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Recent Stories: Grab <--> Lyft; Microsoft Exec on Self-Driving Cars; Venture Capital in Southeast Asia

I’m behind in sharing some of the stories I’ve been working on. Here are a few from last week.

The first, on Grab’s integration with Lyft in the U.S., begins:

The latest step in a global ride-sharing alliance between rivals of Uber Technologies Inc. went into effect Thursday, allowing users of a popular Southeast Asia-focused transportation app to begin making car bookings via Lyft Inc. in the U.S.

Users of the app from GrabTaxi Holdings Pte. Ltd., which operates in 30 cities across six Southeast Asian countries, can now use the service to hail vehicles in more than 200 U.S. cities via Lyft. In December, Lyft said it was teaming up with Grab, as the company is known, after announcing a similar agreement with Chinese startup Didi Chuxing Technology Co. in September, bolstering the competitive field against the much larger Uber.

The second, on Microsoft, which I wrote while in Hong Kong for our Converge tech conference, begins:

Microsoft Corp. isn’t building its own self-driving car, but is bullish on helping others with related technology, a senior executive said.

“We won’t be building our own autonomous vehicle but we would like to enable autonomous vehicles and assisted driving as well,” said Peggy Johnson, who heads business development for the Redmond, Wash., tech titan, speaking at the Converge technology conference hosted by The Wall Street Journal and f.ounders in Hong Kong Friday.

Ms. Johnson said Microsoft has asked various auto makers what kind of technological applications they are looking for, whether it is working with Azure, its cloud-based service for businesses, Office 365, the cloud version of its productivity software suite, or its Windows operating system.

And finally, another from the conference: a look at how investors – such as Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin – are increasingly pouring venture capital funds into Southeast Asia:

Venture capitalists and investors attending the Converge technology conference in Hong Kong on Friday expressed optimism about the future of startups in Southeast Asia, despite significant challenges.

“Between Southeast Asia and India there are about two billion people,” said Facebook Inc. co-founder Eduardo Saverin, speaking on a panel about investment opportunities in the region. “It’s arguably the fastest-growing internet market in the world.”

In the first quarter of this year, funding to companies in Singaporethe region’s startup hub–rose sharply to $199 million from $53.1 million a year earlier, according to Hong Kong-based AVCJ Research.

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By Me and a Colleague Wed.: Alibaba to Invest $1 billion in Southeast Asia-Focused E-Commerce Startup Lazada

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The story begins:

Chinese Internet giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., in its biggest overseas acquisition to date, said Tuesday it would pay about $1 billion for a controlling stake in Singapore e-commerce startup Lazada Group, betting on growth in populous Southeast Asia.

The acquisition of Lazada—which sells everything from rice cookers to smartphones and operates e-commerce platforms throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam—comes as Alibaba has been using its $3.7 billion in free cash flow to expand into e-commerce, logistics and media, as well as entertainment both at home and abroad.

You may recall back in 2014 I wrote about Lazada’s operations in Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest market. (I snapped the image above at a Lazada warehouse outside Jakarta.) The nut graf:

Challenges are par for the course at Lazada Indonesia, founded in Jakarta in 2012 and partly funded by Rocket Internet AG, a Berlin-based tech incubator that went public last month. Indonesia’s e-commerce market is still small, and Lazada had to build a lot of what it needed from scratch. But the company is plowing ahead so it can get a head start in the country over international giants like Amazon.com Inc., Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and eBay Inc.

Lazada already gets more visitors than any other business-to-consumer site in Indonesia, according to data from research firm SimilarWeb. Lazada’s site saw 6.6 million visitors a month, compared with 3.9 million for Alibaba’s marketplace website AliExpress.com and 2.2 million for eBay, according to the most recent data available from brokerage UBS.

 

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By Me and a Colleague Yesterday: Blackstone Buying HP Enterprise’s Stake in Indian Outsourcing Firm Mphasis for $825 million

The story begins:

Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. said on Monday it planned to sell its majority stake in Indian outsourcing firm Mphasis Ltd. for about $825 million to Blackstone Group LP, as the U.S. technology company seeks to shore up capital following a recent decline in revenue.

Blackstone will purchase at least 84% of HP Enterprise’s majority stake in Mphasis for 430 rupees ($6.49) a share, showing the private-equity firm’s optimism in Mphasis’s prospects even as the industry faces technological challenges.

Besides buying HP Enterprise’s stake, Blackstone said Indian takeover laws require it to buy 26% of Mphasis’s shares via a mandatory tender offer to the company’s public shareholders. Depending on the demand for that offer, the private-equity firm said it could end up spending as much as $1.1 billion on its investments in Mphasis.

HP Enterprise said its decision to sell its position in Bangalore, India-based Mphasis aligns with the company’s capital allocation priorities, which it has said include directing investments toward developing new products and services. The company also has said it would pursue more mergers and acquisitions.

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By Me Last Week: Tech Talent is Returning to India

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I had a story Wednesday on the front page of our Business & Tech section. You can see it in this image, under the headline “India Welcomes Home Tech Talent.”

It’s about Indian-born entreprenuers who are increasingly returning to their home country to build startups.

The piece, available online here, begins:

BANGALORE, India—Last year, Abhinandan Balasubramanian quit his job at a London-based financial-technology company. The startup scene in his native India was booming, and he wanted in.

The 25-year-old Mr. Balasubramanian moved to Mumbai and in December launched his own business there: Altflo, a global online marketplace for assets such as real estate and shares in investment funds.

Basing Altflo in India was an easy decision, Mr. Balasubramanian said. “The cost of scaling the company is much lower in India,” he said. Office space and talent are “multiples cheaper than in the U.K.”

Lured by a flood of venture-capital funding, relatively inexpensive labor and the size of the potential market in the world’s second-most-populous country, entrepreneurs and technology workers with Indian roots have been coming home in increasing numbers.

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My Recent A-hed on James McGowan, the Globe-Trotting McDonald’s Obsessive

2016 02 20 ahedNP

Those of you who follow me on Twitter and/or subscribe to my email newsletter know that the week before last, my first A-hed* ran on the front page of The WSJ.

(In the image above, showing the paper, below the fold, it’s on the bottom right.)

The story — accessible to all online here — is about James McGowan, a guy in Bangkok whose passion is traveling the world, sampling and blogging about regional variations of McDonald’s items. It begins:

SINGAPORE—When James McGowan walked into a McDonald’s Corp. restaurant in downtown Singapore one recent evening, he wasn’t interested in a Big Mac. Instead, he placed an order for a limited-edition hamburger with caramelized onions and cheddar cheese, truffle-flavored french fries and a special red velvet McFlurry frozen drink.

On a scale of one to five, “I’ll probably give a 3 for the burger,” said Mr. McGowan, noting that it lacked sufficient onions. “The fries are better than I expected. They might be a 3.5 or 4.”

Mr. McGowan may well be the chain’s toughest customer. For the past four years, the 28-year-old has crisscrossed the globe to indulge his passion: Sampling and blogging about the various national iterations of McDonald’s dishes. Thus far, he says he has visited about 53 countries, penning 340 detailed reviews.

The story generated a lot of traffic on our site, which I expected. But I was not prepared, I must say, for McGowan to become a global sensation.

After our story ran, his quest was picked up by outlets as wide ranging as Business Insider, The Straits Times, the Toronto Sun, TODAY.com, and Slate in French.

Papers in the UK, especially, gobbled up the story: The Independent, The Mirror, and even The Daily Mail wrote about McGowan.

Other corporate and tech-focused stories I’ve written have been picked up far and wide before, but this was the first time a feature of this kind has received so much attention. Fun stuff, indeed.

*A-heds are WSJ the often humorous, off-beat stories that run at the bottom of our front pages. Here’s more on the history of A-heds; there’s even a book about them.

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By Me and a Colleague Wed.: Uber to Launch Motorbike Service in Bangkok

The story begins:

BANGKOK—Uber Technologies Inc. is breaking into motorcycle bookings, taking its battle to win over users in Southeast Asia to the traffic-clogged streets of Bangkok.

Beginning Wednesday, users in select parts of the Thai capital will be able to open the firm’s app and summon a motorcycle driver, who will pick them up and ferry them to their destinations. The service, dubbed UberMOTO, allows riders to pay with cash or credit cards, with fares beginning at 10 Thai baht (28 U.S. cents).

Motorcycle taxis are popular in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia because of their low cost and their ability to cut between lanes of traffic, making it easier to navigate through gridlock.

Uber’s offering comes amid growing popularity of rivals’ motorbike-booking services in Southeast Asia. The company’s main competitor in the region, Singapore-based ride-hailing app Grab, in 2014 launched a motorbike service in nearby Vietnam. It is also available in Thailand, the Philippines in Indonesia. Grab doesn’t disclose its number of users but says its app has been downloaded more than 11 million times, up from 4.8 million in June.

Click through to read the rest.

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By Me Last Week: Twitter Outshines Facebook — in Japan

The story begins:

Twitter Inc. is now bigger than its rival Facebook — in Japan, at least.

A week after quarterly earnings fueled investors’ concerns that Twitter’s user growth has stalled, the company for the first time Thursday broke out its user numbers for a country outside the U.S., saying it had 35 million monthly active users in the world’s third-largest economy as of the end of last year.

Facebook, a major competitor for advertising dollars, had 25 million monthly active users in Japan as of the end of 2015, a Facebook spokeswoman said Thursday.

Twitter’s user base has long been compared to Facebook’s, which is much larger globally. Twitter last week said 320 million users signed into the platform at least once a month in the fourth quarter, the same as in the previous three months. Facebook, by comparison, said it had 1.59 billion monthly active users as of the end of last year, up 3% from the previous three months.

It was the first time Twitter’s closely watched user growth flatlined from the previous three-month period. More troubling: the number of users in the U.S. fell to 65 million from 66 million.

Click through to read the rest.

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By Me Last Week: How Apple’s Trying to Win India

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An ad for Apple’s iPhone 6S in the Bangalore, India airport

I was in India recently working on a story about Apple’s strategy to win over consumers in the world’s second-most-populous country.

The piece, which ran last week, begins:

NEW DELHI—Amid concerns that China’s slowing economic growth could sap demand for iPhones, Apple Inc. is increasingly turning its attention to one of the last big countries it has yet to conquer: India.

The Cupertino, Calif., company has been quietly building market share in the world’s second-most-populous nation by boosting advertising, bulking up its distribution network, arranging interest-free phone loans and lowering prices.

On Wednesday, Apple said it has sought the Indian government’s approval to open its own retail stores and sell products online. Apple currently sells its products in India through a network of Indian-owned distribution companies and retailers.

“India has huge potential” for Apple, said Rushabh Doshi, an analyst at research firm Canalys in Singapore.

Click through to read the rest.

With Apple yesterday saying in its quarterly results that iPhone sales have been growing at the slowest pace since the device was introduced in 2007, emerging markets are increasingly important for the tech titan.

That’s because hundreds of millions of people, many of them young, are upgrading smartphones or buying them for the first time in countries like India, Indonesia and Brazil — while at the same time some larger markets, like China, may be getting saturated.

(Price, of course, is an issue in India: The annual GDP per capita is $1500, and Apple is trying to sell phones that cost upwards of $1000 there, though some models also cost less than half that. But as I wrote in the story, Apple offers payment plans, and still sells older, less expensive models like the iPhone 4S and 5S in the country.)

In the conference call for Apple’s earnings, CEO Tim Cook had this to say about India:

  • Cook also mentions India, saying the demographics looks good for Apple. The population is young, and Apple is putting a lot of resources into building there.

And:

To TimmyG: Cook spent a long time talking about India — longer than I was able to keep up with. But his point was yours: that this big and growing nation is made up of a young population.

Indeed. Stay tuned to see how Apple fares in the quarters and years ahead.

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Exclusive: DJI’s Releasing an Agriculture Drone

A colleague and reported today that DJI, the world’s biggest drone maker, is releasing a crop-spraying drone.

The story begins:

China’s SZ DJI Technology Co., the world’s top consumer-drone maker, is setting its sights on the agriculture industry with the launch of a crop sprayer that will test whether farming is fertile ground for drone technology.

DJI, which helped kick-start the global craze for drones with its $1,000 easy-to-fly devices, will on Friday unveil an eight-rotor drone priced at roughly $15,000 that is designed to spray pesticides on crops, a spokesman said. DJI said the drone, which has a 2.6-gallon spray tank and a typical takeoff weight of 49 pounds, can fly for about 12 minutes.

It can spray pesticides on seven to 10 acres of farmland per hour, depending on how much it needs to climb, descend or turn to follow the terrain.

The battery-powered DJI Agras MG-1 will be available first in China and South Korea, though the company didn’t specify exactly when it would go on sale. In China, DJI is taking preorders starting on Friday. The drone is expected to be available in other markets later, the company said.

 

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Scoop: Facebook Eyeing Asia for Instant Articles Ad Platform

A colleague and I reported earlier this week that Facebook’s looking at Asia to launch its Instant Articles advertising platform.

The story begins:

Facebook Inc. is laying the groundwork to expand its Instant Articles service in Asia, underscoring the extent to which it considers populous emerging markets as it implements new features.

The world’s largest social network has in recent weeks advertised job openings via its Asia-Pacific headquarters in Singapore for contractors who will work with “new publishers to begin developing Instant Articles” and “provide direct support to publishers” who use the service. The jobs call for candidates who can speak Thai or Vietnamese.

Instant Articles allow media companies to publish material directly on Facebook, rather than as links to their sites. Facebook says these articles load ten times faster than standard articles on mobile phones. The company launched Instant Articles in the U.S. in May and in India last week.

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