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Snap is channeling Asia’s messaging giants with its move into gaming

Posted by | alibaba, Apps, Asia, Australia, Bitmoji, Canada, China, computing, e-commerce, epic games, Evan Spiegel, Facebook, food, France, game developers, Gaming, instagram, Instant Messaging, Japan, josh constine, Kakao, Los Angeles, messaging apps, Messenger, nhn japan, Nintendo, operating systems, player, Snap, Snapchat, Social, social media, social network, Software, Southeast Asia, Startups, Tencent, United Kingdom, United States, WeChat, WhatsApp | No Comments

Snap is taking a leaf out of the Asian messaging app playbook as its social messaging service enters a new era.

The company unveiled a series of new strategies that are aimed at breathing fresh life into the service that has been ruthlessly cloned by Facebook across Instagram, WhatsApp and even its primary social network. The result? Snap has consistently lost users since going public in 2017. It managed to stop the rot with a flat Q4, but resting on its laurels isn’t going to bring back the good times.

Snap has taken a three-pronged approach: extending its stories feature (and ads) into third-party apps and building out its camera play with an AR platform, but it is the launch of social games that is the most intriguing. The other moves are logical, and they fall in line with existing Snap strategies, but games is an entirely new category for the company.

It isn’t hard to see where Snap found inspiration for social games — Asian messaging companies have long twinned games and chat — but the U.S. company is applying its own twist to the genre.

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Fleksy’s AI keyboard is getting a store to put mini apps at chatters’ fingertips

Posted by | Android, api, Apple, Apps, artificial intelligence, barcelona, e-commerce, Europe, european commission, fleksy, Fleksyapps, Fleksynext, flight search, gboard, gif, Google, imessage, Instant Messaging, keyboard apps, Messenger, Mobile, Pinterest, play store, Qwant, Skyscanner, smartphone, social media, Startups, SwiftKey, TC, Thingthing, tripadvisor, United States, WeChat | No Comments

Remember Fleksy? The customizable Android keyboard app has a new trick up its sleeve: It’s adding a store where users can find and add lightweight third party apps to enhance their typing experience.

Right now it’s launched a taster, preloading a selection of ‘mini apps’ into the keyboard — some from very familiar brand names, some a little less so — so users can start to see how it works.

The first in-keyboard apps are Yelp (local services search); Skyscanner (flight search); Giphy (animated Gif search); GifNote (music Gifs; launching for U.S. users only for rights reasons); Vlipsy (reaction video clips); and Emogi (stickers) — with “many more” branded apps slated as coming in the next few months.

They’re not saying exactly what other brands are coming but there are plenty of familiar logos to be spotted in their press materials — from Spotify to Uber to JustEat to Tripadvisor to PayPal and more…

The full keyboard store itself — which will let users find and add and/or delete apps — will be launching at the end of this month.

The latest version of the Fleksy app can be downloaded for free via the Play Store.

Mini apps made for messaging

The core idea for these mini apps (aka Fleksyapps) is to offer lightweight additions designed to serve the messaging use case.

Say, for example, you’re chatting about where to eat and a friend suggests sushi. The Yelp Fleksyapp might pop up a contextual suggestion for a nearby Japanese restaurant that can be shared directly into the conversation — thereby saving time by doing away with the need for someone to cut out of the chat, switch apps, find some relevant info and cut and paste it back into the chat.

Fleksyapps are intended to be helpful shortcuts that keep the conversation flowing. They also of course put brands back into the conversation.

“We couldn’t be more excited to bring the power of the world’s popular songs with GIFs, videos and photos to the new Fleksyapps platform,” says Gifnote co-founder, John vanSuchtelen, in a supporting statement.

Fleksy’s mini apps appear above the Qwerty keyboard — in much the same space as a next-word prediction. The user can scroll through the app stack (each a tiny branded circle until tapped on to expand) and choose one to interact with. It’s similar to the micro apps lodged in Apple’s iMessage but on Android where iMessage isn’t… The team also plans for Fleksy to support a much wider range of branded apps — hence the Fleksyapps store.

In-keyboard apps is not a new concept for the dev team behind Fleksy; an earlier keyboard app of theirs (called ThingThing) offered micro apps they built themselves as a tool to extend its utility.

But now they’re hoping to garner backing and buy in from third party brands excited about the exposure and reach they could gain by being where users spend the most device time: The keyboard.

“Think of it a bit like the iMessage equivalent but on Android across any app. Or the WeChat mini program but inside the keyboard, available everywhere — not only in one app,” CEO Olivier Plante tells TechCrunch. “That’s a problem of messaging apps these days. All of them are verticals but the keyboard is horizontal. So that’s the benefit for those brands. And the user will have the ability to move them around, add some, to remove some, to explore, to discover.”

“The brands that want to join our platform they have the option of being preloaded by default. The analogy is that by default on the home screen of a phone you are by default in our keyboard. And moving forward you’ll be able to have a membership — you’re becoming a ‘brand member’ of the Fleksyapps platform, and you can have your brand inside the keyboard,” he adds.

The first clutch of Fleksyapps were developed jointly, with the team working with the brands in question. But Plante says they’re planning to launch a tool in future so brands will be able to put together their own apps — in as little as just a few hours.

“We’re opening this array of functionalities and there’s a lot of verticals possible,” he continues. “In the future months we will embed new capabilities for the platform — new type of apps. You can think about professional apps, or cloud apps. Accessing your files from different types of clouds. You have the weather vertical. You have ecommerce vertical. You have so many verticals.

“What you have on the app store today will be reflected into the Fleksyappstore. But really with the focus of messaging and being useful in messaging. So it’s not the full app that we want to bring in — it’s really the core functionality of this app.”

The Yelp Fleksyapp, for example, only includes the ability to see nearby places and search for and share places. So it’s intentionally stripped down. “The core benefit for the brand is it gives them the ability to extend their reach,” says Plante. “We don’t want to compete with the app, per se, we just want to bring these types of app providers inside the messenger on Android across any app.”

On the user side, the main advantage he touts is “it’s really, really fast — fleshing that out to: “It’s very lightweight, it’s very, very fast and we want to become the fastest access to content across any app.”

Users of Fleksyapps don’t need to have the full app installed because the keyboard plugs directly into the API of each branded service. So they get core functionality in bite-sized form without a requirement to download the full app. (Of course they can if they wish.)

So Plante also notes the approach has benefits vis-a-vis data consumption — which could be an advantage in emerging markets where smartphone users’ choices may be hard-ruled by the costs of data and/or connectivity limits.

“For those types of users it gives them an ability to access content but in a very light way — where the app itself, loading the app, loading all the content inside the app can be megabits. In Fleksy you’re talking about kilobits,” he says.

Privacy-sensitive next app suggestions

While baking a bunch of third party apps into a keyboard might sound like a privacy nightmare, the dev team behind Fleksy have been careful to make sure users remain in control.

To wit: Also on board is an AI keyboard assistant (called Fleksynext) — aka “a neural deep learning engine” — which Plante says can detect the context, intention and sentiment of conversations in order to offer “very useful” app suggestions as the chat flows.

The idea is the AI supports the substance of the chat by offering useful functionality from whatever pick and mix of apps are available. Plante refers to these AI-powered ‘next app’ suggestions as “pops”.

And — crucially, from a privacy point of view — the Fleksynext suggestion engine operates locally, on device.

That means no conversation data is sent out of the keyboard. Indeed, Plante says nothing the user types in the keyboard itself is shared with brands (including suggestions that pop up but get ignored). So there’s no risk — as with some other keyboard apps — of users being continually strip-mined for personal data to profile them as they type.

That said, if the user chooses to interact with a Fleksyapp (or its suggestive pop) they are then interacting with a third party’s API. So the usual tracking caveats apply.

“We interact with the web so there’s tracking everywhere,” admits Plante. “But, per se, there’s not specific sensitive data that is shared suddenly with someone. It is not related with the service itself — with the Fleksy app.”

The key point is that the keyboard user gets to choose which apps they want to use and which they don’t. So they can choose which third parties they want to share their plans and intentions with and which they don’t.

“We’re not interesting in making this an advertising platform where the advertiser decides everything,” emphasizes Plante. “We want this to be really close to the user. So the user decides. My intentions. My sentiment. What I type decides. And that is really our goal. The user is able to power it. He can tap on the suggestion or ignore it. And then if he taps on it it’s a very good quality conversion because the user really wants to access restaurants nearby or explore flights for escaping his daily routine… or transfer money. That could be another use-case for instance.”

They won’t be selling brands a guaranteed number of conversions, either.

That’s clearly very important because — to win over users — Fleksynext suggestions will need to feel telepathically useful, rather than irritating, misfired nag. Though the risk of that seems low given how Fleksy users can customize the keyboard apps to only see stuff that’s useful to them.

“In a sense we’re starting reshape a bit how advertising is seen by putting the user in the center,” suggests Plante. “And giving them a useful means of accessing content. This is the original vision and we’ve been very loyal to that — and we think it can reshape the landscape.”

“When you look into five years from now, the smartphone we have will be really, really powerful — so why process things in the cloud? When you can process things on the phone. That’s what we are betting on: Processing everything on the phone,” he adds.

When the full store launches users will be able to add and delete (any) apps — included preloads. So they will be in the driving seat. (We asked Plante to a confirm the user will be able to delete all apps, including any pre-loadeds and he said yes. So if you take him at his word Fleksy will not be cutting any deals with OEMs or carriers to indelibly preload certain Fleksyapps. Or, to put it another way, crapware baked into the keyboard is most definitely not plan.)

Depending on what other Fleksyapps launch in future a Fleksy keyboard user could choose to add, for example, a search service like DuckDuckGo or France’s Qwant to power a pro-privacy alternative to using Google search in the keyboard. Or they could choose Google.

Again the point is the choice is theirs.

Scaling a keyboard into a platform

The idea of keyboard-as-platform offers at least the possibility of reintroducing the choice and variety of smartphone app stores back before the cynical tricks of attention-harvesting tech giants used their network effects and platform power to throttle the app economy.

The Android keyboard space was also a fertile experiment ground in years past. But it’s now dominated by Google’s Gboard and Microsoft-acquired Swiftkey. Which makes Fleksy the plucky upstart gunning to scale an independent alternative that’s not owned by big tech and is open to any third party that wants to join its mini apps party.

“It will be Bing search for Swiftkey, it will be Google search for Gboard, it will be Google Music, it will be YouTube. But on our side we can have YouTube, we can also have… other services that exist for video. The same way with pictures and the same way for file-sharing and drive. So you have Google Drive but you have Dropbox, you have OneDrive, there’s a lot of services in the cloud. And we want to be the platform that has them all, basically,” says Plante.

The original founding team of the Fleksy keyboard was acqui-hired by Pinterest back in 2016, leaving the keyboard app itself to languish with minimal updates. Then two years ago Barcelona-based keyboard app maker, ThingThing, stepped in to take over development.

Plante confirms it’s since fully acquired the Fleksy keyboard technology itself — providing a solid foundation for the keyboard-as-platform business it’s now hoping to scale with the launch of Fleksyapps.

Talking of scale, he tells us the startup is in the process of raising a multi-million Series A — aiming to close this summer. (ThingThing last took in $800,000 via equity crowdfunding last fall.)

The team’s investor pitch is the keyboard offers perhaps the only viable conduit left on mobile to reset the playing field for brands by offering a route to cut through tech giant walled gardens and get where users are spending most of their time and attention: i.e. typing and sharing stuff with their friends in private one-to-one and group chats.

That means the keyboard-as-platform has the potential to get brands of all stripes back in front of users — by embedding innovative, entertaining and helpful bite-sized utility where it can prove its worth and amass social currency on the dominant messaging platforms people use.

The next step for the rebooted Fleksy team is of course building scale by acquiring users for a keyboard which, as of half a year ago, only had around 1M active users from pure downloads.

Its strategy on this front is to target Android device makers to preload Fleksy as the default keyboard.

ThingThing’s business model is a revenue share on any suggestions the keyboard converts, which it argues represent valuable leads for brands — given the level of contextual intention. It is also intending to charge brands that want to be preloaded on the Fleksy keyboard by default.

Again, though, a revenue share model requires substantial scale to work. Not least because brands will need to see evidence of scale to buy into the Fleksyapps’ vision.

Plante isn’t disclosing active users of the Fleksy keyboard right now. But says he’s confident they’re on track to hit 30M-35M active users this year — on account of around ten deals he says are in the pipeline with device makers to preload Fleksy’s keyboard. (Palm was an early example, as we reported last year.)

The carrot for OEMs to join the Fleksyapps party is they’re cutting them in on the revenue share from user interactions with branded keyboard apps — playing to device makers’ needs to find ways to boost famously tight hardware margins.

“The fact that the keyboard can monetize and provide value to the phone brands — this is really massive for them,” argues Plante. “The phone brands can expect revenue flowing in their bank account because we give the brands distribution and the handset manufacturer will make money and we will make money.”

It’s a smart approach, and one that’s essentially only possible because Google’s own Gboard keyboard doesn’t come preloaded on the majority of Android devices. (Exceptions include its own Pixel brand devices.) So — unusually for a core phone app on Android — there’s a bit of an open door where the keyboard sits, instead of the usual preloaded Google wares. And that’s an opportunity.

Markets wise, ThingThing is targeting OEMs in all global regions with its Fleksy pitch — barring China (which Plante readily admits it too complex for a small startup to sensibly try jumping at).

Apps vs tech giants

In its stamping ground of Europe there are warm regulatory winds blowing too: An European Commission antitrust intervention last year saw Google hit with a $5BN fine over anti-competitive practices attached to its Android platform — forcing the company to change local licensing terms.

That antirust decision means mobile makers finally have the chance to unbundle Google apps from devices they sell in the region.

Which translates into growing opportunities for OEMs to rethink their Android strategies. Even as Google remains under pressure not to get in the way by force feeding any more of its wares.

Really, a key component of this shift is that device makers are being told to think, to look around and see what else is out there. For the first time there looks to be a viable chance to profit off of Android without having to preload everything Google wants.

“For us it’s a super good sign,” says Plante of the Commission decision. “Every monopolistic situation is a problem. And the market needs to be fragmented. Because if not we’re just going to lose innovation. And right now Europe — and I see good progress for the US as well — are trying to dismantle the imposed power of those big guys. For the simple evolution of human being and technology and the future of us.”

“I think good things can happen,” he adds. “We’re in talks with handset manufacturers who are coming into Europe and they want to be the most respectful of the market. And with us they have this reassurance that you have a good partner that ensures there’s a revenue stream, there’s a business model behind it, there’s really a strong use-case for users.

“We can finally be where we always wanted to be: A choice, an alternative. But having Google imposing its way since start — and making sure that all the direct competition of Google is just a side, I think governments have now seen the problem. And we’re a winner of course because we’re a keyboard.”

But what about iOS? Plante says the team has plans to bring what they’re building with Fleksy to Apple’s mobile platform too, in time. But for now they’re fully focusing efforts on Android — to push for scale and execute on their vision of staking their claim to be the independent keyboard platform.

Apple has supported third party keyboards on iOS for years. Unfortunately, though, the experience isn’t great — with a flaky toggle to switch away from the default Apple keyboard, combined with heavy system warnings about the risks of using third party keyboards.

Meanwhile the default iOS keyboard ‘just works’ — and users have loads of extra features baked by default into Apple’s native messaging app, iMessage.

Clearly alternative keyboards have found it all but impossible to build any kind of scale in that iOS pincer.

“iOS is coming later because we need to focus on these distribution deals and we need to focus on the brands coming into the platform. And that’s why iOS right now we’re really focusing for later. What we can say is it will come later,” says Plante, adding: “Apple limits a lot keyboards. You can see it with other keyboard companies. It’s the same. The update cycle for iOS keyboard is really, really, really slow.”

Plus, of course, Fleksy being preloaded as a default keyboard on — the team hopes — millions of Android devices is a much more scalable proposition vs just being another downloadable app languishing invisibly on the side lines of another tech giant’s platform.

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Tencent Q4 profit disappoints, but cloud and payments gain ground

Posted by | alibaba, alibaba group, alipay, Asia, Baidu, China, cloud computing, e-commerce, Earnings, games publisher, Gaming, iQiyi, online payments, Snap, Tencent, WeChat, weixin | No Comments

China’s Tencent reported disappointing profits in the fourth quarter on the back of surging costs but saw emerging businesses pick up steam as it plots to diversify amid slackening gaming revenues.

Net profit for the quarter slid 32 percent to 14.2 billion yuan ($2.1 billion), behind analysts’ forecast of 18.3 billion yuan. The decrease was due to one-off expenses related to its portfolio companies and investments in non-gaming segments like video content and financial technology.

Excluding non-cash items and M&A deals, Tencent’s net profit from the period rose 13 percent to 19.7 billion yuan ($2.88 billion). The company has to date invested in more than 700 companies, 100 of which are valued over $1 billion each and 60 of which have gone public.

Quarterly revenue edged up 28 percent to 84.9 billion yuan ($12.4 billion) beating expectations.

tencent revenue

The Hong Kong-listed company is best known for its billion-user WeChat messenger but had for years relied heavily on a high-margin gaming business. That was until a months-long freeze on games approvals last year that delayed monetization for new titles, spurring a major reorg in the firm to put more focus on enterprise services, including cloud computing and financial technology.

Tencent has received approvals for eight games since China resumed the licensing process, although its blockbusters PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds and Fortnite have yet to get the green light. The firm also warned of a “sizeable backlog” for license applications in the industry, which means its “scheduled game releases will initially be slower than in some prior years.”

Video games for the quarter contributed 28.5 percent of Tencent’s total revenues, compared to 36.7 percent in the year-earlier period. Despite the domestic fiasco, Tencent remains as the world’s largest games publisher by revenue, according to data compiled by NewZoo. The firm has also gotten more aggressive in taking its titles global.

Social network revenues rose 25 percent on account of growth in live streaming and video subscriptions. The segment made up 22.9 percent of total revenues. Tencent has in recent years spent heavily on making original content and licensing programs as it competes with Baidu’s iQiyi video streaming site. Tencent claimed 89 million subscribers in the latest quarter, compared with iQiyi’s 87.4 million.

Tencent has been relatively slow to monetize WeChat in contrast to its western counterpart Facebook, though it’s under more pressure to step up its game. Tencent’s advertising revenue from the quarter grew 38 percent thanks to expanding advertising inventory on WeChat. Ads accounted for 20 percent of the firm’s quarterly revenues.

All told, WeChat and its local version Weixin reached nearly 1.1 billion monthly active users; 750 million of them checked their friends’ WeChat feeds, and Tencent recently introduced a Snap Story-like feature to lock users in as it vies for eyeball time with challenger TikTok.

The “others” category, composed of financial technology and cloud computing, grew 71.8 percent to generate 28.5 percent of total revenues. WeChat’s e-wallet, which is going neck-and-neck with Alibaba affiliate Alipay, saw daily transaction volume exceed 1 billion last year. During the fourth quarter, merchants who used WeChat Pay monthly grew more than 80 percent year-over-year.

Meanwhile, cloud revenues doubled to 9.1 billion yuan in 2018, thanks to Tencent’s dominance in the gaming sector as its cloud infrastructure now powers over half of the China-based games companies and is following these clients overseas. Tencent meets Alibaba head-on again in the cloud sector. For comparison, Alibaba’s most recent quarterly cloud revenue was 6.6 billion yuan. Just yesterday, the e-commerce leader claimed that its cloud business is larger than the second to eight players in China combined.

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China finally grants a game license to Tencent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Tencent left out as China approves the release of 80 new video games

Posted by | Activision, Asia, China, Entertainment, Gaming, riot, supercell, TC, Tencent, Tencent Holdings, WeChat | No Comments

Chinese internet giant Tencent has been excluded from the first batch of video game license approvals issued by the state-run government since March.

China regulators approved Saturday the released of 80 online video games after a months-long freeze, Reuters first reported. None of the approved titles listed on the approval list were from Tencent Holdings, the world’s largest gaming company.

Licenses are usually granted on a first come, first serve basis in order of when studios file their applications, several game developers told TechCrunch. There are at least 7,000 titles in the waiting list, among which only 3,000 may receive the official licenses in 2019, China’s 21st Century Business Herald reported citing experts. Given the small chance of making it to the first batch, it’s unsurprising the country’s two largest game publishers Tencent and NetEase were absent.

The controlled and gradual unfreezing process is in line with a senior official’s announcement on December 21. While the Chinese gaming regulator is trying its best to greenlight titles as soon as possible, there is a huge number of applications in the pipeline, the official said. Without licenses, studios cannot legally monetize their titles in China. The hiatus in approval has slashed earnings in the world’s largest gaming market, which posted a 5.4 percent year-over-year growth in the first half of 2018, the slowest rate in the last ten years according to a report by Beijing-based research firm GPC and China’s official gaming association CNG.

Tencent is best known as the company behind WeChat, a popular messaging platform in China. But much of its revenue comes from gaming. Even with a recent decline in gaming revenue, the company has a thriving business that is majority owner of several companies including Activision, Grinding Gears Games, Riot and Supercell. In 2012, the company took a 40 percent stake in Epic Games, maker of Fortnite. Tencent also has alliances or publishing deals with other video gaming companies such as Square Enix, makers of Tomb Raider. 

The ban on new video game titles in China has affected Tencent’s bottom line. The company reported revenue from gaming fell 4 percent in the third quarter due to the prolonged freeze on licenses. At the time, Tencent claimed it had 15 games with monetization approval in its pipeline. To combat pressure in its consumer-facing gaming business, the Chinese giant launched a major reorganization in October to focus more on enterprise-related initiatives such as cloud services and maps. Founder and CEO Pony Ma said at the time the strategic repositioning would prepare Tencent for the next 20 years of operation.

“In the second stage, we aspire to enable our partners in different industries to better connect with consumers via an expanding, open and connected ecosystem,” stated Ma.

China tightened restrictions in 2018 to combat games that are deemed illegal, immoral, low-quality or have a negative social impact such as those that make children addicted or near-sighted. This means studios, regardless of size, need to weigh new guidelines in their production and user interaction. Tencent placed its own restrictions on gaming in what appeared to be an attempt to assuage regulators. The company has expanded its age verification system, an effort aimed at curbing use of young players, and placed limits on daily play.

Update (December 30, 10:00 am, GMT+8): Adds context on China’s gaming industry and Tencent.

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Open sourcing analysis, plus US, China and HQ2

Posted by | Amazon, Asia, Government, hq2, Mobile, new york city, oppo, Tencent, washington DC, WeChat, WhatsApp, Xiaomi | No Comments

The big news today is that — finally — we have Amazon’s selection of cities for its dual second headquarters (Northern Virginia and NYC). Then some notes on China. But first, semiconductors and open sourcing analysis.

We are experimenting with new content forms at TechCrunch. This is a rough draft of something new — provide your feedback directly to the authors: Danny at danny@techcrunch.com or Arman at Arman.Tabatabai@techcrunch.com if you like or hate something here.

Pivot: Future of semiconductors, chips, AI, etc.

Last week, I focused on SoftBank’s debt and Form D filings by startups. On Friday, I asked what I should start to analyze next. There were several feedback hotspots, but the one that popped out to me was around next-generation chips and the battle for dominance at the hardware layer.

As a software engineer, I know almost nothing about silicon (the beauty of abstraction). But it is clear that the future of all kinds of workflows will increasingly be driven by capabilities at the hardware/silicon level, particularly in future applications like artificial intelligence, machine learning, AR/VR, autonomous driving and more. Furthermore, China and other countries are spending billions to go after the leaders in this space, such as Nvidia and Intel. Startups, funding, competition, geopolitics — we’ve got it all here.

Arman and I are now diving deeper into this space. We will start to post once we have some interesting things to share, but if you have ideas, opinions, companies or investments in this space: tell us about them, as we are all ears: danny@techcrunch.com and Arman.tabatabai@techcrunch.com.

Open-source analysis at TechCrunch

Since I launched this daily “column” last week, I have included the text near the top that “We are experimenting with new content forms at TechCrunch.” One of those forms is what might be called open-source journalism. Definitions are fuzzy, but I take it to mean working “in the open” — allowing you, the audience of this column, to engage in not just feedback around finalized and published posts, but to actually affect the entire process of analysis, from sourcing and ideation to data science and writing.

I am thankful to work at a publication like TechCrunch where my readers are often working in the exact sectors that I am writing about. When I wrote about Form Ds last week, a number of startup attorneys reached out with their own thoughts and analysis, and also explained key aspects of how the law is changing around SEC disclosure for startups. That’s really powerful, and I want to apply it to as many fields as possible.

This thesis is ultimately intentional — now I have to operationalize it. There aren’t good tools (yet!) that I know of that allow for easy sharing of data and notes that don’t rely on a hacked-together set of Google Docs and GitHub. But I’m exploring the stack, and will publish more things publicly as we have them.

Amazon HQ2 — the future of corporate relations with cities

Amazon’s long process for selecting an HQ2 is finally over, and the official answer is two: Northern Virginia and NYC. Tons of words have been spilled about the search, and I am sure even more analysis will strike today about what put those two locations over the top.

To me, the key for mayors is to start using these reverse searches (where a company seeks a city and not vice versa) as leverage to actually get resources to fund infrastructure and other critical services.

This is a theme that I discussed about a year ago:

Take Boston’s bid for GE’s new headquarters. Yes, the city offered property tax rebates of about $25 million , but GE’s move also pushed the state to fund a variety of infrastructure improvements, including the Northern Avenue bridge and new bike lanes. That bridge adds a critical path for vehicles and pedestrians in Boston’s central business district, yet has gone unfunded for years.

Ideally, governments could debate, vote, and then fund these sorts of infrastructure projects and community improvements. The reality is that without a time-sensitive forcing function like a reverse RFP process, there is little hope that cities and states will make progress on these sorts of projects. The debates can literally go on forever in American democracy.

So if you are a mayor or economic planning official, use these processes as tools to get stuff done. Use the allure of new jobs and tax revenues to spur infrastructure spending and get a rezoning through a recalcitrant city council. Use that “prosperity bomb” to upgrade old parts of the urban landscape and prepare the city for the future. A healthier, more humane city can be just around the corner.

Take DC. The city has seen one of the best-run Metro systems deteriorate to abysmal levels over the past few years due to a complete dumpster fire of organizational design (the DC transit agency WMATA is funded by inconsistent revenue sources that ensure it will never be sustainable). Here is an opportunity to use Amazon’s announcement to get the tax framework and operations figured out to ensure that real estate, transportation and other critical urban infrastructure are designed effectively.

China’s mobile internationalization

Timothy Allen/Getty Images

Talking about second headquarters, the technology industry clearly has separated into poles, one based around the United States and the other based around China. Two articles I read recently gave good insights of the benefits and challenges for China in this world.

The first is from Sam Byford writing at The Verge, who investigates the native OS options that Chinese consumers receive from companies like Xiaomi, Huawei, Oppo and others. The headline is much more shrill than the text, so don’t let that frighten you.

Byford provides an overview of the lineage of Chinese mobile OSes, and also notes that what might look like design gaffes in Western consumer eyes might be critical needs for Chinese buyers:

But what is true today is that not all Chinese phone software is bad. And when it is bad from a Western perspective, it’s often bad for very different reasons than the bad Android skins of the past. Yes, many of these phones make similar mistakes with overbearing UI decisions — hello, Huawei — and yes, it’s easy to mock some designs for their obvious thrall to iOS. But these are phones created in a very different context to Android devices as we’ve previously understood them.

The article is perhaps a tad long for what it is, but Byford’s key viewpoint should be repeated as a mantra by any person connected to the technology sector today: “The Chinese phone market is a spiraling behemoth of innovation and audacity, unlike anything we’ve ever seen. If you want to be on board with the already exciting hardware, it’s worth trying to understand the software.”

Of course, while China may be a huge country, its leading technology companies do want to globalize and expand their user bases outside of the Middle Kingdom’s borders. That may well be a challenging proposition.

Writing at Factor Daily, Shadma Shaikh dives into the failure of WeChat to break into the Indian market. The product lessons learned by WeChat’s owner Tencent could be applied to any Silicon Valley company — cultural knowledge and appropriate product design are key to entering overseas markets.

Shaikh gives a couple of examples:

Another design feature in the app allowed users to look up and send add-friend requests to WeChat users nearby. During initial onboarding when users were just checking app’s features, many would tap the “people nearby” feature, which would switch on location sharing by default – including with strangers. Once location sharing with strangers was switched on, it wasn’t very intuitive to turn it off.

“Women used to get a lot of unwarranted messages from men, which was a major turn off and many of them left the platform,” Gupta says. “China probably didn’t have this stalking problem.”

And

In China, where the internet was cheaper than in India in 2012, sending video files of, say, 4 MB was not a challenge. WhatsApp compresses a 5 MB photo to 40 kilobytes. WeChat did not compress the files and took many minutes and data to send and receive media files.

Internationalization will never be easy, but the lessons that Silicon Valley has slowly learned over the past two decades will need to be learned again by Chinese companies if they want to export their software to other countries.

Reading Docket

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Tencent to tighten age verification checks for gamers amid government crackdown

Posted by | Asia, China, Gaming, gaming addiction, privacy, Tencent, Tencent Holdings, WeChat | No Comments

Chinese Internet giant Tencent has announced it’s bringing in a new system of age checks to its video games which will be linked to a national public security database — in an effort to reliably identify minors so it can limit how long children can play its games.

The new real name-based registration system will initially be mandated for new players of its popular Honour of Kings fantasy multiplayer role-playing battle game.

It will be introduced around September 15, according to Reuters.

Tencent said the planned ID verification system — which Bloomberg couches as equivalent to a police ID check — is the first of its kind in the Chinese gaming industry, and claimed it will enable it to accurately identify underaged players and impose existing play time restrictions.

Last July Tencent said it would impose a playtime maximum of one hour per day for children up to aged 12, and a maximum of two hours a day for those between 13 and 18. But if kids can get around age checks such limits are meaningless.

“Through these measures, Tencent hopes to continue to better guide underaged players to game sensibly,” it said in a statement on its official WeChat account about the beefed up checks. It also said it plans to gradually expand the requirement to its other games.

In total Tencent’s gaming portfolio is reported to have more than 500 million players in China.

The move comes amid a crackdown by the Chinese government on video gaming over fears of health problems and addiction among children.

Late last month a statement posted on the Education Ministry website said new curbs were needed to counter worsening myopia among minors.

Ministers have long said they want to limit the amount of time kids can play games — although achieving that outcome is clearly a major challenge, given the popularity of video games and the proliferation of devices from which they can be accessed.

Tencent’s move to link age verification to a public security database does seem to represent a significant new step towards the government achieving its goal of also controlling kids’ digital activity. And investors reacted negatively to the announcement — pushing Tencent’s shares down more than 3%.

Shares in the company also dived around 3% last week when the government announced its latest gaming crackdown.

Reuters notes that shares in two other major Chinese game developers, China Youzu Interactive and Perfect World, also dropped 5.5% and 3.6%, respectively, as investors digested the regulatory risk.

Last year the Chinese government also tightened general Internet regulations, doubling down on its long standing real-name registration rules.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Latin America’s Movile is quietly building a mobile empire

Posted by | brazil, Column, ifood, Mobile, movile, Naspers, online food ordering, PayPal, playkids, spoonrocket, Tencent, WeChat | No Comments

By 2020, Brazilian mobile giant, Movile, wants to improve the lives of more than one billion people through its apps. The company began its mission in 1998 selling gaming, news and SMS messaging services to mobile operators in Brazil. After receiving its first investment from South African-based global investor Naspers 10 years ago, Movile grew into one of the largest and most successful mobile companies in Latin America, with more than 150 million monthly active users of its apps and estimated revenues over $240 million.

Movile’s app, PlayKids, propelled the company to the global stage. A platform that offers educational products and content for children, PlayKids in 2014 reached more than 6 million downloads within a year of launching, and 5 million active users per month.

From there, Movile turned its attention to an unprecedented strategy of mergers and acquisitions in Latin America. The company’s expansion strategy included investments in more than 20 other mobile companies, such as iFood and Sympla, two of the most prominent players in Latin America’s mobile space today.

Here’s a look at how Movile went from local success story in Brazil to one of the largest mobile companies in Latin America — and its next steps for mobile success worldwide.

The PlayKids launching pad

By 2012, Movile was the largest mobile services company in Brazil. With more than 150 employees, the company established its core offerings in mobile payments, mobile commerce and other B2B mobile solutions. Movile’s teams successfully opened offices in Mexico, Colombia, Argentina and Venezuela, which they achieved through the acquisition of another mobile company with a similar business model, CycleLogic. But it wasn’t until the launch of PlayKids in 2013 that one of Movile’s creations landed in the hands of millions of users around the world.

By June 2014, PlayKids had users in more than 30 countries and was one of the top-grossing children’s apps of all time. The success of PlayKids allowed Movile to build key relationships with tech firms in Silicon Valley, including Apple and Google, for the distribution of the company’s apps, and Facebook for marketing them.

Also by this time, Movile had more than 700 employees working from 11 offices in six countries, and began the next chapter in their story: ramping up their investments in other mobile companies. Movile used this strategy not only to continue its expansion across the region, but also to fend off any foreign competition eyeing Latin America’s increasingly lucrative mobile market. By 2014-2015, Latin America was the fastest-growing smartphone market in the world with 109.5 million smartphone units sold in the region.

Becoming Latin America’s mobile powerhouse

2014 marked a big year for Movile. The company invested $1.6 million into online food delivery startup iFood in the past, but an additional $2.6 million investment in 2014 led to the purchase of an iFood competitor, Central Delivery. Movile’s investments in iFood and its buy-out of the competition took the iFood app from 25,000 orders per month to more than one million orders per month.

Movile’s goal was simple: take a fast-moving startup and help it grow beyond what the founding team ever thought possible.

The insights and data that Movile gathered during its strategic venture capital investments in iFood were critical. During this time, Movile built the foundation for its investments that followed shortly after, and learned how to make them a success. With each new investment, Movile’s goal was simple: take a fast-moving startup and help it grow beyond what the founding team ever thought possible by infusing cash, human capital and any technical resources or expertise that the startup could possibly need.

Movile quickly solidified its M&A strategy, its processes and its position as a leader in Latin America’s mobile market. To continue financing its growth through acquisitions, Movile raised another $55 million from Innova Capital, Jorge Paulo Lemann and FINEP in its Series D round in 2014. This new round of financing led to even more acquisitions, including the acquisition of Rapiddo, ChefTime and FreshTime. It also allowed the company to make additional investments in LBS Local, the owners of Apontador, MapLink, Cinepapaya and TruckPad.

Bundling an empire

In 2015, after a handful of investments in food-related startups, Movile’s appetite for the food and delivery space continued to grow. Naspers and Innova Capital infused another $40 million (Series E) into Movile in 2016. Movile then boosted its iFood and Just EAT platforms with another $50 million. With access to all of Movile’s resources, iFood quickly rose as a leader in online food delivery in Latin America, with 6.2 million monthly orders and a growing presence in multiple countries, including Brazil, Mexico, Colombia and Argentina.

Movile’s venture capital model became so successful that iFood replicated the same model themselves. iFood took part in more than 10 mergers and acquisitions, including the acquisition of SpoonRocket, a San Francisco-based online food delivery service. iFood acquired SpoonRocket’s technology to help it expand its reach across Latin America.

In 2016, Movile’s Rappido app acquired on-demand courier service 99Motos, and then Movile made investments in Sympla (a DIY-ticketing platform for events), while raising another $40 million (Series F) from Naspers and Innova Capital. By 2017, Movile raised an additional $53 million (Series G) from Naspers and Innova Capital, bringing Naspers’ share of Movile to 70 percent.

On the road to one billion

With no shortage of cash, Movile now has plans to put more than half of its latest $53 million Naspers investment into Rapiddo Marketplace. Movile believes they can transform the Rapiddo Marketplace into a one-stop-shop for a variety of consumer transactions ranging from food delivery and event tickets to refilling mobile credit and hailing rides. Included in this ambitious plan is a payments platform similar to PayPal called Zoop, which handles all digital payments and makes the Rapiddo Marketplace a single platform that can integrate many — if not all — of Movile’s other applications.

If a path does not yet exist, Movile will simply build, acquire or bundle its way to make it happen.

Movile’s mission is no easy feat; however, if the company is to achieve its goal of touching the lives of one billion people through its apps, there may never be a better time. Movile’s all-in-one mobile platform concept is reminiscent of China’s Tencent, which established a number of successful paid services based on its applications. Tencent is currently worth half a trillion dollars and rising, with investments from Naspers and earnings of almost $22 billion last year.

Tencent allows merchants in China to sell their products and receive payments through WeChat, China’s largest mobile messaging app used by more than one billion people. Using an application with widespread adoption and popularity, Tencent is able to continuously add layers and layers of services, precisely what Movile plans to do now with its mobile companies in Latin America.

Movile believes it can be just as successful as Tencent because the Latin American mobile market strikes a number of similarities with Southeast Asian countries. On the other hand, skeptics believe that since Latin America lacks a WeChat-like application to unify the region, it will be difficult to achieve the same level of success. But if we’ve learned anything from Movile, it’s that if a path does not yet exist, Movile will simply build, acquire or bundle its way to make it happen.

Wavy, Movile’s latest endeavor, could achieve this. The business, which bundles Movile’s 400+ content partner companies, 100 million active user base and 40 Latin American mobile carrier businesses, is already one of the largest global players in this space based on sheer numbers alone. The Wavy portfolio incorporates a wide range of products, including educational content and apps, B2B messaging services such as chatbots, SMS, RCS and voice messaging, as well as partnerships with companies in the gaming, bots and apps space.

The race is on among global mobile platform providers and device manufacturers to become the first to offer a total mobile user experience. However, there are very few companies that will ever be able to replicate the range of products and services Movile has developed, making it one of the most remarkable mobile success stories of our time — and one that’s not over yet.

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