India’s Ola takes its Uber rivalry to Australia with launch in Sydney

Ola, Uber’s key rival in India, has taken its first step overseas after its service officially went live in Australia via a launch in Sydney.

The company announced its plans to go Down Under at the end of January and in Sydney, which is its first full launch, Ola said it has signed up over 7,000 registered drivers. Initially, passengers will be able to enjoy free rides for a limited time with plans introduce other “new initiatives” — read: promotions — in a bid to keep its service competitive once it begins charging.

Uber was the first to launch ride-hailing services in Australia, and today it operates in over 20 cities across the country and New Zealand. Europe’s Taxify — which, like Ola, is backed by Chinese taxi app company Didi — moved into Australia via a Sydney launch in November. It has since expanded to Melbourne.

“We are excited to officially start operating on the east coast with the launch in Sydney. We’ve been very pleased with how the service has been received by customers, driver-partners and the community in Perth, and can’t wait to continue building on these experiences and learnings for our second city launch,” Chandra Nath, VP and head of international for Ola, said in a statement.

Ola’s first international foray comes at a particularly interesting time for ride-hailing services in Asia.

Since it raised money from SoftBank, Uber has been linked with consolidation movements in Asia that would theoretically shore up its finances by exiting loss-making markets ahead of a mooted IPO next year. That has focused on India and Southeast Asia, where Ola and Grab, respectively, are also backed by SoftBank and provide tough competition.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi seemed to pour cold water on those rumors when, as part of a recent Asia tour, he said the company is committed spending aggressively in growth markets in Asia. Despite that, multiple publications — including Bloomberg — have speculated that a deal that would see Grab consume Uber’s Southeast Asia business in exchange for equity is close to being sealed.

There doesn’t appear to be an imminent deal in India. In fact, Ola itself is reported to be raising as much as $1 billion in fresh funding via an investment from Singapore sovereign fund Temasek. The company, which last raised $1.1 billion in November, declined to comment when we asked about the new funding.

Tencent Music, Spotify’s strategic partner in China, is valued at over $12B

Spotify has finally filed to go public, and in doing so the Swedish company has shed light on another huge music company that has been tipped for IPO — Tencent Music — which is now valued at over $12 billion.

Tencent and Spotify announced a share swap in December that saw each side take an undisclosed slice of the other for strategic purposes going forward. According to Spotify’s filing, it took nine percent of Tencent Music Entertainment (TME) which it valued at €910 million at the time. That translates to a total valuation of €10.11 billion, or $12.3 billion, although Spotify includes 10 percent leeway above and below that figure.

In exchange, Tencent — which became Asia’s first $500 billion business last year — got 7.5 percent of Spotify to become one of its largest shareholders. It bought its stake using a mix of newly issued shares and secondary, but the value of that holding is around $1.5 billion based on a rough $20 billion valuation for Spotify.

TME was reportedly raising money at a valuation of around $10 billion in October, according to a Bloomberg report, and it has been tipped to raise as much as $1 billion in a listing that could happen this year. More color on this Spotify — both in terms of TME’s valuation and Tencent’s position as a major Spotify investor — give a little more insight into how the two companies might work together.

“Spotify believes the Tencent Transactions allow Spotify to invest in the long term potential of the music market in China and, in turn, TME to invest in the long term potential of the music market outside of China,” Spotify wrote in its filing.

Spotify also disclosed that it holds a registered trademark on its name in China. One source close to the company who spoke to TechCrunch in recent weeks said that Spotify had actively looked into the potential of the Chinese market a number of years, going as far as sending engineers and business development staff to meet with prospective partners.

In Tencent, it has found perhaps the most ideal partner should Spotify decide to pursue opportunities in China.

And there are plenty of opportunities. TME is the leading player in a market where there are over 20 million paying streaming customers with more growth to come.

China’s music industry itself grossed 320.5 billion yuan ($48.33 billion) in 2016 with eight percent annual growth, according to a report. Licensed streaming revenue grew by one-third to push revenue from music and video copyright to 183 million yuan.

Best known for its WeChat messaging app, which is China’s go-to chat service, Tencent offers three services — ‘QQ Music’, ‘Kugou’ and ‘Kuwo’ — while it also operates Joox in Southeast Asia and has invested in U.S. karaoke app Smule.

Earlier this week, Tencent also brokered another music alliance after it led a $115 million investment in India-based music streaming service Gaana.

Outside of music, Tencent has invested widely in overseas technology companies. Its investments have included Tesla, Snap, HERE, Amazon rival Flipkart, Uber competitor Ola, and more.

Featured Image: Bloomberg/Getty Images

India-based music streaming service Gaana raises $115M led by Tencent

Chinese internet giant Tencent is continuing to put its money in India and in music streaming services after it agreed to lead a $115 million investment in India’s Gaana.

Gaana is a music streaming service that was started by Times Media, the company behind the Times of India newspaper and tech incubator Times Internet among other things, seven years ago. Gaana didn’t reveal its user metrics, but CEO Prashan Agarwal said the company is “only 10 percent of the way towards building a business useful for 500 million Indians.”

The company plans to use this new capital develop artificial intelligence to create more personalized services and features for listeners. It said also it will develop its paid-user service, too. Aside from a Spotify-like subscription offering, it also provides an ad-based service which is available for free.

Times Internet is already an existing backer and it is the other investor in the deal. Tencent’s involvement represents the first ‘outside’ investment money raised for Gaana, which counts Saavn — a firm that raised money from Tiger Global and others — and Xiaomi-backed Hungama among its competition.

Spotify has spent the past year assessing the Indian market over a potential move, sources close to the company told TechCrunch. But, with a U.S. public listing happening at the end of March, it isn’t likely to make the move soon.

Tencent’s investment in Gaana follows a deal with Spotify which saw both companies swap shares in December. Tencent Music Entertainment (TME), the Chinese firm’s subsidiary that manages its music streaming and karaoke services, made an undisclosed minority investment in Spotify through new shares, while Spotify bought a similar undisclosed stake in TME. Added to that, Tencent bought into Spotify by purchasing secondary shares.

While not as prolific as arch-nemesis Alibaba, Tencent — which recently became Asia’s first $500 billion company — has steadily upped its investment in India in recent times. Companies in the country that it has backed include chat app Hike, Amazon rival Flipkart, Uber competitor Ola, medical platform Practo, and education startup BYJU’s.

Given its other music businesses and investments — which include Joox in Southeast Asia and karaoke app Smule — and the fact that TME is widely-tipped to head for an IPO this year, it isn’t a huge surprise to see Tencent expand its India focus with this move into music streaming.

“We are happy to welcome Tencent as a partner in Gaana and benefit from their global learnings. Tencent operates the largest music streaming business in China, and we look forward to working closely with them to continue to innovate and drive the digital music market in India,” Gautam Sinha, CEO of Times Internet, said in a statement.

“As more affordable mobile data plans are driving smartphone penetration in India, we believe growth in the music streaming market will accelerate. By investing in and collaborating with Gaana, we look forward to bringing more innovation and better experiences to all Indian music lovers,” added Tencent President Martin Lau.

Featured Image: Shutterstock

Foxconn is working with RED to make cheaper and smaller 8K cameras

Foxconn, AKA Hon Hai Precision Industry, AKA the company that made your iPhone, is working with digital cinema pioneer RED to create affordable 8K cameras, the company announced. Chairman Terry Gou told reporters in Taipei, the Nikkei’s among them, that the goal is to reduce both the price and the size of such camera systems by two-thirds.

Considering you can shoot 4K on the tiny sensor of a mobile phone these days, it’s not actually much of a surprise that small-factor 8K is a focus for a major hardware manufacturer. Pretty soon it’ll be a standard feature on flagship phones.

Of course, Gou said nothing to suggest that the image quality would be worth it. A sensor that records at that resolution may be an integral part of an 8K system, but there’s much more to it than that. For one thing, to capture a decent image, you’ll need some serious glass in front of it — lenses for consumer-level products simply aren’t made with the kind of precision necessary for that level of detail. Cinema glass is five figures to start.

Honestly that’s just the start. In addition to the glass, you’ll need a very fast, effective image processor and a whole lot of storage — even compressed, an 8K video may be 10 to 20 times larger than a 1080p one. Then you’ll need to color and edit… and after all that, most people will be unable to tell the difference between it and normal HD.

But digital cinema is more than people taking videos of their friends doing karaoke. More and cheaper cameras shooting reasonably good footage at 8K is great news for directors who want multiple angles, VFX artists who always want more pixels, operators whose backs are breaking from carrying heavy 8K gear and producers who need to keep costs low. Sometimes two decent cameras are better than one great one (but not always).

RED has straddled that line, with gear generally too expensive for people who aren’t actually filmmakers (think $15-30,000), but often considerably cheaper than competition from the likes of Arri and Panavision (think higher). Apparently the two are in talks to create a joint venture or partnership to produce these theoretical cameras, as part of an effort by Foxconn to differentiate its holdings a bit.

I’ve contacted RED for more info and will update this post if I hear back.

Featured Image: RED

Chat app Line announces plan for cryptocurrency services, loans and insurance

Line, the messaging app with around 200 million monthly users, is embracing bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to fend off increased competition from Facebook and others.

The Japanese company told announced the creation of a new financial services division which will spearhead a move into cryptocurrencies and other services including loans and insurance. Line already operates a payment service — which claims 40 million users $4 billion in annual GMV — but now it plans to do much more.

Line said it has applied for a cryptocurrency license in Japan — where more than a dozen exchange and other businesses have been approved — which is currently under review.

Bloomberg reported earlier this month that Line was considering a move into crypto, but at this point it isn’t clear exactly what that will entail. From the announcement, Line said it will operate a marketplace inside its app where people can trade crypto and get loans or insurance. It said, too, that it will look into how it can use blockchain technology within its services.

Loans and insurance, while not as attention-grabbing a crypto, may prove to be lucrative ventures in markets where Line has strong recognition among consumers.

The company is need of something fresh to revitalize its business in the wake of increasing competition from Facebook, which operates WhatsApp and Messenger, the world’s most popular messaging apps with over one billion monthly users each.

Prior its $1.1 billion U.S.-Japan IPO in 2016, Line had targeted a global audience via its messaging service — which pioneered the concept of stickers — and a connected games business. Its international expansion didn’t go according to plan, however, and the company refocused efforts on its four core markets of Japan, Thailand, Taiwan and Indonesia, which account for 168 million of its active users.

In those markets, it offers a range of localized services that include a video streaming, manga cartoons, shopping, ride-hailing and other on-demand services. Last year, it began to sell smart hardware and AI to offer its own cartoony alternative to Amazon’s Echo range and Google Home devices. In some markets, it also offers a Line-branded mobile phone/data service.

There’s plenty of pressure, however. Facebook’s global popularity makes Messenger an option for most internet users on the planet while the company is busy in other areas. WhatsApp recently moved into business solutions that allow companies to correspond with users via its service, and it is tipped to move into payments soon. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has also pledged to look into whether Facebook can make use of blockchain technology.

Line will hope these new services can boost its business in its strongest markets and pick up new users in other countries.

Line might well be the largest consumer-focused business to adopt crypto to date. It is far from the only chat app, though. Kik raised $100 million in an ICO earlier this year, while there are also newer blockchain-based solutions such as Status. Then there’s Telegram, a chat app that has over 150 million users that is popular among the crypto community, which is planning a much-anticipated ICO that could raise upwards of $1.2 billion.

Line’s announcement comes as the price of bitcoin dropped below $10,000 for the first time since the end of November, according to Coindesk’s price tracking service.

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.