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Category: Tech (Page 1 of 17)

Walmart’s Flipkart CEO Steps Down in Wake of Misconduct Allegation

That’s the headline of my most recent story, which I wrote with my colleague Sarah Nassauer, out Tuesday.

It begins:

Walmart Inc. said the chief executive of Flipkart Group, its Indian e-commerce business, resigned following an independent investigation into a personal misconduct allegation.

Binny Bansal, one of the co-founders of Bangalore-based Flipkart, decided to step down after “recent events risked becoming a distraction,” Walmart said Tuesday.

Walmart opened an investigation this summer after a former Flipkart employee came forward alleging Mr. Bansal had sexually assaulted her sometime around 2016, according to a person familiar with the matter.

During the negotiations this year to sell Flipkart to Walmart, Mr. Bansal didn’t disclose the allegation against him or that he had hired security personnel to privately deal with the matter, the person said.

As part of the investigation, Mr. Bansal told Walmart he had a consensual relationship with the woman and denied he assaulted her, the person said.

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India’s Top Payments App Faces Challenge From Google and WhatsApp

That’s the headline of a story I did with my colleague Corinne Abrams, out Monday.

It begins:

India’s biggest mobile-payments startup, Paytm, has wooed hundreds of millions of users and attracted investment from Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

The biggest challenge for its charismatic founder, 40-year-old Vijay Shekhar Sharma, lies ahead: Keeping Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc.’s WhatsApp at bay as they push into India, the world’s hottest new market for mobile money.

Paytm’s popular smartphone app, which can be used to pay for everything from auto-rickshaw rides to movies and utility bills, handles some 500 million transactions a month across its network. Paytm, launched in 2010 by Mr. Sharma’s One97 Communications Ltd., has dominated India’s payments space since late 2016. That is when Prime Minister Narendra Modi nullified India’s largest-denomination notes to curb corruption, triggering a cash crunch. Faced with long lines for ATMs, consumers flocked to the Paytm app.

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India’s Top Court Rules Massive Biometric Identity Database Legal—With Restrictions

That’s the headline of my most recent story, written with a colleague, out yesterday.

It begins:

India’s highest court ruled that the world’s largest biometric identification database doesn’t infringe on citizens’ privacy rights—but needs some new limitations.

The country’s controversial Aadhaar program uses photos, finger and eye scans and has already signed up more than 1 billion people. It has sparked an intense global debate over how far a democracy should be able to go in collecting the personal data of its citizens and how that data can be used, shared and protected.

Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling was a response to multiple challenges to the system.

A five-judge panel ruled in a 4-1 decision that the program is constitutional and helps the poor by streamlining disbursement of welfare benefits. Being in the database, however, shouldn’t be required for using mobile phones, opening bank accounts or for school admissions, according to the 1,448-page document outlining the court’s decision. It had been unclear for some time whether such organizations could compel people to supply Aadhaar numbers.

“It’s a historic judgment,” Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said. “Everyone must realize, including critics of Aadhaar, that you can’t defy technology or ignore it.”

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SoftBank Leads $1 Billion Investment in Indian Hotel-Booking Startup

That’s the headline on my latest story, out yesterday. It begins:

SoftBank Group Corp. is doubling down on one of its biggest bets in India by leading a $1 billion investment in hotel-booking startup OYO Hotels.

The company, based in Gurgaon, India, has received $800 million in a round led by SoftBank’s Vision Fund, which SoftBank Chief Executive Masayoshi Son is using to back cutting-edge technologies, OYO said Tuesday. U.S. venture-capital firms Sequoia Capital and Lightspeed Venture Partners also contributed to the round, and existing investors have pledged a further $200 million.

“We plan to rapidly scale our business,” with a focus on continuing OYO’s expansion into China, said 24-year-old company founder Ritesh Agarwal in a written statement. OYO also operates in Malaysia, Nepal and the U.K.

The new round of funding values the company at $5 billion, including the new funds, according to a person familiar with the matter. That is up from a post-money valuation of roughly $850 million when OYO received $250 million last year in a round led by SoftBank.

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Two Years Ago, India Lacked Fast, Cheap Internet—One Billionaire Changed All That

That’s the headline on my latest story, a page one piece out yesterday and online here. It begins:

MUMBAI—India’s richest man is catapulting hundreds of millions of poor people straight into the mobile internet age.

Mukesh Ambani, head of Reliance Industries, one of India’s largest conglomerates, has shelled out $35 billion of the company’s money to blanket the South Asian nation with its first all-4G network. By offering free calls and data for pennies, the telecom latecomer has upended the industry, setting off a cheap internet tsunami that is opening the market of 1.3 billion people to global tech and retailing titans.

The unknown factor: Can Reliance reap profits itself after unleashing a cutthroat price war? Analysts say the company’s ultimate plan, after connecting the masses, is to use the platform to sell content, financial services and advertising. It could also recoup its massive investment in the years to come by charging for high-speed broadband to consumers’ homes and connections for various businesses, according to a person familiar with the matter.

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New Delhi Snapshot: Intriguing Gadget for Washing Dogs

Putting the “dog” in the Japanese term “chindōgu” (珍道具).

Spotted at Khan Market here in Delhi. Sadly, I didn’t inquire as to the price.

Something tells me Ginger would not abide.

Link: Elon Musk Details ‘Excruciating’ Personal Toll of Tesla Turmoil

This is an amazing New York Times interview.

Among the most remarkable parts, considering Musk is chief executive of a publicly listed company with a market capitalization north of $50 billion:

In an hourlong interview with The New York Times, he choked up multiple times

Obviously CEOs are human, and many great leaders are risk takers prone to highs and lows, and work ridiculous hours, but still. He has granted the NYT an interview and cried in front of its journalists. How do you think Tesla shareholders or staff feel about all of this?

And:

He decided to round up to $420 — a number that has become code for marijuana in counterculture lore.

“It seemed like better karma at $420 than at $419,” he said in the interview. “But I was not on weed, to be clear. Weed is not helpful for productivity. There’s a reason for the word ‘stoned.’ You just sit there like a stone on weed.”

And:

To help sleep when he is not working, Mr. Musk said he sometimes takes Ambien. “It is often a choice of no sleep or Ambien,” he said.

But this has worried some board members, who have noted that sometimes the drug does not put Mr. Musk to sleep but instead contributes to late-night Twitter sessions, according to a person familiar with the board’s thinking. Some board members are also aware that Mr. Musk has on occasion used recreational drugs, according to people familiar with the matter.

Perhaps most the unsurprising bit, from a earlier in the story:

Some board members, however, have recently told Mr. Musk that he should lay off Twitter and focus on making cars and launching rockets, according to people familiar with the matter.

I think it goes with out saying: This is not typical behavior for a chief executive.

India Looks to Curb U.S. Tech Giants’ Power

That’s the headline of my most recent story, which came out Monday and was in Tuesday’s print Wall Street Journal. 

It begins:

Indian policy makers are looking for ways to tamp down American tech behemoths, a shift that could crimp growth potential in one of the biggest remaining open markets for their expansion.

India wants to slap new rules on Amazon.com Inc., Apple Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Facebook Inc. and other firms, using a page from China’s playbook to take control of its citizens’ data and shelter homegrown startups.

The proposed rules, which have emerged in recent weeks in a series of private, draft government policies, have U.S. tech companies concerned, according to   familiar with the matter. American firms are betting billions on the Indian market because, unlike China’s, it has been relatively open to foreign competitors. That might be about to change.

“It is unprecedented and it needs to be taken very seriously,” said Vinay Kesari, a Bangalore-based technology lawyer specializing in regulatory matters who has worked with U.S. tech firms. “It could have huge implications.”

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Book Notes: ‘The Master Switch,’ by Tim Wu

From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited recently after many years.

These posts are meant to help me remember what I’ve learned, and to point out titles I think are worth consulting. They’re neither formal book reviews nor comprehensive book summaries, but simply my notes from reading these titles.

For previous postings, see my Book Notes category.

The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires

Published: 2010
ISBN-13: 978-0307269935
Amazon link

Brief Summary

All new communications media are at first open, but come to be dominated — closed — by corporations. “The cycle” is happening again with the internet.

My Notes

In this meticulously researched and prescient* 2010 book, Columbia University Law Professor Tim Wu, who famously coined the term “network neutrality,” shows how radio, film, television and cable all began as wide-open playgrounds for hobbyists. Then large corporations took over, exercised monopoly control, and have stifled innovation.

Wu says this represents “the cycle.” As he writes, “information empires” eternally “return to consolidated order however great the disruptive forces of creative destruction.”

What is “the master switch“? Wu takes the phrase from CBS executive Fred Friendly, who:

…thought that the shortage of TV stations had given exclusive custody of a ‘master switch’ over speech, creating ‘an autocracy’ where a very few citizens are more equal than all the others.’

  • It’s important to note that the book was published in 2010, the same year that the Arab Spring began. Eight years ago there was, in my mind, a much more utopian view of what the web could become: a place for free speech to blossom, where everyone can have a voice and speak truth to power.

That was, of course, long before the rising skepticism of how platforms like Facebook and Twitter wield their power, and long before “fake news” and Russian trolls. And it was, of course, before Obama’s 2015 net neutrality rules — and before FCC Chairman Ajit Pai rolled them back last year.

My notes on other tidbits from history that I enjoyed reading about:

  • RCA dominated radio, then suppressed the release of TV until they could control the medium, Wu writes.
  • In the 1940s AT&T killed through a series of lawsuits an inventor’s simple, useful contraption called the Hush-a-Phone; it was, Wu writes, an example of a corporation stifling innovation.
  • The breakup of the Hollywood monopolies, in which studios owned theaters and produced fairly bland content, gave rise to the “new Hollywood” and classic films of the 1970s, such as “The Godfather” and “Bonnie and Clyde.”
  • At Apple, Steve Wozniak wanted openness (i.e. Apple II, which could be tinkered with); Steve Jobs wanted things closed (i.e. the Mac, which was sealed). Wu says Wozniak told him “That was Steve. He wanted it that way. The Apple II was my machine, and the Mac was his.”
  • Google wants the web to remain open, even though it has enormous power. Wu writes:

    In fairness, it must be allowed that Google has remained more committed to openness than any information empire before it. What now seems possible, if unprecedented, is a well-defended Internet monopolist running a mostly open system.

  • Wu recounts an interesting Google anecdote:

    In the fall of 2010, I was on Google’s campus speaking of cycles, of open and closed, centralization and decentralization. A senior employee raised his hand. “You have a good point,” he said. “When you’re a new company, getting started, openness seems really great, because it offers a way in. But I have to admit, the bigger you get, the more appealing closed systems starts (sic) to look.”

  • Finally, Wu says the stakes are much higher when it comes to the web, compared to other media. That’s because “our future…is almost certain to become an intensification of our current reality: greater and greater information dependence in every matter of life and work, and all that needed information increasingly traveling a single network we call the internet…already there are signs that the good old days of a completely open network are ending.”

App Traps: How Cheap Smartphones Siphon User Data in Developing Countries

That’s the headline of a story out Thurs. and in Friday’s paper that I wrote with my colleagues Josh Chin, Myo Myo, and Kersten Zhang. It begins:

For millions of people buying inexpensive smartphones in developing countries where privacy protections are usually low, the convenience of on-the-go internet access could come with a hidden cost: preloaded apps that harvest users’ data without their knowledge.

One such app, included on thousands of Chinese-made Singtech P10 smartphones sold in Myanmar and Cambodia, sends the owner’s location and unique-device details to a mobile-advertising firm in Taiwan called General Mobile Corp., or GMobi. The app also has appeared on smartphones sold in Brazil and those made by manufacturers based in China and India, security researchers said.

Taipei-based GMobi, with a subsidiary in Shanghai, said it uses the data to show targeted ads on the devices. It also sometimes shares the data with device makers to help them learn more about their customers.

Smartphones have been billed as a transformative technology in developing markets, bringing low-cost internet access to hundreds of millions of people. But this growing population of novice consumers, most of them living in countries with lax or nonexistent privacy protections, is also a juicy target for data harvesters, according to security researchers.

Smartphone makers that allow GMobi to install its app on phones they sell are able to use the app to send software updates for their devices known as “firmware” at no cost to them, said GMobi Chief Executive Paul Wu. That benefit is an important consideration for device makers pushing low-cost phones across emerging markets.

“If end users want a free internet service, he or she needs to suffer a little for better targeting ads,” said a GMobi spokeswoman.

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