Vivo beats Samsung for 2nd spot in Indian smartphone market

Samsung, which once led the smartphone market in India, slid to the third position in the quarter that ended in December, even as the South Korean giant continues to make major bets on the rare handset market that is still growing. 158 million smartphones shipped in India in 2019, up from 145 million the year before, according to research firm Counterpoint.

Chinese firm Vivo surpassed Samsung to become the second biggest smartphone vendor in India in Q4 2019. Xiaomi, with command over 27% of the market, maintained its top spot in the nation for the tenth consecutive quarter.

Vivo’s annual smartphone shipment grew 76% in 2019. The Chinese firm’s aggressive positioning of its budget S series of smartphones — priced between $100 to $150 (the sweet spot in India) — in the brick and mortar market and acceptance of e-commerce sales helped it beat Samsung, said Counterpoint analysts.

Vivo’s market share jumped 132% between Q4 of 2018 and Q4 of 2019, according to the research firm.

Realme, which spun out of Chinese smartphone maker Oppo, claimed the fifth spot. Oppo assumed the fourth position.

Samsung has dramatically lowered prices of some of its handsets in the country and also introduced smartphones with local features, but it is struggling to compete with an army of Chinese smartphone makers. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Realme has taken the Indian market by storm. The two-year-old firm has replicated Xiaomi’s playbook in the country and so far focused on selling aggressively low-cost Android smartphones online.

Vivo and Oppo, on the other hand, have over the years expanded to smaller cities and towns in the country and inked deals with merchants. The companies have offered merchants fat commission to incentivize them to promote their handsets over those of the rivals.

Xiaomi, which entered India six years ago, sold handsets exclusively through online channels to cut overhead, but has since established presence in about 10,000 brick and mortar stores (including some through partnership with big retail chains). The company said in September last year that it had shipped 100 million smartphones in the country.

India surpasses the U.S.

The report, released late Friday (local time), also states that India, with 158 million smartphone shipments in 2019, took over the U.S. in annual smartphone shipment for the first time.

India, which was already the world’s second largest smartphone market for total handset install base, is now also the second largest market for annual shipment of smartphones.

Tarun Pathak, a senior analyst at Counterpoint, told TechCrunch that about 150 million to 155 million smartphone units were shipped in the U.S. in 2019.

As smartphone shipments decline in most countries, India has emerged as a rare market where people are still showing great appetite for new handsets. There are nearly half a billion smartphones in use in the country today — but more than half a billion people in the nation are yet to get one.

The nation’s slowing economy, however, is understandably making its mark on the smartphone market as well. The Indian smartphone market grew by 8.9% last year, compared to 10% in the previous year.

Fable Studio founder Edward Saatchi on designing virtual beings

In films, TV shows and books — and even in video games where characters are designed to respond to user behavior — we don’t perceive characters as beings with whom we can establish two-way relationships. But that’s poised to change, at least in some use cases.

Interactive characters — fictional, virtual personas capable of personalized interactions — are defining new territory in entertainment. In my guide to the concept of “virtual beings,” I outlined two categories of these characters:

  • virtual influencers: fictional characters with real-world social media accounts who build and engage with a mass following of fans.
  • virtual companions: AIs oriented toward one-to-one relationships, much like the tech depicted in the films “Her” and “Ex Machina.” They are personalized enough to engage us in entertaining discussions and respond to our behavior (in the physical world or within games) like a human would.

Part 3 of 3: designing virtual companions

In this discussion, Fable CEO Edward Saatchi addresses the technical and artistic dynamics of virtual companions: AIs created to establish one-to-one relationships with consumers. After mobile, Saatchi says he believes such virtual beings will act as the next paradigm for human-computer interaction.

The US government should stop demanding tech companies compromise on encryption

In a tweet late Tuesday, President Trump criticized Apple for refusing “to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements.” Trump was specifically referring to a locked iPhone that belonged to a Saudi airman who killed three U.S sailors in an attack on a Florida base in December.

It’s only the latest example of the government trying to gain access to a terror suspect’s device it claims it can’t access because of the encryption that scrambles the device’s data without the owner’s passcode.

The government spent the past week bartering for Apple’s help. Apple said it had given to investigators “gigabytes of information,” including “iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts.” In every instance it received a legal demand, Apple said it “responded with all of the information” it had. But U.S. Attorney General William Barr accused Apple of not giving investigators “any substantive assistance” in unlocking the phone.

NextNav raises $120M to deploy its indoor positioning tech to find people in skyscrapers

NextNav LLC has raised $120 million in equity and debt to commercially deploy an indoor positioning system that can pinpoint a device’s location — including which floor it’s on — without GPS .

The company has developed what it calls a Metropolitan Beacon System, which can find the location of devices like smartphones, drones, IoT products or even self-driving vehicles in indoor and urban areas where GPS or other satellite location signals cannot be reliably received. Anyone trying to use their phone to hail an Uber or Lyft in the Loop area of Chicago has likely experienced spotty GPS signals.

The MBS infrastructure is essentially bolted onto cellular towers. The positioning system uses a cellular signal, not line-of-sight signal from satellites like GPS does. The system focuses on determining the “altitude” of a device, CEO and co-founder Ganesh Pattabiraman told TechCrunch.

GPS can provide the horizontal position of a smartphone or IoT device. And Wi-Fi and Bluetooth can step in to provide that horizontal positioning indoors. NextNav says its MBS has added a vertical or “Z dimension” to the positioning system. This means the MBS can determine within less than three meters the floor level of a device in a  multi-story building.

It’s the kind of system that can provide emergency services with critical information, such as the number of people located on a particular floor. It’s this specific use case that NextNav is betting on. Last year, the Federal Communication Commission issued new 911 emergency requirements for wireless carriers that mandates the ability to determine the vertical position of devices to help responders find people in multi-story buildings.

Today, the MBS is in the Bay Area and Washington, D.C. The company plans to use this new injection of capital to expand its network to the 50 biggest markets in the U.S., in part to take advantage of the new FCC requirement.

The technology has other applications. For instance, this so-called Z dimension could come in handy for locating drones. Last year, NASA said it will use NextNav’s MBS network as part of its City Environment for Range Testing of Autonomous Integrated Navigation facilities at its Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

The round was led by funds managed by affiliates of Fortress Investment Group . Existing investors Columbia Capital, Future Fund, Telcom Ventures, funds managed by Goldman Sachs Asset Management, NEA and Oak Investment Partners also participated.

XM Satellite Radio founder Gary Parsons is executive chairman of the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company.

MicroEJ is taking over IoT on Earth and beyond

The internet of things (IoT) market is expanding at a rate where distinguishing it as a separate category is beginning to seem a bit absurd. Increasingly, new products — and updates of existing ones — are smart and/or connected. One company is changing the fundamental calculus behind this shift by lowering the barrier considerably when it comes to what it costs to make something ‘smart,’ both in terms of the upfront bill of materials, along with subsequent support and development costs.

MicroEJ CEO Fred Rivard took me through his company’s history from its founding in 2004 until now. Much of those earlier years were spent in development, but since around 2012 or so, the French company has been deploying for IoT devices what Android is to smartphones — a flexible, extensible platform that can operate on a wide range of hardware profiles while being relatively easy to target for application and feature developers. MicroEJ takes the ‘code once, deploy anywhere’ maxim to the extreme, since its platform is designed from the ground up to be incredibly conservative when it comes to resource consumption, meaning it can run on hardware with as little as one-tenth or more the bill of materials cost of running more complex operating platforms — like Android Things, for instance.

“We take category of device where currently, Android is too big,” Rivard said. “So it doesn’t fit, even though you would like to have the capability to add software easily devices, but you can’t because Android is too big. The cost of entry is roughly $10 to $15 per unit in hardware and bill of material — that’s the cost of Android […] So it would be great to be able to run an Android layer, but you can’t just because of the cost. So we managed to reduce that cost, and to basically design a very small layer that’s1000 times smarter than Android.”

Have we hit peak smartphone?

Last Halloween, we broke down some “good news” from a Canalys report: the smartphone industry saw one-percent year-over-year growth — not exactly the sort of thing that sparks strong consumer confidence.

In short, 2019 sucked for smartphones, as did the year before. After what was nearly an ascendant decade, sales petered off globally with few exceptions. Honestly, there’s no need to cherrypick this stuff; the numbers this year have been lackluster at best for a majority of companies in a majority of markets.

For just the most recent example, let’s turn to a report from Gartner that dropped late last month. The numbers focus specifically on the third quarter, but they’re pretty indicative of what we’ve been seeing from the industry of late, with a 0.4 percent drop in sales. It’s a fairly consistent story, quarter after quarter for a couple of years now.

Smasung launches the rugged, enterprise-ready Galaxy XCover Pro

We got a bit of a surprise at the end of CES: some hands-on time with Samsung’s latest rugged phone for the enterprise, the Galaxy XCover Pro. The XCover Pro, which is officially launching today, is a mid-range $499 phone for first-line workers like flight attendants, construction workers or nurses.

It is meant to be very rugged but without the usual bulk that comes with that. With its IP68 rating, Military Standard 810 certification and the promise that it will survive a drop from 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) without a case, it should definitely be able to withstand quite a bit of abuse.

While Samsung is aiming this phone at the enterprise market, the company tells us that it will also sell it to individual customers.

As Samsung stressed during our briefing, the phone is meant for all-day use in the field, with a 4,050 mAh replaceable battery (yes, you read that right, you can replace the battery just like on phones from a few years ago). It’ll feature 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage space, but you can extend that up to 512GB thanks to the built-in microSD slot. The 6.3-inch FHD+ screen won’t wow you, but it seemed perfectly adequate for most of the use cases. That screen, the company says, should work even in rain or snow and features a glove mode, too.

And while this is obviously not a flagship phone, Samsung still decided to give it a dual rear camera setup, with a standard 25MP sensor and a wide-angle 8MP sensor for those times where you might want to get the full view of a construction site, for example. On the front, there is a small cutout for a 13MP camera, too.

All of this is powered by a 2GHz octa-core Exynos 9611 processor, as one would expect from a Samsung mid-range phone, as well as Android 10.

Traditionally, rugged phones came with large rubber edges (or users decided to put even larger cases around them). The XCover Pro, on the other hand, feels slimmer than most regular phones with a rugged case on them.

By default, the phone features NFC support for contactless payments (the phone has been approved to be part of Visa’s Tap to Phone pilot program) and two programmable buttons so that companies can customize their phones for their specific use cases. One of the first partners here is Microsoft, which lets you map a button to its recently announced walkie talkie feature in Microsoft Teams.

“Microsoft and Samsung have a deep history of bringing together the best hardware and software to help solve our customers’ challenges,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in today’s announcement. “The powerful combination of Microsoft Teams and the new Galaxy XCover Pro builds on this partnership and will provide frontline workers everywhere with the technology they need to be more collaborative, productive and secure.”

With its Pogo pin charging support and compatibility with third-party tools from a variety of partners for adding scanners, credit card readers and other peripherals from partners like Infinite Peripherals, KOAMTAC, Scandit and Visa.

No enterprise device is complete without security features and the XCover Pro obviously supports all of Samsungs various Knox enterprise security tools and access to the phone itself is controlled by both a facial recognition system and a fingerprint reader that’s built into the power button.

With the Tab Active Pro, Samsung has long offered a rugged tablet for first-line workers. Not everybody needs a full-sized tablet, though, so the XCover Pro fills what Samsung clearly believes is a gap in the market that offers always-on connectivity in a smaller package and in the form of a phone that doesn’t look unlike a consumer device.

I could actually imagine that there are quite a few consumers who may opt for this device. For a while, the company made phones like the Galaxy S8 Active that traded weight and size for larger batteries and ruggedness. the XCover Pro isn’t officially a replacement of this program, but it may just find its fans among former Galaxy Active users.

DuckDuckGo still critical of Google’s EU Android choice screen auction, after wining a universal slot

Google has announced which search engines have won an auction process it has devised for an Android ‘choice screen’ — as its response to an antitrust intervention by the region’s competition regulator.

The prompt is shown to users of Android smartphones in the European Union as they set up a device, asking them to choose a search engine from a list of four which always includes Google’s own search engine.

In mid-2018 the European Commission fined Google $5BN for antitrust violations attached to how it operates the Android platform, including related to how it bundles its own services with the dominant smartphone OS, and ordered it to remedy the infringements — while leaving it up to the tech giant to devise a fix.

Google responded by creating a choice screen for Android users to pick a search engine from a short list — with the initial choices seemingly based on local marketshare. But last summer it announced it would move to auctioning slots on the screen via a fixed sealed bid auction process.

The big winners of the initial auction, for the period March 1, 2020 to June 30, 2020, are pro-privacy search engine DuckDuckGo — which gets one of the three slots in all 31 European markets — and a product called Info.com, which will also be shown as an option in all those markets. (Per Wikipedia, the latter is a veteran metasearch engine that provides results from multiple search engines and directories, including Google.)

French pro-privacy search engine Qwant will be shown as an option to Android users in eight European markets. While Russia’s Yandex will appears as an option in five markets in the east of the region.

Other search engines that will appear as choices in a minority of the European markets are GMX, Seznam, Givero and PrivacyWall.

At a glance the big loser looks to be Microsoft’s Bing search engine — which will only appear as an option on the choice screen shown in the UK.

Tree-planting search engine Ecosia does not appear anywhere on the list at all, despite appearing on some initial Android choice screens — having taken the decision to boycott the auction to objects to Google’s ‘pay-to-play’ approach.

Ecosia CEO Christian Kroll told the BBC: “We believe this auction is at odds with the spirit of the July 2018 EU Commission ruling. Internet users deserve a free choice over which search engine they use and the response of Google with this auction is an affront to our right to a free, open and federated internet. Why is Google able to pick and choose who gets default status on Android?”

It’s not the only search engine critical of Google’s move, with Qwant and DuckDuckGo both raising concerns immediately the move to a paid auction was announced last year.

Despite participating in the process — and winning a universal slot — DuckDuckGo told us it still does not agree with Google’s pay-to-play auction.

“We believe a search preference menu is an excellent way to meaningfully increase consumer choice if designed properly. Our own research has reinforced this point and we look forward to the day when Android users in Europe will have the opportunity to easily make DuckDuckGo their default search engine while setting up their phones. However, we still believe a pay-to-play auction with only 4 slots isn’t right because it means consumers won’t get all the choices they deserve and Google will profit at the expense of the competition,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

Impossible adds ‘ground pork’ and ‘sausages’ to its lineup of plant-based foods

Impossible Foods made huge waves in the food industry when it came up with a way of isolating and using “heme” molecules from plants to mimic the blood found in animal meat (also comprised of heme), bringing a new depth of flavor to its vegetarian burger.

This week at CES, the company is presenting the next act in its mission to get the average consumer to switch to more sustainable, plant-based proteins: it unveiled its version of pork — specifically ground pork, which will be sold as a basic building block for cooking as well as in sausage form. It’s a critical step, given that pork is the most-eaten animal product in the world.

Impossible has set up shop in CES’s outdoor area, situated near a line of food trucks, and it will be cooking food for whoever wants to come by. (I tasted a selection of items made from the new product — a steamed bun, a meatball, some noodles and a lettuce wrap — and the resemblance is uncanny, and not bad at all.) And after today, the new product will be making its way first to selected Burger King restaurants in the US before appearing elsewhere.

It may sound a little far-fetched to see a food startup exhibiting and launching new products at a consumer electronics show, attended by 200,000 visitors who will likely by outnumbered by the number of TVs, computers, phones, and other electronic devices on display. Indeed, Impossible is the only food exhibitor this year.

But if you ask Pat Brown, the CEO and founder of Impossible Foods (pictured right, at the sunny CES stand in the cold wearing a hat), the company is in precisely the right place.

“To me it’s very natural to be at CES,” he said in an interview this week at the show. “The food system is the most important technology on earth. It is absolutely a technology, and an incredibly important one, even if it doesn’t get recognised as such. The use of animals as a food technology is the most destructive on earth. And when Impossible was founded, it was to address that issue. We recognised it as a technology problem.”

That is also how Impossible has positioned itself as a startup. Its emergence (it was founded 2011) dovetailed with an interesting shift in the world of tech. The number of startups were booming, fuelled by VC money and a boom in smartphones and broadband. At the same time, we were starting to see a new kind of startup emerging built on technology but disrupting a wide range of areas not traditionally associated with technology. Technology VCs, looking for more opportunities (and needing to invest increasingly larger funds), were opening themselves up to consider more of the latter opportunities.

Impossible has seized the moment. It has raised around $777 million to date from a list of investors more commonly associated with tech companies — they include Khosla, Temasek, Horizons Ventures, GV, and a host of celebrities — and Impossible is now estimated to be valued at around $4 billion. Brown told me it is currently more than doubling revenues annually.  

With his roots in academia, the idea of Brown (who has also done groundbreaking work in HIV research) founding and running a business is perhaps as left-field a development as a food company making the leap from commodity or packaged good business to tech. Before Impossible, Brown said that he had “zero interest” in becoming an entrepreneur: the bug that has bitten so many others at Stanford (where he was working prior to founding Impossible) had not bitten him.

“I had an awesome job where I followed my curiosity, working on problems that I found interesting and important with great colleagues,” he said.

That changed when he began to realise the scale of the problem resulting from the meat industry, which has led to a well-catalogued list of health, economic and environmental impacts (including increased greenhouse gas emissions and the removal of natural ecosystems to make way for farming land. “It is the most important and consequential issue for the future of the world, and so the solution has to be market-based,” he said. “The only way we can replace themes that are this destructive is by coming up with a better technology and competing.”

Pork is a necessary step in that strategy to compete. America, it seems, is all about beef and chicken when it comes to eating animals. But pigs and pork take the cake when you consider meat consumption globally, accounting for 38% of all meat production, with 47 pigs killed on average every second of every day. Asia, and specifically China, figure strongly in that demand. Consumption of pork in China has increased 140% since 1990, Impossible notes.

Pigs’ collective footprint in the world is also huge: there are 1.44 billion of them, and their collective biomass totals 175 kg, twice as much as the biomass of all wild terrestrial vertebrates, Impossible says.

Whether Impossible’s version of pork will be enough or just an incremental step is another question. Ground meat is not the same as creating structured proteins that mimic the whole-cuts that are common (probably more common) when it comes to how pork is typically cooked (ditto for chicken and beef and other meats).

That might likely require more capital and time to develop.

For now, Impossible is focused on building out its business on its own steam: it’s not entertaining any thoughts of selling up, or even of licensing out its IP for isolating and using soy leghemoglobin — the essential “blood” that sets its veggie proteins apart from other things on the market. (I think of licensing out that IP, as the equivalent of how a tech company might white label or create APIs for third parties to integrate its cool stuff into their services.)

That means there will be inevitable questions down the line about how Impossible will capitalise to meet demand for its products. Brown said that for now there are no plans for IPOs or to raise more externally, but pointed out that it would have no problem doing either.

Indeed, the company has built up an impressive bench of executives and other talent to meet those future scenarios. Earlier this year, Impossible hired Dennis Woodside — the former Dropbox, Google and Motorola star– as its first president. And its CFO, David Lee, joined from Zynga back in 2015, with a stint also in the mass-market food industry, having been at Del Monte prior to that.

Lee told me that the company has essentially been running itself as a public company internally in preparation for a time when it might follow in the footsteps of its biggest competitor, Beyond Meat, and go public.

“From a tech standpoint I’m absolutely confident that we can outperform what we get from animals in affordability, nutrition and deliciousness,” said Brown. “This entire industry is most destructive by far and has major responsibility in terms of climate and biodiversity, but it going to be history and we are going to replace it.”

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Samsung’s Lite devices bring the headphone jack to flagship design (sort of)

Some devices need no explanation. The Galaxy S10 Lite and Note 10 Lite are no such devices. They’re more nebulous, walking an interesting line, between premium and mid-range. They’re a clear attempt by Samsung to change with a smartphone-buying public that has balked at the idea of $1,000+ devices.

On that front, they make plenty of sense. Things are, however, not so cut and dry. This is probably no better exemplified by the headphone jack situation. One (the Note 10) has one. One (the S10) doesn’t. It’s a bit of a one foot in, one foot out approach to the technology that Samsung, admittedly, has always been more cautious about abandoning than most.

The pragmatic reason for the decision, I think, is that the Note 10 Lite is the thicker of the two devices. Both feel like solid, flagship devices. The build quality is terrific on both. The Note, however, is noticeably chunkier, owing to the inclusion of the S Pen and a different screen technology. So Samsung saw an opportunity to have it both ways, plopping a headphone jack on the bottom.

The timing is interesting, as well. The company snuck out an announcement just ahead of CES. That both firmly missed the holiday season, while arriving about a month and a half ahead of its latest big phone reveal (the invitations for Unpacked went out the following day). There was also no pricing — and there still isn’t here in the States. That leaves open the question of where they slot in.

Are we talking slightly below the flagship tier? Or is this Samsung’s new vision for mid-tier? European pricing gives us a hint. At €599, that’s pretty significantly below the lowest-tier version of its flagship counterparts. It’s also a pretty decent direction below the Galaxy S10e. It will be interesting to see if that model sticks around for the S11.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch