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Alibaba pumps $100 million into Vmate to grow its video app in India – TechCrunch

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Chinese tech giant Alibaba is doubling down on India’s burgeoning video market, looking to fight back local rival ByteDance, Google and Disney to gain its foothold in the nation. The company said today that it is pumping $100 million into Vmate, a three-year-old social video app owned by subsidiary UC Web.

Vmate was launched as a video streaming and short-video-sharing app in 2016. But in the years since, it has added features such as video downloads and 3-dimensional face emojis to expand its use cases. It has amassed 30 million users globally, and will use the capital to scale its business in India, the company told TechCrunch. Alibaba Group did not respond to TechCrunch’s questions about its ownership of the app.

The move comes as Alibaba revives its attempts to take on the growing social video apps market, something on which it has missed out completely in China. Vmate could potentially help it fill the gap in India. Many of the features Vmate offers are similar to those offered by ByteDance’s TikTok, which currently has more than 120 million active users in India. ByteDance, with a valuation of about $75 billion, has grown its business without taking money from either Alibaba or Tencent, the latter of which has launched its own TikTok-like apps with limited success.

Alibaba remains one of the biggest global investors in India’s e-commerce and food-tech markets. It has heavily invested in Paytm, BigBasket, Zomato and Snapdeal. It was also supposedly planning to launch a video streaming service in India last year — a rumor that was fueled after it acquired a majority stake in TicketNew, a Chennai-based online ticketing service.

UC Web, a subsidiary of Alibaba Group, also counts India as one of its biggest markets. The browser maker has attempted to become a super app in India in recent years by including news and videos. In the last two years, it has been in talks with several bloggers and small publishers to host their articles directly on its platform, many people involved in the project told TechCrunch.

UC Web’s eponymous browser rose to stardom in the days of feature phones, but has since lost the lion’s share to Google Chrome as smartphones become more ubiquitous. Chrome ships as the default browser on most Android smartphones.

The major investment by Alibaba Group also serves as a testament to the growing popularity of video apps in India. Once cautious about each megabyte they spent on the internet, thrifty Indians have become heavy video consumers online as mobile data gets significantly cheaper in the country. Video apps are increasingly climbing up the charts on Google Play Store.

In an event for marketers late last year, YouTube said that India was the only nation where it had more unique users than its parent company Google. The video juggernaut had about 250 million active users in India at the end of 2017. The service, used by more than 2 billion users worldwide, has not revealed its India-specific user base since.

T-Series, the largest record label in India, became the first YouTube channel this week to claim more than 100 million subscribers. What’s even more noteworthy is that T-Series took 10 years to get to its first 10 million subscribers. The additional 90 million subscribers signed up to its channel in the last two years. Also fighting for users’ attention is Hotstar, which is owned by Disney. Earlier this month, it set a new global record for most simultaneous views on a live-streaming event.

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Apple debuts a $4.99 per month Apple Music Voice plan, designed mainly for HomePod or AirPods use – TechCrunch

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In 2019, Amazon introduced a more affordable way to stream Amazon Music in their home with the launch of a free, ad-supported music service that streamed over its Echo speakers. Today, Apple is catching up with its debut of a new, lower-cost version of its Apple Music subscription it calls the “Voice plan.” Unlike Amazon’s service, the Voice plan is not free. Instead, it’s a more affordable, $4.99 per month ad-free subscription that limits consumers to only being able to access the Apple Music via Siri voice commands.

Explained the company at its October event today, the new Voice plan will allow customers, in 17 countries to start, to use Siri to play songs, playlists, and all stations in Apple Music when the service launches later this fall. This will also include access to a series of new playlists based on moods and activities, as well as personalized mixes and genre stations. That means you’ll now be able to ask Siri to play you music for a dinner party or something that would help you to wind down at the end of the day, for example. Hundreds of new playlists will be available, said Apple.

Apple Music rivals, including Spotify, Amazon Music, and Pandora already offer such a feature — and have for years. So this is a matter of Apple playing catch up in the space with its own expanded set of editorially crafted mood and activity playlists. Currently, its editorial selections are more limited to its “Made for You” lineup which includes personalized playlists like your Favorites Mix, Chill Mix, New Music Mix and Get Up Mix.

While Apple says the new Voice plan can be used to access Apple Music across “all your Apple devices,” it’s clearly been designed with HomePod in mind — similar to Amazon’s free music streaming for Echo. If using a phone, tablet or computer, it wouldn’t necessarily make sense to speak to Siri to play music when you have a device with a screen. However, the service could possibly be interesting to those who primarily listen to Apple Music via their AirPods — and don’t mind speaking all their commands.

Apple says the service will also work via CarPlay, in addition to iPhone and other devices like iPad, Mac, Apple TV, and Apple Watch.

Subscribers will see a customized app interface that displays suggestions based on their music preferences and a queue of their recently played music through Siri. There will also be a section called “Just Ask Siri,” which teaches users how to optimize Siri for Apple Music.

The new plan joins the other Apple Music subscriptions, the Individual plan and Family plan, at $9.99 per month or $14.99 per month respectively. Like the Individual plan, the new Voice Plan is also limited to just 1 person per subscription, Apple said. It provides access to the full Apple Music catalog of over 90 million songs.

Image Credits: Apple

At launch, it will be available in Australia, Austria, Canada, China mainland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Spain, Taiwan, the U.K. and the U.S. The company didn’t offer an exact launch date besides “later this fall.”

Apple said it will market the service to non-subscribers who ask for music through Siri. They’ll be able trial the service for 7 days for free, with no auto-renewal.

To complement the launch of the new service, Apple also announced new, third-gen AirPods and more colorful lineup of HomePod mini smart speakers.

Apple October Event 2021

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Uber tests shared rides in Africa as UberPool stays shut in US, Canada – TechCrunch

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Uber is testing Pool Chance, a feature that lets riders heading in the same direction share the cost of the journey, in Kenya, with plans to roll out the low-cost service to Ghana and Nigeria. TechCrunch discovered the option when booking a car in Nairobi, Kenya. An Uber spokesperson later confirmed it was part of a pilot (beta version) of the service that it plans to roll out more widely, pending the outcome of this.

The new service, being introduced for the first time in Africa, is similar to UberPool launched in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2014 and later introduced in multiple cities across the world. The low-cost popular service remains suspended in many regions including the US and Canada due to Covid-19 restrictions, but it seems the technology firm is slowly bringing it back in some markets and introducing it where it was unavailable before. Uber said the two products share a similar concept but are not identical, without offering further details.

The Pool Chance trip option is available on the budget service, Chap Chap in Nairobi, while it will be accessible on the UberX category, in the populous Nigerian city of Lagos and Ghana’s capital Accra

“We are currently trialling a new Uber ride, Pool Chance, which will cut costs for riders in Nairobi (Kenya) when they share their ride with others heading in the same direction,” Uber’s head of communications for East & West Africa, Lorraine Ondoru, told TechCrunch.

“We use this approach when introducing something new and we want to ensure the marketplace remains healthy and balanced. We will share more details once this has been officially launched,” she said.

In April, Uber launched Pool Chance in Auckland, New Zealand after introducing it in Kyiv, Ukraine in October last year. They also switched back on the low-cost rideshare service in Australia’s Sydney and Perth cities earlier in the year, and thereafter launched Pool Chance in Adelaide.

Uber says on the app that Pool Chance will bring the cost of rides down by up to 30%, further making its trips more affordable to riders.

Affordable shared rides can mean more riders using the app, which can lead to more trips, less downtime, and more overall earnings for you,” Uber said about the new service, in a message to its drivers, in the three African countries.

Uber is available in eight markets across Africa including Egypt, South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania, and Morocco.

Across the continent, it has over the last few months expanded and introduced new products in its new strategy to retain its customers and attract new ones amidst growing competition from rivals like Bolt, the Estonian-based ride hailing firm.

Earlier this month, Uber expanded to two additional cities in Nigeria – Ibadan and Port Harcourt – bringing into the regions a service that is already available in three other cities.

In South Africa, it also expanded its reach by nine cities this year and introduced its premium service dubbed Uber Comfort to be offered alongside UberX, UberBlack and the budget service, UberGo. It also added a feature that allows booking of a trip a month in advance in August, a service that was already available in other markets across the world. 

Uber’s plan to introduce the fare-splitting service in markets across Africa comes after it said in a recent report that “ride-sharing will likely play an increasingly important role within the public transportation mix in the next 3-5 years.”

The company added that while bus and rail transportation will remain core to public transportation due to their ability to transport large numbers of people, they will be complemented by microtransit, ride-sharing and micro-mobility means. 

“The addition of new modes with a variable cost structure like ride-sharing and the proliferation of on-demand services will unlock new optimums of efficiency and lower cost structures for public transportation agencies,” said Uber.

This, it said, will go towards ensuring and improving “the equity, accessibility, resilience, and flexibility of their networks.”

Through Uber Transit, a division serving public transportation, and Routematch, a company they bought last year that provides software to transit agencies, it said in the report that it’s providing new tools to help agencies to operate more efficiently and offer support to its riders too.

Since the establishment of Uber Transit in 2015, the tech firm has rolled out services in regions across the world that go towards making public transport seamless.

In early 2019, it launched an Uber in-app service that enables riders in Denver to plan their journeys and purchase tickets, and offered software to power public transportation after partnering with Marin Transit, in California.

In September last year it launched in some markets “Uber and Transit”, an in-app feature that makes it possible for riders to use the ride-hailing service to combine trips with other public transportation means like trains and buses. 

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Smartphone sales down 6% as chip shortages begin to impact market – TechCrunch

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Canalys reported this morning that global smartphone sales are off 6% this quarter, and it’s not because of lack of demand. It’s due to the worldwide chip shortage.

The pandemic has had a negative impact across supply chains, and chips have been particularly hard hit. Canalys principal analyst Ben Stanton says that manufacturers are trying to keep up as best they can, but the chip shortage is a legitimate roadblock right now. “On the supply side, chipset manufacturers are increasing prices to disincentivize over-ordering in an attempt to close the gap between demand and supply. But despite this, shortages will not ease until well into 2022,” he said in a statement.

What did the market look like this past quarter as a result of these supply chain issues? Well, the usual suspects maintained their market share positions with Samsung holding steady year over year at 23%. Meanwhile Apple saw YoY sales increase 3% to 15% this quarter. Xiaomi held steady in third place at 10% with no change YoY.

Canalys Smartphone marketshare chart for Q32021.

Image Credits: Canalys

Manufacturers have to be concerned at this turn of events, especially as we head into the crucial holiday shopping season. Apple released the new iPhone 13 at the end of September, too late for this quarterly report, but no doubt timed for the shopping season. The chip shortage issues could put a damper on its plans. Even though both Samsung and Apple make their own chipsets for their mobile devices, each company is still feeling the impact of the chip component shortage.

As a result, Stanton says it will be unlikely consumers will see any cost cutting this year, as manufacturing costs continue to spiral upward. Instead, he anticipates that we may see more bundling of phones with other devices as a buying incentive. “Customers should expect smartphone discounting this year to be less aggressive. But to avoid customer disappointment, smartphone brands which are constrained on margin should look to bundle other devices, such as wearables and IoT to create good incentives for customers.”

CNBC reported just yesterday that the consumer chip shortage could persist even longer than Stanton is predicting, perhaps as long as two to three years, according to president of Hisense, Jia Shaoqian, whose company makes devices like home appliances and consumer goods.

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