Singapore startup Viki aims to take local TV global

Viki has long interested me and their deal with Warner offered a news peg: 

Who would want to watch a South Korean soap that was a flop back home?

Lots of people, it turns out – something that Singapore-based startup Viki feels vindicates its business model: an ad-supported streaming TV and movie site where unpaid fans add the foreign subtitles.

“We call it content arbitrage,” said Razmig Hovaghimian, Viki CEO and co-founder. “Ninety percent of content is trapped within borders. We’re taking things that aren’t travelling and making them go places.”

The service plays on a number of trends both in Asia and worldwide: a passion for watching video over the Internet; a growing interest in content from other countries; and the emergence of more sophisticated software to spread the burden of laborious tasks like subtitling.

Viki provides a platform that pulls together two traditional strangers: broadcasters and other video producers who license out content to territories where there are no existing rights with local broadcasters, and volunteer “fansubbers” who translate and write subtitles in any language they want.

Viki then inserts ads and provides the streaming service, and shares the ad revenue with the broadcasters.

Take, for example, that Korean flop, “Playful Kiss”. Ratings sank below 5 percent when it was aired during primetime in Korea in 2010, says Hovaghimian, when a top drama might capture up to 30 percent of viewers. But on Viki it topped the site’s charts for several months and was translated into 56 languages.

The company behind the show made “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in ad revenue and was able to secure rebroadcast deals with 10 countries it would otherwise never have reached, Hovaghimian said. The broadcaster wasn’t eating into existing audiences, it was finding value in new ones. “We’re increasing the size of the pie for you, we’re not cannibalizing,” he says.

Rest of the story: Singapore startup Viki aims to take local TV global | Reuters

Samsung and phone companies [BBC]

This is a piece I’m recording for the BBC World Service. It’s based loosely on my piece about possible limits to Samsung’s impressive foray into smartphones. 

The interesting thing about covering technology for a living is that while pretty much every company within the sector is very, very different, all are, or want to be, the same.

Take a mobile phone manufacturer like Samsung. These guys are huge and have gotten huge very fast. In the first quarter of 2011 they shipped fewer smartphones than Apple, Nokia or Research in Motion, but in the most recent quarter shipped more than any of them. Needless to say they’ve very happy. But actually this success presents them with a huge problem. Because it turns out that making cellphones isn’t enough.

First is the problem of the software that run Samsung phones . After all a phone is just a chip or two, a screen, a battery, a microphone, a speaker, a case. Without software they just make useful paperweights.

Nearly all Samsung’s phones run on Google’s Android operating system. Which is free. Except of course it’s not. Because Google knows that the software is in some ways more important than the hardware. Ever tried to get an Android phone going without signing up for a Google account? Can you hear the clink clink of ad revenue dropping into Google’s pocket?

Samsung is an excellent maker of things, but not very good at making software. So it saves money, time and the groans of dissatisfied users by running Android on its phones. But the company  knows that this is not a good way to go in the long run, because you may end up like one of those PC makers back in the 1990s. What we call a commodity manufacturer, indistinguishable from other PC manufacturers, with price to reflect it.

So part of the problem for Samsung is not hardware but software. Then there’s another problem.

When we used computers in the old days they pretty much stood alone. Microsoft sold us Office, maybe a game or two and the thing sat alone in the corner of the room gathering dust. Nowadays every device is connected to the Internet, and we expect to be able to use that connection to interact with other people, download software, play games andbuy stuff and generally facilitate our lives.

What supports all this is an ecosystem. Payments, catalogues, developers, marketplaces, digital goods. Think Amazon. Think Apple’s iTunes and AppStore. Every Samsung phone connects to this world but most do it without Samsung seeing a cent.

Of course Samsung is trying to fix this. It has a store, it has content, it’s even hoping people will buy a smart TV that’s connected to the Internet and will let you move stuff between a Samsung TV and a Samsung smartphone.

The trouble now is, everyone wants this. A mobile phone maker wants to be a content seller, a search engine wants to have its own cellphone and operating system, an online store wants to sell its own tablet, a tablet maker wants to own its own network. No one player with big dreams can afford not to think in terms of owning the whole nine yards—the whole chain in which we the consumer live. To settle for anything less may end up meaning you settle for nothing, as just a commodity supplier of hardware, or content, or software to the others.

This is great for me as a reporter because every step takes us into uncharted territory. There are no maps for this anymore, and it will only get more interesting. 

ZTE confirms security hole in U.S. phone

This is a piece I wrote with my colleague Lee Chyen Yee on the ZTE vulnerability. 

ZTE Corp, the world’s No.4 handset vendor and one of two Chinese companies under U.S. scrutiny over security concerns, said one of its mobile phone models sold in the United States contains a vulnerability that researchers say could allow others to control the device.

The hole affects ZTE’s Score model that runs on Google Inc’s Android operating system and was described by one researcher as “highly unusual.”

“I’ve never seen it before,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder of cybersecurity firm, CrowdStrike. The hole, usually called a backdoor, allows anyone with the hardwired password to access the affected phone, he added.

Read the rest at ZTE confirms security hole in US phone

 

Facebook can’t take Asian growth for granted

A piece I wrote ahead of Facebook’s IPO, casting a skeptical eye over assumptions that Asia would continue to be a source of major growth for the company.

Even as Facebook fever grips investors ahead of the social networking giant’s potential $100 billion-plus initial public offering, its breakneck growth in Asia may be slowing as it moves beyond desktop users to those who access the Internet largely or solely from a mobile phone.

In March, Facebook revised its own SEC filings to scale back its scope for further growth in India – its third-biggest user base and the largest population it currently has access to – China remains off-limits to Facebook. And independent data show that user numbers in Indonesia and the Philippines, its other largest Asia user bases, have actually fallen off slightly in the past three months.

“If you’ve been growing at such a huge amount it will definitely trail off,” said Ganesh Kumar Bangah, Kuala Lumpur-based CEO of online payment provider MOL Global. “You can’t expect it to keep growing.”

Read the rest: Analysis: Facebook can’t take Asian growth for granted

Podcast: Cameras

The BBC World Service Business Daily version of my piece on cameras. (The Business Daily podcast is here. Script is here.)

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To listen to Business Daily on the radio, tune into BBC World Service at the following times, or click here.

Australasia: Mon-Fri 0141*, 0741

East Asia: Mon-Fri 0041, 1441
South Asia: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741
East Africa: Mon-Fri 1941
West Africa: Mon-Fri 1541*
Middle East: Mon-Fri 0141*, 1141*
Europe: Mon-Fri 0741, 2132
Americas: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741, 1041, 2132

Thanks to the BBC for allowing me to reproduce it as a podcast.

Cameras [BBC column]

This is the script for a piece I recorded for the BBC World Service. It’ s based on a piece I wrote for my employer, Reuters.

We always assume that when a new technology comes along it will displace the old. And that tends to be the case. But displace doesn’t mean delete, remove, consign to the dustpile–which is often what we mean. Radio didn’t obliterate books or newspapers, TV didn’t obliterate radio. The Internet hasn’t obliterated any of them–although if you’re in TV, radio, newspapers or book publishing, you probably feel a bit obliterated. There will still be all those things, though they’ll have to make way for a digital, online world.

The same is true of cameras. Many of us assumed that just as film gave way to digital photos, so would the camera give way to the cameraphone. After all, who wants to carry more than one gadget around with them? Well, it turns out, quite a lot of us. Instead of a camera in a phone obliterating the need for a camera, we took so many pictures with our camera phone that we started wanting to take better photos. So we bought a better camera.

There’s another conundrum here, too. We thought that because all these camera phones could take video, people would be more interested in video than still photography. That’s also turned out not to be true. Sure, we get out the video camera out for Junior’s role in the school play, but for the most part we take still photos because they’re easier to upload, less time consuming to look at. When we do upload video it’s in short bursts, and of something noteworthy. In short, we use our digital gadgets not to build up a mass of memories but to select and share the best ones.

In other words, we are finding ways of coping with this digital cornucopia–where we can capture, store, and upload pretty much everything by focusing on quality rather than quantity. However good our mobile phone is at taking photos, we still think a dedicated camera, with a better lens and innards, will do a better job. We don’t want 1000s of photos–we want the best one. Same with video. We don’t have time to edit hours of footage down to something watchable, so we record video sparingly, and don’t dare subject our Facebook friends to anything longer than a minute.

I don’t know if there’s a law of digital disruption in here, but for sure there are lessons. First off is that people are happy to carry more than one gadget around with them if they think they serve a purpose. Second, the more they do of something the more they want to explore it–so long as they can see an uptick in the quality of the outcome.

And finally, we’re learning how to harness the expected tidal wave of data by using technology to filter out the stuff we don’t need, while ensuring that what we do keep is the best. It’s not surprising, then, that the makes of camera we rely on today are brands our parents would recognise: brands such as Nikon, Canon and Fuji. While the technologies may have changed the way we store and share pictures, the way we take them hasn’t.

Social media stress? There’s an app for that

A piece on how one marketing company is capitalizing on what it says is growing stress among social media users. 

Nestle, purveyor of the decades-old KitKat snack, has launched an app it says addresses a growing problem among young social media users – giving them a break from the stress of posting updates by doing it for them.

The software, Social Break, automatically sends random updates to users’ Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts. It will be officially launched in Singapore later this week and is free to download from kitkat.com.sg/socialbreak.

While the application is a tongue-in-cheek marketing gimmick, the developers behind the software, ad agency JWT, say it also highlights a serious problem among younger users, especially in Asia: growing stress about time spent maintaining a presence on social networks.

JWT surveyed 900 19-26 year olds in China, Singapore and the United States and found that more than half considered it too time-consuming to keep up with all their social media commitments and conceded that the time they spent on such sites had a negative impact on their job or studies.

More at Social media stress? There’s an app for that 

In a Samsung Galaxy far, far away … will Android still rule?

A piece I wrote on potential roadbumps in Samsung’s ride to smartphone dominance. 

Samsung Electronics is the world’s largest smartphone manufacturer and biggest user of Google’s Android operating system.

And, for some, that’s the problem.

Samsung’s meteoric rise – in the first quarter of 2011 it shipped fewer smartphones than Apple, Nokia or Research in Motion, but is now market leader – has handed it a dilemma. Does it risk becoming a commodity manufacturer of hardware, squeezed like the PC makers of old between narrowing margins and those who control the software that makes their devices run, or does it try to break into other parts of the business – the so-called mobile ecosystem?

“It comes down to this sense of what it is they want to be,” said Tony Cripps, principal analyst at Ovum. “Do they really want to be one of the power players or are they happy enabling someone else’s ecosystem?”

To be sure, Samsung isn’t in any kind of trouble, and isn’t likely to be so any time soon. Later on Thursday, it will launch the Galaxy S3, the latest addition to its flagship range of smartphones. Juniper Research expects Samsung to remain the No.1 smartphone manufacturer this quarter. The next iPhone upgrade is expected around the third quarter.

“Android has done wonders for them,” says India-based Gartner analyst Anshul Gupta.

But still the company has its critics. They worry that Samsung has yet to address the central contradiction of it making devices that use someone else’s operating system. By licensing the free Android OS from Google, Samsung saves itself millions of dollars in software development costs and license fees, but leaves itself dependent on Google.

More at In a Samsung Galaxy far, far away … will Android still rule? | Reuters