The decision contradicted an earlier court ruling in South Korea that said the Japanese government must compensate so-called comfort women.
In an interview with The New York Times, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea urged the United States to sit down with North Korea.
The buildup over the last few years has threatened the delicate balance of peace on the Korean Peninsula.
The two countries said they would treat global warming “with the seriousness and urgency that it demands.”
Japan, South Korea and Australia have inoculated tiny percentages of their populations. The delays risk unwinding their relative successes.
Standard Energy, a vanadium ion battery developer, announced today it has raised a $8.9 million Series C from SoftBank Ventures Asia. The South Korea-based company says its batteries’ advantages over lithium ion include less risk of ignition and the ease of sourcing vanadium. The latter is an important selling point, as electric vehicle makers face a potential shortage of lithium ion batteries.
Instead of serving as a replacement for lithium ion batteries, however, Standard Energy chief executive officer Bu Gi Kim said they complement each other. Vanadium ion batteries have high energy, performance and safety, but they are not as compact as lithium ion batteries.
Lithium ion batteries will continue to be used in hardware that needs to be mobile, such as electric vehicles or consumer devices like smartphones, but vanadium ion batteries are suited to “stationary” customers, like wind and solar power plants or ultra-fast charging stations for electric vehicles (Kim said Standard Energy is scheduled to ship its batteries to an ultra-fast charging station in Seoul soon).
Founded in 2013 by researchers from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Standard Energy expects one of its main customers to be the energy storage systems (ESS) sector, which the company says is expected to grow from $8 billion to $35 billion in the next five years.
“A large number of renewable energy projects have slowed or even stopped in many places due to the unstable battery performance of lithium ion. VIB cannot be as compact as lithium ion. However, ESS projects or solutions including renewable energy plants provide enough space for our products to be integrated into their systems,” said Kim.
Standard Energy has already performed a total of over one million battery testing hours, including in a lab, at a certified battery performance test site and in actual operations. Kim said the company is confident its performance data will convince customers to adopt vanadium ion batteries.
In a press statement, SoftBank Ventures Asia senior partner Daniel Kang said, “The existing ESS market was in a state of imbalance due to the rapidly growing demand, and safety and efficiency issues of products. Standard Energy is expected to create new standards for the global ESS market through its innovative material and design technology with massive manufacturing capabilities.”
A month ago, Coupang arrived on Wall Street with a bang. The South Korean e-commerce giant — buoyed by $12 billion in 2020 revenue — raised $4.55 billion in its IPO and hit a valuation as high as $109 billion. It is the biggest U.S. IPO of the year so far, and the largest from an Asian company since Alibaba’s.
But long before founder Bom Kim rang the bell, I knew him as a fellow founder on the hunt for a good idea. We stayed in touch as he formed his vision for what would become Coupang, and I built it alongside him as an investor and board member.
As a board member, I’ve observed a brief quiet period following the IPO. But now I want to share how exactly our paths intersected, largely because Bom exemplifies what founders should aspire to and should seek: big risks, dogged determination, and obsessive responsiveness to the market.
Bom fearlessly turned down an acquisition offer from then-market-leader Groupon, ferociously learned what he didn’t know, made a daring pivot even after becoming a billion-dollar company, and iteratively built a vision for end-to-end market dominance.
Why I like talking to founders early
In 2008, I met Bom while playing a weekend game of pickup basketball at Stuyvesant High School. We realized we had a mutual acquaintance through my recently-sold startup, Community Connect Inc. He told me about the magazine he had sold and his search for a next move. So we agreed to meet up for lunch and go over some of his ideas.
To be honest, I don’t remember any of those early ideas, probably because they weren’t very good. But I really liked Bom. Even as I was crapping on his ideas, I could tell he was sharp from how he processed my feedback. It was obvious he was super smart and definitely worth keeping in touch with, which we continued to do even after he relocated to go to HBS.
I soon began investing in and incubating businesses, starting mostly with my own capital. When I got a call from an executive recruiter working for a company in Chicago called Groupon — who told me they were at a $50 million run rate in only a few months — I became fascinated with their model and started talking to some of the investors, former employees, and merchants.
Inspired, and as a new parent, I decided to launch a similar daily-deal business for families: Instead of skydiving and go-kart racing, we offered deals on kids’ music classes and birthday party venues. While I was working on this idea, John Ason, an angel investor in Diapers.com, said I should meet with the founder and CEO Marc Lore. By the end of the meeting, Marc and I etched a partnership to launch DoodleDeals.com co-branded with Diapers.com. The first deal did over $70,000 — great start.
I’ve observed a brief quiet period following the IPO. But now I want to share how exactly our paths intersected, largely because Bom exemplifies what founders should aspire to and should seek: big risks, dogged determination, and obsessive responsiveness to the market.
All that time, I kept in touch with Bom. In February 2010, we were catching up over lunch at the Union Square Ippudo, and he asked if I had heard of Buywithme, a Boston-based Groupon clone. He hadn’t yet heard about Groupon, so I explained the business model and shared the numbers. He thought something similar might transfer well to South Korea, where he was born and his parents still lived.
This kind of conversation is exactly why I love working with founders early, even before the idea forms: You learn a lot about them as they explore, wrestle with uncertainty, and eventually build conviction on a business they plan to spend the next decade-plus building. Ultimately, success comes down to founders’ belief in themselves; when you develop the same belief in them as an investor, it is pretty magical. I was starting to really believe in Bom.
The idea gets real — and moves fast
I told Bom he should drop out of business school and do this. He said, “You don’t think I can wait until I graduate?” I responded, “No way! It will be over by then!”
First-mover advantage is real in a business like this, and it didn’t take Bom long to see that. He raised a small $1.3 million seed round. I invested, joined the board. Because of my knowledge of the deals market and my entrepreneurial experience, Bom asked me to get hands-on in Korea — not at all typical for an investor or even a board member, but I think of myself as a builder and not just a backer, and this is how I wanted to operate as an investor.
Once he realized time was of the essence, Bom was heads down. For context, he was engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Nancy, who also went to Harvard undergrad and was a successful lawyer. Imagine telling your fiancée, “Honey, I am dropping out of business school, moving to Korea to start a company. I will be back for the wedding. Not sure if I will ever be coming back to the U.S.”
I emailed Bom, saying: “Bom — honestly as a friend. Enjoy your wedding. It is a real blessing that your fiancée is being so supportive of you doing this. Launching a site a few weeks before the wedding is going to be way too distracting and she won’t feel like your heart is in it. Launching a few weeks later is not going to make or break this business. Trust me.”
Bom didn’t listen. He launched Coupang in August 2010, two weeks before the wedding. He flew back to Boston, got married, and — running on basically no sleep — sneaked out for a 20-minute nap in the middle of his reception. Right after the wedding, he flew back to Seoul. Nancy has to be one of the most supportive and understanding partners I have ever seen. They are now married and have two kids.
Jumping on new distribution, turning down an acquisition offer
Iyuno-SDI Group, a provider of translated subtitles and other media localization services, announced today it has raised $160 million in funding from SoftBank Vision 2. The company said this makes the fund one of its largest shareholders.
Iyuno-SDI Group was formed after Iyuno Media Group completed its acquisition of SDI Media last month. In a recent interview with TechCrunch, Iyuno-SDI Group chief executive officer David Lee, who launched Iyuno in 2002 while he was an undergraduate in Seoul, described how the company’s proprietary cloud-based enterprise resource planning software allows it to perform localization services—including subtitles, dubbing and accessibility features—at scale.
Iyuno also built its own neural machine translation engines, trained on data from specific entertainment genres, to help its human translators work more quickly. The company’s clients have included Netflix, Apple iTunes, DreamWorks, HBO and Entertainment One.
Now that its merger is complete, Iyuno-SDI Group operates a combined 67 offices in 34 countries, and is able to perform localization services in more than 100 languages.
SoftBank Group first invested in Iyuno Media Group through SoftBank Ventures Asia, its venture capital arm, in 2018. SoftBank Vision 2 will join Lee and investors Altor, Shamrock Capital Advisors and SoftBank Ventures Asia Corporation on Iyuno-SDI Group’s board of directors.
Moon Hyeong-wook, 25, was accused of luring young women with promises of high-paying jobs and then forcing them into pornography.
Conservative opposition candidates won two mayoral races that were seen as a referendum on President Moon Jae-in and a bellwether for next year’s presidential contest.
The vandalism of a piece by the graffiti artist JonOne at a gallery in South Korea has prompted a debate about contemporary art.
The Gwangju Biennale, on tap for April 1, is the most closely watched art event in Asia.
President Moon has spent years trying to curb runaway housing prices. Now several officials in his government are under investigation for contributing to the problem ahead of important elections.
Washington’s recent attempts to communicate with Pyongyang were rebuffed, leaving American officials to appeal to countries in the region to help pressure North Korea.
The killing of eight people in Atlanta and suburban Cherokee County has come amid a rising tide of anti-Asian incidents nationwide.
A flurry of diplomacy, which includes talks in Tokyo and Seoul, is a prelude to the administration’s first in-person meeting with top Chinese envoys.
The sandwich chain’s aggressive use of product placement has made it a ubiquitous presence on the country’s television shows.
Coupang, a start-up founded by a Harvard Business School dropout, helped transform e-commerce in South Korea, one of the world’s fastest-growing markets for online shopping.
South Korea has agreed to increase its payment for the upkeep of American troops by 13.9 percent this year. The deal removes a major thorn in the alliance.
General Motors is exploring building a second U.S. battery cell manufacturing plant with its joint-venture partner Seoul, South Korea-based LG Chem.
If the plant moves forward, it would be the latest in a series of investments aimed at building out the auto giant’s portfolio of electric vehicles. The company’s joint venture with LG, Ultium Cells LLC, is already at work constructing a $2.3 billion battery cell manufacturing facility in Lordstown, Ohio.
The companies hope to have a decision on the factory in the first half of 2021, GM spokesman Dan Flores told TechCrunch. He declined to specify possible locations for the site but Tennessee is high on the list, according to reporting from the Wall Street Journal.
GM has set ambitious targets for decarbonizing its operations and pledged steep investments to get there. Through 2025 alone the company said it would bring thirty EV models across its brands to the global market and spend $27 billion on electrification and automated technology—a 35% increase from 2020 spending. By the mid-2030s, GM said its fleet will be all-EV.
“Clearly, with our commitment to an all-electric future, we will need a lot of battery cells,” Flores said.
He declined to comment on the ongoing shortage of battery cells, which has affected EV manufacturers Tesla and Nikola. President Joe Biden issued an executive order at the end of February instructing federal agencies to identify risks in the supply chains for batteries, semiconductors, and other critical items, including where supply chains are dependent on “competitor nations.”
GM CEO Mary Barra said in a virtual investor presentation last week that the battery shortage is one reason the company is investing in its own battery cell manufacturing. She alluded to plans to grow the company’s battery cell manufacturing operations but did not go into specifics.
“There’s more coming than we’ve announced already,” she said.
Global air transport data giant SITA has confirmed a data breach involving passenger data.
The company said in a brief statement on Thursday that it had been the “victim of a cyberattack,” and that certain passenger data stored on its U.S. servers had been breached. The cyberattack was confirmed on February 24, after which the company contacted affected airlines.
SITA is one of the largest aviation IT companies in the world, said to be serving around 90% of the world’s airlines, which rely on the company’s passenger service system Horizon to manage reservations, ticketing, and aircraft departures.
But it remains unclear exactly what data was accessed or stolen.
When reached, SITA spokesperson Edna Ayme-Yahil declined to say what specific data had been taken, citing an ongoing investigation. The company said that the incident “affects various airlines around the world, not just in the United States.”
SITA confirmed it had notified several airlines — Malaysia Airlines; Finnair; Singapore Airlines; and Jeju Air, an airline in South Korea — which have already made statements about the breach, but declined to name other affected airlines.
In an email to affected customers seen by TechCrunch, Singapore Airlines said it was not a customer of SITA’s Horizon passenger service system but that about half a million frequent flyer members had their membership number and tier status compromised. The airline said that the transfer of this kind of data is “necessary to enable verification of the membership tier status, and to accord to member airlines’ customers the relevant benefits while traveling.”
The airline said passenger itineraries, reservations, ticketing, and passport data were not affected.
SITA is one of a handful of companies in the aviation market providing passenger ticketing and reservation systems to airlines, alongside Sabre and Amadeus.
Sabre reported a major data breach in mid-2017 affecting its hotel reservation system, after hackers scraped over a million customer credit cards. The U.S.-based company agreed in December to a $2.4 million settlement and to make changes to its cybersecurity policies following the breach.
In 2019, a security researcher found a vulnerability in Amadeus’ passenger booking system, used by Air France, British Airways, and Qantas among others, which made it easy to alter or access traveler records.
Byeon Hee-su, who was declared unfit to serve last year after her gender-reassignment surgery, had sued to be reinstated.
According to an amended S-1 filing, South Korean e-commerce leader Coupang expects to price its initial public offering between $27 to $30 per share, potentially raising up to $3.6 billion. After the IPO, Coupang will have a total of 1.7 billion shares outstanding, including Class A and Class B. This means the means the pricing would give Coupang a potential market capitalization between $46 billion to $51 billion, a huge increase over the $9 billion valuation it reached after its last funding round in 2018, led by SoftBank Vision Fund.
Coupang and some of its existing shareholders will offer a total of 120 million shares during the IPO.
If Coupang’s IPO is successful, it would be a huge win for SoftBank Vision Fund, which will own 36.8% of its Class A shares after the listing.
Founded in 2010 by Bom Kim, Coupang is known for its ultra-speedy deliveries and is now the largest e-commerce company in South Korea, according to Euromonitor. According to the filing, Kim will hold 76.7% of voting power after the listing, while SoftBank Vision Fund will hold about 8.6%. Other investors that currently own 5% or more of Coupang’s shares include Greenoaks Capital Partners, Maverick Holdings, Rose Park Advisors, BlackRock and Ridd Investments.
Coupang filed to go public on the New York Stock Exchange last month, under the symbol CPNG. Based on Bloomberg data, Coupang’s listing will be the fourth-biggest by an Asian company on a U.S. exchange, and the largest since Alibaba’s $25 billion IPO in 2014.
The professor was widely criticized for writing that the women served Japanese troops willingly during World War II. A Korean survivor called the uproar a “blessing in disguise.”
After garnering an estimated 8 million downloads since its launch, Clubhouse’s popularity continues across the world and even outside of its original tech-focused seed community.
The latest news comes from East Asia, where Korean media reported this morning that the country’s current prime minister, Chung Sye-kyun, has officially joined the social audio app under the username @gyunvely, making him among the most senior political leaders worldwide to join the burgeoning app. His account was created on Valentine’s Day (February 14th) and was “nominated” by a user using the name of TJ Park (Clubhouse does not have verified profiles).
So far, the prime minister has garnered slightly fewer than 500 followers and is following a bit fewer than 200 accounts, perhaps indicating the app’s current reach in one of the world’s most mobile and connected digital economies. His Clubhouse bio reads “노란잠바 그 아저씨” or “That Yellow Jacket Guy,” a reference to the Korean civil defense uniform worn by politicians in times of crisis (such as throughout the COVID-19 pandemic) and which currently serves — in cartoon form — as Chung’s profile picture.
According to local media reports, Chung spoke in a Clubhouse room for over an hour with fellow Democratic Party of Korea member Jung Cheong-rae. In a public Facebook post yesterday, the prime minister said that “I heard this [app] is ‘hot’ these days so I tried it as a nighttime walk.”
He further said “I was a little startled by the unexpected questions and reactions but the new experience was enjoyable. I think I’ll participate from time to time in the future.” Elaborating, he said “the fact that it’s audio-only and everyone can have a conversation without reserve made me think that it’s a better communication tool than any other social media platforms, especially since currently we’re living in the age of non-face-to-face communication.”
Discussions in the Clubhouse room included questions asking whether it was really him, to more bread-and-butter policy issues like the high price of real estate and physical abuse in the sports world, which has dominated headlines in recent weeks in local media.
While Clubhouse has become something of a fixture for techies and every form of hustle culture connoisseur imaginable, the app has increasingly made forays into politics that are hardly unknown to other social networks.
Miami’s mayor Francis Suarez has been on Clubhouse to sell his city’s potential for the tech industry. San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin joined a “debate” on the platform about the future of SF, while NYC mayoral aspirant and all around UBI nerd Andrew Yang joined a discussion about … himself. Meanwhile, Bitcoin aficionado and itinerant Tesla leader Elon Musk has even proposed bringing Vladimir Putin onto Clubhouse for a live fireside chat.
Yet, as the platform expands globally, the challenges to its open and free-wheeling if somewhat moderated conversations are coming under closer scrutiny. China has now blocked Clubhouse within its borders after a brief period of uncensored conversation.
As Clubhouse continues to garner mainstream legitimacy and interest, questions continue to percolate on the future of the app’s success, such as how it will fund creators and continue to thrive once the world opens up after COVID-19.
Jang Jin-sung, the author of “Dear Leader,” has been accused of sexual assault by two women, including a fellow defector from North Korea. He has threatened to sue for defamation.
The South Korean military admitted to a lapse in its border security. The crossing marked the second embarrassing breach for the country in recent months.
South Korean YouTubers are sharing the simple pleasures of keeping a clean, organized and food-filled home.
A mother told her daughter to keep her father’s absence a secret. Years later, they look back on the prejudices they encountered as a single-parent family in South Korea.
In return, South Korea pledged speedy action to address Iran’s complaints about $7 billion impounded there as a result of U.S. sanctions.
The slower pace gives the East Asian countries a chance to learn from mistakes elsewhere but also poses risks as more contagious and perhaps deadlier variants of the virus emerge.
As Roblox eyes what could be a historic debut on public markets in the coming months, investors who have valued the company at $29.5 billion are certainly eyeing the gaming company’s dedicated and youthful user base, but it’s the 7 million active creators and developers on the Roblox platform that they are likely most impressed by.
Since 2015, Roblox has been running an accelerator program focused on enabling the next generation of game developers to be successful on its platform. Over the years, the program has expanded from one annual class to now three, each with now around 40 developers participating. That means over 100 developers per year are working directly with Roblox to gain mentorship, education, and funding opportunities to get their games off the ground.
As the company’s efforts on this front have grown more formalized, Roblox in 2018 hired a former Accelerator alumni Christian Hunter, a Roblox gamer since age 10 and game developer since 13, to run the program full-time. Having been through the experience himself, Hunter brought to the program an understanding of how the Accelerator could improve, based on a developer’s own perspective.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic threw the company’s plans to run the program into disarray. Instead of being able to invite developers to spend three months participating in classes hosted at Roblox’s San Mateo office, the company had to revamp the program for remote participation.
As it turned out, developers who were used to playing and building games taking place in virtual worlds quickly adjusted to the new online experience.
“Before COVID, everyone was together. It was easier to talk to people. [Developers] could just walk up to someone that was on our product or engineering team if they were running into issues,” explains Roblox Senior Product Manager Rebecca Crose. “But obviously, with COVID-19, we had to switch and think differently.”
The remote program, though differently structured, offered several benefits. Developers could join the program’s Discord server to talk to both current participants and previous classes, and reach out and ask questions. They could also participate in the Roblox company Slack to ask the team questions, and there were more playtests being scheduled to gain reactions and feedback from Roblox employees.
Meanwhile, to get to know one another when they couldn’t meet in person, developers would have game nights where they’d play each other’s games or others that were popular on Roblox, and bond within the virtual environment instead of in face-to-face meetings and classes.
The actual Accelerator content, however, remained fairly consistent during the remote experience. Participants had weekly leaders standup, talks on topics like game design and production, and weekly feedback sessions where they asked Roblox engineers questions.
But by its nature, a remote Accelerator broadend who could attend. Instead of limiting the program to only those who could travel to San Mateo and stay for three months, the program was opened up to a more global and diverse audience. This drove increased demand, too.
The 2020 program saw Roblox receiving the largest number of applications ever — 5 times the usual number.
As a result, the class included participants from five countries: The Philippines, South Korea, Sweden, Canada, and the U.S.
The developers at IndieBox Studios saw the program as a chance to double down on their game development side hustles. The young friends spread across the UK and Kentucky spent their time during the accelerator scaling up their photorealistic title called Tank Warfare.
“We’ve actually never once met in real life, like we’ve been friends for going on what nine years now,” Michael Southern tells TechCrunch. “We met on Roblox.”
IndieBox is representative of many of Roblox’s early developer teams, younger gamers that have spent more than a decade learning the ins and outs of the evolving Roblox gaming platform.
“We all joined Roblox way back in 2008,” IndieBox’s Frank Garrison says. “But we only started developing on the platform in 2019. And for us, the decision to choose Roblox was more down to like, well it’s what we know, why not give it a bash?”
The demographics of the accelerator have been shifting in other ways as the developer base grows more diverse.
“I would say, in the beginning, it was mostly young males. But as we’ve watched the program evolve, we’ve been getting so many new interesting teams,” notes Program Manager Christian Hunter.
The 2020 program had more women participants than ever, for example, with 12 in a class of 50. And one team was all women.
The age of participants, who are typically in the 18 to 22 year-old range, also evolved.
“We’ve seen a lot more older folks,” Hunter says. “With [the COVID-19 pandemic], we actually saw our first 50-year old in the program. We’ve never had anyone older than, I’d say, 24. And in 2020, we had 12 individuals over the age of 30,” he notes.
Two of the teams were also a combination of a kid and a parent.
Shannon Clemens learned about the Roblox platform from her son Nathan, learning to code and bringing her husband Jeff in to form a studio called Simple Games. Nathan’s two sisters help the studio part time, as well as his friend Adrian Holgate.
“Seeing [my son’s] experience on Roblox getting involved with the platform, I thought it would be neat to learn how to make our own games,” Shannon Clemens told TechCrunch.
Their title Gods of Glory has received more than 13.5 million visits from Roblox players since launching in September.
“Our whole family is kind of creatively bent towards having fun with games and coming up with things like that,” Jeff Clemens tells us. “Why would we not try this? So, that’s when we applied to the program and said, ‘well, we’ll try and see if we get accepted,’ and we did and it’s been awesome.”
In addition to the changes facilitated by a remote environment, Roblox notes there were other perks enabled by remote learning. For one thing, the developers didn’t have to wake up so early to benefit from the experience.
“With it being remote, the developers were working their hours,” says Crose. “As a developer, we tend to work later and stay up at night. Having them come in at 9 AM sharp was very difficult. It was hard for them because they’re just like…a zombie. So we definitely saw that by letting them work their own hours, [there is] less burnout and they increase their productivity,” she says.
Though the COVID-19 crisis may eventually end as the world gets vaccinated, the learnings from the Accelerator and the remote advantages it offers will continue. Developers from the program hope that the growth seen on gaming platforms like Roblox continues as well.
“The pandemic has been great for most game studios,” developer Gustav Linde tells TechCrunch. “Obviously, it’s a very weird time, but the timing was good for us.”
The Gang Stockholm, a Swedish game development studio co-founded by Linde, has been building branded experiences for clients exclusively on the Roblox platform. The team of 12 has used the accelerator to slow down development deadlines and dig into some unique areas of the platform.
“If you look at Steam and the App Store and Google Play, those markets are extremely crowded, and Roblox is a very exciting platform for developers right now.” said Linde. “Roblox is also getting a lot of attention and a lot of big brands are interested in entering the platform.”
Roblox says that going forward, future Accelerator programs will feature a remote element inspired by the COVID experience. The company plans to continue to make its program globally available, with the limitation for now, of English-speaking participants. But it’s looking to expand to reach non-English speakers with future programs.
The fall 2020 Accelerator class graduated in December 2020, and the next Spring class will start in February 2021. The applications are being reviewed now with a decision to be finalized soon. The next class will have some 40 participants, as is now usual, and Roblox will again aim to diversify the group of participants.
The former mayor of Seoul, who died in July, was accused of making unwanted physical advances. An independent investigation has found that the victim’s allegations were credible.
Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.
The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020.
Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.
Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.
This week, we’re looking into how President Biden’s inauguration impacted news apps, the latest in the Parler lawsuit, and how TikTok’s app continues to shape culture, among other things.
Judge says Amazon doesn’t have to host Parler on AWS
U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein in Seattle this week ruled that Amazon won’t be required to restore access to web services to Parler. As you may recall, Parler sued Amazon for booting it from AWS’ infrastructure, effectively forcing it offline. Like Apple and Google before it, Amazon had decided that the calls for violence that were being spread on Parler violated its terms of service. It also said that Parler showed an “unwillingness and inability” to remove dangerous posts that called for the rape, torture and assassination of politicians, tech executives and many others, the AP reported.
Amazon’s decision shouldn’t have been a surprise for Parler. Amazon had reported 98 examples of Parler posts that incited violence over the past several weeks before its decision. It told Parler these were clear violations of the terms of service.
Parler’s lawsuit against Amazon, however, went on to claim breach of contract and even made antitrust allegations.
The judge shot down Parler’s claims that Amazon and Twitter were colluding over the decision to kick the app off AWS. Parler’s claims over breach of contract were denied, too, as the contract had never said Amazon had to give Parler 30 days to fix things. (Not to mention the fact that Parler breached the contract on its side, too.) It also said Parler had fallen short in demonstrating the need for an injunction to restore access to Amazon’s web services.
The ruling only blocks Parler from forcing Amazon to again host it as the lawsuit proceeds, but is not the final ruling in the overall case, which is continuing.
TikTok drives another pop song to No. 1 on Billboard charts, breaks Spotify’s record
We already knew TikTok was playing a large role in influencing music charts and listening behavior. For example, Billboard last year noted how TikTok drove hits from Sony artists like Doja Cat (“Say So”) and 24kGoldn (“Mood”), and helped Sony discover new talent. Columbia also signed viral TikTok artists like Lil Nas X, Powfu, StaySolidRocky, Jawsh 685, Arizona Zervas and 24kGoldn. Meanwhile, Nielsen has said that no other app had helped break more songs in 2020 than TikTok.
This month, we’ve witnessed yet another example of this phenomenon. Olivia Rodrigo, the 17-year-old star of Disney+’s “High School Musical: The Musical: the Series” released her latest song, “Drivers License” on January 8. The pop ballad and breakup anthem is believed to be referencing the actress’ relationship with co-star Joshua Bassett, which gave the song even more appeal to fans.
Upon its release the song was heavily streamed by TikTok users, which helped make it an overnight sensation of sorts. According to a report by The WSJ, Billboard counted 76.1 million streams and 38,000 downloads in the U.S. during the week of its release. It also made a historic debut at No. 1 on the Hot 100, becoming the first smash hit of 2021.
On January 11, “Drivers License” broke Spotify’s record for most streams per day (for a non-holiday song) with 15.17 million global streams. On TikTok, meanwhile, the number of videos featuring the song and the views they received doubled every day, The WSJ said.
Charli D’Amelio’s dance to it on the app has now generated 5 million “Likes” across nearly 33 million views, as of the time of writing.
Of course, other TikTok hits have broken out in the past, too — even reaching No. 1 like “Blinding Lights” (The Weeknd) and “Mood” (24kGoldn). But the success of “Drivers License” may be in part due to the way it focuses on a subject that’s more relevant to TikTok’s young, teenage user base. It talks about first loves and being dumped for the other girl. And its title and opening refer to a time many adults have forgotten: the momentous day when you get your driver’s license. It’s highly relatable to the TikTok crowd who fully embraced it and made it a hit.
- Apple stops signing iOS 12.5, making iOS 12.5.1 the only versions of iOS available to older devices.
- A report claims Apple’s iOS 15 update will cut support for devices with an A9 chip, like the iPhone 6, iPhone 6s Plus and the original iPhone SE.
- New analysis estimates Apple’s upcoming iOS privacy changes will cause a roughly 7% revenue hit for Facebook in Q2. The revenue hit will continue in following quarters and will be “material.”
- Google adds “trending” icons to the Play Store. New arrow icons appeared in the Top Charts tab, which indicate whether an app’s downloads are trending up or down, in terms of popularity. This could provide an early signal about those that may still be rising in the charts or beginning to fall out of favor, despite their current high position.
- Google appears to be working on a Restricted Networking mode for Android 12. The mode, discovered by XDA Developers digging in the Android Open Source Project, would disable network access for all third-party apps.
- Goama (or Go Games) introduced a way for developers to integrate social games into their apps, which was showcased at CES. The company focuses on Asia and Latin America and has more than 15 partners, including GCash and Rappi, for digital payments and communications.
- Fortnite maker Epic Games is getting into movies. The animated feature film Gilgamesh will use Epic’s Unreal Engine technology to tell the story of the king-turned-deity. The movie is not an in-house project, but rather is financed through Epic’s $100M MegaGrants fund.
- Patents around Apple’s AR and VR efforts describe how a system could be identified in a way that’s similar to FaceID, then either permitted or denied the ability to change their appearance in the game.
- Pinterest launches AR try-on for eyeshadow in its mobile app using Lens technology and ModiFace data. The app already offered AR try-on for lipsticks.
- The CW app became the No. 1 app on the App Store this week, topping TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, thanks to CW’s season premieres of Batwoman, All American, Riverdale and Nancy Drew.
- Users of podcasting app Anchor, owned by Spotify, say the app isn’t bringing them any sponsorship opportunities, as promised, beyond those from Spotify and Anchor itself.
- YouTube launches hashtag landing pages on the web and in its mobile app. The pages are accessible when you click hashtags on YouTube, not via search, and weirdly rank the “best” videos through some inscrutable algorithm.
- Apple’s Podcasts app adds a new editorial feature, Apple Podcasts Spotlight, meant to increase podcast listening by showcasing the best podcasts as selected by Apple editors.
- WeChat facilitated 1.6 trillion yuan (close to $250 billion) in annual transactions through its “mini programs” in 2020. The figure is more than double that of 2019.
- Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, launched an e-wallet, Douyin Pay. The wallet will supplement the existing payment options, Alipay and WeChat Pay, and will help to support the Douyin app’s growing e-commerce business.
- Neobank Monzo founder Tom Blomfield left the startup, saying he struggled during the pandemic. “I think [for] a lot of people in the world…going through a pandemic, going through lockdown and the isolation involved in that has an impact on people’s mental health,” he told TechCrunch.
- New estimates indicate about 50% of the iPhone user base (or 507 million users) now use Apple Pay.
- Samsung’s newest phones drop support for MST, which emulates a mag stripe at terminals that don’t support NFC.
- Indian messaging app, StickerChat, owned by Hike, is shutting down. Founder Kavin Bharti Mittal said India will never have a homegrown messenger unless it bars Western companies from its market. Hike pivoted this month to virtual social apps, Vibe and Rush, which it believes have more potential.
- Instagram head Adam Mosseri, in a Verge podcast, said he’s not happy with Reels so far, and how he feels most people probably don’t understand the difference between Instagram video and IGTV. He says the social network needs to simplify and consolidate ideas.
- Facebook and Instagram improve their accessibility features. The apps’ AI-generated image captions now offer far more details about who or what is in the photos, thanks to improvements in image recognition systems.
- TikTok launches a Q&A feature that lets creators respond to fan questions using text or videos. The feature, rolled out to select creators with more than 10,000 followers, makes it easier to see all the questions in one place.
Health & Fitness
- Health and fitness app spending jumped 70% last year in Europe to record $544 million, a Sensor Tower report says. The year-over-year increase is far larger than 2019, when growth was just 37.2%. COVID-19 played a large role in this shift as people turned to fitness apps instead of gyms to stay in shape.
Government & Policy
- Biden’s inauguration boosted installs of U.S. news apps up to 170%, Sensor Tower reported. CNN was the biggest mover, climbing 530 positions to reach No. 41 on the App Store, and up 170% in terms of downloads. News Break was the second highest, climbing 13 positions to No. 65. Right-wing outlet Newsmax climbed 43 spots to reach No. 108. In 2020, the top news apps were: News Break (23.7 million installs); SmartNews (9 million); CNN (5 million); and Fox News (4 million). This month, however, News Break saw 1.2 million installs, followed by Newsmax with about 863,000 installs, the report said.
- Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) sent a draft decision to fellow EU Data Protection Authorities over the WhatsApp-Facebook data sharing policy. This means a decision on the matter is coming closer to a resolution in terms of what standards of transparency is required by WhatsApp.
- German app developer Florian Mueller of FOSS Patents filed a complaint with the EU, U.S. DOJ and other antitrust watchdogs around the world over Apple and Google’s rejection of his COVID-related mobile game. Both stores had policies to only approve official COVID-19 apps from health authorities. Mueller renamed the game Viral Days and removed references to the novel coronavirus to get the app approved. However, he still feels the stores’ rules are holding back innovation.
- Basecamp’s Hey, which famously fought back against Apple’s App Store rules over IAP last year, has launched a business-focused platform, Hey for Work, expected to be public in Q1. The app has more App Store ratings than rival Superhuman, a report found. Currently, Hey has a 4.7-star rating across 3.3K reviews; Superhuman has 3.9 rating across only 274 reviews.
- Baby boomers are increasingly using apps. Baby boomers/Gen Xers in the U.S. spent 30% more time year-over-year in their most used apps, App Annie reports. That’s a larger increase than either Millennials or Gen Z, at 18% and 16%, respectively.
Funding and M&A
- Curtsy, a clothing resale app for Gen Z women, raised an $11 million Series A led by Index Ventures. The app tackles some of the problems with online resale by sending shipping supplies and labels to sellers, and by making the marketplace accessible to new and casual sellers.
- Storytelling platform Wattpad acquired by South Korea’s Naver for $600 million. The reading apps whose stories have turned into book and Netflix hits will be incorporated into Naver’s publishing platform Webtoon.
- On-demand delivery app Glovo partnered with Swiss-based real estate firm, Stoneweg, which is investing €100 million in building and refurbishing real estate in key markets to build out Glovo’s network of “dark stores.”
- Pocket Casts app is up for sale. The podcast app was acquired nearly three years ago by a public radio consortium of top podcast producers (NPR, WNYC Studios, WBEZ Chicago and This American Life). The owners have now agreed to sell the app, which posted a net loss in 2020. (NPR’s share of the loss was over $800,000.)
- Travel app Maps.me raised $50 million in a round led by Alameda Research. The funding will go toward the launch of a multi-currency wallet. Cryptocurrency lender Genesis Capital and institutional cryptocurrency firm CMS Holdings also participated in the round, Coindesk reported.
- Bangalore-based hyperlocal delivery app Dunzo raised $40 million in a round that included investment from Google, Lightbox, Evolvence, Hana Financial Investment, LGT Lightstone Aspada and Alteria.
- London-based food delivery app Deliveroo raised $180 million in new funding from existing investors, led by Durable Capital Partners and Fidelity Management, valuing the business at more than $7 billion.
- Dating Group acquired Swiss startup Once, a dating app that sends one match per day, for $18 million.
A French content moderation app called Bodyguard, detailed here by TechCrunch, has brought its service to the English-speaking market. The app allows you to choose the level of content moderation you want to see on top social networks, like Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Twitch. You can choose to hide toxic content across a range of categories, like insults, body shaming, moral harassment, sexual harassment, racism and homophobia and indicate whether the content is a low or high priority to block.
Pebble’s founder and current YC Partner Eric Migicovsky has launched a new app, Beeper, that aims to centralize in one interface 15 different chat apps, including iMessage. The app relies on an open-source federated, encrypted messaging protocol called Matrix that uses “bridges” to connect to the various networks to move the messages. However, iMessage support is more wonky, as the company actually ships you an old iPhone to make the connection to the network. But this system allows you to access Beeper on non-Apple devices, the company says. The app is slowly onboarding new users due to initial demand. The app works across MacOS, Windows, Linux, iOS and Android and charges $10/mo for the service.
Cho Jae-beom, who had been fired from South Korea’s national team, was accused of sexually assaulting a two-time Olympic gold medalist starting when she was 17.
Samsung Electronics vice chairman Jay Y. Lee is back in prison following a retrial of his 2017 conviction in a bribery case that helped lead to the downfall of former South Korean president Park Guen-hye. The Seoul High Court sentenced Lee to 30 months on Monday.
Lee was originally convicted of bribery in 2017 and sentenced to five years, but was released in 2018 after the sentence was reduced and suspended on appeal. In August 2019, however, South Korea’s Supreme Court overturned the appeals court, ruling that it was too lenient, and ordered the case to be retried.
Lee was expected to become chairman of Samsung after the death of his father, Lee Kun-hee, in October 2020. He has served as the chaebol’s de facto leader since his father suffered a stroke in 2014. With Lee’s sentencing today, it is unclear who will take over his responsibilities at Samsung.
Charges against Lee included bribing Park to gain support for deals that would have helped Lee inherit control of Samsung from his father. The illegal payments played a major role in the corruption scandal that led to Park’s impeachment, arrest and 25-year prison sentence.
The bribery case is separate from another one Lee is involved in, over alleged accounting fraud and stock manipulation. Hearings in that case begun in October.
TechCrunch has contacted Samsung for comment.
Lee Jae-yong was convicted of bribing Park Geun-hye, the former president of South Korea who was impeached in 2017.
Governments around the world have tried to support the arts during the pandemic, some more generously than others.
Lee Man-hee’s church, Shincheonji, was the epicenter of the first wave of coronavirus infections in South Korea last year.
Mobile adoption continued to grow in 2020, in part due to the market forces of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to App Annie’s annual “State of Mobile” industry report, mobile app downloads grew by 7% year-over-year to a record 218 billion in 2020. Meanwhile, consumer spending grew by 20% to also hit a new milestone of $143 billion, led by markets that included China, the United States, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom.
Consumers also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone, the report found.
In another shift, app usage in the U.S. surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours on their mobile device.
The increase in time spent is a trend that’s not unique to the U.S., but can be seen across several other countries, including both developing mobile markets like Indonesia, Brazil and India, as well as places like China, Japan, South Korea, the U.K., Germany, France and others.
The trend isn’t isolated to any one demographic, either, but is seen across age groups. In the U.S., for example, Gen Z, millennials and Gen X/Baby Boomers spent 16%, 18% and 30% more time in their most-used apps year-over-year, respectively. However, what those favorite apps looked like was very different.
For Gen Z in the U.S., top apps on Android phones included Snapchat, Twitch, TikTok, Roblox and Spotify.
Millennials favored Discord, LinkedIn, PayPal, Pandora and Amazon Music.
And Gen X/Baby Boomers used Ring, Nextdoor, The Weather Channel, Kindle and ColorNote Notepad Notes.
The pandemic didn’t necessarily change how consumers were using apps in 2020, but rather accelerated mobile adoption by two to three years’ time, the report found.
Investors were also eager to fuel mobile businesses as a result, pouring $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year. According to Crunchbase data, 26% of total global funding dollars in 2020 went to businesses that included a mobile solution.
From 2016 to 2020, global funding to mobile technology companies more than doubled compared with the previous five years, and was led by financial services, transportation, commerce and shopping.
Mobile gaming adoption also continued to grow in 2020. Casual games dominated the market in terms of downloads (78%), but Core games accounted for 66% of games’ consumer spend and 55% of the time spent.
With many stuck inside due to COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines, mobile games that offered social interaction boomed. Among Us, for example, became a breakout game in several markets in 2020, including the U.S.
Other app categories saw sizable increases over the past year, as well.
Time spent in Finance apps in 2020 was up 45% worldwide, outside of China, and participation in the stock market grew 55% on mobile, thanks to apps like Robinhood in the U.S. and others worldwide, that democratized investing and trading.
TikTok had a big year, too.
The app saw incredible 325% year-over-year growth, despite a ban in India, and ranked in the top five apps by time spent. The average monthly time spent per user also grew faster than nearly every other app analyzed, including 65% in the U.S. and 80% in the U.K., surpassing Facebook. TikTok is now on track to hit 1.2 billion active users in 2021, App Annie forecasts.
Other video services boomed in 2020, thanks to a combination of new market entrants and a lot of time spent at home. Consumers spent 40% more hours streaming on mobile devices, with time spent in streaming apps peaking in the second quarter in the west as the pandemic forced people inside.
YouTube benefitted from this trend, as it became the No. 1 streaming app by time spent among all markets analyzed except China. The time spent in YouTube is up to 6x that of the next closet app at 38 hours per month.
Of course, another big story for 2020 was the rise of e-commerce amid the pandemic. This made the past year the biggest ever for mobile shopping, with an over 30% increase in time spent in Shopping apps, as measured on Android phones outside of China.
Mobile commerce, however, looked less traditional in 2020.
Social shopping was a big trend, with global downloads of Pinterest and Instagram growing 50% and 20% year-over-year, respectively.
Livestreaming shopping grew, too, led by China. Downloads of live shopping TaoBao Live in China, Grip in South Korea and NTWRK in the U.S. grew 100%, 245% and 85%, respectively. NTWRK doubled in size last year, and now others are entering the space as well — including TikTok, to some extent.
The pandemic also prompted increased usage of mobile ordering apps. In the U.S., Argentina, the U.K., Indonesia and Russia, the app grew by 60%, 65%, 70%, 80% and 105%, respectively, in Q4.
Business apps, like Zoom and Google Meet among others, grew 275% in Q4, for example, as remote work and sometimes school, continued.
The analysis additionally included lists of the top apps by downloads, spending and monthly active users (MAUs).
Although TikTok had been topping year-end charts, Facebook continued to beat it in terms of MAUs. Facebook-owned apps controlled the top charts by MAUs, with Facebook at No. 1 followed by WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram.
TikTok, however, had more downloads than Facebook and ranked No. 2 by consumer spending, behind Tinder.
The full report is available only as an online interactive experience this year, not a download. The report largely uses data from both the iOS App Store and Google Play, except where otherwise noted.
Hundreds of destitute families moved to a town bordering North Korea after the war. Six decades later, their dream of owning the land they helped cultivate may finally come true.
Launched in South Korea five years ago, content discovery platform Dable now serves a total of six markets in Asia. Now it plans to speed up the pace of its expansion, with six new markets in the region planned for this year, before entering European countries and the United States. Dable announced today that it has raised a $12 million Series C at a valuation of $90 million, led by South Korean venture capital firm SV Investment. Other participants included KB Investment and K2 Investment, as well as returning investor Kakao Ventures, a subsidiary of Kakao Corporation, one of South Korea’s largest internet firms.
Dable (the name is a combination of “data” and “able”) currently serves more than 2,500 media outlets in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia. It has subsidiaries in Taiwan, which accounts for 70% of its overseas sales, and Indonesia.
The Series C brings Dable’s total funding so far to $20.5 million. So far, the company has taken a gradual approach to international expansion, co-founder and chief executive officer Chaehyun Lee told TechCrunch, first entering one or two markets and then waiting for business there to stabilize. In 2021, however, it plans to use its Series C to speed up the pace of its expansion, launching in Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, mainland China, Australia and Turkey before entering markets in Europe and the United States, too.
The company’s goal is to become the “most utilized personalized recommendation platform in at last 30 countries by 2024.” Lee said it also has plans to transform into a media tech company by launching a content management system (CMS) next year.
Dable currently claims an average annual sales growth rate since founding of more than 50% and says it reached $27.5 million in sales in 2020, up from 63% the previous year. Each month, it has a total of 540 million unique users and recommends five billion pieces of content, resulting in more than 100 million clicks. Dable also says its average annual sales growth rate since founding is more than 50%, and in that 2020, it reached $27.5 million in sales, up 63% from the previous year.
Before launching Dable, Lee and three other members of its founding team worked at RecoPick, a recommendation engine developer operated by SK Telecom subsidiary SK Planet. For media outlets, Dable offers two big data and machine learning-based products: Dable News to make personalized recommendations of content, including articles, to visitors, and Dable Native Ad, which draws on ad networks including Google, MSN and Kakao.
A third product, called karamel.ai, is an ad targeting solution for e-commerce platforms that also makes personalized product recommendations.
Dable’s main rivals include Taboola and Outbrain, both of which are headquartered in New York (and recently called off a merger), but also do business in Asian markets, and Tokyo-based Popin, which also serves clients in Japan and Taiwan.
Lee said Dable proves the competitiveness of its products by running A/B tests to compare the performance of competitors against Dable’s recommendations and see which one results in the most clickthroughs. It also does A/B testing to compare the performance of articles picked by editors against ones that were recommended by Dable’s algorithms.
Dable also provides algorithms that allow clients more flexibility in what kind of personalized content they display, which is a selling point as media companies try to recover from the massive drop in ad spending precipitated by COVID-19 pandemic. For example, Dable’s Related Articles algorithm is based on content that visitors have already viewed, while its Perused Article algorithm gauges how interested visitors are in certain articles based on metrics like how much time they spent reading them. It also has another algorithm that displays the most viewed articles based on gender and age groups.
The ruling, which Tokyo rejected, is likely to aggravate already chilly relations between the two key allies of the United States.
Hyundai Motor Company is downplaying reports that it is in talks with Apple to produce an autonomous electric vehicle, stating that discussions are still in the “early stage” and still undecided. But the news of a potential tie-up (however tentative) with Apple, which is known for keeping a tight lid on deals before they are announced, was enough to send shares of Hyundai Motor Company up more than 20% on the Korea Exchange during trading on Friday.
The talks were first reported by the Korea Economic Daily and confirmed by Hyundai to Bloomberg in a statement that said “Apple and Hyundai are in discussion, but as it is at early stage, nothing has been decided.” The Korean auto giant also told CNBC that “we understand Apple is in discussion with a variety of global automakers, including Hyundai Motor. As the discussion is at its early stage, nothing has been decided.”
A Hyundai spokesperson declined to comment to TechCrunch. Apple has also been contacted for comment.
Last month, Reuters reported that Apple’s car initiative, called Project Titan, is still going on, with plans to develop an autonomous electric passenger vehicle. But the car is not expected to launch until 2024.
Hyundai launched its own electric vehicle brand, Ioniq, in August 2020, with plans to bring three all-electric vehicles to market over the next four years, as part of its strategy to sell one million battery electric vehicles and take a 10% share of the EV market by 2025. Hyundai also has a joint venture with autonomous driving technology company Aptiv to make Level 4 and Level 5 production-ready self-driving systems available to robotaxi, fleet operators and automakers by 2022. The Aptiv partnership was announced in 2019.