All posts in “Asia”

TikTok is giving China a video chat alternative to WeChat

ByteDance, the world’s most-valued startup, just launched a new social media product under its Douyin brand in what many people see as a serious attempt to challenge WeChat.

Tencent has long dominated China’s social networking space with WeChat and QQ. WeChat claims to have one billion monthly active users worldwide, most of whom are in China. Its older sibling QQ managed to survive the country’s transition from PC to mobile and still have a good chunk of 800 million MAUs at last count.

Over the years Tencent has drawn contenders from all fronts. Ecommerce behemoth Alibaba was one, whose app “Laiwang” to take on WeChat later pivoted to a Slack-like product for enterprise communication.

Now ByteDance is in the spotlight with its new brainchild, Duoshan. The app comes as a mix of TikTok, which is called Douyin in China, and Snap, to bet on a 5G-powered future in which new generations prefer using ephemeral videos to communicate.

Unlike TikTok, which incentivizes users to follow celebrities and strangers, Duoshan is built for private messaging. It offers a dazzling selection of special effects and filters as most other short-video apps do these days. The twist is that videos disappear after 72 hours to provide stress-free, off-the-cuff sharing, a need that WeChat also noticed and prompted the giant to come up with its own Snap-like Stories feature recently.

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Screenshots of Duoshan. Image: ByteDance

“We are seeing more and more Douyin users share their videos through other social media platforms and channels,” Douyin’s president Zhang Nan said in a statement. “With the launch of Duoshan, we are creating our first video-based social messaging app to allow users to share their creativity and interact directly with their family and friends.”

You may not know ByteDance, but its suite of media apps are turning heads all over the world thanks to millions of dollars spent on advertising. TikTok, which swallowed up Musical.ly last year, claims to have more than 250 million daily active users with MAUs reaching 500 million. That solid user base will surely help Duoshan during its initial user acquisition as the app allows easy login for existing Douyin users.

While TikTok is not a direct threat to WeChat — for it’s built for media consumption and WeChat is more of a tool for communication and a platform to run daily errands — Tencent did respond with a dozen of video apps over the past year to play catch-up. Now, Duoshan appears to be going after WeChat’s core — instant messaging.

“We hope WeChat doesn’t see [Duoshan] as a competitor. What they do in essence is to build an ‘infrastructure’. We, on the other hand, is only going after people who are closest to you,” Chen Lin, the newly appointed chief operating officer of ByteDance’s news app Jinri Toutiao said at a press event today.

Two other high-profile entrepreneurs are joining ByteDance to roll out their own social apps today. Smartisan, who backed a WeChat rival that turned out to be a blip, is announcing the product tonight in China. The other challenger is Wang Xin, a pioneer in China’s online video-streaming space who was sentenced to jail in 2016 after being charged with providing easy access to pornography. His take on social media — Matong — is already live and is greeted with such warm reception that its server went down.

Duoshan has got many people excited. Some of the top trending words on Weibo, China’s closest answer to Twitter, today are linked to ByteDance’s move, such as “social”, “waging a war” and “Zhang Yiming,” who founded ByteDance in 2012.

Daily Crunch: Bing has a child porn problem

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here:

1. Microsoft Bing not only shows child pornography, it suggests it

A TechCrunch-commissioned report has found damning evidence on Microsoft’s search engine. Our findings show a massive failure on Microsoft’s part to adequately police its Bing search engine and to prevent its suggested searches and images from assisting pedophiles.

2. Unity pulls nuclear option on cloud gaming startup Improbable, terminating game engine license

Unity, the widely popular gaming engine, has pulled the rug out from underneath U.K.-based cloud gaming startup Improbable and revoked its license — effectively shutting them out from a top customer source. The conflict arose after Unity claimed Improbable broke the company’s Terms of Service and distributed Unity software on the cloud.

3. Improbable and Epic Games establish $25M fund to help devs move to ‘more open engines’ after Unity debacle

Just when you thought things were going south for Improbable the company inked a late-night deal with Unity competitor Epic Games to establish a fund geared toward open gaming engines. This begs the question of how Unity and Improbable’s relationship managed to sour so quickly after this public debacle.

4. The next phase of WeChat 

WeChat boasts more than 1 billion daily active users, but user growth is starting to hit a plateau. That’s been expected for some time, but it is forcing the Chinese juggernaut to build new features to generate more time spent on the app to maintain growth.

5. Bungie takes back its Destiny and departs from Activision 

The creator behind games like Halo and Destiny is splitting from its publisher Activision to go its own way. This is good news for gamers, as Bungie will no longer be under the strict deadlines of a big gaming studio that plagued the launch of Destiny and its sequel.

6. Another server security lapse at NASA exposed staff and project data

The leaking server was — ironically — a bug-reporting server, running the popular Jira bug triaging and tracking software. In NASA’s case, the software wasn’t properly configured, allowing anyone to access the server without a password.

7. Is Samsung getting serious about robotics? 

This week Samsung made a surprise announcement during its CES press conference and unveiled three new consumer and retail robots and a wearable exoskeleton. It was a pretty massive reveal, but the company’s look-but-don’t-touch approach raised far more questions than it answered.

The next phase of WeChat

Thousands of people gathered Wednesday night in a southern Chinese city for Zhang Xiaolong, Tencent’s low-key executive who built WeChat eight years ago. It’s no longer adequate to call the app a messenger, for it now enables myriads of functions that infiltrate Chinese people’s private and public lives.

It wasn’t just the tech circles tuning into the event. Civil servants, real-estate agents, salon owners, fruit vendors, teachers, artists — anyone who use WeChat to facilitate daily work — watched attentively for news and tips that came out of the annual conference.

Zhang, nickname Allen, is by nature a hardcore product manager. He went to great lengths during his 4-hour speech telling people productivity is WeChat’s holy grail, and that he wants to make user sessions “short and efficient.” He called out apps obsessed with keeping users on, which many may agree include ByteDance’s video app TikTok and news aggregator Jinri Toutiao.

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That’s a tough sell, though, for WeChat is anything but a disposable tool. The app now boasts over 1 billion daily users. 750 million of them open WeChat Moments, a scrolling feed of friends’ updates, each day during which they check it more than 10 times. User growth is cooling, but that’s expected given the super app’s enormous base. In addition to being a social network, the juggernaut has also devised a host of new features that may generate more eyeball time — and help it maintain meaningful growth.

An app universe

Two years ago, WeChat made a move that would speed up its evolution from a simple app into an all-in-one platform. It rolled out so-called mini programs, which are stripped-down versions of native apps with only core features in exchange for smaller size and quicker access. To date, there are over 1 million such lite-apps and 200 million people access them every day, an achievement that inspired other tech giants to follow suit.

Zhang said from the outset that mini apps weren’t meant to replace regular apps, for the latter provide a more complete user journey. In effect, mini apps are getting more powerful as they further integrate with chats and gain new capabilities, such as an upcoming Siri-like voice assistant. Mini programs are also making inroads into the offline world, facilitating transactions like scan-to-pay at subway turnstiles, all without the fuss of app downloads.

There’s no mini-program “store” at the moment, but a less conspicuous infrastructure is taking shape. Users can already look mini apps up on WeChat’s internal search engine and may soon be able to rate them, according to Zhang. WeChat will in turn factor those reviews into search results, akin to how the App Store works.

The public space

Whether mini programs threaten the existing app ecosystem is disputed, but one thing is certain: They have a strong appeal to those without the capacity or need to build full-size apps, like a teacher who wants a tool to broadcast announcements to parents. There may be only a few dozen users, so a lightweight, easy-to-build app makes more economic sense.

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WeChat’s annual company conference in Guangzhou, China. Photo: Tencent

Governments have also warmly embraced WeChat as part of a national effort to streamline public services. Anyone who’s lived in China would dread its red tape. Mini programs are digitizing many tasks that traditionally required numerous visits to government offices, such as renewing one’s social security card.

While public services may not be a big revenue driver, they do boost users’ dependence on WeChat. Alibaba’s digital wallet Alipay also offers a plethora of public services, though many are limited to payments. “After all, WeChat has more use cases, from social networking to payments, so local governments find it closer to people’s lives,” a third-party mini program developer for government services told TechCrunch, asking not to be named because the person wasn’t allowed to discuss the matter publicly.

New growth fuel

The world is watching when China’s most used app will hit its wall on user growth. WeChat hasn’t seen much momentum overseas except among Chinese expats and outbound tourists. Back home, senior users are fueling its growth. 65 million of WeChat’s monthly users are now over the age of 55, the app’s fastest growing cohort. Many of them turn out to love mini games, which are part of the mini-program universe. These games, which tend to be casual and easier to play than PC or mobile app games. have surpassed 400 million monthly users. For some context, China reached an estimated 700-million mobile game population in 2018, according to market research firm iResearch.

Curiously, WeChat hasn’t pushed monetization aggressively despite commanding a gigantic user base. Zhang has reiterated that monetization isn’t his priority, but changes are underway. WeChat is planning to add more advertising inventories to mini apps in 2019, executive of WeChat open platforms Du Jiahui said during the event. Tencent earnings show that lite-apps and Moments are already driving advertising revenues for the company over the last few months. Tencent is also under pressure to find alternative monetizing channels as its core revenue driver — video games — took a hit amid an industry shakeup last year, prompting the firm to place more focus on enterprise-facing businesses.

Mr Jeff bags $12M Series A to replace trips to the laundromat

If you thought the on-demand laundry space had run out of startup steam here’s a bit of a conditioner: Madrid-based startup, Mr Jeff, has bagged a $12M Series A, led by All Iron Ventures.

The 2016-founded firm currently offers home laundry and dry cleaning services, including on-demand and monthly subscription options, in seven countries, with a focus on LatAm. Last August it acquired Brazilian laundry franchise, Lava é Leva, to move into another market in the region.

The franchise model sets the approach apart from some other on-demand laundry startups that already folded. That and a focus on markets with lower rates of washing machine ownership. Ergo, they’re disrupting trips to the laundromat.

The company closed 2018 with more than 1,000 franchises operating, and more than 150 direct employees plus 2,400+ indirect employees working to turn the customer’s in-app tap into clean and ironed clothes returned to them within 48 hours.

Flush with new funding, Mr Jeff says it’s aiming to have franchises operating in 30 countries by the end of 2019, looking east to Asia. It also plans to consolidate its LatAm position by expanding its operations in Panama, Costa Rica and Uruguay.

Prior to the Series A, it had raised around $3.5M in seed funding, including from European entrepreneurs such as Albert Armengol (CEO of Doctoralia), Jeroen Merchiers (Managing Director of Airbnb Europe, Middle East and Africa), and Kim Jung ( CEO NX Corp).

It adds that a majority of its earlier investors have opted to continue to support the company by participating in the Series A.

Emeritus, which develops online courses with universities, raises $40M

The funding streak for educational startups in Asia continues into 2019 after Emeritus, a U.S-Indian company that partners with universities to offer digital courses, landed a $40 million Series C round led by Sequoia India.

The deal includes participation from existing investor Bertelsmann India Investments, and it takes Emeritus — founded in 2010 as offline management program company Eruditus — to around $50 million from investors to date. It also follows notable rounds in December for India-based education companies Byju’s ($540 million) and Toppr ($35 million).

Emeritus is the online branch of Eruditus. It was founded in 2014 as a response to the growth in digital learning. Specifically, it took the core elements of Eruditus — which include helping educational institutions design new curriculums — and applied them to the online space to develop certificate courses and online degrees.

The company has offices in Boston — where it works to develop curriculum content — as well as Dubai, Mexico, Mumbai and Singapore. In total, it has some 350 employees, while its partners include MIT, Columbia, Tuck at Dartmouth, Wharton, UC Berkeley and London Business School.

Today, Emeritus accounts for most of the business’s growth potential and is really the focus of this investment, co-founder and director Ashwin Damera told TechCrunch in an interview.

“We’re helping working professionals who can’t otherwise come to these schools to access high-quality educational content online,” Damera said. “It’s very different from a MOOC [such as Coursera or Udemy], we are a SPOC — small, private, online course.”

For one thing, all Emeritus courses are run in collaboration with universities, they tend to attract older students — because they are master’s degree level — and their completion rates are around 90 percent, according to Damera. Students on a course, he said, are broken down into sections of around 100, and then smaller working groups of around six, much like traditional offline courses.

Emeritus said it will enroll 30,000 students from 80 countries during this current financial year. That’s a figure that Damera wants to grow ten-fold over the next five years.

The company’s strategy to reach that lofty goal revolves around widening its reach to new audiences. A key part of that focus is to expand its existing English and Spanish content libraries, and develop content in Portuguese and Mandarin for the first time. Interestingly, in the case of China, Emeritus is open to a potential acquisition or a joint venture to get a local business up and running.

Right now, Damera said that just 70 percent of students are based overseas. In addition to accommodating additional international languages, he said that global push will mean the company will develop its tech stack to enable greater, more mobile-based content for students.

But, beyond those perhaps obvious areas, Emeritus is examining the potential to offer newer products and courses at more affordable prices. In particular, Damera believes there is a “huge opportunity” to apply itself to bachelor’s degree education, although he plans to expand its master’s degrees first.