Amazon is today bringing its Prime Music streaming service to the UK, in a bid to battle Apple Music and Spotify on an international level.
Amazon, which started life as an online book retailer 20 years ago, has today grown into an online behemoth, selling streaming subscriptions to movies, TV shows and music, among many other things. Its music streaming service, which pumps music directly to your computer or smartphone, was launched in the US in June of last year and is now making its way to the UK, where it will be competing with popular service Spotify and Apple’s own recently-launched music service.
Access to Prime Music comes via Amazon’s Prime membership, which costs £79 a year ($99 in the US), and also opens the doors to Amazon Prime Instant Video, which is the company’s streaming video service, as well as faster delivery for physical items
With the battle for streaming supremacy heating up across the globe, Amazon will be hoping that Prime customers in the UK who may be as-yet undecided will ally themselves with the service they’re already paying for, rather than splash out extra on Spotify or Apple Music. Keeping Prime customers happy — and attracting new ones — is crucial to Amazon’s growth plans, as Prime customers tend to spend nearly twice as much on Amazon every year than non-Prime customers.
Prime Music lets you download tracks to your phone for offline listening, and will be available through the Amazon Music app for Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android mobile operating systems. It’ll also be making an appearance on Fire TV, the Fire TV Stick, as well as Amazon’s Fire HD and HDX tablets, and the Fire phone. Amazon is offering Brits playlists curated by British music industry experts, and says that Prime Stations — the algorithmically-driven playlists that are currently available to US customers — will be coming to the UK version in time. Amazon says it’s only extending its streaming offering to the UK for now.
Prime Music boasts over 1 million tracks, which isn’t as large a catalogue as Spotify or Apple Music. Amazon however points out that its two major streaming rivals have a higher annual subscription cost of £120 (or $120 in the US), and says that it’s not competing head-to-head with Apple Music and Spotify, with Paul Firth, head of music for Amazon UK telling CNET, “We don’t need them to fail for us to win.”
Periscope’s latest version for iOS comes with a handful of useful features, including one for folks suffering from notification overload. Now, you can “mute” broadcasters you follow so you don’t get pinged every single time they go live. Don’t worry about missing their shows, though — their updates will still appear on your feed. The global feed has also been revamped to feature broadcasts relevant to your interests and language preference. Plus, you can now take advantage of iOS 8’s Handoff feature, which means that you can start watching a show on an iPhone or an iPad and transition to a MacBook without issues, and vice versa. Android users might notice that the the revamped global feed is now also available on their devices, and Periscope promises that the mute option will soon follow it to Google’s platform.
Excited about Samsung’s annual Galaxy Note debut at the IFA conference in September? Don’t be. Samsung is moving the whole production up two weeks and changing venues from Berlin to New York.
Invitations to Samsung Unpacked, set for August 13 at Lincoln Center, arrived in our inboxes on Monday. The event kicks off at 11 a.m. Eastern, and doors open at 10 a.m. (As always, CNET will cover the event live.)
Although Samsung isn’t saying so for sure, we’d bet the bank it’ll introduce the next in its line of large-screen phones: the stylus-toting, multitasking Galaxy Note 5 “phablet.” Samsung also could show off a new Galaxy S6 Edge Plus, which whispers and leaks point to as a handset with a 5.7-inch screen that curves over on both sides.
New York is an unexpected location for this launch; for the past four years, Samsung has made the Note series synonymous with the IFA trade show in Berlin. The event typically takes place at the beginning of September and is followed closely by Apple’s fall iPhone launch. Introducing its newest phones earlier gives Samsung a jump on Apple and allows its devices to dominate the news instead of being pushed aside by the latest iPhone.
However, Samsung unveilings and New York do share some history. In 2013, the electronics giant staged a notoriously controversial Broadway-style kickoff for the Samsung Galaxy S4 flagship, temporarily skipping Samsung’s typical Mobile World Congress event. It also introduced its Galaxy Tab S tablet in New York last year and has introduced various televisions, home appliances and other products in the city.
Samsung also has centered its US business in the New York City area, with operations in both Manhattan and New Jersey. The company in June officially opened its Global Marketing Center of Excellence, or COE, in New York’s Meatpacking District. The COE occupies three floors of office space at a new building that will feature an executive briefing center, “experiential product showcase” and event space when it’s completed later this year.
Microsoft hasn’t been shy to create miscellaneous software for Android. In the past, the company’s released a smart lock screen and even made a keyboard designed to be used with Excel. Now Microsoft is working on its own Android launcher, currently dubbed Arrow Launcher Beta. As the name reveals, this is an early version of the product, and you can only get access to it by signing up for an invite to the testing program. So how does it work? The Arrow Launcher is sleek and straightforward, offering a quick view of three main pages: People, Apps and Notes Reminders. Those pages, according to Microsoft News, can’t be removed or have others added to them — likely to keep things concise. You can give it a try by downloading the APK, but you’ll need to request a proper invite to receive updates after the install.
HANOI and HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam, and SAN FRANCISCO — It was just supposed to be a casual cocktail meetup.
Before embarking on a 19-hour trip to Vietnam, I headed over to the Vietnamese General Consulate, a mere 15-minute cab ride away from the CNET offices in San Francisco. I imagined it as a fun way to ease into my assignment — a few good drinks and conversation with folks who knew a thing or two about the country I was about to visit.
Instead I arrived at what appeared to be a formal business meeting between two-dozen or so black-suited Vietnamese ministry officials, Vietnamese startup types and Silicon Valley angel investors. My only drink: A mini bottle of water.
At first, I wasn’t sure what I had wandered into. But it quickly became clear that I had been invited to observe a brainstorming session for Vietnamese officials to grill American angel investors on how the whole startup world works in the US. Their ultimate goal is to replicate what Silicon Valley has done very well: Building the next Facebook or Dropbox.
“I would like to bring the culture from Silicon Valley into Vietnam,” said Thach Le Anh, the US-educated businesswoman who serves as head of Vietnam Silicon Valley, or VSV, a government-sponsored group that funds and mentors startups. “We want to bring the very different culture, very independent thinking and dreaming” to Vietnam.
VSV is part of a broader push by the country to transform itself into a more technically savvy hub of innovation. The country is already home to a number of the world’s largest consumer-electronics companies, which have brought manufacturing jobs and investment in resources. But Vietnam wants more: It’s not enough that its citizens build televisions and smartphones; the country wants to foster the creation of billion-dollar startups that can change the world, while at the same time boosting the national economy.
“We’re beginning the project to try to encourage investors to invest in startups and the entrepreneurship space in Vietnam,” Tran Van Tung, Vietnam’s deputy minister of science and technology, said through an interpreter. “We’d like to develop an ecosystem where it would be really rewarding for investors and angels, as well as contribute investments into the country.”
Vietnam might succeed, if it can get out of its own way. Strict and often confusing regulations limit homegrown companies, while corruption — such as extorting companies for money — remains a reality. Venture capitalists are rare, as Vietnamese investors would rather plow their savings into real estate instead of startups. And there’s not a good ecosystem for funding and expanding companies. Because of all this, few Vietnamese companies have been able to move outside Southeast Asia and become household names.
That doesn’t mean Vietnam isn’t trying.
Not just another cog in the wheel
Over the past decade, Vietnam has expanded beyond its traditional textiles and coffee businesses to become a big player in the electronics manufacturing supply chain. Many of the world’s smartphones are now assembled in the country, and giants such as Samsung have been growing their operations in Vietnam. The country, still run by a conservative Communist government, is now trying to figure out how to move beyond being just another cog in the manufacturing wheel.
Enter VSV, an ambitious initiative backed by the Vietnamese government since mid-2013. It gives entrepreneurs funding to get their ideas off the ground, helps them make business plans and connects startups with potential customers and investors. VSV operates an accelerator that spawned nine consumer and business-centric startups in its first session last summer. Other batches will emerge this year.
To learn from the US, VSV sent 12 delegates from Vietnam — including the deputy minister of science and technology — on a weeklong “study tour” of the San Francisco Bay Area and New York. That included talking with investors, big corporations and startups about how to drum up interest in Vietnamese companies — and what role the government should play in helping and funding them. The trip was a sort of scouting visit for another tour, a group that would include the head of Vietnam’s ministry of science and technology.
After the nearly two-hour meeting in San Francisco ended, I caught up with Pham Hong Quat, director general of the National Agency for Technology Entrepreneurship and Commercialization, a branch of the Vietnam Ministry of Science and Technology. Why, I asked, is the government supporting startups? Isn’t that basically the opposite of what the Vietnamese government has stood for?
He barely reacts to my questions — he’s clearly been asked this many times before.
“The young generation now in Vietnam, they have big dreams and ambitions to be successful entrepreneurs, to get money from technology,” Quat said. “It’s different from the traditional way to be an employee for a big company. So I would like to support them.”
“Everyone’s an entrepreneur”
It’s that last thought that sticks with me as I finally make my way to Vietnam. “Everyone in Vietnam is an entrepreneur,” more than one person told me during my stay there. Even Ted Osius, the US ambassador to Vietnam, has pointed out the country’s entrepreneurial spirit and its “dynamism.” I don’t have to look farther than the street food stands crowding every block in Hanoi or the dozens of tailor shops in Hoi An in central Vietnam to understand.
Over the past couple of years, a new wave of startups and entrepreneurs have emerged in Vietnam. Call it the “Flappy Bird Effect,” named for the mobile game that went viral last year before its Hanoi-based creator, Nguyen Ha Dong, pulled it from Apple’s App Store for being “too addictive.” At the game’s peak, Dong was making about $50,000 a day in advertising — the amount a typical Vietnamese worker earns over nearly three decades.
“No moment in Vietnam’s startup history for the last 10 years could be so monumental and magical” as the Flappy Bird success, wrote Anh-Minh Do, an editor of the Tech In Asia blog, a news site and one of the few English-language sites tracking Vietnamese startups.
Entrepreneurs I met in Vietnam either admired Dong’s success or derided his app for being mediocre and “something anyone can do,” as one would-be app developer put it. But they couldn’t avoid talking about it. Flappy Bird stands as the shining example of a Vietnamese product that went global and did so very quickly.
An overnight success like Flappy Bird is the exception to the rule. Even if other Vietnamese companies make it to US shores, it likely won’t happen soon.
“Vietnam takes time,” said Pham Hop Pho, vice president of IDG Ventures Vietnam, the first venture capital firm in Vietnam. “It’s a get-rich-slowly country.”
The funding gap
The startup world in the US is a complex web of venture capital firms, angel investors, crowdfunding and entrepreneurs working together (or against each other) to ensure up-and-coming businesses get the proper funding. Vietnam’s funding realm can’t compare.
When IDG Ventures Vietnam opened its shop with a $100 million fund in 2004, it found a populace that was unaware of the concept of a venture fund. “We translated the words ‘venture capital’ into Vietnamese,” University of Southern California-educated Pho said. “There was no word for ‘VC.’ A lot of people thought we were selling insurance because the word sounds similar.”
The VC firms in Vietnam today largely focus on funding startups early. But that presents a challenge for companies when they get bigger and need to raise more money. They don’t have a lot of options like in developed nations.
Part of the problem with securing funding in Vietnam is it’s hard to have a successful “exit.” Until going public or being acquired becomes common in Vietnam, investors don’t know when, or even if, they’ll get a return on their investment.
“How do we get our money out?” Pho said. “That part needs to be a lot clearer than it is now.”
Tapping into the US investor scene isn’t easy for companies without connections there. “If I were to invest in a Vietnam company today, I would not know where to start,” Etienne Deffarges, president of the Harvard Business School Alumni Angels Association, said during the VSV event in San Francisco. “I’ve been to the country, but I don’t know anything about startups in Vietnam.”
Raising Vietnam’s profile
Making US investors aware of Vietnam was a big reason for VSV’s visit. It certifies companies that have been through its accelerator in hopes investors will be more comfortable with giving them money — giving them a sort of Vietnam seal of approval.
“It’s really difficult to find an investor and to convince them to believe in our vision and to put some investment in our project,” said Sarrie Bui, who will be taking part in VSV’s upcoming accelerator program, both for the funding but also for the mentorship offered by VSV. When she applied for the VSV accelerator early this year, all she had was an idea for an Etsy-like e-commerce site that would connect makers and artists in Southeast Asia with buyers all over the globe. But VSV will help her launch her site, TheHandmark.com.
Vietnam’s booming manufacturing sector (pictures)
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“E-commerce is now one of the things the government pays attention to,” she said. VSV will help “in terms of knowledge, how to make it really happen.”
Whether US investors are comforted or concerned by the Vietnam government’s involvement is a whole other question. Most foreign investments in startups in Vietnam today are coming from other Asian countries, like Japan.
When it comes to government involvement in startups, there are two primary models to consider — the US version where the government is mostly hands-off, or the Chinese model where the government directly supports startups. Earlier this year, China set up a $6.5 billion government venture capital fund to “support fledging startups in emerging industries.” Other countries that have given government support to tech companies include Israel, Japan and South Korea — all places where tech is booming.
Vietnam reportedly may set up a VC fund of its own by the end of the year, and VSV gives out seed funding of at least $10,000 to each of its accelerator participants. The government also sponsors university incubators, workshops and startup competitions. But right now the overall government is following a sort of hybrid model — not fully supportive like China but not fully hands-off like the US, either.
Government involvement is something some local entrepreneurs see as essential. Before participating in the VSV accelerator, Nguyen Ngoc Tuan tried to find other investors for his site that helps companies recruit new hires “but failed because they required a business plan, financial plan, valuing the company, and it was difficult for us to evaluate our company at that time,” he said.
Tuan ended up participating in the four-month-long accelerator bootcamp in Hanoi last summer, learning how to make a business plan and market his product, originally called Astro Telligent but rebranded Jobwise.com in time for its launch this month. VSV invested $13,000 for a 10 percent stake in his company (though Tuan had to pay $3,000 back to the group to cover the bootcamp cost), and it connected him with his first big customer — Vietnam International Bank. It also helped Tuan raise $80,000 after the bootcamp at an $800,000 valuation.
“Vietnam Silicon Valley is very good for startups,” he said.
For Vietnam to reach its goal of having 5,000 functioning tech companies by 2020, it has some work to do. Tech in Asia estimates the current number of startups is between 1,000 and 2,000, though it’s difficult to gauge. “Assuming that Vietnam pumps millions more dollars into this sector, then the 5,000 number is achievable,” said Do, an editor at the site. “If not, it’s just a pipe dream.”
Starting a sizable state-sponsored VC fund would be one way to get the market going. And making sure the Vietnamese government earmarks millions for startups was part of VSV’s goal with its US tour. It hopes to raise $3 million to co-invest in its accelerator over the next five years, and it’s pushing the government to support even more incubators and efforts to help startups.
TechElite, a three-year-old startup whose CEO graduated from Stanford in 2012, is one of the rare Vietnamese companies to have funding from two angel investors in Silicon Valley. But the Hanoi company, which initially created an Eventbrite-like event ticketing and management system, turned to VSV when it came time to raise more cash to develop its new idea — WorkDone, software that helps companies manage their employees. The founders joined last year’s accelerator program and raised about $350,000 at a $1.8 million valuation.
“With VSV, we do not have to care too much about meeting with investors, because they can help us a lot with…potential people who can invest,” said Pham Kim Hung, the CEO who spent five years in Silicon Valley before co-founding TechElite back in Vietnam. “The government has to join and support startups in some way. It’s critical for startups in Vietnam.”
Tune back to CNET’s Road Trip on Monday for the second part of a tour of startups in Vietnam, in which CNET visits a few companies that are trying to make it without government assistance, and chronicles some of the challenges they face.
Correction at 11:10 a.m. PT: Fixes amount that TechElite has raised.
Correction at 11:35 p.m. PT: Fixes name of Tech In Asia editor.
It’s not coated in gold, but Samsung’s newest screen — a monitor this time — packs wireless charging for mobile phones (and other Qi-compatible gadgets. (Yes, functionality you’d actually want in your office monitor… if you have a wirelessly charging phone.) The full-HD 24-inch S24E370DL and 27-inch S27E370DS displays come with AMD’s anti-flicker gaming tech as well as 178-degree viewing angles. Samsung’s not offered a date or country for release, but we’d expect it to appear (somewhere!) by the end of the year. Expect a steady trickle of new products from the company: it’s gearing up for Europe’s biggest electronics show, IFA, which kicks off in September. Samsung fridges! Washing machines! Conceptual laptops! And possibly a new Galaxy smartphone. If you’re good.