Google Play unveils its first original podcast series, ‘City Soundtracks’

Google Play is adding its first original podcast series, called “City Soundtracks,” to its music service, Google announced this morning. The series will feature interviews with various musicians about how their hometowns influenced their work, including the people and the moments that had an impact.

The podcasts will be hosted by Hrishikesh Hirway – a name that may already be familiar to podcast listeners thanks to his other involvements in this space, including with the “The West Wing Weekly,” which discusses the TV show, and “Song Exploder,” where musicians take apart their songs piece-by-piece.

“City Soundtracks” will be a mix of both conversation and music, says Google. The episodes themselves are fairly short so far – with the longest one being just over 15 minutes.

In addition, Google has come up with an interesting way to connect its new original series to the other music offered on Google Play. Each episode of “City Soundtracks” will be paired with a playlist created by the podcast’s guest – turning the listening experience into one of music discovery, as well.

The first few episodes of “City Soundtracks” are available now, featuring chats with Kehlani, Big Freedia, and Spoon, who will discuss the cities of Oakland, New Orleans, and Austin, respectively.

Google’s entry into original content comes at a time when the top streaming music services are trying to differentiate themselves by introducing their own exclusive content to complement their music libraries, podcasts, and video content.

For example, Spotify just last month announced several new originals podcasts which focus on topics like music’s intersection with pop culture, music festivals, and the makings of top hip hop stars. Plus, the company had previously stepped into original content last year with a dozen music-themed video series, some of which were better than others.

Meanwhile, Apple has been developing its own original shows to complement Apple Music. It bought the rights to “Carpool Karaoke,” and it’s behind the Shark Tank-like reality program, “Planet of the Apps.” Apple is also reportedly working on a scripted original drama, Dr. Dre’s “Vital Signs.”

These efforts are meant to entice consumers to the service in question by offering them content they couldn’t get anywhere else. That’s not quite the case with Google Play’s new series, however – anyone can listen to the show, provided they’re signed in with their Google account. (And it’s on iTunes.) Instead, this feels more like Google testing the waters with original content, instead of a larger effort to compete with streaming rivals.

Paytm to Invest Rs. 600 Crores in QR Code-Based Payment Solution

Mobile payment and e-commerce platform Paytm on Monday announced that it will invest Rs. 600 crores in its QR code-based payment solution to enable digital payments for merchants across India.

Paytm’s QR code-based solution is already powering more than five million merchants and is used by consumers to pay at kirana (grocery) stores, tolls, food courts, hospitals, and retail outlets.

Paytm to Invest Rs. 600 Crores in QR Code-Based Payment Solution

“Our zero percent merchant transaction fee coupled with an aggressive merchant acquisition rate, will help us take QR code based payments to every nook and corner of country,” said Kiran Vasireddy, Senior Vice President, Paytm, in a statement.

Currently, the Paytm app is available in 10 regional languages, including Hindi, to make digital payments accessible to all.

Within a year of launch of its QR code-based offline payments, it already contributes around 65 percent of overall transactions on its platform, the company said.

Separately, RBI’s Deputy Governor R Gandhi on Monday launched BharatQR code in Mumbai, an interoperable and low cost payment acceptance solution, developed by National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI), MasterCard, and Visa.

With BharatQR, the consumers will not need to scan different quick response (QR) codes at the same merchant provided by the different payment networks. The merchants will only need to display one QR code at the storefront or through the acquiring bank’s mobile application. The interoperable payment acceptance solution works with MasterCard, RuPay, and Visa accounts.

WhatsApp Status Revamp Goes Official, Changes the Way You Use the Messaging App

WhatsApp has given its users a new way to keep sharing their everyday experiences with their contacts with its newly revamped Status feature. The overhauled WhatsApp Status feature – which has been rumoured for a long time – completely changes the way you the Status function of the app works. So, instead of the boring old ‘Hey there, I’m using WhatsApp’, you can share videos or other multimedia content with your friends and family using WhatsApp. Moreover, you can update your status multiple times a day, keeping the engagement level high for your content.

WhatsApp Status Revamp Goes Official, Changes the Way You Use the Messaging App

What’s New in WhatsApp Status?

To encourage this increase in engagement with the popular app, your Status will no longer be a boring text message – instead you get to express yourself using a short video.

But videos are not all, as you can also share photos and GIFs as your WhatsApp Status. These WhatsApp Status updates will be visible to all your contacts using the app, and will disappear after 24 hours.

WhatsApp Product Manager Randall Sarafa told Gadgets 360 that the new WhatsApp Status combines three existing features – broadcast lists, media sharing, and, of course, Status.

WhatsApp Becoming More Like a Social Network

The WhatsApp Status videos look similar to Instagram Stories, which in turn was of course heavily ‘inspired’ by Snapchat’s feature of the same name. The new Status implementation by WhatsApp represents a move away from the traditional messaging app model that the company had by and large stuck to until now, and is an attempt to add more social-networking capabilities to the messaging app.

The essence of the revamped WhatsApp Status is that you broadcast regular updates to your friends, who then share their comments or reactions. The one difference here is any replies that your friends send to Status updates are visible only to you, in your Chat with that friend, with a message that indicates which WhatsApp Status update they are replying to. In contrast, the replies and comments you get on Facebook updates, Instagram posts or tweets are visible to everyone.

WhatsApp UI has been updated to accommodate the new features. With video now meant to be a big part of the WhatsApp experience thanks to Status updates, the built-in camera gets a prominent icon of its own. The idea behind the change, Sarafa says, is to get users to share stuff with people “without thinking about which chat window to share it with”. So, instead of first picking a chat and then triggering the camera from there like you typically do, you are now encouraged to shoot first, and figure out the sharing options later.

How to Use New WhatsApp Status Features

As you would expect, Status gets a tab of its own, in between Chats and Calls. It’s easy to create Status messages, especially if you’ve used the aforementioned Stories feature in either Snapchat or Instagram. WhatsApp Status updates you create are visible to your contacts by default, though you can change them to My contacts except… or Only share with… as well.

Within the Status tab you will see various groups: My status, which shows your most recent WhatsApp status (you can swipe to see who’s seen your Status, similar to messages); Recent Updates, which shows new WhatsApp Status messages that your friends have created in the last 24 hours; Viewed Updates, which is self explanatory; and Muted, which lists updates from users you’ve muted. If you deleted a WhatsApp Status you’ve created, it’s deleted from the phones of all your contacts – even from ones who’ve already seen the Status.

When Do I Get the New WhatsApp Status Feature?

The new WhatsApp Status feature is rolling out users in Europe to begin with, Sarafa said, with other regions in line to get the feature later. The feature will ultimately be available to all WhatsApp users on Android, iPhone, and Windows.

Snap Arrives in London to Woo Sceptical Investors Ahead of IPO

Snap Inc, owner of popular messaging app Snapchat, kicked off its first investor roadshow on Monday, looking to persuade London money managers to back its initial public offering in the face of concerns about its growth prospects, valuation and corporate governance.

The US company, which has yet to make a profit, is targeting a valuation of between $19.5 billion and $22.3 billion from listing on the New York Stock Exchange, after cutting its initial target of $20 billion-$25 billion last week following investor feedback.

Snap Arrives in London to Woo Sceptical Investors Ahead of IPO

Investors attending Monday’s event said Snap’s 26-year-old Chief Executive Evan Spiegel gave a sleek presentation. However, they were disappointed there were no projections on the company’s future revenues or advertising share – an indication of how quickly Snap thinks it can make money from its huge user base.

“That’s the million dollar question and we won’t find out for some time,” said one potential backer on his way out from the hour-long event where Spiegel ditched his usual casual wear and wore a suit with no tie.

Some were disappointed that it was just a question-and-answer session with no demonstration of Snapchat’s spectacles, launched in the United States late last year, which come with a built-in camera.

One attendee, however, said it made sense not to push the hardware angle too much at this stage.

Few US firms aside from Apple have made big profits on hardware, and camera and wearable gadget makers have much lower valuations than Snap is seeking.

Most of the questions related to how the company plans to manage its engagement with advertisers and users, and monetise that better, according to people who were in the room.

Los Angeles-based Snap also plans roadshows in New York, Boston and San Francisco. It expects to price its IPO after the US market closes on March 1, according to a confidential document seen by Reuters.

Some fund managers have said they will stay away from Snap given its decision to adopt a three class share structure – the first of its kind – that will mean shareholders who buy in through the IPO will not have any voting rights.

Instead Spiegel and his co-founder Bobby Murphy will have the right to 10 votes for every share, and existing investors one vote for each of their shares.

“My view would be investors should tread with caution here, the fact the shares will carry no voting rights would be a major concern for me from a governance perspective,” Richard Saldanha, global equities fund manager at Aviva Investors, said ahead of the roadshow. Aviva manages GBP 318 billion across a range of asset classes.

Mike Fox, head of sustainable investments at Royal London Asset Management, said the inability to vote against a company at its annual general meeting was a “major red flag” and he would not be taking part in the IPO.

“It is worth noting that while many US tech firms have delivered tremendous returns for investors following their listing, performance of firms in this sector has not always matched investor expectations following an IPO,” he said, also before the meeting.

“Snapchat offers a cocktail of hype, insane valuations, dubious fundamentals and weak governance. However, the same was said about companies like Google and Facebook when they listed,” said Geir Lode, head of global equities at Hermes Investment Management.

“For tech companies early in their lifecycle the weak governance structure is fairly typical, and even with those concerns subsequent shareholder returns have often been stellar.”

With tech-savvy millennial users of Snap’s products able and willing to quickly jump ship to the next Big Thing, there were also concerns about its competitive position versus industry rivals such as Facebook.

“Barriers for entry would appear low here as well, and you could see their demographic – 18-34 year olds – easily shift to another service,” Aviva Investors’ Saldanha said.

Uber, Ola Availability Increases in Delhi-NCR; Fresh Protest Set for Tuesday

The ongoing strike of drivers of Ola and Uber appeared petering out as cab availability increased across the city on Monday even as the forum leading the agitation announced a fresh protest.

Sarvodaya Drivers Association of Delhi (SDAD), which claims to represent 1.5 lakh of drivers, said it will “gherao” Transport Minister Satyendar Jain’s residence on Tuesday.

Uber, Ola Availability Increases in Delhi-NCR; Fresh Protest Set for Tuesday

However, SDAD vice-president Ravi Rathore acknowledged that at least 60 percent of the cabs were plying presently.

Few members of the association continued demonstrating at Jantar Mantar for the eleventh straight day. They also met BJP leader and North Delhi Mayor Ravinder Gupta in this regard at the Delhi BJP office.

Yesterday, Rathore had hinted at calling off strike in next one or two days citing financial problems being faced by drivers.

The drivers had called the strike demanding an increase in fares from the existing Rs. 6 per km and also removal of the 25 percent commission these cab aggregators charge them on every booking.

The drivers have also been protesting against the lack of basic amenities like insurance and medical covers extended to them by these app-based cab services.

Meanwhile, cabs were fairly easy to find on Uber and Ola’s apps throughout the day.

TransferWise Launches International Money Transfers via Facebook

Money transfer company TransferWise has launched a new service that allows users to send money internationally through Facebook Inc’s chat application, as competition in the digital payments landscape intensifies.

The London-based startup said on Tuesday that it had developed a Facebook Messenger “chatbot”, or an automated program that can help users communicate with businesses and carry out tasks such as online purchases.

TransferWise Launches International Money Transfers via Facebook

TransferWise’s chatbot enables customers to send money to friends and family to and from the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and Europe from Facebook Messenger. It can also be used to set up exchange rate alerts.

Facebook already allows its users to send money domestically in the United States via its Messenger app, but has not yet launched similar services internationally. TransferWise said its service will be the first to enable international money transfers entirely within Messenger.

Facebook opened up its Messenger app to developers to create chatbots in April in a bid to expand its reach in customer service and enterprise transactions.

Chatbots have become a hot topic in enterprise technology over the past year because recent advances in artificial intelligence have made them better at interacting. Businesses, including banks, are hoping that they can be used to improve and reduce the cost of their customer service operations.

One of Europe’s most well-known fintech companies, TransferWise was launched in 2011 by Estonian friends Taavet Hinrikus and Kristo Kaarmann out of frustration with the high fees they were being charged by banks for international money transfers.

The company, which is valued at more than $1 billion, is backed by several high profile investors including Silicon Valley venture fund Andreessen Horowitz, Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, and PayPal co-founders Max Levchin and Peter Thiel, through his fund Valar Ventures.

While the TransferWise chatbot is now only available in Facebook Messenger it can be adapted to work with other popular chat services, Scott Miller, head of global partnerships for TransferWise said. He said the service would eventually be extended to work in other countries and money transfer routes that the company operates in.

The launch comes as competition in the mobile payments and international money transfer sectors intensifies. Earlier this month PayPal Holdings Inc announced its US payments application Venmo would be available within popular chat service Slack.

While in January, Ant Financial Services, an affiliate of Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, said it would acquire US money-transfer company MoneyGram, in a deal that is expected to shake up the international payments landscape.

Snapchat ‘Spectacles’ Now Available for Online Ordering

The much-anticipated video recording ‘Spectacles’ from photo-sharing service Snapchat is now available online for users in the US at $129.99 (roughly Rs. 8,700).

Snapchat 'Spectacles' Now Available for Online Ordering

Snapchat ‘Spectacles’ record video and pair to the user’s phone over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi which can then be uploaded to the user’s Snapchat account.

According to a report in Fortune, ‘Spectacles’ come with a charging case and cable in three shades including black, coral red and teal blue.

“Snap’s (Snapchat’s parent company) IPO is expected to take place on March 2, so the move to sell Spectacles to the masses could give Snap a stronger footing as it tries to court investors during its whirlwind roadshow over the next two weeks,” the report said.

‘Spectacles’ were launched in September last year and was available for purchase from vending machines at surprise locations in the US.

Telegram v3.17 Update Introduces Custom Themes on Android

Popular text messaging application Telegram has now added support for custom themes to its Android version with company’s latest version v3.17 update. Users are provided with three basic theme options but they can choose to customise the appearance of the app as per their desire with the new Theme Editor that has been added to the app.

The version v3.17 update brings along a dark theme to the app that might be preferred by those who “who don’t want to use Telegram as a flashlight in dark places,” the company said in its official blog post. In order to switch to a theme or create a new one, users need to head to Settings > Themes within the app.

telegram screenshots Story Telegram Screenshots Story

Users can also choose to share the themes that they have created, with other users. “Just like stickers and bots, Telegram themes are part of an open platform, so anybody can create a theme and dazzle the world with new colours and backgrounds,” the company said.

Users can check out the custom themes created by other Telegram users for Android and Desktop apps at its @Themes channel.

Even though the support for themes has come to the Android app, the company says that the iOS users can also expect the support to be rolled out to them in a “couple of weeks.” Telegram has instead teased another feature for iOS users, which it has referred to as “truly epic” in its post.

Skype Lite for Low-End Android Phones Launched: All You Need to Know

At the Microsoft Future Decoded Conference in Mumbai on Wednesday, CEO Satya Nadella launched the Skype Lite app, a lighter version of the popular video calling and messaging app Skype. The new Skype Lite app is less resource-intensive than Skype and has most of its features, and is designed to work on low-end smartphones. Along with this, Microsoft also announced Skype + Aadhaar, a project the company has mentioned several times in the past and is finally launching with Skype Lite.

What does Skype Lite do?

The new Skype Lite Android app – now available on Google Play – has been launched by Microsoft for India, and specifically for middle-to-low range handsets. It was developed in Microsoft’s research and development centre in Hyderabad, and at this point the company does not plan to release it in other countries.

Eugene Ho, Director of Product Management at Skype, explained that although Skype has “millions” of users in India, a large proportion of these are using lower-end phones, not high end Android or iOS devices. “Not only that, although there has been a high speed 4G rollout in India,” Ho added, “you will still frequently find the speeds dropping to 3G or even 2G levels as you’re out and about, and these are still used in a wide part of India. That’s why we created Skype Lite.”

skype lite microsoft skype

Skype Lite features

The new Skype Lite app, which is under 13MB in size, will be available from Wednesday and packs all the key features of Skype – instant messaging, audio and video calling, and Skype’s bots. According to Ho, when the user is on a fast connection or connected to Wi-Fi, Skype Lite will switch to HD calls that are the same as regular Skype calls. When the connection degrades, the call quality will also be lowered using compression.

Skype Lite will also compress images that people share, using less data, and if people want to re-share images, these will be sent directly from Skype, instead of having to be downloaded and then uploaded again. Skype Lite also shows the amount of data you’ve used, including a breakdown of Wi-Fi and cellular data usage, and how much data you’ve saved by using the Lite version of the app.

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Skype Lite comes with Aadhaar integration

As for the Skype + Aadhaar feature, it is meant to be used to verify a user. In a call, if you tap on the menu button at the bottom, you can see a Request Aadhaar verification option. Tap this, and a verification request will be sent to the person you are talking to on Skype Lite. If they accept, then they will receive an OTP on the phone number linked to you Aadhaar number. Key in the OTP and your identity is verified, which could be used by government agencies or in other use cases, Nadella said.

Skype Lite can be your default dialler app

Skype Lite can also become the default dialler and messaging application on your Android phone – the messaging tab shows Skype IMs along with your SMS messages, and filters out promotional messages so that your texts are uncluttered. The Calling tab shows your Skype calls and also your phone calls via the carrier. Contacts shows you your Skype and phone contacts, and the Bots tab lets you chat with all the regular Skype bots. The biggest feature that is missing from Skype Lite is Mojis – movie based GIF images that are like animated stickers.

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Skype Lite supports 7 Indian languages

The new Skype Lite app has also been localised in seven Indian languages – Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Telegu, and Urdu. All conversations are encrypted and secure, the company added.

Skype Lite first impressions

We didn’t get to spend too much time with the Skype Lite, but the early impressions are fairly positive. It’s a nice looking app, much like the original Skype, that works in a fairly reasonable manner. As with Skype, you can message only contacts who have accepted your invitation to connect, and voice, video, and text messaging all worked smoothly. Since Skype Lite uses the same login as Skype, you can use this across devices and platforms, and Microsoft is looking at bringing in features such as SMS backup, and data limits in future updates.

As an SMS and calling app, Skype actually measures up pretty well along with other third party apps in this category that we’ve tried. It isn’t as ambitious as some SMS apps, but the basic sorting it features is quite useful.

Microsoft wants to bring back lost Skype users with Skype Lite

However, the 160-million-users-in-India elephant in the room – WhatsApp – wasn’t mentioned. Although, another Microsoft executive later did give a little bit of background into the thinking on this subject.

“What we were seeing is that people were aware of Skype, they were our users,” he explained, “but they were dropping off. With Skype Lite, this might take a lot of users away from Skype, but they’re still our users.”

“There are alternatives in the market, and our focus was to build something that is good enough to keep our users happy,” he added.

Snapdeal to Lay Off Around 600 People Over Next Few Days in Search of Profitability

Snapdeal, the third-largest e-commerce player in India, will fire about 600 employees across the e-commerce, logistics (Vulcan), and payments (Freecharge) divisions over the next few days. The Softbank-backed firm started the layoff process last week and plans to hand pink slips to 500-600 people across Snapdeal, Vulcan and FreeCharge, according to sources.

The layoffs will affect employees across levels, and the process will be carry on for the next few days. Snapdeal had last reported an employee strength of 8,000 people.

Snapdeal to Lay Off Around 600 People Over Next Few Days in Search of Profitability

A Snapdeal spokesperson said: “On our journey towards becoming India’s first profitable e-commerce company in two years, it is important that we continue to drive efficiency across all parts of our business, which enables us to pass on the value to our consumers and sellers.”

“We have realigned our resources and teams to further these goals and drive high-quality business growth,” the Snapdeal spokesperson added.

 The e-commerce company, which has been locked in an intense battle with rivals Amazon and Flipkart, has been struggling to raise fresh capital.

Snapdeal has already taken a number of steps to increase optimisation of operations that resulted in 35 percent lower delivery costs and 25 percent lower company fixed costs. Snapdeal has also seen its net revenues increase 3.5x this fiscal.

“Building on all of these substantial gains, Snapdeal expects to be the first profitable e-commerce company in India within two years,” the spokesperson said.

It also expects Vulcan Express to turn profitable by the middle of this year.