Eyeing Expansion In The BRICs, eBay Doubles Down On Machine Learning And Context Translation

In 2013, eBay announced a big focus on growth in emerging markets for its marketplace, in particular, Russia, Brazil and China. Some of this growth can be enabled through localization, but the marketplace has tested a more technical approach — with machine translation — with its first big expansion effort in Russia.

To spearhead these efforts, eBay brought on machine translation expert Hassan Sawaf, a data scientist whose career spans more than 20 years in speech recognition and human translation technologies. He’s also the patent holder on hybrid machine translation, a system and method for using machine translation to translate from one language into another.

As Sawaf explains to us, language translation can be a source of friction between buyers and sellers on eBay, and his goal was to go beyond word-for-word translation into what he calls context translation. This means that Sawaf is helping build engines that ‘learn’ from context of the data (like item descriptions) rather than just more standard word-by-word translations.

Here’s the current problem eBay faces in emerging countries like Russia. eBay is trying to curate inventory from a global base of sellers and surface this to buyers in emerging eBay markets based on what ships to them in their respective countries. A Russian user can go to the localized version of eBay and see all products that are listed in Russian. When they are inputting search terms in Russian, this engine will produce search results of listings that match the query in Russian. But the Russian user’s query will not be able to see posts that match their query that were written by sellers listing in English. In order to access English listings, which do represent a considerable number of the listings on eBay’s platform, Sawaf explains, the Russian user would have to input the query on eBay in English.

“Machine translation normalizes this,” says Sawaf.

For the past year, Sawaf and his team of 14-15 data scientists and engineers have built a technology that allows Russian users to search in Russian, but be able to return queries with English listings that match. Sawaf’s technology takes it one step further, and will determine that a ‘purse’ in an item description, also refers to ‘bag,’ or ‘item,’ or ‘piece,’ providing a more accurate representation of the item in the Russian language. Sawaf says that the search technology, which just launched a month ago, returns signficantly more results for Russian eBay users. And twice the amount of users in Russia are inputting search queries in their native language. It’s unclear how this has translated into an increase sales and transactions in the marketplace, which is the ultimate goal.

Now that Sawaf has this scalable infrastructure in place, the team will be expanding this to other languages in emerging markets. We hear that the team is tackling Spanish and Portuguese, focusing on Brazil and Latin America.

Some e-commerce companies outsource some of the machine translation work to third-party providers, and eBay considered this, but Sawaf tells us that, “to develop the best, you have to do it on your own.” Plus, there is some third-party user data that eBay did not want to share with third parties.

We’re told that along with this improvement in search, eBay is also attempting to make improvements for Russian users with payments, shipping (an area that has faced some challenges in Russia) and other services in these markets. Another interesting takeaway is that eBay’s ultimate goal in these emerging markets is to offer more in B2C selling on the platforms, and find ways to get more local businesses selling on eBay online.

While eBay says Russia has been a No. 1 priority, it will be interesting to see how the improvement in technologies translates into actual sales. And how eBay’s localization performance in other markets will also be a way in which we can grade whether machine learning is working.

It’s worth noting that India hasn’t been a success story for eBay. As TechCrunch writer Pankaj Mishra wrote recently, despite entering India early, eBay has not become the dominant leader. eBay backed local e-commerce marketplace SnapDeal in a possible effort to make up for past mistakes. SnapDeal is six to seven times bigger than eBay in volume of business. Interestingly, Sawaf and eBay didn’t really mention India in the localization and machine-learning efforts.


But if eBay’s machine-learning technology can translate into an increase of sales in emerging e-commerce markets like Latin America and Russia, this could represent billions in new revenue. Stay tuned.

Photo Credit/Flickr

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The PC Market And The 300 Million Mark

Today IDC predicted that the PC market will contract by 6% in 2014, and will continue to decline at least into 2018.

Unit volume according to IDC would slip from 315.1 million units in 2013, to 291.7 in 2018. The figures include traditional PCs — laptops, desktops, and so forth — but exclude Surface devices, Android tablets, and iPads.

In short, IDC’s predictions now expect PC sales to fall under the 300 million threshold. In December, it had a different take, predicting a 3.8% decline in PC shipments for the current year, and then for PC sales to become “slightly positive in the longer term.” That would have kept shipments above the 300 million unit mark in something like perpetuity.

What this implies is that something changed, causing IDC to change its prediction logic. So, what happened? IDC is plain: Emerging markets are not performing as expected. After noting that as a group, emerging markets performed as expected in the fourth quarter, “concerns about the impact of slower economic growth, the culmination of some large projects, and conservative expectations for factors like touch capability, migration off of Windows XP, as well as continued pressure from tablets and smartphones has further depressed expectations going forward.”

The group goes on to note that “emerging markets used to be a core driver of the PC market.” Weakness there led to a shaving of expected growth rates, changing IDC’s prediction of a PC market north of 300 million units and just shy this year of growth, to an industry that can’t stop its own decline.

It’s important to keep scale in mind. IDC’s change in its view of the PC market was modest, but as its former optimism was more mild than tepid, those small changes are key. Here’s IDC detailing the shifts in its model: “Overall growth projections for 2014 were lowered by just over 2%, and subsequent years were lowered by less than 1%.” And that kids, is the ball game.

It’s hard to find any sort of good news in the above, other than to say that as far as declines go, there doesn’t appear to be another 2013 on the horizon. And, given that IDC is putting this data out now, presumably it’s had a chance to test the temperature of the current quarter, which while likely weak, should not mirror the incredibly bad 13.9% decline we saw in Q1 2013.

As a final note, as Microsoft’s ramps Surface revenue over time, we should start to factor those sales into IDC’s numbers. For now, those unit numbers don’t move the needle.

300 million. That’s the threshold PCs don’t want to slip under. But if IDC is right, Geronimo.


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BlackBerry Wants BBM Users To Have More Friends

It’s hard to turn that D into an R if you ain’t got friends. It’s with that thought that BlackBerry just released a tool to find friends on BBM.

The tool will scour your phone’s contact list for users currently on BBM, allowing the user to quickly send a PIN invite to other users. It will also allow for invites to be sent over SMS.

BlackBerry claims this is a feature BBM users have longed asked for. While that’s probably true, BBM is also widely seen as on of BlackBerry’s last remaining options. It needs every user it can get and the best referral is a personal recommendation.

Ever since it was released on Android and iOS, its messaging platform has seen notable gains especially in emerging markets where the BlackBerry platform already has a foothold. BBM is standing tall against the new kids on the block of Line and WhatsApp.

BlackBerry isn’t slowing BBM’s roll, either. BBM v2.0 is hitting soon.

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Gillmor Gang: Brand Royalty

The Gillmor Gang — Robert Scoble, John Taschek, Kevin Marks, Keith Teare, and Steve Gillmor — seem perfectly willing to predict the futility of the next Microsoft CEO, and even perhaps the next Bill Gates. But we can only successor-surf so long before returning to the more heady war of the social stream.

You can decide for yourself, but this feisty show was supercharged by @jtaschek’s minority report on the heir apparent and never really let up. From @kteare’s posit of Facebook devolution to everybody’s fascination with the mirage of brand loyalty, the emerging point is still elusive. Namely, that we’ll know it when we see it, and reward each and every app that fits into the puzzle with a notification seat at the table.

@scobleizer is right: it will be close to impossible to dislodge Uber, as long as someone comes along with another key function that extends, and then absorbs, the current shareholders of the new economics of app magnetism.

@stevegillmor, @scobleizer, @jtaschek, @kteare, @kevinmarks

Produced and directed by Tina Chase Gillmor @tinagillmor

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BBM Is Coming To Gingerbread Android Phones

BBM will soon be available for Android phones running Gingerbread. This is a shockingly brilliant move which allows BBM to fully compete in developing countries where BBM is already an established brand, but current smartphones are still running the legacy operating system.

As Chris points out at Engadget, despite being generations old, Android 2.1.x Gingerbread still powers 21% of Android phones. A lot of those devices are located in emerging markets where new messaging apps, like WhatsApp, Line, and Facebook Messenger, are quickly gaining in popularity. Recent numbers suggest that BlackBerry cannot count on consumers in these markets, or any market for that matter, to jump on the BBM ship by buying one of its smartphones, so the company is making it available on competitors’ hardware.

As the current version of BlackBerry sinks into obscurity, a new BlackBerry is emerging. For better or worse, this version seems a bit more lean and focused. Today’s update to BlackBerry OS 10 feels like a company clearing its current product pipe as it moves away from the cut-throat consumer hardware market.

A public beta will be released prior to the full launch in late February.

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Apple Says International Took 64% Of Revenues In Q1, Led By Growth In China And Japan

Apple CEO Tim Cook today admitted that in its home market of North America, “we did not do as well…our business contracted year over year.” But to counterbalance that, the iPhone maker is pushing its international business. In the company’s Q1 2014 earnings, out earlier today, Apple says that international markets accounted for 64% of sales.

As a point of comparison, international accounted for 60% of sales in Q4.

Sales in Greater China and Japan, fuelled by Apple’s iPhone, have grown the most, respectively up 29% to $8.8 billion and 11% to $5 billion versus a year ago. The growth in these two countries specifically appears to be bolstered by a growing ecosystem in these markets: recent carrier deals with the largest players in each market, China Mobile and NTT DoCoMo, certainly helped, as did an early rollout of Apple’s newest iPhone 5 devices; but so does a strong content play. In China, Apple today said that developers have published some 130,000 apps in the App Store.

In the regional sales breakdown that Apple provided in its earnings, sales were down slightly in the Americas and Asia Pacific outside of Greater China and Japan over last year; the rest of the markets were up.

Screen Shot 2014-01-27 at 22.03.37

While Europe collectively is Apple’s second-largest market after the Americas, bringing in $13 billion of revenue in Q1, growth has slowed right down in the region: it was only up 5% compared to a year ago. If you look at Kantar Worldpanel’s sales estimates for the last quarter that were out earlier today, the reason for the decline appears to be squarely down to competition from Android, and in some cases Windows Phone, as Apple battles it out against Microsoft for second place.

The real international story for Apple right now seems to be in Asia and emerging markets.

We had an indication that the results China would be positive, when Tim Cook said in an interview in Beijing earlier this month that sales in China in Q1 were hitting a record for the company.

Today Cook fleshed that out a bit. ”We’ve been selling with China Mobile for about a week…and it’s been an incredible start,” he said on the call today, referring to its sales in the country a ”new high water mark.” The company is only in China Mobile stores in 16 cities in China today; it expects to be available in over 300 cities by the end of the year. Even so, mainland China had record iPhone sales in the quarter and saw doubled iPad growth.

Kantar Worldpanel’s figures, which Apple cited a couple of times in its earnings call, indicated that in Japan, Apple continues to wipe out the competition, taking some 69% of all smartphone sales.

Emerging markets

Apple has really not gone after a low-end device strategy compared to Android handset makers, but today the company set out to try to prove that this has not impacted its sales in emerging markets.

CFO Peter Oppenheimer said Apple was “very pleased with our performance in emerging markets,” a sentiment Cook brought up later, with some relative numbers to spell it out: in Russia (where it just inked a new deal with carrier Megafon) sales were up 115%; in Latin America (lumped together in ‘Americas’ with the declining/saturated North America market) they were up 65%; and the Middle East sales were up 20%.

Growth, of course, is more of a hopeful metric than actual sales, which Apple did not break out for these markets today. The big question is whether these international plays will help Apple continue to move the needle, and whether users in these markets will adopt Apple products as earnestly as consumers in the U.S., UK, Japan and other countries where Apple has proven to be a hit.

Apple Q1 2014

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HP Sensibly Shuns U.S. To Launch Its First Android Smartphones

Once upon a time, HP ruled the computing landscape. From consumer PCs to enterprise solutions, the house that Bill and David built was once the most powerful electronics company. But things are different today. So much so that HP is ignoring its home territory with its recently announced smartphones.

Onlookers will no doubt write off these massive 6- and 7-inch handsets as me-too devices for HP. And for the most part, that assessment would be spot-on. These handsets are nothing special. It’s HP’s go-to-market strategy that’s special.


Meet the HP Slate 6 and Slate 7. They’re rather mundane handsets with middle-of-the-road specs and cases that look like a cross between the Blackberry Z10 and the Nexus 4. Just don’t look for them in America. Or anywhere else besides India.

These handsets, HP’s first go at Android phones, are launching only in India’s emerging market and not HP’s home market of the US. Smart.

HP has long used India as a test bed for its unproven devices. From WiFi mice to all-in-ones, India gets some of HP’s most wild devices first. The company enjoys a strong brand identity there and the smartphone market is not nearly as rigid.

Here in the States, new flagship smartphones must launch for $199 or $249 on contract. Anything more and the phone will not succeed. The phone must also be available on several wireless carriers, forcing the manufacturer into negotiations that will surely end with the hardware maker being bled dry – not that anyone feels sorry for them.

Launching hardware is difficult, but launching a new phone from an established brand with plenty on the line in the US, is a fool’s errand. HP is right to test the market and work out the bugs in an emerging market.

HP used to launch its latest and greatest hardware in the U.S. first before going overseas. The HP Touchpad hit the U.S. first. It launched its first netbook here. Its first digital camera, printer, and its first pocket computer all launched in the U.S. first. Even its first pocket calculator, the HP-35, launched in the company’s home market first.

If anything, this move shows that the HP of today is not the HP of yesterday. The company is less arrogant. It’s more calculated. It seemingly understands that simply slapping an HP logo onto a product does not guarantee its success. Meg Whitman might actually be turning around the old HP ship with this move.

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Google is testing an Android app that connects devices to city-wide WiFi hotspots

countdown Google is testing an Android app that connects devices to city wide WiFi hotspotsGoogle is trialing an interesting new service in Jakarta, Indonesia, where WiFi Passport, an Android app that includes access to a variety of WiFi hotspots, has been spotted.

It’s not easy to get speedy, reliable Internet access in cities like Jakarta so WiFi is a popular option — with even carriers offering access points. Google and partner MOGPlay have set up a range of hotspots which WiFi Passport users can access directly from the app, with no need for repeat passwords/log-in.

The service is free for an initial 10 days, thereafter it costs 20,000 IDR (under-$2) for 20 days and 50,000 IDR (under-$5) for 50 days.

We can see how this would be attractive in emerging markets, but for now the trial appears limited to Jakarta.

➤ WiFi Passport [Google] Via Google Operating System

Thumbnail image via littleny / Shutterstock

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Facebook buys mobile data optimization startup Onavo to beef up its Internet.org initiative

Mobile data optimization startup Onavo has been acquired by Facebook in a deal that beefs up its Internet.org initiative to promote universal Internet access worldwide, and gives the US company its first office in Israel.

Onavo revealed the deal in a blog post which confirms that its apps — which help smartphone owners optimize their use of mobile data services — will remain available as a standalone brand once the deal has been completed. The company says its apps are used by “millions of users” across the world, and that figure is sure to grow under Facebook’s ownership.

The deal will also see Onavo’s Tel-Aviv office transition to become Facebook’s first office in Israel. Given the number of global startups emerging from the country — and Onavo’s existing position in the local scene — that is likely to be an interesting move too; particularly in light of the speculation that Facebook was unable to close out a proposed acquisition of now-Google-owned Waze because it wanted the Israeli firm to relocate to Silicon Valley.

Facebook has confirmed the deal with a statement. The price of the acquisition has not been revealed, but Israeli news site Calcalist estimates it within a bracket of $150 million-$200 million.

It’s not hard to see how Onavo — which launched at The Next Web Europe 2011 – could be beneficial to Internet.org, the industry-backed Facebook initiative that is aiming to bring the benefits of the Internet to the estimated 5 billion people who remain offline today.

Onovo explains that its services can help people — and particularly those in emerging markets, where pre-paid tariffs are common and cost is an issue — to get more from their mobile data deals or smartphone credit. Internet.org is focused on lowering the cost of data, so it figures that getting more from deals is an obvious synergy:

 Today, we’re eager to take the next step and make an even bigger impact by supporting Facebook’s mission to connect the world.

We’re excited to join their team, and hope to play a critical role in reaching one of Internet.org’s most significant goals – using data more efficiently, so that more people around the world can connect and share.

Then there is also the analytics side of things. Onavo’s service has developed into a much-cited resource for app usage, and that deep insight will doubtless be useful for Facebook as it continues to develop the mobile side to its product and business model — which lately has included an alpha testing program for Android owners, trials with game developers and more.

You can get a feel for Onavo’s consumer service from this product video and the company’s pitch at TNW 2011:

Headline image Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

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