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Why social networks want even more gaming

Posted by | augmented reality, ccp games, Facebook, Gaming, instagram, TC, Twitter, Virtual reality, virtual worlds, WeChat | No Comments

Even if you don’t play games, you have spent years of your life in one or more virtual worlds.

Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WeChat are lightweight versions of virtual worlds. They don’t offer terrain for avatars to explore, but they are neighborhoods within cyberspace where we store assets, develop relationships and, in some instances, might even choose to hide behind an alias.

The faces we present on these platforms are different from the ones we show our friends in person. While we usually use real names and photos, our presence on Twitter and Instagram is an avatar of sorts. What we do (and do not) post, how we say what we say, how we portray ourselves through selectively chosen (and often edited) photos — it’s an online persona. The aim — conscious and subconscious — is to build social capital within the particular cultural environment of these virtual spaces.

(This is part two of a seven-part series about virtual worlds.)

The social capital gained or lost within a virtual space can connect directly to social capital in the physical world. The worlds are separate but intertwined; what percent of news stories these days revolve around what someone posted on Twitter or Instagram?

Social media apps have virtual economies the same way as games like Fortnite do, they’re just smaller and involve fewer users thus far. There is constant trading of goods and services that exist only within the virtual world of a social app. For example, individuals and companies spend real money on trading Twitter handles, buying Instagram followers, purchasing special image filters and on Twitch memberships that put a badge next to their name to signify their status as a financial supporter of a specific streamer.

On this point, CCP Games CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson told me, “there’s not much reality in reality anymore,” given how much of our daily lives in “the real world” are about creating, consuming and interacting online, noting that many social media influencers earn more money in these virtual worlds than factory workers can make building physical items.

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Tencent to grow gaming empire with $148M acquisition of Conan publisher Funcom in Norway

Posted by | Apps, ceo, Companies, Europe, finland, Funcom, Fundings & Exits, Gaming, Israel, Microsoft, miniclip, Nintendo, online games, Oslo, Riot Games, smartphone, Software, Sony, supercell, Tencent, ubisoft, WeChat | No Comments

Tencent, one of the world’s biggest video and online gaming companies by revenue, today made another move to help cement that position. The Chinese firm has made an offer to fully acquire Funcom, the games developer behind Conan Exiles (and others in the Conan franchise), Dune and some 28 other titles. The deal, when approved, would value the Oslo-based company at $148 million (NOK 1.33 billion) and give the company a much-needed cash injection to follow through on its longer-term strategy around its next generation of games.

Funcom is traded publicly on the Oslo Stock Exchange, and the board has already recommended the offer, which is being made at NOK 17 per share, or around 27% higher than its closing share price the day before (Tuesday).

The news is being made with some interesting timing. Today, Tencent competes against the likes of Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo in terms of mass-market, gaming revenues. But just earlier this week, it was reported that ByteDance — the publisher behind breakout social media app TikTok — was readying its own foray into the world of gaming.

If it goes ahead, that would set up another level of rivalry between the two companies. Tencent also has a massive interest in the social media space, specifically by way of its messaging app WeChat . While many consumers will have multiple apps, when it comes down to it, spending money in one represents a constraint on spending money in another. ByteDance currently profits from having content on its social apps related to Tencent gameplay, so building its own content could be one way of moving away from that. The two have (naturally) also been battling it out in court in China over unfair competition claims, in part related to that gaming content.

Today, Tencent is one of the world’s biggest video game companies: in its last reported quarter (Q3 in November), Tencent said that it make RMB28.6 billion ($4.1 billion) in online gaming revenue, with smartphone games accounting for RMB24.3 billion of that.

Acquisitions and controlling stakes form a key part of the company’s growth strategy in gaming. Among its very biggest deals, Tencent paid $8.6 billion for a majority stake in Finland’s Supercell back in 2016. It also has a range of controlling stakes in Riot Games, Epic, Ubisoft, Paradox, Frontier and Miniclip. These companies, in turn, also are making deals: just earlier this month it was reported (and sources have also told us) that Miniclip acquired Israel’s Ilyon Games (of Bubble Shooter fame) for $100 million.

Turning back to Funcom, Tencent was already an investor in the company: it took a 29% stake in it in September 2019 in a secondary deal, buying out KGJ Capital (which had previously been the biggest shareholder).

“Tencent has a reputation for being a responsible long-term investor, and for its renowned operational capabilities in online games,” said Funcom CEO Rui Casais at the time. “The insight, experience, and knowledge that Tencent will bring is of great value to us and we look forward to working closely with them as we continue to develop great games and build a successful future for Funcom.”

In retrospect, this was laying the groundwork and relationships for a bigger deal just months down the line. 

“We have a great relationship with Tencent as our largest shareholder and we are very excited to be part of the Tencent team,” Casais said in a statement today. “We will continue to develop great games that people all over the world will play, and believe that the support of Tencent will take Funcom to the next level. Tencent will provide Funcom with operational leverage and insights from its vast knowledge as the leading company in the game space.”

The rationale for Funcom is that the company had already determined that it needed further investment in order to follow through on its longer-term strategy.

According to a statement issued before it recommended the offer, the company is continuing to build out the “Open World Survival segment” using the Games-as-a-Service business model (where you pay to fuel up with more credits); and is building an ambitious Dune project set to launch in two years.

“Such increased focus would require a redirection of resources from other initiatives, the most significant being the co-op shooter game, initially scheduled for release during 2020 that has been impacted by scope changes due to external/market pressures with increasingly strong competition and internal delays,” the board writes, and if it goes ahead with its strategy, “It is likely that the Company will need additional financing to supplement the revenue generated from current operations.”

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China Roundup: TikTok stumbles in the US and Huawei shipments continue to surge

Posted by | alibaba, Android, Ant Financial, Apple, Asia, Beijing, bytedance, China, China Roundup, daniel zhang, huawei, kunlun, musical.ly, smartphones, TC, Tencent, tiktok, WeChat, WeWork | No Comments

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world. It’s been a very busy last week of October for China’s tech bosses, but first, let’s take a look at what some of them are doing in the neck of your woods.

TikTok’s troubles in the U.S.

The challenge facing TikTok, a burgeoning Chinese video-sharing app, continues to deepen in the U.S. Lawmakers have recently called for an investigation into the social network, which is operated by Beijing-based internet upstart ByteDance, over concerns that it could censor politically sensitive content and be compelled to turn American users’ data over to the Chinese government.

TikTok is arguably the first Chinese consumer app to have achieved international scale — more than 1 billion installs by February. It’s done so with a community of creators good at churning out snappy, light-hearted videos, highly localized operations and its acquisition of rival Musical.ly, which took American teens by storm. In contrast, WeChat has struggled to build up a significant overseas presence and Alibaba’s fintech affiliate Ant Financial has mostly ventured abroad through savvy investments.

TikTok denied the American lawmakers’ allegations in a statement last week, claiming that it stores all U.S. user data locally with backup redundancy in Singapore and that none of its data is subject to Chinese law. Shortly after, on November 1, Reuters reported citing sources that the U.S. government has begun to probe into ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly and is in talks with the firm about measures it could take to avoid selling Musical.ly . ByteDance had no further comment to add beyond the issued statement when contacted by TechCrunch.

The new media company must have seen the heat coming as U.S.-China tensions escalate in recent times. In the long term, TikTok might have better luck expanding in developing countries along China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s ambitious global infrastructure and investment strategy. The app already has a footprint in some 150 countries with a concentration in Asia. India accounted for 44% of its total installs as of September, followed by the U.S. at 8%, according to data analytics firm Sensor Tower.

lark

ByteDance is also hedging its bets by introducing a Slack-like workplace app and is reportedly marketing it to enterprises in the U.S. and other foreign countries. The question is, will ByteDance continue its heavy ad spending for TikTok in the U.S., which amounted to as much as $3 million a day according to a Wall Street Journal report, or will it throttle back as it’s said to go public anytime soon? Or rather, will it bow to U.S. pressure, much like Chinese internet firm Kunlun selling LGBTQ dating app Grindr (Kunlun confirmed this in a May filing), to offload Musical.ly?

Huawei is still selling a lot of phones

The other Chinese company that’s been taking the heat around the world appears to be faring better. Huawei clung on to the second spot in global smartphone shipments during the third quarter and recorded the highest annual growth out of the top-5 players at 29%, according to market analytics firm Canalys. Samsung, which came in first, rose 11%. Apple, in third place, fell 7%. Despite a U.S. ban on Huawei’s use of Android, the phone maker’s Q3 shipments consisted mostly of models already in development before the restriction was instated, said Canalys. It remains to be seen how distributors around the world will respond to Huawei’s post-ban smartphones.

Another interesting snippet of Huawei handset news is that it’s teamed up with a Beijing-based startup named ACRCloud to add audio recognition capabilities to its native music app. It’s a reminder that the company not only builds devices but has also been beefing up software development. Huawei Music has a content licensing deal with Tencent’s music arm and claims some 150 million monthly active users, both free and paid subscribers.

Co-living IPOs

danke apartment

China’s modern-day nomads want flexible and cost-saving housing as much as their American counterparts do. The demand has given rise to apartment-rental services like Danke, which is sometimes compared to WeLive, a residential offering from the now besieged WeWork that provides fully-furnished, shared apartments on a flexible schedule.

Four-year-old Danke has filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and listed its offering size at $100 million, typically a placeholder to calculate registration fees. Backed by Jack Ma-controlled Ant Financial, the loss-making startup is now leasing in 13 Chinese cities, aggressively growing the number of apartments it operated to 406,746 since 2015. Its smaller rival Qingke has also filed to go public in the U.S. this week. Also operating in the red, Qingke has expanded its available rental units to 91,234 since 2012.

Apartment rental is a capital-intensive game. Services like Danke don’t normally own property but instead lease from third-party apartment owners. That means they are tied to paying rents to the landlords irrespective of whether the apartments are ultimately subleased. They also bear large overhead costs from renovation and maintenance. Ultimately, it comes down to which player can arrange the most favorable terms with landlords and retain tenants by offering quality service and competitive rent.

Also worth your attention

  • WeChat has been quite restrained in monetization but seems to be recently lifting its commercial ambitions. The social networking giant, which already sells in-feed ads, is expanding its inventory by showing users geotargeted ads as they scroll through friends’ updates, Tencent announced (in Chinese) in a company post this week.
  • Alibaba reported a 40% revenue jump in its September quarter, beating analysts’ estimates despite a cooling domestic economy. Its ecommerce segment saw strong user growth in less developed areas where it’s fighting a fierce war with rival Pinduoduo to capture the next online opportunity. Users from these regions spent about 2,000 yuan ($284) in their first year on Alibaba platforms, said CEO Daniel Zhang in the earnings call.
  • Walmart’s digital integration is gaining ground in China as it announced (in Chinese) that online-to-offline commerce now contributes 30% sales to its neighboorhood stores. Last November, the American retail behemoth began testing same-day delivery in China through a partnership with WeChat.

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TikTok-parent is getting into mobile search

Posted by | Apps, Asia, Baidu, bytedance, China, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Mobile, Tencent, tiktok, Toutiao, WeChat | No Comments

China’s ByteDance, which owns popular video sharing app TikTok, is already working to enter the smartphone business and the music streaming space. It appears the world’s most valued startup also has ambitions about developing its own search engine. Kind of.

A company spokesperson told TechCrunch on Thursday that it has introduced a search function in ByteDance’s Toutiao news app.

“The function is in line with Toutiao’s mission of ‘information creates value.’ Users can try the function in the app and provide feedback and suggestions on the new function,” the spokesperson said.

The search function gleans information from both content on Toutiao as well as the entire world wide web, TechCrunch understands.

From the looks of it, ByteDance’s current search functionality is more alike WeChat’s in-app search function than local giant Baidu’s or Google’s offering.

On WeChat, when a person looks up a keyword, they see news articles about that topic, followed by mentions of it from their friends. This is followed by random articles about the subject. When a user clicks on any of these article or news links, WeChat serves them the page through its in-app browser, giving them no option to leave the walled-garden.

The idea is to change the way people think about — and use — a search engine altogether. And in China, where apps such as WeChat and TikTok have gained gigantic reach on mobile, it seems logical to add all new functionalities within those apps.

ByteDance’s interest in a search engine became public on Wednesday after it published a recruitment post on its WeChat account. The startup said its “search engine” is aimed at “hundreds of millions of mobile users in China.”

“We will build a universal search engine with a better user experience from 0 to 1. Only you don’t want to search, there is no [info] you can’t find, because we can search the whole network,” the company said in the post.

According to the description in the listing, ByteDance has already hired people from other search engines such as Google, Baidu, Bing and 360.

An analysis of LinkedIn listings by TechCrunch found more than 100 people from Google, Microsoft and Baidu, many of whom worked around search divisions at the previous companies, have joined ByteDance in recent quarters.

ByteDance following Tencent’s WeChat model to create its alternate search business may add more worries to Baidu, which currently holds more than 75% of the search engine market in China, according to third-party web service StatCounter Global Stat. Microsoft’s Bing is also operational in the country, though its market share remains in the low-single digits. Google currently does not offer its search feature in China — though it has attempted to change that in recent months to no luck.

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China to lose top spot to US in 2019 gaming market

Posted by | Activision Blizzard, Apple, China, Entertainment, Facebook, Gaming, Microsoft, mobile game, Nintendo, Sony, Tencent, WeChat | No Comments

China is losing its global lead in games. By the end of 2019, the U.S. will replace China as the world’s largest gaming market, with an estimated revenue of $36.9 billion, says a new report from research firm Newzoo.

This will mark the first time since 2015 that the U.S. will top the global gaming market, thanks to healthy domestic growth in consoles. Globally, Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo and other console games are on track to rise 13.4% in revenue this year. Driving the growth is the continued shift toward the games-as-a-service model, Newzoo points out, on top of a solid installed base across the current console generation and spending from new model releases.

China, on the other hand, suffered from a nine-month freeze on game licenses last year that significantly shrank the stream of new titles. Though applications have resumed, industry experts warn of a slower and stricter approval process that will continue to put the squeeze on new titles. Time limits imposed on underage players will also hurt earnings in the sector.

As a result of China’s slowdown, Asia-Pacific is no longer the fastest-growing region. Taking the crown is Latin America, which is enjoying a 10.4% compound annual growth.

Despite China’s licensing blackout, Tencent remained as the largest publicly listed gaming firm in 2018, pocketing $19.73 billion in revenue. Growth slowed to 9% compared to 51% from 2016 to 2017 at Tencent’s gaming division, but the Shenzhen-based company is back on track with new blockbuster Game for Peace (和平精英), a regulator-friendly version of PlayerUnknown’s Battleground, ready to monetize.

Trailing behind Tencent in the global ranking is Sony, Microsoft, Apple and Activision Blizzard.

Other key trends of the year:

Rise of instant games: Mini games played inside WeChat without installing another app are becoming mainstream in China. These games, which tend to have strong social elements and are easy to play, have attracted followers including Douyin (TikTok’s Chinese version) to create with their own offerings.

Facebook’s Instant Games have also come a long way since opening to outside developers in 2018. The platform now sees more than 30 billion game sessions played across over 7,000 titles. WeChat doesn’t use the same metrics, but for some context, the Chinese company boasted 400 million monthly players on mini games as of January.

Mobile momentum carries on: Mobile games will continue to outpace growth on PC and console in the coming years. As expected, emerging markets that are mobile-first and mobile-only will drive most of the boom in mobile gaming, which is on course to account for almost half (49%) of the entire sector by 2022. Part of the growth is driven by improved hardware and internet infrastructure, as well as a growing number of cross-platform titles.

Games in the cloud are here: It was a distant dream just a few years ago — being able to play some of the most demanding titles regardless of the hardware one owns. But the technology is closer than ever to coming true with faster internet speed and the imminent rollout of 5G networks. A few giants have already showcased their cloud gaming services over the last few months, with the likes of Google’s Stadia, Microsoft’s xCloud and Tencent’s Start slated to test the market.

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India’s most popular services are becoming super apps

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

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

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

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

Inspired by China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commanding attention

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big companies follow suit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Integrated entertainment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Reliance Jio, of course

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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