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YouTube and WhatsApp inch closer to half a billion users in India

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WhatsApp has enjoyed unrivaled reach in India for years. By mid-2019, the Facebook-owned app had amassed over 400 million users in the country. Its closest app rival at the time was YouTube, which, according to the company’s own statement and data from mobile insight firm App Annie, had about 260 million users in India then.

Things have changed dramatically since.

In the month of December, YouTube had 425 million monthly active users on Android phones and tablets in India, according to App Annie, the data of which an industry executive shared with TechCrunch. In comparison, WhatsApp had 422 million monthly active users on Android in India last month.

Factoring in the traction both these apps have garnered on iOS devices, WhatsApp still assumes a lead in India with 459 million active users1, but YouTube is not too far behind with 452 million users.

With China keeping its doors closed to U.S. tech giants, India emerged as the top market for Silicon Valley and Chinese companies looking to continue their growth in the last decade. India had about 50 million internet users in 2010, but it ended the decade with more than 600 million. Google and Facebook played their part to make this happen.

In the last four years, both Google and Facebook have invested in ways to bring the internet to people who are offline in India, a country of nearly 1.4 billion people. Google kickstarted a project to bring Wi-Fi to 400 railway stations in the country and planned to extend this program to other public places. Facebook launched Free Basics in India, and then — after the program was banned in the country — it launched Express Wi-Fi.

Both Google and Facebook, which identify India as their biggest market by users, have scaled down on their connectivity efforts in recent years after India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, took it upon himself to bring the country online. After he succeeded, both the companies bought multibillion-dollar stakes in his firm, Jio Platforms, which has amassed over 400 million subscribers.

Jio Platforms’ cut-rate mobile data tariff has allowed hundreds of millions of people in India, where much of the online user base was previously too conscious about how much data they spent on the internet, to consume, worry-free, hours of content on YouTube and other video platforms in recent years. This growth might explain why Google is doubling down on short-video apps.

The new figures shared with TechCrunch illustrate a number of other findings about the Indian market. Even as WhatsApp’s growth has slowed2 in India, it continues to enjoy an unprecedented loyalty among its users.

More than 95% of WhatsApp’s monthly active users in India use the app each day, and nearly its entire user base checks the app at least once a week. In comparison, three-fourths of YouTube’s monthly active users in India are also its daily active users.

The data also showed that Google’s eponymous app as well as Chrome — both of which, like YouTube, ship pre-installed3 on most Android smartphones — has also surpassed over 400 million monthly active users in India in recent months. Facebook’s app, in comparison, had about 325 million monthly active users in India last month.

When asked for comment, a Google spokesperson pointed TechCrunch to a report from Comscore last year, which estimated that YouTube had about 325 million monthly unique users in India in May 2020.

A separate report by research firm Media Partners Asia on Monday estimated that YouTube commanded 43% of the revenue generated in the online video market in India last year (about $1.4 billion). Disney+ Hotstar assumed 16% of the market, while Netflix had 14%.


1 For simplicity, I have not factored in the traction WhatsApp Business and YouTube Kids apps have received in India. WhatsApp and YouTube also maintain apps on KaiOS, which powers JioPhone feature handsets in India. At last count — which was a long time ago — more than 40 million JioPhone handsets had shipped in India. TechCrunch could not determine the inroads any app has made on this platform. Additionally, the figures of YouTube on Android (phones and tablets) and iOS (iPhone and iPad) will likely have an overlap. The same is not true of WhatsApp, which restricts one phone number to one account. So if I have WhatsApp installed on an iPhone with my primary phone number, I can’t use WhatsApp with the same number on an Android phone — at least not concurrently.
2 WhatsApp Business appears to be growing fine, having amassed over 50 million users in India. And some caveats from No. 1 also apply here.
3 Users still have to engage with the app for App Annie and other mobile insight firms to count them as active. So while pre-installing the app provides Google an unprecedented distribution, their apps still have to win over users.

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InSight’s heat probe has failed on Mars. Is the mission a failure?

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For two years now, NASA’s InSight probe has sat on the surface of Mars, attempting to dig 5 meters (16 feet) deep in order to install the lander’s heat probe. The instrument was going to effectively take the planet’s temperature and tell scientists more about the internal thermal activity and geology of Mars. 

InSight never even got close to realizing that goal. On January 14, NASA announced that it was ending all attempts to place the heat probe underground. Affectionately referred to as “the mole,” the probe is designed to dig underground with a hammering action. But after the first month of its mission, it  was unable to burrow more than 14 inches into the ground before getting stuck. NASA has been working since to come up with some kind of solution, including using InSight’s robotic arm to pin the mole down with added weight to help it loosen up some dirt and get back to burrowing.

It never really worked. The Martian dirt has proved to be unexpectedly prone to clumping up, diminishing the sort of friction the mole needs to spike its way deeper and deeper. Ground crews came up with a last-ditch effort recently to use InSight’s arm to scoop some soil onto the probe to tether it down and provide more friction. After attempting 500 hammer strokes on January 9, the team soon realized there was no progress to be had. 

It’s discouraging news, given that NASA just recently decided to extend InSight’s mission to December 2022. During that time, there won’t be much of a role for the heat probe. Bruce Banerdt, the InSight principal investigator, says that the planet’s temperature could still be measured at the surface and a few inches below the surface using some of the instruments on InSight that still work. “This will allow us to determine the thermal conductivity of the near surface, which might vary with season due to changing atmospheric pressure,” he says.

An illustration of how InSight’s mole was supposed to be deployed on Mars.
DLR

And while the mole was unable to accomplish what was expected, it’s not accurate to see this as a failure. “We have encountered new soil properties that have never before been encountered on Mars, with a thick, crusty surface layer that decreases its volume substantially when crushed,” says Banerdt. “We do not yet understand everything we have seen, but geologists will be poring over this data for years to come, using it to tease out clues to the history of the Martian environment at this location.”

InSight will continue on with some of its other investigations, especially the measurement of seismic activity on Mars. It turns out the Red Planet is rocked by quakes all the time.

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Fintech startups and unicorns had a stellar Q4 2020

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The fourth quarter of 2020 was as busy as you imagined, with super late-stage startups reaching new valuation thresholds at a record pace, and total venture capital funding in the United States recording its second-best result of all time.

That’s according to data released recently by CB Insights, which complements our look back at 2020’s venture capital year in America from yesterday.

At the time, we noted that American startups raised an average of $428 million each day last year, a sum that helps illustrate how rapid the private markets moved during the odd period.


The Exchange explores startups, markets and money. Read it every morning on Extra Crunch, or get The Exchange newsletter every Saturday.


But a peek at aggregate results for the world’s largest VC market provides only part of the picture. We need to narrow our lens and peer more deeply into standout categories to understand how the U.S. venture capital market managed to post its biggest year ever in terms of dollars invested, despite seeing deal volume slip for a second consecutive year.

This morning, we’re scraping data together to better understand.

First, we want to how unicorns performed in Q4 2020. This column noted in late December that it felt like unicorn creation was rapid in the quarter; how did that hold up?

And then we’ll take a look dig into PitchBook data concerning the fintech sector, a huge recipient of venture capital time, attention and money.

Fintech’s 2020 is a good perspective to view both the year and its wild final quarter. So this morning, as America itself resets, let’s take a moment to understand last year just a little bit better as we get into this new one.

Unicorns

One of the most curious things about the unicorn era is the rising bet it represents. I’ve written about this before so I will be brief: Nearly every quarter, the number of unicorns — private companies worth $1 billion or more — goes up.

The private market is able to create more unicorns than it has been historically able to exit them.

Some of these companies exit, sometimes in group fashion. But, quarter after quarter, the number of unexited unicorns rises. This means that the bet on expected future liquidity from venture capitalists and other private investors keeps ratcheting higher.

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MIT develops method for lab-grown plants that eventually lead to alternatives to forestry and farming

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Researchers at MIT have developed a new method for growing plant tissues in a lab – sort of like how companies and researchers are approaching lab-grown meat. The process would be able to produce wood and fibre in a lab environment, and researchers have already demonstrated how it works in concept by growing simple structures using cells harvested from zinnia leaves.

This work is still in its very early stages, but the potential applications of lab-grown plant material are significant, and include possibilities in both agriculture and in ruction materials. While traditional agricultural is much less ecologically damaging when compared to animal farming, it can still have a significant impact and cost, and it takes a lot of resources to maintain. Not to mention that even small environmental changes can have a significant effect on crop yield.

Forestry, meanwhile, has much more obvious negative environmental impacts. If the work of these researchers can eventually be used to create a way to produce lab-grown wood for use in construction and fabrication, in a way that’s scalable and efficient, then there’s tremendous potential in terms of reducing the impact of forestry globally. Eventually, the team even theorizes you could coax the growth of plant-based materials into specific target shapes, so you could also do some of the manufacturing in the lab, by growing a wood table directly for instance.

There’s still a long way to go from what the researchers have achieved. They’ve only grown materials on a very small scale, and will look to figure out ways to grow plant-based materials with different final properties as one challenge. They’ll also need to overcome significant barriers when it comes to scaling efficiencies, but they are working on solutions that could address some of these difficulties.

Lab-grown meat is still in its infancy, and lab-grown plant material is even more nascent. But it has tremendous potential, even if it takes a long time to get there.

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