Alibaba made a smart screen to help blind people shop and it costs next to nothing

Just a few years ago, Li Mengqi could not have imagined shopping on her own. Someone needed to always keep her company to say aloud what was in front of her, who’s been blind since birth.

When smartphones with text-to-speech machines for the visually impaired arrived, she immediately bought an iPhone. “Though it was expensive,” Li, a 23-year-old who grew up in a rural village in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, told me. Cheaper smartphone options in China often don’t have good accessibility features.

Screen readers opened a plethora of new opportunity for those with visual impairments. “I felt liberated, no longer having to rely on others,” said Li, who can now shop online, WeChat her friends, and go out alone by following her iPhone compass.

Reading out everything on the screen is helpful, but it can also be overwhelming. Digital readers don’t decipher human thoughts, so when Li gets on apps with busy interfaces, such as an ecommerce platform, she’s bombarded with descriptions before she gets to the thing she wants.

Over the past two years, Alibaba’s $15 billion R&D initiative Damo Academy has been working to improve smartphone experience for the blind. Its latest answer, a joint effort with China’s prestigious Tsinghua University, is a cheap silicone sheet that goes on top of smartphone screens.

Li is among the first one hundred visually impaired or blind users to trial the technology. Nothing stands out about the plastic film – which cost RMB 0.25 or 3.6 American cents each to produce – until one has a closer look. There are three mini buttons on each side. They are sensory-enabled, which means pressing on them triggers certain commands, usually those that are frequently used like “go back” and “confirm”.

“It’s much easier to shop with the sheet on,” said Li. Having button shortcuts removes the risk of misclicking and the need for complex interactions with screens. Powering Smart Touch is human-machine interaction, the same technology that makes voice control devices possible.

Alibaba blind smartphone feature

Alibaba’s $1 “Smart Touch” plastic sheet helps smoothen smartphone experience for the visually impaired. / Photo credit: Alibaba

“We thought, human-machine interaction can’t just be for sighted people,” Chen Zhao, research director at Damo Academy told TechCrunch. “Besides voice, touch is also very important to the blind, so we decided to develop a touch feature.”

Smart Touch isn’t just for fingers. It also works when users hold their phones up to the ears. This lets them listen to text quickly in public without having to blast it out through speakers or headphones. Early trials of ear touch show a 50 percent reduction in time needed to complete tasks like taking calls and online shopping, Alibaba claims.

Emotions also matter. People with visual disabilities tend to be more cautious as they fumble through screens, so Smart Touch takes that into account. For instance, users need to double-click on the silicone button before a command goes through.

At the moment, Smart Touch works only on special editions of Alibaba’s two flagship apps, e-commerce marketplace Taobao and payment affiliate Alipay . The buttons automatically take on different functions when users switch between apps.

But Zhao said she wanted to make the technology widely available. Some tinkering with existing apps will make Smart Touch compatible. The smart film requires more testing before it officially rolls out early 2019, so Damo and Tsinghua have been recruiting volunteers like Li for feedback.

“Unlike with regular apps, it’s hard to beta test Smart Touch because the blind population is relatively small,” observed the researcher, but embedding the technology in popular apps could speed up the iteration process.

There’s also the issue with distributing the physical sheets. According to state census, China had around 13 million visually impaired people in 2012. That’s about one in a hundred people. However, they are rarely seen in public, as a post on China’s equivalent of Quora points out.

One oft-cited obstacle is that most roads in China aren’t disability-friendly, even in major cities. (In my city Shenzhen, blind lanes are common but they often get cut off abruptly to make way for a crossing or a bus stop.)

Damo doesn’t plan to monetize the initiative, according to Zhao. She envisions a future where her team could give out the haptic films — which can be mass produced at low costs — for free through Alibaba’s expanding network of brick-and-mortar stores.

Time will tell whether the accessibility scheme is more than public relations fluff. Initiatives around corporate social responsibility have mushroomed in China in recent years. They have come under fire, however, for being transient because many merely pander to the government’s demand (link in Chinese) for corporate ethics overlook long-term impact.

“The technology is ready. It just takes time to test it on different smartphones and bring to users at scale,” said Zhao.

Alibaba sets new Singles’ Day record with $31B in sales, but growth is slowing

Alibaba scored another blockbuster Singles’ Day after customers around the world shopped in stores and online on the tenth edition of its November 11 shopping festival. That puts this year’s gross merchandise volume – a measure for the dollar value of total transactions – at a staggering $30.8 billion, although the company recorded its lowest-ever annual growth rate for the event.

The figure makes the spending bonanza more than twice the size of Cyber Monday and Black Friday combined in 2017.

This is by far the largest-ever Singles’ Day to date. Just 15 hours and 49 minutes into the spending spree, transactions leapfrogged that of 2017’s tally of $25 billion, the company announced on Twitter.

As the world anticipates when the supercharged shopping day will hit a ceiling, sales are already cooling. The final total of 2018 represents a 27 percent increase from last year. That’s the lowest Alibaba has seen in the history of Singles’ Day sales, and a drop from 36 percent in 2017 — still, it remains impressive given how large the target is each year.

The slowdown came on the heels of Alibaba’s weakest revenue growth since seven quarters ago and a cut in annual revenue forecast – though revenues were still increasing at a healthy rate of 54 percent year-over-year in its latest quarter.

New growth fuel

Consumers are expected to tighten their purse strings as an economic downturn hits China. The ecommerce giant is, however, unconcerned for it’s betting on the country’s rising middle class in the long run.

Shoppers “are looking for new ways to upgrade their lifestyles and make their lives better,” Alibaba executive chairman Joe Tsai said at a media event on Sunday. “This will really offset a lot of the short-term cyclical effects.”

More than 300 million of China’s 1.4 billion people have entered the middle-income bracket, according to the national statistics bureau. That means discretionary items will drive much of the growth in the Chinese retail titan – and the upmarket trend is already underway. Health supplements, small home appliances, and skincare items are among the fastest growing categories by GMV during Singles’ Day this year.

Alibaba has also tapped into physical stores. The online retailer is poised to “digitize the whole consumer retail market,” Daniel Zhang, current CEO and incoming chairman as Jack Ma hands over the helm next year, told media on Sunday. Over the past two years, Alibaba has been jostling with close rival JD.com to snap up strategic partnerships with brick-and-mortar retailers who remain keen to reach Chinese consumers.

Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang started the Singles’ Day shopping festival in 2009 when he was in charge of the company’s Tmall business (Photo Vivek Prakash/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

There are nuances in the sheer size of GMV, however, as it doesn’t reflect final revenues. A slew of factors could boost the figure. For one, refunds cannot be processed on November 11. Many vendors run pre-sales weeks in advance, taking deposits for items at the time but only processing full payments on Singles’ Day.

Alibaba also aired a star-studded gala on the night of November 10 to drum up sales. It said that over 240 million people – that’s almost one in five people in China – watched the show and its Singles’ Day commercials through two of China’s top TV broadcasters and Alibaba’s own Youku video streaming site.

Next ten years

As Alibaba enters its 19th year, it’s turning to new channels to sell. “Voice will be an important entry point,” said Zhang. The firm’s efforts to brace for China’s transition from a mobile-first age into an AI-powered one include a tie-up with voice assistant startup Rokid.

Alibaba also has its sights set on international consumers. This year, merchants from over 200 countries participated in Singles’ Day, including those on Alibaba’s Southeast Asia-based Lazada platform. “From day one, our dream was to create a global shopping day,” suggested Zhang.

An 11.11 advertisement in New York

Alibaba celebrated another big milestone this year: over one billion packages were shipped throughout the shopping day. But the company is also under mounting pressure to address its packaging waste problem.

“We have to redefine packaging,” said Zhang. That means more than using recycled material. More important, the CEO wants items to travel at a closer distance. This is made possible by algorithms that optimize inventory management. Alibaba could also lean on Ele.me, which it acquired this year and runs a fleet of food delivery staff, to process neighborhood orders which may require less or no packaging at all.

Singles’ Day was first popularized as an antidote to Valentines’ Day for the way the date is written numerically: 11.11, which represents four single people. Nearly a decade after Zhang first turned it into a sales promotion for Tmall, Alibaba’s online sales platform for brands, the one-day event has swollen into the world’s largest online shopping festival.

“We created this day for people who are lonely. Today, we totally redefined the day for how people shop,” concluded Zhang.

Calling all hackers! Join us for TechCrunch China’s Shenzhen Hackathon on Nov 17

Attention coders, designers and all other builders: the TechCrunch China Hackathon is returning to Shenzhen, the city known as the hardware capital of the world, this month and we want you to take part!

So if your inner being is to code, design, build and hack cool things; if you want to have fun with others like you over a weekend; if you love to use your superpower to win cash and prizes; and if you need an excuse to kickstart that side-project project you’ve been thinking about for weeks… then come on over!

Arranged as a pre-cursor to our TechCrunch China Shenzhen event this month, the hackathon takes place on November 17. There’s really is no better place to build your next app, product or hack.

Like the traditional TC Hackathon, participating in the Shenzhen Hackathon is entirely free. All you need to do is register, which you can do right here.

The plan is simple: after 24 hours of building, hackers present their projects to their peers and a panel of judges who decide on the winners.

The top teams win the grand prize and there are other special awards on offer, including the Most Innovative Product, the Most Valuable Product, and the Most Completed Product awards.

In addition, this year, we’re giving you more. Every hacker who successfully submits their project will receive a two-day pass to the TechCrunch Shenzhen 2018 event — valued 1299 RMB or $188 — in addition to a certificate of honor and a souvenir t-shirt.

Every successful hackathon entrant will receive tickets to the TechCrunch China event in Shenzhen, which runs November 19-20

There will also be a bunch of blockchain challenges from our sponsor Ontology and other partners. With blockchain’s versatile applications and usability across a range of industries, the blockchain challenges bring together different knowledge bases and backgrounds, from gaming to supply chain software, medical software and voting applications.

The TechCrunch Shenzhen Hackathon takes place at the Shenzhen Bay Inno Mall 深圳湾创新广场 from November 17-18. Get your tickets here — you can visit this link for more information.

Alibaba rival JD.com plays the long-game on technology investment

China’s JD.com  has made it clear recently that it’s venturing into artificial intelligence and automation. Every few months over the past year, the online retailer – China’s second-largest by transactions after Alibaba – has unveiled new products based on cutting-edge technology: for example drone delivery, self-driving trucks, fully automated warehouses, to name a few.

Most of these technologies are still in their testing phase and JD’s ever expanding technology investment is already eating into its profitability.

In the second quarter, the retail titan’s technology expenses were up over 70 percent year-over-year for the third consecutive quarter, costing the company 2.8 billion yuan, or $400 million. Net income slipped more than 50 percent to 478 million yuan, versus 977 million yuan last year.

By comparison, marketing and fulfilment, which traditionally make up the bulk of JD’s overall operating expenses, grew at less than 30 percent over the same period.

When will JD start to seriously capitalize on its technologies? When it can do things at scale, according to the company’s head of technology.

“If there is no scale, there is saving,” JD’s chief technology officer Zhang Chen told a group of reporters in Beijing on Tuesday.

“If you build something, you want other people to use that. It takes a lot of time to make a product perfect before you say it’s done. AI is all about iteration and how much data you get,” Zhang continued.

As of August, JD had over 314 million annual active user accounts. That’s a sizable chunk of China’s 800 million internet users (even given the fact that people may hold more than one accounts). Its archival Alibaba, however, reached twice the size of JD at 601 million annual active customers in September.

Alibaba also enjoys much wider profit margins than JD, thanks to a light-asset platform approach that connects vendors to consumers and derives the bulk of its revenue from advertising. JD, on the other hand, runs a more costly model that sees it operates most of the supply chain and deliver goods from warehouses to customers – like Amazon .

Alibaba’s operating margin in Q3 stood at 16 percent, while JD posted a 0.8 percent non-GAAP operating margin in Q2. That said, Alibaba has also suffered a margin squeeze in recent quarters as it continues to invest heavily in offline operations such as food delivery.

To secure more user traffic, JD has been leaning on its ties with Tencent, a major shareholder in its business and the builder behind the massively popular WeChat  messenger. While Alibaba’s e-store links are blocked on WeChat, JD runs smoothly through a “mini program,” a light-weight application that runs inside WeChat’s interface that allows buyers to bypass app stores.

It’s unclear how much traffic WeChat brings over to JD. But WeChat has proven to be an effective channel for acquiring ecommerce users. This is evident in the case of group-buying app Pinduoduo,  which started out as a WeChat mini program. In June, the three-year-old company leapfrogged JD in mobile penetration to reach 26.2 percent, according to data services provider Jiguang.

Pinduoduo’s rise was so impressive that its shares popped 40 percent in their first day of trading on NASDAQ in July though later nosedived following accusations over fake goods sold on the ecommerce platform.

Counterfeiting is a decade-old problem in the Chinese internet, tarnishing the name of both Alibaba’s online bazaar Taobao and even JD, which boasts of its authenticity of direct sales.

JD has also been looking overseas for growth. In August, Google poured $550 million in JD as part of a strategic partnership to help the Chinese company grab more users around the world. While JD’s vice president of strategy Ling Chenkai did not reveal details on the firm’s European plans when asked by TechCrunch on Tuesday, he assured going global has always been “an aspiration” for JD and partnership will play a key role amid the process.

But JD understands that it can’t always fall back on its partnerships, even with its close allies.

“Every company protects its data like [there will be] none tomorrow, even with strategic partners. Data sharing is a very serious business,” says Zhang the CTO.

“Most Chinese companies have a really big security team,” he observed, adding that while partners do not directly share data, they collaborate by exchanging user insights.

China’s obsession with short videos has its internet giants worried

Take a subway ride in China and expect to see a lot of commuters’ eyes glued to TikTok videos on their phones.

Video clips like TikTok’s are now consuming nearly nine percent of Chinese people’s time online, a 5.2 percent jump from 2017, according to app analytics firm QuestMobile.

Apps such as TikTok — which is operated by ByteDance, the world’s highest valued startup at $75 billion — have become popular among previously camera-shy users. Those who lack editing experience can now easily add beautifying filters and music to spice up their work.

tiktok gif 1

Elderly couple having a moment on Douyin / Credit: Douyin ID @淘气陈奶奶

It also helps that smartphone data became cheaper and internet penetration kept growing in recent years — China now has 800 million smartphone users, according to government data. In 2013, just under 40 percent of China’s online population streamed videos on their phones, according to database CBNData. In 2017, that ratio surged to 80 percent.

Initially geared towards Chinese youth, short-video apps have increased in popularity across all age groups – including the elderly. Over a third of the country’s 1.4 billion people are active on these apps every month. People above the age of 50 now spend as much as 50 minutes on them every day, compared to only 17 minutes a year ago.

And TikTok, called Douyin in China, is spearheading the short-video game.

Tencent’s nerves

In recent years, few mobile apps in China have captured as many stares as WeChat, Tencent’s messaging app that’s evolved into a one-stop platform allowing people to shop, order cabs, book hotels, and complete other daily tasks.

Then short video apps came along, eating people’s eyeball time away. Apps like TikTok do not compete directly with WeChat as they serve different purposes, but data suggests that use of instant messaging services has waned amid the fledgling video scene.

This year WeChat and its peers occupied 30.5 percent of people’s online time, a 3.6 percent drop year-over-year per the QuestMobile report.

It comes as no surprise that Tencent is fretting over the clip craze and in particular, ByteDance’s rise. In May, Tencent’s usually low-profile boss Pony Ma got in a rare online spat with ByteDance founder and CEO Zhang Yiming over plagiarism and WeChat blocking TikTok content.

Typical miming and finger dancing performed by teens / Credit: Douyin ID @李雨霏2007

Elsewhere, Tencent took action. Since April, the tech giant has rolled out a number of TikTok rivals but so far none has gotten close to the latter’s lion’s share: 500 million monthly active users worldwide. That’s excluding the 100 million total users on Musical.ly, which ByteDance acquired in late 2017 and merged into TikTok this August.

Tencent’s got other backup plans, though. It owns shares in TikTok’s China archrival Kuaishou, which had a 22.7 percent penetration rate in September according to data service provider Jiguang. That’s however, dwarfed by TikTok’s 33.8 percent, which means the app was installed on over a third of all mobile devices monitored by Jiguang. Plus, ByteDance’s other short-video apps for different niches, Huoshan and Xigua, are also faring well, commanding 13.1 percent and 12.6 percent, respectively.

Alibaba: not quite an ally

Until recently, ByteDance appeared to be making nice with China’s other internet giant — Alibaba. The companies kicked off a partnership in March that saw TikTok using Alibaba’s online marketplace Taobao to process ecommerce transactions on its app. Authorized TikTok users, usually those with a big following, can link videos to their Taobao shops. This money-making setup allows TikTok to lure more quality content creators. Alibaba, on the other hand, gets traffic from the fledgling social media app that could absorb some of the loss from WeChat blocking its ecommerce apps.

Things can go south anytime, however, as ByteDance makes forays into Alibaba’s territories. The startup recently introduced an ecommerce platform and entered the business of long-form video streaming, an area where Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu’s iQIYI dominate.

tiktok douyin

Life hacks are popular, too: guy sharing his gardening tips / Credit: Douyin ID @速效三元化合肥

ByteDance seems set to grow independently. Unlike many of China’s promising startups, six-year-old ByteDance hasn’t accepted financing from any of the tech trio of Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent — known as the BAT such is their dominance in China’s consumer technology.

ByteDance’s moves into new space may also signal the firm’s urge to explore additional monetization channels besides advertising on feeds. It lifted its revenue target to $7.2 billion for 2018, well above the $2.5 billion it earned last year, according to Bloomberg.

At home and afar

Despite the boom, China’s short-video market faces increasing regulatory headwinds. In recent months, authorities have been clamping down on Kuaishou, ByteDance’s video apps, and smaller players on account of eradicating content that’s deemed illegal or inappropriate.

Violation could result in app store bans and those that underwent such severe punishment like Miaopai, which is backed by China’s Twitter equivalent Weibo, suffered from a tumble in app installs.

tiktok douyin

Sometimes Douyin does get serious – a Beijing TV channel has its own account and it covers news here / Credit: Douyin ID @BTV新闻

ByteDance didn’t get a ban – yet, but it came under fire for its AI-driven recommendation algorithms. It’s something the startup prides itself on but has irritated media watchdogs who reprimanded TikTok for showing users “unacceptable” content, such as videos depicting adolescent pregnancies. ByteDance’s popular news aggregator Jinri Toutiao, or “today’s headlines,” received similar criticisms for giving its 120 million daily users “fluff”.

In response, ByteDance added thousands of censors to screen content on top of AI-driven recommendation across its apps.

ByteDance’s expanding territory through TikTok goes well beyond China. This year, the short-video platform has been climbing app store rankings around the world, an ascend accelerated by its incorporation of Musical.ly. Now it’s not just Tencent that’s taking note; Facebook is also building a TikTok clone, TechCrunch reported recently.

China’s frenzy over League of Legends championship sheds light on esports growth

When China’s Invictus Gaming defeated European squad Fnatic in the League of Legends 2018 finals this past Saturday, China’s social media platforms became awash in ecstasy and pride.

“It’s like winning an Olympic gold, a teenage dream come true,” writes one thirty-something audience of the competition on his WeChat feed.

Many others share that sentiment. So far, the hashtag #IG冠军, which means “IG the champion,” has generated over one million threads on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter with over four million monthly active users. This is a critical moment for China’s first-generation of players who grew up under parents and teachers who too easily dismissed all kinds of video games.

IG’s victory marks the first time a Chinese team has won the world championship for LoL – fondly called so by fans – the world’s most played PC game according to research firm Newzoo. The role-playing and monster-slaying title is run by Riot Games Inc, a Los Angeles-headquartered studio that WeChat operator Tencent fully bought out in 2015.

It wasn’t just gamers and the youth cheering for IG. Chinese mainstream media also rushed to congratulate. An op-ed from the communist party paper Guangming Daily called IG’s victory “an alternative path to the national sports dream.”

China has a history of obsessing over sports, evident in its generous spending on the Summer Olympics back in 2008 and the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics. Now esports – or competitive video gaming – as an officially recognized sporting event, is gaining ground among policymakers.

Esports in China has grown from a 53.2 billion yuan ($7.72 billion) industry in 2016 into one that’s estimated to earmark 88.7 billion yuan ($12.87 billion) in revenue in 2018, according to research firm Gamma Data. Local officials across the country want a share of the booming market. In some cases, the governments have shelled out billions of yuan to turn their no-name towns into “esports hub” that would house competitions and gaming companies in hope of stimulating local economies.

lLeague of legends china ig

Private companies have joined in the game, too. Tencent, China’s largest gaming company by revenue, has invested in NYSE-listed Huya and Douyu, two of China’s leading esports livestreaming services. IG itself is an esports organization that Wang Sicong, son of China’s once richest man Wang Jianlin, founded in 2011 and catapulted to today’s stardom.

But China’s relationship with video games overall has always been murky. While the government is rooting for professional gaming, it’s tightening control over leisure ones, condemning game publishers like Tencent for “poisoning” juveniles with blockbuster titles.

“The Chinese government treats esports and leisure games very differently,” a staff in the esports division of a major global gaming studio who asks to remain anonymous told TechCrunch. “I don’t think IG’s victory will cause big changes to the government’s attitude.”

Tencent, which earns two-thirds of its revenue from online gaming, lost $17.5 billion in market valuation when China’s state newspaper slashed its popular Honor of Kings, widely regarded a mobile copycat of LoL. This year, a hiatus in game license approvals again puts pressure on Tencent stock prices and profitability.

For esports and League of Legends alone, however, IG’s glory could mean a brighter future.

“At least now we will see League of Legends’ popularity continue into a couple more years. Esports’ development may also benefit from the event,” suggests the gaming company staff.

Tencent is launching its own version of Snap Spectacles

Some were surprised to see Snap release a second version of its ‘face-camera’ Spectacles gadget, since the original version failed to convert hype into sales.

But those lackluster sales — which dropped as low as 42,000 per quarter — didn’t only fail to dissuade the U.S. social firm from making more specs, because now Tencent, the Chinese internet giant and Snap investor, has launched its own take on the genre.

Tencent this week unveiled its answer to the video-recording sunglasses, which, you’ll notice, bear a striking resemblance to Snap’s Spectacles.

Called the Weishi smart glasses, Tencent’s wearable camera sports a lens in the front corner that allows users to film from a first-person perspective. Thankfully, the Chinese gaming and social giant has not made the mistake of Snap’s first-generation Spectacles, which highlighted the camera with a conspicuous yellow ring.

Tencent, which is best known for operating China’s massively popular WeChat messenger, has been an investor in Snap for some time after backing it long before it went public. But, when others have criticized the company and its share price struggled, Tencent doubled down. It snapped up an additional 12 percent stake one year ago and it is said to have offered counsel to Snap CEO Evan Spiegel on product strategy. We don’t know, however, if the two sides’ discussions have ever covered Spectacles and thus inspired this new Tencent take on then.

The purpose behind Tencent’s new gadget is implicit in its name. Weishi, which means “micro videos” in Chinese, is also the name of the short-video sharing app that Tencent has been aggressively promoting in recent months to catch up with market dominators TikTok and Kuaishou .

TikTok, known as Douyin in China, is part of the entertainment ecosystem that Beijing-based ByteDance is building. ByteDance also runs the popular Chinese news aggregator Toutiao and is poised to overtake Uber as the world’s most-valued tech startup when it closes its mega $3 billion funding round.

Weishi’s other potential rival Kuaishou is, interestingly, backed by Tencent. Kuaishou launched its own video-taking sunglasses in July.

Alongside the smart sunglasses, Tencent has also rolled out a Go Pro-like action camera that links to the Weishi app. Time will tell whether the gadgets will catch on and get more people to post on Weishi.

Snap Spectacles V1 (top) and V2

The spectacles will go on sale November 11, a date that coincides with Singles Day, the annual shopping spree that Tencent’s close rival Alibaba runs. Tencent does not make the gadget itself and instead has teamed up with Shenzhen-based Tonot, a manufacturer that claims to make “trendy” video-taking glasses. Tonot has also worked with Japan’s Line chat app on camera glasses.

“There isn’t really a demand for video-recording glasses,” says Mi Zou, a Beijing-based entrepreneur working on an AI selfie app. That’s because smart glasses are “not offering that much more to consumers than smartphones do,” she argues. Plus, a lot of people on apps like Douyin and Kuaishou love to take selfies, a need that smart glasses fail to fulfil.

“Tencent will have to work on its marketing. It could perhaps learn a few things from the Apple Watch, which successfully touts a geeky product as a fashionable accessory,” suggests Mi, who points out Snap Spectacles’ so-far dim reception.

Weishi had not responded to TechCrunch’s request for comment at the time of writing, but we’ll update this story with an additional information should the company provide it.

Baidu hits the gas on autonomous vehicles with Volvo and Ford deals

China’s search engine giant Baidu is continuing its partnership spree for Apollo, its open development platform for autonomous driving, after it inked a deal with Swedish automaker Volvo to develop level four self-driving passenger cars.

“Autonomous driving has been our dream, but it’s coming true,” said Li Zhenyu, vice president and general manager of Baidu’s intelligent driving group, at the company’s annual conference today. Level four means the vehicles can drive on pre-mapped roads with little or no human intervention.

The agreement came a day after Baidu and Ford forged an agreement to test self-driving vehicles on Chinese roads for two years. The American car giant’s self-driving system has already been fitted into Apollo, according to the duo’s joint statement.

baidu autonomous car

The Baidu-Red Flag autonomous passenger car

Baidu and Volvo, which is owned by China’s Geely, said they plan to mass produce the vehicles for the Chinese market, although there is no timeline for the promise. The deal marks Volvo’s first partnership to jointly develop autonomous vehicles in China. This is also the first time for Baidu to work with a non-Chinese automaker to mass produce level four passenger cars.

Over the past few months, Baidu has signed a number of Chinese carmakers including BAIC and Red Flag onto Apollo amid a global race to mass produce autonomous vehicles. As of July, the Apollo ecosystem counted 116 partners, up from 50 a year ago.

Baidu previously said its first batch of level four autonomous driving vehicles through the BAIC deal would be ready by 2021. Its level four minibuses with Xiamen King Long are already running in over ten locations throughout China, Baidu’s CEO Robin Li said during its Q3 earnings call on Tuesday.

Baidu has also been expanding its Apollo network by linking up with the government. On Tuesday, it announced a collaboration with the Chinese city of Changsha, which has over seven million residents, to apply self-driving solutions to the city’s roads. Baidu is also in talks with Beijing and Shanghai for a similar tie-up.

China’s Youon expands into Europe as other bike startups backpedal worldwide

A little known Chinese bike company is riding into Europe as its peer Ofo has applied the brakes to its global expansion strategy in recent months.

Youon, which gets by manufacturing public bikes for city governments across China, has formed a joint venture with UK-based bike-sharing startup Cycle.land, it says in a statement. The deal allows the Chinese firm to sit back in its headquarters in eastern China while its British partner deploys its bikes and takes care of on-the-ground operation.

Youon’s fleet of 1,000 public bikes will start appearing in London next March, making the UK the fourth country in its international expansion after Russia, India, and Malaysia.

Youon’s name may not ring a bell, but its subsidiary Hellobike is increasingly turning heads as its dockless bikes win over users in China’s smaller cities where its larger rivals Ofo and Mobike lack a presence. This is in part thanks to Hellobike’s partnership with its investor Ant Financial, Alibaba’s financial affiliate, which lets users skip Hellobike’s standalone app and access the service on Ant’s Alipay wallet, which has over 500 million MAUs.

While Hellobike’s mobile penetration recorded a 20 percent month-over-month increase (link in Chinese) in September, Mobike and Ofo barely saw any growth in the same period, according to data service provider Jiguang.

Away from home, Youon’s partnership approach is also noticeably different from that of Mobike and Ofo, which have chosen to run their own overseas operation. Teaming up with local players gives Youon insight into customers abroad, suggests market research firm Analysys.

“User behavior in Europe and North America is very different and it will be reckless for a [Chinese] firm to abruptly set up its own operations overseas,” Sun Naiyue, an analyst at Analysys, tells TechCrunch.

China’s Youon partnered with peer-to-peer bike-sharing startup Cycle.land to expand to the UK [Image via Youon]

Having a local ally also helps Youon avoid government protectionism and regulatory meddling in the foreign market, Sun adds. London has already greenlighted the company to place bikes in the city and the company will “follow local demand and rules to deploy bikes accordingly,” Cycle.land says of its partner.

Contrasting the prospects of Youon’s latest push is the bleak outlook of its peer. The past few months have seen Ofo retreat from its overseas markets to prioritize profitability. To date, Ofo has shut down in Australia, Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, India, Israel, and scaled back operation in a host of other countries.