People dramatically proclaim all the time that they don’t think they could survive without their smartphones, but a new series form the forthcoming streaming service Quibi from Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman approaches smartphone survival in a much more literal way. The scripted series, which will premiere on Quibi at launch in April 2020, stars Ready Player One‘s Tye Sheridan, and counts Steven Soderbergh as an executive producer.
The series, called ‘Wireless,’ was created by Jack Seidman and Zach Wechter, who are the creators of the short film Pocket, which is shot entirely as though it was taking place on a person’s phone, almost like a screencast of that device. Wireless will similar cinematic, which is a good fit for Quibi’s short-form, made for mobile approach to original streaming content. Wechter and Seidman have a head-start in this regard, in fact, since their film collective Pickpocket is specifically aimed at making this kind of feature.
‘Wireless’ will tell the story of Sheridan’s lead character, who is described as “a self-obsessed college student whose only hope for survival is the tool he has spent his whole life learning to use: his smartphone.” Said character will apparently be trapped inside of his freshly crashed car during the action, and using the smartphone (which is low on battery) to try to survive his predicament.
Quibi has already made a whole host of slate announcements, with new ones coming all the time, but it’s going to have a lot to prove once it actually debuts, into what will be by April a very crowded streaming content market. Apple TV+ and Disney+, two new entrants from heavyweights who aren’t building a name from scratch with consumers, just debuted, and there are more coming early next year from NBC, HBO/AT&T and more.
Africa focused payment startup PalmPay has launched in Nigeria after raising a $40 million seed-round led by Chinese mobile-phone maker Transsion.
The investment came via Transsion’s Tecno subsidiary, with participation from China’s NetEase and Taiwanese wireless comms hardware firm Mediatek — a Transsion spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch.
PalmPay had piloted its mobile fintech offering in Nigeria since July, before going live today at a launch in Lagos.
The startup aims to become Africa’s largest financial services platform, according to a statement.
As part of the investment, PalmPay enters a strategic partnership with mobile brands Tecno, Infinix, and Itel that includes pre-installation of the startup’s app on 20 million phones in 2020.
The UK headquartered venture — that was also founded with Chinese seed investment — offers a package of mobile based financial services, including no fee payment options, bill pay, rewards programs, and discounted airtime.
In Nigeria, PalmPay will offer 10% cashback on airtime purchases and bank transfer rates as low as 10 Naira ($.02).
In addition to Nigeria, PalmPay will use the $40 million seed funding to grow its financial services business in Ghana. The payments startup has plans to expand to additional countries in 2020, PalmPay CEO Greg Reeve told TechCrunch on a call.
PalmPay received its approval from the Nigerian Central Bank as a licensed mobile money operator in July. During its pilot phase, the payments venture registered 100,000 users and processed 1 million transactions, according to a company spokesperson.
With its payments focus, the startup enters Africa’s most promising digital sector, but also one that has become notably competitive and crowded — particularly in the continent’s largest economy and most populous nation of Nigeria.
An improving smartphone and mobile-connectivity profile for Africa (see GSMA) turns this scenario into an opportunity for mobile-based financial products.
That’s why hundreds of startups are descending on Africa’s fintech space, looking to offer scalable solutions for the continent’s financial needs. By stats offered WeeTracker, fintech now receives the bulk of VC capital and deal-flow to African startups.
PalmPay CEO Greg Reeves believes the company can compete in Nigeria and across Africa based on several strategic advantages. A big one is the startup’s support from Transsion and partnership with Tecno.
“On channel and access, we’re going to be pre-installed on all Tecno phones. Your’e gonna find us in the Tecno stores and outlets. So we get an immediate channel and leg up in any market we operate in,” said Reeve.
Tecno’s owner and PalmPay’s lead investor, Transsion, is the largest seller of smartphones in Africa and maintains a manufacturing facility in Ethiopia. The company raised nearly $400 million in a Shanghai IPO in September and plans to spend roughly $300 million of that on new R&D and manufacturing capabilities in Africa and globally.
In addition to Transsion’s support and network, Reeves names PalmPay’s partnership with Visa . “We signed a strategic alliance with Visa so now I can deliver Visa products on top of my wallet, link my wallet to Visa products and give access to someone who’s completely unbanked to the whole of the Visa network,” he said.
Another strategic advantage PalmPay may have as a newcomer in Africa’s fintech space is Reeve’s leadership experience. He comes to the CEO position after serving as Vodaphone’s global head of M-Pesa — one of the world’s most recognized mobile-money products. Reeve was also a GM for Millicom‘s fintech products across Africa and Latin America.
“I’ve had my fingers in mobile financial services for the last 10 years,” he said.
Reeve confirmed that PalmPay has local teams (and is hiring) in Nigeria and Ghana.
With the company’s launch and $40 million raise — which is potentially the largest seed-round for an Africa focused startup in 2019 — PalmPay’s bid to gain digital payment market share is on.
The Transsion led investment also serves as a big bold marker for China’s pivot to African tech in 2019. It follows several big moves by Chinese actors in the continent’s digital space.
Companies continue to refine digital diagnostic tools for in-home healthcare at a rapid clip and the latest to launch is an at-home test for urinary tract infections from the Los Angeles-based startup Scanwell Health.
The company was founded by Stephen Chen, who literally grew up in the diagnostics testing business. His family had built one of the largest manufacturers of urinalysis testing in the country and Chen’s earliest memories of work are standing on an assembly line putting together pregnancy tests.
“I come from a family that manufactures pee-tests,” says Chen. “I was born into the business.”
Through this window into the market, Chen knew that there was a way to circumvent the time consuming process of booking a doctor’s visit to get a test scheduled and performed. “These tests have been sold into doctors’ offices and hospitals and I always thought you could make these tests more accessible,” says Chen.
Working with a team of technologists, Chen built a software product that can provide the same analysis of a test kit using a smartphone’s camera and an app that would have been performed in a brick and mortar diagnostics testing facility.
“The core chemistry is a traditional diagnostics kit that has been used by the healthcare systems for many years,” he says. “We’ve taken that standalone box and moved it to the smartphone.”
Just like a traditional test, a chemically treated strip reacts with a urine sample and then the company’s application uses computer vision technology to assess the results.
Scanwell Health chief executive, Stephen Chen
So far, Scanwell is the first company to receive clearance from the Food and Drug Administration for its tests, and the only company to receive clearance to be sold over the counter, according to Chen. The test has been cleared
Through its partnership with Lemonaid Health, a telemedicine provider for consultations with nurse practitioners and physicians, customers can get diagnosed using the Scanwell app and receive a consultation and a course of treatment all from the comfort of their home. The tests cost $15 for a pack of three and the consultation with Lemonaid is another $25. That’s compared with roughly $150 for a visit to an urgent care center.
For Scanwell, it’s the culmination of a three year journey to bring their first diagnostic test to market. The company first submitted its product to the Food and Drug Administration for approval in 2015. While Chen waited for clearance from the FDA, he launched Petnostics to build out a user base and test the product in the less stringent world of veterinary health.
Sales from the Petnostics product helped bootstrap the company through its first few years of development and get its first product onto the market. Now, Scanwell is ready to expand, says Chen.
The company has a test for chronic kidney disease in the works through a collaboration with Kaiser Permanent and the Chronic Renal Insufficiency Cohort Study to improve screening for and monitoring chronic kidney disease at home. Using urinalysis testing to screen for excess proteins, the company is hoping it can help identify CKD in more people earlier, allowing for earlier interventions and the potential to avoid costly medical procedures down the road.
“We believe in the power of telehealth and what it can do,” says Chen. “What’s missing is the diagnostics piece. When you go into a doctor’s office you talk to a doctor and they get your symptoms. We’re focused on translating as many of these diagnostics as possible and you can pair with telehealth.”
Helping the company move along its journey are a clutch of well-positioned investors including the Y Combinator accelerator and institutional investors like Founders Fund, Mayfield, DCM, Version One, and Joe Montana’s Liquid 2 Ventures fund.
“This funding from an incredible group of investors, together with the national launch of our test and app, are exciting milestones that will allow us to realize our vision of making reliable, convenient at-home testing available to millions of people,” said Chen, in a statement. “Our partnership with Lemonaid is only the beginning. We have a number of additional diagnostic tests in the pipeline that have the potential to change the way we diagnose and treat infections and monitor chronic diseases. We look forward to working with additional partners to bring these tests to people across the country.”
But before Harley’s EV pivot, California based startup Zero Motorcycles had been selling e-motos for years.
“We’re an electric motorcycle and power-train manufacturer founded in 2006 in Santa Cruz, California…we’re sold in over 30 countries,” Zero CEO Sam Paschel told TechCrunch.
“Fundamentally we aim to transform and elevate the motorcycling experience and by doing that we expect to make a huge dent in transforming transportation globally.”
Toward that aim, Zero recently released the all-new 2020, SR/F — a $19K high-performance e-motorcycle and competitor to Harley Davidson’s $29K LiveWire.
TechCrunch took an SR/F home to experience going full e-moto. The biggest distinction between e-motorcycles — versus gas two-wheelers — is lightning acceleration and uninterrupted forward movement.
Zero’s SRF has a magnet motor and one gear — with no clutch or shifting — and fewer mechanical parts to put the 14.4 kWh battery’s 140 ft-lbs of torque to the pavement.
You simply twist and go.
The SR/F is a fully digital, IoT motorcycle that syncs to a smartphone and the cloud to monitor charge status or adjust performance. It has preset riding modes — Eco, Street, Sport, and Rain — for different combinations of power and range. The EV also allows for customized riding modes dialed in via smartphone.
One can power Zero’s sporty e-moto from a household outlet or use fast-charging networks — like ChargePoint — for a full battery in around 80 minutes.
Zero’s SR/F has a range of up to 161 miles in the city, where it can recharge itself marginally through regenerative braking. For a combination of city, highway, an sport riding, I averaged around 100 miles a charge, alternating between riding modes.
On performance, Zero’s new sport-entry hauls ass. Going 0 to 60 at full power on the new SR/F is a rush, while 60 to 100 speed is so fast it’s downright frightening. Overall, the e-moto’s acceleration is stronger and more constant than internal combustion machines, with no emissions and little sound.
Zero’s CEO Sam Paschel thinks the distinct electric motorcycle experience can convert gas riders
“We have what we consider enthusiasts…These are people that are avid motorcycle riders…What we find with them is they throw a leg over a Zero…have an electric motorcycle experience, it’s fundamentally different…They fall in love, they buy one,” he said.
Zero’s e-motos — starting at around $9K for the entry level FX — are also attracting a younger generation, according to the startup’s CEO.
“They’re an early adopter of new technology. They love the idea — whether it’s the performance elements the riding experience, green or eco elements of having electric vehicle — and we’re actually drawing them into the sport in a way that they wouldn’t have been drawn in by internal combustion,” he said.
Paschel is undaunted by Harley’s EV debut or the other big gas motorcycle manufacturers entering the E-market.
“You have a major OEM that’s launched a bike into the space that we have been defining and creating for over a decade. Of course, the nature of that relationship is fundamentally competitive,” he said.
“The question I get more often is…are we concerned? Are we worried or scared of any OEMs entering? And The answer is no. This is actually the most exciting thing that’s happened in the space in a long time,” said Paschel.
“A rising tide is going to lift all ships, and…I’m more than confident that we will capture more than our fair share of a rapidly growing market simply because this is all we do. And we spent 13 years, millions of miles, and a lot of time doing this just right.”
Both Zero and Harley are banking on e-motos to reboot a flailing U.S. motorcycle industry. New bike sales dropped 50% since 2008 — with sharp declines in ownership by everyone under 40.
Zero has worked to close gaps on price, range, charge times, and performance compared to petrol-powered motorcycles.
The startup is not alone. Italy’s Energica is expanding distribution of its high-performance e-motos in the U.S. Other competitors include California based Lightning Motorcycles and e-moto startup Fuell, with plans to release its $10K, 150 mile range Flow this year.
Of course, there’s already been some speed-bumps and market attrition, with three e-moto startups — Alta Motors, Mission Motors, and Brammo — forced to power down over the last several years.
Zero looks to its head start and proprietary technology to win in the electric conversion of motorcycles.
The company has also received partnership inquiries
“It’s not something that we are actively seeking…I will tell you that there’s a lot of inbound interest. I think people were waking up and realizing that that transition is much closer than they thought it was…We’ve had conversations from a list of OEMS, many of whom you would recognize,” said Paschel.
Still, Zero is likely to ride on alone, according to its CEO.
“Right now it’s an inherently competitive relationship with a lot of those guys, so it would have to be the right deal…But right now we’re fiercely competitive company. We’re in a competition with all these brands.”
Zero’s SR/F could be the sweet spot of tech, price, range, and performance it has been striving toward to finally go mass market and compete with those brands.
And with Zero and Harley growing e-moto market share, expect big names still on the sidelines — Honda, Ducati, Kawasaki — to debut production EVs soon.
With that, the electrification of the motorcycle industry will become another facet of the transformation of global mobility.
Welcome back to TechCrunch’s China roundup, a digest of the latest events that happened at major Chinese tech companies and what they mean to tech founders and executives around the world.
Alibaba’s new rival is shaking up China’s internet landscape.
This week, four-year-old e-commerce upstart Pinduoduo displaced JD.com to be the fourth-most valuable internet company in the country. Its market capitalization of $47.6 billion on Friday put it just behind e-commerce leader Alibaba, social networking behemoth Tencent and food delivery titan Meituan in China. Baidu, the search equivalent of Google in China, has fallen off the top-three club, ending a decade of unshakable dominance of Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent (the “BAT”) on the Chinese internet.
The story of Pinduoduo comes down to growing internet penetration and the rise of social commerce. Pinduoduo, which is known for selling ultra-cheap products, is particularly popular with price-sensitive residents in small towns and rural regions, a market relatively underserved by online retail pioneers Alibaba and JD.com . However, Pinduoduo has set about targeting more urban consumers by heavily subsidizing big-ticket items such as iPhones.
Its seamless integration with WeChat, the ubiquitous messaging app owned by Pinduoduo investor Tencent, contributes to adaptability among a less tech-savvy population. WeChat users can access Pinduoduo via the messenger’s built-in lite app, skipping app downloads; they also get deals from group-buying, thus the name Pinduoduo, which means “shop more together” in Chinese.
Earlier this month, Pinduoduo founder and chief executive Colin Huang, a 39-year-old former Google engineer of few words, gave a 45-minute speech at the company’s anniversary, according to a summary published by local tech media Late News. He announced that Pinduoduo has surpassed JD.com in gross merchandise volume, or the total dollar value of goods sold. It’s unclear whether the companies use the same set of metrics for GMV, for instance, whether the figure includes refunded items.
While its rivalry with JD.com is nuanced as both companies are backed by Tencent, Pinduoduo’s competition against Alibaba is more blatant. In his missive to staff, Huang acknowledged that Pinduoduo is “standing on a giant’s shoulders,” hinting at Alibaba’s sheer size. When it comes to fighting the impending battle during the upcoming Single’s Day shopping festival (11/11), the founder sounded poised. “Pinduoduo should not feel pressured. The one who should is our peer.”
Also worth your attention
82% of Chinese adults used digital payments in 2018, up about 5%; among those living in rural China, 72% made transactions via online banking, telephone banking, the point-of-sale system, ATM or other digital channels, said a new report released by the People’s Bank of China. Beijing’s push for rural areas to go cash-free is in part what gives rise to such flourishing e-commerce businesses as Pinduoduo.
Few things move the bitcoin market like President Xi Jinping’s endorsement of blockchain. Speaking at a politburo meeting on Thursday, Xi called for China to “take blockchain as an important breakthrough to achieve independence of core technologies” (in Chinese). Bitcoin price soared more than 10% in response. But as industry experts cautioned, when China, where crypto exchanges are banned, speaks of “blockchain” it usually means the encrypted technology that not only undergirds cryptocurrencies but can revolutionize a whole range of sectors like finance, manufacturing and agriculture. Expect all corners of Chinese society to capitalize on the blockchain concept with even greater force.
Xi: Blockchain, Blockchain, Blockchain (undertone is not Bitcoin as usual)
One of China’s most prominent venture investors just closed $352 million for the first fundof his new financial vehicle. JP Gan, a former managing partner at Qiming Venture Partners, recently started Ince Capital Partners with internet veteran and venture investor Steven Hu. Having backed noted companies including Xiaomi, Meituan, Ctrip, Musical.ly, to name just a few, Gan will continue to fund early to growth-stage startups in China’s internet, consumer and artificial intelligence sectors.
Smartphone maker Xiaomi hired leading voice recognition expert DanielPovey. The researcher who was part of the team to develop the widely used open-source speech recognition toolkit Kaldi announced his next move on Twitter. Before this, Povey declined an offer from Facebook after he was fired by John Hopkins University for attempting to break up a student sit-in. He told The Baltimore Sun earlier that he intended to join a Chinese company because “they don’t have American-style social justice warriors” and he would feel “more relaxed among the Chinese.” Many Chinese tech companies have research and development operations in the U.S. including Xiaomi, which set up a U.S. R&D center in 2017 (in Chinese) to deepen collaboration with chipmaking giant Qualcomm.
NetEase’s e-learning unit Youdao began trading at $13.50 per ADS in the U.S. on Friday amid increased regulatory scrutiny on Chinese IPOs. Youdao, which operates a suite of popular online educational products from dictionaries to MOOC-style courses, had over 100 million monthly active users by the first half of 2019, shows its prospectus. It’s one of the many attempts by NetEase founder Ding Lei, once China’s richest man back in 2003, to add momentum to his 22-year-old company. These days NetEase makes the bulk of its revenue from video games and ranks only behind Tencent in China’s booming gaming sector. In September, it sold its once-hopeful cross-border e-commerce business Kaola to Alibaba for $2 billion.
A fleet of electric, autonomous Hyundai Kona crossovers — equipped with a self-driving system from Chinese autonomous startup Pony .ai and Via’s ride-hailing platform, will start shuttling customers on public roads next week.
The robotaxi service called BotRide will operate on public roads in Irvine, California, beginning November 4. This isn’t a driverless service; there will be a human safety driver behind the wheel at all times. But it is one of the few ride-hailing pilots on California roads. Only four companies, AutoX, Pony.ai, Waymo and Zoox have permission to operate a ride-hailing service using autonomous vehicles in the state of the California.
Customers will be able to order rides through a smartphone app, which will direct passengers to nearby stops for pick up and drop off. Via’s expertise is on shared rides, and this platform aims for the same multiple rider goal. Via’s platform handles the on-demand ride-hailing features such as booking, passenger and vehicle assignment and vehicle identification (QR code). Via has two sides to its business. The company operates consumer-facing shuttles in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York. It also partners with cities and transportation authorities — and now automakers launching robotaxi services — giving clients access to their platform to deploy their own shuttles.
Hyundai said BotRide is “validating its user experience in preparation for a fully driverless future.” Hyundai didn’t explain when this driverless future might arrive. Whatever this driverless future ends up looking like, Hyundai sees this pilot as a critical marker along the way.
Hyundai said it is using BotRide to study consumer behavior in an autonomous ride-sharing environment, according to Christopher Chang, head of business development, strategy and technology division, Hyundai Motor Company .
“The BotRide pilot represents an important step in the deployment and eventual commercialization of a growing new mobility business,” said Daniel Han, manager, Advanced Product Strategy, Hyundai Motor America.
Hyundai might be the household name behind BotRide, but Pony.ai and Via are doing much of the heavy lifting. Pony.ai is a relative newcomer to the AV world, but it has already raised $300 million on a $1.7 billion valuation and locked in partnerships with Toyota and Hyundai.
The company, which has operations in China and California and about 500 employees globally, was founded in late 2016 with backing from Sequoia Capital China, IDG Capital and Legend Capital.
It’s also one of the few autonomous vehicle companies to have both a permit with the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test AVs on public roads and permission from the California Public Utilities Commission to use these vehicles in a ride-hailing service. Under rules established by the CPUC, Pony.ai cannot charge for rides.
Mercedes-Benz car owners have said that the app they used to remotely locate, unlock and start their cars was displaying other people’s account and vehicle information.
TechCrunch spoke to two customers who said the Mercedes-Benz’ connected car app was pulling in information from other accounts and not their own, allowing them to see personal information — including names, locations, phone numbers, and other information — of other vehicle owners.
The apparent security lapse happened late-Friday before the app went offline “due to site maintenance” a few hours later.
It’s not uncommon for modern vehicles these days to come with an accompanying phone app. These apps connect to your car and let you remotely locate them, lock or unlock them, and start or stop the engine. But as cars become internet-connected and hooked up to apps, security flaws have allowed researchers to remotely hijack or track vehicles.
One Seattle-based car owner told TechCrunch that their app pulled in information from several other accounts. He said that both he and a friend, who are both Mercedes owners, had the same car belonging to another customer, in their respective apps but every other account detail was different.
Screenshots of the Mercedes-Benz app showing another person’s vehicle, and exposed data belonging to another car owner. (Image: supplied)
The car owners we spoke to said they were able to see the car’s recent activity, including the locations of where it had recently been, but they were unable to track the real-time location using the app’s feature.
When he contacted Mercedes-Benz, a customer service representative told him to “delete the app” until it was fixed, he said.
The other car owner we spoke to said he opened the app and found it also pulled in someone else’s profile.
“I got in contact with the person who owns the car that was showing up,” he told TechCrunch. “I could see the car was in Los Angeles, where he had been, and he was in fact there,” he added.
He said that he wasn’t sure if the app has exposed his private information to another customer.
“Pretty bad fuck up in my opinion,” he said.
The first customer reported that the “lock and unlock” and the engine “start and stop” features did not work on his app, somewhat limiting the impact of the security lapse. The other customer said they did not attempt to test either feature.
It’s not clear how the security lapse happened or how widespread the problem was. A spokesperson for Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, did not respond to a request for comment on Saturday.
According to Google Play’s rankings, more than 100,000 customers have installed the app.
A similar security lapse hit Credit Karma’s mobile app in August. The credit monitoring company admitted that users were inadvertently shown other users’ account information, including details about credit card accounts and balances. But despite disclosing other people’s information, the company denied a data breach.
STAR is the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s new Nasdaq-style board for tech stocks that went live in July with some 25 companies going public.
Transsion plans to spend 1.6 billion yuan (or $227 million) of its STAR Market raise on building more phone assembly hubs and around 430 million yuan ($62 million) on research and development, including a mobile phone R&D center in Shanghai, a company spokesperson said.
To support its African sales network, Transsion maintains a manufacturing facility in Ethiopia. The company recently announced plans to build an industrial park and R&D facility in India for manufacture of phones to Africa.
Transsion’s IPO comes when the company is actually in the black. The firm generated 22.6 billion yuan ($3.29 billion) in revenue in 2018, up from 20 billion yuan a year earlier. Net profit for the year slid to 654 million yuan, down from 677 million yuan in 2017, according to the firm’s prospectus.
Transsion sold 124 million phones globally in 2018, per company data. In Africa, Transsion holds 54% of the feature phone market — through its brands Tecno, Infinix and Itel — and in smartphone sales is second to Samsung and before Huawei, according to International Data Corporation stats.
Transsion has R&D centers in Nigeria and Kenya and its sales network in Africa includes retail shops in Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Egypt. The company also attracted attention for being one of the first known device makers to optimize its camera phones for African complexions.
On a 2019 research trip to Addis Ababa, TechCrunch learned the top entry-level Tecno smartphone was the W3, which lists for 3,600 Ethiopian Birr, or roughly $125.
In Africa, Transsion’s ability to build market share and find a sweet spot with consumers on price and features gives it prominence in the continent’s booming tech scene.
Africa already has strong mobile-phone penetration, but continues to undergo a conversion from basic USSD phones, to feature phones, to smartphones.
Smartphone adoption on the continent is low, at 34%, but expected to grow to 67% by 2025, according to GSMA.
This, added to an improving internet profile, is key to Africa’s tech scene. In top markets for VC and startup origination — such as Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa — thousands of ventures are building business models around mobile-based products and digital applications.
If Transsion’s IPO enables higher smartphone conversion on the continent, that could enable more startups and startup opportunities — from fintech to VOD apps.
Another interesting facet to Transsion’s IPO is its potential to create greater influence from China in African tech, in particular as the Shenzhen company moves more definitely toward venture investing.
In August, Transsion funded Future Hub teamed up with Kenya’s Wapi Capital to source and fund early-stage African fintech startups.
According to Dropbox CEO Drew Houston, 80% of the product’s users rely on it, at least partially, for work.
It makes sense, then, that the company is refocusing to try and cement its spot in the workplace; to shed its image as “just” a file storage company (in a time when just about every big company has its own cloud storage offering) and evolve into something more immutably core to daily operations.
Earlier this week, Dropbox announced that the “new Dropbox” would be rolling out to all users. It takes the simple, shared folders that Dropbox is known for and turns them into what the company calls “Spaces” — little mini collaboration hubs for your team, complete with comment streams, AI for highlighting files you might need mid-meeting, and integrations into things like Slack, Trello and G Suite. With an overhauled interface that brings much of Dropbox’s functionality out of the OS and into its own dedicated app, it’s by far the biggest user-facing change the product has seen since launching 12 years ago.
Shortly after the announcement, I sat down with Dropbox VP of Product Adam Nash and CTO Quentin Clark . We chatted about why the company is changing things up, why they’re building this on top of the existing Dropbox product, and the things they know they just can’t change.
You can find these interviews below, edited for brevity and clarity.
Greg Kumparak: Can you explain the new focus a bit?
Adam Nash: Sure! I think you know this already, but I run products and growth, so I’m gonna have a bit of a product bias to this whole thing. But Dropbox… one of its differentiating characteristics is really that when we built this utility, this “magic folder”, it kind of went everywhere.
Amazon’s device event today played host to a dizzying number of product announcements, of all stripes — but notably, there are three brand new ways to wear Alexa on your body. Amazon clearly wants to give you plenty of options to take Alexa with you when you leave the house, the only place it’s really held sway so far — but can Amazon actually convince people that it’s the voice interface for everywhere, and not just for home?
Among the products Amazon announced at its Seattle event, Echo Frames, Echo Loop and Echo Buds all provide ways to take Alexa with you wherever you go. What’s super interesting — and telling — about this is that Amazon went with three different vectors to try to convince people to wear Alexa, instead of focusing its efforts on just one. That indicates a stronger than ever desire to break Alexa out of its home environment.
Notice that none of these existing examples have helped Amazon gain any apparent significant market share when it comes to Alexa use on the go. While we don’t have great stats on how well-adopted Alexa is in-car, for instance, it stands to reason that we’d be hearing a lot more about its success if it was indeed massively successful — in the same way we hear often about Alexa’s prevalence in the home.
Amazon lacks a key vector that other voice assistants got for free: Being the default option on a smartphone. Google Assistant manages this through both Google’s own, and third-party Android, phones. Apple’s Siri isn’t often celebrated for its skill and performance, but there’s no question that it benefits from being the only really viable option on iOS when it comes to voice assistant software.
Amazon had to effectively invent a product category to get Alexa any traction at all — the Echo basically created the smart speaker category, at least in terms of significant mass market uptake. Its success with its existing Echo devices proves that this category served a market need, and Amazon has reaped significant reward as a result.
But for Amazon, a virtual assistant that only operates in the confines of the home covers only a tiny part of the picture when it comes to building more intelligent and nuanced customer profiles, which is the whole point of the endeavor to begin with. While Americans seem to be spending more time at home than ever before, a big percentage of peoples’ days is still spent outside, and this is largely invisible to Alexa.
The thing is, the only reliable and proven way to ensure you’re with someone throughout their entire day is to be on their smartphone. Alexa is, via Amazon’s own app, but that’s a far cry from being a native feature of the device, and just a single tap or voice command away. Amazon’s own smartphone ambitions deflated pretty quickly, so now it’s casting around for alternatives — and Loop, Frames and Buds all represent its most aggressive attempts yet.
A smart spread of bets, each with their own smaller pool of penetration among users versus a general staple like a smartphone, might be Amazon’s best way to actually drive adoption — especially if they’re not concerned with the overall economics of the individual hardware businesses attached to each.
The big question will be whether A) these products can either offer enough value on their own to justify their continued use while Alexa catches up to out-of-home use cases from a software perspective, or B) Amazon’s Alexa team can iterate the assistant’s feature set quickly enough to make it as useful on the go as it is at home, which hasn’t seemed like something it’s been able to do to date (not having direct access to smartphone functions like texting and calling is probably a big part of that).
Specifically for these new products, I’d put the Buds at the top of the list as the most likely to make Alexa a boon companion for a much greater number of people. The buds themselves offer a very compelling price point for their feature set, and Alexa coming along for the ride is likely just a bonus for a large percentage of their addressable market. Both the Frames and the Loop seem a lot more experimental, but Amazon’s limited release go-to-market strategy suggest it has planned for that as well.
In the end, these products are interesting and highly indicative of Amazon’s direction and ambition with Alexa overall, but I don’t think this is the watershed moment for the digital assistant beyond the home. Still, it’s probably among the most interesting spaces in tech to watch, because of how much is at stake for both winners and losers.