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The time is right for Apple to buy Sonos

19:20 | 26 September

It’s been a busy couple of months for smart speakers – Amazon released a bunch just this week, including updated versions of its existing Echo hardware and a new Echo Studio with premium sound. Sonos also introduced its first portable speaker with Bluetooth support, the Sonos Move, and in August launched its collaboration collection with Ikea. Meanwhile, Apple didn’t say anything about the HomePod at its latest big product event – an omission that makes it all the more obvious the smart move would be for Apple to acquire someone who knows what they’re doing in this category: Sonos.

Highly aligned

From an outsider perspective, it’s hard to find two companies who seem more philosophically aligned than Sonos and Apple when it comes to product design and business model. Both are clearly focused on delivering premium hardware (at a price point that’s generally at the higher end of the mass market) and both use services to augment and complement the appeal of their hardware, even if Apple’s been shifting that mix a bit with a fast-growing services business.

Sonos, like Apple, clearly has a strong focus and deep investment in industrial design, and puts a lot of effort into truly distinctive product look and feel that stands out from the crowd and is instantly identifiable once you know what to look for. Even the company’s preference for a mostly black and white palette feels distinctly Apple – at least Apple leading up to the prior renaissance of multicolour palettes for some of its more popular devices, including the iPhone.

airplay2 headerThen from a technical perspective, Apple and Sonos seem keen to work together – and the results of their collaboration has been great for consumers who use both ecosystems. AirPlay 2 support is effectively standard on all modern Sonos hardware, and really Sonos is essentially the default choice already for anyone looking to do AirPlay 2-based multiform audio, thanks to the wide range of options available in different form factors and at different price points. Sonos and Apple also offer an Apple Music integration for Sonos’ controller app, and now you can use voice control via Alexa to play Apple Music, too.

Competitive moves

The main issue that an Apple-owned Sonos hasn’t made much sense before now, at least from Sonos’ perspective, is that the speaker maker has reaped the benefits of being a platform that plays nice with all the major streaming service providers and virtual assistants. Recent Sonos speakers offer both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant support, for instance, and Sonos’ software has connections with virtually every major music and audio streaming service available.

What’s changed, especially in light of Amazon’s slew of announcements this week, is that competitors like Amazon are looking more like they want to own more of the business that currently falls within Sonos’ domain. Amazon’s Echo Studio is a new premium speaker that directly competes with Sonos in a way that previous Echos really haven’t, and the company has consistently been releasing better-sounding versions of its other, more affordable Echos. It’s also been rolling out more feature-rich multi-room audio features, including wireless surround support for home theater use – all things squarely in the Sonos wheelhouse.

alexa echo amazon 9250064

For now, Sonos and Amazon seem to be comfortably in ‘frenemy’ territory, but increasingly, it doesn’t seem like Amazon is content to leave them their higher-end market segment when it comes to the speaker hardware category. Amazon still probably will do whatever it can to maximize use of Alexa, on both its own and third-party devices, but it also seems to be intent on strengthening and expanding its own first-party device lineup, with speakers as low-hanging fruit.

Other competitors, including Google and Apple, don’t seem to have had as much success with their products that line up as direct competitors to Sonos, but the speaker-maker also faces perennial challenges from hi-fi and audio industry stalwarts, and also seems likely to go up against newer device makers with audio ambitions and clear cost advantages like Anker, too.

Missing ingredients/work to be done

Of course, there are some big challenges and potential red flags that stand in the way of Apple ever buying Sonos, or of that resulting union working out well for consumers. Sonos works so well because it’s service-agnostic, for instance, and they key to its success with recent products seems to also be integration with the smart home assistants that people seem to actually want to use most – namely Alexa and Google Assistant.

Under Apple ownership, it’s highly possible that Apple Music would at least get preferential treatment, if not become the lone streaming service on offer. It’s probable that Siri would replace Alexa and Assistant as the only virtual voice service available, and almost unthinkable that Apple would continue to support competing services if it did make this buy.

That said, there’s probably significant overlap between Apple and Sonos customers already, and as long as there was some service flexibility (in the same way there is for streaming competitors on iOS devices, including Spotify) then being locked into Siri probably wouldn’t sting as much. And it would serve to give Siri the foothold at home that the HomePod hasn’t managed to provide. Apple would also be better incentivized to work on improving Siri’s performance as a general home-based assistant, which would ultimately be good for Apple ecosystem customers.

Another smart adjacency

Apple’s bigger acquisitions are few and for between, but the ones it does make are typically obviously adjacent to its core business. A Sonos acquisition has a pretty strong precedent in the Beats purchase Apple made in 2014, albeit without the strong motivator of providing the underlying product and relationship basis for launching a streaming service.

What Sonos is, however, is an inversion of the historical Apple model of using great services to sell hardware. The Sonos ecosystem is a great, easy to use, premium-feel means of making the most of Apple’s music and video streaming services (and brand new games subscription offering), all of which are more important than ever to the company as it diversifies from its monolithic iPhone business.

I’m hardly the first to suggest an Apple-Sonos deal makes sense: J.P. Morgan analyst Samik Chatterjee suggested it earlier this year, in fact. From my perspective, however, the timing has never been better for this acquisition to take place, and the motivations never stronger for either party involved.

Disclosure: I worked briefly for Apple in its communications department in 2015-2016, but the above analysis is based entirely on publicly available information, and I hold no stock in either company.

 


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Update on Nigerian fintech firm Interswitch and its speculative IPO

10:08 | 30 August

Nigerian fintech firm Interswitch has been circulating in business news around a possible IPO on the London Stock Exchange.

Last month Bloomberg News ran a story—based on unnamed sources—reporting the financial services firm had hired investment banks to go public on the LSE later in 2019. The piece spurred additional aggregated press.

That Interswitch—which provides much of Nigeria’s digital banking infrastructure—could become one of Africa’s earliest tech companies to list on a global exchange isn’t exactly news.

It’s more deja vu of a story that began several years ago.

As TechCrunch reported, Interswitch was poised to launch on the LSE in 2016. CEO and founder Mitchell Elegbe confirmed “a dual-listing on the London and Lagos stock exchange is an option on the table,” in a January 2016 call.

Two additional sources wired into Nigeria’s tech market and close to Interswitch’s investors also said the public launch would happen by the end of that year.

The IPO would have made Interswitch Africa’s first tech company to go from startup to a billion-dollar plus unicorn valuation status. Of course, it didn’t happen in 2016.

In 2017, TechCrunch checked in with Interswitch on the delay and was told the company could not comment on its pending IPO.  In other public interviews, executives Mitchell Elegbe and Divisional Chief Executive Officer Akeem Lawal named Nigeria’s recession as a reason for the delay and reaffirmed a likely dual Longon-Lagos listing by the end of 2019.

After the latest round of IPO buzz, TechCrunch asked Interswitch this week about the Bloomberg reporting and an imminent public stock listing. ““Interswitch does not comment on market speculation,” was the only info a public spokesperson could offer.

So, its tough to say if or when the company could list. There are still a few reasons why the company (and its possible IPO) are worth keeping an eye on.

One is Interswitch’s growing role as a nexus for payments and financial services infrastructure in Nigeria (home of Africa’s largest economy), across Africa, and between Africa and the world. Back in 2002, the company became the pioneer for creating infrastructure to digitize Nigeria’s then predominantly paper-ledger and cash-is-king based economy.

Interswitch QuicktellerInterswitch has since moved into high-volume personal and business finance, with its Verve payment cards and Quickteller payment app. The Nigerian company (which is now well beyond startup phase) has expanded with physical presence in Uganda, Gambia, and Kenya—the latter being home-turf of M-Pesa and Safaricom, which are largely responsible for making Kenya the mobile-money capital of Africa.

Interswitch also sells its products in 23 African countries, through bank partnerships, and has presence abroad. Through its Verve Global Card product, the company’s cardholders can now make payments in the U.S., UK, and UAE. Interswitch launched a partnership this month for Verve cardholders to make payments on Discover’s global network. The first transaction for the partnership was placed in New York, with an advertisement for the Nigerian company’s payment product flashing across Times Square. Verve Times Square Interswitch  Another facet to a possible Interswitch IPO is its potential to spark more corporate venture arm and acquisition activity in African fintech, which as a sector receives the bulk of the continent’s startup capital. Interswitch launched a venture arm in 2015called its global ePayment Growth Fundthat made two investments, but then went largely quiet.

A windfall of IPO capital and increasing competition from fintech startups could spur Interswitch to fire up its venture investing activity again. Startups such as Flutterwave and TeamAPT (formed by a former Interswitch alum) have already entered some of Interswitch’s product territory. If a public listing led Interswitch to ramp up investing in (or even acquiring) startups, the net effect would be more capital and exits in Africa’s fintech sector.

And finally, if Interswitch does IPO on the London and Lagos stock exchanges, it could provide another benchmark for global investors to gauge Africa’s tech sector beyond Jumia. This spring the e-commerce company became the first big tech firm operating in Africa to launch on a major exchange, the NYSE.

So far, Jumia’s IPO has been an up and down affair. The company gained investor and analyst confidence out of the gate, but also came under a short-sell assault and share-price volatility.

Two successful global IPOs of tech companies from Africa would and could become the best-case scenario for the continent’s startup scene. But for that to be a possibility, Interswitch will have to confirm the speculation and finally list as a publicly traded fintech firm.

 

 


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Learn how enterprise startups win big deals at TechCrunch’s Enterprise show on Sept. 5

00:33 | 8 August

Big companies today may want to look and feel like startups, but when it comes to the way they approach buying new enterprise solutions, especially from new entrants. But from the standpoint of a true startup, closing deals with just a few big customers is critical to success. At our much anticipated inaugural TechCrunch Sessions: Enterprise event in San Francisco on September 5, Okta’s Monty Gray, SAP’s DJ Paoni, VMware’s Sanjay Poonen, and Sapphire Venture’s Shruti Tournatory will discuss ways for startups to adapt their strategies to gain more enterprise customers (p.s. early-bird tickets end in 48 hours – book yours here).

This session is sponsored by SAP, the lead sponsor for the event.

Monty Gray is Okta’s Senior Vice President and head of Corporate Development. In this role, he is responsible for driving the company’s growth initiatives, including mergers and acquisitions. That role gives him a unique vantage point of the enterprise startup ecosystem, all from the perspective of an organization that went through the process of learning how to sell to enterprises itself. Prior to joining Okta, Gray served as the Senior Vice President of Corporate Development at SAP.

Sanjay Poonen joined VMware in August 2013, and is responsible for worldwide sales, services, alliances, marketing and communications. Prior to SAP, Poonen held executive roles at Symantec, VERITAS and Informatica, and he began his career as a software engineer at Microsoft, followed by Apple.

SAP’s DJ Paoni has been working in the enterprise technology industry for over two decades. As president of SAP North America, DJ Paoni is responsible for the strategy, day-to-day operations, and overall customer success in the United States and Canada.

These three industry executives will be joined on stage by Sapphire Venture’s Shruti Tournatory, who will provide the venture capitalist’s perspective. She joined Sapphire Ventures in 2014 and leads the firm’s CXO platform, a network of Fortune CIOs, CTOs, and digital executives. She got her start in the industry as an analyst for IDC, before joining SAP and leading product for its business travel solution.

Grab your early-bird tickets today before we sell out. Early-bird sales end after this Friday, so book yours now and save $100 on tickets before prices increase. If you’re an early-stage enterprise startup you can grab a startup demo table for just $2K here. Each table comes with 4 tickets and a great location for you to showcase your company to investors and new customers.

 


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Vizio rolls out its Apple AirPlay and HomeKit integrations to its SmartCast TV platform

15:55 | 31 July

Ahead of Apple launching its big video streaming initiative Apple TV+ this autumn, a integration is going live today that brings Apple closer to working with third-party TV makers and making its services available on a wider array of devices. Today Vizio said it would start to roll out support for AirPlay2 and HomeKit to its SmartCast TV sets, making it possible to stream video and other media from Apple devices to its TVs and control the sets using Apple’s Home app and through its Siri voice assistant.

The support is coming by way of an over-the-air update to SmartCast 3.0, the system that underpins Vizio’s smart TVs. Notably, using the Apple services will not necessarily mean buying new Vizio TVs: the service is backwards compatible to TVs dating back to 2016. New sets range in prices from $259.99 to $3,499.99.

“SmartCast 3.0 is full of added value for VIZIO customers. With both AirPlay 2 and HomeKit support, users can now share movies, TV shows, music and more from their favorite apps, including the Apple TV app, directly to SmartCast TVs, and enable TV controls through the Home app and Siri,” said Bill Baxter, Chief Technology Officer, VIZIO. “We are thrilled to offer an even more compelling value proposition to our users with a smart TV experience that supports all three major voice assistants. This broad range of compatibility enables VIZIO SmartCast to seamlessly integrate into any household with Siri, Google Assistant or Alexa – giving users more ways to sit back and enjoy the entertainment they love.” Vizio still appears to be the only smart TV maker that’s offering support on its sets for all of the major voice assistants.

Vizio’s integration for Apple’s media services was first announced in January at CES, when Vizio said it would be getting actually rolled out later in the year.

The news was notable at the time for a couple of reasons. First, it underscored how Vizio was stepping up its growth efforts after a tough couple of years involving lawsuits, regulatory investigations and a failed M&A attempt.

Second, it was part of a bigger theme of Apple branching out into a wider consumer electronics ecosystem for its push into the world of TV and video. The latter still stands in stark contrast to Apple’s approach around smartphones, computers and watches, where it has spent years building hardware, operating systems and walled gardens.

That’s a story that is still playing out. The timing of the Vizio news is notable given that it’s just one day after Apple’s quarterly earnings report, where the company revealed a solid quarter that beat analyst expectations but also continued to show slowing growth, largely on the back of an ongoing decline in unit sales for the iPhone (amid a similar, bigger market trend for smarphones overall). To offset that story, Apple has been working hard to build new product categories in newer hardware areas like wearables (the Apple Watch) and smart home hubs (HomePod), and Services, which includes Apple’s efforts in areas like video and music (

Services came in at $11.455 billion — missing analysts expections but still growing 13% on a year ago. The promise — or perhaps more accurately, the hope — is that adding TV and gaming into the mix later in the year will boost that even more. This is where integrations such as the one getting announced today with Vizio will fit in: they will help expand the number of people who might be using the services, and of course the number of screens where the content can be consumed.

Vizio does not specify how many sets it currently has in the market — last number it gave me earlier in the year was “millions” — but it generally is behind Samsung, which currently leads in the smart TV category.

It notes that the service will work by way of tapping an AirPlay icon within SmartCast to be able to stream 4K and Dolby VisionTM HDR movies and TV shows from Apple TV, along with other AirPlay-compatible video apps. Mirroring (which you can also do with non-smart TVs) will also be supported. AirPlay 2 also lets users play content across multiple rooms (provided you have the sets, HomePods or other AirPlay 2 speakers installed).

 


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Porsche Taycan reservations surpass 30,000 ahead of world debut

22:33 | 29 July

Porsche has secured 30,000 deposits for the Taycan more than a month before the German automaker will unveil the all-electric sports cars, numbers that suggest there’s enough to demand to support the company’s plans to produce 40,000 units in its first year.

The latest reservation numbers were cited by Bloomberg and Porsche HR head Andreas Haffner in an interview with German business publication Handelsblatt.

Porsche initially targeted 20,000 Taycan electric vehicles for the first year of production. But interest in the vehicle prompted the automaker to double its planned annual production to 40,000 in its first year. Reservations require a 2,500 euro deposit ($2,785).

If Porsche is able to produce and then deliver 40,000 Taycans in its first year of production, the electric sports car would leap ahead of some of its iconic internal combustion models, including the 718 Boxster and the 911. Porsche sold 35,573 911s and 24,750 718 vehicles globally in 2018.

The Taycan would still trail Porsche’s other popular crossover and SUV models such as the Cayenne and Macan.

The Taycan could also put pressure on the Tesla Model S, the popular luxury electric sedan that has long dominated this niche in the industry. Tesla combines Model S and X delivery numbers. In 2018, the company delivered 99,394 Model S and X vehicles.

The Model S has had a number of updates since production began in 2012, but it hasn’t had a significant facelift since April 2016 when the front fascia was changed to look more like the Model X.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said earlier this month that the company doesn’t plan to “refresh” its Model X or Model S vehicles. In automotive speak, refreshed typically means small revisions to a vehicle model that extend beyond the typical yearly updates made by manufacturers. A refresh is not a major redesign, although there’s often a noticeable change to the vehicle model.

The company will make minor ongoing changes to the luxury electric sedan and sport utility vehicle, Musk said at that time. Even with those continuous updates, potential customers could opt for the newer Taycan.

Porsche isn’t resting on the novelty of its first electric vehicle to drive sales. The company is rolling out other incentives, notably plans to give owners of the Taycan three years of free charging at hundreds of Electrify America public stations across the United States. Electrify America is the entity set up by Volkswagen as part of its settlement with U.S. regulators over its diesel emissions cheating scandal.day.

The automaker also is making an additional $70 million investment to add DC fast chargers to Porsche dealerships.

 


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Tesla focuses on service with 25 new service centers in Q2, rate of new openings to ‘increase’

02:36 | 25 July

Tesla is set to ramp up the rate at which it opens new service facilities aggressively, according to CEO Elon Musk’s guidance on the company’s Q2 2019 earnings call. In total, Tesla opened 25 new service centers during the quarter, and added 100 new service vehicles to its existing fleet – which is in contrast to an earlier statement made by Musk that they’d look to close most of their physical stores in an effort to reduce costs.

Notably, Musk referred to the locations only as ‘service centers’ during his comments on the subject on Wednesday’s earnings call, and never as stores – asked about ‘retail locations,’ he corrected the analyst asking and again said that what Tesla opened were ‘service centers’ specifically. He also emphasized the importance of ensuring that service scales in line with the size of Tesla’s overall fleet of vehicles in active use. Musk mentioned that the number of Tesla cars on the road doubled in the last year alone, meaning its seeing exponential growth in terms of the total size of the fleet it needs to service.

“Service scales not just with new production, but as the whole fleet sales,” Musk said, adding that they want to grow their service capabilities in a way that’s responsible when it comes to cost, but that that is “quite difficult” when it comes to the rate at which the company’s sales and shipments are increasing.

Even so, Tesla is taking on still more of its service work itself, rather than outsourcing to external vendors.

“We’ve in-sourced a great deal of the collision repair activities, which I think had quite a good impact on customer happiness,” Musk said. “This will continue in the months to come.” Musk also noted that the company is working hard to reset its processes in order to ensure that parts are available on-hand when and where needed for service, which is a gap that has prompted customer complaints in the past.

The Tesla CEO said that he meets with the Tesla service team “multiple times a week” to “get updates on the reliability of the vehicle,” noting the the best service possible is “no service” because that would represent maximum reliability (and of course, lowest possible ongoing costs for Tesla). He also said that the’ve seen “fewer and fewer service visits” “for the most recent cars that we’re building, so we’re on a good trend there.”

Tesla Head of Investor Relations Martin Viecha also noted that the number one reason for service visits is actually people looking to learn how to use Autopilot, and in general education represents a high percentage of visits.

Tesla CFO Zach Kirkhorn addressed a question about the service center expansion later in the call adding that the company is pursuing a path of systematic “focus on service and supercharging, as opposed to a retail presence.” He also noted that he believes efforts to improve their parts distribution, with a focus on ensuring that parts are available on-hand in inventory at the service centers where they’re needed will actually help bring down costs overall vs. housing them centrally or ordering on-demand from suppliers and Tesla’s own fabrication facilities.

 


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App revenue tops $39 billion in first half of 2019, up 15% from first half of last year

18:41 | 3 July

App store spending is continuing to grow, although not as quickly as in years past. According to a new report from Sensor Tower, the iOS App Store and Google Play combined brought in $39.7 billion in worldwide app revenue in the first half of 2019 — that’s up 15.4% over the $34.4 billion seen during the first half of last year. However, at that time, the $34.4 billion was a 27.8% increase from 2017’s numbers, then a combined $26.9 billion across both stores.

Apple’s App Store continues to massively outpace Google Play on consumer spending, the report also found.

In the first half of 2019, global consumers spent $25.5 billion on the iOS App Store, up 13.2% year-over-year from the $22.6 billion spent in the first half of 2018. Last year, the growth in consumer spending was 26.8%, for comparison’s sake.

Still, Apple’s estimated $25.5 billion in the first half of 2019 is 80% higher than Google Play’s estimated gross revenue of $14.2 billion — the latter, a 19.6% increase from the first half of 2018.

The major factor in the slowing growth is iOS in China, which contributed to the slowdown in total growth. However, Sensor Tower expects to see China returning to positive growth over the next 12 months, we’re told.

To a smaller extent, the downturn could be attributed to changes with one of the top-earning apps across both app stores: Netflix.

Last year, Netflix dropped in-app subscription sign-ups for Android users. Then, at the end of December 2018, it did so for iOS users, too. That doesn’t immediately drop its revenue to zero, of course — it will continue to generate revenue from existing subscribers. But the number will decline, especially as Netflix expands globally without an in-app purchase option, and as lapsed subscribers return to renew online with Netflix directly.

In the first half of 2019, Netflix was the second highest-earning non-game app with consumer spending of $339 million, Sensor Tower estimates. (We should point out the firm bases its estimates on a 70/30 split between Netflix and Apple’s App Store that drops to 85/15 after the first year. To account for the mix of old and new subscribers, Sensor Tower factors in a 25% cut. But Daring Fireball’s John Gruber claims Netflix had a special relationship with Apple where it had an 85/15 cut from year one.)

In any event, Netflix’s contribution to the app stores’ revenue is on the decline.

In the first half of last year, Netflix had been the No. 1 non-game app for revenue. This year, that spot went to Tinder, which pulled in an estimated $497 million across the iOS App Store and Google Play, combined. That’s up 32% over the first half of 2018.

1h 2019 app revenue worldwide

But Tinder’s dominance could be a trend that doesn’t last.

According to recent data from eMarketer, dating app audiences have been growing slower than expected, causing the analyst firm to revise its user estimates downward. It now expects that 25.1 million U.S. adults will use a dating app monthly this year, down from its previous forecast of 25.4 million. It also expects that only 21% of U.S. single adults will use a dating app at all in 2019, and that will only grow to 23% by 2023.

That means Tinder’s time at the top could be overrun by newcomers in later months, especially as new streaming services get off the ground (assuming they offer in-app subscriptions); if TikTok starts taking monetization seriously; or if any other large apps from China find global audiences outside of China’s third-party app stores.

For example, Tencent Video grossed $278 million globally in the first half of 2019, outside of the third-party Chinese Android app stores. That made it the third-largest non-game app by revenue. And Chinese video platform iQIYI and YouTube were the No. 4 and No. 5 top-grossing apps, respectively.

Meanwhile, iOS app installs actually declined in the first half of the year, following the first quarter that saw a decline in downloads, Q1 2019, attributed to the downturn in China.

The App Store in the first half of 2019 accounted for 14.8 billion of the total 56.7 billion app installs.

Google Play installs in the first half of the year grew 16.4% to 41.9 billion, or about 2.8 times greater than the iOS volume.

1h 2019 app downloads worldwide

The most downloaded apps in the first half of 2019 were the same as before: WhatsApp, Messenger, and Facebook led the top charts. But TikTok inched ahead of Instagram for the No. 4 spot, and it saw its installs grow around 28% to nearly 344 million worldwide.

In terms of mobile gaming specifically, spending was up 11.3% year-over-year in the first half of 2019, reaching $29.6 billion across the iOS App Store and Google Play. Thanks to the fallout of the game licensing freeze in China, App Store revenue growth for games was at $17.6 billion, or 7.8% year-over-year growth. Google Play game spending grew by 16.8% to $12 billion.

The top-grossing games, in order, were Tencent’s Honor of Kings, Fate/Grand Order, Monster Strike, Candy Crush Saga, and PUBG Mobile.

1h 2019 game revenue worldwide

Meanwhile, the most downloaded games were Color Bump 3D, Garena Free Fire, and PUBG Mobile.

Image credits: Sensor Tower

 


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Despite declines for the quarter, Tesla is bullish on its overall energy business

01:26 | 25 April

Even as its solar business declined in step with its overall earnings, Tesla is bullish on the prospects for the energy side of its business over the course of the year.

The energy business is an unheralded part of Tesla — overshadowed by its headline grabbing (and much larger) auto exploits — that chief executive Elon Musk thinks will generate an increasing share of revenue for the company over time.

Revenues from its solar power and energy storage business fell by 13% from the fourth quarter 2018 and 21% from a year ago period down to $324.7 million from $371.5 million in the fourth quarter of 2018 and $410 million in the year ago quarter.

Solar energy deployments fell from 73 megawatts to 47 megawatts from the fourth to the first quarter, the company said. Those figures were offset by a slight increase in solar deployments.

The company actually introduced a new financing and purchasing model for solar installations in the second quarter — saying in its shareholder letter that residential solar customers can buy directly from the Tesla website, in standardized capacity increments.

“We aim to put customers in a position of cash generation after deployment with only a $99 deposit upfront. That way, there should be no reason for anyone not to have solar generation on their roof,” Musk and chief financial officer Zachary Kirkhorn wrote in the shareholder letter.

Tesla’s battery storage business was hit as the company shifted units from energy storage to installation in its own vehicles.

“Energy storage production in the second half of 2018 was limited by cell production as we routed all available Gigafactory 1 cell capacity to supply Model 3,” the company wrote in its letter. “Some Gigafactory 1 cell production has been routed back to the energy storage business, enabling us to increase production in Q1 by roughly 30% compared to the previous quarter.”

And Musk thinks that the energy business will grow significantly over the course of the year. “We hope that growth rate will continue and battery storage will become a bigger and bigger percentage over time,” Musk said on an analyst call following the earnings release. Potentially, Tesla thinks its energy business could grow by as much as 300%, Musk said. 

 


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Samsung’s upcoming Q1 earnings are going to be ugly

09:05 | 5 April

It’s that time again folks, Samsung has reported guidance for its upcoming Q1 quarter — and things don’t look good.

Samsung is forecasting that revenue for the quarter will reach 51-53 trillion KRW ($44.87-$46.63 billion), which would represent a drop of around 15 percent on one year previous. The Korean tech giant reported a record operating profit in Q1 2018 — $13.76 billion — but this time around that is forecast to fall by a whopping 60 percent for the current quarter of business. According to Bloomberg, that would be the company’s worst slump for four years.

Following a record year is never going to be easy, but the forecast Q1 2019 operating profit of 6.1-6.3 billion KRW — around $5.5 billion — represents a pretty steep 43 percent drop on the previous quarter. That’ll give Samsung shareholders plenty to worry about.

The company’s pre-earnings guidance doesn’t go into details on the predictions, but last year’s record profits were largely down to the success of its consumer handset business and also a strong market for memory chips. There have been plenty of warning signs that those good times might not last.

Samsung itself played down those impressive Q1 2018 results multiple warnings on the future — my colleague Brian Heater pointed out that the words “slowing growth” appeared seven times in Samsung’s announcement at the time — due to concerns around the company’s display panel business and a slowing growth within the general smartphone industry.

As we well know, analyst reports show that people are buying fewer phones for a range of reasons. That’s one explanation for Apple’s multi-device approach which pushes its top-of-the-range model to well beyond the $1,000-mark. Slowing growth means a need to extract more revenue from the most loyal users, to thus increase the overall average selling price (ASP).

Samsung has long played in the mid-tiers — where it is up against tough competition from the likes of Xiaomi, Oppo, Huawei and others from China — but it’ll be interesting to see if it shifts its top-end approach.

We’ll know more when the company releases its full Q1 earnings report later this month so stayed tuned.

 


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What critics get wrong about the “American AI Initiative”

23:30 | 4 March

Sujai Hajela Contributor
Sujai Hajela is co-founder, president and CEO of Mist, which develops self-learning wireless networks using artificial intelligence.

There’s been a bit of hysteria – AIsteria, if you will – over the Trump administration’s recently issued American AI Initiative, formally known as ‘Executive Order on Maintaining American Leadership in Artificial Intelligence.”

The initiative is a broad strategy “to sustain and enhance the scientific, technological, and economic leadership position of the United States in AI R&D and deployment.”

But critics have complained it’s short on specific actions and lacks new funding to accomplish its goals, in contrast to China’s 2017 “Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan,” which allocated billions to establish China as the “premier global AI innovation center” by 2030.

As Babson College professor Thomas Davenport noted in a recent essay in The Conversation. 

One Chinese state alone has said it will devote $5 billion to developing AI technologies and businesses. The city of Beijing has committed $2 billion to developing an AI-focused industrial park. A major port, Tianjin, plans to invest $16 billion in its local AI industry.

“China is ready to leapfrog the USA in AI. The US initiative has NO money,”

one skeptic, Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Karl Freund. 

While I wholeheartedly agree that the United States must not cede AI leadership to China or any other country, I find some of the critiques of the initiative overwrought. In fact, even if its value is largely symbolic – more of a vision statement than a detailed blueprint – I still believe the initiative can help move the national AI agenda forward.

Let’s unpack a few things.

While many talk about AI in the context of a rivalry between two superpowers – and it well may be that in some ways – AI is unlike similar global competitions of the past. Take the 20th century Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union, for example. The effort would have never gotten off the ground, literally, without huge financial commitments from the U.S. government.

Money for AI’s advancement, however, is pouring in from the private sector. According to a report by CB Insights and PwC, venture capital funding of AI companies skyrocketed 72 percent last year, to $9.3 billion. The surge followed three years of steadily increasing investment, with a 28 percent average annual increase between 2015 and 2017.

And it’s not as though the government isn’t doing its part. IDC estimated the federal investment in cognitive and AI technologies is growing at a CAGR of 54.3 percent between 2018 and 2021.

Furthermore, while stopping short of specific dollar amounts, the initiative wasn’t exactly silent on the requirement for more government funding, calling on all relevant agencies to consider AI a top R&D priority and take that into account when developing budget proposals for fiscal 2020 and beyond.

Meanwhile, colleges and universities working on exciting research in AI and its enabling technology, machine learning, and more and more are offering AI-specific training to help solve a skills shortage in the field.

College students reportedly enrolled in introductory AI and machine learning classes in record numbers last year, the number of academic papers on the topic soared, and, according to a Stanford University analysis of transcripts, officials mentioned the technology in more than 70 congressional hearings.

I’m not surprised that Carnegie Mellon (no AI slouch, having introduced an undergraduate AI program last year) reacted very positively to the American AI Initiative. “The American AI Initiative’s focus on prioritizing research and development, responsibly leveraging data as a national resource and investing in an AI-ready workforce will bring new energy to our national innovation ecosystem,” the university said in a statement.

All of this points to the reality that the private sector, as has been the case so many times throughout the annals of U.S. innovation, is taking the lead in AI and counting on entrepreneurial spirit rather than government largesse to win the day.

As a Bloomberg editorial put it: “This contrasts favorably with (say) China, where the government is pumping billions of dollars directly into AI-related companies. This may advance the field somewhat, but it’s also a good way to sustain hopeless businesses, crowd out private investment, encourage cronyism, inflate bubbles, and generally make a hash of things.”

Simply by virtue of shining a bright spotlight on AI as a national priority, the initiative can have significant practical effects. For example, let’s say a VC firm is deciding whether to fund an AI startup or one in another hot space, such as the Internet of Things. The tone set by the initiative could tilt the decision in the AI firm’s favor.

It also could spur more universities to investigate interesting AI technologies in their labs, and further invigorate efforts to train the next generation of AI practitioners.

The American AI Initiative isn’t as cut and dried as the critics suggest. If it’s nothing more than a stake in the ground about AI’s essential role in the nation’s future, it’s still an important stake.

 


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