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Apps, Arduino, Asia, Computer, hike, india, messaging, next billion, Pic Microcontroller, Robotics, Software, TC, WhatsApp

Hike unbundles its messaging app to reach India’s next wave of smartphone users


How do you compete with the world’s largest chat app in its strongest market?

Hike, the Indian messaging app valued at more than $1 billion, is taking a unique approach to battling WhatsApp which involves dismantling its service, layering it on budget Android phones and offering free connectivity.

The company, which is backed by the likes of Tencent and Foxconn, today unveiled ‘Total, built by Hike’ — a new service aimed at reaching novice smartphone owners and first-time internet users in India.

Hike is in the unenviable position of competing squarely with WhatsApp, the world’s most popular chat app, which counts India as its largest single market with over 200 million active users. For perspective: that’s two-thirds of India’s internet using public. By contrast, Hike said it had collected 100 million registered users in January 2016, but there’s been no further update since then.

CEO Kavin Bharti Mittal plays down the competition — WhatsApp “doesn’t have to lose” for Hike to succeed, he said — but with Total, Hike is being more nimble that its Facebook-owned rival and redesigning itself to offer a different kind of experience to reach new internet users before WhatsApp gets them.

The most notable part of Total is that it runs without a data connection.

That’s important, Bharti Mittal told TechCrunch, because Hike has noticed a general slowdown in internet adoption growth in India. Last year’s launch of Reliance Jio, which offered free data packages for a time, took the number of Indians online to around 300 million, but Bharti Mittal believes the number is “stuck” due to factors like price and the challenge of just setting up a phone.

“It’s a 15-20 step process [to step up a smartphone] and that’s complicated for a first time mobile user,” he explained in an interview. “Combined with pricing, that makes it very scary.”

Total, then, is Hike’s effort to make things easier. The startup teamed up with mobile carriers and OEMs for Total, with device makers bundling a tweaked version of Android that makes Hike the default text/call app and loads features like Hike’s wallet, cricket news and horoscopes. The registration process is now down to under five steps, too.

The piece de resistance is ‘data without data.’

Owners of Total-powered devices can get online without a data plan thanks to an adaptation of USSD, a technology that is typically used to send basic information to devices like balance checking.

Hike said it developed a proprietary system that, with approval from carriers, allows USSD to be used for basic internet access. Supplied for free, it allows a range of Hike services to operate on a device when it is offline.

Total unbundles and pre-installs eight Hike services that operate without a data connection

It isn’t fast — TechCrunch was shown a demo during a video conference call — but it’s enough to operate Hike messaging, Hike wallet and the unbundled features like real-time cricket scores. Like Internet.org, Facebook’s free internet system that was deemed unconstitutional in India, Hike gives a taste of internet to users in the hope that they will want more.

Specific features — such as sending or receiving photos in chat — require a data package, and Hike has negotiated with carriers to offer tariffs as low as 1 INR (less than $0.02). The payment is made over the device’s Hike Wallet, which connects to a bank account using the Indian government’s UPI tech.

“Our goal is still to bring one billion people online. The Total connection is pretty good but it is not the internet, we want people to come on to rich services,” Bharti Mittal explained.

Initial partners include operators Total. Airtel, Aircel and BSNL — which cover around 40 percent of India’s market — while four smartphones from Indian OEMs Intex and Karbonn due to launch March 1. They will be priced from 3,500 INR ($55), Bharti Mittal said.

“These are starting partners and our hope is that, as we make more progress, we can get more partners,” the Hike CEO said.

Financially, Hike is paying the OEMs to pre-bundle Total. Bharti Mittal didn’t comment on its agreement with carriers but you’d imagine there is a revenue-share agreement for each data pack or upgrade sold.

No doubt, Hike’s proposition is seen as a low-risk opportunity for India’s carriers, who are still reeling from the emergence of Reliance Jio, which is funded by India’s richest man. The upstart telco is said to have picked up 140 million subscribers by standing out. It launched its own-brand phones and has even been linked with releasing a cryptocurrency such is its determination to disrupt the status quo in India’s telecoms market.

Hike isn’t just looking at India for Total, however. Bharti Mittal estimated that the program has a two-year window of potential domestically, but, as Indian consumers become tech-savvy and increasingly use data plans, it will look at overseas opportunities.

“There are many markets out in the world where this technology could be equally as prevalent,” he said, hinting that Africa and neighboring countries could be expansion targets.

Hike isn’t alone at addressing India’s future internet users. Google has released a range of data-friendly apps for those on spotty connections and limited smartphones, while its public WiFi program — which covers national train stations — has received impressive reviews.

Arduino, Computer, Europe, finance, fintech, Pic Microcontroller, Revolut, Robotics, Software, Startups, TC

Revolut launches geolocation-powered travel insurance


Fintech startup Revolut is launching international medical and dental insurance. You can subscribe using the company’s app for £1 per day or more depending on the options.

But the best part is that you can set it up and forget about it as Revolut uses your device’s location data to automatically turn insurance coverage on and off.

By default, insurance coverage costs £1 per day for medical and dental insurance. You can add an option for winter sports and you can also cover your friends and family.

But if you’re always on the road and tend to spend weeks or even months abroad, Revolut is going to cap its travel insurance after a certain amount of time. You can also pay a fixed upfront price for an annual policy.

Revolut isn’t becoming an insurance company. Just like with its mobile device insurance product, the startup is working with third-party insurance companies. This time, Thomas Cook Money is in charge of the travel insurance product. It’s also worth noting that Revolut Premium includes travel insurance.

It’s still unclear if Revolut is going to regularly request your location when the app is in the background or if Revolut is just going to get your location when you open the app.

Revolut is slowly building an insurance hub to control all your insurance needs from the company’s app. And this is smart as Revolut just has to take a bit of money from your Revolut balance. It feels like you’re not spending any money because you don’t need to enter your card number.

The startup has been releasing new features at an impressive pace. The service is now much more than a simple prepaid MasterCard with a foreign exchange feature. You can now trade cryptocurrencies in the Revolut app, receive money on your own IBAN, ask for a credit line and more. It’s becoming a serious banking alternative.

Arduino, Computer, Europe, finance, fintech, Pic Microcontroller, Revolut, Robotics, Software, Startups, TC

Revolut launches geolocation-powered travel insurance


Fintech startup Revolut is launching international medical and dental insurance. You can subscribe using the company’s app for £1 per day or more depending on the options.

But the best part is that you can set it up and forget about it as Revolut uses your device’s location data to automatically turn insurance coverage on and off.

By default, insurance coverage costs £1 per day for medical and dental insurance. You can add an option for winter sports and you can also cover your friends and family.

But if you’re always on the road and tend to spend weeks or even months abroad, Revolut is going to cap its travel insurance after a certain amount of time. You can also pay a fixed upfront price for an annual policy.

Revolut isn’t becoming an insurance company. Just like with its mobile device insurance product, the startup is working with third-party insurance companies. This time, Thomas Cook Money is in charge of the travel insurance product. It’s also worth noting that Revolut Premium includes travel insurance.

It’s still unclear if Revolut is going to regularly request your location when the app is in the background or if Revolut is just going to get your location when you open the app.

Revolut is slowly building an insurance hub to control all your insurance needs from the company’s app. And this is smart as Revolut just has to take a bit of money from your Revolut balance. It feels like you’re not spending any money because you don’t need to enter your card number.

The startup has been releasing new features at an impressive pace. The service is now much more than a simple prepaid MasterCard with a foreign exchange feature. You can now trade cryptocurrencies in the Revolut app, receive money on your own IBAN, ask for a credit line and more. It’s becoming a serious banking alternative.

Arduino, blocks, CES 2018, Computer, Pic Microcontroller, Robotics, smartwatch, Software, Startups, Wearables

Blocks hopes to court enterprise customers with its modular smartwatch


As we noted earlier this week, the mere fact that Blocks was able to bring its modular smartwatch system to market feels like a minor miracle. The company appears to have not taken the easy route in any respect. It could have launched an Android Wear device, but instead opted to skin a scaled down version of stock Android. And then there’s the modules — the company compares creating each of those to building an entirely different product from the ground, up.

But now that the product is here, Blocks has the equally difficult task of determining precisely who its product is for. It’s true that the smartwatch is finally having its moment, and plenty of companies are openly exploring modular hardware, but for a vast majority of people interested in the category, the plethora of off the shelf hardware offerings provides more than enough choice.

Of course, the startup already has its hardcore fans. Blocks tells me that between Kickstarter and pre-orders, the company has racked up 6,000 sales. That’s hardly mainstream acceptance, but it at least demonstrates initial interest in what the company’s attempting to do here.

Even so, cofounders Serge Vasylechko and Omer Al Fakir tell me that they don’t ultimately see the product as ever having truly mainstream appeal. Instead, Blocks ultimately has a handful of potential targets.

First, there’s the aforementioned early adopters who happily pounce at strange new Kickstarter projects. Second is developers looking to prototype potential technologies for wearables. Third is enterprises. Blocks believes that its modular system could find a place with businesses looking to use wearables as a way of tracking and collecting other data from employees.

There is, perhaps, some appeal in the ability to pull that particular module off the product at the end of the day, so you can use it as a standard smartwatch — much likely many consumers already do with their phones. Blocks is also aggressively looking to partner with potential hardware developers, so perhaps that functionality could be coming down the road.

Of course, really succeeding in that space will require both scalability and the ability to charge in bulk — $259 may be too rich for many companies’ blood.

Arduino, CES 2018, Computer, IQbuds, iqbuds boost, Nuheara, Pic Microcontroller, Robotics, Software, Startups, Wearables

Nuheara’s voice amplifying earbuds offer customizable hearing profiles


Nuheara’s new IQBuds Boost headphones exist in a a strange sort of in-between spot. Like the rest of the company’s line, they’re clearly one of countless devices looking to compete in the crowded world of bluetooth earbuds.

Like the standard IQBuds before them, however, they’re also designed to boost hearing. But the Boosts are an attempt to be even more, offering custom “EarID” hearing profiles by way of a hearing test in the app. The combination of technologies puts the earbuds at a likely cost prohibitive $500.

The startup sees the hardware as something of an entry-level hearing aid. They’re not for people whose hearing loss is so profound that they require a doctor approved device. Instead, they’re targeted at focus who just can’t hear voices in a noise space like they used to. Nuheara is hoping the stigma many wearers have against hearing aids will draw folks to their product, though the devices are far more pronounced that modern medical aids.

People will almost certainly see them in your ears as they talk to you, so you’ll likely find yourself explaining why you haven’t pulled the earbud out of ear during the conversation. Granted, societal mores have shifted a keeping that earbud in place might not be considered quite as rude as it once was by some. 

Like the standard IQBuds before them, I’m impressed with what Nuheara’s been able to do here when it comes to amplifying voices. I tried out the new pair in the bustling TechCrunch CES booth and was pretty impressed again. Fiddling with a voice slider helps fade out background noise quite a bit, though it does leave a somewhat dampening effect on the voices themselves.

Adding custom hearing profiles will no doubt only improve the effect. And the company’s app-based testing experience is quite comprehensive. It took me around five minutes to complete, prompting me to tap a button each time I heard a tone, much like standard IRL hearing test. 

The company was quick to note that, as someone with decent hearing, I’m not really the target demographic here. Fair enough. Perhaps those who are in that middle-ground between good hearing and requiring a hearing aid will jump at the opportunity to hear conversations better — assuming they’re willing to shell out $500 to try it.

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