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Surging costs send shares of ecommerce challenger Pinduoduo down 17 percent

Posted by on Mar 14, 2019 in alibaba, alibaba group, Amazon, Asia, bytedance, China, e-book, E-Commerce, Earnings, eCommerce, online marketplaces, Qutoutiao, shanghai, supply chain, tiktok | 0 comments

China’s new tech force Pinduoduo is continuing its race to upend the ecommerce space, even at the expense of its finances. The three-year-old startup earmarked some big wins from the 2018 fiscal year, but losses were even greater, dragging its shares down 17 percent on Wednesday after the firm released its latest earnings results.

The Shanghai-based company is famous for offering cheap group deals and it’s able to keep prices down by sourcing directly from manufacturers and farmers, cutting out middleman costs. In 2018, the company saw its gross merchandise value, referring to total sales regardless of whether the items were actually sold, delivered or returned, jump 234 percent to 471.6 billion yuan ($68.6 billion). Fourth-quarter annual active buyers increased 71 percent to 418.5 million, during which monthly active users nearly doubled to 272.6 million.

These figures should have industry pioneers Alibaba and JD sweating. In the twelve months ended December 31, JD fell behind Pinduoduo with a smaller AAU base of 305 million. Alibaba still held a lead over its peers with 636 million AAUs, though its year-over-year growth was a milder 23 percent.

But Pinduoduo also saw heavy financial strain in the past year as it drifted away from becoming profitable. Operating loss soared to 10.8 billion ($1.57 billion), compared to just under 600 million yuan in the year-earlier period. Fourth-quarter operating loss widened a staggering 116 times to 2.64 billion yuan ($384 million), up from 22 million yuan a year ago.

Pinduoduo is presenting a stark contrast to consistently profitable Alibaba, which generates the bulk of its income from charging advertising fees on its marketplaces. This light-asset approach grants Alibaba wider profit margins than its arch-foe JD, which controls most of the supply chain like Amazon and makes money from direct sales. Pinduoduo seeks out a path similar to Alibaba’s and monetizes through marketing services, but its latest financial results showed that mounting costs have tempered a supposedly lucrative model.

Where did the ecommerce challenger spend its money? Pinduoduo’s total operating expenses from 2018 stood at 21 billion yuan ($3 billion), of which 13.4 billion yuan went to sales and marketing expenses such as TV commercials and discounts for users. Administration alongside research and development made up the remaining costs.

Pinduoduo’s spending spree recalls the path of another up-and-coming Chinese tech startup, Qutoutiao . Like Pinduoduo, Qutoutiao has embarked on a cash-intensive journey by burning billions of dollars to acquire users. The scheme worked, and Qutoutiao, which runs a popular news app and a growing e-book service, is effectively challenging ByteDance (TikTok’s parent company) in smaller Chinese cities where many veteran tech giants lack dominance.

Offering ultra-cheap items is a smart bet for Pinduoduo to lock in price-intensive consumers in unpenetrated, smaller cities, but it’s way too soon to know whether this kind of expensive growth will hold out long-term.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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A government propaganda app is going viral in China

Posted by on Feb 1, 2019 in alibaba, Apps, Asia, bytedance, China, Government, Instant messenger, Messenger, New Years Day, Propaganda, tiktok, Toutiao, Xi Jinping | 0 comments

Besides binge-watching TikTok videos and battling enemies in the magical land of mobile games, many Chinese people may also pass time during the upcoming Lunar New Year on Xuexi Qiangguo, a news and chat app developed by the country’s top ideology officials.

The app managed to top the Chinese App Store between January 22 and 25 before two ByteDance apps pushed it down to the third place this week, download statistics from App Annie shows. At a glance, the news section is almost exclusively about the Communist Party and president Xi Jinping.

xuexi qiangguo

The app is almost exclusively about the Communist Party and president Xi Jinping.

It doubles as an instant messenger, with development support provided by Alibaba’s Dingtalk enterprise communications tool. That means users can log in via their Dingtalk account and chat with their Dingtalk contacts directly over Xuexi Qiangguo. Alibaba explains this is a “regular business collaboration” between Dingtalk’s open platform and a third-party developer.

xuexi qiangguo

The app doubles as a messenger with technical support provided by Alibaba’s Dingtalk.

Directly translated as “studying strengthens the nation,” Xuexi Qiangguo is the product of a research center under China’s Publicity Department, an important organ in charge of how information disseminates in the country. The digital weapon underscores the Communist Party’s growing efforts in recent years to appeal to phone-savvy generations, though the app seems to have peaked.

As of February 1, the iOS version of Xuexi Qiangguo is rated 2.4 out of 5 from 6,810 reviews. Its impressive download number, as it turns out, is in part a result of top-down order. Many early users are Party members or work in China’s giant state apparatus, who were told to install the app. Several users TechCrunch spoke to, including a public school principal, a director of a district party committee and a municipal government official, confirmed that everyone in their organizations must download the app and every now and then, users may get quizzed on relevant content.

Newspapers and social media posts also suggest local governments have mandated downloads among Party members and encouraged the general public to give it a try. Some take a step further to organize offline study sessions for the app. For some context, China had nearly 90 million Communist Party members by the end of 2017.

xuexi qiangguo

A city in Hunan Province has ordered all Party members to install Xuexi Qiangguo, a local newspaper reported. The photo shows a study session held for the app. Source: 衡阳晚报 via Weibo 

“I believe that most of the downloads were incentivized, probably only a very small portion was initiated by a real interest,” says Kristin Shi-Kupfer, director at MERICS, a German think tank specializing in China. “This app will probably drop out of the rankings of any app store soon.”

To engage the younger crowd, the app takes cues from new media forms in China’s flourishing online world. The news section, for instance, appears to be modelled on ByteDance’s popular news app Jinri Toutiao . While Toutiao uses algorithms to understand user preferences and delivers content from a wide array of third-party publications, Xuexi Qiangguo curates from an army of 18 state-controlled outlets.

The app also has a gamified loyalty program, which rewards users virtual points when they complete a task, such as daily sign-in. Since registrations are on a real-name basis, supervisors can check who in their organizations haven’t installed the app, ushering in a new kind of digital monitoring.

“The timing of the publishing of this app might be linked to the upcoming Chinese New Year Festival, which the Chinese Communist Party sees as an opportunity and a necessity to spread their ideology,” notes Shi-Kupfer.” [It] may be hoping that people would use the holiday season to take a closer look, but probably also knowing that most people would rather choose other sources to relax, consume and travel.”


Source: The Tech Crunch

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TikTok is giving China a video chat alternative to WeChat

Posted by on Jan 15, 2019 in alibaba, Apps, Asia, bytedance, China, douyin, E-Commerce, messaging apps, musical.ly, Snap, Social, Social Media, social media platforms, Tencent, tiktok, WeChat, Weibo | 0 comments

ByteDance, the world’s most-valued startup, just launched a new social media product under its Douyin brand in what many people see as a serious attempt to challenge WeChat.

Tencent has long dominated China’s social networking space with WeChat and QQ. WeChat claims to have one billion monthly active users worldwide, most of whom are in China. Its older sibling QQ managed to survive the country’s transition from PC to mobile and still have a good chunk of 800 million MAUs at last count.

Over the years Tencent has drawn contenders from all fronts. Ecommerce behemoth Alibaba was one, whose app “Laiwang” to take on WeChat later pivoted to a Slack-like product for enterprise communication.

Now ByteDance is in the spotlight with its new brainchild, Duoshan. The app comes as a mix of TikTok, which is called Douyin in China, and Snap, to bet on a 5G-powered future in which new generations prefer using ephemeral videos to communicate.

Unlike TikTok, which incentivizes users to follow celebrities and strangers, Duoshan is built for private messaging. It offers a dazzling selection of special effects and filters as most other short-video apps do these days. The twist is that videos disappear after 72 hours to provide stress-free, off-the-cuff sharing, a need that WeChat also noticed and prompted the giant to come up with its own Snap-like Stories feature recently.

duoshan bytedance tiktok

Screenshots of Duoshan. Image: ByteDance

“We are seeing more and more Douyin users share their videos through other social media platforms and channels,” Douyin’s president Zhang Nan said in a statement. “With the launch of Duoshan, we are creating our first video-based social messaging app to allow users to share their creativity and interact directly with their family and friends.”

You may not know ByteDance, but its suite of media apps are turning heads all over the world thanks to millions of dollars spent on advertising. TikTok, which swallowed up Musical.ly last year, claims to have more than 250 million daily active users with MAUs reaching 500 million. That solid user base will surely help Duoshan during its initial user acquisition as the app allows easy login for existing Douyin users.

While TikTok is not a direct threat to WeChat — for it’s built for media consumption and WeChat is more of a tool for communication and a platform to run daily errands — Tencent did respond with a dozen of video apps over the past year to play catch-up. Now, Duoshan appears to be going after WeChat’s core — instant messaging.

“We hope WeChat doesn’t see [Duoshan] as a competitor. What they do in essence is to build an ‘infrastructure’. We, on the other hand, is only going after people who are closest to you,” Chen Lin, the newly appointed chief operating officer of ByteDance’s news app Jinri Toutiao said at a press event today.

Two other high-profile entrepreneurs are joining ByteDance to roll out their own social apps today. Smartisan, who backed a WeChat rival that turned out to be a blip, is announcing the product tonight in China. The other challenger is Wang Xin, a pioneer in China’s online video-streaming space who was sentenced to jail in 2016 after being charged with providing easy access to pornography. His take on social media — Matong — is already live and is greeted with such warm reception that its server went down.

Duoshan has got many people excited. Some of the top trending words on Weibo, China’s closest answer to Twitter, today are linked to ByteDance’s move, such as “social”, “waging a war” and “Zhang Yiming,” who founded ByteDance in 2012.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Tencent AI Lab loses key executive

Posted by on Jan 3, 2019 in andrew ng, Artificial Intelligence, Asia, Baidu, bytedance, computing, game publisher, machine learning, natural language processing, online games, optical character recognition, Seattle, Speech Recognition, Tencent, Toutiao, WeChat, Y Combinator | 0 comments

Chinese internet giant Tencent just lost a leading artificial intelligence figure. Zhang Tong, who previously worked at Yahoo, IBM and Baidu, has stepped down after directing Tencent’s AI Lab for nearly two years.

The scientist will return to academia and continue research in the AI field, Tencent confirmed with TechCrunch on Thursday, adding that it hasn’t appointed a successor.

”We are grateful for [Zhang]’s contributions to Tencent AI Lab and continue to explore fundamental and applied research that can make the benefits of AI accessible to everyone, everywhere,” Tencent said in a statement.

Zhang’s departure is the latest in a handful of top AI scientists quitting large Chinese tech firms. In 2017, search giant Baidu lost its chief scientist Andrew Ng who started Google’s deep learning initiative. Last year, the firm suffered another blow as renown AI expert Lu Qi resigned as chief operating officer and moved onto spearheading Y Combinator’s newly minted China program.

Talent is key to a tech firm’s AI endeavor, for a revered leader not only inspires employees but also boosts investor confidence. Baidu stocks plunged following Lu’s exit as markets weighed on the talent gap inside the company, which had poured resources into autonomous driving, smart speakers among other AI efforts. Tencent itself had poached Zhang from Baidu’s Big Data Lab to ramp up its own AI division.

Tencent is best known for its billion-user WeChat messenger and being the world’s largest video game publisher, but it’s also been doubling down on machine learning R&D to serve users and enterprise clients. It launched the AI Lab in April 2016 and opened its first U.S. research center in Seattle a year later to work on speech recognition and natural language processing (NLP).

The AI Lab dives into machine learning, computer vision, speech recognition and NLP. Meanwhile, the social and entertainment giant also works to put fundamental research to practical use, applying AI to its key businesses — content, social, online games and cloud computing.

One beneficiary has been WeChat, which applies NLP to enable seamless dialogues between users speaking different languages. Another case in point is Tencent’s news aggregator Tiantian Kuaibao, which deploys deep learning to recommend content based on readers’ past preference. Kuaibao is a direct competitor to Jinri Toutiao, the popular AI-powered news app run by TikTok’s parent company ByteDance.

To date, Tencent’s AI Lab has a team of 70 research scientists and 300 engineers, according to information on its website. Tencent operates another AI initiative called the Youtu Lab, which focuses on image understanding, face recognition, audio recognition and optical character recognition. While its sister AI Lab falls under Tencent’s research-focus Technology Engineering Group, Youtu is the brainchild of the Cloud & Smart Industries Group, a new unit that Tencent set up during its major organizational reshuffle in October to place more emphasis on enterprise businesses.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Fast-growing Chinese media startup ByteDance is raising $2.5B-$3B more

Posted by on Aug 8, 2018 in alibaba, alibaba group, Ant Financial, Apps, Asia, Beijing, bytedance, China, didi, Didi Chuxing, musical.ly, online payments, Software, The Financial Times, the wall street journal, tiktok, Toutiao, Uber, United States | 0 comments

Fast-growing Chinese media startup ByteDance is looking to raise as much as $3 billion to continue growth for its empire of mobile-based entertainment apps, which include news aggregator Toutiao and video platform Tiktok.

The Beijing-based startup is in early-stage talks with investors to raise $2.5 billion to $3 billion, according to a source with knowledge of the plans. That investment round could value ByteDance as high as $75 billion, although the source stressed that the valuation is a target and it might not be reached.

It’s audacious, but if that lofty goal is reached then ByteDance would become the world’s highest-valued startup ahead of the likes of Didi Chuxing ($56 billion) and Uber ($62 billion). Only Ant Financial has raised at a higher valuation, but the company is an affiliate of Alibaba and therefore not your average ‘startup.’

The Wall Street Journal first broke news of the ByteDance investment plan.

But there’s more: Earlier this week, the Financial Times cited sources who indicate that ByteDance is keen to go public in Hong Kong with an IPO slated to happen next year.

ByteDance is best-known for Toutiao, its news aggregator app that claims 120 million daily users, while it also operates a short-video platform called Douyin. The latter is known as TikTok overseas and it counts 500 million active users. TikTok recently merged with Musical.ly, the app that’s popular in the U.S. and was acquired by ByteDance for $1 billion, in an effort aimed at combining both userbases to create an app with global popularity.

The firm also operates international versions of Toutiao, including TopBuzz and NewsRepublic while it is an investor in streaming app Live.me.

The company’s growth has been mercurial but it has also come with problems as the company entered China’s tech spotlight and became a truly mainstream service in China.

ByteDance had its knuckles wrapped by authorities at the beginning of the year after it was deemed to have inadequately policed content on its platform. Then in April, its ‘Neihan Duanzi’ joke app was shuttered following a government order while Toutiao was temporarily removed from app stores. It returns days later after the company had grown its content team to 10,000 staff and admitted that some content it had hosted “did not accord with core socialist values and was not a good guide for public opinion.”


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Short video service Musical.ly is merging into sister app TikTok

Posted by on Aug 2, 2018 in Advertising Tech, Apps, Asia, bytedance, China, Co-founder, Facebook, Media, musical, musical.ly, Software, talent show, tiktok, Toutiao, United States | 0 comments

Musical.ly, the short video app that’s popular among teens and young people, is going away. Kinda.

The app and all user data and accounts is being merged with Toktok, a sister app that’s owned by ByteDance, the Chinese company that acquired Musical.ly for around $1 billion last year.

The switch-over happens today (Thursday) and it should be relatively seamless. Users of Musical.ly will see their app switch to TikTok once they update the app, and they should find their account, videos and personal settings inside the new app as per usual.

One notable new addition is a setting that alerts a user when they have been active in the app for two hours that day. Its addition comes just a day after Facebook added similar ‘well-being’ features to its core social network and Instagram.

ByteDance is making the move to consolidate its audiences on both apps. Four-year-old Musical.ly, which is particularly popular in the U.S., has around 100 million users while TikTok, which was created in 2016 and operates worldwide minus China, claims 500 million monthly active users. In China, the sister product is Douyin, while the company also offers news apps Toutiao in China and TopBuzz across the rest of the world.

“TikTok, the sound of a ticking clock, represents the short nature of the video platform. We want to capture the world’s creativity and knowledge under this new name and remind everyone to treasure every precious life moment. Combining musical.ly and TikTok is a natural fit given the shared mission of both experiences,” said Alex Zhu, co-founder of Musical.ly and Senior Vice President of TikTok, in a statement.

The app merger follows the closure of Musical.ly’s standalone live-streaming app Live.ly in June. That was part of the deal agreed to for the Musical.ly acquisition, and the company directed its users to Live.me, an app that counts ByteDance among its investors.

It makes sense that ByteDance is consolidating its sibling apps since Facebook is stalking out the short video space. The social network giant has tested a Musical.ly style app and just this week we found hints that it is planning to launch “Talent Show,” which would allow users to compete by singing popular songs then submitting their audition for review.

There’s also the revenue side. A global platform plays better for advertisers rather than forcing them to pick either Musical.ly or TikTok, or going through the added rigmarole of working on both.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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

Posted by on Aug 2, 2018 in android, app-store, Apps, Artificial Intelligence, Asia, Beijing, bytedance, censorshit, China, Cloning, computing, Facebook, files go, Google, internet service, JD.com, search app, search engine, Software, Tencent, Toutiao, United States, WeChat, world wide web | 0 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Source: The Tech Crunch

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