Myself and the inimitable Chris Velazco took to the TechCrunch TV screens to dig into the new Surface hardware that Microsoft announced today. Chris and I are both long-time Surface owners and users, so we speak with a bit experience and fondness.
The hardware, we surmise, is great, but we remain a bit unsure about the software that Microsoft has compiled for its tablet hybrids. Can the Windows Store provide enough application density and depth to allow for the Surface 2 to avoid the sins of its predecessor, the Surface RT? It remains an open question.
For more on the new Microsoft hardware, head here. And if you want a behind-the-scenes talk with the creators of Surface, I wrote this just for you.
For those who haven’t yet heard of FormaFina, think of it as the Fab of South America. The e-commerce startup, which sells curated, limited-run collections of decor products in Argentina and Brazil, has raised a seed round of $1.4 million to anchor itself in the Brazilian market.
FormaFina’s investors include Redpoint eVentures — a Silicon Valley fund dedicated solely to Brazilian startups — IG Angels, El Paso Advisors, Start Capital, 500 Startups, and Plug&Play. Several angel investors also participated in the round, including baby.com.br co-founder In Hsieh and Hans Hickler, formerly the head of DHL US.
With its limited-stock campaigns, FormaFina is capitalizing on exclusivity as a growing status symbol among the new rich of Argentina and Brazil, particularly women. This is in contrast to luxury goods like Gucci and Hermes handbags, which are instantly recognizable and pricey but relatively ubiquitous. The site typically runs 10-15 campaigns at once, each lasting 7-10 days with about 10 products per campaign.
FormaFina’s goods are significantly cheaper than offline alternatives that are subject to sky-high real estate and import taxes, but that’s not something they play up, said CEO and founder Nima Pourshasb.
Hickler helped set FormaFina up with a courier service with big discounts on standard rates, which keeps costs low. Items range in price from $20 to $5,000, with an average ticket price of $200. Gross margins are at 30 percent now, but Pourshasb said he thinks they can increase that to 40-50 percent by the end of the year.
FormaFina is aiming to make a dent in the South American curated e-commerce space while it is still relatively unpopulated. In addition to attending trade shows and reading design blogs, the site’s curators are looking to similar sites abroad for cues.
“They look at what other curators around the world are doing, and they review what Fab does. We have a lot of respect for what they’re doing. They look at Fancy very closely,” Pourshasb said.
While One Kings Lane and Fab don’t ship to South America, Fancy has expanded its shipping capabilities worldwide. Fancy’s site is also available in 33 languages — Portuguese and Spanish being two — with an option to request the addition of others. Although that makes it a viable competitor to FormaFina, the latter has the advantage of being South American first.
That said, Pourshasb said that he has always thought of FormaFina as a global company.
“We’re interested in starting with Latin America and going into Colombia and Mexico,” he said. “There’s a huge demand in those markets. Our plan would be to look into going into one other market, not before Q2 of 2014.”
They are aware of the risks of expanding too quickly, though, as many have said Fab has done. Logistics of international shipping can be tricky, Pourshasb explained, and managing different markets at one time can prove distracting.
FormaFina plans to have an iOS app out for Q1 of next year to accommodate the 20% of users who are shopping on mobile.
The Chinese government will allow access to some banned Web sites in the Shanghai Free-Trade Zone, including Facebook, Twitter and The New York Times, the South China Morning Post reports, citing anonymous government sources. We have emailed the three companies to ask for confirmation. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg met with the State Council Information Office in Beijing during her recent trip, but said she was there to promote the Chinese edition of “Lean In.” It’s unknown if the meeting was related to the lifting of the ban on Facebook in the free-trade zone.
Facebook and Twitter have been barred in mainland China since 2009, but many people still use VPNs and proxy servers to break through the Great Firewall of China, as the Golden Shield Project, the government’s Internet censorship program is nicknamed, and access the sites. Tech In Asia notes that the Fortune Global Forum 2013 conference, hosted by the city of Chengdu, had VPNs set up, as do many top hotels and office towers owned by Hong Kong companies. The New York Times was banned in October 2012 after publishing articles criticizing the family wealth of former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao (which also prompted a series of attacks on the paper’s servers by Chinese hackers).
First announced in July 2013, the Shanghai Free-Trade Zone was set up by the Chinese government as a way to see how economic and financial reforms might work in the rest of the country. The SCMP’s also reported that the zone’s authority will begin accepting bids from foreign companies for licenses to provide Internet services within the area. The Free-Trade Zone is currently 28.78 square kilometers, but will eventually cover all of Pudong district, which currently has a population of about 5 million. This means that they will compete with China’s three main carriers, China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom, all of which are state owned.
The decision to open access to Facebook, Twitter and the New York Times site was reportedly endorsed by Premier Li Keqiang and is part of an effort to spur interest from foreign investors in the Shanghai Free-trade Zone by making it more attractive for expats. It does not signify, however, a liberalization in the Chinese government’s attitude toward social media. The Communist Party is currently engaging in its most intense online crackdown ever. In recent months, it has detained Charles Xue, a Chinese-American entrepreneur who frequently posted political content to his 12 million followers on Sina Weibo, and allegedly forced real estate tycoon and prolific microblogger Pan Shiyi to film a TV interview about the dangers of social media.
Apple has re-issued the 6.0 update for Apple TV devices it released last week, after the original version’s many problems including slow downloads, library loss and even some apparent bricking led the company to pull it from servers. The update is back live now, with new features including access to the iTunes Music Store for actually purchasing tracks and albums from your device, and iTunes Radio, Apple’s new free streaming online music service.
Other new features included in the update are AirPlay from iCloud, which allows you to playback videos on your Apple TV that are stored in your iCloud purchase history direct to the device via streaming, without requiring it to reside locally on either (that needs to be turned on in settings). There’s also the addition of iCloud Photos and Videos, which essentially just rebrands Photo Stream, access to Podcasts and Podcast Stations, and a new conference room mode, which displays a custom background with instructions about connecting to the network and Apple TV device for guests or presenters who might want to use the attached A/V equipment.
None of the updates are super surprising, bringing support for features included in iOS 7, but the iCloud streaming playback offers Apple TV and AirPlay users one small feature the service was lacking compared to Google’s Chromecast, and the new conference room mode is actually a big boon for Apple in terms of selling these things through to enterprise and business users as support devices for throughout offices. The update also comes just ahead of what many predict will be a hardware refresh for the device in the next month or two.
The update is available now over-the-air, and should show up in Apple TV device settings screens. Bugs users were reporting earlier should be fixed, but let us know if you find otherwise.
Buying indie games online can be a hit-or-miss experience, often involving some hunting, but IndieGameStand has just launched a new centralized online store where you should be able to access just about anything you want to, given some time. Initially, IndieGameStand started off as a sort of flash secret sale club for indie gaming software, offering a specific title at any given time on a “pay what you want” model.
Now, it’s offering a full-fledged store, similar to Steam, but with a very different underlying mechanic and guiding philosophy. Steam has its Greenlight program, which makes indie titles vie with one another and essentially prove marketability before they get offered on its storefront, but IndieGameStand tells Escapist it will offer up its platform to any and all indie devs who want to participate. The entire process, from setting up an account to submitting games to getting them listed, can all happen with in single day.
IndieGameStand co-founder Mike Gnade told Escapist that their platform supports games at either the extreme alpha stage, or in ready-to-ship condition, and there’s another difference, too: Setting sale prices and durations are completely at the discretion of developers, which means that while the company itself isn’t planning to do broad, sweeping Steam-style sales, groups of developers could theoretically coordinate and offer discounts at the same time to achieve the same effect.
The IndieGameStand will still offer “pay what you want” deals, which pay 70 percent to developers, as well as 10 percent to a charity of the developer’s choosing and 20 percent to IGS itself, but the new store has a slightly different split, with 75 percent paid to devs and 25 percent paid to IGS. Steam and GOG both offer 70 percent to devs, while the Humble Store, which doesn’t actually have a consolidated storefront, offers a best-in-class 95 percent to devs, according to Fez’s Phil Fish.
That said, there is a launch sale that’s 14 titles strong going on right now, to celebrate the store’s debut. All told, there are 94 different games on IndieGameStand at launch, including celebrated recent indie hits like Proteus. If you’re looking for an indie gaming fix, you could always try Steam or GOG, but IndieGameStand is a great new option that will probably draw a lot of top-notch content.
The largest mobile messaging apps are increasingly social platforms in their own right. More evidence of that today as NHN Japan Corporation‘s Line – which had around 200 million registered users at the last count — has added yet another feature to its platform play in a v3.9.0 update to its iPhone app (Android users will get the update “in future”).
Snap Movie allows for Vine-style short video sharing, which gives Line users yet another way to communicate with each other without having to leave its social, entertainment playground.
Or, as Line puts it:
Now LINE users can participate in the global trend of sharing their own original video clip and BGM arrangements.
As with Twitter-owned Vine, Snap Movie lets iPhone users of Line create a short video for sharing that’s composed or one or more scenes by recording footage by holding their finger down on the screen. Line’s videos have a little more flexibility in length than Vine’s, which caps footage at six seconds and ties them into an automatic loop. Line Snap Movie videos can be between four and 10 seconds long.
Line also lets users add background music (that’s BGM in Line-speak) to accompany their footage. Or it lets users stick with the plain recorded audio. Snap Movies can be posted in Line chatrooms, to individual or group chats, to your Line home, or saved to your phone (but the latter option appears to only be available after you’ve posted the video somewhere within Line first).
The v3.9.0 update also adds a video calls feature to Line’s iPhone app — bringing it in line with rival messaging apps that were already offering video calling, such as WeChat and Viber (and indeed Apple’s own FaceTime iMessage offering).
Other new features in the updated Line iPhone app include a collaborative group photo album feature; privacy post tweaks so users can set the privacy level of individual Line Home posts; the ability to delete users from blocked/hidden lists; and also iOS 7 updates.
E-commerce giant eBay today made its latest moves to blur the lines between online and offline commerce, and it’s chosen the UK to do it: it launched a new “Click & Collect” service, where shoppers can buy goods from eBay online and then select a physical retail location where they can be delivered. On top of this, eBay said it will be bringing its same-day delivery option, eBay Now, to the UK, its first push outside of the U.S. for the service.
“Our eBay Now service is coming to Europe, starting with London next year,” eBay president Devin Wenig announced in a presentation in London today.
EBay has been working on Click & Connect for about a year already, and the UK is the first, but not only, market where eBay plans to take the service. Wenig told me the UK was selected for the debut because early trials showed UK shoppers to be the most receptive, with 40% opting for in-store pickups when they were offered, compared to just 7-8% of U.S. consumers.
“This is part of the bigger picture. This is the march around the world to bring offline and online together, and offer our consumers choice,” Wenig told me in an interview. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Click & Collect became a global option, along with eBay Now becoming a pretty global option. We are shrinking the gap…I definitely think we can export this to other places.”
Click & Collect it will operate on two levels: for large retailers who have physical stores and also sell on eBay, they can now give users the option to pick up goods in those stores instead of having them delivered. For smaller eBay merchants, eBay has struck a deal with the Argos chain of stores for home goods for users to get their ordered goods delivered there.
The Argos deal will cover, at first, 150 UK stores and some 50 eBay merchants, Wenig said. The idea is that this will give consumers who do not want to buy certain items with delayed delivery more convenience in getting those goods more instantly, coupling that with the physical retail shopping they’re going to do anyway.
EBay says that it will be working with a “trusted” national partner to help implement Click & Connect (and presumably the eBay Now delivery network), but has not named that company. Meanwhile, it has a relationship with collect.co.uk already for eBay sellers to drop off packages at a network of some 5,000 stores for posting to buyers.
Meanwhile, it makes sense for eBay to expand eBay Now to international markets, which make up some 64% of the company’s total revenues in its marketplace division. (For context, Marketplaces accounted for $2 billion of eBay’s $3.9 billion in revenue last quarter.)
Up to today, eBay Now has been growing only in the U.S., first opening for business in San Francisco in August 2012. It now works in a few other cities, including Chicago, Dallas, and the wider New York and Bay Area regions. And eBay has also expanded eBay Now from a mobile-only product to one that also can be used on the desktop.
While eBay Now is a competitor against the likes of Amazon Prime and (to a lesser extent) Google Shopping Express, Click & Collect is more akin (but not the same as) the delivery locker services that these rivals have rolled out. Amazon Locker is live in the UK, while Google has yet to extend its BufferBox-fuelled service outside of the U.S. and Canada. Another UK competitor that works across more than just those walled gardens is My ByBox.
A new way to shop, and a new chapter for fulfilment, too
Wenig says that between eBay Now and Click & Collect, it may not be moving into locker services any time soon. “Lockers is not something right now that we’re exploring, but we’re following where our customers will take us. Think of Click & Collect as lockers with a sales associate attached to it. I’m not sure if [also offering lockers] is a choice that they need.”
While different locker services give consumer the convenience of being able to get deliveries of online goods to secure locations without having to be around to sign for them, Click & Collect is attempting to do something more: it’s trying to get those consumers specifically into retail locations, where they may potentially do more shopping.
“This new way to shop — with different online merchants and collection at convenient locations — could create immense opportunities for sellers,” said Wenig today.
With Click & Collect, pick-up is one aspect of the service; the other is that merchants are also working with Argos (and maybe others in the future) for the actual fulfilment of those orders. That is to say, if you buy a blender from an eBay merchant that is offering Click & Connect through Argos, that merchant sources the blender from Argos stock.
“Argos will have a separate part of their warehouse for merchants who sell on eBay,” Wenig told me. “They will have just-in-time inventory to meet orders.” He explained that since Argos already has a courier network, this will also help move items between different retail locations. This will mean that “high velocity” items (his term) will be available quickly for those buying online, “within an hour or something like that.” Less popular items may take longer to fulfil. It sounds like stock info for now may be real-time, too.
The move is an interesting one both for eBay and for the physical stores with which it will partner.
For eBay, it brings the company closer to where most people are still spending the vast majority of their money. For example, stats out from the U.S. Census Bureau in August note that in Q2 of this year $64.8 billion was spent in e-commerce. But total retail sales were $1,126.2 billion. In other words, only 5.75% of retail sales in the U.S., one of the bigger e-commerce markets, are online.
But for brick-and-mortar retailers, the longer-term writing is on the wall. Online continues to grow faster than offline (5% versus 1%, says the USCB), and at a time when many physical retailers are seeing stagnant growth or even declines in sales, it’s important for brick-and-mortar companies to continue embracing avenues like the Internet to connect with users. You could argue that is was also part of the logic behind why another UK retailer, Tesco, yesterday announced its first tablet product, Hudl.
This is, by far, not eBay’s first move to connect better with the high street. PayPal’s here mobile payment solution puts eBay right at the point of sale for transactions with smaller merchants. And eBay has also created a touchscreen store window for Kate Spade Saturday to browse items, and check-in and QR Code services to quickly check for and buy items online.