Google and India’s Jio Platforms announce budget Android smartphone JioPhone Next

Jio Platforms, run by India’s richest man (Mukesh Ambani), and Google on Thursday unveiled the JioPhone Next, an affordable Android smartphone, as the top Indian telecom operator and the American giant make further push to expand their reach in the world’s second largest internet market.

The Indian firm, which secured $4.5 billion investment from Google (and another $15.5 billion from Facebook and others) last year and shared plans to work on low-cost smartphones, said the JioPhone Next is aimed at helping roughly 300 million users in India who are still on 2G network upgrade their gadget to access faster networks.

The phone, which is “powered by extremely optimized Android” mobile operating system, will first launch in India on September 10 ahead of the festive season in the country, and will eventually be made available outside of India, said Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries, at its annual general meeting Thursday.

The JioPhone Next will be an “ultra-affordable 4G smartphone,” claimed Ambani, though he didn’t reveal the price or the hardware specifications of the handset.

In a virtual appearance at Reliance AGM, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said the company has also entered into a 5G cloud partnership with Jio Platforms. “It will help more than a billion Indians connect to a faster and better internet, support businesses in their digital transformation, and help Jio build new services in sectors like health, education and more — laying a foundation for the next phase of India’s digitization,” said the chief executive of Google, which last year committed to invest $10 billion in India.

As part of the 5G cloud partnership, Google is also winning a major Google Cloud customer in Reliance, said Pichai.

“They will be able take advantage of Google’s AI and machine learning, e-commerce, and demand forecasting offerings. Harnessing the reliability and performance of Google Cloud will enable these businesses to scale up as needed to respond to customer demand,” he added.

Ambani unveils the JioPhone Next at Reliance’s Annual General Meeting on Thursday.

The JioPhone Next will ship with a range of features, including Read Aloud and Translate Now that will work with any text on the phone screen, including web pages, apps, messages, and even photos.

It also features a “fast, high-quality camera” which will support HDR, and the JioPhone Next will be protected by latest Android releases and security updates, Google said, though it didn’t share the precise duration for this coverage. (Smartphone vendors typically offer security and new Android software support for about two years after the launch.)

“We have worked closely with the Jio team on engineering and product development on useful voice-first features that enable these users to consume content and navigate the phone in their own language, deliver a great camera experience, and get the latest Android feature and security updates,” Google said in a statement.

Even as most smartphones that ship in India, the second largest market, are priced at $150 or less, customers looking for a smartphone priced under $100 are left with little choice. And that choice has shrunk in recent years.

Research firm Counterpoint told TechCrunch that the sub-$100 smartphones accounted for just 12% of the Indian smartphone market, down from 18% in 2019 and 24% in 2018. Sub-$50 smartphones represented just 0.3% of the entire market in 2020, down from 4.3% in 2018.

Smartphone makers are aware of this whitespace in the market, but have found it incredibly challenging to meet the demand. Some, including Jio Platforms earlier explored a range of feature phones to reach people in small cities and towns of India. Jio Platforms’ KaiOS-powered feature phone, called JioPhone, had amassed 100 million customers as of late February this year.

In a recent report to clients, analysts at UBS said that after factoring in the recent price surge of memory component, any smartphone priced at or under $50 is likely selling at cost.

“While this move by Jio will accelerate 2G to 4G migration, we evaluated how interesting this space would be for other smartphone manufacturers, especially key players like Xiaomi. Xiaomi, the unit market leader in smartphones in India, is unlikely to follow up with a $50 smartphone, in our view,” they wrote in the report, obtained by TechCrunch.

Google, too, has previously made several efforts — $100 Android One smartphones program in 2014 and low-resource intensive Android Go operating system in 2017 — to expand the reach of Android. The company has also backed KaiOS, which powers popular feature phones.

The JioPhone Next is a “momentous step in our Android mission for India, and is the first of many that our Android product and engineering teams will embark on in India,” Google said in a statement. “We are also actively expanding our engineering teams in India, as we continue to work on finding ways to answer the unique needs of India’s smartphone users.”

Holy Grail raises $2.7M seed fund to create modular carbon capture devices

The founders of Holy Grail, a two-year-old startup based in Mountain View, California, are taking a micro approach to solving the outsized problem of capturing carbon.

The startup is prototyping a direct air carbon capture device that is modular and small — a departure from the dozens of projects in the U.S. and abroad that aim to capture CO2 from large, centralized emitters, like power plants or industrial facilities. Holy Grail co-founder Nuno Pereira told TechCrunch that this approach will reduce costs and eliminate the need for permits or project financing.

While Holy Grail has a long development and testing phase ahead, the idea has captured the attention and capital from well-known investors and Silicon Valley founders. Holy Grail recently raised $2.7 million in seed funding from LowerCarbon Capital, Goat Capital, Stripe founder Patrick Collison, Charlie Songhurst, Cruise co-founder Kyle Vogt, Songkick co-founder Ian Hogarth, Starlight Ventures and 35 Ventures. Existing investors Deep Science Ventures, Y Combinator and Oliver Cameron, who co-founded Voyage, the autonomous vehicle acquired by Cruise, also participated.

The carbon capture device is still in the prototype stage, Pereira said, with many specifics — such as the anticipated size of the end product and how long it will likely function — still to be worked out. Cost-effectively separating CO2 from the air is an extremely difficult problem to solve. The company is in the process of filing patents for the technology, so he declined to be too specific about many characteristics of the device, including what it will be made out of. But he did stress that the company is taking a fundamentally different technical approach to carbon capture.

“The current technologies, they are very complex. They are basically either [using] temperature or pressure [to capture carbon],” he said. “There is a lot of things that go into it, compressors, calciners and all these things,” referring to additional parts like mechanical pumps, cryogenic air separators and large quantities of water and energy. Pereira said the company will instead use electricity to control a chemical reaction that binds to the CO2. He added that Holy Grail’s devices are not dependent on scale to achieve cost reductions, either. And they will be modular, so they can be stacked or configured depending on a customer’s requirements.

The scrubbers, as Pereira calls them, will focus on raw capture of CO2 rather than conversion (converting the CO2 into fuels, for example). Pereira instead explained — with a heavy caveat that much about the end product still needs to be figured out — that once a Holy Grail unit is full, it could be collected by the company, though where the carbon will end up is still an open question.

The company will start by selling carbon credits, using its devices as the carbon reducing project. The end goal is selling the scrubbers to commercial customers and eventually even individual consumers. That’s right: Holy Grail wants you to have your own carbon capture device, possibly even right in your backyard. But the company still likely has a long road ahead of it.

“We’re essentially shifting the scaling factor from building a very large mega-ton plant and having the project management and all that stuff to building scrubbers in an assembly line, like a consumer product to be manufactured.”

Pereira said many approaches will be needed to tackle the mammoth problem of reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. “The problem is just too big,” he said.

The story has been updated to reflect that Holy Grail is based in Mountain View, not Cupertino.

Announcing the agenda for Extreme Tech Challenge Global Finals presented by TechCrunch

Here at TechCrunch, we’re big fans of startup competitions. From our Extra Crunch Live Pitch-offs all the way up to the world-famous Disrupt Startup Battlefield, we can’t get enough of ’em. So we’re hooking up with Extreme Tech Challenge (‘XTC’) to present the Extreme Tech Challenge Global Finals, a startup competition focused on powering a more sustainable, equitable, inclusive, and healthy world.

Extreme Tech Challenge is the world’s largest transformative tech startup competition and forum for the leaders of tomorrow to be able to unleash their full potential. Last year, the competition attracted startups from 87 countries, and one third of the  XTC 2020 finalists raised more than $167M combined in venture investment since being selected.

This year, over 3700 startups applied from 92 countries across XTC’s competition tracks: Agtech, Food & Water, Cleantech & Energy, Edtech, Enabling Tech, Fintech, Healthtech, and Mobility & Smart Cities. Check out the 80 Global Finalists that emerged from this competitive pool. The Category winners and the Special Awards winners will make it to the Global Finals stage. 

Join the Extreme Tech Challenge on 7/22 to meet the world’s best purpose-driven startups making the world better through transformative tech. Network with corporations, VCs, & founders. Get your free tickets here!

Today, we’re excited to share the agenda of the event with you.

Powering the Future Through Transformative Tech
with Young Sohn (Young Sohn (XTC Co-Founder, Chairman of the Board, HARMAN International, and former Samsung Corporate President and Chief Strategy Officer), Bill Tai (XTC Co-Founder, Partner Emeritus, Charles River Ventures), and Beth Bechdol (Deputy Director-General, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) 

What are the breakthrough tech innovations transforming industries to build a radically better world? How can business, government, philanthropy, and the startup community come together to create a better tomorrow? Hear from these industry veterans and thought leaders about how technology can not only shape the future, but also where the biggest opportunities lie, including some exciting news about XTC and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Going Green
with Shilpi Kumar (Urban Us), Jenny Rooke (Genoa Ventures), and Albert Wenger (Union Square Ventures)

Sustainability is the key to our planet’s future and our survival, but it’s also going to be incredibly lucrative and a major piece of our world economy. Hear from these seasoned investors and founders how VCs and startups alike are thinking about greentech and how that will evolve in the coming years.

The Extreme Tech Challenge 2021 Global Finals: Startup Pitches Part 1

The reason we’re all here – the XTC Category and Special Awards Winners get their chance to pitch their transformative tech ideas to a panel of expert judges and hear their feedback. XTC is a global platform that connects exceptional purpose-driven startups with a network of investors, corporations, and mentors to help them raise capital, launch corporate collaborations, and scale their world-changing startups.

Waste Matters
with Leon Farrant (Green Li-ion), Matanya Horowitz (AMP Robotics), and Elizabeth Gilligan (Material Evolution) 

According to the EPA, the U.S. alone produces 292.4 million tons of waste a year. Can technology help this massive – and growing – issue? Leon Farrant (Green Li-Ion), Matanya Horowitz (AMP Robotics), and Elizabeth Gilligan (Material Evolution) will discuss their companies’ unique approaches to dealing with the problem.

The Extreme Tech Challenge 2021 Global Finals: Startup Pitches Part 2

The reason we’re all here – the XTC Category and Special Awards Winners get their chance to pitch their transformative tech ideas to a panel of expert judges and hear their feedback, in this second and final round. 

Cutting Out Carbon Emitters with Bioengineering
with Aaron Nesser (AlgiKnit), Jennifer Holmgren (LanzaTech) and Patricia Bubner (Orbillion Bio)

Bioengineering may soon provide compelling, low-carbon alternatives in industries where even the best methods produce significant emissions. By utilizing natural and engineered biological processes, we may soon have low-carbon textiles from Algiknit, lab-grown premium meats from Orbillion, and fuels captured from waste emissions via LanzaTech. Leaders from these companies will join our panel to talk about how bioengineering can do its part in the fight against climate change.

Announcement of the Extreme Tech Challenge 2021 Winners

The judging panel will crown the global winner of Extreme Tech Challenge 2021 and also announce the winner of the Female Founder Award.

Networking

Join thousands of investors, corporate executives, startups, and policymakers to network via video chat.

Join the Extreme Tech Challenge on July 22 to meet the world’s best purpose-driven startups making the world better through transformative tech. Network with corporations, VCs, & founders. Get your free tickets here!

 

Super Follows and Ticketed Spaces are coming to Twitter

In Twitter’s latest appeal to one-up competitors, from Clubhouse to Patreon, the company announced today that it will begin rolling out applications for Super Follows and Ticketed Spaces.

Twitter first teased the Super Follow feature during an Analyst Day event in February. Super Follows allow creators on Twitter to generate monthly revenue by offering paywalled content to followers who subscribe to them for $2.99, $4.99 or $9.99 per month. To be eligible, users over the age of 18 need to have 10,000 followers and at least 25 tweets in the last 30 days.

Twitter will only take 3% of creators’ revenue after in-app purchase fees — but, on the App Store and Google Play, in-app purchase fees are 30%, which means that creators will take home about two-thirds of what their followers are paying. Once they exceed $50,000 of lifetime earnings on Twitter, the app will take “20% of future earnings after fees.” When combined with the 30% in-app purchase fee, that leaves creators with about half of their followers’ payments. Meanwhile, Patreon only takes between 5% and 12% of a creator’s earnings (it bypasses in-app purchase fees since it’s a web-based platform). While creators who primarily engage with their audience on Twitter might benefit from having a way to monetize without directing followers to another app, the difference in payout here is stark. Creators might not abandon their existing Patreon systems for Super Follows, but at the very least, this could offer a supplemental income stream.

“Our goal is to elevate people driving the conversations on Twitter and help them earn money,” said senior product manager Esther Crawford. “We updated our revenue share cuts after spending more time thinking about how we could support emerging voices on Twitter.”

Image Credits: Twitter

Ticketed Spaces seem more promising though, since Clubhouse, Spotify Greenroom and other competitors don’t offer similar options yet (Discord is testing ticketed audio events on its Stage Discovery portal, but they aren’t out yet). Through Ticketed Spaces, users can set their ticket price anywhere between $1 and $999. Creators can also limit how many tickets are sold, which might incentivize someone to actually use the $999 ticket price for a one-on-one conversation with a celebrity (still… yikes?). Twitter will remind attendees that the Ticketed Space is happening through push and in-app notifications. Users over the age of 18 that have hosted three Spaces in the last 30 days and have at least 1,000 followers are eligible to apply for access.

Clubhouse and Instagram have features that let listeners tip speakers or award badges in a live audio space, but the apps don’t yet allow for advance ticket sales. Another way for top creators to make money on these apps is through Creator Funds. Spotify Greenroom and Clubhouse have both announced plans for Creator Funds, but it’s not yet clear how the earning potential will compare with selling access to Ticketed Spaces on Twitter.

This slew of updates to Twitter comes after activist shareholders attempted to oust CEO Jack Dorsey last year. Now, Twitter is rapidly adding new features and acquiring companies like Revue (a newsletter platform), Ueno (a creative agency) and Breaker (a social podcasting platform).

Image Credits: Twitter

Applications to use Super Follows and Ticketed Spaces are only available on mobile (so, no avoiding the in-app purchase fees) and for people in the U.S. Currently, only iOS users can apply for Super Follows, but Ticketed Spaces applications are available on both iOS and Android. Twitter is adding a brand new Monetization button to the sidebar in the app, where users navigate to see if they’re eligible to apply to be part of the test groups for these features. These features will launch more broadly in the coming months.

Update 6/22/21, 2:48 PM EST with additional information about eligibility criteria for new features

 

India orders antitrust investigation against Google over smart TV market

India’s antitrust watchdog has ordered an investigation into allegations that Google has abused the dominant position of Android in the country’s smart TV market. The news comes hours after the European Union opened a formal antitrust investigation into allegations that Google abuses its leading role in the advertising-technology sector.

In its initial review, the Competition Commission of India, which began looking into these allegations last year, said Google had breached certain anti-competitive laws. An investigation of this scale can take quarters, if not over a year, to resolve.

“The Commission is of the prima facie opinion that by making pre-installation of Google’s proprietary apps (particularly Play Store) conditional upon signing of ACC (Android Compatibility Commitments) for all Android devices manufactured/distributed/marketed by device manufacturers, Google has reduced the ability and incentive of device manufacturers to develop and sell devices operating on alternative versions of Android i.e. Android forks, and thereby limited technical or scientific development relating to goods or services to the prejudice of consumers in contravention of Section 4(2)(b) of the Act,” the watchdog said in its 24-page order.

“Further, ACC prevents OEMs from manufacturing/ distributing/ selling any other device which operate on a competing forked Android operating system. Therefore, given the dominance of Google in the relevant markets and pronounced network effects, by virtue of this restriction, developers of such forked Android operating system are denied market access resulting in violation of Section 4(2)(c) of the Act.”

Google, which counts India as its largest market by users and last year committed to investing $10 billion in the country, denied any wrongdoing. “We are confident that our smart TV licensing practices are in compliance with all applicable competition laws,” a company spokesperson said in a statement.

The Competition Commission of India added that it found Google requiring television manufacturers pre-installing all its “must-have” apps and not having the ability to pick and choose from alternatives “amounts to imposition of unfair condition on the smart TV device manufacturers and thereby in contravention of Section 4(2)(a)(i) of the Act.”

“It also amounts to prima facie leveraging of Google’s dominance in Play Store to protect the relevant markets such as online video hosting services offered by YouTube, etc. in contravention of Section 4(2)(e) of the Act. All these aspects warrant a detailed investigation,” the competition regulator added.

About 8 million smart TV sets were sold in India in 2019, over 60% of which were powered by Google’s Android operating system.

It’s a tough week for American giants in India. On Monday evening, the world’s second largest internet market proposed tough e-commerce rules that could hurt Amazon and Walmart’s Flipkart.

Tuesday’s order is the third ongoing antitrust case investigation that India has opened against Google. Late last year, India’s antitrust watchdog opened an investigation into Google for allegedly abusing the dominant position of its app store to promote its payments service in the South Asian nation.