You’d be forgiven for being cynical. I’ve been seeing foldable display concepts for as long as I’ve been attending tech trade shows (which, quite frankly, is longer than I care to mention). Big names like Samsung and LG have been pumping countless R&D dollars into the technology in hopes of being first to next step in the evolution of the smart phone form factor.
The concept is nothing new, of course. The flip phone pre-dates the ubiquitous smartphone slab by decades. And a number of companies have tried to cheat the system. 2017’s Axon M was one of the more memorable attempts in recent memory — though that device amounted to little more than two screens jammed together on a hinge.
It bold and brash, but more than anything it was completely silly with an execution that left a lot to be desired. In my review, I called it “a fascinating mess.” But hey, ZTE deserves at least some credit for a run of products that attempted — with varying degrees of success — to buck the trend of samey smartphones.
There are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about the state of technology in 2019, but I humbly offer you a beacon of light. This is the year smartphones become fun again. With their back to the corner, facing flagging sales, smartphone makers are taking leaps. Hell, it’s still January, and we’ve already caught a glimpse of what’s to compete.
At the front of the charger are foldables. That seems to be the term we’ve settled on for now — and it suits the category just fine. What convertibles were to the laptop category, foldables are to phones. True foldables require the display itself to do the folding, so devices can ostensibly transform from a one-handed smartphone to a larger tablet.
The Axon M didn’t fit the description for a number of reason, not the least of which was the gap between the two displays, which, quite frankly, made for a pretty crappy movie viewing experience, among others.
The first real foldable we’ve seen was a surprise contender. If the name “Royole” meant anything to you, prior to the Flex Pai, it was probably followed by the phrase “with cheese.” From the moment we first saw grainy footage of the handset, it was clear that being first and being best are rarely one and the same. “Folding screens are here,” I wrote at the time, “and they look crappy.”
I got some time with an updated version of the handset about a month later in China, and reappraised my initial impressions a bit. Even still, the Flex Pai didn’t and doesn’t strike me as much more than a little known company’s push bid to make a name for itself simply by being first.
Romain spent a bit more time with the device at CES, and appears to have come to similar conclusions. Royole does get credit for actually making the device a reality — even if it’s one that’s more developer focused than consumer. That does, of course, speak to a broader issue around usability.
It was a cause Google was happy to take up in November, when the company announced Android support for foldable displays. Like the notch before it, Google was attempting to get out ahead of the looming trend.
Here’s how Android VP Dave Burke described the category at the time, “You can think of the device as both a phone and a tablet, Broadly, there are two variants — two-screen devices and one-screen devices. When folded, it looks like a phone, fitting in your pocket or purse. The defining feature for this form factor is something we call screen continuity.”
It’s going to be fascinating to see if the industry coalesces around a single form factor here. The Flex Pai is one of the simpler ones — essentially operating like a sheet of paper that (somewhat awkwardly) folds in half so you can slip it in your pocket.
The same day that Google announced Android support, Samsung (briefly) showed off its own version of the technology. In the whooping 45 seconds the company devoted to it during a its two-hour keynote, we caught a glimpse of what looks to be an early prototype. Here, the device sports a display on the outside and unfolds to reveal a larger display within.
The “Infinity Flex Display” appeared at first glance to be more sophisticated than Royole’s — but “glance” is really the operative word here. It was a big, blocky prototype that we’ll be hearing more about at Unpacked next month.
Earlier this week, meanwhile, Xiaomi debuted what’s since come to be regarded as the most advanced of the bunch, but like Samsung, we only got a glimpse. And here it was in a much more controlled environment of a short, pre-recorded clip and extremely low resolution. That said, “the world’s first ever double folding phone” looks like a thing out of a sci-fi film.
The company, telling, tossed around the word “prototype” quite liberally there.
And then there’s Huawei. Mobile Chief Richard Yu highlight plans to announce a 5G folding phone at Mobile World Congress next month. As ever, details are scarce. Same goes for Motorola’s Razer, a $1,500 folding throwback, which is firmly in the rumor stages.
If that price point gives you pause, well, get used to it. The Flex Pai is already available at $1,300, and most other handsets are appear on track to hit roughly the same price point, making the latest iPhone and Samsung Galaxy devices look like a downright bargain.
YouTube teases expansion of livestream shopping with new features arriving later this year – TechCrunch
In recent years, YouTube has been working to transform its platform into more of a shopping destination with product launches like shoppable ads or more recently, the ability to shop directly from livestreams hosted by creators. Now, it’s furthering that investment with new features for live shopping experiences. At yesterday’s YouTube Brandcast event, where the company pitched itself to advertisers as a better place for their TV ad dollars, YouTube teased upcoming features that it claimed would make it easier for viewers to discover and buy from brands.
The company touted its forthcoming tools as offering advertisers a better way to engage viewers and make connections with their audience.
One new feature, explained YouTube, will allow two creators to go live at the same time to cohost a single live shopping stream. This could effectively double the draw for the event, as each creator would bring their own fanbase to the stream.
This feature arrives shortly after YouTube in March announced a pilot program called “Go Live Together,” a new mobile collaborative streaming feature that would enable creators to invite guests to their livestream with a link before going live together. This trial suggested YouTube had its eye on developing tools to better power joint livestreams — just as it’s now planning to introduce with its upcoming two-person live shopping streams. The addition could also make YouTube more competitive with Instagram which launched the ability for creators to go live with up to three people last year.
In addition to leveraging creators to build an audience for a live shopping event, YouTube’s shopping livestreams platform also offers other tools specifically designed to drive sales. The brand-integrated shopping experience actually allows viewers to shop the products shown in the video by tapping on a built-in “view products” button which then brings up a list of items featured by the creators.
The company says its new two-person live shopping feature will roll out sometime later this year.
Another upcoming option announced at Brandcast is something YouTube calls “live redirects.”
In this case, creators will be able to start a shopping livestream on their channel, then redirect their audience over to a brand’s channel for fans to keep watching. This allows brands to tap into the power of the creator’s platform and reach their fanbase, but then gives the brands themselves access to that audience — and the key metrics and analytics associated with their live event — directly on their own YouTube channel. This will also roll out sometime this year, says YouTube, but didn’t provide a timeframe.
YouTube’s announcements follow the broader growth of the live e-commerce market in the U.S. — a trend inspired by the livestream shopping activity surging in China, where streamers can pull in billions of dollars in a matter of hours. Today, a number of startups have also entered this space, including TalkShopLive, PopShop Live, NTWRK, Whatnot, ShopShops, Supergreat, and others. Klarna even added virtual shopping capabilities to connect its buy-now, pay-later customers with live product demos from retail partners.
Retailers, too, are getting in on the action. Nordstrom launched a live events platform, while Forever 21 and Macy’s are among those that added live shopping to their apps.
Meanwhile, big tech platforms are wooing brands by touting their wider reach.
Over the past year or so, we’ve seen Walmart pilot testing TikTok’s first livestreamed shopping experience; Facebook’s live shopping boosting sales for brands like Petco, Benefit, Samsung, Anne Klein, and others; and Instagram hosting live shopping events to cater to holiday crowds. Twitter even began to test livestream shopping, also with Walmart’s help on its pilot run — but it’s unclear where such initiatives will land if the Elon Musk buyout comes to pass.
While YouTube is certainly one of the largest creator platforms for video, there is some indication that it needs to catch up to its big tech rivals in livestream shopping, however. An eMarketer study from Jan. 2022 found that only 14.4% of survey respondents said YouTube’s platform drove them to purchase during a livestream event compared with 15.8% for TikTok, 45.8% for Instagram, and 57.8% for Facebook.
YouTube’s new livestream features — and particularly the one that pushes a creator’s fanbase to a brand’s channel — could make its solution more compelling.
“People come to YouTube every day to make decisions about what to buy, and 87% of viewers say that when they’re shopping or browsing on YouTube, they feel like they can make a faster decision about what to purchase because of all the information that we have in videos,” said YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, speaking to the audience at the Brandcast live event last night. “We have so much shopping activity that is already happening on YouTube, so we are making it even easier for viewers to discover and to buy,” she said.
IROKO co-founder Bastian Gotter raises $3.2M seed for new venture, Bamba – TechCrunch
In 2010, Bastian Gotter invested up to $200,000 into IROKOtv, an African video-on-demand company Jason Njoku, his friend and co-founder, launched in Lagos, Nigeria.
For the next couple of years, Gotter, as CFO, was instrumental in turning IROKO — after raising over $30 million from VCs, including Tiger Global — into a household name in Nigeria’s entertainment and tech scenes.
Gotter left the media company in 2017, an exit that afforded him the chance to take up angel investing full-time and pursue new projects. Gotter has cut checks in Paystack, Flutterwave and betPawa and co-runs Spark, an investment vehicle he launched with Njoku.
In 2018, he started a pre-school chain based in the U.K. and South Africa. Two years later, he became part of the founding team of Kenyan-based fintech PawaPay, whose API connects up to 25 telecom operators’ mobile money systems and allows merchants from 10 countries to receive and send payments between mobile money accounts.
Gotter is an investor and board member in PawaPay, roles that can be active and passive depending on who’s involved. For Gotter, it was more of the latter, and so this January, he began to explore other opportunities in the mobile money payments space, specifically relating to small businesses. This led him to start Bamba, a mobile-based enterprise software for African micro-merchants, that has raised $3.2 million.
After spending some time in Kenya (where he was now used to paying via mobile money and rarely cash), he noticed that businesses relied heavily on manual bookkeeping and didn’t have software to record their cash and mobile money transactions.
“They also recorded stock components and had some form of customer relationship management on WhatsApp. It wasn’t a coherent picture and was just a big mess,” he said on a call to TechCrunch. “And that’s where we ultimately saw an opportunity to launch Bamba.”
Micro, small and medium-sized businesses make up 90% of all businesses in sub-Saharan Africa. And there are new upstarts that provide digital bookkeeping services for a minute number of them in West Africa, such as Sabi Cash, Bumpa, Kippa and OZÉ. Bamba is a matching solution for Kenya and surrounding East African markets, where these merchants accepted over $200 billion in mobile money payments last year.
The platform comprises an enterprise management software and an Android application that provides tools for micro-merchants to run their businesses. Its features include managing customers, recording stock levels and receiving and making payments.
“Merchants can record what cash and mobile money transactions they collect and their cash and mobile money payouts. And through that initial record keeping, we have an entry point into the business,” said Gotter, who also mentioned that Bamba wants to improve cash collection for merchants primarily done via USSD and M-Pesa pay bill numbers at point-of-sale.
“We have the inventory management components that tie in with how many and which goods are sold. Then the payments bit ultimately resulting in a point of sale type devices like Square or Yoco that lets you get a clearer picture of your business and your activities.”
Lack of credit is a thorn in merchants’ flesh globally; this holds more true in sub-Sahara Africa, where the credit gap for small businesses stands at over $300 billion. This is one prominent area bookkeeping digitization proves its utmost importance for merchants. And despite launching with various entry points into the market, startups in this space converge at that singular point. For Bamba, its solution, intersecting inventory, CRM and payments will allow it to provide merchants with cash advances against their future cash flow.
“These are businesses that have previously not been lent to as their credit score was insufficient to get the appropriate loans. But since we have a pretty accurate picture of our customers in terms of its cash and mobile money receivables, we can make accurate lending decisions to them in a way not done before,” the CEO stated.
Bamba is currently in stealth mode and is yet to launch. Gotter said the five-month-old startup is testing its platform with 30 merchants. Its revenue will come from two streams: a small payment fee paid by merchants and interests from its lending/cash advance product.
“We’re very deep in the research phase and quick iteration cycle to figure out the initial product we want to launch at a greater scale in 12 markets,” said the CEO who founded Bamba with Martin Schramm in January.
This seed funding is integral to speeding up this process of acquiring more users and scaling the engineering team behind the product. Berlin and San Francisco-based 468 Capital led the round, while Presight Ventures and Jigsaw VC participated alongside angel investors such as Laurin Hainy of FairMoney and Leonard Stiegeler of Pulse.
Ludwig Ensthaler, a partner at 468 Capital, in a statement, highlighted why his firm backed the Kenyan-based startup. He said the investment opportunities in enterprise software focused on African small businesses are largely untapped, and Bamba “is well placed with a great product and a solid founder to build a category-defining company.”
Apple reportedly testing E Ink outer display for upcoming foldable – TechCrunch
Ming-Chi Kuo is one of a handful of Apple analysts whose reports always warrant a second look, regardless of how strange they might seem at first blush. We’ve heard plenty of reports that the company is testing its own version of a foldable device, in its customary style of being fashionably late to the party, while also being the best dressed there.
It stands to reason that the company is experimenting with all sorts of takes on the form factor. While companies like Samsung and Huawei have made great strides since the first generation of foldable devices, one can certainly make the argument that no one has perfectly cracked the code just yet. The screen technology has improved a good bit in recent years — and so, too, has E Ink technology.
“Apple is testing E Ink’s Electronic Paper Display (EPD) for future foldable device’s cover screen & tablet-like applications,” Kuo reported on Twitter earlier today. “The color EPD has the potential to become a mainstream solution for foldable devices’ must-have cover/second screen thanks to its excellent power-saving.”
The last part is undeniable. One of E Ink’s biggest selling points is power saving. It’s a key part of the reason your Kindle’s battery life is rated in weeks, instead of hours. But the technology has traditionally had numerous drawbacks that have hampered mainstream adoption outside of a few select categories like e-readers.
Recent generations of E Ink’s electronic paper have added color and sped up the notoriously slow refresh rate and responsiveness. One imagines that there’s still a ways to go before Apple adopts such technology, even for a secondary, external display. Though, with the first of the company’s foldables rumored for a 2025 release (at earliest), perhaps that leaves enough time for the electronic paper technology to get up to speed.
As ever, one must take all of the above with a few grains of salt. It’s a long timeline, and even if the reports prove out, there’s a big gulf between testing and releasing. It’s also worth noting that these sorts of rumors have existed for nearly as long as the iPhone has. So, short term, maybe it’s best to focus on more attainable rumors like a USB-C iPhone.
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