ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, plans to launch a free music streaming app

Does the overcrowded and cut-throat music streaming business have room for an additional player? The world’s most valuable startup certainly thinks so.

Chinese conglomerate ByteDance, valued at over $75 billion, is working on a music streaming service, two sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. The company, which operates popular app TikTok, has held discussions with music labels in recent months to launch the app as soon as end of this quarter, one of the sources said.

The app will offer both a premium and an ad-supported free tier, one of the sources said. Bloomberg, which first wrote about the premium app, reported that ByteDance is targeting emerging markets with its new music app. A ByteDance spokesperson declined to comment.

For ByteDance, interest in a music app does not come as a surprise. Snippets of pop songs from movies and albums intertwined with videos shot by its humongous userbase is part of the service’s charm. The company already works with music labels worldwide to licence usage of their tracks on its platform. In China, where ByteDance claims to have tie ups with over 800 labels, it has been aggressively expanding efforts to find music talents and urge them to make their own tracks.

Besides, ByteDance has been expanding its app portfolio in recent months. Earlier this year, the company released Duoshan, a video chat app that appears to be a mix of TikTok and Snap. This week, it launched Feiliao, another chat app that is largely focused on text-driven conversations. At some point, the company may have realized the need for a standalone music consumption app.

When asked about TikTok’s partnership with music labels last month, Todd Schefflin, TikTok’s head of global music business development, told WSJ that music is part of the app’s “creative DNA” but it is “ultimately for short video creation and viewing, not a product for music consumption.”

The private Chinese company is likely eyeing India as a key market for its music app. The company has been in discussion with local music labels T Series and Times Music for rights. Moreover, its apps are estimated to have over 300 million monthly active users in the nation, though there could be significant overlaps among them.

India may have also inspired ByteDance to consider a free, ad-supported version of its music app. Even as more than 150 million users in India listen to music online, only a tiny portion of this user base is willing to pay for it.

This has made India a unique battleground for local and international music giants, most of which offer an ad-supported, free version of their apps in the market. Even premium offerings from Apple and Spotify cost under $1.2 a month. India is the only market where Spotify offers a free version of its app that has access to the entire catalog on-demand.

The launch of the app could put the spotlight again on ByteDance in India, where its TikTok app recently landed in hot water. An Indian court banned the app for roughly a week after expressing concerns over questionable content on the platform. Ever since the nation lifted the ban on TikTok, the company has become visibly cautious about its movement.

Ravin.ai raises $4M to use computer vision for vehicle damage inspections

Ravin.ai, an Israel and U.K.-based startup developing AI to autonomously inspect vehicles for damage, has closed a $4 million seed round. The investment is led by Pico Venture Partners, with participation from Shell Ventures and “automotive entrepreneur” Adam Draizin. It marks Shell Ventures’ first Israel investment.

Founded in 2018 and based in Haifa and London, Ravin combines computer vision and deep learning to detect and analyse damage in vehicles via standard cameras, such as a smartphone or CCTV cameras. The startup is initially targeting car rental companies but also eyeing up other markets for its tech, including fleet companies within the shared mobility space, and used car marketplaces.

“We have all rented and bought used cars in our lives and there is always some discomfort associated with true car condition: Ravin’s mission is to create transparency around damage wherever vehicles operate or change hands,” Ravin co-founder and CEO Eliron Ekstein, who previously helped launch Shell’s digital business arm, tells me.

“Damage in vehicles is a massive problem, if you consider that vehicles get damaged almost every fice seconds. For the consumer it’s a big headache because you’re never really sure if the car you’re picking up for rental, or the one you just bought, has some kind of hidden damage. For car rental, dealers and insurance companies, this translates to losses of over $100 billion due to damage undetected in time, overestimated repairs and the overhead of dealing with claims. This problem will only get worse as more vehicles are shared and people buy their cars online”.

In contrast, Ekstein says Ravin provides the needed transparency to facilitate easier transactions. This is delivered via what he claims is an “objective” vehicle condition report generated via the startup’s AI using off-the-shelf cameras. Vehicles can be scanned via a mobile phone walk-around (similar to a panoramic view experience) or by driving through a set of CCTV cameras.

“From there we create a 360-degree view of the vehicle and expose any damages, and in many cases some underlying problems, reasons and repair action,” says Ekstein. “This leads to frictionless rental and sharing of vehicles and minimises unnecessary arguments as both sides know about the vehicle condition. It also helps car buyers verify a vehicle condition, and finally helps insurance companies validate claims quickly”.

More broadly, Ravin wants to provide an almost “Docusign-like” experience where people can hand cars over in confidence, which Ekstein says is really what the sharing economy is all about.

To that end, Ravin says it has commercial partners across the U.S. and Europe, including Avis’ Heathrow Airport location. It plans to use the new funding to further develop its technology products and to expand commercial reach across North America, Europe and Asia.

Oculus Quest and Rift S now shipping

Facebook -owned Oculus is shipping its latest VR headgear from today. Preorders for the PC-free Oculus Quest and the higher end Oculus Rift S opened up three weeks ago.

In a launch blog Oculus touts the new hardware’s “all-in-one, fully immersive 6DOF VR” — writing: “We’re bringing the magic of presence to more people than ever before — and we’re doing it with the freedom of fully untethered movement”.

For a less varnished view on what it’s like to stick a face-computer on your head you can check out our reviews by clicking on the links below…

Oculus Quest

TC: “The headset may not be the most powerful, but it is doubtlessly the new flagship VR product from Facebook”

Oculus Rift S

TC: “It still doesn’t feel like a proper upgrade to a flagship headset that’s already three years old, but it is a more fine-tuned system that feels more evolved and dependable”

The Oculus blog contain no detail on pre-order sales for the headsets — beyond a few fine-sounding words.

Meanwhile Facebook has, for months, been running native ads for Oculus via its eponymous and omnipresent social network — although there’s no explicit mention of the Oculus brand unless you click through to “learn more”.

Instead it’s pushing the generic notion of “all-in-one VR”, shrinking the Oculus brand stamp on the headset to an indecipherable micro-scribble.

Here’s one of Facebook’s ads that targeted me in Europe, back in March, for e.g.:

For those wanting to partake of Facebook flavored face gaming (and/or immersive movie watching), the Oculus Quest and Rift S are available to buy via oculus.com and retail partners including Amazon, Best Buy, Newegg, Walmart, and GameStop in the US; Currys PC World, FNAC, MediaMarkt, and more in the EU and UK; and Amazon in Japan.

Just remember to keep your mouth shut.

Google brings release channels and Windows Container support to its Kubernetes Engine

At KubeCon + CloudNativeCon, the bi-annual gathering of cloud-native computing boffins, Google today announced that it now offers three release channels for its Google Kuberentes Engine (GKE): Rapid, Ragular and Stable. With these, Google Cloud users can decide whether they want the freshest release or the most stable one — or easily evaluate the latest updates in a development environment. This new feature is now in alpha testing.

“Each channel offers different version maturity and freshness, allowing developers to subscribe their cluster to a stream of updates that match risk tolerance and business requirements,” Google explains in today’s release.

The company is launching this new feature into alpha with the first release in the Rapid channel, which will give developers early access to the latest versions of Kubernetes .

With this release into the Rapid channel, Google is also bringing early support for Windows Containers to GKE. Over the course of the last few releases, the Kubernetes community brought improved Windows support to the platform and now Google will offer support for Windows Server Containers in June.

In addition to these features, the company is also releasing Stackdriver Kubernetes Monitoring into general availability. This tool can be used to monitor and log data from GKE, as well as Kubernetes deployments in other clouds and on-premises infrastructure.

IDC: Asia-Pacific spending on AI systems will reach $5.5 billion this year, up 80 percent from 2018

Spending on artificial intelligence systems in the Asia-Pacific region is expected to reach $5.5 billion this year, an almost 80 percent increase over 2018, driven by businesses in China and the retail industry, according to IDC. In a new report, the research firm also said it expects AI spending to climb at a compound annual growth rate of 50 percent from 2018 to 2022, reaching a total of $15.06 billion in 2022.

This means AI spending growth in the Asia-Pacific region is expected to outpace the rest of the world over the next three years. In March, IDC forecast that worldwide spending on AI systems is expected to grow at a CAGR of 38 percent between 2018 to 2022.

Most of the growth will happen in China, which IDC says will account for nearly two-thirds of AI spending in the region, excluding Japan, in all forecast years. Spending on AI systems will be driven by retail, professional services and government industries.

Retail demand for AI-based tools will also lead growth in the rest of the region, as companies begin to rely on it more for merchandising, product recommendations, automated customer service and supply and logistics. While the banking industry’s AI spending trails behind retail, it will also begin adopting the tech for fraud analysis, program advisors, recommendations and customer service. IDC forecasts that this year, companies will invest almost $700 million in automated service agents. The next largest area for investment is sales process recommendations and automation, with $450 million expected, and intelligent process automation at more than $350 million.

The fastest-growing industries for AI spending are expected to be healthcare (growing at 60.2 percent CAGR) and process manufacturing (60.1 percent CAGR). In terms of infrastructure, IDC says spending on hardware, including servers and storage, will reach almost $7 billion in 2019, while spending on software is expected to grow at a five-year CAGR of 80 percent.

Digital Ocean’s Kubernetes service is now generally available

Like any ambitious cloud infrastructure player, Digital Ocean also recently announced a solution for running Kubernetes clusters on its platform. At KubeCon + CloudNativeCon Europe in Barcelona, the company today announced that Digital Ocean Kubernetes is now generally available.

With this release, the company is also bringing the latest Kubernetes release (1.14) to the platform and developers who use the service will able to schedule automatic patch version upgrades, too.

Now that it’s generally available, Digital Ocean is also bringing the service to all of its data centers around the world and introducing a few new features, too. These include a new guided configuration experience, for example, which moves users from provisioning to deploying clusters. The company is also introducing new advanced health metrics so developers can see what’s happening in their clusters. These include data about pod deployment status, CPU and memory usage, and more.

It’s also launching new open APIs so that third-party tools can more easily integrate support for Digital Ocean Kubernetes into their own solutions.

Soon, the company will also launch a marketplace for 1-click apps for Kubernetes, that will make it far easier for its users to deploy applications into a Kubernetes cluster. This feature will be based on the open-source Helm project, which is already the de facto standard for Kubernetes package management.

‘Game of Thrones’ season finale sets record as HBO’s most-viewed episode ever

Despite disappointing many longtime fans of the show, the “Game of Thrones” series finale set a new record for HBO as the most viewed episode in the network’s history. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the episode reached 13.6 million viewers during its initial airing on Sunday night, which rose to 19.3 million once replays and early streaming was included. The record was previously held for a short time by the season’s penultimate episode, which drew in 12.48 million viewers when first aired and a total of 18.4 million during its first night.

The eighth and last season of “Game of Thrones,” which premiered in 2011, averaged 44.2 million viewers through Sunday after streaming, on-demand, DVRs and replays were added in, or 10 million more than the season 7 average, said HBO .

The previous HBO series finale with the most viewers was “The Sopranos” with 11.9 million viewers, though that was in 2007, before streaming and other digital services took off.

 

Blockchain blockchain Malkovich blockchain

I spent much of last week at blockchain conferences, and I’m about ready to never hear the word again. This despite the fact I’ve been supporting decentralized software, as a counterweight or at least alternative to the growing power of governments and megacorps, for years now. Do you think blockchains are no answer? Great, let’s discuss! I wholeheartedly support you skeptics with whom I cautiously disagree. What I can’t stand, it turns out, is an endless sea of true believers nominally on my side.

The believers are twofold, and the two groups grate differently. One group is there almost purely because there is money in the space: Wall Street types hoping to rule a new asset-tokenized world which may come to be; financial startups offering blockchain versions of existing financial tools; new marketplaces just like old marketplaces, except On The Blockchain, and therefore better.

It’s all too easy to envision a future in which the collective vampire squid that is the financial industry — which has gone from taking 14% of all US profits in 1985 to consistently raking in more like 25% over the last couple of decades — ironically turns blockchains into a tool for “financializing” the economy even more, routing every global transaction through even more middlepeople, each of them shaving off a basis point or two. I doubt this will ever happen — but it’s the clear goal of much of group one.

(And before you even think about blaming regulators for this continued attempt at creeping financialization, consider that the cryptocurrency casino is full of so much shadiness it serves as a superb object example of why regulators exist, even if a few of their rules are a bit hidebound and baffling in today’s world.)

Needless to say this was not the original vision. The original vision of Bitcoin was, quote, “A Peer-To-Peer Electronic Cash System.” How has that worked out? Well, as Tom Howard puts it, “It’s 2019. Where the fuck is our Global Peer-To-Peer Electronic Cash System?”1 His conclusion: still not here.

He has a point — but in many ways the Bitcoin community is among the most admirable in the space. Their vision may have pivoted, from “medium of exchange” to “decentralized store of value,” but it is clear, and it is succeeding, they are making both sacrifices and technical leaps to advance it. (And maybe one day Lightning will provide us all scalable peer-to-peer payments atop Bitcoin. Maybe. One day.) Furthermore, people actually use Bitcoin in sizable numbers … albeit mostly for speculation.

The other group of true believers is the technical group, for whom I should have more love, as an engineer myself. But so much blockchain engineering is built on the unexamined presumption that blockchains are inevitably going to become wildly important, rather than an attempt to actually make them important in any way … again, other than the decentralized global casino of unregulated speculation.

There are still projects I like. Ethereum offered us the breakthrough concept of decentralized applications, although it turns out their usage rate is flat. Cosmos is an important and scalable alternative to Ethereum’s approach, although it’s only just launched. Blockstack’s approach is even more interesting, although the most successful Blockstack app — by far — has only 8,000 installs, still basically a rounding error, albeit one with an impressive growth rate.

And yet most of the non-financial people I met or read about last week were building new blockchains, or new tools for blockchains, new governance or voting systems to run atop blockchains, new blockchain analytics platforms, new ways to scale blockchains to handle the inevitable immense demand for their capacity … which is not at all apparent. The industry has so much potential, everyone agrees. It’s so revolutionary. It’s going to change everything. It’s going to be so important for the unbanked, everyone agreed, while standing in rooms full of bankers.

Meanwhile the decentralized Internet, “Web 3.0,” is beginning to feel like nuclear fusion or superpower Brazil: perpetually 10 years away. The belief is that scaling must be solved first — but premature scaling is exactly the mistake which has killed many a startup. Almost everyone in the space, financial or technical, seems primarily focused on tooling, infrastructure, platforms, and scaling, and writes off the lack of any non-believer users as merely “a UX problem” to vaguely be solved somehow in the future.

Maybe. Or maybe, a decade on from the Bitcoin whitepaper, it’s past time to instead be building applications that unbelievers who don’t care one whit about blockchains actually want to use, in the course of their everyday existence, at home and/or at work. If there are any fundamental issues other than scaling which prevent that from happening, then maybe it’s past time to focus on them instead.


1 I feel compelled to note that Mr. Howard actually wrote “f*ck” to preserver his readers’ delicate sensibilities; TechCrunch, of course, has a long and proud history of not worrying about those.

Postmates workers want minimum delivery guarantees and at least $15 per hour

IPO-bound Postmates is under fire right now after making some changes to its payments structure for its delivery workers. Organizers at Working Washington say these changes can reduce pay for typical jobs by up to 30 percent.

Up until this past weekend, Postmates guaranteed its delivery workers at least $4 per job. Postmates has since gotten rid of that minimum job guarantee and changed the base rate per job, as well as changed the per-mile rate in some markets. In San Francisco, the new pay structure entails $1.90 per pickup, $0.50 per dropoff, $0.07 per minute and $1.29 per mile.

Postmates says the new rates “remove the need for a minimum guarantee adjustment so you always know exactly what you’re earning,” the company wrote to workers in an email, obtained by TechCrunch.

“At Postmates, we are dedicated to lowering the barrier to work and providing our Postmates Fleet with the resources they need to supplement their incomes. Technological innovations reduced pick up times, and route efficiencies are increasing the rate and pace of deliveries a Postmates can choose to make in a given hour, increasing payout averages from $17/hour in 2018 to $19/hour in 2019,” a Postmates spokesperson told TechCrunch. “This adjustment reflects those gains. Unlike competitors, Postmates always keep 100% of their customer tips, and those tips never eat into base earnings.”

Postmates is referring to the fact that both Instacart and DoorDash were caught subsidizing its workers pay with tips.

The spokesperson continued: “All told, these earnings gains are not only significantly higher than the federal minimum wage, but over 70% are being cashed out within minutes via our Instant Deposits program. The long term upward mobility of our Postmates on and off the platform are also why we continue to lead the industry in career development resources, health care resources, and long-term savings tools — while working with policymakers & worker voice organizations around the country to balance worker benefits with worker flexibility in the gig economy.”

Organizers with Working Washington, however, are asking other gig economy workers to sign a petition asking Postmates CEO Bastian Lehman to pay the company’s workers better. They want the minimum guarantee back and they want a more transparent pay structure.

Sage Wilson, an organizer at Working Washington who also spoke out about Instacart and DoorDash, says nearly 1,000 workers have signed a petition to Postmates CEO Bastian Lehman in about 24 hours.

In California, one delivery worker made just $3.49 for a thirty-minute, three-mile job. That comes out to about $7 per hour, but if you account for mileage expenses and other payroll taxes, Working Washington says that comes out to $5.29 per hour.

“Postmates is worth nearly $2 billion,” Working Washington organizers wrote on their blog. “They can afford to pay workers more than $4 per job — but as they prepare to go public and continue their race to the bottom against companies like DoorDash and UberEats, they’re cutting our pay even as our costs increase. They’re using sneaky language to try to trick workers into thinking these changes are good for us — saying they’re trying to make pay “clear, consistent, and easy to understand”…and that “the new [lower] rates remove the need for a minimum guarantee.”

GM’s car-sharing service Maven to exit eight cities

GM is scaling back its Maven car-sharing company and will stop service in nearly half of the 17 North American cities it operates in.

A spokesperson who confirmed Maven was shutting down in some cities, without identifying the location or number that will remain, said the company plans to focus on markets that have the strongest demand and growth potential.

The WSJ, which was the first to report the impending shutdown, said Maven will continue to operate in Detroit, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and Toronto. However, TechCrunch has received information from Maven customers that Washington D.C. was also shutting down.

TechCrunch will update the article with more details about what markets Maven plans to exit.

Maven’s car-sharing service is available in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Denver, Los Angeles, New York, Orlando, San Francisco and Washington D.C. as well as Toronto, according to its website. Maven Gig, a service it launched in 2017 that rents out vehicles to rideshare and delivery drivers who use apps like Uber, Lyft and UberEATS, operates in Austin, Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, NYC and Washington D.C. 

GM conducted a market-by-market analysis to determine which cities it would exit, according to the spokesperson.

When Maven first launched in 2016 it helped bring (and expand) several of GM’s existing test programs under one brand. The mobility division initially launched as a car-sharing service akin to Zipcar.

At the time of its launch, Maven was essentially three car-sharing services in one that included a city-based service that rented GM vehicles by the hour through an app and another for urban apartment dwellers in Chicago and New York.

A smartphone app, which is central to Maven’s business, is used by customers to search for and reserve a vehicle, unlock the door, and remotely start, cool, or heat the car.

But Maven has had its share of challenges. Demand was lackluster in some markets and the team tweaked, added or removed programs altogether in an effort to figure out what would work.

Maven CEO Julia Steyn left GM in January. TechCrunch has also received tips from users complaining about the service, the platform, even being locked out of the vehicles in areas with limited cellular service.

The company launched in 2017 Maven Reserve in Los Angeles and San Francisco to allow customers to rent its GM-branded vehicles for a month at a time. It also started Maven Gig in hopes of tapping into a growing demand from ride-share and delivery app drivers.

In July, the automaker launched a service in Chicago, Detroit and Ann Arbor, Mich. that let owners rent out their personal GM-branded vehicles through its Maven car-sharing platform. The peer-to-peer car rental service was designed to operate in a similar fashion to how Turo and Getaround work.

The creation of Maven was an important milestone for the automaker. GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra, used a study commissioned in the wake of the ignition switch engineering scandal, to accelerate her plans to transform the culture and operations at the automaker. Dozens of executives participated in transformational leaders programs. And Maven was one of the fruits that spun out of that.

Maven was part of a wave of initiatives and investments announced by GM in early 2016 that illustrated its new interest in unconventional transportation that moved past the traditional core business of producing, selling and financing cars, trucks and SUVs to consumers.

That year, GM invested $500 million into ride-hailing startup Lyft, bought the remaining assets and tech of ride-hailing company Sidecar, and most famously acquired self-driving car startup Cruise.

Maven was notable because unlike the other pursuits, this was its own commercial business.