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Alibaba’s Jack Ma quits SoftBank board after huge Vision Fund losses

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Jack Ma, CEO of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, speaks during his visit at the Vivatech startups and innovation fair, in Paris on May 16, 2019.

Philippe Lopez | AFP | Getty Images

Alibaba founder Jack Ma is stepping down from the board of SoftBank after the company’s Vision Fund posted record-breaking losses of $18 billion. 

Ma, whose $41.8 billion net worth makes him China’s richest man, is the latest high-profile figure to exit SoftBank Group, which on Monday posted total annual losses of $13 billion for the year ending March 31. Uniqlo founder Tadashi Yanai stepped down from SoftBank’s board in December, while Nidec founder Shigenobu Nagamori stepped down in 2017. 

SoftBank did not provide a reason for Ma’s resignation but he has become increasingly focused on education philanthropy over the last year. He stepped down as Alibaba’s chairman last September and there’s speculation that he’ll quit Alibaba’s board later this year.

Regardless of the reasons, Ma’s departure (effective June 25) comes after SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son pivoted away from telecoms to backing new companies through the colossal $100 billion Vision Fund, which was launched in 2017.

In total, the Vision Fund has backed 88 start-ups with a total of $75 billion. The Vision Fund, which counts Apple and Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund among its contributors, is in poor health because a number of its biggest bets have turned out to be disasters. 

An enormous $9 billion bet on WeWork turned out to be a very bad move after the office space provider imploded, spectacularly, months before the coronavirus wreaked havoc with global economies. With dozens of multi-story offices empty around the world, WeWork’s situation is only expected to go from bad to worse. 

The Vision Fund has also pumped billions of dollars into companies like taxi app Uber and Indian hotel chain Oyo, which have seen their valuations plummet over the last few months as a result of the coronavirus and confinement measures, among other factors.

“Values of Uber, WeWork and its three affiliates decreased, and total fair value of other portfolio companies decreased significantly,” SoftBank wrote in its financial report. 

Old friends 

Ma and Son, two of Asia’s best-known tech tycoons, are close friends and their relationship goes back at least 20 years as Son was one of Alibaba’s earliest investors. In 2000, one year after Alibaba was founded, SoftBank invested a reported $20 million into the company. An SEC filing from February showed that SoftBank owns around 25% of Alibaba, a stake worth more than $100 billion, making it SoftBank Group’s most valuable investment. 

SoftBank stock hit a four-year low on March 19, prompting the group to announce plans to sell or monetize $41 billion of its assets and buy back $4.7 billion of its shares.

CNBC did not immediately hear back from Alibaba or SoftBank when it contacted them for comment. 

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Nikola shares fall to new low on Wedbush downgrade

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Amazon Fire TV Stick and Fire TV Stick Lite announced, start at $30

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Amazon Fire TV Stick Lite

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Amazon announced two new Fire TV products during its big online hardware event on Thursday. Amazon’s Fire TV gadgets compete directly with Roku and Apple TV, offering people access to popular apps like Disney+, Netflix, Hulu and more. 

Amazon says people are spending more time in front of TVs than ever before due to the spread of coronavirus. It sees the TV as a the center of the household and wants to get even more features in front of users to keep them coming back. The new features may help it compete more aggressively against Roku, which still has a 50% market share of global connected TV streaming hours with strong growth opportunities, according to an analyst note from Deutsche Bank in August.

The new Fire TV Stick and Fire TV Stick Lite will be the first of Amazon’s streaming gadgets to offer a redesigned home screen when they launch next week, although the changes will come to existing Fire TV devices beginning in the first quarter of 2020, too.

Here’s what you need to know.

Easier to find stuff to watch, new user profiles

The new Amazon Fire TV interface, which includes user profiles.

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Amazon’s vice president and general manager of Fire TV, Sandeep Gupta, told CNBC that Amazon received feedback from users suggesting the home screen was too cluttered. Amazon worked on a redesign to make it easier to find stuff to watch and to quickly jump into live TV.

“Today, you can search for comedies, or stuff by Tom Cruise, but we’ve tried to make a landing spot for when you don’t know what you want to watch. This shows you stuff that’s free, movies and TV shows, broader categories, apps and more,” Gupta said. Gupta said the quick access to a TV guide will provide a familiar experience for people transitioning from cable TV to streaming.

The new software supports up to six user profiles. That means you can log into your profile and see the shows and movies Amazon recommends to you, while your significant other can use a separate account for their own personalized recommendations. You can also create profiles for children that will only show kid-friendly content you’ve approved. Previously, you’d have to switch profiles inside each app, like Netflix or Hulu, to see content recommended to you inside those apps.

The latest software provides a new option to see your Ring or Alexa-ready video cameras on your TV through picture-in-picture — kind of like seeing a small window on your screen — while you’re watching movies or TV show. 

Finally, Amazon is expanding its Alexa voice assistant on Fire TV. Gupta told CNBC that there are billions of requests to Alexa and that it has seen an 80% growth in requests on Fire TV over the last year, although he did not provide specific figures.

“It’s a good indication people like Alexa and are using it more to manage shopping routines, recipes, whatever it is, in a centralized place,” he said. Alexa’s responses now pop up and cover just a small part of the screen so you can keep watching or doing what you were without being interrupted.

Video chat for Amazon Fire TV Cube

The Amazon Fire TV Cube

Amazon

Separately from the Fire TV sticks, though still part of the new software that will roll out to other Amazon Fire TV gadgets during the first quarter of 2020, is new video chat support.

People who own the second-generation Fire TV Cube will soon be able to add a Logitech webcam for video chat through Fire TV. It’ll support Alexa video calls and, later, Zoom. It won’t work on the Fire TV sticks since it requires a USB port that’s only found on the Fire TV Cube.

New Amazon Fire TV Sticks price and release date

The new Amazon Fire TV Stick

Amazon

The Fire TV Stick and Fire TV Stick are relatively similar. They’ll cost $39.99 and $29.99, respectively. The Fire TV Stick offers support for newer technologies, like HDR and Dolby Atmos if your TV and speakers support them. Neither support 4K video and are capped at 1080p, so, don’t buy them if you have a 4K TV and want the best quality possible.

If you need 4K, look at the Fire TV Stick 4K, which costs $49.99 but doesn’t ship with the new software. The Fire TV Stick Lite is more basic without Dolby Atmos and some of the more advanced Wi-Fi support for more stable streaming. Both are said to be 50% faster than the last-generation Fire TV Stick, however, and both come with voice remotes that you can use to speak with Alexa to open movies, TV shows, apps and more.

Pre-orders for the new Fire TV Stick and Fire TV Stick Lite begin on Thursday and they’ll begin arriving to customers on Sept. 30.

Subscribe to CNBC on YouTube. 

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Spotify CEO to invest over $1 billion for ‘moonshot’ bets in Europe

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Spotify CEO Daniel Ek

Toru Yamanaka | AFP/Getty Images

LONDON — Spotify CEO Daniel Ek announced Thursday that he will commit 1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) of his own resources to invest in European start-ups.

Speaking at a virtual talk hosted by start-up event organizer Slush, Ek said he would use the funds to make “moonshot” bets in the continent, focusing on deep technology — new tools that are focused on scientific innovation. Among the sectors Ek is looking to invest in are health, education, machine learning and biotechnology.

“I want to do my part; we all know that one of the greatest challenges is access to capital,” Ek said, adding he wanted to achieve a “new European dream” — akin to that of the American Dream — over the next decade.

According to Forbes, Ek is worth $3.6 billion, indicating he’s earmarking roughly a third of his own wealth for the investments.

Ek spoke of his frustration with the number of European tech companies being bought up by U.S. rivals, as well as a brain drain of talented entrepreneurs leaving the region for Silicon Valley. One of the most notable examples of European entrepreneurs heading to the U.S. is payments giant Stripe, whose Irish founders went to California to build their company.

“I get really frustrated when I see European entrepreneurs giving up on their amazing visions selling early on to non-European companies, or when some of the most promising tech talent in Europe leaves because they don’t feel valued here,” Ek said. “We need more super companies that raise the bar and can act as an inspiration.”

Europe is often seen as lagging the U.S. and China with respect to technology. While those two economic powerhouses have produced some of the world’s biggest tech companies — Amazon, Microsoft, Tencent and Alibaba, to name a few — Europe is yet to offer a similar scale of success in the industry.

Last year, a record $34.3 billion flowed into Europe’s fledgling tech start-ups, according to figures from venture capital firm Atomico. Companies in the region have continued to raise substantial sums of cash this year, with “buy now, pay later” service Klarna raising $650 million and digital banking app Revolut securing $580 million in fresh funds.

Ek said he will work with scientists, investors, and governments to make his investments. A $1.2 billion fund would see the Spotify founder competing with well-established venture funds like Atomico — itself founded by former Skype CEO Niklas Zennström — Balderton Capital and Northzone.

Another issue in the region’s tech ecosystem has been initial public offerings. Spotify, which is based in Stockholm, Sweden, listed in New York over two years ago, while London-based online luxury marketplace Farfetch also chose America for its market debut. Europe has lagged behind in terms of tech IPOs this year, while a raft of software companies are going public in the U.S.

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