounts, a traditional bank account that you have already connected to the app or a debit card if it’s a small amount.

If your bank account isn’t compatible with Lydia, you also get an IBAN number for this sub-account in particular. So you can initiate a traditional bank transfer from your bank account as well.

Once the account is up and running, anybody can spend money. You can generate a virtual card, add it to Apple Pay, Google Pay or Samsung Pay, and associate it with the shared account. If you’re on a ski trip and buying raclette cheese for your group of friends, you can then pay with your phone and debit the shared account.

If you’re a premium user and have a good old plastic Lydia card, you can also use it in any card reader and associate transactions with your shared account. Some websites already let you pay with your Lydia account directly as well. You can select your sub-account when confirming the transaction on your phone.

You can imagine multiple different use cases for such a feature. This is a good way to share an account with your significant other without switching to the same bank. This could be a way to pay for utility bills with your roommates.

“I use it with my son for instance. I created a shared account, I set up a virtual card and he added it to his Google Pay,” co-founder and CEO Cyril Chiche told me. He can then send him money that he can use instantly whenever he needs to.

This feature will become more valuable over time, when you can pay with your Lydia account in more places. Mobile payment systems, such as Apple Pay and Google Pay, are slowly becoming more widespread. And Lydia has also been working with popular payment service providers to add support for more e-commerce websites.

It’s a radical way of sharing expenses with friends and family members, but it could become the obvious way if Lydia becomes ubiquitous.

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