Global smartphone market continues rebound with 26% Q1 bump

More signs of the global market righting the ship after a disastrous 2020. New figures from Gartner point to 26% increase in global sales year over year for the first quarter of 2021. The overall increase is an impressive one, though it comes after a couple of years of market slow down, followed by a step drop amid the pandemic.

Manufacturers got hit from all sides last year. 2020 kicked things off with a manufacturing slowdown, as China and greater Asia were the first to be impacted by the effects of Covid-19. In the following months, global demand slowed, as shutdowns were instated and job loss and economic issues massively hampered sales.

Image Credits: Gartner

The new Gartner numbers maintain the same global top three manufacturers as this time last year. Samsung’s overall market share grew from 18.4- to 20.3%, courtesy of budget devices, returning to the number one spot.

Apple had managed to push its way to number one in Q4, on the strength of its belated 5G push. The company dropped down to number two for the first quarter – the same position it held this time last year. Overall, its market share is up around 2% y-o-y to 15.5, according to the figures. The top five are rounded out by three Chinese manufacturers — Xiaomi, Vivo and Oppo – as Huawei’s struggles continue.

Thus far, global chip shortages appear to have had little impact on shipments.

Interactio, a remote interpretation platform, grabs $30M after seeing 12x growth during COVID-19

Interactio, a remote interpretation platform whose customers include massive institutions like the United Nations, European Commission and Parliament along with corporates like BMW, JP Morgan and Microsoft, has closed a whopping $30 million Series A after usage of its tools grew 12x between 2019 and 2020 as demand for online meeting platforms surged during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Series A funding is led by Eight Roads Ventures and Silicon Valley-based Storm Ventures, along with participation from Practica Capital, Notion Capital, as well as notable angels such as Jaan Tallinn, the co-founder of Skype, and Young Sohn, ex-chief strategy officer of Samsung.

The Vilnius, Lithuania-based startup offers digital tools to connect meetings with certified interpreters who carry out real-time interpretation to bridge language divides between participants. It does also offer a video conferencing platform which its customers can use to run remote meetings but will happily integrate with thirty party software like Zoom, Webex etc. (Last year it says its digital tools were used alongside 43 different video streaming platforms.)

Interactio’s interpreters can be in the room where the meeting is taking place or doing the real-time interpretation entirely remotely by watching and listening to a stream of the meeting. (Or, indeed, it can support a mix of remote and on-site interpretation, if a client wishes.)

It can also supply all the interpreters for a meeting — and it touts a strict vetting procedure for onboarding certified interpreters to its platform — or else it will provide training to a customer’s interpreters on the use of its tools to ensure things run smoothly on the day.

At present, Interactio says it works with 1,000+ freelance interpreters, as well as touting “strong relations with interpretation agencies” — claiming it can easily quadruple the pool of available interpreters to step up to meet rising demand.

It offers its customers interpretation in any language — and in an unlimited number of languages per event. And last year it says it hosted 18,000+ meetings with 390,000 listeners spread across more than 70 countries.

Now, flush with a huge Series A, Interactio is gearing up for a future filled with increasing numbers of multi-lingual online meetings — as the coronavirus continues to inject friction into business travel.

“When we started, our biggest competition was simultaneous interpretation hardware for on-site interpretation. At that time, we were on the mission to fully replace it with our software that required zero additional hardware for attendees besides their phone and headphones. However, for institutions, which became our primary focus, hybrid meetings are the key, so we started partnering with simultaneous interpretation hardware manufacturers and integrators by working together on hybrid events, where participants use hardware on-site, and online participants use us,” a spokeswoman told us.

“This is how we differentiate ourselves from other platforms — by offering a fully hybrid solution, that can be integrated with hardware on-site basically via one cable.”

“Moreover, when we look at the market trends, we still see Zoom as the most used solution, so we compliment it by offering professional interpretation solutions,” she added.

A focus on customer support is another tactic that Interactio says it relies upon to stand out — and its iOS and Android apps do have high ratings on aggregate. (Albeit, there are bunch of historical complaints mixed in suggesting it’s had issues scaling its service to large audiences in the past, as well as sporadic problems with things like audio quality over the years.)

While already profitable, the 2014-founded startup says the  Series A will be used to step on the gas to continue to meet the accelerated demand and exponential growth it’s seen during the remote work boom.

Specifically, the funds will go on enhancing its tech and UX/UI — with a focus on ensuring ease of access/simplicity for those needing to access interpretation, and also on upgrading the tools it provides to interpreters (so they have “the best working conditions from their chosen place of work”).

It will also be spending to expand its client base — and is especially seeking to onboard more corporates and other types of customers. (“Last year’s focus was and still is institutions (e.g. European Commission, European Parliament, United Nations), where there is no place for an error and they need the most professional solution. The next step will be to expand our client base to corporate clients and a larger public that needs interpretation,” it told us.)

The new funding will also be used to expand the size of its team to support those goals, including growing the number of qualified interpreters it works with so it can keep pace with rising demand.

While major institutions like the UN are never going to be tempted to skimp on the quality of translation provided to diplomats and politicians by not using human interpreters (either on premise or working remotely), there may be a limit on how far professional real-time translation can scale given the availability of real-time machine translation technology — which offers a cheap alternative to support more basic meeting scenarios, such as between two professionals having an informal meeting.

Google, for example, offers a real-time translator mode that’s accessible to users of its smartphone platform via the Google voice assistant AI. Hardware startups are also trying to target real-time translation. The dream of a real-life AI-powered ‘Babel Fish’ remains strong.

Nonetheless, such efforts aren’t well suited to supporting meetings and conferences at scale — where having a centralized delivery service that’s also responsible for troubleshooting any audio quality or other issues which may arise looks essential.

And while machine translation has undoubtedly got a lot better over the years (albeit performance can vary, depending on the languages involved) there is still a risk that key details could be lost in translation if/when the machine gets it wrong. So offering highly scalable human translation via a digital platform looks like a safe bet as the world gets accustomed to more remote work (and less globetrotting) being the new normal.

“AI-driven translation is a great tool when you need a quick solution and are willing to sacrifice the quality,” says Interactio when we ask about this. “Our clients are large corporations and institutions, therefore, any kind of misunderstanding can be crucial. Here, the translation is not about saying a word in a different language, it’s about giving the meaning and communicating a context via interpretation.

“We strongly believe that only humans can understand the true context and meaning of conversations, where sometimes a tone of voice, an emotion and a figure speech can make a huge difference, that is unnoticed by a machine.”

Google adds foldable-focused Android developer updates

Things have been a bit quiet on the foldables front of late, but plenty of parties are still bullish about the form factor’s future. Ahead of today’s big I/O kickoff, Samsung (undoubtedly the most bullish of the bunch) posted a bunch of metrics this morning, noting:

The global outlook is just as impressive. This year alone, the foldables market is expected to triple over last year — a year in which Samsung accounted for three out of every four foldable smartphones shipped worldwide.

Part of anticipating growth in the category is ensuring that the software is ready. Samsung has been tweaking things for a while now on its end, and at I/O in 2018, Google announced it would be adding support for foldable screens. Recent rumors have suggested that the company is working on its own foldable Pixel, but even beyond that, it’s probably in the company’s best interest to ensure that Android plays nicely with the form factor.

“We studied how people interact with large screens,” the company said in today’s developer keynote. This includes a variety of different aspects, including where users place their hands while using the device — which can be a bit all over the place when dealing with different applications in different orientations and form factors. Essentially, you don’t want to, say, put buttons where people generally place your hands.

The list of upgrades includes the ability to resize content automatically, without overly stretching it out to fit multiple panels. All of this is no doubt going to be a learning curve as foldables end up in the hands of more users. But at the very least, it signals Google’s continued view of foldables as a growing category. It’s also one of multiple updates today that involve the company working more closely with Samsung.

The two tech giants also announced a joint Wear OS/Tizen play earlier today.

Google updates its cross-platform Flutter UI toolkit

Flutter, Google’s cross-platform UI toolkit for building mobile and desktop apps, is getting a small but important update at the company’s I/O conference today. Google also announced that Flutter now powers 200,000 apps in the Play Store alone, including popular apps from companies like WeChat, ByteDance, BMW, Grab and DiDi. Indeed, Google notes that one in eight new apps in the Play Store are now Flutter apps.

The launch of Flutter 2.2 follows Google’s rollout of Flutter 2, which first added support for desktop and web apps in March, so it’s no surprise that this is a relatively minor release. In many ways, the update builds on top of the features the company introduced in version 2 and its reliability and performance improvements.

Version 2.2 makes null safety the default for new projects, for example, to add protections against null reference exceptions. As for performance, web apps can now use background caching using service workers, for example, while Android apps can use deferred components and iOS apps get support for precompiled shaders to make first runs smoother.

Google also worked on streamlining the overall process of bringing Flutter apps to desktop platforms (Windows, macOS and Linux).

But as Google notes, a lot of the work right now is happening in the ecosystem. Google itself is introducing a new payment plugin for Flutter built in partnership with the Google Pay team and Google’s ads SDK for Flutter is getting support for adaptive banner formats. Meanwhile, Samsung is now porting Flutter to Tizen and Sony is leading an effort to bring it to embedded Linux. Adobe recently announced its XD to Flutter plugin for its design tool and Microsoft today launched the alpha of Flutter support for Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps for Windows 10 in alpha.

Samsung withdraws from in-person MWC

It’s beginning to feel a bit like 2020, as yet another major manufacturer has announced that it won’t be attending MWC’s upcoming in person event in Barcelona. Roughly a month and a half out, Samsung is joining a growing list of companies that already includes Google, IBM, Nokia, Sony, Oracle and Ericsson.

“The health and safety of our employees, partners and customers is our number one priority, so we have made the decision to withdraw from exhibiting in-person at this year’s Mobile World Congress,” the company said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “We look forward to participating virtually and continuing to work with GSMA and industry partners to advance new mobile experiences.”

In the lead up to last year’s event, there was something of a domino effect, as companies ducked out, one by one, ultimately leading up to the event’s cancelation. Obviously things are fairly different more than a year later. The virus is certainly less of an unknown, but its effects are still have a massive impact on much of the world. Even in those places where vaccination rollout has been swift, there are still plenty of question marks when it comes to attending a global event in massive, tightly-packed spaces. MWC had already been pushed back several months from its standard February-March timeframe, but organizers have so far been confident about the inevitability of an in-person event.

MWC’s governing body — the GSMA — recently told TechCrunch, “We appreciate that it will not be possible for everyone to attend MWC Barcelona 2021, but we are pleased that exhibitors including Verizon, Orange and Kasperksy are  excited to join us in Barcelona. To ensure everyone can enjoy the unique MWC experience, we have developed an industry-leading virtual event platform. The in-person and virtual options are provided so that all friends of MWC Barcelona can attend and participate in a way that works for them. ”

We’ve reached out for an additional comment following Samsung’s statement. The GSMA has been positioning MWC as something of a hybrid event — similar to the upcoming Computex in Taipei. It’s difficult to say at this point what the in-person aspect is going to look like when so many high profile companies have opted out. Either way, it seems safe to assume that — even as things return to relative normal — the virtual aspect won’t be going away any time soon.

Smartphone shipments jumped 27% globally in Q1

More good news from a smartphone market currently rebounding from the far reaching impacts of the pandemic. New numbers from Canalys put global shipments for Q1 2021 at 27% above where they were the same time last year.

The industry was hit early and hit hard by Covid-19. The first quarter saw company running into serious supply chain issues as the pandemic first hit China and parts of Asia where most manufacturing occurs. Following that, demand began to slow, as fewer people were interested in buying mobile devices, coupled with broader economic and job impacts.

Image Credits: Canalys

Samsung continued to lead the way globally, with 76.5 million, up from 59.6 million, representing a 28% jump, year-over-year. In all, the company controls around 22% of global shipments (same as a year prior).

In second place, Apple represented the biggest jump of the quarter, with a 41% increase from 37.1 million to 52.4 million. That no doubt owes substantially to the big upgrades that arrived toward to the end of last year. Huawei’s struggles, meanwhile, have knocked the company out of the top five.

“Xiaomi is in pole position to be the new Huawei,” said Canalys’ Ben Stanton said in a release. “Its competitors offer superior channel margin, but Xiaomi’s sheer volume actually gives distributors a better opportunity to make money than rival brands. But the race is not over. Oppo and Vivo are hot on its heels, and are positioning in the mid-range in many regions to box Xiaomi in at the low end.”

The study also notes that LG’s exit from the category should mix things up a bit, as well, particularly in the Americas region, which accounted for 80% of the company’s sales last year.

Alchemy raises $80M at a $505M valuation to be the ‘AWS for blockchain’

Blockchain developer platform Alchemy announced today it has raised $80 million in a Series B round of funding led by Coatue and Addition, Lee Fixel’s new fund. The company previously raised a total of $15.5 million, so the latest financing brings its total raised to $95.5 million since it launched in 2017.

The latest round caught our attention for a few reasons.

First, the company, which describes itself as the backend technology behind the blockchain industry, went from public launch to a $505 million valuation in a matter of just eight months. During that time, Alchemy says it powered over $30 billion in transactions for tens of millions of users all over the world. Second, the startup says it also already powering the majority of the NFT industry.

And finally, its investors in the round include a high-profile mix of institutions and individuals such as DFJ Growth, K5 Global, the Chainsmokers, actor Jared Leto and the Glazer family (owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Manchester United). They joined existing backers including Yahoo co-founder and former CEO Jerry Yang, Pantera Capital, Coinbase, SignalFire, Samsung, Stanford University, Google chairman and Stanford University President John L. Hennessy, Charles Schwab, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and others.

Sources with inside knowledge of Alchemy’s operations tell TechCrunch that the company has already grown its business more than eightfold since it signed the Series B term sheet. They also said Alchemy had over $300 million of investor demand wanting to enter the round and is being inbounded to do another financing at “many times” the current valuation.

TechCrunch talked with Alchemy co-founders Nikil Viswanathan (CEO) and Joe Lau (CTO) about the raise and their passion for the startup’s mission was clear. As is its explosive growth.

“We realized that in order for space to thrive and build to its full potential, we needed to build a developer platform layer for blockchain,” Viswanathan told TechCrunch.

Alchemy’s goal is to be the starting place for developers considering to build a product on top of a blockchain or mainstream blockchain applications. Its developer platform aims to remove the complexity and costs of building infrastructure while improving applications through “necessary” developer tools.

The startup powers a range of transactions across nearly every blockchain vertical, including financial institutions, exchanges, billion-dollar decentralized finance projects and multinational organizations such as UNICEF. It has also quickly become the technology behind every major NFT platform, including Makersplace, OpenSea, Nifty Gateway, SuperRare and CryptoPunks.  

“Every time you open DoorDash, you’re using Amazon’s infrastructure,” Lau said. “Every time you interact with an NFT, you’re using Alchemy. It’s being powered by Alchemy underneath the hood.”

While the pair would not provide hard revenue figures, the company – which operates as a SaaS business – says it increased its revenue by 600% in 2020.

For inside players, Alchemy’s efforts are paving the way for the whole industry. 

“The cryptoeconomy is innovating faster than any technological movement that came before it, and Alchemy has been a key driver of that,” said Coinbase President and COO Emilie Choi. “Alchemy enables developers to build the rich ecosystem of applications necessary for mainstream blockchain adoption.”

Pantera Capital’s Paul Veradittakit describes Alchemy as “the Amazon Web Services (AWS) of the blockchain industry” that is “enabling the vision of a decentralized web.”

“While in Web 2.0, Microsoft, Apple and AWS are three of the most valuable companies in the world because they are the developer platform powering the computer and internet industries, Alchemy is primed to do the same for the blockchain,” he said.

The company believes the comparison to AWS is fair, noting that: “Just as AWS provides the platform that powers Uber, Netflix and much of the technology industry, Alchemy powers infrastructure for many large players in the blockchain industry.”

Alchemy plans to use its new capital to expand its developer platform to new blockchains, fuel global expansion and to open new offices in the U.S. and globally. The startup is based in San Francisco and is planning to open an office in New York.  

“We are going to use the funds to support new chains with our developer platform,” Viswanathan said. “We also expect to 5x the team this year.”

But to be clear, Alchemy prides itself on being lean and mean.

“We just went from 14 to 22 employees,” Lau said. “We have intentionally wanted to keep the team as small as possible.”

The blockchain space has been the subject of increased investor interest as of late.

In March, BlockFi, which describes itself a financial services company for crypto market investors, announced it had closed on a massive $350 million Series D funding that valued it at $3 billion. Also last month, Chainalysis, a blockchain analysis company, revealed the close of $100 million in Series D financing, which doubled its valuation to over $2 billion.

Here’s Samsung’s new flagship laptop series, the Galaxy Book Pro

Following the customary weeks of leaks, Samsung just announced a couple of new additions to its laptop line. The Galaxy Book Pro and Galaxy Book Pro 360 joined the hardware giant’s wide range of devices toward the high end — offering what can reasonably be categorized as the company’s take on the MacBook Pro.

The Windows machines continue the company’s push to blur some of the productivity lines between its Galaxy PC and mobile offerings, including a number of cross-device software offerings and, naturally, the inclusion of the S-Pen, which ships in the box with the Pro 360. As the name implies, the 360’s lid hinges in either direction, so it can double as a writing surface.

The thin and light design is probably the headline feature for Samsung. The Pro and Pro 360 measure 11.2 and 11.9 millimeters, respectively. Both feature an option of a 13.3 and 15.6-inch Super AMOLEDs. With a 1920 x 1080 resolution. That’s all powered by either a Core i5 or i7 11th-gen Intel processor, 8 or 16GB of RAM and up to 1TB of storage (512GB max on the Pro).

Image Credits: Samsung

There are also options for LTE and 5G versions (depending on market availability). That will almost certainly have a direct impact on the battery, which the company rates as “all-day.” Both models sport 65W fast charging by way of the USB-C port. The keyboard mechanisms have been upgraded over previous models and the track pad is now 23% larger.

The systems go up for preorder today and start shipping May 14. The 13 and 15-inch versions of the Pro start at $1,000 and $1,100, respectively and the 360 runs $1,200 and $1,300.

Samsung opens beta on Galaxy Upcycling to breathe new life into old phones

Samsung announced Galaxy Upcycling a few years back, but has largely been quiet on that front, aside from some stage time at CES back in January. Today the company announced that Upcycling at Home is being opened to beta today for users in the U.S., Korea and the U.K.

It’s a pretty novel program, in a world where consumers are encouraged to scrap their old devices every two to three years for something shiny and new. The program is designed to breathe new life into handsets that might otherwise be tossed in a landfill or stashed away in a drawer.

Image Credits: Samsung

“We are rethinking how we use existing resources, and we believe the key to upcycling is to enable solutions that transform old technology into something new by adding value,” VP Sung-Koo Kim said in a release tied to the news. “We are committed to integrating sustainable practices into our day-to-day lives, and through Galaxy Upcycling at Home, users can join our journey toward a more sustainable future.”

Specifically, the products can be revamped into smart home devices, like childcare and pet monitors.

The feature can be accessed within the SmartThings Labs feature found in Samsung’s SmartThings App. When enabled, the product can send alerts when things like a crying baby or barking dog are detected. The recorded sound will be sent as part of the alert. Another feature uses built-in sensors to turn on a room’s lights when things get dark. The service will optimize device battery so it can operate for an extended period while detecting these inputs.

 

Samsung opens beta on Galaxy Upcycling to breathe new life into old phones

Samsung announced Galaxy Upcycling a few years back, but has largely been quiet on that front, aside from some stage time at CES back in January. Today the company announced that Upcycling at Home is being opened to beta today for users in the U.S., Korea and the U.K.

It’s a pretty novel program, in a world where consumers are encouraged to scrap their old devices every two to three years for something shiny and new. The program is designed to breathe new life into handsets that might otherwise be tossed in a landfill or stashed away in a drawer.

Image Credits: Samsung

“We are rethinking how we use existing resources, and we believe the key to upcycling is to enable solutions that transform old technology into something new by adding value,” VP Sung-Koo Kim said in a release tied to the news. “We are committed to integrating sustainable practices into our day-to-day lives, and through Galaxy Upcycling at Home, users can join our journey toward a more sustainable future.”

Specifically, the products can be revamped into smart home devices, like childcare and pet monitors.

The feature can be accessed within the SmartThings Labs feature found in Samsung’s SmartThings App. When enabled, the product can send alerts when things like a crying baby or barking dog are detected. The recorded sound will be sent as part of the alert. Another feature uses built-in sensors to turn on a room’s lights when things get dark. The service will optimize device battery so it can operate for an extended period while detecting these inputs.