All posts in “Asia”

Opera’s VPN returns to its Android browser

Opera had a couple of tumultuous years behind it, but it looks like the Norwegian browser maker (now in the hands of a Chinese consortium) is finding its stride again and refocusing its efforts on its flagship mobile and desktop browsers. Before the sale, Opera offered a useful stand-alone and built-in VPN service. Somehow, the built-in VPN stopped working after the acquisition. My understanding is that this had something to do with the company being split into multiple parts, with the VPN service ending up on the wrong side of that divide. Today, it’s officially bringing this service back as part of its Android app.

The promise of the new Opera VPN in Opera for Android 51 is that it will give you more control over your privacy and improve your online security, especially on unsecured public WiFi networks. Opera says it uses 256-bit encryption and doesn’t keep a log or retain any activity data.

Since Opera now has Chinese owners, though, not everybody is going to feel comfortable using this service, though. When I asked the Opera team about this earlier this year at MWC in Barcelona, the company stressed that it is still based in Norway and operates under that country’s privacy laws. The message being that it may be owned by a Chinese consortium but that it’s still very much a Norwegian company.

If you do feel comfortable using the VPN, though, then getting started is pretty easy (I’ve been testing in the beta version of Opera for Android for a while). Simply head to the setting menu, flip the switch, and you are good to go.

“Young people are being very concerned about their online privacy as they increasingly live their lives online, said Wallman. “We want to make VPN adoption easy and user-friendly, especially for those who want to feel more secure on the Web but are not aware on how to do it. This is a free solution for them that works.”

What’s important to note here is that the point of the VPN is to protect your privacy, not to give you a way to route around geo-restrictions (though you can do that, too). That means you can’t choose a specific country as an endpoint, only ‘America,’ ‘Asia,’ and ‘Europe.’

Camera maker Insta360 raises $30M as it eyes 2020 IPO

Insta360, one of the pioneers in making 360-degree cameras, just raised $30 million in a Series C+ funding round from Chinese investors including Everest Venture Capital, MG Holdings and Huajin Capital.

The Shenzhen-based camera maker declines to disclose its latest valuation. It plans to use the fresh proceeds in research and development, marketing and after-sales services in its key international markets including the United States and Japan, which are the company’s second and third-largest markets behind China.

Some of its past backers include IDG Capital, Qiming Ventures, home appliance maker Suning Holdings Group and file sharing service Xunlei.

The company started making 360 cameras — thus the brand name — in 2014 when founder Liu Jingkang saw a gap in the market for compact, easy-to-use cameras shooting high-definition 360-degree footage. Over the years it has evolved into a four-pronged business covering all sorts of needs: 360 cameras for professionals and amateur users creating virtual reality content, action cameras for sports lovers, and smartphone accessories for average consumers.

In stark contrast to loss-making GoPro, which Insta360 rivals in the action camera vertical, the Chinese firm has been profitable since 2017 and is planning to file for an initial public offering in China next year, Liu told TechCrunch in an interview. The company declined to provide more details of the planned flotation but said the success of its action camera line has helped it achieve five-times revenue growth in two years and reach profitability.

From professionals to amateurs

Though the VR sector remains in its infant stage, Liu is optimistic that 360 content will become a much sought-after media form in the years to come.

“Many families will be consuming virtual reality content for entertainment in the future, so we have a huge market for 360 content. That’s why we make a 360 camera each year to keep our top-tier position,” said Liu.

insta360

The Insta360 One X / Photo: Insta360

The action camera market, by comparison, is more mature. Insta360 is riding a larger social trend of live blogging and short-form videos that has generated a huge demand for quality video content. Dozens of camera options, from Snap Spectacles to Tencent’s clone of the Snap glasses, are available to help people churn out content for video sharing apps, but Liu saw problems in many of these products.

“[Video-shooting] spectacles, for examples, are quite offensive. Not everyone wants to wear them,” said the founder. “Many cameras do a bad job at video stabilization, so people end up with unusable footage. Lastly, and this is the key issue, users don’t know how to handle their footage.”

To that end, Insta360’s latest answer to documenting sports events and traveling is a camera that can easily be held in hand or slipped into a pocket. Called the One X, the gadget shoots in 5.7K resolution at 30 frames per second, delivering pleasingly smooth stabilization even when thrown around. The camera also comes with a software toolkit that automatically selects and stitches users’ footages together, which makes sharing to TikTok and Instagram a cinch. Check out TechCrunch’s review of One X below:



Insta360 has also been chasing after the masses and its latest bid is an add-on lens that can instantly turn an iPhone into a 360-degree camera. The idea is that as users get a taste of the basic 360-degree experience, they may want to upgrade to a higher-end model.

“Insta360 has a rare ability to take cutting-edge imaging tech and put it into products that consumers want to use today,” said Gavin Li, senior director at Huajin Capital. “They’re moving faster and innovating more than their competitors, and they’re taking bold new approaches to the defining communication tool of our time: the camera.”

Xiaom Q4 sees strong growth in overseas shipment and internet services

Xiaomi, the Chinese company known for its cheap handsets and a vision to drive revenues by selling internet services, has come in ahead of analysts’ estimates in its fourth-quarter profit although revenues missed expectations.

The Hong Kong-listed company more than tripled its net profit to 1.85 billion yuan ($276 million), exceeding the 1.7 billion yuan average estimate, Reuters reported citing Refinitiv data. However, revenue from the quarter missed the 47.4 billion yuan expectation, rising 26.5 percent to 44.4 billion yuan ($6.62 billion).

Xiaomi singled out overseas markets in its latest earnings report as the segment grew 118.1 percent to make up 40 percent of its total revenue in the fourth quarter, compared with just 28 percent for the year-earlier period. Xiaomi has been particularly well-received in India, where it holds a leading position in smartphone shipments according to market researcher Canalys, and it’s seeing rapid growth in western Europe.

Unlike conventional smartphone makers that are fixated on selling hardware, Xiaomi runs what it calls a “triathlon” business model comprising of hardware, software and retail. To put it in layman’s terms, the company is selling hardware through its network of online and offline stores, upon which users will consume the app services and in-app ads that come with its smartphones, smartwatches, smart air purifiers and hundreds of other connected devices.

Xiaomi has repeatedly billed itself as an “internet” firm, though so far smartphones are still its main economic driver, accounting for 65.1 percent of overall revenue in Q4. Despite a sluggish year for smartphone brands around the world, Xiaomi handsets grew nearly 30 percent to 118.7 million units in sales last year. The company predicted back in October that it was on course to hit the 100 million sales mark that month.

25.1 percent of Xiaomi’s Q4 revenue went to smart devices (excluding phones) and lifestyle items, representing an 87 percent year-over-year growth. The latter category, which ranges from umbrellas and suitcases to clothes and shoes, is pivotal to Xiaomi’s goal to attract more female users, an effort that has seen the company team up with selfie app maker Meitu. 

Internet services remain as Xiaomi’s smallest segment, bringing in only 9.1 percent of total revenue and growing at 61 percent year-over-year. But the highly lucrative business is bound to carry more load in the future as Xiaomi has promised to keep profit margins for smartphones and hardware under 5 percent.

Gross profit margin from Xiaomi’s internet services increased to 64.4 percent in 2018, up from 60.2 percent in 2017 driven by a higher-margin advertising business. The number is well above the 6.2 percent profit margin for Xiaomi smartphones, and the firm can potentially generate more internet-based income if it’s able to step up monetization of the 242.1 million monthly users on its ecosystems apps.

Xiaomi outs Redmi Go, a $65 entry-level smartphone for India

Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi has announced a new entry level smartphone at an event in Delhi.

The entry-level smartphone is targeted at the Indian market and looks intended to woo feature phone owners to upgrade from a more basic mobile.

It runs Google’s flavor of Android optimized for low-powered smartphones (Android Go) which supports lightweight versions of apps.

Under the hood the dual-SIM handset has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 425 chipset, 1GB RAM and 8GB of storage (though there’s a slot for expanding storage capacity up to 128GB).

Also on board: 4G cellular connectivity and a 3000mAh battery.

Up front there’s a 5 inch HD display with a 16:9 aspect ration, and 5MP selfie camera. An 8MP camera brings up the rear, with support for 1080p video recording.

At the time of writing the Redmi Go is being priced at 4,499 rupee (~$65). Albeit a mark-down graphic on the company’s website suggests the initial price may be a temporary discount on a full RRP of 5,999 rupees (~85). We’ve asked Xiaomi for confirmation.

Xiaomi’s website lists it as available to buy at 12PM March 22.

While Xiaomi is squeezing its entry level smartphone price-tag here, the Redmi Go’s cost to consumers in India still represents a sizeable bump on local feature phone prices.

For example the Nokia 150 Dual SIM candybar can cost as little as 1,500 rupees (~20). Though there’s clearly a big difference between a candybar keypad mobile and a full-screen smartphone. Yet 3x more expensive represents an immovable barrier for many consumers in the market.

The Redmi Go also looks intended to respond to local carrier Reliance Jio’s 4G feature phones, which are positioned — price and feature wise — as a transitionary device, sitting between a dumber feature phone and full-fat smartphone.

The JioPhone 2 launched last year with a price tag of 2,999 rupees (~40). So the Redmi Go looks intended to close the price gap — and thus try to make a transitionary handset with a smaller screen less attractive than a full screen Android-powered smartphone experience.

That said, the JioPhone handsets run a fork of Firefox OS, called KaiOS, which can also run lightweight versions of apps like Facebook, Twitter and Google.

So, again, many India consumers may not see the need (or be able) to shell out ~1,500 rupees more for a lightweight mobile computing experience when they can get something similar for cheaper elsewhere. And indeed plenty of the early responses to Xiaomi’s tweet announcing the Redmi Go brand it “overpriced”.

Wattpad gains strategic investment from Times Bridge to further expand in India

Wattpad is further expanding into Asia with a new partnership and undisclosed strategic investment from Times Bridge, the global investment arm of the Times Group in India. The deal aims to help the storytelling community establish a larger presence in the country where it already counts over 2.6 million monthly users who have shared more than 4 million stories to date, it says.

Similar to its recent partnership with entertainment partner Huayi Brothers Korea, the deal with Times Bridge is also focused on turning more Wattpad stories into books, TV shows, movies, and other digital projects in the region.

This is an area where Wattpad has found some success. In the U.S., one of the stories on its platform became the Netflix teen hit “The Kissing Booth,” and other stories have become projects at Hulu, AwesomenessTV, eOne, Sony, SYFY, iflix, Universal Cable Productions (NBCU), and elsewhere. The company also just launched its own books division to better capitalize on bringing its online stories to print.

India has been a more recent focus for Wattpad, following its  $51 million raise from Tencent. Soon after, the company appointed its first Head of Asia for Wattpad Studios, Dexter Ong. And it also recently hired its first GM of India, Devashish Sharma, who has been working with local partners to turn its stories into movies, TV, digital and print in the region.

“Millions of Indian readers and writers have already found a home Wattpad,” said Sharma, in a statement. “Times Bridge and The Times Group have an unmatched media and entertainment portfolio, and connections with some of India’s most-respected authors and cultural figures. We’re excited to work together to create new opportunities for Indian storytellers,” he added.

Today, Wattpad’s app supports a number of local languages including Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, Assamese, Marathi, and Oriya.

To find the stories that become popular, Wattpad relies on a combination of human curation and technology – the latter with its Story DNA machine learning system that helps to identify the standouts by deconstructing things like sentence structure, word use, grammar and other factors that contribute to popularity.

“We’re thrilled to work with Times Bridge expand our footprint in the region and create more opportunities for India’s rich literary community to tell their stories, reaching new audiences in India and around the world,” said Wattpad co-founder and CEO Allen Lau, in a statement.

Wattpad didn’t disclose Times Group’s investment. The firm has previously partnered with other tech companies in India, and has investments in Uber, Airbnb, Coursera, Houzz, MUBI, Smule, and others.