india

With iOS 13, Apple delivers new features to court users in India

Posted by | alibaba, Apple, apple news, Apple Pay, Apps, Asia, india, iPhone, language, Languages of India, Mobile, Netflix, smartphone, writing | No Comments

Apple has finally listened to its small, but slowly growing user base in India. The iPhone-maker today announced a range of features in iOS 13 that are designed to appease users in the world’s second largest smartphone market.

First up, the company says its Siri voice assistant now offers all new and “more natural” Indian English male and female voices. It has also introduced a bilingual keyboard, featuring support for Hindi and English languages. The keyboard offers typing predictions in Devanagari Hindi that can suggest the next word as a user types and it learns from their typing over time.

Additionally, the keyboard in iOS 13 supports all of 22 Indian languages, with the inclusion of 15 new Indian language keyboards: Assamese, Bodo, Dogri, Kashmiri (Devanagari, Arabic), Konkani (Devanagari), Manipuri (Bangla, Meetei Mayek), Maithili, Nepali, Sanskrit, Santali (Devanagari, Ol Chiki), and Sindhi (Devanagari, Arabic).

The addition of these features comes as Apple cautiously grows more serious about India, where it holds about just 1% of the smartphone market share, according to research firm Counterpoint. Even as smartphone shipment is declining in much of the world, India has emerged as the fastest growing market for handsets in recent years. According to Counterpoint, more than 145 million smartphones shipped in India last year, up 10% year-over-year.

But users in India have long complained about Apple services not being fully optimized for local conditions. Siri, for instance, has so far offered limited functionalities in India, and many Apple services such as Apple Pay and Apple News are yet to launch in the nation.

The upcoming version of iOS, which will ship to a range of iPhone handsets later this year, also includes four new system fonts in Indian languages: Gurmukhi, Kannada, Odia, and Gujarati. These will “help deliver greater clarity and ease when reading in apps like Safari, typing in Messages and Mail, or swiping through Contacts,” the company said in a statement.

Additionally, there are 30 new document fonts for Indian languages Hindi, Marathi, Nepali, Sanskrit, Bengali, Assamese, Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati, Kannada, Gurmukhi, Malayalam, Odia, and Urdu.

Apple says iOS 13 will also enable improved video downloading option for patchy networks. It says users in India can now set an optimized time of the day in video streaming apps such as Hotstar and Netflix for downloading videos. Consumption of video apps is increasingly skyrocketing in India. Just last week, Alibaba said it was investing $100 million in its short video app called Vmate in the nation.

In recent months, Apple has also improved Apple Maps in India. Earlier this year, Apple Maps added support for turn-by-turn navigation, and enabled users to book a cab — from Ola or Uber — directly from within the maps app. The company has also been aggressively hiring people to expand its maps and other software teams in  the country, according to job postings on the its site.

Improvements to software aside, Apple has also been working to reduce the cost of iPhones in India, the single major factor for their poor sales in the country. Two years ago, Apple started to assemble the iPhone 7 handset in India. It plans to ramp up its local production in the coming weeks, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

As part of local government’s ‘Make in India’ program, phone vendors that assemble phones in the country are offered tax and other benefits. Ravi Shankar Prasad, an Indian minister who oversees law and justice, telecom, and electronics and IT departments, said at a press conference earlier today (local time) that Bharatiya Janata Party, the ruling party which was reelected last month, will work on expanding Make in India program as one of its top priorities.

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Alibaba pumps $100 million into Vmate to grow its video app in India

Posted by | alibaba, Apps, Asia, bytedance, Disney, funding, Google, india, Media, Mobile, Social, Startups, tiktok, Vmate, YouTube | No Comments

Chinese tech giant Alibaba is doubling down on India’s burgeoning video market, looking to fight back local rival ByteDance, Google and Disney to gain its foothold in the nation. The company said today that it is pumping $100 million into Vmate, a three-year-old social video app owned by subsidiary UC Web.

Vmate was launched as a video streaming and short-video-sharing app in 2016. But in the years since, it has added features such as video downloads and 3-dimensional face emojis to expand its use cases. It has amassed 30 million users globally, and will use the capital to scale its business in India, the company told TechCrunch. Alibaba Group did not respond to TechCrunch’s questions about its ownership of the app.

The move comes as Alibaba revives its attempts to take on the growing social video apps market, something on which it has missed out completely in China. Vmate could potentially help it fill the gap in India. Many of the features Vmate offers are similar to those offered by ByteDance’s TikTok, which currently has more than 120 million active users in India. ByteDance, with a valuation of about $75 billion, has grown its business without taking money from either Alibaba or Tencent, the latter of which has launched its own TikTok-like apps with limited success.

Alibaba remains one of the biggest global investors in India’s e-commerce and food-tech markets. It has heavily invested in Paytm, BigBasket, Zomato and Snapdeal. It was also supposedly planning to launch a video streaming service in India last year — a rumor that was fueled after it acquired a majority stake in TicketNew, a Chennai-based online ticketing service.

UC Web, a subsidiary of Alibaba Group, also counts India as one of its biggest markets. The browser maker has attempted to become a super app in India in recent years by including news and videos. In the last two years, it has been in talks with several bloggers and small publishers to host their articles directly on its platform, many people involved in the project told TechCrunch.

UC Web’s eponymous browser rose to stardom in the days of feature phones, but has since lost the lion’s share to Google Chrome as smartphones become more ubiquitous. Chrome ships as the default browser on most Android smartphones.

The major investment by Alibaba Group also serves as a testament to the growing popularity of video apps in India. Once cautious about each megabyte they spent on the internet, thrifty Indians have become heavy video consumers online as mobile data gets significantly cheaper in the country. Video apps are increasingly climbing up the charts on Google Play Store.

In an event for marketers late last year, YouTube said that India was the only nation where it had more unique users than its parent company Google. The video juggernaut had about 250 million active users in India at the end of 2017. The service, used by more than 2 billion users worldwide, has not revealed its India-specific user base since.

T-Series, the largest record label in India, became the first YouTube channel this week to claim more than 100 million subscribers. What’s even more noteworthy is that T-Series took 10 years to get to its first 10 million subscribers. The additional 90 million subscribers signed up to its channel in the last two years. Also fighting for users’ attention is Hotstar, which is owned by Disney. Earlier this month, it set a new global record for most simultaneous views on a live-streaming event.

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Under-the-radar payments app True Balance just clocked $100M in GMV in India

Posted by | Amazon, Asia, BalanceHero, Flipkart, funding, Google, india, Mobikwik, Mobile, payments, Paytm, Startups, TC, True Balance, Walmart | No Comments

Away from the limelight of urban cities, where an increasingly growing number of firms are fighting for a piece of India’s digital payments market, a South Korean startup’s app is quietly helping millions of Indians pay digitally and enjoy many financial services for the first time.

The app, called True Balance, began its life as a tool to help users easily find their mobile balance, or topping up pre-pay mobile credit. But in its four-year journey, its ambition has significantly grown beyond that. Today, it serves as a digital wallet app that helps users pay their mobile and electricity bills, and it also lets users pay later.

One thing that has not changed for the parent company of True Balance, BalanceHero, which employs less than 200 people, is its consumer focus. It is strictly catering to people in tier-two and tier-three markets — often dubbed as India 2 and India 3 — who have relatively limited access to the internet, and lower financial power. And it remains operational just in India.

Even as India is already the second largest internet market with more than 500 million users, more than half of its population remains offline. In recent years, the nation has become a battleground for Silicon Valley giants and Chinese firms that are increasingly trying to win existing users and bring the rest of the population online.

And like many other companies, BalanceHero’s bet on India is beginning to pay off. The startup told TechCrunch today that it has clocked $100 million in GMV sales and has amassed about 60 million registered users. Yongsung Yoo, a spokesperson for the startup, added that BalanceHero, which has raised $42 million to date, is also nearing profitability.

The South Korean firm’s playbook is different from many other players that are racing to claim a slice of India’s burgeoning digital payments market. True Balance competes with the likes of Paytm, MobiKwik, Google, Amazon and Walmart-owned Flipkart, though its competitors are still largely catering to the urban parts of India.

In the last two years, many firms have begun to explore smaller cities and towns, but their services are still too out-of-the-world for local residents. Raising awareness about digital services is a big challenge in such markets, Yoo said, so the startup is relying on existing users to help others make their first transactions and in paying bills.

Yoo said the startup rewards these “digital agents” with cash back and other benefits. For these digital agents, many of whom do not have a day job, True Balance has emerged as a side project to make extra money.

Later this year, Yoo said the startup, which recently also added support for UPI in its service, will open an e-commerce store on its app and also offer insurance to users. To accelerate its growth and expansion, True Balance is in the final stages of raising between $50 million to $70 million in a new round that it expects to close in July this year, Yoo said.

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ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, plans to launch a free music streaming app

Posted by | Apple, Apps, Asia, bytedance, China, india, Media, Mobile, musical.ly, Snap, Spotify, tiktok | No Comments

Does the overcrowded and cut-throat music streaming business have room for an additional player? The world’s most valuable startup certainly thinks so.

Chinese conglomerate ByteDance, valued at more than $75 billion, is working on a music streaming service, two sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. The company, which operates popular app TikTok, has held discussions with music labels in recent months to launch the app as soon as the end of this quarter, one of the sources said.

The app will offer both a premium and an ad-supported free tier, one of the sources said. Bloomberg, which first wrote about the premium app, reported that ByteDance is targeting emerging markets with its new music app. A ByteDance spokesperson declined to comment.

For ByteDance, interest in a music app does not come as a surprise. Snippets of pop songs from movies and albums intertwined with videos shot by its humongous user base is part of the service’s charm. The company already works with music labels worldwide to licence usage of their tracks on its platform. In China, where ByteDance claims to have tie-ups with more than 800 labels, it has been aggressively expanding efforts to find music talents and urge them to make their own tracks.

Besides, ByteDance has been expanding its app portfolio in recent months. Earlier this year, the company released Duoshan, a video chat app that appears to be a mix of TikTok and Snap. This week, it launched Feiliao, another chat app that is largely focused on text-driven conversations. At some point, the company may have realized the need for a standalone music consumption app.

When asked about TikTok’s partnership with music labels last month, Todd Schefflin, TikTok’s head of global music business development, told WSJ that music is part of the app’s “creative DNA” but it is “ultimately for short video creation and viewing, not a product for music consumption.”

The private Chinese company is likely eyeing India as a key market for its music app. The company has been in discussion with local music labels T Series and Times Music for rights. Moreover, its apps are estimated to have more than 300 million monthly active users in the nation, though there could be significant overlaps among them.

India may have also inspired ByteDance to consider a free, ad-supported version of its music app. Even as more than 150 million users in India listen to music online, only a tiny portion of this user base is willing to pay for it.

This has made India a unique battleground for local and international music giants, most of which offer an ad-supported, free version of their apps in the market. Even premium offerings from Apple and Spotify cost less than $1.2 a month. India is the only market where Spotify offers a free version of its app that has access to the entire catalog on demand.

The launch of the app could put the spotlight again on ByteDance in India, where its TikTok app recently landed in hot water. An Indian court banned the app for roughly a week after expressing concerns over questionable content on the platform. Ever since the nation lifted the ban on TikTok, the company has become visibly cautious about its movement.

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Amazon now sells flight tickets in India

Posted by | Amazon, amazon pay, Android, Asia, Booking.com, Google, india, MakeMyTrip, payments, Paytm, Transportation, zomato | No Comments

Indians can already use Amazon to pay for their mobile bills and borrow money to purchase items, but now there’s more. This week, the e-commerce giant quietly introduced an additional feature to its shopping site: flight tickets.

Amazon has partnered with local travel service ClearTrip to add a flight-booking option to its payment service — Amazon Pay — in India, according to an FAQ posted on its website. The feature, first spotted by news outlet Skift, is available on its Indian website and app.

The addition of plane ticketing underscores Amazon’s growing interest in expanding its payment service in India, which is both one of its fastest-growing markets and a country it uses to test new ideas.

Since launching Amazon Pay in India in late 2016, the company has added myriad features to the service. Amazon Pay today allows Indians to top up their phones, purchase cable TV subscriptions and pay for electricity and water bills. Last month, Amazon announced support for peer-to-peer (P2P) money transfers for users of its Android app. Amazon also plans to soon let users order food from its website, local media reported last month.

The company has also inked deals with other top firms such as movie ticketing site BookMyShow, food delivery startup Swiggy and bus-ticketing startup Redbus to embed Amazon Pay into many popular Indian services. To spur its adoption, the company has offered cashback incentives to those who checkout using Amazon Pay.

The flight ticketing option is not much different. The company is promising a one-time cashback of up to Rs 2,000 ($28.20) for each first booking.

The push comes as many local companies in India and those that operate in the nation begin to mold their apps into so-called super apps. Top mobile wallet service Paytm has expanded to add a number of financial services, including as of this week a credit card, in recent years. India’s ride-hailing service Ola also entered the credit card business this week.

Truecaller, an app that lets users screen for spam calls, has added messaging and payment features in India. The bundling often seems big names work together. For example, Paytm recently partnered with Zomato to test a food-ordering option on the mobile wallet app, a source with knowledge of the partner told TechCrunch.

Amazon’s interest in a flight-ticketing option in India should also help its partner ClearTrip gain a larger foothold in the nation. The company competes with giant MakeMyTrip, Booking.com and Paytm . Google also offers flights in India, though, at the moment, that is limited to search. When it comes to transactions, users are directed to ticketing websites to complete their purchase.

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India’s ride-hailing firm Ola is now in the credit card business, too

Posted by | Asia, Bhavish Aggarwal, Finance, go-jek, india, Mobile, ola money, payments, Paytm, Startups, Uber, visa | No Comments

A day after India’s largest wallet app Paytm entered the credit card business, local ride-hailing giant Ola is following suit. Ola has inked a deal with state-run SBI and Visa to issue as many as 10 million credit cards in the next three and a half years, it said today.

The move will help Visa and SBI (State Bank of India) acquire more customers in India, where most transactions are still bandied out over cash. For Ola, which rivals Uber in India, the foray into credit cards represents a new avenue to monetize its customers, as TechCrunch previously reported.

With about 150 million users availing more than 2 million rides on its platform each day, Ola is sitting on a mountain of data about its users’ financial power and spends. With the card, dubbed Ola Money-SBI Credit Card, the mobility firm is also offering several discounts and savings to retain its loyal customer base.

Ola, which is nearing $6 billion in valuation and counts SoftBank and Naspers among its investors, said it will offer its credit card holders “highest cashback and rewards” in the form of Ola Money that could be redeemed for Ola rides, as well as flight and hotel bookings. There will be 7% percent cashback on cab spends, 5% on flight bookings, 20% on domestic hotel bookings (6% on international hotel bookings), 20% on more than 6,000 restaurants and 1% on all other spends.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Nitin Gupta, CEO of Ola financial services, claimed that the company was offering “five times rewards to customers” in comparison to average credit card companies. “Also, the card is a first of its kind offering that can be managed digitally through the Ola App. We are committed to creating an inclusive ecosystem where mobility and financial services go hand in hand in leading growth and development,” he said. Ola said it has already rolled out the card to some users and will invite other eligible customers to avail it.

“Mobility spends form a significant wallet share for users and we see a huge opportunity to transform their payments experience with this solution. With over 150 million digital-first consumers on our platform, Ola will be a catalyst in driving India’s digital economy with cutting edge payment solutions,” Bhavish Aggarwal, co-founder and CEO of Ola, said in a statement.

Why credit cards?

Ola appears to be following the playbook of Grab and Go-Jek, two ride-hailing services in Southeast Asian markets that have ventured into a number of businesses in recent years. Both Grab and Go-Jek offer loans, remittance and insurance to their riders, while the former also maintains its own virtual credit card. Interestingly, Uber, which also offers a credit card in some markets, has no such play in India.

The move will allow Ola to look beyond ride-hailing and food delivery, two businesses that appear to have hit a saturation point in India, said Satish Meena, an analyst with research firm Forrester.

In recent years, Ola has started to explore financial services. It offers riders “micro-insurance” that covers a range of risks, including loss of baggage and medical expenses. The company said earlier this year, it has sold more than 20 million insurances to customers. Using Ola Money to facilitate cashbacks also underscores Ola’s push to increase the adoption of its mobile wallet, which, according to estimates, lags Paytm and several other wallet and UPI payment apps.

The company has also made a major push in the electric vehicles business, which it spun off as a separate company earlier this year. In March, its EV business raised $300 million from Hyundai and Kia. The company has said that it plans to offer one million EVs by 2022. Its other EV programs include a pledge to add 10,000 rickshaws for use in cities.

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India’s largest mobile wallet company Paytm now offers a credit card

Posted by | alibaba, Asia, Berkshire Hathaway, citibank, Finance, india, Mobile, Online lending, payments, Paytm, Softbank, Uber, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, warren buffett, zomato | No Comments

Paytm, India’s largest mobile wallet app, has branched out to several businesses in recent years as threat from Google and Facebook grows. On Tuesday, it added another category to the list: credit cards.

The firm, operated by One97 Communications, today unveiled Paytm First Credit Card with lofty benefits as it races to bulk up its financial offerings. The cards, issued by Citi Bank, will be the first in the country to offer unlimited, one percent cashback on purchases, Paytm claimed in a statement. The company is hoping to rope in about 25 million credit card customers in the coming months.

The penetration of credit cards remains very low in India with under 50 million people possessing one. With people conducting most of their businesses through cash in the nation, banks have little understanding of a customer’s credit history and score. And it also doesn’t help that banks in India are still wary of issuing credit cards to those who don’t perfectly fit the traditional blue collar job.

But why is a company that made its name through a mobile payment wallet open to its customers engaging with credit card companies? Paytm itself is struggling to grow its business and retain existing customers. Some of its recent major bets haven’t exactly paid off. Its ecommerce business Paytm Mall remains tiny despite bleeding money.

Yo! The First. Paytm First. pic.twitter.com/5kAxozc2IH

— Vijay Shekhar (@vijayshekhar) May 13, 2019

But more importantly, payments itself has become a commoditized space. Users park their money in Paytm and do transactions from there. Paytm makes money from this accumulated sum. This business flourished for years, especially in the months after the Indian government invalidated much of the cash in the nation. But then the government launched its own payment infrastructure called UPI, which removes the need for a middleman.

This has made payments more convenient for users, who are increasingly jumping ship. UPI apps such as PhonePe that have emerged in the last two and a half years now see more transactions than wallet apps. To make matter worse for Paytm, Google and Facebook — two companies that have larger userbase in India — have entered the payments space. Google Pay reached 100 million installs on Google Play Store recently, and WhatsApp plans a nation-wide roll out of its payment feature in India later this year.

So Paytm is now expanding its financial offerings and credit card play fits well in it. With more than 200 million active users, Paytm rivals banks on both the number of customers and volume of transaction it processes.

“Our new offering is designed to bring utmost flexibility to our customers in their digital payment options and will help spur large-ticket cashless payments,” Vijay Shekhar Sharma, chairman and CEO of One97 Communications said in a statement.

Backed by SoftBank, Alibaba, and most recently Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, Paytm has the capital to spur the adoption of its new credit card. As part of the package, Paytm’s credit card holders will be able to avail dining, shopping, travel and other offers that Citi Bank provides to its privilege customers. In the first four months of issuing a card, the company will offer its customers discounts worth Rs 10,000 ($142) on spending of Rs 10,000.

Paytm First Credit Card will work both in India and elsewhere and support contactless transactions. Like any other credit card, customers will be able to pay back a sum in multiple monthly instalments. Paytm First Credit Card will charge users a nominal fee of Rs 500 ($7.1) that will be waived off if their spendings through the card exceeds Rs 50,000 ($710) in a year.

If the gamble works, Paytm will be able to retain some customers and convince many to do big-ticket transactions. For Citi Bank, this partnership is just an easy ploy to acquire some customers.

In the meantime, Paytm continues to aggressively expand its financial offerings. In recent years, it has launched a digital payments bank, and has started to offer prepaid Forex cards for international purchases. It also lets customers buy gold, and employers issue food allowance wallets for their staff. Last year, the company announced Paytm Money to facilitate purchase of mutual funds.

Earlier this year, the company launched Paytm First, a subscription bundle that includes access to subscriptions from other services such as Zomato, Uber, Gaana, and Eros Now. In an interview with TechCrunch late last month, Paytm’s Sharma said payments is the moat around which you can build a number of services. “Now that’s a business model… payment itself can’t make you money.”

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Hotstar, Disney’s Indian streaming service, sets new global record for live viewership

Posted by | 21st century fox, Amazon, Asia, cricket, Disney, Entertainment, Facebook, india, Media, Mobile, Netflix, Sports, streaming service | No Comments

Indian video streaming giant Hotstar, owned by Disney, today set a new global benchmark for the number of people an OTT service can draw to a live event.

Some 18.6 million users simultaneously tuned into Hotstar’s website and app to watch the deciding game of the 12th edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament. The streaming giant, which competes with Netflix and Amazon in India, broke its own “global best” 10.3 million concurrent views milestone that it set last year.

Update at 11:30 p.m. Pacific on May 13: In a statement, Hotstar confirmed that 18.6 million users simultaneously watched the game on its platform over the weekend. “The achievements of this season once again bear witness to Hotstar being the most preferred sports destination for the country. With technology as our backbone and our all-round expertise in driving scale, we are confident we will continue to break global records and set new benchmarks with each passing year,” said Varun Narang, chief product officer of Hotstar.

Hotstar topped the 10 million concurrent viewership mark a number of times during this year’s 51-day IPL season. More than 12.7 million viewers huddled to watch an earlier game in the tournament (between Royal Challengers Bangalore and Mumbai Indians), a spokesperson for the four-year-old service said. Hotstar said the cricket series had over 300 million overall viewership, creating a new record for the streamer. (Last year’s IPL clocked a 202 million overall viewership.)

Fans of Mumbai Indians celebrate their team’s victory against Chennai Super Kings in IPL cricket tournament in India

These figures coming out of India, the fastest-growing internet market, are astounding, to say the least. In comparison, a 2012 live stream of skydiver Felix Baumgartner jumping from near-space to the Earth’s surface remains the most concurrently viewed video on YouTube. It amassed about 8 million concurrent viewers. The live viewership of the royal wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle was also a blip in comparison.

As Netflix and Amazon scramble to find the right content strategy to lure Indians, Hotstar and its local parent firm Star India have aggressively focused on securing broadcast and streaming rights to various cricket series. Cricket is almost followed like a religion in India.

In 2017, Star India, then owned by 21st Century Fox, secured the rights to broadcast and stream the IPL cricket tournament for five years for a sum of roughly $2.5 billion. Facebook also participated in the bidding, offering north of $600 million for streaming. (Star India was part of 21st Century Fox’s business that Disney acquired for $71.3 billion earlier this year.)

That bet has largely paid off. Hotstar said last month that its service has amassed 300 million monthly active users, up from 150 million it reported last year. In comparison, both Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have less than 30 million subscribers in India, according to industry estimates.

In the last two years, Hotstar has expanded to three international markets — the U.S., Canada and, most recently, the U.K. — to chase new audiences. The streaming service is hoping to attract Indians living overseas and anyone else who is interested in Bollywood movies and cricket, Ipsita Dasgupta, president of Hotstar’s international operations, told TechCrunch in an interview. The streaming service plans to enter more nations with high density of Indians in the next few quarters, Dasgupta said.

That’s not to say that Hotstar has a clear path ahead. According to several estimates, the streaming service typically sees a sharp decline in its user base after the conclusion of an IPL season. Despite the massive engagement it generates, it remains operationally unprofitable, people familiar with Hotstar’s finances said.

The ad-supported streaming service offers about 80 percent of its content catalog — which includes titles produced by Star India — for no cost to users. It also syndicates shows and movies from international partners such as HBO, ABC and Showtime — though these titles are available only to paying subscribers. One of the most watched international shows on the platform, “Game of Thrones,” will be ending soon, too.

The upcoming World Cup cricket tournament, which Hotstar will stream in India, should help it avoid the major headache for some time. In the meantime, the service is aggressively expanding its slate of original shows in the nation. One of the shows is a remake of BBC/NBC’s popular “The Office.”

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India’s most popular services are becoming super apps

Posted by | Apps, Asia, China, Cloud, Developer, Facebook, Finance, Flipkart, food, Foodpanda, Gaana, Gaming, grab, haptik, hike, india, MakeMyTrip, Media, Microsoft, microsoft garage, Mobile, Mukesh Ambani, mx player, payments, Paytm, paytm mall, reliance jio, saavn, SnapDeal, Social, Startups, Tapzo, Tencent, Times Internet, Transportation, Truecaller, Uber, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, WeChat | No Comments

Truecaller, an app that helps users screen strangers and robocallers, will soon allow users in India, its largest market, to borrow up to a few hundred dollars.

The crediting option will be the fourth feature the nine-year-old app adds to its service in the last two years. So far it has added to the service the ability to text, record phone calls and mobile payment features, some of which are only available to users in India. Of the 140 million daily active users of Truecaller, 100 million live in India.

The story of the ever-growing ambition of Truecaller illustrates an interesting phase in India’s internet market that is seeing a number of companies mold their single-functioning app into multi-functioning so-called super apps.

Inspired by China

This may sound familiar. Truecaller and others are trying to replicate Tencent’s playbook. The Chinese tech giant’s WeChat, an app that began life as a messaging service, has become a one-stop solution for a range of features — gaming, payments, social commerce and publishing platform — in recent years.

WeChat has become such a dominant player in the Chinese internet ecosystem that it is effectively serving as an operating system and getting away with it. The service maintains its own “app store” that hosts mini apps. This has put it at odds with Apple, though the iPhone-maker has little choice but to make peace with it.

For all its dominance in China, WeChat has struggled to gain traction in India and elsewhere. But its model today is prominently on display in other markets. Grab and Go-Jek in Southeast Asian markets are best known for their ride-hailing services, but have begun to offer a range of other features, including food delivery, entertainment, digital payments, financial services and healthcare.

The proliferation of low-cost smartphones and mobile data in India, thanks in part to Google and Facebook, has helped tens of millions of Indians come online in recent years, with mobile the dominant platform. The number of internet users has already exceeded 500 million in India, up from some 350 million in mid-2015. According to some estimates, India may have north of 625 million users by year-end.

This has fueled the global image of India, which is both the fastest growing internet and smartphone market. Naturally, local apps in India, and those from international firms that operate here, are beginning to replicate WeChat’s model.

Founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Paytm Vijay Shekhar Sharma speaks during the launch of Paytm payments Bank at a function in New Delhi on November 28, 2017 (AFP PHOTO / SAJJAD HUSSAIN)

Leading that pack is Paytm, the popular homegrown mobile wallet service that’s valued at $18 billion and has been heavily backed by Alibaba, the e-commerce giant that rivals Tencent and crucially missed the mobile messaging wave in China.

Commanding attention

In recent years, the Paytm app has taken a leaf from China with additions that include the ability to text merchants; book movie, flight and train tickets; and buy shoes, books and just about anything from its e-commerce arm Paytm Mall . It also has added a number of mini games to the app. The company said earlier this month that more than 30 million users are engaging with its games.

Why bother with diversifying your app’s offering? Well, for Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and CEO of Paytm, the question is why shouldn’t you? If your app serves a certain number of transactions (or engagements) in a day, you have a good shot at disrupting many businesses that generate fewer transactions, he told TechCrunch in an interview.

At the end of the day, companies want to garner as much attention of a user as they can, said Jayanth Kolla, founder and partner of research and advisory firm Convergence Catalyst.

“This is similar to how cable networks such as Fox and Star have built various channels with a wide range of programming to create enough hooks for users to stick around,” Kolla said.

“The agenda for these apps is to hold people’s attention and monopolize a user’s activities on their mobile devices,” he added, explaining that higher engagement in an app translates to higher revenue from advertising.

Paytm’s Sharma agrees. “Payment is the moat. You can offer a range of things including content, entertainment, lifestyle, commerce and financial services around it,” he told TechCrunch. “Now that’s a business model… payment itself can’t make you money.”

Big companies follow suit

Other businesses have taken note. Flipkart -owned payment app PhonePe, which claims to have 150 million active users, today hosts a number of mini apps. Some of those include services for ride-hailing service Ola, hotel booking service Oyo and travel booking service MakeMyTrip.

Paytm (the first two images from left) and PhonePe offer a range of services that are integrated into their payments apps

What works for PhonePe is that its core business — payments — has amassed enough users, Himanshu Gupta, former associate director of marketing and growth for WeChat in India, told TechCrunch. He added that unlike e-commerce giant Snapdeal, which attempted to offer similar offerings back in the day, PhonePe has tighter integration with other services, and is built using modern architecture that gives users almost native app experiences inside mini apps.

When you talk about strategy for Flipkart, the homegrown e-commerce giant acquired by Walmart last year for a cool $16 billion, chances are arch rival Amazon is also hatching similar plans, and that’s indeed the case for super apps.

In India, Amazon offers its customers a range of payment features such as the ability to pay phone bills and cable subscription through its Amazon Pay service. The company last year acquired Indian startup Tapzo, an app that offers integration with popular services such as Uber, Ola, Swiggy and Zomato, to boost Pay’s business in the nation.

Another U.S. giant, Microsoft, is also aboard the super train. The Redmond-based company has added a slew of new features to SMS Organizer, an app born out of its Microsoft Garage initiative in India. What began as a texting app that can screen spam messages and help users keep track of important SMSs recently partnered with education board CBSE in India to deliver exam results of 10th and 12th grade students.

This year, the SMS Organizer app added an option to track live train schedules through a partnership with Indian Railways, and there’s support for speech-to-text. It also offers personalized discount coupons from a range of companies, giving users an incentive to check the app more often.

Like in other markets, Google and Facebook hold a dominant position in India. More than 95% of smartphones sold in India run the Android operating system. There is no viable local — or otherwise — alternative to Search, Gmail and YouTube, which counts India as its fastest growing market. But Google hasn’t necessarily made any push to significantly expand the scope of any of its offerings in India.

India is the biggest market for WhatsApp, and Facebook’s marquee app too has more than 250 million users in the nation. WhatsApp launched a pilot payments program in India in early 2018, but is yet to get clearance from the government for a nationwide rollout. (It isn’t happening for at least another two months, a person familiar with the matter said.) In the meanwhile, Facebook appears to be hatching a WeChatization of Messenger, albeit that app is not so big in India.

Ride-hailing service Ola too, like Grab and Go-Jek, plans to add financial services such as credit to the platform this year, a source familiar with the company’s plans told TechCrunch.

“We have an abundance of data about our users. We know how much money they spend on rides, how often they frequent the city and how often they order from restaurants. It makes perfect sense to give them these valued-added features,” the person said. Ola has already branched out of transport after it acquired food delivery startup Foodpanda in late 2017, but it hasn’t yet made major waves in financial services despite giving its Ola Money service its own dedicated app.

The company positioned Ola Money as a super app, expanded its features through acquisition and tie ups with other players and offered discounts and cashbacks. But it remains behind Paytm, PhonePe and Google Pay, all of which are also offering discounts to customers.

Integrated entertainment

Super apps indeed come in all shapes and sizes, beyond core services like payment and transportation — the strategy is showing up in apps and services that entertain India’s internet population.

MX Player, a video playback app with more than 175 million users in India that was acquired by Times Internet for some $140 million last year, has big ambitions. Last year, it introduced a video streaming service to bolster its app to grow beyond merely being a repository. It has already commissioned the production of several original shows.

In recent months, it has also integrated Gaana, the largest local music streaming app that is also owned by Times Internet. Now its parent company, which rivals Google and Facebook on some fronts, is planning to add mini games to MX Player, a person familiar with the matter said, to give it additional reach and appeal.

Some of these apps, especially those that have amassed tens of millions of users, have a real shot at diversifying their offerings, analyst Kolla said. There is a bar of entry, though. A huge user base that engages with a product on a daily basis is a must for any company if it is to explore chasing the super app status, he added.

Indeed, there are examples of companies that had the vision to see the benefits of super apps but simply couldn’t muster the requisite user base. As mentioned, Snapdeal tried and failed at expanding its app’s offerings. Messaging service Hike, which was valued at more than $1 billion two years ago and includes WeChat parent Tencent among its investors, added games and other features to its app, but ultimately saw poor engagement. Its new strategy is the reverse: to break its app into multiple pieces.

“In 2019, we continue to double down on both social and content but we’re going to do it with an evolved approach. We’re going to do it across multiple apps. That means, in 2019 we’re going to go from building a super app that encompasses everything, to Multiple Apps solving one thing really well. Yes, we’re unbundling Hike,” Kavin Mittal, founder and CEO of Hike, wrote in an update published earlier this year.

It remains unclear how users are responding to the new features on their favorite apps. Some signs suggest, however, that at least some users are embracing the additional features. Truecaller said it is seeing tens of thousands of users try the payment feature for the first time each day. It’s also being used to send 3 billion texts a month.

And Reliance Jio, of course

Regardless, the race is still on, and there are big horses waiting to enter to add further competition.

Reliance Jio, a subsidiary of conglomerate Reliance Industry that is owned by India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, is planning to introduce a super app that will host more than 100 features, according to a person familiar with the matter. Local media first reported the development.

It will be fascinating to see how that works out. Reliance Jio, which almost single-handedly disrupted the telecom industry in India with its low-cost data plans and free voice calls, has amassed tens of millions of users on the bouquet of apps that it offers at no additional cost to Jio subscribers.

Beyond that diverse selection of homespun apps, Reliance has also taken an M&A-based approach to assemble the pieces of its super app strategy.

It bought music streaming service Saavn last year and quickly integrated it with its own music app JioMusic. Last month, it acquired Haptik, a startup that develops “conversational” platforms and virtual assistants, in a deal worth more than $100 million. It already has the user bases required. JioTV, an app that offers access to over 500 TV channels; and JioNews, an app that additionally offers hundreds of magazines and newspapers, routinely appear among the top apps in Google Play Store.

India’s super app revolution is in its early days, but the trend is surely one to keep an eye on as the country moves into its next chapter of internet usage.

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India is investigating Google over alleged Android abuse

Posted by | Android, Asia, competition commission of india, european union, Google, Google Play Store, Government, india, Policy | No Comments

More than 95% of the smartphones that ship in India run Android, according to industry estimates. Now the Indian antitrust watchdog is convinced that the nation should investigate whether Google is abusing the dominant position of its mobile operating system to hurt local rivals.

The Competition Commission of India (CCI), the local anti-monopoly regulator, began looking at Google’s Android business in India last year after it received a complaint from unspecified people. Last month, the regulator preliminarily found that Google had abused the dominant position of Android in the nation, and thereby ordered its investigation unit to conduct a full investigation, according to a report by Reuters, which cites unnamed sources.

In a statement to TechCrunch, a Google spokesperson said that the company looks forward to working with the CCI. “Android has enabled millions of Indians to connect to the internet by making mobile devices more affordable. We look forward to working with the Competition Commission of India to demonstrate how Android has led to more competition and innovation, not less.”

The investigation, not the first of its kind, will take about a year to conclude and could see Google executives summoned before the regulator, the news agency reported. The CCI has not publicly commented on the probe.

If found guilty, Google may be fined up to 10% of its local revenue or 300% of its net profits. Even as India has emerged as one of Google’s largest markets in recent years, the company makes a relatively tiny amount in the nation. It clocked $1.4 billion in revenue in India in the year that ended in March 2018, according to regulatory filings, compared to more than $100 billion it generated globally in a comparable time period.

The specific accusations, as well as the identity of those who filed the complaint, remain unclear.

With the launch of this investigation, India is joining the EU, which continues to look at several businesses of Google — including Android — to ensure that the company is not abusing its dominant position in the market. Earlier this year, the EU regulators concluded that Google had forced its OEM partners to prebundle a number of apps, including Google Search, Chrome browser and Google Play Store on their Android handsets.

Following the verdict, which Google has appealed, the Android maker announced it will give users more choices for browsers and search engines.

India’s regulator has previously investigated Google’s search business and Apple’s partnerships with local carriers for sale of iPhones. Apple’s iOS has tiny market share in India, where most people have annual income of less than $2,000.

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