Just two years ago, investors were heavily pouring money into China’s dockless bike-sharing startups. Now that boom has busted with derelict bikes littering the streets of cities.
Meanwhile, a new race has started for two-wheelers with motors — and one of the main players is a survivor from the bike-sharing craze. Blessed with fundings from the world’s most valuable fintech company Ant Financial through its Series D to F funding rounds, Hellobike provides a range of mobility services such as shared e-bikes and rented electric scooters to its 230 million registered users.
Hellobike first launched in 2016 by deploying shared bikes in smaller cities and towns — where Ofo and Mobike were largely absent early on — rather than large urban centers like Beijing and Shanghai. This allowed Hellobike to largely avoid the cash splurging competition against Ofo and Mobike.
Ofo is now battling a major financial crisis as it struggles to repay user deposits. Its archrival Mobike has slowed down expansion since it was sold to Hong Kong-listed local services giant Meituan. And Hellobike, which boasts about its operational efficiency, has begun an electric push.
“When the two major powers were at war, neither of them went after electric bikes. They were fighting over bicycles,” Hellobike’s chief financial officer Fischer Chen (pictured above) recently told TechCrunch at Rise conference in Hong Kong, referring to the feud between Mobike and Ofo. “As such, there was no price war for e-bikes from the outset. The competition is rational.”
Electric two-wheeled vehicles are in high demand in the country where nearly 1.4 billion people live. According to data collected by Hellobike, nearly 300 million rides are completed on analog bikes every day in China. What many don’t realize is that pedal-assist electric bikes and pedal-free scooters together more than double that number, generating 700 million rides per day.
As with bicycles, there are benefits to rent rather than buy an electric bike in China. For one, users don’t need to worry about getting their assets stolen. Second — and, this is specific to electric vehicles — finding a safe, convenient charging spot can be a challenge in China.
That’s why Hellobike put up charging stations as it went about offering shared ebikes in 2017. At these kiosks, riders swap their battery out for a new one without having to plug in and wait. They then have the option to pay with Alipay, Ant’s mobile wallet with a one-billion user base.
Of all the monthly two-wheeler electric bikes activity in China, Hellobike has captured 80% of the market share, Chen claims. For bike-sharing, it accounts for 60-70%. It’s hard to verify the share by looking at data compiled by third-party app trackers, for they don’t usually break out the user number for individual features. The Hellobike app is a one-stop-shop for bicycles, e-bikes, e-scooters as well as carpooling, a service complementary to its main two-wheeler business intended to “capture price-sensitive small-town consumers” according to Chen.
Similarly, Mobike has been folded into Meituan’s all-in-one service app. What further complicates the inquiry is some of Hellobike’s rides are accessed directly on Alipay rather than its own app.
When it comes to competition in electric two-wheelers, Chen maintained that other challengers are “relatively small” and that acquiring online users has become “very difficult.” For Hellobike, getting existing customers to try out new features takes as much effort as “adding a new tab to its app,” Chen suggested.
But other internet giants have also set their sight on plugged-in micromobility. Both Mobike and ride-sharing leader Didi Chuxing have their own e-bike sharing programs. It won’t be an easy game, as all contenders need to cope with China’s increasingly strict rules for electric bicycles.
Scooter rental is next
What’s for certain is that Hellobike has big ambitions for electric micromobility. While shared bikes and e-bikes are meant for one-off uses, Hellobike plans to rent out e-scooters for longer swathes of time as many people might want the powered-up vehicles for their daily commute.
Hellobike founded a new joint venture last month to fulfill that demand. Joining forces with Ant — which is controlled by Alibaba founder Jack Ma — and China’s top battery manufacturer CATL, Hellobike is launching a rental marketplace for its 25 km/h e-scooters targeted at millions of migrant workers in Chinese cities.
“People might be able to afford an e-scooter that costs several thousand yuan [$1 = 6.88yuan], but they might be leaving the city after a year, so why would they buy it? So we come in as a third-party partner with a new rental model through which people pay about 200 yuan a month to use the scooter,” explained Chen. “By doing so, we convert people from buying vehicles to paying for services, renting the vehicles.”
The three shareholders will also work to install more battery-swapping stations nationwide that not only recharge Hellobike’s shared e-bikes but also its e-scooters, that will be made by manufacturing partners.
“We function as a platform and won’t compete with traditional scooter manufacturers,” suggested Chen. “They still get to use their own designs and SKUs [stock keeping units], but we will put smart hardware into their models… so users know where their vehicles are… and they can unlock the scooters with a QR code just like they do with a shared bike or e-bike.”
Hellboke has raised at least $1.8 billion to date, according to public data compiled by Crunchbase. Bloomberg reported in April that it was seeking to raise at least $500 million in a new funding round. The company declined to comment on its fundraising progress.
When it comes to financial metrics, Chen, a veteran investment banker, declined to disclose whether Hellobike overall is profitable but said the company “performs much better than its competitors” financially. The most profitable segment, according to the executive, is the electric bike business.
As for bicycles, Chen noted that China’s main bike-sharing companies are “no longer burning money” since they’ve raised prices in recent times. Hellobike’s bike unit has achieved cash-flow positive during the warmer, peak seasons, Chen added.
IKEA and Sonos’ picture frame speaker has one big problem
Sonos and IKEA have returned with another surprisingly affordable speaker, but the SYMFONISK Picture Frame hides its music in plain sight. In the process it has added a new element of design to the partnership though, as excited as I am for more attainable connected speakers, I can’t help but feel that neither company has quite closed the loop on this third product.
I’m a big fan of Sonos and IKEA’s original SYMFONISK range, particularly the bookshelf speaker. At $99 it’s the most affordable speaker you can buy which will integrate with Sonos, and that opens up the door to expanding a Sonos system into rooms and spaces you might not otherwise have been able to justify. Home offices and kids bedrooms are good examples, but the affordable speaker also serves well as components for a rear surround sound system too.
Even when it launched the bookshelf and table lamp speakers, IKEA and Sonos weren’t coy in promising more from the SYMFONISK series. It was to be a long-term collaboration, the two companies insisted, leveraging the mass-market design chops of one with the tech-savvy of the other. We had to wait, of course, almost two years to see the third product arrive.
I’ll confess, I’m left scratching my head a little at the new SYMFONISK Picture Frame. Announced yesterday, it takes Sonos into a whole new form-factor compared to what the company is familiar with.
Sonos speakers aren’t exactly attention-grabbing, and Sonos Architectural installations can be positively surreptitious. However the new speaker for IKEA goes one step further, effectively hiding the audio side of things even as the SYMFONISK sits on the wall. Only the power cable really gives things away.
Speaker companies have tried flat speakers before, but never quite like this. IKEA’s contribution is, in no small part, the price tag. Yes, at $199 the picture frame is the most expensive of the SYMFONISK line-up so far, but it’s a far, far cry from the super-premium flat speakers we’ve seen attempted in the past. At 2.36-inches deep it’s not quite as slender as them, either, but I suspect the cost/thickness balance will be far more acceptable in terms of people opening their wallets.
What I struggle with, though, is the idea of it being a picture frame at all. More specifically, the fact that right now there’s no way to actually use your own art in there.
IKEA has designed it so that the picture pops out and can be replaced. The frame – in either black or white – is super-slim, to the point that you don’t really see it around the edge of the picture insert, but it means that you’ll be able to swap the default image for something new. That is, assuming IKEA has a design you like.
The two standard art pieces are the handiwork of European artist Jennifer Idrizi. They’re apparently inspired by visualizations of music and inter-connections, the result being an abstract interplay of lines that are more like a topographical network map than anything else. Neither is unpleasant, and you could easily picture them on the wall of a fancy apartment building’s show-suite.
At the same time, though, they’re hardly striking in an art sense. IKEA will have a couple of other designs, following on in August, and the retailer says that more versions will follow – and vary by geographic location – in due course. Much like the furniture company’s regular range evolves with the seasons, so too will SYMFONISK art, it seems.
What I’d really like, though, is the ability to put my own pictures in there instead. I doubt I’m alone in that. I suspect the challenge is that IKEA isn’t using paper or canvas for its art, instead relying on some sort of mesh that’s still acoustically transparent despite also showing Idrizi’s handiwork.
For now, Sonos tells me, there’s no provision for custom art for the SYMFONISK Picture Frame. That could change in the future, of course, and I really hope it does. The ability to upload a picture and have it reproduced on a speaker-compatible mesh seems like the sort of home decor idea people would love, and the Sonos audio side of that would be the gravy on top.
Honestly, I’m not sure SYMFONISK is going in the direction I – and others – expected it to. Sonos and IKEA’s plan to democratize music and design looked, initially, like a value play: the value that IKEA is already known for with so much of its range. However instead we’ve seen the attainable design side be emphasized, a reminder that part of IKEA’s charm has long been that it works with individual designers on products that are not only distinctive to look at but can be cost-effective to manufacture and ship at scale.
That’s arguably a far more exciting approach to the home audio category, and one I hope we don’t have to wait another two years to see the next installment in. More immediately, though, my fingers are crossed that Sonos and IKEA join up the dots on this new SYMFONISK offering, because while art is nice, art with personal meaning can be truly uplifting.
Here’s what the first Google Store is like on the inside
The first Google Store is almost open, and if you can’t make it to New York City to check out the new brick & mortar shop, a virtual walk-around is the next best thing. Google announced earlier in the year that it would be opening its first physical location for device sales, and now it has opened its doors in Chelsea, NYC.
At first, it seems like a fairly odd decision given the events of the past 18 months. Online shopping has soared in popularity, as the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing have kept people at home and online.
Still, Google argues that it does make sense. “This new space will be a natural extension of our commitment to NYC and provide customers with hands-on interaction with our lineup of devices and services — from Pixel phones and Nest products to Fitbit wearables and Pixelbooks,” Ivy Ross, VP of hardware design, UX & research, and Nathan Allen, head of store design & special projects, insist. Part of that is a recognition that Google’s device range is now considerable, and that can be overwhelming to new users.
As a result, the new Google Store takes a more hands-on, exploratory approach. Google worked with NYC-based architect Reddymade, even building a full-scale mockup in Mountain View, CA, where it could play with the layout and figure out how to best demo both hardware – like Pixel and Nest – and software.
The end result isn’t just a retail location, but a way for Google to showcase some of the other elements which have become increasingly important in product design. That includes sustainability: both for the devices on sale, and for the store itself. The building is certified LEED Platinum by the US Green Building Council, for example, around sustainable choices for construction and materials.
“Every element of the Google Store — the materials, building processes, mechanical systems and more — was painstakingly considered and selected,” Ross and Allen explain. “For example, the veneer on the walls is a soft gray responsibly sourced hickory, each lighting fixture is energy efficient and our custom cork and wood furniture was created with a local craftsman from Greenpoint, Brooklyn. We even attached our carpeting (which was manufactured with recycled materials) in a sustainable way.”
Of course, that still left room for some more playful elements. The most conspicuous is the “Google Imagination Space”: a 17 foot tall circular glass structure filled with huge touchscreens that can be used to show off immersive demos. That’ll begin with Google Translate, which will do real-time translation across 24 different languages as visitors speak.
There’ll be specially-trained staff to give advice and do demos, and an opportunity to see all of the different color options of each product. Gamers will be able to try out Google Stadia, too, in a specially set-up game hall.
The Google Store is open from tomorrow, June 17, from 10am ET.
Honor 50 series launches with Google good news
Honor has revealed its Honor 50 smartphones and, more importantly, that Google’s apps and services will be supported on the new handsets. The announcement today – which confirmed availability and pricing for the Honor 50 and Honor 50 Pro in China – came with the news that the former Huawei subsidiary has achieved its big goal in spinning out.
Honor began as Huawei’s focused brand on younger users, borrowing technology from its corporate parent but packaging it into a more affordable line-up. However when Huawei was placed on the US government’s entity list, blocking it from doing business with American firms, it left Honor also out of the loop for accessing Google apps and services.
That’s proved to be disastrous for Huawei, with its smartphone sales slumping dramatically. Honor, meanwhile, was spun out into its own, standalone business late last year. That allowed it to begin inking the deals with companies that Huawei simply wasn’t allowed to.
The fruits of that freedom will be the Honor 50 series, the company confirmed today. “Honor devices will undergo Google’s Play Protect certified security review and compatibility testing process to ensure they are ready to run apps from Google and the Google Play Store,” the company told SlashGear in a statement. “Honor devices will therefore have the option to have Google Mobile Services (“GMS”) preinstalled on compatible devices, in accordance with Google’s licensing and governance models. Consumers will be able to experience HONOR smartphones and tablets equipped with GMS.”
It’ll include both smartphones and tablets from Honor, beyond just the new Honor 50. “Going forward all the phones that we will launch in global markets will have GMS,” a spokesperson told us.
It’s a big deal for Honor, and its ambitions to be a player in global markets. Without the Google deal it’s been unable to include apps like Gmail, Google Maps, and YouTube on its phones. Equally important, it hasn’t been able to load the Google Play Store either, meaning buyers of Honor devices have been cut off from Google’s official app download store.
For the Honor 50 series specifically, the company plans to put the phones up for preorder in China on June 16. Broader availability – including the UK, France, Mexico, Malaysia, Russia, and Saudi Arabia – will follow later in the year, though no further details have been shared at this stage.
The Honor 50 Pro is, unsurprisingly, the more interesting of the two. It has a 6.72-inch 120Hz display, and is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 778G chipset. On the back are two circular camera clusters, with a 100-megapixel main sensor, an 8-megapixel ultra-wide, a 2-megapixel depth camera, and a 2-megapixel depth camera. On the front there’s a pair of cameras for selfies: a 32-megapixel regular sensor, and a 12-megapixel ultra-wide.
For the Honor 50, the chipset is the same, as are the rear cameras. However the screen is a 6.57-inch 120Hz panel, and the selfie camera loses out on the dedicated ultra-wide. The Honor 50 Pro has a 4,000 mAh battery with up to 100W fast-charging, while the Honor 50 has a slightly larger 4,300 mAh battery but only 66W fast charging.
The Honor 50 will be priced at RMB 2699 ($422), and the Honor 50 Pro at RMB 3699 ($578).
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