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India’s Times Internet isn’t ceding ground to US rivals Facebook and Google

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The aggressive push by Silicon Valley companies and Chinese firms to win India, one of the last great growth markets, has decimated many local businesses in recent years. With each passing day, Amazon is closing in on Walmart-owned Flipkart’s lead on the e-commerce space. Uber is fighting with Ola for the tentpole position of the ride-hailing market; and Google and Facebook dominate the ads business, to name a few. But a handful of companies in India have not only survived the growing competition, but they have built businesses that are positively thriving.

Media conglomerate Times Internet, one such company, says that its properties now reach 110 million users each day and 450 million unique users each month. To put this in context: Facebook and Google have about 300 million monthly active users in India. Facebook, which is mired in controversy over the spread of misinformation on WhatsApp in India (and other regions), has not revealed its growth in the nation in last two years. But in a marketing pitch, the juggernaut says its family of apps (marquee Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram) reach 350 million users in the nation each month.

In a rare industry move, Satyan Gajwani, vice chairman of Times Internet, shared an overview of the conglomerate’s business on Tuesday, revealing the ever growing tentacles of its ambitions.

If the numbers are so huge, why self-publish? Gajwani declined to comment but his company is in a unique situation. For all its scale, Times Internet remains one of the least talked about conglomerates of its size in the country. Most news organizations in India compete with its media outlets, which may explain why it is under-reported in the press.

The ever-growing portfolio of Times Internet companies

The subsidiary of 181-year-old Bennett Coleman and Company Limited (popularly known as Times Group) operates more than three dozen properties, including newspaper Times of India, online outlet Indiatimes, advertisement business Colombia, venture arm Tventures, and streaming services Gaana and MX Player . And nearly all of these properties are growing, Gajwani said.

For instance, Times Internet’s news outlets have amassed 265 million monthly active users. The Times of India, the country’s most read newspaper and news website, alone has 212 million monthly active users, up by 44% since last year. Times Internet’s regional digital periodicals such as NewsPoint, Navbharat Times, Maharashtra Times, Vijay Karnataka now have 122 monthly active users, he said.

Music streaming service Gaana, which raised $115 million from Tencent and others last year, reached 100 monthly active users in March this year, the service announced last week. MX Player, a video playback app that doubles as a streaming service that Times Internet acquired for some $140 million last year, is one of the most popular Android apps in emerging markets.

During the first month of ongoing IPL cricket tournament, one of the hottest events in India, 118 million users tuned into Times Internet’s Cricbuzz, a news and entertainment service dedicated to sports. As the ecosystem of mobile gaming begins to gain major traction in India, Times Internet says it is building a portfolio of apps in this space, too.

Its lifestyle properties such as MensXP, iDiva, and Whats Hot have 40 million monthly active users and its videos clock more than 200 million views each month. These properties are exploring an additional revenue channel by selling products directly to customers, Gajwani told TechCrunch in an interview.

Times Internet vice chairman Satyan Gajwani

Moving beyond ads

Chasing that avenue illustrates Times Internet’s growing push to grow its business beyond ads. Most of Times Internet’s properties are built on top of ads and don’t cost users anything for access. Its own advertising business, called Colombia, now supplements some advertisement on its network and is used by more than a dozen outside brands including Ola, ABP News, and Hotstar.

But online advertising still can’t compete with those of TV and print in India, Satish Meena, an analyst with research firm Forrester told TechCrunch. So in recent years, Times Internet has announced a number of subscription services across many of its properties.

“Especially for premium publishers, an ads-only business model is not likely to last or sustain in the long run,” Gajwani said. Last year, Times Internet announced Times Prime, a subscription bundle that includes access to premium version of Gaana, an ad-free experience on Times of India, and discounts on a number of third-party services such as food delivery Swiggy, retailer BigBasket, and theatre chain PVR Cinemas. Gajwani said Times Internet has hit a million customers across its subscription services.

Part of Times Internet’s push to expand its revenue channels is its growing focus on Tventures, its VC fund that made early investments in a number of startups including edtech startup Byju’s and logistics startup Delhivery, two unicorns. It has also invested in ride-hailing service Shuttl, and cricket fantasy app MPL among others.

Gajwani said Tventures looks at “use cases that can benefit from its growing network.” And that’s one of the big advantages of Times Internet’s scale. The properties they own enjoy great advertisement benefits across its sprawling network. “There are very few companies — with exception of Google and Facebook — that have our level of scale,” Gajwani said.

Times Internet, which employs over 5,000 people, also operates Times Bridge, an investment firm that ties with international brands to help them launch in India. Some of its strategic partners include Uber, Airbnb, and Coursera. It also partnered with a number of news outlets including Business Insider, TechRadar, Huffington Post (which, like TechCrunch, is owned by Verizon Media Group), AdAge, PCMag, and Gizmodo Media properties Lifehacker and Gizmodo to launch them in India.

But it isn’t all success, there have been less successful ventures particularly in the media segment.

The Indian versions of Lifehacker, Gizmodo, TechRadar, and PCMag failed to attract significant audiences in the nation and have already closed shops. Huffington Post ended its partnership with Times Internet in 2017 and it now wholly controls Huffington Post India.

Gajwani admitted that Times Internet realized working with some niche publishers isn’t so sustainable. “We have some partnerships that we maintain that are doing well such as Business Insider,” he added. Today, Times Internet is no longer primarily looking at publishers for future partnerships, and instead focusing on “platforms and technologies.”

A couple of hiccups aside, the biggest challenge for Times Internet going forward is generating sufficient revenue from ads and convincing enough users to become paying customers. Times Internet generated $202 million in fiscal year 2018 at a loss of $23 million, according to regulatory filings. In an interview last week, Gaana CEO Prashan Agarwal said his music streaming service, which dominates the market but is not profitable, will introduce a number of premium plans across a wide range of price tiers to attract users.

Gajwani said he also hopes to build Colombia into one of the biggest ad networks in India and tap 20 million paying subscribers by 2023. He said some properties within Times Network could raise additional cash from outside investors in the coming future.  These are ambitious goals, but Times Internet is one of the few firms in India that realistically has a shot at co-existing with dominant overseas tech platforms.

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Lord of the Rings-themed cryptocurrency gets thrown into Mount Doom

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Enlarge / A screenshot from jrrtoken.com. All similarities to LOTR were purely coincidental, apparently.

The estate of J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings, has successfully vanquished a cryptocurrency that styled itself as “The One Token That Rules Them All.”

The JRR Token cryptocurrency launched in August, with a website that featured rings, hobbit holes, and a wizard with an uncanny resemblance to Gandalf.

But the Tolkien estate, which handles the rights to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings fantasy novels, quickly stepped in to lodge a complaint with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the global forum for intellectual property policy.

It noted that the cryptocurrency’s website domain name infringed its trademarks. Tolkien’s novels have been made into a trilogy of Hollywood films, directed by Peter Jackson and starring Ian McKellen.

In response, lawyers for Matthew Jensen, JRR Token’s Florida-based developer, said that “token” was a generic term, should not be confused with the surname Tolkien, and it did not infringe any intellectual property.

But the WIPO administrative panel decision concluded that there was no doubt that the developer was “aware of Tolkien’s works and created a website to trade off the fame of these works.”

The Tolkien estate said it had now recovered the JRRToken.com domain name and had obtained the developer’s undertaking to stop all operations under the JRR Token name and delete any infringing content from all relevant websites and social media accounts.

Steven Maier, solicitor at law firm Maier Blackburn, which acted for the J.R.R. Tolkien estate, said this was a “particularly flagrant case of infringement” and added that the estate was “vigilant” about preventing unauthorized parties from taking advantage of the J.R.R. Tolkien name.

In the past the Tolkien estate has sued tourism and merchandise companies for making use of the author’s name and literary works, but this is the first time it has taken action against a cryptocurrency.

Johnson Dalal, the US law firm representing Jensen, has been contacted for comment but had not responded by time of publication.

© 2021 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved Not to be redistributed, copied, or modified in any way.

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A grim milestone: I maxed out the number of spammy addresses Gmail can block

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A few months ago, my G Suite-enabled Gmail account reached a grim milestone: with no warning, the “block [email address]” feature—available from the menu with the three vertical dots in the upper left of the Gmail screen—stopped working because I had maxed out the total number of addresses Google allows to be blocked.

For years, I’ve used the feature liberally to block emails from PR ​​people who send off-topic pitches or scammers who try to phish my passwords or infect my devices. With a single click, any future emails sent by those nuisance addresses automatically landed in my spam folder.

Blocked but not blocked

At some point, the block address feature stopped working. When I use the feature now to block an address, I see a message telling me that all future emails from the address will go to my spam folder. Which is exactly what I want. But that’s not what happens. Emails from those addresses continue to go right into my inbox.

Google provides no easy way to know about this. Here’s what I see immediately after I try to block an address:

And yet, I continue to receive emails from the same address. And when I open the email, sure enough, it’s clear the address is NOT blocked.

I asked Google PR about this and got a response that Gmail accounts are limited to just 1,000 blocked addresses. A spokesperson said Google is considering raising the limit, but if it does, it will “take some time” for it to happen.

This is a MAJOR step back. I get so much junk mail (mostly from PR people who either don’t know or don’t care what my beat is) that the block feature has been crucial to my productivity. Gmail was the first to pioneer an email service with data storage caps measured in the gigabytes. Early on, it provided powerful tools for sorting and searching messages. It integrated the calendar. And yet, despite all this ingenuity, Gmail limits blocked addresses to a paltry 1,000? What the hell?

Since then, I’ve used Gmail filter rules to free my inbox of junk, but that’s hardly satisfactory. Creating filter rules on an address-by-address basis requires considerably more clicks than using the block feature. And even then, Gmail filters have no way to send messages to spam. I’m also guessing Gmail may limit the number of filter rules as well.

An imperfect workaround

Google Project Zero researcher Tavis Ormandy, acting solely on his own behalf and not for his employer, has offered one workaround. It’s not very user-friendly, and I’m still not sure if it fully works for me, but it seems promising. The idea is to copy all 1,000 email addresses I have blocked and paste them into a filter rule that deletes all messages from those senders.

What this means is that he created a script and ran it inside his browser console as he was viewing his blocklist in the Gmail settings menu. To find the blocklist, click the three vertical dots in the main Gmail window, choose “manage inbox settings,” and select the “filters and blocked addresses” tab. Then, hit the F12 key on a computer keyboard, choose the console tab, and paste the script.

Ormandy’s script looks like this:

Array.from(document.querySelectorAll("tr.r7[role=listitem]")).map(a => a.innerText.match(/<(.*)>tunblock/)?.[1]).filter(a => a).join(' OR ')

The console then returns a list of all the email addresses in the blocklist, with each one separated by a boolean OR. Then copy the list, go back to the Gmail “filters and blocked addresses” tab, and click “create new filter.” Paste the addresses into the “From” field, click “continue,” tick the “Delete it” box, and click the “create filter” at the bottom.

In theory, this single rule should block all emails sent from these addresses, and that should allow me to delete the 1,000 blocked addresses so I can once again add fresh addresses to the blocklist. In practice, Gmail tends to choke when fed all 1,000 addresses at once.

When I broke up the list into smaller chunks, I got inconsistent results. Some emails were deleted and others weren’t. I wasn’t able to find a pattern for those that worked or didn’t work. Besides choking on large lists of addresses, another problem is that in my tests, new filters can take as long as an hour to begin working, but I don’t think that’s the only reason for the difficulty.

The bigger point is that Gmail users shouldn’t have to jump through hoops like these to keep their inboxes free of spam and malicious emails. There’s no limit to the badness the Internet can dish out, so there shouldn’t be a limit on remedies for this badness, either. Gmail, please throw me a life raft soon. Without the block capability, I’m drowning.

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Locked out of “God mode,” runners are hacking their treadmills

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Enlarge / NordicTrack owners aren’t giving up the fight just yet.

Sam Whitney | Getty Images

JD Howard just wanted to watch cloud security tutorials. Howard, a construction industry worker on sabbatical, spent $4,000 on a NordicTrack X32i treadmill, lured in by its 32-inch HD screen and the opportunity to exercise body and mind. His plan was to spend his time away from work exercising while watching technical videos from learning platforms such as Pluralsight and Udemy. But his treadmill had other ideas.

Despite having a huge display strapped to it, NordicTrack’s hardware pushes people to subscribe to exercise software operated by iFit, its parent company, and doesn’t let you watch videos from other apps or external sources. iFit’s content includes exercise classes and running routes, which automatically change the incline of the treadmill depending on the terrain on the screen. But Howard, and many other NordicTrack owners, weren’t drawn to the hardware by iFit’s videos. They were drawn in by how easy the fitness machines were to hack.

To get into his X32i, all Howard needed to do was tap the touchscreen 10 times, wait seven seconds, then tap 10 more times. Doing so unlocked the machine—letting Howard into the underlying Android operating system. This privilege mode, a sort of God mode, gave Howard complete control over the treadmill: he could sideload apps and, using a built-in browser, access anything and everything online. “It wasn’t complicated,” Howard says. After accessing privilege mode he installed a third-party browser that allowed him to save passwords and fire up his beloved cloud security videos.

While NordicTrack doesn’t advertise privilege mode as a customer feature, its existence isn’t exactly a secret. Multiple unofficial guides tell people how to get into their machines, and even iFit’s support pages explain how to access it. The whole reason Howard bought the X32i, he says, was because he could access God mode. But the good times didn’t last long.

Since October, NordicTrack has been automatically updating all of its exercise equipment—its bikes, ellipticals, and rowing machines all have big screens attached—to block access to privilege mode. The move has infuriated customers who are now fighting back and finding workarounds that allow them to bypass the update and watch whatever they want while they work out.

“I got exactly what I paid for,” Howard says, adding that he already owned a “crappy” treadmill without a screen before he purchased the Internet-connected model and is also a subscriber to the iFit software. “Now they’re trying to take away [features] that are of critical importance to me. I’m not OK with that.”

Another NordicTrack owner, who asked not to be named, says the treadmill is one of the most expensive purchases he’s ever made, and he was “outraged” when the update stopped him and his partner from watching Netflix, YouTube, and English Premier League football highlights while they worked out. “You’ve actually pushed an update to stop me from doing this, which is really bizarre,” he says. “It’s so frustrating because this beautiful screen is here.”

They aren’t alone in their complaints. In recent weeks multiple threads and posts lamenting NordicTrack and iFit’s decision to lock down privilege mode have appeared online. Customers complain that they’ve spent thousands of dollars on their machines and should be able to do what they like with them, many arguing that being able to watch their favorite shows means they’re more likely to spend time working out. Some say they valued the ability to cast iFit’s exercise videos onto a bigger screen; other say they want to use their treadmills for Zoom calls. Many complain that, in contrast to previous software updates, the one to block privilege mode was forced upon them.

“The block on privilege mode was automatically installed because we believe it enhances security and safety while using fitness equipment that has multiple moving parts,” says a spokesperson for NordicTrack and iFit. The company has never marketed its products as being able to access other apps, the spokesperson adds. “As there is no way of knowing what kind of changes or errors a consumer could introduce into the software, there is no way of knowing what specific issues accessing privilege mode might cause,” the spokesperson says. “Therefore, to maintain security, safety, and machine functionality, we have restricted access to privilege mode.” The spokesperson also emphasizes that privilege mode was “never designed as a consumer-facing functionality.” Rather, it was designed to allow the company’s customer service team to remotely access the products to “troubleshoot, update, reset, or repair our software.”

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