india

Foxconn pulls back on its $10 billion factory commitment

Posted by | alibaba, Amazon, Asia, China, Foxconn, Gaming, Government, india, Kakao, korea, Media, nexon, Policy, wisconsin | No Comments

Well that didn’t last long.

In 2017, Foxconn announced the largest investment of a foreign company in the United States when it selected Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin for a new manufacturing facility. Buttressed by huge economic development grants from Wisconsin, an endorsement from President Trump, and Foxconn CEO Terry Gou’s vision of a maker America, the plant was designed to turn a small town and its environs into the futuristic “Wisconn Valley.”

Now, those dreams are coming apart faster than you can say “Made in America.”

In an interview with Reuters, a special assistant to Gou says that those plans are being remarkably scaled back. Originally designed to be an advanced LCD factory, the new Foxconn facility will instead be a much more modest (but still needed!) research center for engineers.

It’s a huge loss for Wisconsin, but the greater shock may be just how obvious all of this was. I wrote about the boondoggle just a few weeks ago, as had Bruce Murphy at The Verge a few weeks before that. Sruthi Pinnamaneni produced an excellent podcast on Reply All about how much the economic development of Mount Pleasant tore the small town asunder.

The story in short: the economics of the factory never made sense, and economics was always going to win over the hopes and dreams of politicians like Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who championed the deal. Despite bells and whistles, televisions are a commodity product (unlike, say, airfoils), and thus the cost structure is much more compatible with efficient Asian supply chains than with American expensive labor.

Yet, that wasn’t the only part of the project that never made any sense. Foxconn was building in what was essentially the middle of nowhere, without the sort of dense ecosystem of suppliers and sub-suppliers required for making a major factory hum. (Plus, as a native of Minnesota, I can also attest that Wisconsin is a pile of garbage).

Those suppliers are everything for manufacturers. Just this past weekend, Jack Nicas at the New York Times observed that Apple’s advanced manufacturing facility in Austin, Texas struggled to find the right parts it needed to assemble its top-of-the-line computer, the Mac Pro:

But when Apple began making the $3,000 computer in Austin, Tex., it struggled to find enough screws, according to three people who worked on the project and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements.

In China, Apple relied on factories that can produce vast quantities of custom screws on short notice. In Texas, where they say everything is bigger, it turned out the screw suppliers were not.

There are of course huge manufacturing ecosystems in the United States — everything from cars in Detroit, to planes in Washington, to advanced medical devices in several major bio-hubs. But consumer electronics is one that has for the most part been lost to Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, and of course, China.

Geopolitically, Foxconn’s factory made a modicum of sense. With the increasing protectionism emanating from Western capitals, Foxconn could have used some geographical diversity in the event of a tariff fight. The company is Taiwanese, but manufacturers many of its products on the mainland.

And of course, a research center is still an enormous gain for a region of Wisconsin that could absolutely use high-income, professional jobs. Maybe the process of rolling out a next-generation manufacturing ecosystem will take more time than originally anticipated, but nothing is stopping further expansion in the future.

Yet, one can’t help but gaze at the remarkable naïveté of Wisconsin politicians who offered billions only to find that even massive subsidies aren’t enough. It’s a competitive world out there, and the United States has little experience in these fights.

India may put friction on foreign firms to protect domestic startups

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the major battles for tech supremacy is over the future of the Indian IT market, which is rapidly bringing more than a billion people onto the internet and giving them robust software services. I’ve talked a bit about data sovereignty, which mandates that Indian data be stored in Indian data centers by Indian companies, pushing out foreign companies like Amazon, Google, and Alibaba.

Now, it looks like India is taking a page from the Asian tiger-school of development, and is going to increasingly favor domestic firms over foreign ones in key industries. Newley Purnell and Rajesh Roy report in the WSJ:

The secretary of India’s Telecommunications Department, Aruna Sundararajan, last week told a gathering of Indian startups in a closed-door meeting in the tech hub of Bangalore that the government will introduce a “national champion” policy “very soon” to encourage the rise of Indian companies, according to a person familiar with the matter. She said Indian policy makers had noted the success of China’s internet giants, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Tencent Holdings Ltd. , the person said. She didn’t immediately respond to a request for more details on the program or its timing.

The idea of national champions is simple. Unlike the innovation world of Silicon Valley, there are obvious sectors in an economy that need to be fulfilled. Food and clothes have to be sold, deliveries made, all kinds of industrial goods need to be built. Rather than creating a competitive market that requires high levels of duplicate capital investment, the government can designate a few companies to take the lead in each market to ensure that they can invest for growth rather than in, say, marketing costs.

If done well, such policies can rapidly industrialize a country’s economic base. When done poorly, the lack of competition can create lethargy among entrepreneurs, who have already won their markets without even trying.

The linchpin is whether the government pushes companies to excel and sets aggressive growth targets. In Korea and China, the central governments actively monitored corporate growth during their catch-up years, and transferred businesses to new entrepreneurs if business leaders failed to perform. Can India push its companies as hard without market forces?

As the technology industry matures in the West, entrepreneurs will look for overseas as their future growth hubs. The challenge is whether they will be let in at all.

Video game geopolitics

Nexon’s MapleStory2 game is one of its most profitable (Screenshot from Nexon) .

Korea and Japan are two of the epicenters of the video game industry, and now one of its top companies is on the auction block, raising tough questions about media ownership.

Nexon founder Kim Jung Ju announced a few weeks ago that he was intending to sell all of his controlling $9 billion stake in the leading video game company. The company has since executed something of a multi-stage auction process to determine who should buy those shares. One leading candidate we’ve learned is Kakao, the leading internet portal and chatting app in Korea.

The other leading candidate is China-based Tencent, which owns exclusive distribution rights in China of some of Nexon’s most important titles.

Tencent has been increasingly under the sway of China’s government, which froze video game licensing last year as it worked to increase content regulation over the industry. Now the question is whether it will be politically palatable to sell a leading star of Korea’s video game industry to its economic rival.

From the Financial Times:

Mr Wi added that Nexon would be an attractive target for Tencent, which pays about Won1tn in annual royalties to the South Korean game developer. But selling the company to Tencent would be “politically burdensome” for Mr Kim, given unfavourable public opinion in South Korea towards such a sale, he cautioned.

“Political risks are high for the deal. Being criticised for selling the company to a foreign rival, especially a Chinese one, would be the last thing that Mr Kim wants,” said Mr Wi.

Such concerns around Chinese media ownership have become acute throughout the world, but we haven’t seen these concerns as much in the video game industry. Clearly, times have changed.

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What’s Next

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This newsletter is written with the assistance of Arman Tabatabai from New York

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It’s time to pay serious attention to TikTok

Posted by | Apps, China, india, kids, Memes, Mobile, Social, TC, tiktok, Video | No Comments

If you haven’t been paying attention to TikTok, you haven’t been paying attention. The short-form video app hailing from Beijing’s ByteDance just had its biggest month ever with the addition of 75 million new users in December — a 275 percent increase from the 20 million it added in December 2017, according a recent report from Sensor Tower.

Despite its rapid rise, there are still plenty of people — often, older people — who aren’t quite sure what TikTok is.

TikTok is often referred to as a “lip-syncing” app, which makes it sound like it’s some online karaoke experience. But a closer comparison would be Vine, Twitter’s still sorely missed short-form video app whose content lives on as YouTube compilations.

While it’s true that TikTok is home to some standard lip-syncing, it’s actually better known for its act-out memes backed by music and other sound clips, which get endlessly reproduced and remixed among its young users.

Its tunes are varied — pop, rap, R&B, electro and DJ tracks serve as backing for its 15-second video clips. But the sounds may also be snagged from YouTube music videos (see: I Baked You A Pie above), SoundCloud or from pop culture — like weird soundbites from Peppa Pig or Riverdale — or just original creations.

These memes-as-videos reference things familiar to Gen Z, like gaming culture (see below). They come in the form of standalone videos, reactions, duets, mirrors/clones and more.

The app has been growing steadily since it acquired its U.S.-based rival Musical.ly in November 2017 for north of $800 million, then merged the two apps’ user bases last August.

This gave TikTok the means to grow in Western markets, where it has attracted the interest of U.S. celebrities like Jimmy Fallon and Tony Hawk, for example, along with YouTubers on the hunt for the next new thing.

But unlike Vine (RIP), YouTube or Instagram, TikTok doesn’t yet feel dominated by micro-celebs, though they certainly exist.

Instead, its main feed often surfaces everyday users — aka, amateurs — doing something cute, funny or clever, with a tacit acknowledgement that “yes, this is an internet joke” underlying much of the content.

Okay, okay.

Sometimes these videos are described as “cringey.” 

But that’s because those of us trying to talk about TikTok are old(er) people who grew up on the big ol’ mean internet.

Cringey, frankly, is an unfair label, as it dismisses TikTok’s success in setting a tone for its community. Here, users will often post and share unapologetically wholesome content, and receive less mocking than elsewhere on the web — largely because everyone else on TikTok posts similar “cringey” content, too.

You might not know this, however, if your only exposure to TikTok comes from YouTube’s TikTok Cringe Compilations. But spend a day in the (oddly addictive) TikTok feed, and you’ll find a whole world of video that doesn’t exist anywhere else on the web — including on YouTube. Videos that are weird, sure — but also fun to watch.

It’s a stark comparison to the existing social media platforms.

Users today are engaged in the culture wars on Twitter (ban the Nazis! protect free speech!), while YouTubers are gaming the algorithm with hateful, exploitive, dangerous and otherwise questionable content that freaks out advertisers. And Facebook is, well, contributing to war crimes and the toppling of democracy.

Meanwhile, TikTok presents an alternative version of online sharing. Simple, goofy, irreverent — and frankly, it’s a much needed reset.

For example, some of the popular TikTok memes have included videos of kids proclaiming what a great mom they have, as they drag her into frame, or they remind people to pick up litter and conserve water. They might give themselves silly, but self-affirming makeovers where, afterwards, they cite themselves not as “cute” but rather “drop. dead. gorgeous.”

They might spend hours setting up gummy bears as Adele concert-goers, learning how to do a shuffle dance up a set of stairs or in a dance battle their dad. Or they may showcase some special talent — drawing, painting, gymnastics, dance or skateboarding, perhaps. They do science experiments, make jokes or use special effects for a little video magic.

They shout out “hit or miss!” in public places and wait to see who answers. (Look it up.)

Sometimes it’s dumb, Sometimes it’s clever. But it’s addictive.

Of course, it is still the internet. And TikTok isn’t perfect.

The app has also been the subject of troubling reports about its “dark” side, which is reportedly filled with child predators and teens bullying and harassing one another. It’s not clear, however, that TikTok’s affliction with these matters is any worse than any other large, social, public-by-default app of its size.

And unlike some apps, concerned parents — or the users themselves — can set a TikTok account to private, turn off commenting, hide the account from search, disable downloads, disallow reactions and duets and restrict an account from receiving messages.

It is concerning, however, that under-13 kids are setting up social media accounts without parental consent. (But, uh, have you seen Fortnite and Roblox? This is what kids do. At least the TikTok main feed isn’t worrisome, we’ve found.)

The bigger issue, though — and one that could ultimately prove damaging to TikTok — is whether it will be able to keep up with content filtering and takedown requests, or handle its security and privacy protection issues as it scales up.

Content and community aren’t the only things contributing to TikTok’s growth.

While Vine may have introduced the concept of short-form video, TikTok made video editing incredibly simple. You don’t need to be a video expert to put together clips with a range of effects. It’s the Instagram for the mobile video age — in a way that Instagram itself won’t be able to reproduce, having already aligned its community with influencers and advertisers.

TikTok’s sizable user base, meanwhile, is due not only to its growth in Western markets, but because of its traction in emerging markets like China and India.

This allowed TikTok to rank No. 4 worldwide across iOS and Android, combined, according to App Annie’s data on the most-downloaded apps of 2018. On iOS, TikTok was the No. 1 most-downloaded app of the year, mainly thanks to China.

At times last year, TikTok even ranked higher than Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube.

Both App Annie and Sensor Tower agree that TikTok scored the No. 3 position for most installs among all apps worldwide in 2018.

Now, TikTok is growing in India, says Sensor Tower.

The country accounted for 27 percent of new installs between December 2017 and December 2018, and last month was the source for 32.3 million of TikTok’s 75 million total new downloads — a 25x increase from last year.

Some of this growth comes from ad spend, according to a report from Apptopia, which examined the app’s widened use of ad networks. (It’s also driving people bonkers with its YouTube ads).

The revenue is starting to arrive, as well.

Worldwide, users spent $6 million tipping their favorite live streamers, a 253 percent year-over-year jump from December 2017’s total of $1.7 million, Sensor Tower estimates. But live streaming is not the default activity on TikTok — it added the feature after shutting down Musical.ly’s live streaming app, Live.ly.

Above: full-screen ad in TikTok when app is first launched; spotted today

Think this is the first real ad campaign I’ve seen on @tiktok_us. @kerrymflynn pic.twitter.com/zt3JcSYCz0

— chris harihar (@chrisharihar) January 26, 2019

Above: an ad appearing earlier this month

TikTok is also starting to test in-app advertising, and is being eyed by agencies as a result. When you launch TikTok, you may see a full-page splash screen ad of some kind — though the company has not officially launched ad products.

But the brands are starting to take notice. This week, for example, TikTok collaborated with SportsManias, an officially licensed NFL Players Association partner, for the introduction of NFL-themed AR animated stickers in time for the Super Bowl. The move feels like a test for how well branded content will perform within the TikTok universe, but the company says it’s “not an ad deal.”

The company also declined to say how many are today using TikTok.

However, parent company ByteDance had publicly stated last year that it had 500 million monthly active users when it announced the app’s rebranding post-merger. It has yet to release new numbers for its global user base.

That said, ByteDance just shared updated stats for China only, on all versions of the TikTok app (including the non-Google Play Android version). It says that TikTok now has 500 million monthly active users in China alone.

Sensor Tower today estimates TikTok has grown to nearly 800 million lifetime installs, not counting Android in China.

Factoring in those Android in China installs, it’s fair to say this app has topped 1 billion downloads.

Here comes the new new internet, folks. It’s big, dominated by emerging markets, mobile, video, meme-ified, and goes viral both online and off.

So if you haven’t been paying attention to TikTok, you may want to get started.

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Samsung’s new Galaxy M smartphones will launch in India first

Posted by | Gadgets, Galaxy M, india, Mobile, Samsung, Samsung Electronics, smartphones, TC | No Comments

Samsung will launch its new lower-priced Galaxy M series in India before the smartphones roll out globally. Asim Warsi, senior vice president of Samsung India’s smartphone business, told Reuters that three devices will be available through its website and Amazon India at the end of January and are intended to help the company double online sales.

Samsung is currently trying to recover its lead in India, the world’s second-largest smartphone market behind China, after losing it to Xiaomi at the end of 2017, when Xiaomi’s sales in India overtook Samsung for the first time, according to data from both Canalys and Counterpoint.

Xiaomi’s budget Redmi series gave it an advantage, as Samsung had a dearth of competitors in the same price bracket, but analysts noted the Korean electronics giant maintains an edge in terms of R&D and supply chain expertise. Samsung leaned into those strengths last year, opening what it describes as the world’s largest mobile phone factory in Noida, just outside of New Delhi.

Specs about the three Galaxy M smartphones emerged last month, with details appearing on platform benchmark Geekbench about devices called M10, M20 and M30, the latter of which may be powered by an Exynos 7885 chip with 4GB ram.

Warsi told Reuters that “the M series has been built around and incepted around Indian millennial consumers.” The price range of Indian-first smartphones will be from less than 10,000 rupees (about $142) to 20,000 rupees. TechCrunch has emailed Samsung for more information about the new phones.

The company will debut the latest version of its flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S10, in San Francisco on February 20.

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Chinese app developers have invaded India

Posted by | alibaba, Android, Apps, Asia, bytedance, China, Flash, food delivery, india, oppo, Paytm, sensor tower, SnapDeal, Tencent, tiktok, WeChat, Xiaomi | No Comments

If you’ve conquered China, then India — the world’s second-largest country based on population — is the obvious next port of call, and that’s exactly what has happened in the world of consumer apps.

Following the lead of Chinese smartphone makers like Xiaomi and Oppo, which have dominated mobile sales in India for some time, the content behind the touchscreen glass in India is increasingly now from China, too. That’s according to a report from FactorDaily, which found that 44 of the top 100 Android apps in India were developed by Chinese companies, up from just 18 one year prior. (The focus is on Android because it is the overwhelming choice of operating system among India’s estimated 500 million internet users.)

The list of top Chinese apps includes major names like ByteDance, the world’s highest-valued startup, which offers TikTok and local language news app Helo in India, and Alibaba’s UCbrowser, as well as lesser-known quantities like Tencent-backed NewsDog and quiet-yet-prolific streaming app maker Bigo.

Citing data from Sensor Tower, the report found that five of the top 10 Android apps in India are from China, up from just two at the end of 2017.

For anyone who has been watching the Indian technology scene in recent years, this “Chinese app store invasion” will be of little surprise, although the speed of change has been unexpected.

China’s two biggest companies, Alibaba and Tencent, have poured significant amounts into promising Indian startups in recent years, setting the stage for others to follow suit and move into India in search of growth.

Alibaba bought into Snapdeal and Paytm via multi-hundred-million-dollar investments in 2015, and the pace has only quickened since then. In 2017, Tencent invested in Gaana (music streaming) and Swiggy (food delivery) in major deals, having backed Byju’s (education) and Ola (ride-hailing) the year prior. The pair also launched local cloud computing services inside India last year.

Beyond those two, Xiaomi has gone beyond selling phones to back local companies and develop local services for its customers.

That local approach appears to have been the key for those app makers which have found success in India. Rather than taking a very rigid approach like Chinese messaging app WeChat — owned by Tencent, which failed in India — the likes of ByteDance have developed local teams and, in some cases, entirely local apps dedicated to India. With the next hundreds of millions of internet users in India tipped to come from more rural parts of the country, vernacular languages, local content and voice-enabled tech are some of the key strategies that, like their phone-making cousins, Chinese app developers will need to focus on to ensure that they aren’t just a flash in the pan in India.

You can read more at FactorDaily.

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The annual PornHub year in review tells us what we’re really looking at online

Posted by | Android, Apps, arkansas, Australia, chrome os, Germany, india, microsoft windows, Mississippi, Nintendo, pornhub, pornography, South Carolina, Startups, TC, United Kingdom, United States, video hosting, world wide web | No Comments

PornHub, a popular site that features people in various stages of undress, saw 33.5 billion visits in 2018. There are currently 7.53 billion people on Earth.

Y’all have been busy.

The company, which owns most of the major porn sites online, produces a yearly report that aggregates user behavior on the site. Of particular interest, aside from the fact that all of us are horndogs, is that the U.S., Germany and India are in the top spots for porn browsing and that the company transferred 4,000 petabytes of data, or about 500 MB, per person on the planet.

We ignore this data at our peril. While it doesn’t seem important at first glance, the fact that these porn sites are doing more traffic than most major news organizations is deeply telling. Further, like the meme worlds of Twitter and Facebook, Stormy Daniels and Fortnite made the top searches, which points to the spread of politics and culture into the heart of our desires. TV manufacturers should note that 4K searchers are rising in popularity, which suggests that consumer electronics manufacturers should start getting read for a shift (although it should be noted that there is sadly little free 4K content on these sites, a discovery I just made while researching this brief.)

Need more frightening/enlightening data? Here you go.

Just as ‘1080p’ searches had been a defining term in 2017, now ‘4k’ ultra-hd has seen a significant increase in popularity through-out 2018. The popularity of ‘Romantic’ videos more than doubled, and remained twice as popular with female visitors when compared to men.

Searches referring to the dating app ‘Tinder’ grew by 161% among women, 113% among men and 131% by visitors aged 35 to 44. It was also a top trending term in many countries including the United Kingdom and Australia. The number of Tinder themed fantasy date videos on the site is now more than 3500.

Life imitates art, and eventually porn imitates everything, so perhaps it’s no surprise to see that ‘Bowsette’ also made our list of searches that defined 2018. After the original Nintendo fan-art went viral, searches for Bowsette exceeded 3 million in just one week and resulted in the release of a live-action Bowsette themed porn parody (NSFW) with more than 720,000 views.

Bowsette. Good. Moving on.

The Bible Belt represented well in the showings, with Mississippi, South Carolina and Arkansas spending the most time looking at porn. Kansas spent the least. Phones got the most use as porn distribution devices and iOS and Android nearly tied in terms of platform popularity.

Windows traffic fell considerably this year, while Chrome OS became decidedly more popular in 2018. Chrome was popular when it came to browsers used, while the PlayStation was the biggest deliverer of flicks to the console user.

Porn is a the canary in the tech coal mine, and where it goes the rest of tech follows. All of these data points, taken together, paint a fascinating picture of a world on the cusp of a fairly unique shift from desktop to mobile and from HD to 4K video. Further, given that these sites are delivering so much data on a daily basis, it’s clear that all of us are sneaking a peek now and again… even if we refuse to admit it.

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JioSaavn becomes India’s answer to Spotify and Apple Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

There have certainly been misses over the years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Happy 10th anniversary, Android

Posted by | Amazon, Android, andy rubin, Angry Birds, Apple, artificial intelligence, AT&T, China, computing, consumer electronics, digital media, Facebook, Gadgets, Google, google nexus, hardware, HTC, HTC Dream, HTC EVO 4G smartphone, huawei, india, iPad, iPhone, Kindle, LG, lists, Mobile, Motorola, motorola droid, motorola xoom, Nexus One, oled, operating system, operating systems, phablet, Samsung, smartphone, smartphones, Sony, sprint, T-Mobile, TC, TechCrunch, United States, Verizon, xperia | No Comments

It’s been 10 years since Google took the wraps off the G1, the first Android phone. Since that time the OS has grown from buggy, nerdy iPhone alternative to arguably the most popular (or at least populous) computing platform in the world. But it sure as heck didn’t get there without hitting a few bumps along the road.

Join us for a brief retrospective on the last decade of Android devices: the good, the bad, and the Nexus Q.

HTC G1 (2008)

This is the one that started it all, and I have a soft spot in my heart for the old thing. Also known as the HTC Dream — this was back when we had an HTC, you see — the G1 was about as inauspicious a debut as you can imagine. Its full keyboard, trackball, slightly janky slide-up screen (crooked even in official photos), and considerable girth marked it from the outset as a phone only a real geek could love. Compared to the iPhone, it was like a poorly dressed whale.

But in time its half-baked software matured and its idiosyncrasies became apparent for the smart touches they were. To this day I occasionally long for a trackball or full keyboard, and while the G1 wasn’t pretty, it was tough as hell.

Moto Droid (2009)

Of course, most people didn’t give Android a second look until Moto came out with the Droid, a slicker, thinner device from the maker of the famed RAZR. In retrospect, the Droid wasn’t that much better or different than the G1, but it was thinner, had a better screen, and had the benefit of an enormous marketing push from Motorola and Verizon. (Disclosure: Verizon owns Oath, which owns TechCrunch, but this doesn’t affect our coverage in any way.)

For many, the Droid and its immediate descendants were the first Android phones they had — something new and interesting that blew the likes of Palm out of the water, but also happened to be a lot cheaper than an iPhone.

HTC/Google Nexus One (2010)

This was the fruit of the continued collaboration between Google and HTC, and the first phone Google branded and sold itself. The Nexus One was meant to be the slick, high-quality device that would finally compete toe-to-toe with the iPhone. It ditched the keyboard, got a cool new OLED screen, and had a lovely smooth design. Unfortunately it ran into two problems.

First, the Android ecosystem was beginning to get crowded. People had lots of choices and could pick up phones for cheap that would do the basics. Why lay the cash out for a fancy new one? And second, Apple would shortly release the iPhone 4, which — and I was an Android fanboy at the time — objectively blew the Nexus One and everything else out of the water. Apple had brought a gun to a knife fight.

HTC Evo 4G (2010)

Another HTC? Well, this was prime time for the now-defunct company. They were taking risks no one else would, and the Evo 4G was no exception. It was, for the time, huge: the iPhone had a 3.5-inch screen, and most Android devices weren’t much bigger, if they weren’t smaller.

The Evo 4G somehow survived our criticism (our alarm now seems extremely quaint, given the size of the average phone now) and was a reasonably popular phone, but ultimately is notable not for breaking sales records but breaking the seal on the idea that a phone could be big and still make sense. (Honorable mention goes to the Droid X.)

Samsung Galaxy S (2010)

Samsung’s big debut made a hell of a splash, with custom versions of the phone appearing in the stores of practically every carrier, each with their own name and design: the AT&T Captivate, T-Mobile Vibrant, Verizon Fascinate, and Sprint Epic 4G. As if the Android lineup wasn’t confusing enough already at the time!

Though the S was a solid phone, it wasn’t without its flaws, and the iPhone 4 made for very tough competition. But strong sales reinforced Samsung’s commitment to the platform, and the Galaxy series is still going strong today.

Motorola Xoom (2011)

This was an era in which Android devices were responding to Apple, and not vice versa as we find today. So it’s no surprise that hot on the heels of the original iPad we found Google pushing a tablet-focused version of Android with its partner Motorola, which volunteered to be the guinea pig with its short-lived Xoom tablet.

Although there are still Android tablets on sale today, the Xoom represented a dead end in development — an attempt to carve a piece out of a market Apple had essentially invented and soon dominated. Android tablets from Motorola, HTC, Samsung and others were rarely anything more than adequate, though they sold well enough for a while. This illustrated the impossibility of “leading from behind” and prompted device makers to specialize rather than participate in a commodity hardware melee.

Amazon Kindle Fire (2011)

And who better to illustrate than Amazon? Its contribution to the Android world was the Fire series of tablets, which differentiated themselves from the rest by being extremely cheap and directly focused on consuming digital media. Just $200 at launch and far less later, the Fire devices catered to the regular Amazon customer whose kids were pestering them about getting a tablet on which to play Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds, but who didn’t want to shell out for an iPad.

Turns out this was a wise strategy, and of course one Amazon was uniquely positioned to do with its huge presence in online retail and the ability to subsidize the price out of the reach of competition. Fire tablets were never particularly good, but they were good enough, and for the price you paid, that was kind of a miracle.

Xperia Play (2011)

Sony has always had a hard time with Android. Its Xperia line of phones for years were considered competent — I owned a few myself — and arguably industry-leading in the camera department. But no one bought them. And the one they bought the least of, or at least proportional to the hype it got, has to be the Xperia Play. This thing was supposed to be a mobile gaming platform, and the idea of a slide-out keyboard is great — but the whole thing basically cratered.

What Sony had illustrated was that you couldn’t just piggyback on the popularity and diversity of Android and launch whatever the hell you wanted. Phones didn’t sell themselves, and although the idea of playing Playstation games on your phone might have sounded cool to a few nerds, it was never going to be enough to make it a million-seller. And increasingly that’s what phones needed to be.

Samsung Galaxy Note (2012)

As a sort of natural climax to the swelling phone trend, Samsung went all out with the first true “phablet,” and despite groans of protest the phone not only sold well but became a staple of the Galaxy series. In fact, it wouldn’t be long before Apple would follow on and produce a Plus-sized phone of its own.

The Note also represented a step towards using a phone for serious productivity, not just everyday smartphone stuff. It wasn’t entirely successful — Android just wasn’t ready to be highly productive — but in retrospect it was forward thinking of Samsung to make a go at it and begin to establish productivity as a core competence of the Galaxy series.

Google Nexus Q (2012)

This abortive effort by Google to spread Android out into a platform was part of a number of ill-considered choices at the time. No one really knew, apparently at Google or anywhere elsewhere in the world, what this thing was supposed to do. I still don’t. As we wrote at the time:

Here’s the problem with the Nexus Q:  it’s a stunningly beautiful piece of hardware that’s being let down by the software that’s supposed to control it.

It was made, or rather nearly made in the USA, though, so it had that going for it.

HTC First — “The Facebook Phone” (2013)

The First got dealt a bad hand. The phone itself was a lovely piece of hardware with an understated design and bold colors that stuck out. But its default launcher, the doomed Facebook Home, was hopelessly bad.

How bad? Announced in April, discontinued in May. I remember visiting an AT&T store during that brief period and even then the staff had been instructed in how to disable Facebook’s launcher and reveal the perfectly good phone beneath. The good news was that there were so few of these phones sold new that the entire stock started selling for peanuts on Ebay and the like. I bought two and used them for my early experiments in ROMs. No regrets.

HTC One/M8 (2014)

This was the beginning of the end for HTC, but their last few years saw them update their design language to something that actually rivaled Apple. The One and its successors were good phones, though HTC oversold the “Ultrapixel” camera, which turned out to not be that good, let alone iPhone-beating.

As Samsung increasingly dominated, Sony plugged away, and LG and Chinese companies increasingly entered the fray, HTC was under assault and even a solid phone series like the One couldn’t compete. 2014 was a transition period with old manufacturers dying out and the dominant ones taking over, eventually leading to the market we have today.

Google/LG Nexus 5X and Huawei 6P (2015)

This was the line that brought Google into the hardware race in earnest. After the bungled Nexus Q launch, Google needed to come out swinging, and they did that by marrying their more pedestrian hardware with some software that truly zinged. Android 5 was a dream to use, Marshmallow had features that we loved … and the phones became objects that we adored.

We called the 6P “the crown jewel of Android devices”. This was when Google took its phones to the next level and never looked back.

Google Pixel (2016)

If the Nexus was, in earnest, the starting gun for Google’s entry into the hardware race, the Pixel line could be its victory lap. It’s an honest-to-god competitor to the Apple phone.

Gone are the days when Google is playing catch-up on features to Apple, instead, Google’s a contender in its own right. The phone’s camera is amazing. The software works relatively seamlessly (bring back guest mode!), and phone’s size and power are everything anyone could ask for. The sticker price, like Apple’s newest iPhones, is still a bit of a shock, but this phone is the teleological endpoint in the Android quest to rival its famous, fruitful, contender.

The rise and fall of the Essential phone

In 2017 Andy Rubin, the creator of Android, debuted the first fruits of his new hardware startup studio, Digital Playground, with the launch of Essential (and its first phone). The company had raised $300 million to bring the phone to market, and — as the first hardware device to come to market from Android’s creator — it was being heralded as the next new thing in hardware.

Here at TechCrunch, the phone received mixed reviews. Some on staff hailed the phone as the achievement of Essential’s stated vision — to create a “lovemark” for Android smartphones, while others on staff found the device… inessential.

Ultimately, the market seemed to agree. Four months ago plans for a second Essential phone were put on hold, while the company explored a sale and pursued other projects. There’s been little update since.

A Cambrian explosion in hardware

In the ten years since its launch, Android has become the most widely used operating system for hardware. Some version of its software can be found in roughly 2.3 billion devices around the world and its powering a technology revolution in countries like India and China — where mobile operating systems and access are the default. As it enters its second decade, there’s no sign that anything is going to slow its growth (or dominance) as the operating system for much of the world.

Let’s see what the next ten years bring.

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WhatsApp hits India’s Jio feature phones amidst fake news violence

Posted by | Apps, fake news, hardware, india, Mobile, Policy, reliance jio, Social, TC, WhatsApp | No Comments

False rumors forwarded on WhatsApp have led angry mobs to murder strangers in India, but the Facebook-owned chat app is still racing to add users in the country. Today it launched a feature phone version of WhatsApp for JioPhone 1 and 2’s KaiOS, which are designed to support 22 of India’s vast array of native languages. Users will be able to send text, photos, videos and voice messages with end-to-end encryption, though it will lack advanced features like augmented reality and Snapchat Stories-style Status updates.

WhatsApp was supposed to launch alongside the JioPhone 2 that debuted last month for roughly $41, but was delayed. Forty million JioPhone 1s had already been sold, and it’s been estimated to control 27 percent of the Indian mobile phone market and 47 percent of the country’s feature phone market. Coming to JioPhone should open up a big new growth vector for WhatsApp as it strives to grow its 1.5 billion user count toward the big 2 billion milestone.Meanwhile, it could make the Reliance-owned Jio mobile network more appealing. It also could strengthen the KaiOS operating system, developed by a San Diego startup of the same name that recently took a $22 million investment from Google. WhatsApp rolls out on the JioPhone AppStore today and should be available to everyone by September 20th. The companu wouldn’t say if the app will come to other KaiOS devices made by Nokia and Alcatel.

Facebook has started to squeeze WhatsApp, replacing its departed co-founders with Chris Daniels, who formerly ran the Internet.org and Free Basics accessibility initiative that got kicked out of India over net neutrality concerns. That doesn’t bode well for him now overseeing WhatsApp’s high-risk/high-reward scenario in India. The massive nation is core to the chat app’s growth strategy, but the attacks it’s spurred have lost it India’s hearts and minds.

WhatsApp has scrambled to safeguard its app after numerous reports of rumors circulated on its app about gangs and child abductors led angry mobs to kill people in the streets. Five nomads were recently beaten to death in the rural village of Rainpada after residents watched inaccurate videos forwarded through WhatsApp about kidnappers supposedly rolling through the area, BuzzFeed reports.

This photo illustration shows an Indian newspaper vendor reading a newspaper with a full back page advertisement from WhatsApp intended to counter fake information, in New Delhi on July 10, 2018. – Facebook owned messaging service WhatsApp on July 10 published full-page advertisements in Indian dailies in a bid to counter fake information that has sparked mob lynching attacks across the country. (Photo by Prakash SINGH / AFP) (Photo credit should read PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)

WhatsApp recently limited how many people you can forward a message to, labeled forwarded messages, and began a radio PSA campaign in Hindi on 46 India stations warning people to verify things they hear on WhatsApp before acting on them.

“The challenge of mob violence requires action from governments, civil society, and technology companies. That’s why WhatsApp launched a broad user education campaign over radio in India and is working with Jio to educate new users about misinformation” a WhatsApp spokesperson tells me. “WhatsApp was built as an alternative to SMS messaging and we think people should be able to text their loved ones across borders without paying exorbitant charges to do so.”

But it’s clear that parent company Facebook sees spreading WhatsApp as part of its mission to bring the world closer together, even as that comes at a cost. The government has pushed WhatsApp to build workarounds for its encryption to identify the source of rumors and misinformation videos. But a WhatsApp spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that “We believe that building ‘traceability’ into WhatsApp would undermine end-to-end encryption and the private nature of WhatsApp creating the potential for serious misuse . . . we will not weaken the privacy protections we provide.”

Jio’s “transition” phones that offer a few third-party apps but not full-fledged smartphone capabilities, alongside its affordable mobile data, have significantly reduced the cost and friction of being online in India. But with that access comes newfound dangers, especially if not combined with news literacy and digital skills education that could help users spot false information before it sparks violence. Lower income users interested in Jio’s feature phones may have even less access to the education needed to not believe everything they read on WhatsApp. What was once a smartphone problem is becoming an every phone problem.

Increasingly the tech world is learning that connecting people to the internet also means connecting them to the worst elements of humanity. That will necessitate a new wave of pessimists and cynics as product managers in order to predict and thwart ways to abuse software instead of allowing idealists to blindly build tools that can be weaponized.

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Amazon-backed lending platform Capital Float buys consumer finance startup Walnut

Posted by | Amazon, Android, Apps, Asia, Capital Float, economy, Finance, financial services, Fundings & Exits, india, money | No Comments

India-based lending platform Capital Float has been busy raising capital, having closed an Amazon-led $22 million extension to its $45 million Series C last year —  now it’s putting some of that capital to work after it acquired personal finance service Walnut.

The acquisition is $30 million spread across cash and stock, the companies said, and it’ll boost five-year-old Capital Float’s move into the consumer space. The company has to date focused on serving SME and business customers, but last year it began to offer financial services to consumers.

Walnut helps consumers manage their finances and track spending, and it claims seven million downloads on Android . It also includes a feature — Walnut Prime — that offers an instant credit line. Already, it said, it has handed out nearly $15 million in consumer loans.

“Walnut Prime is a product of deep interest to us, and it will essentially become a new addition
to our stable of exceptional, customized credit products,” Capital Float co-founders Sashank Rishyasringa and Gaurav Hinduja said in a statement.

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Xiaomi goes after global markets with two new Android One phones

Posted by | Android, Android One, Asia, China, computing, Europe, France, hutchison, india, Italy, Mexico, Mobile, RAM, smartphone, smartphones, spain, TC, technology, Xiaomi | No Comments

Xiaomi gave Google’s well-intentioned but somewhat-stalled Android One project a major boost last year when it unveiled its first device under the program, Mi A1. That’s now joined by not one but two sequel devices, after the Chinese phone maker unveiled the Mi A2 and Mi A2 Lite at an event in Spain today.

Xiaomi in Spain? Yes, that’s right. International growth is a major part of the Xiaomi story now that it is a listed business, and Spain is one of a handful of countries in Europe where Xiaomi is aiming to make its mark. These two new A2 handsets are an early push and they’ll be available in over 40 countries, including Spain, France, Italy and 11 other European markets.

Both phones run on Android One — so none of Xiaomi’s iOS-inspired MIUI Android fork — and charge via type-C USB. The 5.99-inch A2 is the more premium option, sporting a Snapdragon 660 processor and 4GB or 6GB RAM with 32GB, 64GB or 128GB in storage. There’s a 20-megapixel front camera and dual 20-megapixel and 16-megapixel cameras on the rear. On-device storage ranges between 32GB, 64GB and 128GB.

The Mi A2 Lite is the more budget option that’s powered by a lesser Snapdragon 625 processor with 3GB or 4GB RAM, and 32GB or 64GB storage options. It comes with a smaller 5.84-inch display, there’s a 12- and 5-megapixel camera array on the reverse and a front-facing five-megapixel camera.

The A2 is priced from €249 to €279 ($291-$327) based on specs. The A2 Lite will sell for €179 or €229 ($210 or $268), against based on RAM and storage selection.

The 40 market availability mirrors the A1 launch last year, but on this occasion, Xiaomi has been busy preparing the ground in a number of countries, particularly in Europe. It has been in Spain for the past year, but it also launched local operations in France and Italy in May and tied up with CK Hutchison to sell phones in other parts of the continent via its 3 telecom business. While it isn’t operational in the U.S., Xiaomi has expanded into Mexico and it has set up partnerships with local retailers in dozens of other countries.

Xiaomi has been successful with its move into India, where it one of the top smartphone sellers, but it has not yet replicated that elsewhere outside of China so far.

China is, as you’d expect, the primary revenue market but Xiaomi is increasingly less dependent on its homeland. For 2017 sales, China represented 72 percent, but it had been 94 percent and 87 percent, respectively, in 2015 and 2016.

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