Microsoft

Daily Crunch: Microsoft-TikTok acquisition inches closer to reality

Posted by | Daily Crunch, Microsoft, Mobile, Policy, Social, tiktok | No Comments

A possible Microsoft TikTok acquisition is causing plenty of drama, we review Google’s new budget Pixel and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon returns to Earth. Here’s your Daily Crunch for August 3, 2020.

Microsoft-TikTok acquisition inches closer to reality

This weekend, Microsoft confirmed reports that it’s in talks to acquire TikTok, the popular mobile video app currently owned by Chinese company ByteDance. It sounds like the outcome of those talks may ultimately have less to do with Microsoft and more with President Donald Trump.

“Following a conversation between Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and President Donald J. Trump, Microsoft is prepared to continue discussions to explore a purchase of TikTok in the United States,” the company said in a statement. “Microsoft fully appreciates the importance of addressing the President’s concerns. It is committed to acquiring TikTok subject to a complete security review and providing proper economic benefits to the United States, including the United States Treasury.”

And indeed, Trump said today that he’s not opposed to an acquisition, but that “a very substantial portion of that price is going to have to come into the Treasury of the United States.” Meanwhile, Chinese internet users are calling ByteDance’s CEO a traitor.

The tech giants

Google’s budget Pixel 4a addresses its premium predecessor’s biggest problem — Brian Heater reviews the new $349 handset.

Facebook launches commerce and connectivity-focused accelerator programs — Facebook’s Commerce Accelerator will select 60 startups from the EMEA and LATAM regions, while Connectivity will feature 30 startups from LATAM and North America.

Adobe’s plans for an online content attribution standard could have big implications for misinformation — The project was first announced last November, and now the team has a whitepaper going into the nuts and bolts about how its system would work.

Startups, funding and venture capital

YC-backed Artifact looks to make podcasts more personal — Using professionally contracted interviewers, Artifact conducts short interviews with a person’s closest friends or family and turns them into a personal podcast.

Founded by a lifelong house-flipper, Inspectify is a marketplace for home inspections and repairs — Through the platform, buyers can instantly book inspections and receive repair estimates.

Mobile banking startup Varo is becoming a real bank — The company announced that it has been granted a national bank charter from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and secured regulatory approvals from the FDIC and Federal Reserve to open Varo Bank, N.A.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

The essential revenue software stack — Tim Porter and Elise La Cava of Madrona Ventures outline the set of services used by sales, marketing and growth teams across their portfolio to identify and manage their prospects and revenue.

Is the 2020 SPAC boom an echo of the 2017 ICO craze? — Alex Wilhelm looks at two new pieces of SPAC news.

After Shopify’s huge quarter, BigCommerce raises its IPO price range — BigCommerce now intends to price its IPO between $21 and $23 per share.

(Reminder: Extra Crunch is our subscription membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

SpaceX and NASA successfully return Crew Dragon spacecraft to Earth with astronauts on board — SpaceX’s Crew Dragon appears to have performed exactly as intended throughout the mission, handling the launch, ISS docking, undocking, de-orbit and splashdown in a fully automated process that kept the astronauts safe and secure throughout.

Original Content podcast: Netflix’s ‘Say I Do’ offers a wedding-focused twist on the ‘Queer Eye’ formula — I’m not someone who cares about weddings, but this show made me cry. Multiple times!

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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Microsoft’s new Flight Simulator is a beautiful work in progress

Posted by | artificial intelligence, barcelona, bing maps, computing, Gaming, Las Vegas, Microsoft, microsoft flight simulator, nvidia, San Francisco, Seattle, Software, TC | No Comments

For the last two weeks, I’ve been flying around the world in a preview of Microsoft’s new Flight Simulator. Without a doubt, it’s the most beautiful flight simulator yet, and it’ll make you want to fly low and slow over your favorite cities because — if you pick the right one — every street and house will be there in more detail than you’ve ever seen in a game. Weather effects, day and night cycles, plane models — it all looks amazing. You can’t start it up and not fawn over the graphics.

But the new Flight Simulator is also still very much a work in progress, too, even just a few weeks before the scheduled launch date on August 18. It’s officially still in beta, so there’s still time to fix at least some of the issues I list below. Because Microsoft and Asobo Studios, which was responsible for the development of the simulator, are using Microsoft’s AI tech in Azure to automatically generate much of the scenery based on Microsoft’s Bing Maps data, you’ll find a lot of weirdness in the world. There are taxiway lights in the middle of runways, giant hangars and crew buses at small private fields, cars randomly driving across airports, giant trees growing everywhere (while palms often look like giant sticks), bridges that are either under water or big blocks of black over a river — and there are a lot of sunken boats, too.

When the system works well, it’s absolutely amazing. Cities like Barcelona, Berlin, San Francisco, Seattle, New York and others that are rendered using Microsoft’s photogrammetry method look great — including and maybe especially at night.

Image Credits: Microsoft

The rendering engine on my i7-9700K with an Nvidia 2070 Super graphics card never let the frame rate drop under 30 frames per second (which is perfectly fine for a flight simulator) and usually hovered well over 40, all with the graphics setting pushed up to the maximum and with a 2K resolution.

When things don’t work, though, the effect is stark because it’s so obvious. Some cities, like Las Vegas, look like they suffered some kind of catastrophe, as if the city was abandoned and nature took over (which in the case of the Vegas Strip doesn’t sound like such a bad thing, to be honest).

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Thankfully, all of this is something that Microsoft and Asobo can fix. They’ll just need to adjust their algorithms, and because a lot of the data is streamed, the updates should be virtually automatic. The fact that they haven’t done so yet is a bit of a surprise.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Chances are you’ll want to fly over your house the day you get Flight Simulator. If you live in the right city (and the right part of that city), you’ll likely be lucky and actually see your house with its individual texture. But for some cities, including London, for example, the game only shows standard textures, and while Microsoft does a good job at matching the outlines of buildings in cities where it doesn’t do photogrammetry, it’s odd that London or Amsterdam aren’t on that list (though London apparently features a couple of wind turbines in the city center now), while Münster, Germany is.

Once you reach altitude, all of those problems obviously go away (or at least you won’t see them). But given the graphics, you’ll want to spend a lot of time at 2,000 feet or below.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

What really struck me in playing the game in its current state is how those graphical inconsistencies set the standard for the rest of the experience. The team says its focus is 100% on making the simulator as realistic as possible, but then the virtual air traffic control often doesn’t use standard phraseology, for example, or fails to hand you off to the right departure control when you leave a major airport. The airplane models look great and feel pretty close to real (at least the ones I’ve flown myself), but some currently show the wrong airspeed. Some planes use modern glass cockpits with the Garmin 1000 and G3X, but those still feel severely limited.

But let me be clear here. Despite all of this, even in its beta state, Flight Simulator is a technical marvel and it will only get better over time.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Let’s walk through the user experience a bit. The install on PC (the Xbox version will come at some point in the future) is a process that downloads a good 90GB so that you can play offline as well. The install process asks you if you are okay with streaming data, too, and that can quickly add up. After reinstalling the game and doing a few flights for screenshots, the game had downloaded about 10GB already — it adds up quickly and is something you should be aware of if you’re on a metered connection.

Once past the long install, you’ll be greeted by a menu screen that lets you start a new flight, go for one of the landing challenges or other activities the team has set up (they are really proud of their Courchevel scenery) and go through the games’ flight training program.

Image Credits: Microsoft

That training section walks you through eight activities that will help you get the basics of flying a Cessna 152. Most take fewer than 10 minutes and you’ll get a bit of a de-brief after, but I’m not sure it’s enough to keep a novice from getting frustrated quickly (while more advanced players will just skip this section altogether anyway).

I mostly spent my time flying the small general aviation planes in the sim, but if you prefer a Boeing 747 or Airbus 320neo, you get that option, too, as well as some turboprops and business jets. I’ll spend some more time with those before the official launch. All of the planes are beautifully detailed inside and out and except for a few bugs, everything works as expected.

To actually start playing, you’ll head for the world map and choose where you want to start your flight. What’s nice here is that you can pick any spot on your map, not just airports. That makes it easy to start flying over a city, for example. As you zoom into the map, you can see airports and landmarks (where the landmarks are either real sights like Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle or cities that have photogrammetry data). If a town doesn’t have photogrammetry data, it will not appear on the map.

As of now, the flight planning features are pretty basic. For visual flights, you can go direct or VOR to VOR, and that’s it. For IFR flights, you choose low or high-altitude airways. You can’t really adjust any of these, just accept what the simulator gives you. That’s not really how flight planning works (at the very least you would want to take the local weather into account), so it would be nice if you could customize your route a bit more. Microsoft partnered with NavBlue for airspace data, though the built-in maps don’t do much with this data and don’t even show you the vertical boundaries of the airspace you are in.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

It’s always hard to compare the plane models and how they react to the real thing. Best I can tell, at least the single-engine Cessnas that I’m familiar with mostly handle in the same way I would expect them to in reality. Rudder controls feel a bit overly sensitive by default, but that’s relatively easy to adjust. I only played with a HOTAS-style joystick and rudder setup. I wouldn’t recommend playing with a mouse and keyboard, but your mileage may vary.

Live traffic works well, but none of the general aviation traffic around my local airports seems to show up, even though Microsoft partner FlightAware shows it.

As for the real/AI traffic in general, the sim does a pretty good job managing that. In the beta, you won’t really see the liveries of any real airlines yet — at least for the most part — I spotted the occasional United plane in the latest builds. Given some of Microsoft’s own videos, more are coming soon. Except for the built-in models you can fly in the sim, Flight Simulator is still missing a library of other airplane models for AI traffic, though again, I would assume that’s in the works, too.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

We’re three weeks out from launch. I would expect the team to be able to fix many of these issues and we’ll revisit all of them for our final review. My frustration with the current state of the game is that it’s so often so close to perfect that when it falls short of that, it’s especially jarring because it yanks you out of the experience.

Don’t get me wrong, though, flying in FS2020 is already a great experience. Even when there’s no photogrammetry, cities and villages look great once you get over 3,000 feet or so. The weather and cloud simulation — in real time — beats any add-on for today’s flight simulators. Airports still need work, but having cars drive around and flaggers walking around planes that are pushing back help make the world feel more alive. Wind affects the waves on lakes and oceans (and windsocks on airports). This is truly a next-generation flight simulator.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Microsoft and Asobo have to walk a fine line between making Flight Simulator the sim that hardcore fans want and an accessible game that brings in new players. I’ve played every version of Flight Simulator since the 90s, so getting started took exactly zero time. My sense is that new players simply looking for a good time may feel a bit lost at first, despite Microsoft adding landing challenges and other more gamified elements to the sim. In a press briefing, the Asobo team regularly stressed that it aimed for realism over anything else — and I’m perfectly okay with that. We’ll have to see if that translates to being a fun experience for casual players, too.

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Microsoft showcases gameplay from ‘Halo Infinite’ and other Xbox Series X titles

Posted by | Gaming, Microsoft, xbox, xbox series x | No Comments

Last month Sony showcased gameplay from a slew of upcoming PlayStation 5 titles, including Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Stray and NBA 2K21. Today it was Microsoft’s turn. The company announced 13 titles for the Xbox Series X back in May, but today it gave gamers the best look at what the next-gen console will have to offer when it arrives at the end of the year.

Like Sony, the company promised to offer some actual gameplay from the upcoming titles, though plenty of standard gaming trailers were also on display at the virtual event. Xbox chief Phil Spencer kicked things off by noting that there would be titles from 9 of 15 Xbox developers on display, including five first-party games.

As expected, the company kicked off with the latest version of Halo, because, hey, it wouldn’t be an Xbox release without one. Halo Infinite got a substantial portion of the spotlight, with extended gameplay from the start of the title. 

The company says the title will be “several times larger” than the last few Halo titles combined. More big Bungie news, with the arrival of Destiny 2 on the Xbox Game Pass. The title will be available free to Game Pass subscribers later this year. 

Rare’s Everwild was one of the biggest surprise hits of the event — and easily one of the most striking. The title was offered up as a preview trailer late last month, but the developer offered up a better look at the dreamy, psychedelic game.

Another Xbox mainstay, Forza, also got some time at the top of the event. With the Motorsport name, the game bucks the standard number system of the past several entries in the popular racing title. The game will run at 60 FPS in 4K and will utilize the system’s ray tracing tech for improved graphics. The title is likely to debut at some point next year.

Another in a long line of date-less titles is the latest entry in the popular zombie series, State of Decay. The third installment didn’t get much info beyond that, but did get the lovely above cinematic trailer.

Arriving this month for PC and Xbox One, Grounded is a delightful Honey, I Shrunk the Kids-style backyard adventure. An Xbox Series X release is also scheduled. Today’s event closed out with a fairy getting swallowed by a frog for an extremely quick preview of Playground Game’s Fable IV.

 

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Typewise taps $1M to build an offline next word prediction engine

Posted by | Android, Apple, Apps, artificial intelligence, Data Mining, Elon Musk, eth, Europe, Fundings & Exits, gmail, Google, machine learning, Microsoft, ML, Mobile, mobile app, mobile device, operating systems, oracle, privacy, Salesforce, sap, smartphones, SwiftKey, switzerland, Typewise, zurich | No Comments

Swiss keyboard startup Typewise has bagged a $1 million seed round to build out a typo-busting, ‘privacy-safe’ next word prediction engine designed to run entirely offline. No cloud connectivity, no data mining risk is the basic idea.

They also intend the tech to work on text inputs made on any device, be it a smartphone or desktop, a wearable, VR — or something weirder that Elon Musk might want to plug into your brain in future.

For now they’ve got a smartphone keyboard app that’s had around 250,000 downloads — with some 65,000 active users at this point.

The seed funding breaks down into $700K from more than a dozen local business angels; and $340K via the Swiss government through a mechanism (called “Innosuisse projects“), akin to a research grant, which is paying for the startup to employ machine learning experts at Zurich’s ETH research university to build out the core AI.

The team soft launched a smartphone keyboard app late last year, which includes some additional tweaks (such as an optional honeycomb layout they tout as more efficient; and the ability to edit next word predictions so the keyboard quickly groks your slang) to get users to start feeding in data to build out their AI.

Their main focus is on developing an offline next word prediction engine which could be licensed for use anywhere users are texting, not just on a mobile device.

“The goal is to develop a world-leading text prediction engine that runs completely on-device,” says co-founder David Eberle. “The smartphone keyboard really is a first use case. It’s great to test and develop our algorithms in a real-life setting with tens of thousands of users. The larger play is to bring word/sentence completion to any application that involves text entry, on mobiles or desktop (or in future also wearables/VR/Brain-Computer Interfaces).

“Currently it’s pretty much only Google working on this (see Gmail’s auto completion feature). Applications such as Microsoft Teams, Slack, Telegram, or even SAP, Oracle, Salesforce would want such productivity increase – and at that level privacy/data security matters a lot. Ultimately we envision that every “human-machine interface” is, at least on the text-input level, powered by Typewise.”

You’d be forgiven for thinking all this sounds a bit retro, given the earlier boom in smartphone AI keyboards — such as SwiftKey (now owned by Microsoft).

The founders have also pushed specific elements of their current keyboard app — such as the distinctive honeycomb layout — before, going down a crowdfunding route back in 2015, when they were calling the concept Wrio. But they reckon it’s now time to go all in — hence relaunching the business as Typewise and shooting to build a licensing business for offline next word prediction.

“We’ll use the funds to develop advanced text predictions… first launching it in the keyboard app and then bringing it to the desktop to start building partnerships with relevant software vendors,” says Eberle, noting they’re working on various enhancements to the keyboard app and also plan to spend on marketing to try to hit 1M active users next year.

“We have more ‘innovative stuff’ [incoming] on the UX side as well, e.g. interacting with auto correction (so the user can easily intervene when it does something wrong — in many countries users just turn it off on all keyboards because it gets annoying), gamifying the general typing experience (big opportunity for kids/teenagers, also making them more aware of what and how they type), etc.”

The competitive landscape around smartphone keyboard tech, largely dominated by tech giants, has left room for indie plays, is the thinking. Nor is Typewise the only startup thinking that way (Fleksy has similar ambitions, for one). However gaining traction vs such giants — and over long established typing methods — is the tricky bit.

Android maker Google has ploughed resource into its Gboard AI keyboard — larding it with features. While, on iOS, Apple’s interface for switching to a third party keyboard is infamously frustrating and finicky; the opposite of a seamless experience. Plus the native keyboard offers next word prediction baked in — and Apple has plenty of privacy credit. So why would a user bother switching is the problem there.

Competing for smartphone users’ fingers as an indie certainly isn’t easy. Alternative keyboard layouts and input mechanism are always a very tough sell as they disrupt people’s muscle memory and hit mobile users hard in their comfort and productivity zone. Unless the user is patient and/or stubborn enough to stick with a frustratingly different experience they’ll soon ditch for the keyboard devil they know.  (‘Qwerty’ is an ancient typewriter layout turned typing habit we English speakers just can’t kick.)

Given all that, Typewise’s retooled focus on offline next word prediction to do white label b2b licensing makes more sense — assuming they can pull off the core tech.

And, again, they’re competing at a data disadvantage on that front vs more established tech giant keyboard players, even as they argue that’s also a market opportunity.

“Google and Microsoft (thanks to the acquisition of SwiftKey) have a solid technology in place and have started to offer text predictions outside of the keyboard; many of their competitors, however, will want to embed a proprietary (difficult to build) or independent technology, especially if their value proposition is focused on privacy/confidentiality,” Eberle argues.

“Would Telegram want to use Google’s text predictions? Would SAP want that their clients’ data goes through Microsoft’s prediction algorithms? That’s where we see our right to win: world-class text predictions that run on-device (privacy) and are made in Switzerland (independent environment, no security back doors, etc).”

Early impressions of Typewise’s next word prediction smarts (gleaned by via checking out its iOS app) are pretty low key (ha!). But it’s v1 of the AI — and Eberle talks bullishly of having “world class” developers working on it.

“The collaboration with ETH just started a few weeks ago and thus there are no significant improvements yet visible in the live app,” he tells TechCrunch. “As the collaboration runs until the end of 2021 (with the opportunity of extension) the vast majority of innovation is still to come.”

He also tells us Typewise is working with ETH’s Prof. Thomas Hofmann (chair of the Data Analytic Lab, formerly at Google), as well as having has two PhDs in NLP/ML and one MSc in ML contributing to the effort.

“We get exclusive rights to the [ETH] technology; they don’t hold equity but they get paid by the Swiss government on our behalf,” Eberle also notes. 

Typewise says its smartphone app supports more than 35 languages. But its next word prediction AI can only handle English, German, French, Italian and Spanish at this point. The startup says more are being added.

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Microsoft’s Flight Simulator 2020 will launch on August 18

Posted by | alpha, artificial intelligence, cloud technology, computing, denver, Frankfurt, Gaming, Heathrow, Microsoft, microsoft flight simulator, PC Games, San Francisco, simulation, TC, video games, x-plane, xbox, Xbox One | No Comments

After a series of closed alpha tests, Microsoft’s Xbox Game Studios and Asobo Studio today announced that the next-gen Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 will launch on August 18. Pre-orders are now live and FS 2020 will come in three editions, standard ($59.99), deluxe ($89.99) and premium deluxe ($119.99), with the more expensive versions featuring more planes and handcrafted international airports.

The last part may come as a bit of a surprise, given that Microsoft and Asobo are using assets from Bing Maps and some AI magic on Azure to essentially recreate the Earth — and all of its airports — in Flight Simulator 2020. Still, the team must have spent some extra time on making some of these larger airports especially realistic and today, if you were to buy even one of these larger airports as an add-on for Flight Simulator X or X-Plane, you’d easily be spending $30 or more.

The default edition features 20 planes and 30 hand-modeled airports, while the deluxe edition bumps that up to 25 planes and 35 airports and the high-end version comes with 30 planes and 40 airports.

Among those airports not modeled in all their glorious detail in the default edition (they are still available there, by the way — just without some of the extra detail) are the likes of Amsterdam Schiphol, Chicago O’Hare, Denver, Frankfurt, Heathrow and San Francisco.

The same holds true for planes, with the 787 only available in the deluxe package, for example. Still, based on what Asobo has shown in its regular updates so far, even the 20 planes in the standard edition have been modeled in far more detail than in previous versions, and maybe even beyond what some add-ons provide today.

Image Credits: Microsoft

Because a lot of what Microsoft and Adobo are doing here involves using cloud technology to, for example, stream some of the more detailed scenery to your computer on demand, chances are we’ll see regular content updates for these various editions as well, though the details here aren’t yet clear.

“Your fleet of planes and detailed airports from whatever edition you choose are all available on launch day as well as access to the ongoing content updates that will continually evolve and expand the flight simulation platform,” is what Microsoft has to say about this for the time being.

Chances are we will get more details in the coming weeks, as Flight Simulator 2020 is about to enter its closed beta phase.

Image Credits: Microsoft

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Microsoft kills Mixer, will push users to Facebook Gaming

Posted by | game streaming, Gaming, Microsoft, microsoft mixer, TC | No Comments

Microsoft is killing its Twitch competitor Mixer next month and is partnering with Facebook to push its users toward the Facebook Gaming service.

The app is winding down on July 22. The sudden move comes after Microsoft has dumped considerable efforts into its gaming-centric streaming service, acquiring streaming rights to some of the biggest esports personalities like Ninja and Shroud. Microsoft couldn’t spend its way into meaningfully competition with Amazon’s Twitch and Alphabet’s YouTube Gaming.

The company launched its Mixer service in 2017 after acquiring the gaming startup Beam Interactive in 2016.

Microsoft announced that when the service sunsets, it will be transitioning partnerships to Facebook Gaming and redirecting its users to the service as well. The partnership between the two is a T-Mobile and Sprint partnership of sorts, as the two were clearly trailing far behind the YouTube Gaming/Twitch duopoly. The Facebook partnership goes deeper than just watching streams; Microsoft will integrate their xCloud game-streaming service into Facebook Gaming so users can quickly play titles that they see inside the service.

According to an interview in The Verge, top streamers like Ninja won’t be forced to migrate to Facebook Gaming and will be able to rejoin Twitch if they choose. Microsoft’s gaming chief Phil Spencer pinned the shutdown on the service’s inability to catch up with competitors:

We started pretty far behind, in terms of where Mixer’s monthly active viewers were compared to some of the big players out there,” says Phil Spencer, Microsoft’s head of gaming, in an interview with The Verge. “I think the Mixer community is really going to benefit from the broad audience that Facebook has through their properties, and the abilities to reach gamers in a very seamless way through the social platform Facebook has.

According to data from SensorTower, year-to-date downloads of the app on the App Store and Google Play were down 23% in 2020 compared to the same period of 2019, with the app seeing 3.4 million downloads this year. The company says their data shows that the app has been installed about 21 million times in total.

The announcement came in the midst of Apple’s WWDC keynote, so fair to say that Microsoft was likely aiming to minimize attention on this high-profile shutdown.

 

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How Reliance Jio Platforms became India’s biggest telecom network

Posted by | Apple, Apps, Asia, bharti airtel, Extra Crunch, Facebook, india, Mark Zuckerberg, Market Analysis, Media, Microsoft, Mobile, Mukesh Ambani, payments, reliance industries, telecom, Venture Capital, vodafone, Vodafone Idea, Xiaomi | No Comments

It’s raised $5.7 billion from Facebook. It’s taken $1.5 billion from KKR, another $1.5 billion from Vista Equity Partners, $1.5 billion from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund$1.35 billion from Silver Lake, $1.2 billion from Mubadala, $870 million from General Atlantic, $750 million from Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, $600 million from TPG, and $250 million from L Catterton.

And it’s done all that in just nine weeks.

India’s Reliance Jio Platforms is the world’s most ambitious tech company. Founder Mukesh Ambani has made it his dream to provide every Indian with access to affordable and comprehensive telecommunications services, and Jio has so far proven successful, attracting nearly 400 million subscribers in just a few years.

The unparalleled growth of Reliance Jio Platforms, a subsidiary of India’s most-valued firm (Reliance Industries), has shocked rivals and spooked foreign tech companies such as Google and Amazon, both of which are now reportedly eyeing a slice of one of the world’s largest telecom markets.

What can we learn from Reliance Jio Platforms’s growth? What does the future hold for Jio and for India’s tech startup ecosystem in general?

Through a series of reports, Extra Crunch is going to investigate those questions. We previously profiled Mukesh Ambani himself, and in today’s installment, we are going to look at how Reliance Jio went from a telco upstart to the dominant tech company in four years.

The birth of a new empire

Months after India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, launched his telecom network Reliance Jio, Sunil Mittal of Airtel — his chief rival — was struggling in public to contain his frustration.

That Ambani would try to win over subscribers by offering them free voice calling wasn’t a surprise, Mittal said at the World Economic Forum in January 2017. But making voice calls and the bulk of 4G mobile data completely free for seven months clearly “meant that they have not gotten the attention they wanted,” he said, hopeful the local regulator would soon intervene.

This wasn’t the first time Ambani and Mittal were competing directly against each other: in 2002, Ambani had launched a telecommunications company and sought to win the market by distributing free handsets.

In India, carrier lock-in is not popular as people prefer pay-as-you-go voice and data plans. But luckily for Mittal in their first go around, Ambani’s journey was cut short due to a family feud with his brother — read more about that here.

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In spite of an uncertain economy, US video game sales remain strong

Posted by | Animal Crossing, coronavirus, covid-10, Gaming, Microsoft, Nintendo, npd, playstation, Sony, Switch, xbox | No Comments

May marked another extremely strong month for gaming sales, according to the latest figures from NPD. Between software, hardware, accessories and game cards, Americans spent around $977 million. That’s a 57% jump since the year prior and the highest it’s been for the month since 2008, when the country was feeling the strain of the Great Recession.

All of this is made more remarkable by the fact that the United States has been struggling with COVID-19-related pains for months now. This week, another 1.5 million Americans filed for unemployment, bringing the total number to 44.2 million since the beginning of shutdowns. But as countless other venues for non-essential spending have suffered, gaming has thrived.

It’s clear that games are how Americans are choosing to spend whatever sort of disposable income they might have, as they’re stuck at home, away from other humans. And that spending has continued for a few months now, even after Microsoft and Sony have begun hyping their next-generation consoles — both due at at the end of the year.

That, perhaps, is part of why Nintendo continued to dominate console sales with the Switch, in spite of hardware shortages. Animal Crossing: New Horizons remained the top-selling title for the console (and third over all), owing to the online cult it has amassed through social-first gameplay. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Grand Theft Auto V took the No. 1 and No. 2 spots, respectively, on both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

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Minecraft Dungeons has charm and potential, but needs lot more time in the furnace

Posted by | Gaming, Microsoft, Minecraft, minecraft dungeons, Reviews, TC | No Comments

Minecraft is one of the most popular games on the planet, so it’s natural that Microsoft, after buying creator Mojang some years back, would attempt to apply the genre’s playful, blocky aesthetic to other genres. After modest success with the Story Mode adventure game and Pokémon GO-like Minecraft Earth, they’ve tried their hand at a light action-RPG à la Diablo — and unfortunately come up rather short. For now, that is.

Minecraft Dungeons is a sort of my-first-dungeon-crawler type game, a friendly, streamlined version of the genre Diablo created where players enter a procedurally created dungeon or region, kill some monsters, get some loot, make it out alive and do it all over again.

That’s the idea in this game as well, but of course the whole thing uses the block-based look and feel of Minecraft. As you travel through different biomes to free villagers, destroy ancient forges and so on, everything from the levels and monsters to equipment and potions looks like it came straight out of the original game. They nailed the look perfectly.

It’s refreshing, because games like this tend to court a rather grim aesthetic, and when it comes to gameplay they pile on features and mechanics until it feels more like you’re playing a spreadsheet than a game. It’s clear from the start Minecraft Dungeons was intended to provide the fun of fighting, upgrading and exploring without the overly complex and dark trappings of the genre.

For instance, instead of having a handful of character classes each with their own skill tree, everything your character can do depends on their equipment. Weapons, armor and accessories all have unique bonuses and abilities. So if you want to be a bow and arrow-type fighter, wear the Ranger armor that gives you extra-ranged damage and ammo, and use accessories that empower your arrows. Want to be a melee guy? There’s armor and swords for that too.

Customization of your play style, an important part of these games, is achieved by judicious choice of a set of random upgrades on each item. When you gain a level, you get a point that can be used to activate, say, a passive ability that deflects enemy projectiles 20% of the time. Then it costs two points to upgrade it again, so it deflects 30% of the time.

You get those points back when you trash the item and can reapply them to a new one, providing low-risk, low-commitment progress — in time you’ll have lots of points banked to upgrade and experiment with whatever new item you find.

This approach is really a breath of fresh air after the convoluted overlapping systems of the likes of Diablo, Grim Dawn and Path of Exile. There was just the right amount of “this new sword is tempting but do really I want to recycle my old one?” tension, and although you will collect trash loot, it’s easy to check and dispose of.

I didn’t get a chance to test multiplayer, but the game is definitely designed with co-adventuring in mind. Couch co-op lets you drop in a second player with a controller or connect online with others on the same platform (cross-play is coming soon). A cross-platform casual dungeon crawler is something I’ve been wanting for a long time.

It’s too bad, then, that this is where the game runs out of really positive qualities. I’m keeping in mind that this is a $20 game designed with players new to the genre in mind — not to say kids exactly — so there’s no sense comparing it directly to a major mainstream gaming franchise. But even so, Minecraft Dungeons has some serious issues.

For one thing, it really needs more variety. Part of the fun of these games is traveling from region to region and fighting new types of monsters with different tactics and abilities. That really just isn’t there in this game. The 10 different areas are visually distinct, yes, but they’re linear, similar from one run to another, and don’t differ all that much gameplay-wise. One aspect of Minecraft I’ve always loved, exploration, is nearly absent. Getting up on a hill or down in some little valley or cavern you can see usually isn’t possible — they’re just walls or bottomless pits. Side paths often run quite a distance, but I eventually learned to stopped taking them because they were frequently empty and it always took forever to backtrack afterwards.

You’ll run into the same zombies, spiders and soldiers over and over, and get the same weapons and accessories dropped over and over, often with very similar stats. Although there seems to be a good variety at first, the abilities and weapons don’t seem particularly well-balanced, with some obviously and objectively better than others. Some are basically useless: One ability gives you a speedup for a few seconds after you dodge — but the game also slows you down for a few seconds after you roll, so they kind of just cancel each other out. Another returns a third of one percent of your health for every 100 blocks you uncover in the game. What?

This wouldn’t be an issue if the game had better difficulty tuning. I found in my playthrough that there was no challenge whatsoever 99% of the time, and then suddenly a situation would arise where I would be nearly instantly killed. These weren’t lesson-teaching deaths like other games — just sudden confluences of bad luck and, it must be said, some poor design.

Ranged attacks from enemies will often come from off-screen, for instance. And not just a stray arrow, but many simultaneously. Enemy projectiles also go through all other enemies, unlike your own, and are very difficult to dodge, especially when there are a dozen coming from different angles. So sometimes after spending the whole level barely taking a hit, you’re reduced to an emergency situation in a fraction of a second, with very little warning, by enemies you haven’t had a chance to react to or perhaps even see. The close-zoom camera shows details well but limits your understanding of what’s happening around you.

These brutal difficulty spikes aren’t always accidental. One enemy kept popping up that repeatedly spawned huge numbers of bear traps under my character’s feet that closed before any but a really expert player could be expected to dodge. Bosses are cheap, swarming players with minions, storms of enormous projectiles, and instant, undodgeable melee attacks.

The issue here isn’t just that it’s hard, but that the game doesn’t give you the tools you need to deal with it. Dodging feels clumsy and enemies block your movement; there is little in the way of active defense like a shield or accessory you activate to repel arrows for 5 seconds; you only have one slowly recharging healing potion and health doesn’t trickle back, so little mistakes add up over time. Not that it matters, since punishment is usually swift and extreme.

What all this amounts to is a game that alternates between monotonous and frustratingly hard, even for a fan of the genre like myself. And considering you’ll run through all the areas in the game in a handful of hours — there are 10 areas, each of which takes perhaps 20 minutes to clear — it’s expected that you’ll repeat them over and over to reach the gear level required to beat the final boss. I got all the way to that point and was insta-killed twice in a row.

I repeated a few areas but found them nearly indistinguishable from their earlier iterations. Ultimately I just wasn’t motivated to grind away just so I could unlock another, likely even more unfair, difficulty level.

I wouldn’t complain so much if this wasn’t, ostensibly, a game for beginners. Minecraft Dungeons innovates and simplifies in some really laudable ways, but the moment-to-moment game design is too uneven and the variety on offer isn’t enough even for a $20 game.

But it must be said that Minecraft itself also started out rather bare-bones and was built up over time into something remarkable and almost infinite. There are two DLC packs in the works for Dungeons, one rather crassly visible from the very start — nothing like being asked to pay more for a game you just bought. The good news is these packs will grow the game to a size that feels more like an adventure and less like a demo. I also expect that patches over the coming weeks and months will considerably tweak the equipment and difficulty — it can be, and needs to be, fixed.

A year from now Minecraft Dungeons could very well be a no-brainer purchase, a cross-platform casual hack-and-slash that you can play with your kids or your friends and have a great time without thinking too hard about it (or opening Excel). But right now it’s mostly potential. I’d hold off on picking this one up until it has been made into the game it’s meant to be.

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US video game sales have record quarter as consumers stay at home

Posted by | Animal Crossing, Companies, coronavirus, COVID-19, driver, Electronic Arts, entertainment software association, Gaming, Microsoft, new horizons, Nintendo, Nintendo Switch, npd, Sony, United States, video game, Virtual reality | No Comments

New numbers from NPD confirm what we’ve known for a while: The first quarter of 2020 was a very good one for gaming companies. The new report notes that sales hit a record $10.86 billion in the States between January and March of this year, marking a 9% increase over a year prior; $9.58 billion of that figure was from video game content.

The primary driver is, you guessed it, COVID-19. As stay at home orders have been enacted on the federal and state levels, people are coping with the ongoing daily horror that is life in 2020 by playing video games. Lots and lots of video games.

Here’s NPD’s Mat Piscatella further confirming our suspicions: “Video Games have brought comfort and connection to millions during this challenging time. As people have stayed at home more, they’ve utilized gaming not only as a diversion and an escape, but also as a means of staying connected with family and friends. Whether it was on console or mobile, PC or virtual reality, gaming experienced play and sales growth during the first quarter.”

According to NPD’s Q1 2020 Games Market Dynamics: U.S. report, overall total industry consumer spending on #videogaming in the U.S. reached a record $10.86 billion in the first quarter of 2020 (Jan. – Mar.), an increase of 9 percent compared to the same time period last year.

— NPD Games (@npdgames) May 15, 2020

That last bit is, in part, key to many consumers’ choice of game titles. As already noted by the firm, Animal Crossing: New Horizons had its own record-setting first quarter. That, in turn, helped drive Switch sales, in spite of Nintendo’s well-documented supply issues. The title arrived just in the nick of time for stay at home orders in the U.S., delivering a kind of front-facing social experience that much of the competition lacks. Also, turnips.

Matter of fact, the Switch’s success actually helped supplement losses of other platforms. Microsoft and Sony will no doubt make up gains at the end of the year with their next-gen consoles. For now, however, many consumers are likely holding out until their holiday arrives to invest in Xbox or PlayStation hardware, in spite of the pandemic. The U.S.’s soaring unemployment rate no doubt also had an impact on the industry’s bottom line.

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