Amazon launches a “lite” Android web browser app in India

Amazon has quietly launched an Android web browser app for emerging markets, where access to mobile data and high-speed connectivity is more limited. The browser has the rather generic name of: “Internet: fast, lite and private” on Google Play, and promises to be “lighter than the competition.”

The app first appeared on the Play Store in March, and has fewer than 1,000 downloads, according to data from app store intelligence firm Sensor Tower.

It’s only available to users in India for the time being, and is supported on devices running Android 5.0 or higher.

Like most “lite” apps, the new browser is a small download – it’s under 2 MB in size.

The browser’s Google Play description also notes that it’s “private,” as it doesn’t ask for extra permissions or collect private data like other browsers do. This seems to indicate that it’s meant to be something of a competitor to other private mobile browsers, like Firefox, which blocks website trackers.

The browser additionally supports Private tabs, so you can browse without saving visits to your history, plus other features like tab previews, an automatic fullscreen mode, and integrated news reader of sorts.

In fact, the news reading experience is another telling indication that the browser is only meant for Indian users. The app’s description notes the browser homepage is designed to keep you up-to-date with news, cricket, and entertainment from top sources. Yep, cricket – the most popular sport in India.

 

And finally, the “feedback” email on Google Play points to Amazon India, which indicates it was built by that team.

Amazon would not be the first to build lightweight mobile apps for emerging markets, such as India.

Facebook already offers “lite” versions of its apps, like Facebook Lite and Messenger Lite, to reach users with limited connectivity and access to data. Google has also rolled out a suite of lightweight mobile apps under the “Go” branding. Some of these, like Gmail Go, only come pre-installed on select devices. Others, meanwhile, are available through Google Play for anyone to download, like YouTube Go, Files Go, Google Go, Google Maps, and Google Assistant Go.

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It is interesting, however, that Amazon didn’t adopt a similar strategy by offering a “lite” version of its existing Silk browser, but has instead built something new.

And if its goal is to offer an alternative to Silk on the Fire tablets it sells in India, it’s odd that the browser isn’t yet available in the Amazon Appstore in India.

Amazon has not yet returned a request for comment about the new app.

Ola will add 10,000 electric rickshaws to its India fleet over the next year

Ola announced today that it will add 10,000 electric auto-rickshaws to its fleet in India over the next 12 months. The program, called “Mission: Electric,” is part of its ambitious plan to put one million electric vehicles on the road by 2021. The company launched a trial EV program last year in the city of Nagpur, but has reportedly run into some recent road bumps.

Three-wheel rickshaws are a popular way of making quick trips in many cities and can be hailed through Ola’s app; the company’s electric vehicle trial program in Nagpur, which started in May 2017, already includes rickshaws. As part of “Mission: Electric,” Ola said it will add 10,000 new electric rickshaws across three additional cities this year.

To enable drivers to switch to EVs, Ola’s program also includes infrastructure like rooftop solar panels and charging stations. Last month, however, Factor Daily reported that Ola is scaling back its electric vehicle plans after India’s government appeared to become less enthusiastic about creating an explicit EV policy, despite its previously stated goal of making all new vehicles electric by 2030.

Around the same time, Reuters reported that many Ola drivers participating in its Nagpur trial wanted to switch back to fuel-powered cars because of long waiting times at charging stations and higher operating costs.

An Ola representative told TechCrunch that the company has installed charging dockets at the homes of some drivers so they can save time by swapping out batteries, stating that “with new technologies like battery swapping, the charging experience has been significantly improved.” Ola is currently in discussions with several state and municipal governments about where to launch its electric rickshaw program and is “willing to work with any city committed to sustainable mobility solutions.”

“We have clocked more than four million [electric] kilometers and have learned the ins and outs of vehicles, capabilities and applications. We have learned real-world operating challenges and cost implications of chargers, batteries and solars,” she added. “Deployment of electric vehicles would require support of like-minded partners.”

Google Home and Google Home Mini smart speakers go on sale in India

Google’s two smart speaker products — the Google Home and Google Home Mini — and its Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL smartphones are now available in India following a launch event in the country.

The devices are priced at Rs 9,999 ($154), and Rs 4,499 ($69), respectively, and Google confirmed that they are available for purchase online via Flipkart and offline through over 750 retailer stores, including Reliance Digital, Croma and Bajaj Electronics.

The Google smart speakers don’t cater to India’s multitude of local languages at this point, but the U.S. company said that they do understand “distinctly” India voices and “will respond to you with uniquely Indian contexts,” such as answering questions about local sport, cooking or TV shows.

For a limited time, Google is incentivizing early customers who will get six months of Google Play Music alongside offers for local streaming services Saavn and Gaana when they buy the Home or Home Mini.

Google Home and Home Mini were first announced at Google I/O in 2016. The company said recently that it has sold “tens of millions” of speakers, with more than seven million sales between October 2017 and January 18.

Still, it’s been a long time coming to India, which has allowed others to get into the market first. Amazon, which is pouring considerable resources into its India-based business to battle Flipkart, brought its rival Echo smart devices to India last October.

SoftBank leads $450M investment in Paytm’s e-commerce business

SoftBank is at it again giving money companies that rival startups it has already invested in.

The Japanese firm and its long-time ally (and existing Paytm backer) Alibaba have come together to invest $450 million more into Paytm’s e-commerce business, Paytm Mall, as first reported by Mint. The deal is said to value the business at $1.6-$2 billion, with SoftBank providing around $400 million of the committed investment.

SoftBank is already present in India’s e-commerce space courtesy of an investment in Flipkart via its Vision Fund. The firm also previously backed Snapdeal which it tried to shoehorn into a merger deal with Flipkart that was ultimately unsuccessful.

Alibaba meanwhile has been behind the core Paytm business, which specializes in mobile payments with plans for financial services, having invested $1.4 billion into parent firm One97 Communications last year. This new deal signals its crossing into the e-commerce business, too.

“This latest investment led by Softbank and Alibaba reaffirms the strength of our business model, growth trajectory, execution capability and the potential of India’s massive O2O model in the retail space,” Amit Sinha, Paytm Mall COO, told Mint in a statement.

SoftBank added: “Paytm Mall’s offline-to-online operating model, combined with the strength of the Paytm ecosystem, is uniquely positioned to enable India’s 15 million offline retail shops to participate in India’s eCommerce boom.”

Alibaba’s involvement in Paytm has seen the business — or rather, its many businesses — become proxies for Alibaba in India.

Paytm Mall has linked up with Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace in China to extend the reach of Chinese merchants into India. Similar arrangements have also been reached in Southeast Asia via Alibaba’s Lazada e-commerce business.

Alibaba has also got behind the mobile payment component of Paytm — which bears a likeness to its Alipay  unit — while you can see the influence of the Chinese firm, and in particular its Ant Financial affiliate, with Paytm’s plans to launch digital banking and other online financial services in India.

Indeed, it was through investments by Ant Financial that Alibaba first became associated with Paytm. It’s not a huge surprise, then, to see that SoftBank — often a co-investor — is also spreading its influence across the Paytm business. After all, Alibaba needs all the help it can get to battle Amazon directly in India.

Uber’s India rival Ola could add public transport services following latest acquisition

The rumors are true, India’s Uber rival/potential-future-M&A-buddy Ola has acquired transportation startup Ridlr in an undisclosed deal.

Mint reported the imminent transaction last week, describing it as a fire sale, and today Ola confirmed the deal. The terms are undisclosed so you can make of that what you will.

Founded in 2010, Ridlr operates as a personal transport portal that allowed users buy tickets for public transport in 17 Indian cities and also monitor traffic congestion using IOT devices. The company had raised over $6 million from investors that include Qualcomm Ventures, Times Internet, Matrix Partners (which is also an Ola backer.)

Ola isn’t saying too much about how it plans to use Ridlr other than that the deal will “bring new technology and mobility options as [Ola] works to expand into and partner with cities in India and abroad.” The company already offers a range of ride-sharing options, bike-sharing, food deliveries and a mobile wallet, but it plans to give more color on the proposed new services in the next month or so.

In its deal scoop, Mint claimed Ridlr will help improve Ola’s navigation and potentially see it add public transport booking options. That might sound at odds with a ride-hailing app, but when you consider that many people use buses or trains for the bulk of their commute and a taxi to get to their final destination, the move could help Ola own the “end-to-end” journey in full. At the least, that’s a strategy that Uber hasn’t explored and that potential alone — to be a differentiator — might make it worth a look.

Ridlr will continue to operate as an independent business “for now,” an Ola representative told TechCrunch, who also clarified that it will become a wholly owned subsidiary of Ola parent Ani Technologies.

Albeit seemingly not an expensive one, this deal marks Ola’s seventh investment.

The largest outlays have been rival TaxiForSure for $200 million in 2015 and FoodPanda India last December which relaunched its food delivery business. Other deals have included taxi radio service Gcabs.in, trip-planning service Geotagg and payment startup Qarth. The firm also made a minority investment in Zipcash.

Despite today’s news, the larger story around Ola is whether it will merge with Uber in the same way that the U.S. firm recently struck a deal with Grab to exit money-losing market Southeast Asia.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has said that there will be no more global retreats — Uber previously struck exit deals in China and Russia — but there has been constant press speculation and reports of an ongoing dialogue between Uber and Ola over a potential deal. Unlike China and Southeast Asia, sources at Uber believe that the company’s India-based service is ahead of the local rival so don’t feel the need to push for consolidation.

But there are other factors.

As was the case with Grab and Didi, Ola counts SoftBank as an investor and, since it landed an investment in Uber, the Japanese firm has been pushing for Uber to do deals in unprofitable markets and focus on more lucrative countries in the West. The issue is particularly acute since Uber is reportedly targeting an IPO as soon as 2019 and it would need to get its finances in line accordingly.

Nonetheless, Ola is already branching out overseas via a recent launch in Australia and, publicly at least, it is committed to being around for “decades.”

“In India’s transformative digital journey, Ola will always be an active and integral part for decades to come. SoftBank and all other investors are committed in realizing this ambition. Ola is always actively looking for opportunities for expansion of its footprint,” the firm told TechCrunch in a statement.

Uber’s India rival Ola could add public transport services following latest acquisition

The rumors are true, India’s Uber rival/potential-future-M&A-buddy Ola has acquired transportation startup Ridlr in an undisclosed deal.

Mint reported the imminent transaction last week, describing it as a fire sale, and today Ola confirmed the deal. The terms are undisclosed so you can make of that what you will.

Founded in 2010, Ridlr operates as a personal transport portal that allowed users buy tickets for public transport in 17 Indian cities and also monitor traffic congestion using IOT devices. The company had raised over $6 million from investors that include Qualcomm Ventures, Times Internet, Matrix Partners (which is also an Ola backer.)

Ola isn’t saying too much about how it plans to use Ridlr other than that the deal will “bring new technology and mobility options as [Ola] works to expand into and partner with cities in India and abroad.” The company already offers a range of ride-sharing options, bike-sharing, food deliveries and a mobile wallet, but it plans to give more color on the proposed new services in the next month or so.

In its deal scoop, Mint claimed Ridlr will help improve Ola’s navigation and potentially see it add public transport booking options. That might sound at odds with a ride-hailing app, but when you consider that many people use buses or trains for the bulk of their commute and a taxi to get to their final destination, the move could help Ola own the “end-to-end” journey in full. At the least, that’s a strategy that Uber hasn’t explored and that potential alone — to be a differentiator — might make it worth a look.

Ridlr will continue to operate as an independent business “for now,” an Ola representative told TechCrunch, who also clarified that it will become a wholly owned subsidiary of Ola parent Ani Technologies.

Albeit seemingly not an expensive one, this deal marks Ola’s seventh investment.

The largest outlays have been rival TaxiForSure for $200 million in 2015 and FoodPanda India last December which relaunched its food delivery business. Other deals have included taxi radio service Gcabs.in, trip-planning service Geotagg and payment startup Qarth. The firm also made a minority investment in Zipcash.

Despite today’s news, the larger story around Ola is whether it will merge with Uber in the same way that the U.S. firm recently struck a deal with Grab to exit money-losing market Southeast Asia.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has said that there will be no more global retreats — Uber previously struck exit deals in China and Russia — but there has been constant press speculation and reports of an ongoing dialogue between Uber and Ola over a potential deal. Unlike China and Southeast Asia, sources at Uber believe that the company’s India-based service is ahead of the local rival so don’t feel the need to push for consolidation.

But there are other factors.

As was the case with Grab and Didi, Ola counts SoftBank as an investor and, since it landed an investment in Uber, the Japanese firm has been pushing for Uber to do deals in unprofitable markets and focus on more lucrative countries in the West. The issue is particularly acute since Uber is reportedly targeting an IPO as soon as 2019 and it would need to get its finances in line accordingly.

Nonetheless, Ola is already branching out overseas via a recent launch in Australia and, publicly at least, it is committed to being around for “decades.”

“In India’s transformative digital journey, Ola will always be an active and integral part for decades to come. SoftBank and all other investors are committed in realizing this ambition. Ola is always actively looking for opportunities for expansion of its footprint,” the firm told TechCrunch in a statement.

EdTech is having a renaissance, powered by the emerging world

So-called ‘EdTech’ has seen many false dawns over the years. After being lauded as the teaching platforms of the future, most MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course platforms) have not quite lived up to the superlatives made for them, and the sector has had trouble coming up with more innovative ideas for a while.

But that appears to be changing if a new wave of startups is any indication. In Dubai this weekend I was invited to judge a number of education startups which are really trying to move the need on EdTech, and in particular on a sector with almost unlimited potential. That is, education platforms aimed at the emerging world, where the hunger for scalable education is almost incalculable.

Consider this: Ethopia, now a far more stable country that it once was, contains more people under 25 than almost anywhere else, and it has a population of over 100 million people. And consider the potential for EdTech to transform countries like India, for instance. This is going to be a very interesting market in the future, as well as being an urgent issue. According to UNESCO, 264 million children do not have access to schooling, while at least 600 million more are “in school but not learning”. These are children who are not achieving even basic skills in maths and reading, which the World Bank calls a “learning crisis”.

A taste of what is to be found in this sector was showcased today at the “Next Billion Edtech Prize,” launched at the Global Education & Skills Forum (think: Davos/WEF for Education) by the Varkey Foundation to recognize the most innovative technology startups destined to have a radical impact on education in low income and emerging world countries.

The overall winner in the competition was Chatterbox, an online language school powered by refugees

This web platform harnesses the wasted talent of unemployed professionals who are refugees, offering them work as online and in-person language tutors. Based in the UK, where there is a language skills shortage estimated to cost the economy £48bn every year, Chatterbox has now signed up several UK universities and major non-profits and corporations to use its services. Having raised a seed round from impact-fund Bethnal Green Ventures, it’s now looking for further funding to expand.

Co-founder and CEO Mursal Hedayat was three years old when she arrived in the UK as a refugee from Afghanistan with her mother, a civil engineer who spoke English and three other languages fluently. “I watched her become unemployed in the UK for more than a decade. Refugees with degrees and valuable skills still face shockingly high levels of underemployment. An idea like Chatterbox has never been more urgently needed,” she says. (Indeed, the conference later heard from Al Gore who quoted research that showed millions of people will become refugees due to climate change in the next few decades).

Chatterbox’s fellow finalists for the $25,000 prize on offer were equally interesting.

Dot Learn was almost literally the same as ‘Silicon Valley’s PiedPiper. It makes online video e-learning far more accessible on slow connections for users in low-income countries, especially because it compresses educational video so making it cheaper to access. Its technology reduces the file-size of learning videos, requiring 1/100th of the bandwidth to watch. At current data prices in Kenya and Nigeria, this means a student or learner can access 5 hrs of online learning for about the cost of sending a single text message ($0.014). The startup was a notable finalist during TechCrunch’s Battlefield Africa.

TeachMeNow is a gig-economy platform for teachers. This marketplace connects teachers, experts, and mentors to students. The technology combines scheduling, payments and live virtual sessions that can connect on any device allows tens of thousands of teachers to create their own online businesses, with some earning over $100,000 last year. In addition, schools and companies including Microsoft use TeachMeNow software to create their own-branded online learning communities.

Sunny Varkey, Founder of the Varkey Foundation and the Next Billion Prize says he launched the prize because “over a billion young people – a number growing every day – are being denied what should be the birthright of every single child. The prize will highlight technology’s potential to tackle the problems that have proven too difficult for successive generations of politicians to solve.”

Other notable finalists included Learning Machine. This using the blockchain as a secure anchor of trust makes verifying the authenticity of a document instantaneously, specifically education documents like university degrees. They are now working to put all the educational records of Malta online.

Localized is a new platform for college students and aspiring professionals in emerging economies to find career guidance, role models and expertise from global professionals who share language and roots (think Slack meets Quora for college students in emerging markets, drawing on diaspora expertise).

The Biz Nation is an EdTech startup focused on empowering youth with technology skills, soft skills, entrepreneurship and financial intelligence through a methodology that improves user’s learning about creating a business.

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… Read More

India’s Capillary Technologies raises $20M from Warburg Pincus and Sequoia

 Capillary Technologies, an India-based startup that helps e-commerce businesses manage their marketing and customer engagement, has pulled in $20 million in fresh funding from existing investors Warburg Pincus and Sequoia. The company said it plans to use the capital to develop its products and R&D, including a new focus on the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) space where it works… Read More

India’s Zoomcar raises $40M led by automotive giant Mahindra & Mahindra

 India’s Zoomcar — which operates an on-demand car rental service — has raised a $40 million Series C round led by Mahindra & Mahindra, the 70-year-old Indian corporation that specializes in automotive. Ford and other existing investors also took part in the round, Zoomcar confirmed. CEO and co-founder Greg Moran added that the round is still open and may be extended… Read More