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  1. How ByteDance plans to crack the gaming industry Image Credits: Games published by ByteDance For the last few years, ByteDance, the parent company of short video app TikTok, has been working to diversify its revenue streams beyond advertisement and find more ways to monetize its hundreds of millions of users. One area it is targeting is gaming, which has historically been a lucrative business in China’s internet economy. China is the world’s largest gaming market, generating revenues of $40.85 billion in 2020, according to market research firm Newzoo. The United States trailed behind at $36.92 billion. But competition is also intense. Giants Tencent and NetEase have long dominated and smaller players like Mihoyo and Lilith are making breakthroughs. According to market research firm Analysys, Tencent occupied over half of the Chinese gaming market in 2019, while NetEase and 37 Interactive respectively commanded around 16% and 10%, leaving little breathing room for smaller rivals. Regardless, ByteDance is forging ahead, giving a brand name, Nuversegame, and a website to its gaming business for the first time last month. Its strategy consists of a genre-spanning portfolio, a hiring spree, a proven monetization scheme, and a focus on both the domestic and overseas markets. During his short-lived stint with ByteDance, Kevin Meyer was put in charge of multiple overseas businesses, including gaming. ByteDance, the David when it comes to games, seems undeterred by the Goliaths. As one of the company’s gaming executives Yan Shou wrote in a social media post a year ago: “Gaming is a content business. A monopoly is difficult to maintain [in this industry] as long as there is patience.” Battle for talent In recent years, ByteDance has hired a large number of ex-employees from the BAT, the acronym for three of the most prominent tech firms in China: Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent. Yan himself worked on strategy at Tencent for over two years before joining ByteDance in 2015. While poaching and job-hopping are common in China’s fast-changing tech industry, ByteDance is known for doling out generous paychecks and many tech workers are lured by the prospects of receiving employee options before the firm goes public someday. Ambitious staff may also feel stagnant after a long period at Alibaba and Tencent, which are both over 20 years old and where room for career advancement is limited. ByteDance, in comparison, is merely nine years old and is still in a fast-growth phase, a Beijing-based headhunter for technology firms tells TechCrunch. “The current stage of ByteDance and the new businesses it is incubating provide the right platform for these people to achieve their ambitions,” the headhunter says. In gaming, too, ByteDance has gone on a recruiting spree. The company’s gaming headcount numbers nearly 3,000 today, up from only 1,000 last year, according to a person with knowledge. These employees are scattered across China’s major tech hubs, from Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou to Shenzhen, working in various gaming studios under ByteDance. How big is a 3,000-person team? 37 Interactive, the third-largest gaming firm in China, had around 4,000 gaming staff as of January, according to a company executive. It took the company 10 years to reach this scale. ByteDance began exploring games only around five years ago. ByteDance declined to comment on the story. Factory of games Being late to the game could bring advantages. Having seen how Tencent and other predecessors tackle the gaming market allows ByteDance to learn. For one, ByteDance is working on a diverse range of genres simultaneously, from disposable mobile games to indie titles with unorthodox design or topics. This makes ByteDance different from Tencent, says Daniel Ahmad, a gaming analyst at Niko Partners. Tencent, the world’s largest gaming firm, cut its teeth on board and card games in the 2000s before gradually expanding into other genres. Of course, only a deep-pocketed upstart like ByteDance could strive for a diverse portfolio from day one. With a well-oiled advertising business built upon its short video app Douyin and news aggregator Toutiao, as well as over $7 billion raised from equity funding over the years, ByteDance has been able to fund its horizontal expansions in not just games but also education and SaaS. Aside from hunting down talent from other tech giants, ByteDance also relies on swallowing smaller companies to boost its workforce. Since 2018, ByteDance has invested in at least 11 gaming companies, six of which were full acquisitions, according to public disclosures. The acquired assets and talent were subsequently incorporated into ByteDance’s gaming studios. Acqui-hiring is an old and proven formula at ByteDance. Kelly Zhang, the product manager credited for taking Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, off the ground, also joined after her photo-sharing startup was bought by ByteDance. Like many gaming firms, ByteDance’s monetization scheme is two-pronged: distribution of third-party titles and original creation. Quality games don’t come overnight, so the strategy allows its gaming unit to have some revenue as it bets on one of its own works to be a cash cow. Casual games are great for ads, which are normally placed between levels. More complex games rely on user loyalty and the natural way to make money is through in-app purchases. A number of ByteDance’s licensed casual games have so far made it into the Top 10 iOS free games in China, including car racing game Drift Race, music game Yinyue Qiuqiu, and puzzle game Brain Out. While these collaborations don’t make big bucks yet, the initial traction proves the viability of ByteDance’s traffic strategy. ByteDance said in 2019 it had 1.5 billion monthly users across its app family (there can be user overlap between apps). One way ByteDance is marketing games is by inserting native ads into users’ content feeds. Videos, says Niko Partners’ Ahmad, are “interactive, easy to use, easy to click through and can get much higher conversion than traditional ads.” In some cases, the ad may prompt users to download a standalone gaming app. But like WeChat and most of China’s popular apps, Douyin and Toutiao support third-party “mini apps” within their own platforms. Users can, for instance, play a lite game on Douyin just as they can on WeChat. With hundreds of millions of monthly users, ByteDance already has a good grasp of people’s tastes and behavior, so it knows what games to recommend. In theory, the more people see and react, the more accurate its predictions become. “Through targeted ‘recommendations’, our ‘algorithms’ will automatically show users mini games presented in various forms,” explains ByteDance’s gaming developer handbook. “All games have a fair and equal chance of getting initial exposure.” Source: How ByteDance plans to crack the gaming industry
  2. BEIJING/HONG KONG (Reuters) - ByteDance, the owner of short-video app TikTok, has launched a new search engine in China, entering a sector currently dominated by Baidu Inc. Beijing-based ByteDance is moving beyond its core businesses in news and video and into work-place messaging and music streaming, competing with Tencent Holdings and other Chinese tech firms. The domain for the new search engine, Toutiao Search, sits within the company’s flagship product - Chinese news aggregator Jinri Toutiao. ByteDance, which according to sources familiar with the matter was valued at $78 billion in its last financing round in 2018, declined to comment. The company said on social media last month it was looking to hire people to work with its search engine team, and had hired technical experts from Google, Baidu and Bing. It said the search engine would offer content from ByteDance-owned apps, including Jinri Toutiao and the Chinese version of TikTok, as well as the wider web. Toutiao Search offers censored results like other Chinese search engines, according to searches conducted by Reuters. A search for “June Fourth”, a term associated with the violent suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, the search engine showed results from the People’s Daily and other official news websites. Baidu has been the dominant search engine in China since 2010, when U.S. search engine giant Google retreated from the Chinese market after it declined to comply with a government request to filter its search results. Baidu in 2018 accounted for 66% of desktop searches and 71% of mobile searches in China, according to market researcher StatCounter. Baidu, which reported its first quarterly loss in May since its 2018 initial public offering, has shrugged off the threat from ByteDance. “We have estimated that there are about two new players emerging in the search engine market each year,” Ping Xiaoli, general manager of Baidu App, told reporters last week when asked about Bytedance’s search engine. “We have been dominating the market over the past two decades,” Ping added. Source
  3. President Donald Trump said he might rescind his tentative blessing for a deal between Oracle Corp. and ByteDance to create a new U.S.-based TikTok service, casting doubt on the agreement as Chinese state media signaled reluctance in Beijing. Speaking in an interview on Fox News on Monday, Trump said he wouldn’t approve the deal if the Chinese company retains control of TikTok. However, he also indicated that he expected Chinese influence to be diluted by a future public offering of the new company. “They will have nothing to do with it, and if they do, we just won’t make the deal,” Trump said, referring to ByteDance, which owns TikTok. “It’s going to be controlled, totally controlled by Oracle, and I guess they’re going public and they’re buying out the rest of it -- they’re buying out a lot, and if we find that they don’t have total control then we’re not going to approve the deal.” Shortly after Trump’s comments, Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the China state-affiliated Global Times, tweeted that Beijing would likely reject the deal “because the agreement would endanger China’s national security, interests and dignity.” The Global Times is a tabloid run by the People’s Daily -- the flagship newspaper of the Communist Party. Hu’s tweets are closely watched after accurately forecasting previous moves by China’s government, though his statements at times don’t reflect official policy. ByteDance was pressured into a deal for TikTok in August, when Trump threatened to ban the app in the U.S. over national security concerns about the service’s data gathering. After Microsoft Corp. made a proposal for a full buyout, ByteDance instead turned to Oracle’s offering, in which the Chinese parent will maintain a solid majority stake. ByteDance may end up owning as much as 80% of TikTok Global, which would include the app’s operations in the U.S. and the rest of the world excluding China. On Friday, Trump said that he had approved of the deal with Oracle and WalMart Inc. “in concept.” Under the current proposal, there will be five seats on the board of TikTok Global. Walmart Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon will become a director, the retailer said in a statement. TikTok Global will likely be headquartered in Texas and will hire “at least” 25,000 people, Trump said. The valuation for TikTok has been a looming question in the wake of Washington and Beijing clashing over the negotiations. The company will seek a valuation of $60 billion, according to a person familiar with the matter. TikTok Global intends to hold an initial public offering within 12 months, Oracle and Walmart said. Oracle will get full access to review TikTok’s source code and updates to make sure there are no back doors used by the company’s Chinese parent to gather data or to spy on the video-sharing app’s 100 million American users, according to people familiar with the matter. The U.S. software giant has given reassurances it can protect TikTok user data from foreign influence. Source
  4. WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Trump administration on Wednesday granted ByteDance a new seven-day extension of an order directing the Chinese company to sell its TikTok short video-sharing app, according to a court filing. The administration previously had granted ByteDance a 15-day extension of the order issued in August, which was set to expire Friday. President Donald Trump on Aug. 14 had directed ByteDance to divest the app within 90 days. The new deadline is Dec. 4, TikTok said in the filing. Under pressure from the U.S. government, ByteDance has been in talks for months to finalize a deal with Walmart Inc and Oracle Corp to shift TikTok’s U.S. assets into a new entity. TikTok declined to comment beyond the filing. ByteDance has made a new proposal aimed at addressing the U.S. government’s concerns, said a person briefed on the matter who declined to detail that proposal. A U.S. Treasury representative said the extension was granted to review a recently received “revised submission”. ByteDance made the proposal after disclosing on Nov. 10 that it had submitted four prior proposals including one in November that sought to address U.S. concerns by “creating a new entity, wholly owned by Oracle, Walmart and existing U.S. investors in ByteDance, that would be responsible for handling TikTok’s U.S. user data and content moderation.” Separate restrictions on TikTok from the U.S. Commerce Department have been blocked by federal courts, including transaction curbs that TikTok said could effectively ban the app’s use in the United States. A Commerce Department ban on Apple Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google offering TikTok for download for new U.S. users that had been set to take effect on Sept. 27 has also been blocked. Source
  5. SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Popular video-sharing app TikTok issued a broad ban on Wednesday against “misleading information” that could cause harm to its community or the public, setting itself apart from rivals like Facebook which say that they do not want to be arbiters of truth. “We remove misinformation that could cause harm to an individual’s health or wider public safety. We also remove content distributed by disinformation campaigns,” TikTok, owned by Chinese tech company ByteDance, wrote in new guidelines which expand and add detail to its earlier rules. TikTok, as a relative newcomer to the social media landscape, has yet to wrestle publicly with the persistent content moderation scandals that have dogged larger and more entrenched competitors. However, the company has grown rapidly over the last year and come under scrutiny from U.S. lawmakers concerned that it may be censoring politically sensitive content, following reports it blocked videos on protests in Hong Kong. U.S. officials have also raised national security concerns about TikTok’s handling of user data, prompting reviews by the U.S. Army and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. TikTok says it stores U.S. user data outside China. According to data from research firm Sensor Tower, TikTok and its Chinese counterpart Douyin have been downloaded more than 1.5 billion times, including 680 million downloads in 2019. TikTok’s previous rules around “misleading content” appeared to focus mostly on scams, barring users from creating fake identities or posting false information to make money, but did not mention misinformation or disinformation campaigns. By contrast, the new rules explicitly ban “misinformation meant to incite fear, hate, or prejudice,” “misleading information about medical treatments,” and “content that misleads community members about elections or other civic processes.” The guidelines did not explain how TikTok would determine what constitutes “misleading” content and appeared to leave leeway for interpretation in enforcement decisions. A spokesman said the new policy would likely prompt the removal of content featuring conspiracy theories like Pizzagate, a fictitious story involving child exploitation and a supposedly Clinton-linked Washington pizzeria which went viral on social media in 2016 and prompted a man to fire an assault rifle at the pizzeria. The spokesman said TikTok would also consider a heavily edited video that attempted to make U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi seem incoherent to be misinformation. Facebook and Twitter weathered intense criticism from Democrats over the video this year after declining to take it down. On Monday, Facebook announced a new policy banning deepfakes and other manipulated media, but said the change would not result in the removal of the doctored Pelosi video. Source
  6. ByteDance, the owner behind TikTok, has been secretly building a deepfake feature that would allow users to insert their faces into videos they’re not actually in, according to a TechCrunch report. While the feature is not live yet, it would appear that TikTok and Douyin—TikTok’s sister app in China—both feature code for taking multiangle biometric scans of a user’s face. The scan can then be inserted in select videos before being shared. The news sounds concerning, especially when you consider how manipulated media can potentially be misused to spread misinformation. See: That faked viral video of Nancy Pelosi appearing to slur her words. TikTok has also been the subject of scrutiny as of late, with accusations it collected children’s data, military bans, and national security concerns. The code itself was discovered by Watchful.ai, an Israeli startup. Their findings indicate that ByteDance is hyper-aware that a potential deepfake feature might not be received too well. As a result, it appears ByteDance has gone through the trouble to build in some safeguards. For instance, users must scan their face from multiple angles to create the deepfakes—a measure which doubles as identity verification and a preventive measure from someone using a single photo to create manipulated media without consent. Users can also only insert themselves into a limited number of videos that ByteDance claims to have rights to. Lastly, when it comes to sharing, the generated videos will feature watermarks to indicate the content isn’t real. Watchful.ai also found unpublished updates to TikTok and Douyin’s terms of service with regard to the deepfake feature. It reiterates that “real identity verification” is required and that uploaded photos can’t be used. Also encouraging is the fact the feature can’t be used by minors. Neither TikTok nor Douyin seems keen to own up to the feature existing, however. Spokespersons from both apps denied aspects of Watchful.ai’s findings to TechCrunch. Specifically, TikTok denied it was an upcoming feature but also seemingly inadvertently acknowledged the code existed by stating “The inactive code fragments are being removed to eliminate any confusion.” That disconnect between the two apps tracks with recent reports that ByteDance is doing its best to isolate TikTok from the rest of its Chinese operations over espionage concerns. In an email to Gizmodo, a TikTok spokesperson said, “TikTok is not experimenting with this feature, has never offered this feature, and has no intention to offer such a feature in the future.” It’s hard to say whether the deepfake feature will ever see the light of day in the U.S. It’s possible that it could be a China-only release, or that ByteDance might find launching a deepfake feature isn’t worth the potential blowback. Even so, ByteDance isn’t the only social media app to dabble with media manipulation via filters or face swapping. Snapchat, for one, has had a face swap feature for years now. Chinese app Zao took it a step further, allowing users to transpose their faces onto famous actors in short clips. The problem is the more sophisticated these deepfake tools get, the murkier it gets with regard to IP, misinformation, and potential abuse. Whether any other apps attempt to incorporate more extensive deepfake tools into their platforms remains to be seen. Update, 01/03/2020, 1:46pm: Added comment from TikTok spokesperson Source
  7. China’s ByteDance, owner of wildly popular (and often deeply annoying) music app TikTok, has moved to segregate much of the app’s operations from the rest of its business in a bid to convince the U.S. government user data is safe from the prying eyes of Chinese spies, Reuters reported on Wednesday. ByteDance acquired the U.S.-based app Musical.ly in 2017 for a billion dollars, helping TikTok to rapidly acquire hundreds of millions of users. According to Reuters, the company hopes to reassure the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) that user data is safe from the Chinese government in order to avoid the fate of Beijing Kunlun Tech Co Ltd, which the committee compelled to agree to divest gay dating app Grindr in May 2019. User data acquired by TikTok would include names, ages, email addresses, phone numbers, location data, account credentials (potentially including reused passwords), and of course any content uploaded to the app. The fear goes, much as it has accumulated around other Chinese-owned corporations that have attracted U.S. scrutiny like Huawei, that due to the lack of privacy protections in China all the nation’s security services need to do is ask and they will suddenly be granted access to all of that information. According to Reuters, a source said that steps ByteDance has taken include separating TikTok’s “product and business development, marketing and legal teams from those of its Chinese social media app Douyin” earlier this year. It also hired a third-party consultant to audit how it handles personal data and reiterated it stores all U.S. user data stateside, as well as stated TikTok content is beyond the jurisdiction of Chinese authorities. Furthermore, it is hiring more U.S. engineers to work on TikTok and creating a data management oversight team in Mountain View, California, sources told Reuters. Reports that ByteDance is the target of a CFIUS national security probe focusing on the Musical.ly acquisition first popped up around the start of November. The U.S. Army, which launched a recruitment campaign via the app, has also launched its own security assessment aimed at determining whether the risks of using the app outweighed the gains. According to Reuters, ByteDance views the CFIUS probe as informal, and sources said that CFIUS has not raised any questions about censorship on the app. One user recently claimed that her account was suspended after she posted a TikTok criticizing the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims—specifically widespread accounts that hundreds of thousands have been or are being processed through concentration camps in Xinjiang—though ByteDance insisted it was because a previous TikTok from the user’s account featured a photo of Osama bin Laden, setting off automated terrorism filters. Source
  8. A Bloomberg report on Monday evening said that ByteDance is considering selling off a majority stake in its incredibly popular and fantastically annoying music app, TikTok, amid intensifying U.S. government concerns that the China-based company is a security and espionage threat. However, the firm has denied the report as “inaccurate” and “meritless.” ByteDance was previously reported to be preparing to wall off TikTok from the rest of its Chinese operations as part of a plan to reassure the powerful Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS) that it doesn’t plan on abusing its access to the hundreds of millions of devices it’s installed on worldwide on behalf of China’s security services. The argument goes that all those government agencies need to do is ask, and China-based businesses will be forced to comply, due to both a lack of basic legal protections and sweeping laws consolidating government control over the nation’s domestic internet. Selling off a majority stake in TikTok would significantly assuage those fears, as the Beijing-based ByteDance would no longer have unilateral control. According to Bloomberg, ByteDance’s wariness over the CFIUS issue seems to have continued to grow, with sources saying advisors are “pitching everything from an aggressive legal defense and operational separation for TikTok to sale of a majority stake.” One source said that ByteDance believes it could make well over $10 billion for a majority stake in the app, Bloomberg added. But if a sale proceeds, a source told the news agency, the likeliest scenario is that ByteDance will attempt to protect the value of the app by selling it to company investors like SoftBank, Sequoia Capital, or Susquehanna International Group. ByteDance would obviously prefer not to sell off its crown jewel, according to Bloomberg, and less drastic options remain on the table. Another report in the Wall Street Journal on Monday indicated that ByteDance was looking at creating a headquarters for TikTok, which currently lacks an official one, outside of China. Bloomberg also noted that ByteDance, which did not seek CFIUS pre-approval for its acquisition of the app’s original owner, Shanghai-based Musical.ly, could argue that the committee lacks legal standing to force a divestiture despite its massive userbase in the states and main office in Los Angeles. ByteDance has denied that it has any plans to sell off parts of TikTok, according to Reuters. A company spokesperson told the news agency that there have “been no discussions about any partial or full sale of TikTok” and that “These rumors are completely meritless.” In a separate memo to staff, Reuters wrote, TikTok chief Alex Zhu wrote that “From time to time you may read stories in the media that are not true. Today there is an inaccurate report claiming that ByteDance has considered selling part or all of TikTok... We went on the record saying it was not true, but they decided to publish it anyway. I want to assure you that we have had no discussions with potential buyers of TikTok, nor do we have any intention to.” Source
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