Apple’s streaming service could feature content from partners

A report from Bloomberg shares some of the details about the long-rumored video streaming service from Apple. The company should unveil this service at a press conference in Cupertino on March 25.

While Apple has been working on a ton of original content for its new streaming service, Bloomberg says that most of it won’t be ready for the launch later this month. Apple will probably share some teasers onstage, but the launch lineup will mostly feature third-party content.

Apple is probably talking with everyone, but many premium cable channels still have to decide about Apple’s streaming service. HBO, Showtime and Starz have to decide by Friday whether they want to be part of the launch.

It’s unclear if Apple is going to feature some or all content from those partners. Many of them already have a streaming service on their own, and you can access their libraries from the TV app on your Apple TV or iOS device.

Apple could streamline the experience by letting you subscribe to various content bundles in its own streaming service. Amazon already provides something similar with Amazon Prime Video Channels. Netflix and Hulu will likely remain independent services, as they compete directly with Apple’s original content effort.

When it comes to Apple’s other announcement, the company should also unveil its Apple News subscription on March 25. Apple acquired Texture last year and has been working on a digital magazine subscription for a while.

Once again, details are still thin for this new service when it comes to pricing, availability outside of the U.S. and content.

Last month, the WSJ reported that Apple has been working with Goldman Sachs on a credit card that would integrate deeply with the Apple Wallet app. Given that Apple’s event is about services, let’s see if the company talks about this new product, as well.

Acko, a digital insurance provider in India, raises another $65M at a $300M valuation

Acko — a startup out of India that has taken on the country’s antiquated insurance industry with a digital-first product for drivers and others in transportation-related scenarios (for example, cancelled ticket insurance) — has raised more funding as it passes 20 million customers on its books. The company has closed a Series C of $65 million from a list of investors that includes not just the co-founder and former CEO of Flipkart, but also its arch-rival, Amazon — speaking to the opportunity in the market as a number of players zero in on services.

Binny Bansal, who until November had been the CEO of the e-commerce giant Flipkart, and Amazon are joined in the round by another strategic investor, Intact Ventures Inc., the corporate venture arm of Canada’s largest property and casualty insurer, along with RPS Ventures (the VC led by Kabir Misra, ex-managing partner at SoftBank), Accel, SAIF and TechPro Ventures. Amazon also led the company’s previous round of funding, a $12 million investment, last year.

Acko now has raised $107 million, and while it is not discussing valuation, a reliable source close to the company said it is in the region of $300 million.

Varun Dua, the CEO and founder, spent 10 years in the insurance industry before founding Acko, most recently building a site (called Coverfox) aggregating different insurers’ quotes. But when it comes to the companies building the products themselves, he believes there has been very little innovation in the past 30 years.

Acko has built its business on two fronts up to now. A direct to consumer offering sells automotive insurance for people insuring for themselves, a business that has now insured some 200,000 cars. It also works with third parties to provide what was described to me as “microinsurance” products around other companies’ services. For example, ticket cancellation insurance, rider protection and driver protection for about 15 companies at the moment, including Ola, redBus, Zomato, UrbanClap and Amazon.

Amazon may appear a little out of left field in the list, but Dua said that it’s because of trends specific to the Indian market that the two work together. First, it offers vehicle insurance alongside cars that are sold on the Amazon platform. But beyond that there is the opportunity to build services for what he calls “ecosystem” players in the market, those who provide a wide array of different services, and links to services, to consumers, leveraging their data on consumers to help shape those offers.

“We continue to be impressed by Acko’s focus on data-led innovations in the insurance sector that are solving for important customer needs in this sector. We are always excited to work with companies like Acko that are led by missionary founders and management teams and we remain committed to investing in technology-backed innovations that address real customer problems,” said Amit Agarwal, SVP and Country Head, Amazon India, in a statement on the investment.

While Bansal is recently no longer in an executive role at Flipkart, it’s notable that he is getting involved with Acko at a time when Dua says he would like to be working more with the company, which is also developing an array of services beyond the basic selling of goods to service India’s rapidly growing base on online consumers.

“Technology-led insurance is expected to play a significant role in growth of the underpenetrated insurance sector in India,” said Bansal. “Acko is the pioneer of digital-native insurance and I am delighted to partner in its exciting growth journey.”

Just as Acko partners with companies to provide its insurance, it’s also working with an increasing array of insurers who are looking for better ways to tap consumers in the market.

“We are thrilled to support Acko in its mission to become the leading digital insurer in India. In addition to their innovative direct-to-consumer strategy, Varun and his team have taken a creative approach by developing impactful distribution partnerships that allow millions of customers to protect assets that are meaningful to them,” said Karim Hirji, senior vice president of Intact Ventures. “We are excited to offer our expertise and partner with a company that shares our vision of creating simple and transparent new-age customer centric insurance products.”

Earlier today, I posted a story about Drivezy and how it was raising a lot of money to double down on building its car-sharing network out of India. One of the gaps in the market for it is that only 7 percent of Indians actually own vehicles. Interestingly, that’s a number that Dua thinks is a great start.

“Seven percent is still very large in India given the size of the population,” he said. “It’s the fourth largest auto market in the world, and the auto insurance space is likely to be worth $10 billion usd in the next several years. That’s big size for a company like us.”

Microsoft shows off Project xCloud with Forza running on an Android phone

Microsoft has shared some more information and the first look at Project xCloud. The company has been working on a cloud game streaming service for a while. Microsoft is preparing the future of gaming platforms with a device-agnostic service that lets you stream games made for the Xbox One.

And the first demo is Forza Horizon 4 running in a data center and then streamed to an Android phone attached to an Xbox One controller via Bluetooth.

“Anywhere we have a good network connection, we’ll be able to participate in Project xCloud,” Microsoft head of gaming cloud Kareem Choudhry said in the video. While Forza Horizon 4 is a demanding game and an Android phone is a tiny device, it won’t be limited to extreme scenarios like that.

Choudhry compared Project xCloud to a music streaming or video streaming service. When you have a Spotify account, you can log in from any device, such as your phone, your computer or your work laptop, and find the same music library and your personal music playlists.

You can imagine an Xbox-branded service that you could access from any device. Even if your computer has an integrated Intel GPU, you could log in and play a demanding game from that computer. Everything would run in a data center near you.

It’s easy to see how Project xCloud would work with Microsoft’s existing gaming services. The company promises the same games with no extra work for developers. You’ll access your cloud saves, your friends and everything you’re already familiar with if you’re using an Xbox or the Xbox app on your PC.

If you’ve bought an Xbox, an Xbox 360 and an Xbox One, there will be more Xbox consoles in the future. “It’s not a replacement for consoles, we’re not getting out of the console business,” Choudhry said.

Other companies have been working on cloud gaming. French startup Blade has been working on Shadow, the most promising service currently available. Shadow lets you access a Windows 10 instance running in a data center.

Microsoft wants to associate technology with content. The company already sells a subscription service. With the Xbox Game Pass, you can play Xbox One and Xbox 360 games for $10 per month. Let’s see how Project xCloud and the Xbox Game Pass work together when Microsoft starts public trials later this year.

Drivezy, India’s vehicle-sharing startup, is raising $100M+ at a $400M valuation, eyes US expansion

Drivezy — the startup out of India that wants to turn private car usage on its head through a car-sharing network where people lend their cars and two-wheeled vehicles but also have options to use vehicles from a fleet managed by Drivezy — said it is raising more money as it gears up for the next stage of its expansion, including a launch in the U.S. in coming weeks.

The company is in the process of raising $100 million in equity funding, plus another $400 million in asset financing, with the latter to help continue building out the inventory that sits alongside the vehicles provided by its users. This would technically be a Series C and is being raised at a $400 million valuation, the company confirmed to me.

“Currently” is the key word: Ankur Sengupta, who heads up business development for Drivezy, said in an interview that the startup will leave the round open for about a year and continue raising it on a rolling basis, with the valuation varying accordingly. “The valuation we are working at now is $400 million, but we will keep accepting investments, at different valuations,” he said.

(Note: This is not an entirely new way of raising rounds, but in the last few years, it has become a lot more common to see it rather than clear “Series” blocks. Fast-growing companies like Snap and more recently Grab in Southeast Asia have chosen this route to tap into readily available funding faster and closer to when it’s actually needed.)

The company is not disclosing any names right now, except to note that it is likely to include a new, large investor from Japan, and that it also has commitments from investors in the U.S., Singapore and China. Previous backers have included the Yamaha Motor Company, Axan Partners and IT-Farm, as well as Y Combinator — where Drivezy was a part of a 2016 cohort as JustRide, led by its five founders Amit Sahu, Ashwarya Pratap Singh, Vasant Verma, Abhishek Mahajan and Hemant Sah. It has also been through Google’s Launchpad accelerator, although it doesn’t look like Google is investing (yet).

Drivezy last raised money as recently as three months ago, a $20 million Series B led by Das Capital, when it also raised $100 million in asset financing. Alongside users’ own cars and the fleet it manages, Drivezy also works in partnership with dealerships and others to provide vehicles for its inventory.

Between then and now, the company has seen a lot of growth.

The company gets more than 53,000 bookings for cars each month, versus 37,000/month just three months ago. Two-wheeled vehicles — primarily motorcycles — add nearly 30,000 more. While cars are typically booked for two to three days, two-wheeler bookings are weekly or monthly bookings.

The inventory has also gone up. Currently, there are 7,500 two-wheelers on the platform, with another 7,500 coming by the end this month; and 3,500 cars. (This is up from 5,000 motorbikes and scooters and 3,000 cars three months ago.) Currently there are 30 dealerships and more than 25 banks and other financial companies in Drivezy’s network.

Drivezy’s growth is coming at what seems to be a key inflection point for the transportation industry.

Some believe the days of vehicle ownership in mature markets like the U.S. are numbered, with several developments helping that trend along: the rise of over-expensive self-driving cars that many will not be able to afford; the proliferation of affordable Uber-style services; and the emergence of startups like Getaround (which will be a direct competitor to Drivezy when it comes to the U..S) and Fair to make it easy and cheap to procure a car ride without buying a car or using old-school car-rental services.

But in developing markets like India, vehicle ownership is already a relative rarity, even if the desire to use a car is not: currently only 7 percent of Indians own a car and 16 percent own two-wheelers.

“That’s meant that the auto industry has been slow to grow here,” Sengupta said. (That, plus patchy public transport in many urban areas, has also meant a lot of growth, incidentally, for the likes of Ola.)

Drivezy’s response has been to create a completely new supply chain for private car and two-wheeled vehicle usage. Customers include people who are not able to purchase a car, those who do have cars but would appreciate some income to help pay off the loans they took to get them, plus car companies and dealerships looking for new avenues and business models to shift more vehicles.

Currently, the P2P side of the business is most popular on the car side of the business, where 70 percent of the inventory has been listed by private owners, while only 35 percent of the two-wheelers come from private owners (all the P2P vehicles get a “fitness check.” Most of the rest are listed by asset financing companies through SPVs on a revenue sharing basis, with less than 2 percent on Drivezy’s own books. These, Sengupta said, have been purchased to meet licensing obligations in India.

While Drivezy has definitely benefited from useful market conditions — low vehicle ownership and a rapidly growing tech-savvy middle class with disposable income and more reasons for travelling — now the plan will be to take its model to other markets, including both those that have similar conditions to India’s, as well as those that are more developed (and hence, more competitive).

That will include the U.S., where the company is planning to set up its first pilots in April to test demand in different markets and market segments, Sengupta said. While it’s a very different market — and certainly more competitive when you consider the likes of Getaround, Turo, Fair and others — Drivezy (its founders having spent time there going through Y Combinator and Google’s accelerator) thinks there is a gap in the area of microlending and the fact that even with a lot of options already, there can be more.

“People have aspirational needs, they want better cars, BMWs and Audis for example, and there are no companies tackling the issue of bringing the cost of renting these models down,” Sengupta said. Considering that there is also a burgeoning market for scooters in the country, that could also be an area where Drivezy will get involved.

The pilot/expansion in the U.S. will come alongside building and hiring for an innovations lab in the country, a pattern that Drivezy will also be following when it expands in Asia, as well. Other countries where it plans to go this year, he said, include Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore.

It’s not often that you hear about startups out of India expanding to the U.S., so that in itself (in my opinion) is a great story about how the gravitational pull of the tech world has indeed shifted away from Silicon Valley. Ultimately, the international expansion to North America and other markets will serve a dual purpose for Drivezy. Not only will it help the company grow business, but it’s putting the company on the map, and that too will help attract more funding attention.

Creative agency Virtue introduces genderless voice Q to challenge biases in technology

Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant, Cortana and Bixby — almost all virtual assistants have something in common. Their default voices are women’s, though the role that plays in reinforcing gender stereotypes has been long documented, even inspiring the dystopian romance “Her.” Virtue, the creative agency owned by publisher Vice, wants to challenge the trend with a genderless voice called Q.

The project, done in collaboration with Copenhagen Pride, Equal AI, Koalition Interactive and thirtysoundsgood, wants technology companies to think outside the binary.

“Technology companies are continuing to gender their voice technology to fit scenarios in which they believe consumers will feel most comfortable adopting and using it,” says Q’s website. “A male voice is used in more authoritative roles, such as banking and insurance apps, and a female voice in more service-oriented roles, such as Alexa and Siri.”

To develop Q, Virtue worked with Anna Jørgensen, a linguist and researcher at the University of Copenhagen. They recorded the voices of five non-binary people, then used software to modulate the recordings to between 145-175 Hz, the range defined by researchers as gender neutral. The recordings were further refined after surveying 4,600 people and asking them to define the voices on a scale from 1 (male) to 5 (female).

Virtue is encouraging people to share Q with Apple, Amazon and Microsoft, noting that even when different options are given for voice assistants, they are still usually categorized as male or female. As the project’s mission statement puts it, “as society continues to break down the gender binary, recognizing those who neither identify as male nor female, the technology we create should follow.”