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What Pixel 3a tells us about the state of the smartphone — and Google – TechCrunch

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Announced yesterday at Google’s opening I/O keynote, the Pixel 3a arrives at a tenuous time for the smartphone industry. Sales figures have stagnated for most of the major players in the industry — a phenomenon from which Google certainly isn’t immune.

CEO Sundar Pichai discussed exactly that on the company’s Q1 earnings call last week. “While the first quarter results reflect pressure in the premium smartphone industry,” he explained, “we are pleased with the ongoing momentum of Assistant-enabled Home devices, particularly the Home Hub and Mini devices, and look forward to our May 7 announcement at I/O from our hardware team.”

That last bit was a clear reference to the arrival of the new budget tier of Google’s flagship offering. The 3a is a clear push to address one of the biggest drivers of slowing smartphone sales. With a starting price of $399, it’s a fraction of the price of top handsets from competitors like Apple and Samsung.

There’s been a fairly rapid creep in flagship prices in recent years. Handsets starting at north of $1,000 hardly warrant a second glance anymore, while many forthcoming foldables are hovering around double that.

As Google VP of Product Management Mario Queiroz told me ahead of launch, “The smartphone market has started to flatten. We think one of the reasons is because, you know, the premium segment of the market is a very large segment, but premium phones have gotten more and more expensive, you know, three, four years ago, you could buy a premium phone for $500.”

Inflated prices have certainly made device purchases more burdensome for buyers. That, coupled with a relative lack of compelling new features has gone a ways toward slowing down upgrade cycles, hurting sales in the process.

I’ve enjoyed my early hands-on time with the 3a — more to come on that later. It’s important to note the different factors that have allowed Google to get to this stage. A key driver is, of course, Google’s purchase of massive R&D resources from HTC. That result of HTC’s dip into sub-replacement level hardware manufacturer has resulted in the ability to develop hardware in house, on the relatively cheap at a new campus in Taipei.

Also important is Google’s ongoing quest to further uncouple the importance of hardware from smartphone upgrades. The company’s big investments in machine learning and artificial intelligence particularly are driving many of the innovations best demonstrated on the imaging side of things. Devin captured this sentiment in this piece written in the wake of the iPhone XS announcement.

Notably, the Pixel 3a has essentially the same camera hardware as the pricier 3. Google cut some corners here, but that wasn’t one. There are still and will continue to be some limitations to what the 3a is able to do, based on processing power, but the line between what the two devices can do is already pretty blurry when it comes to taking photos.

There’s another factor that’s been looming over Pixel sales in all of this — but for several reasons, Pichai wasn’t ready to discuss it on the call. For years, the line has been hampered by carrier exclusivity, something that feels like it ought to be relegated to the smartphone past.

Certainly that sort of arrangement makes sense for young companies like OnePlus or Palm, which are looking for a way into a market, while seeking to maintain manageable growth. But Google certainly has the resources to grow outside of a single carrier deal. And the fact of the matter (as Huawei has discovered the hard way) is that carrier distribution and contracts as still key drivers of smartphone distribution here in the States, even as most manufacturers also offer unlocked devices. I suspect those upfront costs are enough to make many consumers do a double take — even though we all know in our hearts the contract is ultimately where they get you.

Thankfully, Google announced that it will be making the Pixel 3 and 3a available on a lot more carriers, starting this week. That move ought to have a marked impact on the Pixel’s sales figures going forward. The addition of Sprint and T-Mobile among others means a lot more retail shelf space and ad dollars across the U.S. Devices are a harder sell when your average consumer has to go out of their way to find them — not to mention the difficulty of convincing users to switch carriers for a new device.

I’d caution against using Q2 results as a direct measure of the 3a’s appeal and Google’s move toward a six-month device release cycle. At this early stage it’s too early to uncouple that from new customers who are coming on board courtesy of those carrier additions. Even so, the device is an interesting litmus test for the current state of the smartphone, right down to the return of the headphone jack.

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IROKO co-founder Bastian Gotter raises $3.2M seed for new venture, Bamba – TechCrunch

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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.”

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Apple reportedly testing E Ink outer display for upcoming foldable – TechCrunch

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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.”

Image Credits: Brian Heater (Samsung’s Galaxy Fold)

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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Snapchat’s stricter policies for anonymous apps and friend finders aren’t yet fully enforced – TechCrunch

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A small handful of Snap Kit platform developers have not yet complied with the new guidelines around anonymous messaging and friend-finding apps announced in March. The Snapchat maker revamped its developer platform policies on March 17, 2022, to ban anonymous apps and require developers to build friend-finding apps to limit access to users 18 or older. The policy changes were effective immediately and existing developers were given 30 days to come into compliance — a date that would have passed last month.

It is now mid-May and some developers of the newly banned and restricted apps are not yet meeting Snap’s new requirements, we’ve found.

Snap says only a small number of developers asked for and were granted additional time to bring apps into compliance, as they worked in good faith to make the necessary changes. But it may be difficult for consumers to tell which apps are compliant, which are skirting the new rules, and which are marketing Snap Kit integrations that they actually don’t have.

For example, one of the apps offered an extension is Sendit, the anonymous Q&A app that surged to the top of the App Store last year after Snap suspended other top anonymous Q&A apps, YOLO and LMK. Those latter two apps had been banned from Snap’s platform after the company was sued by a mother of a teen who died by suicide after being bullied via those tools. This year, Snap was named in a second lawsuit, alongside Meta, related to an alleged lack of safeguards across social media platforms which a mother says contributed to her 11-year-old’s suicide.

Snap has since conducted a review of its platform policies with a focus on potential child safety issues related to third-party apps that integrate with Snapchat’s features and functionality.

This culminated in the new policies that were introduced in March which impact apps that build using the Snap Kit platform. This suite of developer tools allows third-party apps to offer sign-in with Snapchat for user verification, or utilize Snapchat features like Snap’s Camera, Bitmoji, Stories, and more.

At the time Snap announced its new policies, it said the changes would impact a small subset of its over 1,500 developers in its wider community. Around 2% would be impacted by the ban on anonymous messaging apps, Snap said, and another 3% would be impacted by the new requirement to age-gate friend-finding apps.

Sendit appeared to be non-compliant as it was not utilizing a required feature, as specified by Snap’s own developer documentation.

Here, Snap offered an example of how something called “Identity Web View” could be adopted by third-party developers who today use Snap Kit to build anonymous Q&A apps. The feature would allow anonymous Q&A apps to come into compliance with the new policies as it will require apps to present a new modal to users that they must click to send their Bitmoji avatar URL and abbreviated Display Name to the third-party application. Then, they can use the third-party app to post their question — but no longer anonymously. Essentially, it allows Q&A apps to continue to function in much of the same way as before, but without the potential dangers of anonymous bullying — the user is identified.

Sendit, however, doesn’t currently use this modal even though it’s the example shown in the developer documentation screenshot. But Snap says the developer asked for more time to make these changes, which was granted. Snap believes the app, currently No. 8 in the Lifestyle section on the App Store, will soon come into compliance.

Image Credits: Snap, via Snapchat Developer documentation

Other third-party apps also appear to be still operating as usual and, at first glance, seem to not be in compliance with Snap’s new policies.

Apps skirting the rules — or operating outside them?

But this is where things get more tricky — some apps have been granted an extension, some are routing around Snap’s rules, and others are marketing themselves as Snapchat-connected apps when they’re not actually using the SDK.

For instance, the app LMK — to be clear, a different LMK than the original LMK app that was banned last year — is still offering its “anonymous polls” app which integrates with Snapchat’s features. The app is rated 12+ on the App Store and is functioning as usual. But LMK was among that requested and was granted an extension.

Anonymous messaging apps HMU, rated ages 9+ on the App Store, and Intext, rated ages 4+ are also still operating. Both advertise themselves as Snapchat-connected apps. But Intext has been banned from Snap’s platform — you’ll get an error if you try to authenticate with Snapchat using the app’s “Login with Snapchat” button.

HMU appears to have skirted the ban, however. Its app still works.

Meanwhile, a number of friend-finding apps, like Hoop, Wink, Swipr, Purp, and Dope — all of which are now supposed to be only available to adult users  — are still published on the App Store with an age rating of 12+, as of the time of writing. If Snap had vetted and approved them, then they would have the highest age rating on the App Store, which is 17+. (Apple should change this to 18+!)

Confusingly, these apps’ lower age ratings don’t necessarily mean all the apps are breaking Snap’s policies. As it turns out, some of these apps are simply positioning themselves as being Snapchat-connected in their marketing materials — like their App Store screenshots. But in reality, they’re working around their lack of access to Snap’s SDK in other ways.

For instance, Hoop’s App Store page says it’s for making friends on Snapchat, and yet it’s downloadable to anyone aged 12 or up. If it was a Snap Kit platform app, then it would be in violation. But Hoop is not in violation because it’s no longer using the SDK. (But who could tell?!)

Image credit: Hoop

Instead, Hoop has users enter their Snapchat username during onboarding and provides an in-app Snapchat button to “request” someone share their username with you. It’s a workaround that allows the app to still function as a tool for finding friends on Snapchat, but allows the app to operate without relying on developer access to the SDK. But this sort of deviousness on developers’ parts could cause complications for Snap in the future, as it faces potential litigation and regulations related to platform safety.

Requests for comment to the third-party app makers themselves were not returned.

For parents, this lack of consistency across the Snapchat app ecosystem also means they can’t rely on using Apple or Google’s built-parental controls to block the Snapchat friend-finding apps from being downloaded to their child or younger teen’s device. And, once in the hands of younger users, bypassing the age-gate is as simple as using a fake birthdate.

Snap tells us that since it announced the new policies, it has removed the vast majority of apps that were out of compliance with its policies.

But given the extent to which apps are skirting the rules, it could be more useful if the app stores themselves would integrate these same guidelines into their own app review processes. Or perhaps this is all a sign that regulation, in fact, is needed to protect children and teens from accessing experiences that are either potentially harmful or designed for adults.

After all, Snapchat shares the top charts with other apps that cater to a younger, often teenaged, user base — and the rules that apply to it, should apply to anyone.

For instance, one app eating into the Gen Z market is the newer app called BeReal, which prompts users for spontaneous photos. BeReal has now surpassed 10 million cumulative downloads to date, according to estimates from app intelligence firm data.ai (formerly App Annie). 3.3 million downloads took place in Q1 alone, and the majority of users in key markets are Gen Z, the firm said.

Another app, LiveIn, caters to Gen Z as well by allowing users to post photos to each others’ Home Screens via a widget — a feature BeReal also adopted. It’s now No. 2 on the U.S. App Store’s Top Apps chart, while its rival Locket Widget, is No. 24.

These apps are offering experiences that not only cater to Snapchat’s core demographic, but also features that overlap in some ways with what Snapchat is used for — fun, off-the-cuff photos that aren’t meant to stick around. While Snapchat is still growing, its rivals could expand their own platforms to adopt more Snapchat-like features over time, at which point they could also become a cause for concern if they ventured into similar anonymous Q&A or friend-finding spaces.

For now, however, these apps present a different type of threat: one that could see Snapchat losing its users’ time and engagement as they try out new ways to connect with friends.

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