Ola, Uber’s India rival, invests $100M in scooter rental startup Vogo

We’re familiar with Uber cozying up to scooter startups — it has bought one and invested in another — but over in India, the U.S. firm’s key rival is hatching a major alliance of its own it invested $100 million in scooter rental startup Vogo.

Ola first invested back in August when Vogo raised an undisclosed Series A round from Ola, Matrix Partners and other investors, but now Ola is doubling down with this follow-on deal. It isn’t saying how much equity it has captured with this investment, nor the valuation that it gives Vogo but you can well imagine it is high for a company that has only just done its Series A.

As you’d expect, this is a strategic investment and it’ll mean that Vogo scooters will appear within the Ola app, from where they can be booked by the company’s 150 million registered users, “soon.” Bangalore and Hyderabad are the two cities where Vogo operates, but you’d imagine that it will lean on Ola to expand into other parts of tier-one India where Ola already has a strong presence.

Ola’s money is going directly into supply, with Vogo planning to buy 100,000 more scooters for its platform. The company’s scooters, for those who don’t know them, are unlocked using a one-time password generated from the company’s Android app. Scooters are either dropped off at a designated station, or the rider specifies that they are taking a round trip and then returns it to the station where they started.

Ola CEO and co-founder Bhavish Aggarwal — pictured in the top image alongside Vogo CEO and founder Anand Ayyadurai — said he hopes that the deal and integration will improve last-mile transportation options across India.

A selection of screen captures from the Vogo Android app

“Our investment in Vogo will help build a smart multi-modal network for first-last mile connectivity in the country. Vogo’s automated scooter-sharing platform, backed by Ola’s expertise in this space can help transform our cities. Together, we are thrilled to be at the forefront of India’s rapidly growing micro-mobility market,” he said in a prepared statement.

Ola previously invested in its own bike rental service last year, although that category has struggled in India as Chinese imports like Ofo have fled the country after struggling to develop a sustainable business in the country, and others outside of China. Ola and also Uber have offered motorbike taxis in India since 2016, but scooters offer a more individual approach.

Uber, for its part, doesn’t offer scooters in India at this point. But with India its second-largest market — it has reportedly crossed $1.6 billion in annualized bookings — you’d imagine that it is near the top of the company’s thoughts… although there is the business of that upcoming U.S. IPO to deal with.

What China searched for in 2018: World Cup, trade war, Apple

Soon after Google unveiled the top trends in what people searched for in 2018, Baidu published what captivated the Chinese in a parallel online universe, where most of the West’s mainstream tech services including Google and Facebook are inaccessible.

China’s top search engine put together the report “based on trillions of trending queries” to present a “social collective memory” of internet users, said Baidu. 802 million people have come online in China as of August, and many of them use Baidu to look things up daily.

Overall, Chinese internet users were transfixed on a mix of sports events, natural disasters, politics, and entertainment, a pattern that also prevails in Google year-in-search. On Baidu, the most popular queries of the year are:

  1. World Cup: China shares its top search with the rest of the world. Despite China’s lackluster performance in the tournament, World Cup managed to capture a massive Chinese fan base who supported an array of foreign teams. People filled bars in big cities at night to watch the heart-thumping matches and many even trekked north to Russia to show their support.
  2. US-China trade war: The runner-up comes as a no surprise given the escalating conflict between the world’s two largest economies. A series of events have stoked more fears of the standoff, including the arrest of Huawei’s financial chief.

  3. Typhoon Mangkhut: The massive tropical cyclone swept across the Pacific Ocean in September, leaving the Philippines and South China in shambles. Shenzhen, the Chinese city dubbed the Silicon Valley for hardware, reportedly submitted more than $20.4 million in damage claims after the storm.

  4. Apple launch: The American smartphone giant is still getting a lot of attention in China even as local Android competitors like Huawei and Oppo chip away at its market share. Apple is also fighting a legal battle with chipmaker Qualcomm which wanted the former to stop selling certain smartphone models in China.

  5. The story of Yanxi Palace: The historical drama of backstabbing concubines drew record-breaking views for its streamer and producer iQiyi, China’s answer to Netflix that floated in the U.S. in February. The 70-episode show was watched not only in China but also across more than 70 countries around the world.

  6. Produce 101: The talent show in which 101 young women race to be the best performer is one of Tencent Video’s biggest hits of the year, but its reach has gone beyond its targeted young audience as it popularized a meme, which made it to No. 9 on this list.

  7. Skr: A buzzword courtesy to pop idol Kris Wu who extensively used it on a whim during iQiyi’s rap competition “Rap of China,” prompting his fans and internet users to bestow it with a myriad of interpretations.

  8. Li Yong passed away: The sudden death of the much-loved television host after he fought a 17-month battle with cancer stirred an outpouring of grief on social media.

  9. Koi: A colored variety of carps, the fish is associated with good luck in Chinese culture. Yang Chaoyue, a Produce 101 contestant who the audience believed to be below average surprisingly rose to fame and has since been compared to a koi.

  10. Esports: Professional gaming has emerged from the underground to become a source of national pride recently after a Chinese team championed the League of Legend finals, an event regarded as the Olympics for esports.

In addition to the overall ranking, Baidu also listed popular terms by category, with staple areas like domestic affairs alongside those with a local flavor such as events that inspire national pride or are tear-jerking.

This was also the first year that Baidu has added a category dedicated to AI-related keywords. The search giant, which itself has pivoted to go all in AI and has invested heavily in autonomous driving, said the technology “has not only become a nationwide buzzword but also a key engine in transforming lives across the globe.” In 2018, Chinese people were keen to learn about these AI terms:

Robots, chips, internet of things, smart speakers, autonomous driving, face recognition, quantum computing, unmanned vehicles, World Artificial Intelligence Conference, and quantum mechanics.

Opera brings a flurry of crypto features to its Android mobile browser

Crypto markets may be down down down, but that isn’t stopping Opera’s crypto feature — first released in beta in July — from rolling out to all users of its core mobile browser today as the company bids to capture the ‘decentralized internet’ flag early on.

Opera — the world’s fifth most-used browser, according to Statcounter — released the new Opera Browser for Android that includes a built-in crypto wallet for receiving and sending Bitcoin and other tokens, while it also allows for crypto-based commerce where supported. So on e-commerce sites that accept payment via Coinbase Commerce, or other payment providers, Opera users can buy using a password or even their fingerprint.

Those are the headline features that’ll get the most use in the here and now, but Opera is also talking up its support for “Web 3.0” — the so-called decentralized internet of the future based on blockchain technology.

For that, Opera has integrated the Ethereum web3 API which will allow users of the browser to access decentralized apps (dapps) based on Ethereum. There’s also token support for Cryptokitties, the once-hot collectible game that seemingly every single decentralized internet product works with in one way or another.

But, to be quite honest, there really isn’t much to see or use on Web 3.0 right now, the big bet is that there will be in the future.

Ethereum, like other cryptocurrencies, in a funk right now thanks to the bearish crypto market, but the popular refrain from developers is that low season is a good time to build. Well, Opera has just shipped the means to access Ethereum dapps, will the community respond and give people a reason to care?

Pessimism aside, this launch is notable because it has the potential to get blockchain-based tech into the daily habits of “millions” of people, Charles Hamel — Opera’s product lead for crypto — told TechCrunch over email.

While Opera can’t match the user base of Apple’s Safari or Google Chrome — both of which have the advantage of bundling a browser with a mobile OS — Opera does have a very loyal following, which makes this release one of the most impactful blockchain launches to date.

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

Google Fit gets improved activity logging and a breathing exercise

Google Fit, Google’ s activity tracking app for Android, is getting a small but meaningful update today that adds a few new features that’ll likely make its regular users quite happy. Some are pretty basic, like the launch of a Fit widget for your Android home screen, while others introduce new features like a breathing exercise (though that will only be available on Wear OS), an updated home screen in the app itself, and improved activity logging.

The app got a major redesign earlier this year and in the process, Google introduced Heart Points as a way of tracking not just the length but also the strenuousness of your activities. Those are tracked automatically as you go about your day, but since Fit also lets you log activities manually, you didn’t really get a chance to log the intensity of those exercises. Now, however, you can adjust the intensity in your quest for getting more Heart Points.

The other major new feature is the exact opposite of strenuous exercise: a breathing exercise for those moments when you don’t want to calm down. For some reason, Google decided that this feature is Wear OS-only right now. I’m not quite sure why that’s the case, but if you don’t have a Wear OS watch, you’ll just have to figure out some other way to keep calm and bugger on.

Google has acquired one of India’s most popular train tracking apps

Google is increasing its efforts in India after it snapped up the team behind popular transportation app ‘Where is my Train.’

The app claims 10 million registered users and, as the name suggests, it helps commuters track arrivals and departures as well as buying seats. That’s no small job given that India is estimated to operate some 14,000 trains on a daily basis across the country. The app is for Android, it works offline or with poor connectivity and supports eight languages. It is rivaled by VC-backed companies like RailYatri and iXigo.

There’s no official price for the deal, although India’s Economic Times is reporting that it is in the region of $30-$40 million. The site reported on Google’s interest back in August, when it wrote that other suitors included Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi. A Google spokesperson confirmed the deal to TechCrunch, but declined to provide a price.

Sigmoid Labs, the company that develops the train app, was founded by four former TiVo executives in 2013. Economic Times reports that it has around 10 staff. It is unclear how much money it has raised to date.

The company told customers news of the acquisition on its website earlier today.

“We can think of no better place to help us achieve our mission, and we’re excited to join Google to help bring technology and information into more people’s hands,” its founders wrote.

Google said that the Where is my Train team would “continue to build on the current offering,” so it seems that the app won’t be shuttered, immediately at least.

The service’s significant userbase would suggest that Google might look to develop and expand its scope to perhaps touch on other areas. Ride-hailing apps, for example, have moved into adjacent spaces including entertainment, payments and food delivery to take advantage of their position as daily apps.

That’s all conjecture at this point. But it also stands to reason that Google could fold it into other apps, including Google Maps, although that certainly isn’t the plan at this point.

Screenshots of Where is my Train Android app from the Google Play Store

The deal falls under Google’s ‘Next Billion User’ division which is developing products and services to help increase internet adoption in emerging markets. To date that has focused strongly on India where Google has developed data-friendly ‘lite’ versions of popular apps like YouTube, and initiatives like public WiFi for India’s rail network that’s used by over eight million people.

That scope has also covered services, with Google looking at apps that provide information and utility to Indian consumers. Google launched an on-demand app and a mobile payment service last year, and this year it released a neighborhood Q&A service. The Where is my Train deal certainly fits that strategy and you’d imagine it’ll become a core part of Google’s consumer-facing product line in India.

The deal is also one of the most significant to date for a U.S-based tech firm in India. Facebook, Twitter, Google and even Yahoo have made acquisitions to build teams or acquire talent but Where is my Train seems significantly more strategic as a product.

The Epic Games Store is now live

It’s a busy week for Epic Games . Fresh from pushing out a major season 7 update for Fortnite, so the gaming giant has taken the wraps off its own games store.

First announced earlier this week, the Epic Games Store is targeted squarely at Steam — the giant in the digital game commerce space — and it quietly went live today.

Right now there’s a small cluster of games available including Hades, a new title from Supergiant Games that is in ‘early access’ for $19.99, and Epic’s own Fortnite and Unreal Tournament, both of which are free. But Epic is saying that’s there’s a lot more to come. In particular, the store will offer a free game every two weeks, starting out with Subnautica from December 14-17 and Super Meat Boy from December 28 until January 10.

What is most interesting about the store is the revenue split, which is just twelve percent. That has set off a change at Valve, the firm behind Steam, as we reported earlier this week:

While Valve will continue to take an App Store-like 30 percent from sales of game makers with less than 10 million in revenue, that figure drops to 25 percent until they hit 50 million revenue, from which point the slice drops to 20 percent.

All in all, the store is very early-stage but you can imagine that Epic is working to add more flesh to the bones. It makes absolute sense that the company is aiming to capitalize on the phenomenal success of Fortnite — which was estimated to be grossing as much as $2 million per day in the summer — by building a destination for gamers. Indeed, a big clue came from its decision to bypass the Google Play Store and offer its Android app directly from its website — that’s a move that is estimated to cost Google around $50 million in lost earnings in 2018.

“As a developer ourselves, we have always wanted a platform with great economics that connects us directly with our players,” Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney told TechCrunch in an emailed statement sent earlier this week. “Thanks to the success of Fortnite, we now have this and are ready to share it with other developers.”

The Epic Games Store is part of a wider vision for the coming that prompted a range of investors to pump $1.25 billion into the company in October. That round was participation from the likes of KKR, Kleiner Perkins and Lightspeed Venture Partners and it is said to value the Epic Games business — which also includes Unreal Engine for game development — at more than $15 billion.

Epic is the only gaming firm to go after Valve this year. Discord introduced a game store in August — just months earlier, Valve appeared to go after Discord with the rollout of its own gamer chat system.

So everyone is going after everyone, but Epic’s big advantage continues to be Fortnite.

Google is killing off Allo, its latest messaging app flop

It’s official: Google is killing off Allo.

The messaging app was only launched in September 2016 but it was pretty much flawed from the word go with limited usage. Google was, once again, painfully late to the messaging game.

The company said it had ceased work on the service earlier this year, and now it has announced that it’ll close down in March of next year.

“Allo will continue to work through March 2019 and until then, you’ll be able to export all of your existing conversation history from the app,” Google said in a blog post. “We’ve learned a lot from Allo, particularly what’s possible when you incorporate machine learning features, like the Google Assistant, into messaging.”

Google said it wants “every single Android device to have a great default messaging experience,” but the fact remains that the experience on Android massively lags iOS, where Apple’s iMessage service offers a slick experience with free messages, calling and video between iPhone and iPad users.

Instead of Allo, Google is pushing ahead with RCS (Rich Communication Services), an enhanced SMS standard that could allow iMessage like communication between Android devices.

But could is the operative word. The main caveat with RCS is that carriers must develop their own messaging apps that work with the protocol and connect to other apps, while the many Android OEMs also need to hop on board with support.

As I wrote earlier this year, with RCS, Google is giving carriers a chance to take part in the messaging boom, rather than be cut out as WhatsApp, Messenger, iMessage and others take over. But the decision is tricky for carriers, who have traditionally tightly held any form of income until the death. That’s because they won’t directly make money from consumers via RCS, though it allows them to keep their brand and figure out other ways to generate income, such as business-related services.

Verizon has already signed up, for one, but tracking the other supporters worldwide is tricky. Another problem: RCS is not encrypted, which flies in the face of most messaging apps on the market today.

Elsewhere, Google is keeping Duo — the video chat service that launched alongside Allo — while it continues to develop Hangouts into an enterprise-focused service, much like Slack .

Apple Music is getting native Android tablet support

Bringing Apple Music to Android tablets probably wasn’t Apple’s biggest priority, but three years after launching support for Android phones, the bigger screens are getting some love.

The update, first spotted by 9to5mac, is only available to Google Group beta testers for now, but should soon be rolling out widely when the 2.7 update goes out. The tablet-friendly design switches up the navigation to make use of the added screen real estate.

Apple added support for Android Auto in the last big update in September. As the company expands its native support for Google products, it does make one wonder where support is for Google Home products. The company announced just last week that Apple Music was coming to Amazon Echo devices so it seems that Apple is growing more open-minded in terms of what platforms it’s interested in bringing Music support to.

Google faces GDPR complaint over “deceptive” location tracking

A group of European consumer watchdogs has filed a privacy complaint against Google — arguing the company uses manipulative tactics in order to keep tracking web users’ location, for ad-targeting purposes.

The consumer organizations are making the complaint under the EU’s new data protection framework, GDPR, which regulators can use to levy major fines for compliance breaches — of up to 4% of a company’s global annual turnover.

Under GDPR a consent-based legal basis for processing personal data (e.g. person’s location) must be specific, informed and freely given.

In their complaint the groups, which include Norway’s Consumer Council, argue that Google does not have proper legal basis to track users through “Location History” and “Web & App Activity” — settings which are integrated into all Google accounts, and which, for users of Android -based smartphones, they assert are particularly difficult to avoid.

The Google mobile OS remains the dominant smartphone platform globally, as well as across Europe.

“Google is processing incredibly detailed and extensive personal data without proper legal grounds, and the data has been acquired through manipulation techniques,” said Gro Mette Moen, acting head of the Norwegian Consumer Council’s digital services unit in a statement.

“When we carry our phones, Google is recording where we go, down to which floor we are on and how we are moving. This can be combined with other information about us, such as what we search for, and what websites we visit. Such information can in turn be used for things such as targeted advertising meant to affect us when we are receptive or vulnerable.”

Responding to the complaint, a Google spokesperson sent TechCrunch the following statement:

Location History is turned off by default, and you can edit, delete, or pause it at any time. If it’s on, it helps improve services like predicted traffic on your commute. If you pause it, we make clear that — depending on your individual phone and app settings — we might still collect and use location data to improve your Google experience. We enable you to control location data in other ways too, including in a different Google setting called Web & App Activity, and on your device. We’re constantly working to improve our controls, and we’ll be reading this report closely to see if there are things we can take on board.

Earlier this year the Norwegian watchdog produced a damning report calling out dark pattern design tricks being deployed by Google and Facebook meant to manipulate users by nudging them towards “privacy intrusive options”. It also examined Microsoft’s consent flows but judged the company to be leaning less heavily on such unfair tactics.

Among the underhand techniques that the Google-targeted GDPR complaint, which draws on the earlier report, calls out are allegations of deceptive click-flow, with the groups noting that a “location history” setting can be enabled during Android set-up without a user being aware of it; key settings being both buried in menus (hidden) and enabled by default; users being presented at the decision point with insufficient and misleading information; repeat nudges to enable location tracking even after a user has previously turned it off; and the bundling of “invasive location tracking” with other unrelated Google services, such as photo sorting by location.

GDPR remains in the early implementation phrase — just six months since the regulation came into force across Europe. But a large chunk of the first wave of complaints have been focused on consent, according to Europe’s data protection supervisor, who also told us in October that more than 42,000 complaints had been lodged in total since the regulation came into force.

Where Google is concerned, the location complaint is by no means the only GDPR — or GDPR consent-related — complaint it’s facing.

Another complaint, filed back in May also by a consumer-focused organization, took aim at what it dubbed the use of “forced consent” by Google and Facebook — pointing out that the companies were offering users no choice but to have their personal data processed to make use of certain services, yet the GDPR requires consent to be freely given.

Affetto is the wild boy head robot of your nightmares

Affetto is a robot that can smile at you while it pierces your soul with its endless, dead state. Created by researchers at Osaka University, this crazy baby-head robot can mimic human emotions by scrunching up its nose, smiling, and even closing its eyes and frowning. Put it all together and you get a nightmare from which there is no sane awakening!

Android robot faces have persisted in being a black box problem: they have been implemented but have only been judged in vague and general terms,” study first author Hisashi Ishihara says. “Our precise findings will let us effectively control android facial movements to introduce more nuanced expressions, such as smiling and frowning.”

We last saw Affetto in action in 2011 when it was even more frightening than it is now. The researchers have at least added some skin and hair to this cyberdemon, allowing us the briefest moment of solace as we stare into Affetto’s dead eyes and hope it doesn’t gum us to death. Ain’t the future grand?

The goal, obviously, is to lull humans into a state of calm as the rest of Affetto’s body, spiked and bladed, can whir them to pieces. The researchers write:

A trio of researchers at Osaka University has now found a method for identifying and quantitatively evaluating facial movements on their android robot child head. Named Affetto, the android’s first-generation model was reported in a 2011 publication. The researchers have now found a system to make the second-generation Affetto more expressive. Their findings offer a path for androids to express greater ranges of emotion, and ultimately have deeper interaction with humans.

The researchers investigated 116 different facial points on Affetto to measure its three-dimensional movement. Facial points were underpinned by so-called deformation units. Each unit comprises a set of mechanisms that create a distinctive facial contortion, such as lowering or raising of part of a lip or eyelid. Measurements from these were then subjected to a mathematical model to quantify their surface motion patterns.

Pro tip: Just slap one of these on your Roomba and send it around the house. The kids will love it and the cat will probably die of a heart attack.