Friday, December 9, 2011

The Latest from TechCrunch

The Latest from TechCrunch

Link to TechCrunch

You Can Now “Check In” To Video Games With Playd

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 09:50 AM PST

photo 1

Playd is a new mobile application that lets you check in to games the way Foursquare users check in to venues. Actually, the app is more akin to something like Miso, GetGlue or IntoNow - apps which extend the check-in metaphor to other activities, like watching TV or seeing a movie.

The company is one of the first to launch from the NewMe Accelerator, the startup accelerator whose focus is on giving black founders a leg up in Silicon Valley. It was also featured in CNN's documentary on race and tech entrepreneurship – yep, that one – but lets not hold that against Playd, OK?

The concept behind Playd is familiar: users check in to the game they're playing to alert their social network of fellow gamers of the activity.  But Playd is different from other entertainment-focused check-in apps because it verifies that users have access to the game in question. The app currently supports check-ins for any game, old or new, through the use of a UPC barcode scanning feature. Alternately, gamers can also connect their online accounts for Xbox LIVE, PSN or Steam, in order to authenticate their activity. (Steam, however, will be removed in the next update due to its recent security issues. Playd will bring it back when Steam fixes its problems, we’re told).

This verification process is useful for Playd's potential partners – retailers, game developers and advertisers – because it will allow them to authenticate the game's users and specifically target a niche group with offers or rewards.

Currently, gamers collect these rewards in the form of tokens, which are now being redeemed for badges and free Playd gear. In the future, partners could also dole out things like discounts, free merchandise, exclusive downloadable content and more. For example, a partner could choose to reward gamers who scanned the barcode of a newly released title on game day. Or publishers could reward a game's most active users.

While the company doesn't have any partners to announce publicly just yet, Co-founder Anthony Frasier says they're in talks with several and hope to be able to announce the first soon. In the meantime, gamers can try out the Playd experience by downloading the app here on iTunes or here on the Android Market.

Since NewMe didn’t offer funding, Playd will be looking to raise a seed round in early 2012.

TechCrunch Gift Guide 2011: Best Toys

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 09:14 AM PST


If you’re an Aunt, Uncle, Grandfather, Grandmother, Godmother, Godfather, Foster Parent, or just plain old mommy or daddy, you might have some kids on your holiday shopping list. These are some interesting toys that I’ve come across this year and all have a certain high-tech edge that adults and kids alike can enjoy.

The LeapPad – $189 – There is a very narrow window during which Leapfrog devices like the LeapPad are popular and fun, but if you have kids between 4 and 6 and you want to keep them off the iPad, this self-contained tablet may be the right way to go. It has a built-in camera, supports multiple games, and is rugged enough to end up on the floor a few times without breaking. It even supports children’s ebooks, all available from Leapfrog.

Nerf Vortex – From $23 – The Nerf vortex guns are on improvement over the previous dart-based guns that were so popular with cubicle dwellers and college kids everywhere. These guns shoot small soft disks are quite accurate at a distance. You can hold multiple disks per clip and shoot them like Rambo at targets and – this is not recommended – your sister. They range in size and price so be sure you know how the intended recipients parents feel about heavy artillery before you pick this up.

Mindflex Duel – $74.99 – I played with Mindflex Duel a few times already and came away slightly nonplussed but impressed at the technology that goes into this complex and cool game. Both players wear wireless headsets that “sense” your thoughts allow you to move a floating ball forward and back along a set track. The challenge comes in getting the ball through various hoops and holes and keep it aloft with your thoughts alone. It’s one of those games that are cool with you first open it and then may seem a bit less interesting over time, which should give potential purchasers pause, especially considering the price. Check it out online and decide for yourself if you want to control a soft foam ball with your brain.

Lite Sprites – From $15 – There aren’t many high tech toys for girls so I was especially pleased when I found the Lite Sprites. These twee plastic fairies light up in multiple colors that are controlled by a magic wand that can actually sample colors from various services. For example, you can place the bottom of the wand on a piece of colored paper and the LEDs in the top will attempt to re-create that color by mixing shades. Does it always work? No, but it’s pretty cool when it does. With the larger playsets you can actually send the sample colors to internal LEDs, lighting up the entire playset to match the wand.

Light Strike – From $20 – You cannot watch the video above without coming away with the idea that Light Strike rocks pretty hard. As a child of the 80s, I remember Laser Tag with a fondness that belies the actual number of times I played with that fairly simple gun and target toy. WowWee has improved upon the basic concept by creating guns that have different load times and can use special accessories like telescopic sights and radar.

Perplexus Epic – $30 – This toy is amazingly simple and amazingly addictive. It’s essentially a 3-D maze inside a ball. To solve it, you run a small metal BB through the various holes, tracks, and moving cups, without letting it fall off. It’s a fun thinking toy for kids who like to concentrate on puzzles rather than run around the dining room table screaming the lyrics to Disney songs.

For some extra inspiration on all things gifty, check out the rest of our 2011 Holiday Gift Guide here.

Meet ePawn Arena: The Screen That Wants To Make Gaming Personal Again

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 09:10 AM PST


At the risk of sounding a little old-fashioned, ePawn CEO Christophe Duteil thinks that there’s something missing with the way people play games these days. Modern gaming lacks “conviviality” — the sensation of revelling with good company.

His vision of gaming aims to bring people into the same physical space once again, an experience that has become less relevant thanks to fat data pipes and networked consoles. To that end, Duteil and his team at ePawn are slaving away on the ePawn Arena: a Microsoft Surface-esque screen that aims to bring gamers back into the same room by adding a modern twist to an classic idea.

In essence, the ePawn Arena is a big screen that is capable of interacting with the physical pieces that sit on top of it. Up for a rousing game of air hockey? Break out the ePawn-compatible paddles and have at it. Or how about a little fantasy-RPG action? There are parts for those too. Curiously, the screen itself doesn’t have computing components in it — rather, it relies on the horsepower from the smartphone (or computer) you connect it to.

According to CTO Valentin Lefevre, the Arena employs a sub-LCD tracking layer that is capable of detecting the ePawn tags attached to their game pieces. ePawn is planning on reaching out to big-name game development studios like Ubisoft, but doesn’t want to leave the little guys out too: iOS and Android SDKs are in the works, so developers of all stripes will soon to able to make ePawn-friendly apps.

If the concept sounds a little familiar, that’s because they’re not the first to explore the nexus between physical parts and software. Microsoft’s Surface is a prominent example, but Disney Mobile has recently released AppMates, a multimedia play experience that allows players to explore some of Disney’s worlds by manipulating a physical piece on top of the screen. I referred to it as an “interactive playmat,” but with the screen measuring only 10 inches diagonal, calling it a “mat” may have been a bit of a stretch.

Duteil certainly agrees with me here — according to him, that sort of setup isn’t ideal for the avid gamer. It’s too small, too constraining for multiple people to enjoy.

That’s why ePawn has decided to go big with the display — the way they see it, bigger displays mean room for more people. The current prototype kicking around ePawn’s Paris headquarters comes in at 23 inches across (which made a splash at this year’s E3), but Duteil tells me that the production model is even bigger at 26 inches. What’s even more impressive is the price point they’re aiming to launch at: $400. The company hopes to pick up more steam at CES 2012, and aims to launch soon afterward.

While chatting with Duteil and Lefevre, they kept repeating the same phrase over and over: the ePawn system is “designed by gamers, for gamers.” While it easily has potential as a nascent marketing mantra, these guys really seemed to mean it. For them, ePawn is a labor of love — it may well stay just that too, because the jury is still out on whether or not a market for something like this exists.

While much cheaper than a device like Microsoft and Samsung’s new Surface display table, $400 is a non-trivial amount for most gamers, and I’d imagine that most of them would rather spend it on something a little less flash-in-the-pan. ePawn’s own website describes the the Arena as an “investment,” and Duteil tells me that while the Arena could certainly find use in the business sector (think “digital whiteboards” for collaborative training), it’s primarily targetted at tech-savvy families.

So, in TechCrunch parlance, will it fly or die? As a hardcore board game nerd, there’s something strangely appealing about the marriage of old and new as seen in the Arena. There’s definitely potential for the Arena to go far, but it’s very early in the game for ePawn: they’ll need developers to make compatible games, and enough buyers to make the whole endeavor worthwhile. Still, if Duteil and his team play things right, it could be a big win for both them and fans of playing games in person.

Should I or Shouldn’t I? (start a business)

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 09:01 AM PST


Editor's noteJames Altucher is an investor, programmer, author, and entrepreneur. He is Managing Director of Formula Capital and has written 6 books on investing. His latest book is I Was Blind But Now I See. You can follow him@jaltucher.

I cried the first day I was an enterpreneur. I left my great job at HBO to full time become CEO of the business I was running on the side. I suddenly went from working 30-40 minutes a day to working 22 hours a day.

The first day I was there fulltime, I got the word: the $900,000 I thought the Wu-Tang Clan was going to pay us to do websites was out the window. Maybe it was never there. Ugh. And then Tupac’s manager laughed me out of his office. I was a failure on day one. I cried over a slice of pizza. It was salty. When I was leaving HBO my boss there told me, “be careful, once you leave here nobody will  return your calls anymore.” And he was right. I suddenly had to enter a world of failure, flexibility beyond anything I had encountered, bribery, psychology, and the depths of human despair that I didn’t know existed.

In other words: the real world.

Here's what I hated about being an entrepreneur: human beings. Most of them suck. Most customers lie to you, for instance. Every customer has the bait-and switch technique: ” if you deliver this to us at this cheap price then, BELIEVE ME, there is a lot more business where that came from.”  And that's before they start asking for bribes. In one form or other, 80% of customers ask for a bribe.

Investors are no good either. "We're going to add a lot of strategic value." That's a euphemism for: when things are going bad we are going to do a down round, ratchet you out of all your shares through dilution, and probably kick you out and bring in a real senior manager. Who will eventually implode the company. Thanks.

Employees are no good either. For one thing, they sleep with each other. And you have to keep track of it. W is sleeping with X. M is sleeping with Z. It's like a messed up chart on a white board. Yeah, yeah, there are rules and laws for all this sort of thing. But the bottom line is: if I'm going to keep W from going into an alcoholic frenzy where he disappears for days at a time instead of working on the American Express project then I'm the one who takes the heat. But at the same time, W is happy this second because he's having sex with X. I mean, who wouldn't be?

My competition.  I was once running a company where I built websites for other Fortune 100 companies. I had a competitor, Interactive 8. The CEO kept calling me one time but I never returned his call. Two things: I was busy. And I'm horrible at returning calls. It was hard enough for me as a kid calling a girl and asking her out on a date. Now I have to call the CEO of my competitor? Who invented this phone thing anyway.

So one time, though, we ran into each other on the street. And he told me a story. It was like a parable and he was jesus. He told me about the CEO of Toys R Us. He called the CEO of Toys R Us and left a message. Within an hour the CEO was calling him back from his private jet. "Good CEOs return calls," Bill told me. Go F yourself.

Acquirers. My first company got bought by a company doing a rollup. I stayed a year. By the time I left, the writing was on the wall. Junior high school students were learning how to make websites. You could no longer charge one million dollars to do a website.

(PS. This is no joke. One time I called a competitor of mine, Avalanche (later acquired by Razorfish) and, as an experiment in being annoying,  I said I wanted a two page website done for my wedding. They said, "uhh, we usually don't do those". But I persisted. I said I had to have this website done but I didn't know how to do something called "H-T-M-L".  They said ok, "but our starting prices are around a million dollars for something like that."

So like I said, the writing was on the wall. And it wasn't pretty writing. It was like bad graffiti. We're not talking Banksy here. We're talking how when I was three years old and wrote curse words all over my neighbor's windows and then went home after she caught me and called my parents and my dad beat me silly.

So I stayed a year and tried to leave. The chairman of the company called me into his office. He said, "When you acquire a company, it's the closest legal thing to slavery we still have in this country and I can prosecute you to the fullest extent because of that." Really? Go F yourself also.

Money: Starting a business requires money. Spending it out of your own checkbook. Getting from your family. Then your friends. Then pitching VCs. Then, on occasion, losing it for everyone, including yourself. That's so unpleasant. What if you were about to have a kid? What if your friends or family were about to have kids? What if the VC killed himself when he found out. Money is a hard thing to earn, to keep, to love, and easy to spend and lose. I'm sorry to everyone, particularly my kids.

Here's what I liked about it:

-          Employees:  When I was younger I used to call my parents once every few days and tell them all about whatever job I was in. I'd be proud if my boss said something good to me. I'd feel good about my accomplishments.  I wanted all ofmy employees to be able to call their parents at the end of each day and tell them how great their day was, how much they were learning, how much room for advancement there was, how their bosses were thinking of their futures. If you lay out for your employees the future they have in front of them, even if it means they eventually go and start another business, then they will ultimately kill for you.

-          Customers: I loved doing a good job. I liked delivering a project and the client saying, "this is amazing." There's a trick to doing this. And most startups do not pay attention to this trick although it is critically important. Do everything you said you were going to do. And then do ONE MORE THING. Anything. One extra button, one new feature, one thing that surprises. In every business I ever started I would do this. Believe it or not, even for my fund of hedge funds. With every single investor, I'd try to find them a girlfriend, with investors who were having down months I'd call them and try to cheer them up (as long as it wasn't my fault!). These investors became like family.

-          Acquirers. I loved acquirers. They give you money. I'm still close friends with everyone who has ever bought a company of mine, incuding the guy I mentioned above who talked about slavery. If someone gives me money, I stay loyal forever. I've seen many examples of people screw over their acquirers. But loyalty is one of the most important attributes you can have in a short life. And loyalty has many benefits that will occur over and over again. Try it and you will see. But it takes time.

-          The network. When you run a business you ultimately meet many people. I can tell you over the course of being an entrepreneur now for about 17 years that the network increases in value exponentially. And it never goes away. No matter how many times I've disappeared. Or not returned phone calls. Or have been lying in the gutter with a needle sticking out of my elbow, the network always returns to pick me up. The key is: never speak badly about anyone. Even the people above who I said "Go F yourself" know that I'm kidding and are still parts of my network. I know too many people who ignore this critical rule: never speak or even think badly about someone else. Eventually, if you do, it will have negative consequences.

-          Money. When you create something that has value, that people use, where the employees are happy coming to work every day, where the clients are singing your praises, where investors are beating your door down and you don't want to even take their money, where acquirers are calling every day, where business or site usage, or customers are increasing every day. It feels good. And that goodness is compensated. You either make more money from your company or your company gets sold and you make money. It might mean you are a slave for a little bit for the new company. But your kids have a better chance of not being homeless. This is a good thing.

Perhaps the most important thing: the myth of corporate job safety is over. You will ALWAYS make more money hustling your own way if you have the ability to bounce back from the non-stop failures along the way. No Fortune 500 company will care for you the way you will care for yourself.

One more point: if you are leaving a corporate job  to become an EMPLOYEE at a startup you need to do even more due diligence than if you were considering investing cash into a startup. You are investing YOUR LIFE into the startup. So at the very least, check the boxes on the below, quit your job, and then get down on your knees and pray to whatever god you subscribe to:

  •           Talk to clients. Are they happy?
  •           What’s the backgrounds of the heads of sales?
  •           Has the CEO built andsold a business before and taken care of his employees in the process? (this won’t get you into the next Facebook and Google but it will save you a lot of grief overall)
  •           Does the company have at least 1 year's cash.
  •           What are plans for future rounds of fundraising?
  •           Who are the current investors on board? Do they have deep pockets to keep funding the company?
  •           Is the company squarely positioned in what you feel is a strong demographic trend?
  •           Has the company proven its flexibility (i.e. has it already had a chance to learn from its mistakes)

See also, The  100 Rules for Being a Great Entrepreneur

There are pros and there are cons to starting a business. The good news is: you learn from all the cons as much as you learn from all the pros. And maybe one of these days I'll get it all just right because I'm never going to stop.

Mobile ‘Edutainment’ App For Kids Pluto Games Raises $500K From YouWeb And Others

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 09:00 AM PST

Pluto Games Inc

Pluto Games, a mobile ‘edutainment’ platform for kids, has raised $500,000 in seed funding from incubator YouWeb and angel investors including co-founder and chairman of Silver Lake Dave Roux; Brett Wander, Chief Investment Officer at Charles Schwab; and Praful Shah, former VP Marketing at WebEx. As part of the investment, Pluto Games is spinning off from YouWeb as an independent company.

founded by Luis Sampedro, Pluto offers an educational game and iPad app, called Pluto Leans Piano that combines scrolling gameplay dynamics with musical notes to get children interested in learning music. The game follows the main character, Pluto, a penguin on a quest to master a variety of songs on the Piano. Children can learn basic songs like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star as well as more classical pieces like The Magic Flute by Mozart, Ode to Joy by Beethoven, Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky.

Pluto Plays Piano is free to download and play with stars awarded based on performance in completing levels. As the player collects stars, Pluto unlocks new songs to learn. The company plans to launch music and education tablet games in other verticals soon.

T-Mobile To YouMail: We Told You About This A Month Ago

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 08:49 AM PST


Yesterday something strange happened. YouMail, a visual voicemail app with millions of downloads, was pulled from the Android Market. Confused, YouMail reached out to Google about what the dealio was, only to hear that T-Mobile had requested that the app be pulled. T-Mobile complained to Google of “adverse network disruption,” which was blamed squarely on YouMail.

According to YouMail’s blog post, the company hadn’t heard anything from T-Mobile concerning the issue. But GigaOm is reporting that they’ve received a statement from T-Mobile that paints a different picture.

We reached out to YouMail in early November and asked them to address issues with their application that were negatively impacting our customers' experience. We're in contact with YouMail and they are working to resolve these issues. Once they do, we'll be glad to once again support their application.

So here we are in the midst of a lovely little “he said, she said” argument. The good news is T-Mo and YouMail are already in talks according to the pink carrier so this should be resolved soon. We’ll keep you in the loop once we know more.

Logostream Groups Apps By Brands For Easier Discovery

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 07:51 AM PST


App discovery company AppsFire is debuting a new iOS application today called Logostream, which offers a curated view of the iTunes application store. The app provides users with an easy way to find new apps to try, through the use of high-level categories and app icons you can flip through with your finger as they stream by. It’s a simplified alternative to what can sometimes be the overwhelming experience of browsing through the iTunes App Store itself.

According to AppsFire co-founder Ouriel Ohayon, the idea for Logostream was born out of the company’s previous attempt at app discovery called Appstream. Like the older version, both apps involve streams of icons, but Appstream offered a busier user interface with lots of icons. What Ohayon found was that people tended to tap on the apps of brands they were already familiar with instead of the unknown new icons for brands they had never seen.

To serve this demographic, the company created Logostream. Here, apps are sorted by category. When you switch to any section, the logos automatically stream by. You can also flip through them using your finger to move more quickly. Tap any logo to see all the apps under that brand. So, for example, if you tap the Microsoft app, you’ll see apps for Bing, Xbox, OneNote, MSN, Photosynth, and more. Tap on LinkedIn and you’ll find both LinkedIn and CardMunch (a 2011 acquisition). You get the idea.

There are just a few categories for now: Tech, Sport, Fashion, TV & Music, Celebrities, and Every Day. But it’s a good start.

However, since mainstream users tends to gravitate towards brands they already know, I’m not sure how they’ll ever find Logostream. Oh well. Maybe you can install it for your app-deprived friends?

Logostream is a Universal app and is available in iTunes here.

Apple Loses Big Against Motorola In Germany

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 07:20 AM PST


Apple has lost a preliminary injunction filed by Motorola Mobility over a wireless-related patent. That’s not something we’re hearing a lot of these days, but it seems to be the case over in Germany, where a judge in the Mannheim Regional Court has ruled that the iPhone and iPad (3G versions) infringe European Patent 1010336, covering a “method for performing countdown function during a mobile-originated transfer for a packet radio system.”

By now all this patent litigation has likely become tiresome to you, as it has most of us, but this is actually a pretty substantial win for Motorola, and an equally substantial loss for Apple. The loss means that an injunction on all the old iPhones, (probably the 4S, as well) and 3G-capable iPads is preliminarily enforceable against Apple Sales International, which is Apple’s Ireland-based subsidiary.

Motorola has already secured a similar ruling before, but it neglected to give Apple the chance to present its case. This ruling, however, came after both Apple and Motorola presented their full arguments. That said, Apple has very few options to stop the ban. They will likely try to get a stay to appeal the ruling, but it’s unclear whether or not that suspension will be granted.

The ruling also allows for Apple to remove the allegedly infringing technology from its products, but that seems impossible. The patent in question covers technology that seems to be crucial to the functionality of the phone. Even if it wasn’t, it’s probably not commercially viable for Apple to remove it.

But it gets trickier than that. For one thing, enforcing this injunction is a bit of a risk for Motorola. The judge has allowed for Apple to receive a €100 million bond, which would go toward damages sustained during the injunction, should Cupertino find a way to overturn this ruling down the road.

Then there’s the matter of FRAND (fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory) licensing, which comes into play here since the patent in suit falls under the GPRS data standard. But Germany deals with FRAND issues a little differently. Basically, if a company is found to be using FRAND-style patented technology in its products, the court can only allow that company a FRAND defense if it’s made “an irrevocable, binding offer” to license the patents on FRAND terms and also post a bond for ongoing royalties, reports FOSS Patents.

Apple did make an offer, to license all of Motorola’s FRAND-pledged patents, but threw in a clause that drifts away from the idea of “irrevocable” and “binding.” The issue is that Apple wants to argue the validity of the patent in question, which would mean those royalty payments would fly out the window.

The court in Germany agreed with Motorola when it argued that the offer Apple made to license the patents was shy of what is needed to cover damages. That said, Motorola can license these patents to Apple moving forward, but Apple will have to cough up the dough for past infringement.

Here’s a full copy of today’s ruling (but brush up on your German first):

Barnes & Noble Has Shipped One Million Nook Tablets, Industry Report States

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 06:59 AM PST


With all the hype around the Kindle Fire it’s easy to forget about the Nook Tablet. The other budget Android tablet is zipping along nicely according to industry watchdog Digitimes. The outlet, citing upstream component suppliers, is reporting that B&N has shipped (note: not sold) one million units since the Nook Tablet’s mid-November launch. Plus, due to strong initial sales, ol’ B&N is increasing its order countering earlier estimates that predicted demand for a B&N tablet would decrease.

The Amazon Fire might be the wunderkind of the Android world, but the Nook Tablet isn’t a slouch either. Both the Fire and Nook Tablet are built using the formula of the original Nook Color. By skinning Android with a much more consumer-friendly interface, Amazon and B&N successfully are successfully chipping away at the iPad’s mountain. A much lower price helps as well.

The Nook Tablet will never likely eclipse the Kindle Fire in retail sales volume. The Fire already has a massive lead. But the sub-iPad tablet market is largely untapped and the impressive initial sales numbers show consumers want a $200-ish tablet. For example, if this report is correct (it seems very likely), B&N shipped a million tablets in roughly a month while CE giant Asus is predicting to ship just 1.8 million tablets for all of 2011.

The iPad has effectively already won the first several rounds of the tablet war. But much like the PC battlefield, there is plenty of room for more than just one vendor. Barnes & Noble is officially a top player.

Local Recommendations App Alfred Gets A Whole New Look For Its Android Debut

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 06:55 AM PST

alfred - dashboard

Amid talks of a Groupon acquisition, the smart local recommendations app Alfred has arrived on Android. Alfred serves up personalized suggestions for nearby restaurants, coffee shops, bars and nightclubs using a combination of artificial intelligence and machine-learning algorithms to develop personal “taste graphs” for its users.

Previously an iOS-only app, the big news for Alfred’s second platform launch is not just the expanded reach, but also how the team at Clever Sense has approached the Android port.

Instead of simply reproducing the familiar Alfred interface using different code, Clever Sense created a second native app specifically designed to take advantage of features and interactions found on the Android platform. On Android, Alfred looks totally different.

Immediately after the app’s installation and launch, a screen asks you if you want to save the app to your homescreen. Having used Android for over a year myself, I’m surprised more Android apps don’t do this. (Android apps are hidden away by default in most cases, allowing users to customize multiple homescreens with their own selection of apps and widgets.)

After launching Alfred, the app walks you through the “getting to know you” quiz which asks you to teach it about some of your preferences. You can opt out of the quiz, but that wouldn’t be a great idea. Alfred’s algorithms get better the more you train them, so it’s worthwhile to give the app’s smarts a kickstart via the quiz.

When you arrive on Alfred’s main screen, this is where you’ll see the most startling departure from the iOS user interface. Instead of thumbnail photos you tap (e.g., lunch, dinner, etc.) to swipe through place recommendations, there are colored circles for “Ideas,” “Profile” and “Teach.” The Ideas circle, when tapped, take you through a list you scroll through up and down to choose the category. And when you’re in a category (e.g. “coffee and tea”), there’s a toolbar at the bottom that lets you view the recommendations as cards like on iOS, on a map or as a list. It allows you to apply filters to the recommendations.

The end result is a bit more of a geeky take on Alfred, which, frankly, is perfect for the Android user base. Android users are often interested in things like tweaks, customizations, and heavy personalization, thanks to the platform’s openness. There’s an enjoyment of apps, in many cases, as tools that help you get the job done, instead of “experiences” like on iOS. That’s not a bad thing, mind you, but it’s different.

To date, Alfred has served up 21 million recommendations to users, up from 7 million in October. And users have liked 4.6 million places, up from 2 million. But the company won’t disclose the actual user base numbers at this time.

Clever Sense had previously said that restaurants and the like was just the first step for the use of Alfred’s technology. It was looking into delivering personalized deal recommendations from sites like Groupon and LivingSocial in its next phase. That would explain Groupon’s interest in the matter. But while that would be likely be a nice exit for the company, it would be a shame for Alfred’s happy users to lose this app, especially now that it came to Android.

Alfred is live on the Android Market here.

Sean Parker: “This Election, Social Media Will Determine The Outcome”

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 06:44 AM PST


Every time Sean Parker goes onstage, someone asks him the inevitable question, “Where is the social web going.” Today at Le Web, where he was interviewed alongside VC Shervin Pishevar by TechCrunch’s Alexia Tsotsis, he decided to talk about politics. “I don't think politics have been figured out yet,” he says.

The Obama campaign created financial relationships with voters online but, not deeper political relationships. Parker thinks that will change in 2012. “This election, social media will determine the outcome,” he predicts.

Wait. Didn’t it determine the last election? Obama’s victory in the last U.S. presidential election is often attributed to his mastery of Web campaigning and social media. After all, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes ran the Obama campaign’s social media efforts. But Parker, who himself was the first president of Facebook, says “a lot of it was a mythology. In truth the social media elements of the Obama campaign, while extremely innovative, did not produce a lot of results. Obama did raise hundreds of millions online, but not through social media.” Rather, it was through old-fashioned mailing lists and field outreach that pushed people online to make that final donation.

In his view, social media can trump other forms of political outreach (mass mailings, canvassing, political rallies). “At the end of the day,” he concludes, “money is just a proxy for votes. That is what makes politics so vulnerable to social media. Social media can deliver a relationship much more effectively than these field techniques.”

Amazon Prime Instant Video Now Streaming Glee, Sons Of Anarchy

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 06:32 AM PST


Amazon Prime Video just got a shot of show tunes in the arm as the retailer just announced an extended licensing agreement with Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution. Exact terms of the deal including the length of the agreement were not released. But that doesn’t really matter. Glee! Amazon now has Glee!

Starting today, Prime members have access to season one and two of FOX’s Glee as a well as the first two seasons of FX’s Sons of Anarchy (season three will be available on Christmas day). Future seasons of both shows will hit the service once they’re available.

Amazon is on a roll propping up its Netflix competitor. The addition of these very popular shows adds to Prime Instant Video’s growing collection of videos available to watch instantly on a number of devices including the Kindle Fire and several set-top boxes. Plus, with WhisperSync, viewers can pause the content on one device and resume watching it on another — a big selling point for the Kindle Fire.

The Prime Instant Video plan is priced slightly differently than Netflix. Users must sign up for the $79 per year Amazon Prime plan, which includes access to the library of more than 13,000 movies and TV shows, but also nets the buyer free two-day shipping on most Amazon items and a discounted rate for overnight shipping. The company also just announced that Kindle owners who are also Prime members can borrow a book a month through the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library. As a Prime subscriber myself, I can profess that it’s an amazing service and for better or worse, will make you addicted to Amazon’s service. Plus now there’s Glee! Lots and lots of Glee!

(Full disclosure: I haven’t watched Glee in over a year and my life is better because of it.)

KOBOT: Japanese Company Shows Transformable, Smartphone-Controlled E-Cars (Video)

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 06:30 AM PST

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Japan-based Kowa Tmsuk may just be ten months old and just have five employees (it’s a joint venture between two larger companies), but it seems the company is set to build cool things. Their electric vehicle concept, dubbed KOBOT, looks very promising – especially for a first product.

The KOBOT is essentially a mix between a robot and an electric mini car that can make itself smaller than it already is with the push of a button (a feature that obviously comes in handy when it’s time to park the vehicle, for example). What’s cool is that the cars can be connected to smartphones: they actually start folding after owners push the button on their handsets.

Kowa Tmsuk has built three prototypes (see below) to showcase at the Tokyo Motor Show 2011 (which currently takes place).

The company explains:

The seat folds up, the wheelbase contracts, and the panels are concealed. So this concept also has security in mind. In the green Kobot β, the wheelbase goes down by about 30 cm. In the red Kobot ν, it goes down by about 40 cm.

To some extent, vehicles need to coexist with pedestrians, so we’ve given KOBOT a low-speed mode where it’s easy to maneuver. Then, there’s Drive Mode, which goes up to about 30 km/h.

This video from Diginfo TV provides more insight (try to focus on the cars):

Serial Entrepreneur Fabrice Grinda On Angel Investing, Brazil And Russia

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 05:53 AM PST


Serial Internet entrepreneur and angel investor Fabrice Grinda took the stage at Le Web this morning to share his thoughts on investing in Russia, Brazil and other emerging markets and general lessons he’s learned as a global angel investor.

Grinda, who is French but currently resides in New York, says he’s made every mistake you can possibly make, but that he’s getting better with every investment deal he inks (he and his team have backed 90 startups to date).

So why does he invest in Russia and Brazil?

Grinda pointed out that Brazil is not just Rio, football and favelas, but also home to an entire ecosystem of Internet companies, some of which have already gone successfully public and some of which are insanely profitable and booking hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue.

Brazil is obviously a big market, with 200 million people of which roughly 70 million are in the Internet. It is also a fairly rich country, with a growing economy and the largest e-commerce market in Latin America, which is ideally fertile ground for Internet startups to rise and shine.

Russia, says Grinda, is pretty much the same story. Huge market, booming startup ecosystem, largest country in the world (140 million people, 60 million Internet users) and a growing Internet economy with major players like Yandex and

Grinda says he started investing in Brazilian and Russan Internet companies because the world is less flat than people would have you believe, particularly when it comes to venture capital, so the opportunities were there. There’s no real globalization when it comes to making investments, he points out, with only about 20 percent of venture capital being deployed across-borders and obvious trading and travel barriers getting in the way of doing it adequately.

Grinda also talked about his early experiences as an angel investor. After selling his last company, which made him a relatively wealthy man, he invested $6 million in 6 startups. All of them failed.

Talking about some of the mistakes he’s made, he shared an anecdote about a Russian entrepreneur encountering problems someone in the US would never face when trying to build an e-commerce business (major logistics issues in a large country, and couriers who steal both products and the cash they receive for, well, not delivering them to buyers).

In Brazil, it’s a different story, purports Grinda. Logistics and payments work there, but it’s a dangerously litigious country, so startups often find themselves getting sued to oblivion. Grinda shared a story with the audience about a local e-commerce company that had its domain name taken away by some Brazilian judge, effectively killing its business overnight.

Grinda says he’s learned the hard way that it’s better to make smaller investments in a lot of companies then bet bigger on fewer companies. He refers to this “spray and pray” methodology as a more realistic model to become successful as an angel investor.

He only invests in consumer-facing companies because he lacks the time for thorough due diligence, and never takes a board seat at any of the startups in his portfolio, preferring to be a passive investor that responds quickly to specific questions from the entrepreneurs he backs.

About 25 percent of his investments are in the US, and 75 percent in the ‘rest of the world’ (meaning big markets like Brazil, Russia, Germany and Turkey, China and UK).

A lot of those are businesses ‘copying’ (aka cloning) successful models that were proven by other companies in the US or elsewhere, which he’s perfectly fine with.

He also talked about his 9 selection criteria for investments, which he outlined in the past, in much more detail, on his blog here.

Nokia Starts Shipping Lumia 710 To Asia, Russia; Priced 270 Euros Without Taxes

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 05:11 AM PST


Nokia this morning announced that it has started shipping its stylish, Windows Phone 7.5 Mango-powered smartphone Lumia 710 to customers in Taiwan (where it is sold alongside the Lumia 800).

Over the next week, the phone will hit shelves across Singapore, Hong Kong, India and Russia – no other global roll-out details were announced for the time being.

The estimated retail price is 270 euros, excluding taxes and subsidies.

From our original coverage when the Lumia phones were announced:

The 710 (formerly known as the Sabre) is the chunkier of the two, but that doesn't mean it's a slouch when it comes to hardware. It repackages the same 1.4GHz processor as seen in the Lumia 800, and pairs it with a 3.7-inch WVGA screen, and a 5-megapixel rear camera.

It's meant to be Nokia and Microsoft's effort to capture a more budget-conscious audience, and it's heartening to see Nokia give it the same performance potential as their more premium offering.

Though the 710 only sports 8GB of internal storage, it beats out its brother by including a microSD card slot that can accept up to 16GB of additional flash storage. It also bears the distinction of being one of the few Windows Phone with physical navigation keys, which is sure to please fans of tactile feedback.

Expect to see it hit shelves in both stealth black and crisp white, with multiple colored backplates to please the chromatically indecisive.

On a sidenote: I’ve been using Nokia’s Lumia 800 for a week now, and it’s pretty bad-ass.

More on that later, hopefully this weekend.

Lattice Semiconductor Acquires Chipmaker SiliconBlue For $62 Million In Cash

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 04:25 AM PST


Lattice Semiconductor this morning announced that it is to acquire SiliconBlue Technologies, which develops mobile device solutions for the consumer handheld market.

Lattice Semi will pay approximately $62 million in cash for SiliconBlue and aims to close the deal before the end of the year.

Under the terms of the agreement, SiliconBlue CEO Kapil Shankar will join Lattice Semi as Corporate VP of the Mobility Business Unit and will be responsible for its mobility product lines.

Using a single chip ‘Field Programmable Gate Array’ (FPGA) fabric, SiliconBlue’s devices basically enable mobile designers to quickly add features to their mobile platform in areas such as connectivity, memory, storage, sensor management, video and imaging.

The company says its mobile FPGA devices have already shipped “in the millions of units” to major consumer OEMs who produce everything from digital camera to tablets, smartphones, ereader devices, portable media players, netbooks and notebooks.

SiliconBlue says it holds 40+ patents for its technology.

Founded in 2006, SiliconBlue raised over $60 million in funding from private equity firm Atlantic Bridge, BlueRun Ventures, Crosslink Capital, NEA and Apex Venture Partners. Just recently, the company secured $18 million in Series D financing.

Investor Group Buys Web Security Company Blue Coat For $1.3 Billion In Cash

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 04:12 AM PST


Blue Coat, which specializes in Web security and WAN optimization solutions, has agreed to be acquired by an investor group led by San Francisco-based PE firm Thoma Bravo in a transaction valued at roughly $1.3 billion.

Shareholders stand to receive $25.81 per share per common stock, in cash, and Blue Coat’s board of directors has already approved the agreement. The price represents a premium of almost 50 percent over the company’s closing price on December 8, 2011.

Blue Coat’s solutions protect enterprises from Web-based security threats and for accelerating and optimizing applications and rich media content, such as video, over their networks.

The investor group that is acquiring the company is led by Thoma Bravo and includes the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan through its private investor department, Teachers’ Private Capital.

The transaction is subject to customary closing conditions, and Blue Coat expects the transaction to close in the first calendar quarter of 2012.

Red Robot Labs Acquires Supermono, Appirio Buys Saaspoint To Expand To The UK

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 02:42 AM PST


Two acquisitions today that were for the most part executed so Silicon Valley companies could buy their way into the UK (and Ireland) market.

Freshly funded location-based mobile gaming company Red Robot Labs has acquired UK-based indie gaming company Supermono Studios.

Cloud solutions company Appirio, which just raised funding from and other strategic backers, has acquired Saaspoint, a provider of cloud consulting services.

Read more at TechCrunch Europe.

Watch Your Back Pandora, Spotify Launches Spotify Radio

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 02:39 AM PST

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Spotify CEO Daniel Ek has just announced its beefed up Radio feature onstage at LeWeb, innocuously intro-ing it as a radio app that the Spotify New York team built on top of the recently launched app platform. Ek however did not mince words when describing the feature, "It's kind of like Pandora with unlimited skipping and unlimited stations.”


Pandora, which is now an achingly public company, currently limits users to 100 stations and eight song skips. Think about this for a second.

“We think people will love playing around,” Ek went on about the company’s streaming play. “What we've discovered is that we’re a lean back experience and a lean forward. Spotify historically hasn't been very good at curating music … [And Radio] is a big use case that a lot of people are asking us for.”

And then, "I wouldn't say that Pandora is a competitor, we want to be a music platform.” Yeah, music platform that just subsumed Pandora’s basic function. Sure it isn’t available yet on mobile, which is Pandora’s primary advantage. When asked when that feature would launch, Ek told me backstage, “Very soon.”

Despite the service’s successful US launch and scale (Ek said that it’s seen 7 million users hop on since f8), Ek said that there is still no IPO in sight.

How To Succeed In The New New Twitter App Ecosystem? Focus On Analytics And Enterprise

Posted: 09 Dec 2011 02:12 AM PST

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The morning after the launch of new new Twitter, Twitter’s head of platform Ryan Sarver took the stage here at Le Web and spoke about the future of the Twitter platform, among other things. With 100 million active users and 250 million tweets a day Twitter is now in a hyper growth phase, Sarver emphasized.

With its new design iteration Twitter is focusing even more so on its core experience, and gunning itself up for its monetization phase, something that Sarver holds as like air, “You need [revenue] for living but it’s not the point of living.”

Sarver has said before that the company is now focusing on its core experience, as it essentially killed basic third-party mobile apps with the acquisition of Tweetie, “We want to simplify and connect people with interesting content, that’s most important,” he said onstage.

So where does that leave app developers? Well basically they need to find a niche angle to fit in successfully. Comparing the Twitter ecosystem of the state of Vermont (spoiler alert: it’s larger) Sarver again brought up the 750K developers number he quoted back in March when Twitter dropped the hammer (which might mean that they haven’t updated the stats yet or that the ecosystem hasn’t grown). The number of people integrating tweet and follow buttons into their services is “in the millions.” Sarver said.

“We're doing a lot of listening,” Sarver said, saying the he spent the past six months engaging with the developer community at large. He again reiterated that developers shouldn’t build apps that attempt to replace the functions of Timeline. “So what are the big opportunities?” Siegler asked.

Sarver replied that analytics and entreprise were two arenas where developers should focus, “We're bullish on analytics.” He referred to the analytics and enterprise curation space as hot, and brought up the recent acquisition of Radian 6 by Salesforce by $300 million. He also referred a to company called Dataminr as an example of an “ideal” Twitter app – Dataminr is a financial dashboard that can predict stock variations through Twitter sentiment.

Riddle me this Twitter 3rd party devs? Why does it seem like your options keep narrowing?

Pic via @Jailia

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