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India’s most popular services are becoming super apps

Posted by on May 11, 2019 in 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 | 0 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 and lets users tip authors. 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.

And Reliance Jio, of course

For the rest, the race is still on, but 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.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Alibaba challenger Pinduoduo is bringing imported goods to rural homes

Posted by on Feb 26, 2019 in alibaba, alibaba group, Amazon, Asia, China, E-Commerce, eCommerce, game publisher, Hangzhou, JD.com, netease, online marketplaces, pinduoduo, taobao, TechCrunch, Tencent, viral marketing, WeChat | 0 comments

Pinduoduo, the latest challenger to China’s ecommerce dominators Alibaba and JD.com, wants to bring affordable, imported items to shoppers in China’s smaller cities and rural areas.

The three-year-old Tencent-backed ecommerce upstart is recruiting importers to set up shop on its marketplace, shows a message on its website. The business is known for offering cheap, sometimes counterfeit goods that initially appealed to users from the less prosperous parts of China but have gradually garnered more price-sensitive urbanites. Its rise is closely linked to Tencent’s popular WeChat messenger, which lets it toy with viral marketing schemes like group deals, a level of access that’s unavailable to, say, Tencent rival Alibaba. Furthermore, the app’s focus on direct sales between manufacturers and consumers helps to keep costs down.

Pinduoduo’s social group-buying model works so well that it’s rapidly closing in on its larger rivals. It claimed 232 million monthly active users by the end of September. That represents only a fraction of Alibaba’s 700 million user base but the newcomer is growing at over 200 percent year-over-year. Pinduoduo already eclipsed JD.com in terms of market penetration according to data analytics company Jiguang. Over the past year, Pinduoduo was installed on 27.4 percent of all mobile devices in China, placing it ahead of JD.com which stood at 23.9 percent and behind Alibaba’s Taobao at 52.5 percent.

And now Pinduoduo becomes attuned to China’s booming cross-border business. People’s cravings for imported, higher-quality goods are surging along with their increasing disposable income. That new demand gives rise to a bountiful supply of “daigou”, or purchasing agents who send overseas goods to Chinese shoppers, and inspires ecommerce operators like Alibaba and JD.com to start their own cross-border businesses. The lucrative sector, estimated by market researcher iiMedia to have generated 9 trillion yuan ($1.34 trillion) in transactions last year, has even drawn unexpected players like NetEase. The Hangzhou-based firm is best known as one of China’s top game publisher but it’s made a dent in cross-border shopping in recent years with its Kaola service, which is reportedly buying Amazon China’s import unit.

TechCrunch has reached out to Pinduoduo for more information on its overseas shopping scheme and will update the story if we hear back. What we know for sure is that the ecommerce site plans to take on 500,000 small and medium-sized merchants for its overseas channel within the next three years, the company’s vice president Li Yuan announced at a November event. Pinduoduo was already delivering imported goods to customers, a business that it said had seen surging transactions last year. Consumers in the countryside have never been more ready to shop online, as Beijing is making a big push to grow digital payments in these regions.

Pinduoduo has yet to make a profit, and the cost of battling Alibaba and JD.com became more evident after it recently announced to raise more than $1 billion just six months after a $1.63 billion initial public offering in the U.S. Time will tell whether cross-border ecommerce — where it plans to replicate its direct sales model — will help it gain an upper hand over the industry giants.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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China tells teachers to quit assigning homework through WeChat

Posted by on Feb 18, 2019 in Asia, Beijing, China, Department of Education, Education, homework, learning, netease, Software, Tencent, WeChat, yuanfudao | 0 comments

China’s education authorities are about to take some burden off parents with school-aged children. A proposal posted last week by the Department of Education in China’s eastern province of Zhejiang said teachers should be banned from using WeChat, QQ or other mobile apps to assign homework or ask parents to grade students’ assignments.

As mobile internet booms in China, phones have become an extension of daily activities, including school practices. Instead of announcing homework in class or handing out notices to students in person, teachers are now dumping assignments into WeChat groups designed to interact with parents. Many teachers are keen to exercise their power through these digital channels, asking parents to help students with problem sets and even grade their homework.

The regional call to action follows a set of national guidelines released by the Ministry of Education in October directing teachers and schools to take more responsibilities rather than shift the load onto parents. “Teachers should be accountable for their job, treat teaching seriously, correct homework with prudence and help students with care.”

Not all schools abuse digital platforms to such an extent. A Shenzhen-based parent told TechCrunch that her second-grader who attends a local public school still does much of her homework in written form and parents’ involvement is moderate.

“Different schools treat technology differently and I’m not opposed to the use of it. It’s helpful, for example, to use a digital device to learn English because much of the process involves audios and videos,” the parent said. “I think sometimes media are painting teachers and schools in such a negative light just to get attention.”

Other recommendations in the national notice include limiting the amount of online homework to reduce nearsightedness, which has become a source of concerns for parents and society at large.

The new directives also come as Beijing tries to rein in what and how private technology services are infiltrating students’ lives. In one far-reaching move, the government ordered video-game publishers to cap children’s playing time, sending shares of industry leaders Tencent and NetEase tumbling. More recently, the Ministry of Education asked schools and universities to audit apps used by teachers and students on campus in accordance with guidelines set by the regulator.

Despite the government’s intent to ease stress and unplug devices for students, education apps have flourished in China. Those that help students outperform their peers have done particularly well. Yuanfudao, a startup that offers live courses, exam prep and homework help, gained a $3 billion valuation in its latest $300 million funding round in December. Its rivals Zuoyebang and Yiqi Zuoye have similarly attracted big-name investors and sizable funds to help their young users get ahead.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Chat app Line’s mobile payment service is getting its own Visa card

Posted by on Jan 30, 2019 in alibaba, alibaba group, alipay, Apps, Asia, China, E-Commerce, economy, Japan, King, mobile payments, money, online payments, payments, points, Tencent, visa, WeChat | 0 comments

Brown, Cony and the gang are coming to a credit card near you in Japan. Line, the messaging app company behind the cute sticker characters, announced today that it is bringing its payment service to plastic through a tie-in with Visa.

Line is Japan’s largest chat app with an estimated 50 million registered users. The cards will be released later this year and they’ll allow Line Pay, the company’s digital wallet service, to stretch beyond its existing merchant base to allow users to pay at any retailer accepting Visa . In addition, the first year of use will see customers get 3 percent of their spending back in Line’s ‘Points’ virtual currency, which is used to buy stickers and other content.

The partnership is a step up from Line’s own payment cards, which were introduced in 2016 and supported by JCB.

It’s an interesting deal because mobile is generally seen as being the future form factor for payments. In China, for example, using cash or card to pay is considered antiquated — you’ll get glares from other patrons forced to wait while you complete your transaction — but digital payments face a struggle in most other markets.

WeChat and Alipay have become de facto in China, but retailers — and particularly smaller ones — don’t always have the awareness, confidence or resources to add support for Line or other digital wallets. Japan, where cash is still king, is perhaps most emblematic of that struggle. The government is making a sustained push towards cashless — particularly ahead of the 2020 Olympics — and Line, as the country’s dominant chat app, may help that along with this partnership.

Line wrapped up a deal with WeChat last November that allows users of the China-based chat app to make payment via Line Pay points of sale. Tencent’s WeChat and Alipay from Alibaba have spent recent years developing a system that lets Chinese tourists pay while they are overseas.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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WeWork could challenge Starbucks in China with new on-demand service

Posted by on Jan 29, 2019 in Asia, China, executive, Go, Luckin Coffee, mobile payments, naked hub, operating systems, qr code, Real Estate, real-time, Seattle, shanghai, social network, starbucks, WeChat, WeWork | 0 comments

The rise of Starbucks in China, like that in the west, is closely linked to its function as a “third space” for people to hang out between home and work. In recent years, a bevy of coffee entrepreneurs are trying to topple the American giant’s dominance in China and lately, an unexpected contender — WeWork — has joined their camp.

This month, the office tenant and workplace service provider launched WeWork Go, a new feature that allows China-based users to rent a desk by the minute so they are no longer tied to long-term leases. While Starbucks provides free accommodation and charges for coffee, WeWork flips the equation to offer free coffee and paid space. Starbucks is already being squeeze in China by emerging rival Luckin Coffee, a well-funded startup that explicitly pledges to take on the Seattle-based giant with a model that focuses on coffee delivery.

WeWork Go works a bit like other shared services, with an app that lets users check the occupancy of a list of offices in real time before they travel over. Upon arrival, users scan a QR code at the gate, pop the door open, get seated in the common area and the billing begins.

wework go china

WeWork Go available through a WeChat mini program. Screenshot: TechCrunch

The firm says it monitors traffic flow closely so the common space isn’t flooded with fleeting users. Booking private rooms require additional fees. Go claims to have picked up 50,000 registered users so far after piloting for three months across an inventory of 18 locations in Shanghai, where WeWork nestles its China headquarters.

Made for China

Instead of building a native app, WeWork Go operates via a WeChat mini program, a form of a stripped-down app that works within China’s largest social network. Mini programs are an increasingly popular way for startups to trial ideas thanks to their relative ease to develop. “[Go] is a key development of our China localization,” a WeWork spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Go is tailoring to the so-called “part-time users.” “These people would not purchase the monthly membership. They would work at home or a coffee shop, restaurant, or library,” Dominic Penaloza, who heads innovation and technology at WeWork China, told TechCrunch. He first conceptualized the on-demand workplace service at Naked Hub, a smaller local rival WeWork China bought out for $400 million last year. After the merger, the executive alongside his tech team joined WeWork and continued with the project that would later become Go.

The pay-as-you-go feature is also getting rolled out stateside at a new Manhattan location last week.

Penaloza admits Go could be competing with coffee shops for it offers “an alternative type of the third space for freelancers, mobile workers, business travellers or those who want to briefly step aside from their offices for a mental break.” The obvious target is Starbucks, which commands a whopping 51 percent share of the country’s booming coffee market.

Made for WeWork

For WeWork, Go serves as a trial for those deciding whether to sign on monthly subscriptions. What they are weighing is the 1,830 yuan ($271) price tag for a hotdesk in downtown Shanghai. By comparison, Go starts at 15 yuan and goes up to 30 yuan an hour at more prime locations, offering the same perks as the full-time hotdesking plan, which includes access to common spaces, beverages and wifi.

Users can do their math. “If you started as a WeWork Go member, and if you use our service quite a lot, you will realize it’s much more economical to purchase monthly subscriptions. WeWork Go enables WeWork to reach an entirely new market segment,” suggests Penaloza.

The flexible pricing may help WeWork — which generates the bulk of its revenues from large corporations — reach a wider user base. The shared office industry in China has entered what real-estate researcher Jones Lang LaSalle calls the “second phase,” with big firms moving into premium workplaces like WeWork and local player Soho 3Q. Cash-strapped startups, on the other hand, increasingly turn to government-backed incubators for lower costs.

wework china

Photo: WeWork China

Several early users of Go told TechCrunch they found the service delivering a “quieter” and “more comfortable” vibe than most cafes, but distance is key when they are in a rush. WeWork currently has about 60 locations across a dozen major Chinese cities, whereas Starbucks reaches a dense network of 3,330 stores and is shooting for 6,000 by the end of 2022. WeWork China got a boost for locations with the Naked Hub acquisition last year and says it’s open to adding third-party spaces such as restaurants into its inventory, though it has not taken a solid step towards that vision.

“There is a very interesting opportunity in the really downtown area, where WeWork locations and Naked Hub locations are quite full starting from after lunch until 5 pm,” notes Penaloza. “What’s amazing is that restaurants around those locations are quite empty at exactly the same time, so there’s a fascinating opportunity there but we haven’t done anything about it yet.”


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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WeChat is quietly ranking user behavior to play catch-up with Alibaba

Posted by on Jan 15, 2019 in alibaba, alibaba group, alipay, Ant Financial, Asia, Bank, Beijing, China, credit score, Government, Messenger, mobile payments, online lending, online payments, payments, power bank, Tencent, WeChat | 0 comments

Over one billion people leave behind trails of information on WeChat every day as they use the messenger to chat, read, shop, hail rides, rent umbrellas and run many other errands. And the Tencent app has quietly started using this type of signal to determine whether a user is worthy of perks such as deposit-free renting services.

The rating system, which the company calls the “WeChat Payments Score” in Chinese, soft-launched last November across eight cities and has been piloting on a small number of apps. Among them is the Tencent-backed power bank rental service Xiaodian, which waives deposits for users if their points hit a certain benchmark. It’s easy to imagine how the rewards mechanism can help nudge customers to try out WeChat’s panoply of in-house and third-party offerings down the road.

Exactly how WeChat calculates these points is unclear, but a test done by TechCrunch shows it factors in one’s shopping and contract-fulfilling records. We’ve reached out to Tencent for more details and will update the article when more information becomes available.

Alibaba’s affiliate Ant Financial — WeChat’s biggest contender in online payments — has been running a similar assessment engine called the “Sesame Credit” since 2015. Like WeChat’s, it measures several dimensions of user data including purchase behavior and capability to fulfil contracts. People with higher scores enjoy perks like deposit waivers when staying at a hotel, incentives that could keep customers in the house. Sesame points are available through Ant’s Alipay digital wallet that recently claimed to have crossed one billion users worldwide.

The WeChat payments score is reminiscent of Tencent’s short-lived credit-rating scheme. Indeed, digital footprints can also help China’s fledgeling financial system predict creditworthiness among millions of people without financial records. That’s why Beijing enlisted tech companies including Tencent and Ant in 2015 to come up with their own “social credit” scores under state-approved pilot projects.

Over time, regulators became wary of the mounting personal information used by online lending companies and moved to assert greater control over the whole credit-rating matter. In early 2018, it changed tack to crack down on private efforts — including a Tencent-run trial. Beijing subsequently set up Baihang Credit, the only market-based personal credit agency approved by China’s central bank. The government holds a 36 percent stake in Baihang. Ant, Tencnet and several other private firms also got to be part of the initiative, though they play complementary roles and hold 8 percent shares each.

While most countries use credit rating mainly as a financial credibility indicator, China has taken things a few steps further. By 2020, China aims to enrol everyone in a national database that incorporates not only financial but also social and moral history, a program that has raised concerns about privacy and surveillance.


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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Winter is ending: China to restart game approvals

Posted by on Dec 21, 2018 in Asia, Beijing, China, Entertainment, game publisher, games publisher, Messenger, mobile game, netease, Policy, TC, Tencent, WeChat | 0 comments

As 2018 draws to a close, China’s gaming industry — which has been beaten by a nine-month-long freeze in license approvals — woke up to exhilarating news as officials announced that they have started to review new titles again.

The much-coveted game licenses are essential for developers to legally monetize their work in China. “We’ve finished reviewing the first batch of games,” said Feng Shixin, a senior official from the propaganda department of the Chinese Communist Party, at an industry symposium on Friday. He added that the ideology watchdog will assign licenses at the soonest though there is a huge number of applications sitting in the pipeline.

Shares of Tencent, the country’s largest games publisher, jump 4 percent on Friday while its smaller competitor NetEase is up 1 percent.

China’s regulatory bodies for games stopped approving new titles since March as they underwent a major reshuffle that would eventually place the State Administration of Press and Publication under direct control of the propaganda organ. The shakeup is meant to give the central government more scrutiny over the billion-dollar market.

For one, regulators are looking to clamp down on illegal games that contains pornography, gambling, violence and content deemed inappropriate by Beijing, including titles that rewrite the history, according to Feng. In March, Tencent’s blockbuster mobile game Honor of Kings came under fire by the Communist Party’s official paper for misrepresenting certain historical Chinese figures.

Secondly, China is calling game developers to have “a stronger sense of social responsibility”, especially when it comes to protecting minors from addiction and illegal content. Beijing went as far as blaming video games for causing bad eyesight in children. In response, Tencent and NetEase among other major publishers have placed a time limit on underage players.

Regulators have also ordered studios to improve game quality and encouraged them to expand overseas. Local titles could be an engine to “promote Chinese culture, propagate Chinese values and showcase Chinese tastes” as they go global, said Feng.

The long halt in game approvals has taken a toll on the world’s largest gaming market. Chinese games are on way to generate $40 billion in revenues in 2018, according to market researcher Newzoo. However, the massive industry saw its slowest growth over the last ten years as it grew 5.4 percent year-over-year during the first half of 2018, according to a report by Beijing-based research firm GPC and China’s official gaming association CNG.

The world’s largest game publisher Tencent — also the developer behind China’s largest messenger WeChat — for instance, could not cash in on popular titles. The giant saw gaming revenues slip by four percent during the third quarter. To offset the pressure in its consumer-facing gaming business, Tencent went through a major reorganization in October to put more focus on enterprise services.

Tencent said during its Q3 earnings call that it had 15 games with monetization approval in its pipeline, which means that gaming revenues may get back on track when those games attain the desired licenses.

“This is clearly very encouraging news for China’s gaming industry,” Tencent said in a statement on Friday. “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.”

Smaller players may also have a chance to race ahead in the revived market. “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,” said Ilya Gutov, business development director at APPTUTTi, a company that helps overseas games enter China.

“Having said so, larger companies have more resources to work out the compliance. However, they have more internal process to go through — they are not as flexible as small companies — so it’s really [a question of] how fast people can react to the new approval process.”


Source: The Tech Crunch

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How a Chinese anti-virus software maker builds a fintech firm to wrestle with giants

Posted by on Dec 18, 2018 in 360 Finance, 360 group, 360 Security, alibaba, alibaba group, Ant Financial, Asia, Baidu, ceo, China, Finance, financial services, funding, jack ma, JD Finance, JD.com, Oliver Wyman, online auction, Tencent, WeBank, WeChat | 0 comments

360 Finance, an online consumer loan platform that spun off from China’s anti-virus service giant 360 Group, has joined a raft of Chinese fintech companies to go public in the U.S. over the last two years.

The company priced its initial public offering at $16.50 per share last Friday, raising $51 million by selling 3.1 million American depositary shares. The stock ended its first day unchanged when escalating trade tensions have threatened to beat down shares of U.S.-listed Chinese firms.

360 Finance’s net loss widened to 572 million yuan, or $86.4 million, for the six months ended June 30 compared to 67 million yuan for the same period of 2017. The company notes in a regulatory filing that the jump was partly due to increased expenses from share-based compensation.

Meanwhile, the net income climbed from 60 million yuan in 2016 to 309 million yuan in 2017. 360 Finance drove most of its revenues from loan facilitation and post-origination services for consumers, although microcredit lending targeted at small enterprises will be a future focus, chief executive officer Xu Jun told TechCrunch.

360-finance360 Group, of which founder and CEO Zhou Hongyi owns a 14.1 percent stake in 360 Finance, marks the first in a clutch of Chinese internet-focused companies — including Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu and JD.com — to see their consumer finance affiliates go public. Some of these services have mulled a flotation while others are pulling in fresh capital to fuel growth.

Ant Financial, the payments juggernaut controlled by Alibaba founder Jack Ma, reportedly postponed its U.S. IPO plans amid regulatory pressure and growing rivalry in China. Market watchers put its valuation at a whopping $150 billion after it snagged $14 billion from a Series C round in June.

WeBank, an online-only bank that counts Tencent as a major shareholder, has kept its valuation in the dark but an auction in November revealed that it was worth about $21.3 billion.

JD Finance, the financial affiliate of Alibaba’s main rival, said in June that it didn’t have an IPO plan as it raised $1.96 billion at a valuation of nearly $20 billion.

In April, search titan Baidu sold the majority of its financial services — which it rebranded to Du Xiaoman — to a consortium of investors in a deal worth $1.9 billion.

Despite its IPO milestone, 360 Finance faces intense rivalry at home. A report by management consulting firm Oliver Wyman shows that 360 Finance ranked fifth among China’s fintech platforms in terms of loan origination volume in the second quarter. Ant Financial took the top spot while WeBank, JD Finance and Baidu’s financial arm followed behind.

360 Finance is vying for consumer attention in an online world dominated by larger peers who are capitalizing on the enormous user base of their allies. Ecommerce behemoth Alibaba, for instance, had 666 million monthly active users on mobile devices as of September and Tencent’s WeChat messenger reached over 1 billion MAUs.

By comparison, 360 Group has about 500 mobile MAUs, which its financial partner believes could lead to an edge in marketing and risk management.

“As the largest cybersecurity company in China, 360 Security has an unfair advantage in fighting frauds,” said Xu.

That’s because 360 Security gleans reams of user behavioral data from its security browsers to determine borrowers’ “willingness” to repay loans.

“For instance, we flag those who often visit gambling sites or have installed a lot of personal lending apps,” said Xu. “On the other hand, companies such as ecommerce services only have insights into whether users are ‘able’ to repay by looking at their shopping history. The willingness to repay becomes very relevant when you are giving out smaller loans. People are usually able to repay 4,000 yuan [$580], but not everyone is willing to do so.”

The executive added that the 360 Security partnership also helps lower user acquisition costs, though he doesn’t want to rely on one marketing channel in the long run. 40 percent of the proceeds raised in the IPO will go towards promotion.

360 Group currently contributes over 22.7 percent of the lending firm’s borrowers. App stores bring about two-thirds of the traffic while the remaining comes from news feed ads in popular apps like TikTok and user engagement on social media, according to the CEO.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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