Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Latest from TechCrunch

The Latest from TechCrunch

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Windows Phone Marketplace Hits 50,000 Published Apps

Posted: 27 Dec 2011 09:52 AM PST


With Microsoft and Nokia making a pronounced push to expand Windows Phone’s reach, they need the support of their app developers to give the platform some staying power. Fortunately, it looks like Windows Phone is picking up steam on the app front — All About Windows Phone reports that 50,000 apps have been published in the Windows Phone Marketplace ahead of their initial predictions.

There is, as always, a bit of catch — the number only refers to the number of apps that have been published, so you won’t find all 50,000 apps available for download in your neck of the woods. All About Windows Phone figures that nearly 6,000 apps were published in the marketplace and were subsequently pulled either by Microsoft or the developers themselves. Even so, Windows Phone has hit the 50,000 app mark in just 14 months — it took Android 19 months to hit that milestone, while iOS only took 12.

Even if the exact number is a bit sketchy, there’s one thing that nearly all sources can agree on: the platform is growing. Back when the Windows Marketplace hit 40,000 apps, new submissions happened at a rate of about 165 per day, while today’s milestone sees daily submissions hovering around the 265 app mark. That Windows Phone is being embraced by more developers is heartening, but there’s still the question of quality to contend with.

The Windows Marketplace is no stranger to spammy submissions that often buried better apps, although Microsoft has taken steps to make it less of an issue for developers on the up-and-up. Even so, the practice of mass uploading near identical apps continues: take rkg4u, for example.

This developer has had 20 apps released into the Windows Marketplace yesterday, and all of them essentially aggregate content from different sections of CNN and the BBC’s websites. Are these apps useful? Arguably. Do they add anything new or novel to the Windows Phone experience? Absolutely not. And lest you think that I’ve cherry-picked that example, take a look at the marketplace’s new apps section — for every useful app you’ll find, there are likely to be 10 feed readers surrounding it. Now the issue of app quality isn’t one that’s unique to Windows Phone, but in a time when Microsoft is fighting for market and mind share, it certainly isn’t helping.

While Microsoft tries to make it easy for Windows Phone users to sift through all the junk, the state of their app store could be a ticking time-bomb for them and their users. While potential customers may be swayed by the right hardware and the right OS at the right time, a bad balance between compelling and crappy apps could ensure that those who gamble on Windows Phone may not stick around for the long haul.

What we need now are killer apps for Windows Phones, the ones that make Android and iOS users look on with unabashed envy. Consider this a rallying cry for all you Windows Phone devs out there — make something great, and let us all know about it.

Giving Windows Phone A Chance

Posted: 27 Dec 2011 09:44 AM PST


If you take a look at Techmeme right now, you’ll notice that the top conversation in the tech blogosphere is about Windows Phone, and more specifically why it has failed to catch on compared to Android smartphones in particular (according to Charlie Kindel, former GM of the product division). I’ve read people’s different views on this with great interest, but I feel like something’s missing: the opinion of an actual Windows Phone owner and user with no real skin in this game. Enter, well, me.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to stop using my HTC Sensation (Android 2.3) and iPhone 3GS (iOS 5) in parallel and made the switch to Nokia’s Lumia 800 (Windows Phone 7.5). As you can tell, I’m not exactly married to any company or product – it’s just not in my nature. I switched to Windows Phone mainly to see if it can hold its ground when used intensively.

So far, it’s been a surprisingly pleasant ride, so I haven’t entirely dismissed WP7 as others appear to have done (even if most of them haven’t even used a decent Windows Phone yet).

As most who’ve experienced the Windows Phone platform will attest, Microsoft offers something truly unique in terms of OS design and on-screen interaction, and I’m extremely glad to see the company not adopt a copy-paste innovation strategy as they’ve done more than a few times in the past. Say what you will, but Windows Phone offers a superb user experience, indeed far superior to most if not all the Android smartphones I’ve used in the past. You can call me a fan of the Metro UI.

I already wrote up why I absolutely love the Nokia N9 (which sports nearly the same hardware as the Lumia 800 but with a different OS, namely Meego) but that no one will buy it mainly because the platform has no future, and there aren’t enough decent apps to even begin comparing the handset to an Android or iOS phone. I mean, I don’t see developers rushing to build Meego apps anytime soon.

There are more WP7 apps, but that doesn’t mean the platform isn’t struggling on this front, too.

While Windows Phone Marketplace appears to be steadily growing, most of the third-party WP7 applications I’ve tested genuinely suck. Of course, this is true for Android and iOS too (it’s a law of large numbers if you know what I mean) and at least the ‘essential’ applications – People, Messaging, Xbox Live, Mail and also Twitter, Facebook and YouTube – behave really well.

The reason Windows Marketplace frustrates me is that even the ‘good’ applications that I use regularly (Rdio, Foursquare, Kindle, Pulse, and more) have weird quirks, or are downright unusable – I sense a lack of attention given to those apps by their own developers. Getting cash in exchange for making a Windows Phone app is one thing, but you should be proud of what you do – better not to build an app for the platform than to deliver a crappy one that will make you look amateurish.

But all in all, a really amazing phone and platform with lots to offer, and I have no doubt that improvements will come quickly, and aplenty. That doesn’t necessarily mean customers will be lining up to buy Windows Phone handsets en masse, but there’s no reason they couldn’t grab more marketshare (and mindshare) in the future if Microsoft is willing to go the distance. Everything I’ve seen so far indicates that the company realizes that there’s not really an option – they have to matter in the mobile space.

If Kindel is wondering why Windows Phones haven’t exactly been selling like hotcakes, I doubt you’ll find all the answers by looking at the business models and goals of the many industry players. Alignments can change. Kindel does nail the problems with Android and its absurd fragmentation issue, but I get the feeling he’s making excuses for Windows Phone far too soon in the game.

Microsoft did enter this market extremely late, and, as I mentioned, there’s still a major app problem. Those are very big barriers to successful entry, but they can surely be overcome by a company the size of Microsoft, and as far as I’m concerned they still have a fighting chance.

In fact, I’m hoping Microsoft manages to put enough time, money and effort into Windows Phone to turn it into a viable competitor to iOS and Android. At the end of the day, this will be decided by users and app developers foremost, not carriers, manufacturers and retail salespeople, but one can hope.

What it will require is a lot more great phones, ‘big and bold’ marketing, UI consistency, far better apps and yes, more time. That’s no guarantee for success, but let’s give Windows Phone a chance.

The reason I’m hoping Microsoft succeeds in ‘getting there’ is because I happen to think more choice will bring more progress and more technological advancement, rather than more fragmentation, feature-chasing and patent warfare. I’m not rooting for Microsoft, per se, but I don’t see anyone within striking distance of becoming this ‘third major player’ and we shouldn’t discount the talent of Microsoft’s vast army of engineers and developers, and the mountain of cash the company sits on, and notably continues to generate quarter after quarter after quarter.

It’s still early days, and if the past few years have taught us anything it’s that industries can transform quite rapidly, and that it’s never a zero-sum game. No one knows what the future holds, but I can guarantee you the world will look be different – again – at the end of next year.

Sent from my Windows Phone, gladly.

Italy Fines Apple $1.2 Million Over AppleCare Sales

Posted: 27 Dec 2011 08:59 AM PST


Today, Italy’s antitrust body has fined Apple, Inc. $1.2 million (900,000 euros) for pushing customers to buy its AppleCare Protection Plan without adequately disclosing the support that already comes with their device. In Italy, companies are actually required by law to provide two years of free support to customers, which, according to the Italian Antitrust Authority, was not clearly explained to Apple customers either online or at the point-of-sale.

The report, available via a news blip on Reuters or as the full press release translated from Italian here, specifies that the fines are being leveraged against three of Apple’s local divisions: Apple Italia, Apple Sales International and Apple Retail Italia.

400,000 euros of the fine is for failing to inform customers of their right to two years’ free support provided by Italy’s Consumer Code law, instead only recognizing the one-year manufacturer warranty. This practice occurred on the websites at store.apple.com and apple.com and at the point-of-sale, says the group states. In other words, customers were sold the AppleCare service even though that protection would overlap with the guaranteed free support provided by law.

The remainder of the penalty (500,000 euros) was for selling the AppleCare service itself, after failing to properly disclose the protections, as noted above.

Italy says that Apple will need to update its website within 90 days with information about the existence of the two-year guarantee.

This is not Apple’s only legal trouble in the EU. The company is also involved in patent litigation with Samsung and in a price-fixing case with e-book publishers.

Fire Emblem: Nintendo Announces First 3DS Game With Paid Download Content

Posted: 27 Dec 2011 08:08 AM PST

fire emblem

They have been fighting against the concept of making customers pay for extra game content for years, but as previously reported, Nintendo has now changed its strategy. According to a report by Japanese business daily The Nikkei, Nintendo has chosen Fire Emblem as the first game on the 3DS to offer paid download content.

Fire Emblem: Kakusei, the latest title in the classic RPG series, is scheduled for release in Japan in spring 2012 (it has been announced earlier this year).

The Nikkei says that players will be able to download additional content for “several hundred yen each time” (100 yen currently translate to US$1.30), payable via pre-paid cards available in various Japanese electronics stores or via credit card. In the case of Fire Emblem, buyers can get additional levels after completing the game, for example.

If the report is to be believed, Nintendo is already planning to release more 3DS games supporting the new billing functionality from summer next year. Apparently, the Wii U (the successor to the Wii that’s set to debut in 2012), will be getting paid download content as well.

Google+ Launches 3 New TV Ads Featuring Muppets, Bill Walton & Some Engaged Chick

Posted: 27 Dec 2011 08:01 AM PST


What do you do when your viral growth starts to taper off? Advertise! That strategy has seemingly been working well for the Google Chrome web browser (now with a quarter of worldwide browser market share), so Google may as well give it a shot with Google+.

Google has released a trio of new TV commercials promoting its fledging social network, featuring Hangouts with celebrities like the Muppets as well as NBA announcers, Bill Walton, Kenny Smith, Steve Kerr, Spero Dedes and Jon Barry. There’s also one of those heartstring-tugging promos showing Hangouts in action, with kids talking to grandma, a girl telling her friends she’s engaged, New Year’s Eve kisses and other such cheesiness, all complete with an Apple-esque background track.

The strategy to focus heavily on Google+ Hangouts in the new TV ads is a smart one. Google’s multi-person video chat tool, which allows up to 10 participants to “hang out” (for free), is probably the number one selling point for Google’s social network. And even if the first commercial is a bit treacley in its depiction of the feature (hey advertisers: enough with the Apple imitation in your TV ads!) it’s at least presenting an easy-to-grasp use case that will help educate mainstream users about Google+.

More importantly, the commercials demonstrate the one viable reason as to why you may want to try Google+ in the first place, given that much of the network is an engineer’s re-creation of Facebook: Hangouts.

Hangouts are cool.

The other two ads show off the Muppets (seeing a resurgence of cool themselves) and a goofy one featuring NBA announcers keeping up their craft during the strike by calling a home game…taking place on a driveway. It’s pretty funny (and would probably be a lot funnier to me if I actually watched sports, but hey, I get it).

Given that two of the three commercials involve celebs, it’s important to point out that celebrities’ use of Google+ Hangouts has not been without its own (minor) controversy. In fact, the Muppets themselves were at the center of  that debate not so long ago, when they launched their first Google+ Hangout, promoted as a chance to “Hangout with the Muppets.” Sadly, there was no “hanging out” involved, only an ad for the Muppet movie. While still arguably more engaging than a YouTube video spot, Hangouts usage by brands is still very much a challenge for companies looking for the right way to connect with their audience.

I haven’t caught these commercials on air myself as I prefer pre-recorded TV, but some of our tipsters sent in the NBA one. (Thanks!) You can check them all out over on Google’s YouTube page.

Airtight Is Airplay For Your Google TV

Posted: 27 Dec 2011 07:59 AM PST


Proof of concept though this is, Airtight purports to be the first app that will enable Apple’s Airplay on the Google TV. Priced at a mere 99 cents, the app allows you to stream non-DRMed movies to your TV via any Airplay-enabled device like an iPad or iPhone. Music and mirroring are not yet supported and you have to have an update Google TV with the Android Market available.

Because of these limitations I wouldn’t recommend that you pick up a GTV just to run Airplay and, because it isn’t Apple-sanctioned, expect plenty of breakage down the line. However, it’s nice to see some cool apps/hacks are percolating up through to the Google TV, thereby improving the platform for all.

Product Page

The Avengers: A True Tale Of Bad Customer Service

Posted: 27 Dec 2011 07:44 AM PST


With all this talk of 360-degree customer service and Zappos ninjas who help babies out of burning buildings while taking orders for clogs, it’s nice to remember that for every heartwarming tale of customer satisfaction there is a dude like Paul Christoforo.

The tale begins with a controller accessory. It’s called the Avonger en-kontrol (my misspelling) and it’s some kind of octopus that helps you press more buttons on your game controller. We wrote it up in February 2011 so you can check it out there. A quick web search will bring up the actual product. I’m not about to give them any Google Juice.

Plenty of people pre-ordered and waited patiently for the devices to ship. One customer, Dave, emailed the company with a question:

From: Dave
To: Ocean Marketing
Dec 16, 2011, at 1:34 PM

I ordered 2 of the upcoming PS3 controllers (invoice xxxxxxxxx—Nov 3, 2011). Any chance of getting an update of when these items will ship? I'm not really happy about being forced to pay upfront then have the advertised date of "Early December" be completely missed without any sort of update on availability. I really need one of them for a X-mas present as well. Anyways, looking forward to finally using one of these bad boys. Thanks and happy holidays.


The “marketing guru” Paul Christoforo (who runs SEO expert site OceanMarketing (amazing, right?)) eventually gets into a heated Internet exchange with Dave (read it all on Penny Arcade when it comes back up) and ends his tirade with this gem of social media marketing done right (warning, NSFW language):

From: Ocean Marketing
To: Dave
Dec 26, 2011 2:19 PM

LOL Thanks for the Free PR I know the Editor N Chief of Kotaku , IGN , Engadget I'll be meeting them at CES .The noise complaint was for people high up on the food chain in a corporate world of real estate you have no clue about. Thanks for the Rice Rocket Compliment too love me some motorcycle . Send that over to Engadget you look like a complete moron swearing and sending your customer service complaints to a magazine as if they will post it or even pay attention do you think you're the first or the last what are they going to do demand us to tell you were your shipment is or ask for a refund on your behalf … Really … Welcome to the Internet ? Son Im 38 I wwebsite as on the internet when you were a sperm in your daddys balls and before it was the internet, thanks for the welcome to message wurd up. Grow up you look like a complete child bro. I Don't have my controller so im gonna cry to the world … Really ?? Hey take that free time and do something more productive. All you had to do was check the like everyone else , people have inquired but you're the douchiest of them all J

To all our pre-order customers looking for information on the status of their orders after a busy couple of months The PS3 Avengers are on their way from our Manufacturing plant overseas. We are aware that everyone is anticipating having their Avengers under their Christmas Tree and were doing our best to get these orders shipped out as fast as possible. We appreciate you as loyal customers and for supporting our company. Customers will start receiving their products this week before Christmas and After Christmas and into the New Year. As a token of our appreciation we are offering all our pre-order customers and new customers 10$ off your next order with us just enter Avenger1001 at Checkout. Thank you and Happy Holidays!

Oh and FYI When a street date gets pushed by a publisher on a video game you pre ordered do you cry to them too ?

You just got told bitch … welcome to the real internet check kotaku in 2 weeks when they are reviewing free PS3 Avengers we send them as well as G4 and all the other majors hell yeah , don't forget to check Amazon, gamestop.com, play n trade , Myers , Frys and a ton of other local stores coming your way you think you speak for billions son your just a kid you speak for yourself no one cares what you think that's why were growing and moving 20-50 thousand controllers a month. We do value our customers but sometimes we get children like you we just have to put you in the corner with your im stupid hat on. See you at CES , E3 , Pax East ….? Oh wait you have to ask mom and pa dukes your not an industry professional and you have no money on snap you just got told.

If you tl;dred that, here is one of the pertinent points:

Son Im 38 I wwebsite as on the internet when you were a sperm in your daddys balls and before it was the internet, thanks for the welcome to message wurd up.

This is the 38-year-old marketing manager and LinkedIn User (and presumably president of a company that is apparently trying to make a living selling marketing accessories) responding to a customer. I doubt this strategy is in the Amazon CSR handbook.

The fact that I’m writing about this feeds directly into Christoforo’s sense that any PR is good PR, but I assure you that’s not the case. Battles against Internet tag teams that involve Kotaku, SomethingAwful, and Reddit rarely end well and products built (or marketed) by petulant 38-year-old former real estate salesmen rarely, if ever, ship. It’s easy to build a buzz on the Internet, and it’s just as easy to kill it in a few keystrokes. Wurd up.

A Geek’s Guide to China’s Silicon Valley

Posted: 27 Dec 2011 07:31 AM PST

China map

Editor’s note: Contributor Kai Lukoff is based in Beijing and is co-founder of the startup blog TechRice.

Twenty years ago, Zhongguancun was but farming fields and small houses, far from the city center of Beijing. The ‘cun’ at the end of Zhongguancun literally means “village.” As with much else in China, the change has come lightening fast.

Today, Zhongguancun is China’s closest equivalent to Silicon Valley. It’s host to electronics super malls, research centers, publicly-listed tech giants, and hundreds of startups. During my walk to work between twenty-story office towers, it’s hard to imagine this land was farmed but one short generation ago.

Here are three reasons why Zhongguancun (or the larger Haidian district) has grown into China’s top tech hub:

1) Academic Hub
Right next door are China’s top two universities, Peking University and Tsinghua University. But the northwest of Beijing is also home to countless other universities, including technical universities like USTB, BIT, BUPT, and Beihang. It’s the raw talent pool that has American industry leaders and politicians bemoaning a new “engineering gap.”

The transition from farming village to technology hub began with technology research. In addition to the universities, funding came from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and later multinational corporations (MNCs). As Daniel Shi notes on Quora, “There is just a ridiculous number of MNCs with their R&D centers in Beijing: Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola, Sony Ericsson, Microsoft, IBM, Sun, Oracle, BEA, Alcatel Lucent, Google. Nowhere in the US do you have such a huge concentration of R&D organizations in one city.”

Soon, a small market emerged in Zhongguancun to sell electronics to students and academics. Jack Xu, founder of lite-blog Diandian, describes a serendipitous meeting in that scene:

In 1997, Zhongguancun Technology Park was a tiny village. It had only two buildings, and an assortment of entrepreneurs hustling their programming skills, taking government contracts, and hiring [Tsinghua] students like me to do the work. At times they might get RMB 100,000 for a contract, but pay us only RMB 5000, thus retaining 95% for themselves. Back then I could make a mere RMB 2000 a month, 1000 for myself and 1000 for my parents, so they wouldn't need to farm anymore. To me, it was a responsibility, to survive on my own as early as possible. It was also because of my work in Zhonguancun that I became a well-known programmer in a small circle and later a real opportunity came along.

That real opportunity was Jack Xu’s meeting with Joseph Chen in 1998. Today, Chen is the CEO of the social network Renren (NYSE: RENN), where Xu worked for five years, including as VP of the Interactive Division.

2) Government and Media
In America, an entrepreneur hears “government” and runs the other way. In China, government is best kept close, out of choice or necessity. The Internet is one of the most private of industries in China, one of the few without huge state-owned firms, but the government still plays a key role.

At the early stage it can be government contracts, subsidized office space in a tech park, or financing from a government-affiliated research institution. The government wants to build Beijing as a showcase capital in all aspects, so there’s extra funding for tech too.

Once a startup reaches scale, government connections are key to everything from payment licenses to “content management.” When your video website is blocked because it was found to contain sensitive political or pornographic content, who you gonna call?

Virtually all business in China is of “strategic national interest,” but some is extra-strategic. All media firms or even sites with user-generated content must have a big presence, if not their headquarters, in Beijing.

3) A Virtuous Cycle
A tech hub can build momentum that feeds upon itself. Startup founders come out of research centers and large technology firms, drawing upon their network for advice, seed funding, and talented employees. When the boss leaves to launch his own venture, it’s common for half of his division—the talented half—to go with him. The employee networks of Beijing-based tech giants like Baidu, Sohu, and Sina are becoming Chinese versions of the “PayPal Mafia.”

In “Why Startup Hubs Work,” Paul Graham of Y-Combinator writes, “I think there are two components to the antidote: being in a place where startups are the cool thing to do, and chance meetings with people who can help you. And what drives them both is the number of startup people around you.” Like Silicon Valley, Zhongguancun also has a critical mass of people who are crazy enough to do startups.

Beyond Beijing

I wrote that Zhongguancun is China’s closest equivalent of Silicon Valley. The caveat is because there’s a lot happening elsewhere in China too. China’s three Internet giants are Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent, but only search giant Baidu is headquartered in Beijing.

Hangzhou is home to the Alibaba Group and its e-commerge empire (Taobao, TMall, Alipay, and Alibaba.com). Neighboring Shanghai is rich in gaming, MNCs, and venture capitalists, although they fly up to Beijing to do most of their deals. As far as tech hubs, this area is second after Beijing.

Shenzhen is the headquarters of Tencent, China’s largest social networking and gaming company. Equally impressive is the hardware hacking coming out of the region. It’s home to countless entrepreneurial Shanzhai electronics manufacturers who copy, mix-and-mash, to create ”Motoloba” handsets and “commemorative” Steve Jobs Android tablets. When you hear about “sub-$100 Chinese-flavored Android devices”, it’s Shenzhen leading the charge.

Other up-and-coming hubs include Dalian, Chengdu, and Xi’an,

The Edge

Silicon Valley is often said to draw top talent because it has one of the best living environments on earth. No one would say that about Beijing.

Beijing is an acquired taste, one that’s often smoky with pollution. In a Sinica Podcast discussing the soul of Beijing, China hand Jeremy Goldkorn of the blog Danwei.org called it “the anti-lifestyle capital, the anti-San Francisco.” The unpleasantness of the city, the lack of Shanghai’s creature comforts or Shenzhen’s sunshine, gives it an edge. There’s a gritty determination to seize the moment, whatever the obstacles in the way.

One friend told me that Kai-fu Lee was recently asked why his startup incubator InnovationWorks wasn’t based in picturesque Chengdu, where the cost-of-living is low and the ladies are said to be the fairest in all of China. Lee jokingly replied to his entrepreneurs that when they’re happy and relaxed, he’s not.

But do not mistake it for a city of automaton entrepreneurs. Beijing is at once ”the center of authority and a hotbed of creative thinking” as Evan Osnos writes in “City of Dreams.” There are leaps of creativity. Sites that start as copycats evolve to become unrecognizable from the original, like the red-hot microblog Sina Weibo that today bears little resemblance to Twitter.

When TechCrunch held its first international Disrupt Conference, it was right to come to Beijing. It’s dynamic, messy, and very different. But Silicon Valley aside, there’s no better place on earth for tech right now.

buySAFE Sues Google Over “Trusted Stores” Service, Fears Annihilation

Posted: 27 Dec 2011 07:19 AM PST


Google was hit with yet another patent lawsuit last week, but this one at least makes for some very, very interesting reading.

A company called buySAFE, which offers a safe-shopping service to online retailers and their customers, argues that the search and advertising juggernaut not only infringes a patent it owns by preparing the launch of a similar service called Google Trusted Stores, but that it has also gone to great lengths to obtain proprietary business information and is pushing buySAFE customers hard to switch.

Furthermore, the company claims that Google may have timed the roll-out of its free Trusted Stores program “so as to impede buySAFE’s effort to raise additional capital”, which it says it requires to expand its business. According to buySAFE, “Google’s acts and practices have a dangerous probability of driving (the company) from the market”.

In fact, buySAFE says Google’s actions have “already succeeded in drastically slowing buySAFE’s annual growth rate”. And to think almost no one knows Google Trusted Stores even exists today.

BuySAFE says it offers online merchants and buyers a patented method for guaranteeing transactions, and that Google is infringing on this patent with the roll-out of Google Trusted Stores, which is still in a very early stage (read more about Google’s new program here).

According to buySAFE, Google has been seeking a partnership, and has even explored the possibility of a joint-venture, with them since 2006. In the lawsuit, the company claims:

“Google exploited those discussions to learn about buySAFE’s business.

Although buySAFE ultimately broke off discussions with Google, Google’s interest in buySAFE’s business continued.”

Additionally, the company says, Google obtained proprietary business information from Tom Fallows, a former executive of a buySAFE customers who was recruited by the search giant in 2010 to establish and run Trusted Stores as Group Product Manager.

As a result, buySAFE claims, Trusted Stores is “modeled after buySAFE’s business and patented methods and systems”.

It gets better.

BuySAFE also accuses Google of offering higher search result rankings to e-retailers that participate in the Trusted Stores program, and that one merchant was even told that they could not participate in both Trusted Stores and the buySAFE program and thus had to make an exclusive choice.

They say they’ve learned this from a few of their customers who were pitched by Google, but if this proved to be true, Google would be in really deep shit. Serious accusations, those are (/Yoda voice).

As I said, not a bad read at all. Find the lawsuit documents below:

Complaint _5_

Spire: A New Legal Siri Port For Any iOS 5 Device

Posted: 27 Dec 2011 07:07 AM PST


Well-known iOS hacker chpwn (aka Grant Paul) along with Ryan Petrich have released a new tool for installing Siri on jailbroken phones. The Siri port, called “Spire,” works on any phone that can run iOS 5. However, because Apple only officially supports Siri requests coming from the iPhone 4S, a proxy server address is still required.

Oh, there’s one more thing: Spire is legal.

While it’s technically been possible to run Siri on non-iPhone 4S devices, as previous Siri ports have shown, those ports have violated Apple’s copyrights. Siri’s resource files, images and code are not meant to be copied and widely distributed. So instead, Spire downloads Siri itself directly from Apple. Clever!

Once the 100 MB download is installed on the jailbroken device, users will have to configure the software with a proxy server address. Explains Paul via the Spire Proxy FAQ, “Apple has made it very likely impossible to defeat the authorization requirement [for Siri]. I reverse engineered it, and it does not appear possible to connect Siri to the cloud without information from an iPhone 4S.”

Remember, hackers don’t often throw around words like “impossible” too often. Clearly, Apple has some heavy-duty security in place for managing Siri requests.

So how does one get a proxy address for Siri then? Paul suggests that you could ask an iPhone 4S-owning friend for their authentication tokens. But more interesting is his speculation that we will soon see for-pay Siri proxy services that charge a monthly fee for access to a copy of Siri installed on their own iPhone 4S devices.

A third possibility – and one the hacker community would have to build – is to rip out Siri’s guts and replace it with Google Chrome's speech "API" to decode the Siri requests  and return results.

In other words, as of now, Spire is a good first step towards a legal implementation of a Siri port, but it’s going to be hard for people to actually use it until there are solutions for legal Siri proxies, too.

Spire is available now in the jailbreak app store, Cydia.

5 Japanese Tech Companies (And Samsung) Set Up LTE Mobile Chip Venture

Posted: 27 Dec 2011 06:46 AM PST


Big news from Asia’s mobile market today: Japan’s biggest mobile carrier NTT Docomo (55 million customers, over US$50 billion in sales per year) is teaming up with five other tech powerhouses to develop chips for next-generation mobile devices. Docomo’s partners are NEC, Fujitsu, Fujitsu Semiconductor Ltd., Panasonic, and Samsung.

The goal is to use synergies in the six companies’ expertise in developing small and eco-efficient chips to supply to mobile device manufacturers in Japan, Korea, and other places. Docomo says the main focus will be on “products for LTE and LTE-Advanced mobile communication standards”.

The carrier plans to set up a subsidiary ( “Communication Platform Planning Co.”) as early as next month, capitalize it at US$5.8 million, and turn that subsidiary into a fabless joint venture with the other partners in March next year. According to Japan’s biggest business newspaper The Nikkei, Docomo plans to become the biggest shareholder in the joint venture.

Denying Previous Reports, Acer’s Founder States The Company Will Still Make Tablets

Posted: 27 Dec 2011 06:39 AM PST


Acer is not done with tablets. New models will be released in 2012. The company is apparently going to continue making Android tabs despite a slow start and reports stating the contrary. Acer’s founder, Stan Shih, likened it to the troubles the company experienced with early PC notebooks.

It’s a nice thought, but the man is wrong. Producing more tablets could be disastrous for Acer, which is already quickly sliding into a pool of red ink.

Modern tablets are not the same as notebooks. They’re completely different beasts with totally different markets. Succeeding at selling tablets requires completely different tactics than selling notebooks. Acer’s tried-and-true strategy of racing others to the bottom will not generate the same level of success.

Acer became a household name through selling relatively inexpensive computers. This generated a lot of sales but also a horrible reputation. Until just recently, Acer products were often looked upon as being the low hanging fruit of the computer world. They’re easy to obtain although not that tasty. But the process worked for Acer as the company surpassed Dell in 2009 to be the second largest computer maker behind just HP. Cheap, grey boxes sell.

Nondescript tablets are not the way of the future. Consumers either want an inexpensive tailored device or the iPad. Thirdly, as proved by Asus, a tablet designed by geeks for geeks is also another way. Anything in between is a non-starter. Acer’s Iconia Tab devices checks all the theoretical right boxes: Tegra 2 platform, the latest Honeycomb install, a good screen, dual cameras, and plenty of expansion ports. But if you’re shopping for specs, there is no reason to buy an Acer tablet over, say, a Asus Transformer or even a Samsung GalTab.

In the PC race, Acer simply cut corners and took shortcuts. It worked. But there aren’t many ways to do that with tablets. Only by loading the tablet with sponsored bloatware could the manufacturer theoretically support lower MSRPs — not that there’s that much room to work with anyway. Shin stated that the company will simplify its product development and reduce the amount of tablet and smartphone products.

Look at the current state of Android tablets and it’s clear Acer is in for a hard fight ahead. Amazon and B&N have their content distribution. Asus is building a tablet for the very niche geek crowd while Samsung and Motorola have their massive marketing might. Acer, on the other hand, doesn’t have anything but it’s reputation as a cheap computer maker which is a huge hindrances as tablets are positioned as premium devices. Acer is in serious trouble if it believes it can compete at a high level.

Pandora Presents: From The Web To Live Concerts And Back

Posted: 27 Dec 2011 06:05 AM PST


Music lovers, take note. After Pandora earlier this month announced that they would be launching a series of free, live concerts for some of their listeners, the personalized radio service this morning announced that it has extended the offering with a dedicated online hub.

Dubbed Pandora Presents, the hub will feature live concert series, starting with the performance of rock band Dawes in Portland, organized earlier this month. Expect behind-the-scenes video content, interviews with artists and fans, and select parts of the (meaning not the entire) concert.

All artists who participate in Pandora’s live concert series – and the company has repeatedly promised to organize a bunch more across different U.S. cities in 2012 – will be showcased on Pandora Presents. The site also currently features a “curated mixtape” with up to 100 songs selected by Dawes and the company’s experienced music analysts.

The interesting part about the Pandora live concerts series is the fact that the company smartly decided to tap into user data to determine who gets free tickets for performances, and which artists are selected to play in which region.

For one, invitations are sent to listeners based on their musical preferences as determined by the personalized radio stations they’ve created on Pandora, or the songs they’ve given a thumbs up.

Personally, I think it’s a brilliant idea to leverage data gathered from website usage and translate that knowledge into relevant offline activity that can, in turn, enhance the Web experience even more.

Christmas Day Online Spending Up 16.4 Percent; Mobile Sales Up 173 Percent

Posted: 27 Dec 2011 05:52 AM PST

Record Cyber

It looks like consumers in the U.S. were shopping online alongside opening presents this year. According to IBM’s Coremetrics retail data, online sales on Christmas Day grew by 16.4 percent from last year.

Similar to trends seen over the Thanksgiving holidays, more shoppers were flocking to mobile devices to complete purchases. IBM says that 18.3 percent of all online sessions on retailers’ sites were initiated from a mobile device, up from 8.4 percent in 2010 (an increase of 117.8 percent).

Sales completed from mobile devices grew, reaching 14.4 percent versus 5.3 percent on Christmas Day 2010, representing an increase of 172.9 percent. In terms of specific mobile devices, the iPad led all mobile device traffic to retailers at 7 percent, followed by the iPhone at 6.4 percent and Android at 5 percent.

The day after Christmas also brought increased online sales, says IBM. E-commerce sales for December 26 were up 10 percent and 18.7 percent of all online sessions on a retailer's site were initiated from a mobile device. And 13.8 of total sales came from mobile devices.

The holiday shopping season is still not over, as many online retailers are offering discounts post-Christmas and around New Years. We’ll see how online retail spending performs over the next week, but all signs are pointing to record sales this year.

Li Ka-shing Invests In HzO, Which Protects Your Gadgets From Water Damage

Posted: 27 Dec 2011 03:30 AM PST


Horizons Ventures, the Hong Kong-based firm that manages the private, early-stage investments in the technology sector for billionaire entrepreneur, philanthropist, business magnate and Facebook and Spotify investor Li Ka-shing, has acquired a $3 million stake in water damage protection technology company HzO as part of a preferred equity investment. HzO was originally acquired by ZAGG in 2009 but since spun off as an independent company to improve and commercialize its ‘WaterBlock’ technology.

This technology protects consumer electronics like phones, media players, laptops and whatnot from water and other liquids (for starters), “on the molecular scale”. From the company’s website:

A nano-scale film with special water- repelling properties is applied to the entirety of the electronic device, seeping into the crevices, and rendering it highly water resistant. Take it in the rain or spill your drink on it — it will still run. It could even survive a drop in the toilet, but we hope you never have to find out.

Utah-based HzO says it intends to integrate its technology not only in consumer electronics but also automotive devices, military devices and vehicles, solar energy, and industrial applications.

Jason Wong, CFO of Horizons Ventures, will take a seat on HzO’s board of directors as part of the investment agreement.

Gadgets Week in Review: Lights

Posted: 27 Dec 2011 01:00 AM PST

Eight Ways To Go Viral

Posted: 26 Dec 2011 10:35 PM PST

swine flu virus

Editor’s note: This guest post is written by Uzi Shmilovici, CEO and founder of Future Simple, the company behind Basea simple CRM for small businesses

What do Facebook, LinkedIn, Youtube, Dropbox and Skype have in common? Except for being ridiculously successful, they all enjoyed a strong viral effect that helped accelerate their growth.

How did they do that? Here’s the thing; most people assume that these companies grew by pure word of mouth. Well, that’s only half of the story. The other half is that they deliberately built viral features into their products that helped spread the word.

Let me explain.

The Eight Types of Virality

Many entrepreneurs struggle with the question: “How can I make my product more viral?” After looking at many successful web startups, I boiled down virality to eight different tactics, or types, that are the most common. Grab a pen:

1.    Inherent virality 

The type of virality you’ll die for. Simply put, a person gets no value from the

product unless other people use it as well. As a result, she shares the product with other people. Sharing is done via sharing mechanisms (e.g: invite your Gmail contacts) or through pure word of mouth.

Seeding, which means getting the first people on board is very hard because of Metcalf’s Law (there’s very low value for the first users of the product). However, the growth after the seeding period, usually through word of mouth, can be explosive. This is how Skype came to be what it is.

2.    Collaboration virality 

In this type of virality, a person will benefit from using the product individually. However, she can get additional value from collaborating with other people, so she invites them to use the product. A classic example is folder sharing on Dropbox. This works very well if the value from collaborating is high.

3.    Communication virality 

In this case the product is used to communicate with other people, some of which might be potential users. By “riding” this communication channel (usually email), the product is being spread. If you ever got an email sent with Constant Contact, you probably remember seeing their logo at the bottom. A more pervasive example is the “Sent from my iPhone/iPad” signature at the bottom of every email you send from your iPhone or iPad. Yes, even Apple is using viral tactics (actually, I believe BlackBerry started that with "Sent using BlackBerry").

4.    Incentivized virality 

Offering an incentive to spread the word is a well-known tactic dating back to offline marketing. The incentive will usually be cash or a benefit in return of inviting other people to use the product. For instance, Gilt Group will give you a $25 credit for each person you refer. Dropbox will give extra space to both you and your invitee's Dropbox accounts, which turned out to work very well. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the cash incentive approach as it is not very scalable but if you can make it work economically, it might be very effective.

5.    Embeddable virality 

This method works superbly well for content websites. The ability to take a piece of content and embed it anywhere on the web, with a link back to the original website. This will put your product in front of countless users. There’s an interesting multiplier that occurs when new people who are exposed to the content embed it on their own website, promoting it even further. This approach has worked tremendously well for Youtube and Slideshare.

6.    Signature virality 

Users that are using your product, either embed one of the features in their own website or refer people to a hosted page to use a specific feature. In both cases, when this feature is displayed to other people, it also includes a “powered by” signature at the bottom, which then becomes a lead generation machine. Survey products are well known for the “hosted survey” approach (SurveyMonkey probably started it). This has also worked well for helpdesk companies such as Uservoice.

 7.    Social virality 

In this case, companies leverage existing social networks to spread the word about their product. Typically, you sign up for the product with a social network id (say your Facebook id) and then through using the product, you broadcast to your social graph the fact that you are using it.  Zynga exploded on Facebook because every time you fed your goat, all your friends knew about it. Spotify's killer integration with Facebook is another great example of that. There’s much more depth to explore on the specific mechanics of using this tactic, but if you get it right, you'll experience tremendous growth.

You can also add Twitter and Facebook accounts on top of an existing signup and broadcast to both whenever the user performs an action. Instagram does exactly that to get more exposure for the app and it seems to work well for them.

Also, I have no idea what are the results of the CutCopy album page but I found their use of this tactic to be super interesting.

 8.    Pure word of mouth virality 

Pure word of mouth happens when people are spreading the word about the product just because they enjoyed it, it's free, or they think it's cool. While this is very hard to quantify, there are two things you can do to support that kind of virality. First, build an awesome product that people really love (Evernote). Second, make it special and give people something to talk about. That’s where branding comes into play. I don’t have their numbers but I can guess that a significant part of Mailchimp’s growth is from people talking about their funny quirkiness.

Measuring Virality

If you are like me, then you cannot imagine doing anything without measuring it, or as Mark Pincus says: “You might as well not change it at all if you’re not going to measure the impact of that change.”

Measuring virality is very interesting. Many people are focused on the “Virality Coefficient” – how many new users on average does one user of your product “infect.” The holy grail is to reach a virality coefficient greater than 1. This usually results in exponential growth.

The virality coefficient is super important, but there’s one other critical number that you should pay attention to—the cycle time. The cycle time is the average time it takes from the moment that one of your users performs a viral action to the moment that a new user signs up because of this very action. It makes a huge difference if your cycle time is one day or 60 days.

David Skok of Matrix Ventures gave a presentation about that recently, and actually devised a formula to calculate the amount of users you will get after a period of time based on the Virality Coefficient (K) and the Cycle Time (ct).

Having virality expressed in this way is beneficial as it boils down virality to the optimization of two variables: maximize K and minimize ct.

It’s really quite simple. Pass it on.

Top image credit: hitthatswitch

Is Video The New Software?

Posted: 26 Dec 2011 09:20 PM PST

internet tv

Editor's note: Contributor Ashkan Karbasfrooshan is the founder and CEO of WatchMojo.  Follow him @ashkan.

VC (TechCrunch contributor) Mark Suster published an article on his personal blog about one of his portfolio companies, Maker Studios.  Other players in that space include The Collective and Fullscreen.

While Mark is clearly rationalizing his investment, his reasoning is worth understanding. However, I could not help but wonder if one of the excerpts in this piece will make any difference with his technology-loving peers:

[A]nybody who follows this blog knows that I believe television disruption has already begun and it is more likely to resemble Internet content than streaming long-form content to our living rooms. As I talked about this model with several friends in Silicon Valley I always heard the same refrain, "we don't invest in content business[es] – they are 'hits driven'."

I had to laugh a bit at at the irony of this. For one, the consumer-driven startup world has become immensely hits driven. You need star power of entrepreneurs surrounded by star power angels & VCs who in turn get tons of press from adoring journalists who are insiders amongst this crowd of tech cognoscenti. And this is at the same time that content has become more predictable. Sure, you need to start with talent. But when you produce on [the] Internet you can test your content in the same way that Silicon Valley firms test early versions of their software.

You can get feedback from your audience and adjust based on their feedback. You can get subscribers who receive every version of your content that you release. You can monetize via Google Ad Sales before you have enough revenue to build your own sales team.

He concludes that video content represents the ultimate "lean startup".  He's half-right.

Don't try to build "television" online, it won't work

A lot of the early video startups were anything but lean: Ripe Entertainment burned through $45 million, Next New Networks plowed through $25 million before being acquired by YouTube.  Incidentally, Maker is trying to duplicate what Next New Networks eventually did, which is to identify successful YouTube channels and build a network around it.  It's actually a smart model, with the main limitation being that some of the underlying channels/producers can switch and go elsewhere.  The other economic limitation is that you are basically beholden to YouTube's economic terms, though over time you can diversify your distribution and even leverage YouTube's warchest, seeing how it is spending anywhere from $100 million-250 million on content.

Content and Distribution go hand-in-hand

In any case, by web standards, I am a dinosaur in the online video content world: producing videos since 2006, maintaining that content is king, but admitting that without distribution content isn't worth a warm bucket of spit.  Indeed, the main companies that have grown to become valuable businesses are distribution ones.  However, the fact remains that you had to invest in 100 companies to get one hit.  That's no way to allocate capital, if you ask me, and I think Mark agrees.

Let's face it: VCs tend to suck "in the aggregate"

In fact, for the decade ending June 2011, writes Peter Cohan: "VCs earned an average of 1.3 percent for their long-suffering investors. Compared to returns from the Dow Jones Industrial Average (4.2 percent), the Nasdaq (2.5 percent) and the S&P 500 (2.7 percent), the historical statistics do not bode well for attracting new investment."

That's lunacy when you consider the risk that VCs take and the fact that with more risk you expect more return.  The only thing you can expect from VCs seems to be insanity, where they expect a different outcome despite the same behavior.

Avoiding content like the plague

If we look just at online video, you see VCs now pouring money into ad networks.  Without a doubt, 2011 saw ad networks steal market share and generate material revenue gains.  But while a number of horses remain in the race, only 1 or 2 will really retain value let alone much relevance in 5 years time.  The same thing happened with aggregators: YouTube won the crown and every YouTube clone is now entering year 5, 6 or 7 with no real sign of liquidity, and if they do offer some relief to investors, it will resemble more of a walk than a home run.

All we are saying, is give Content a chance…

I'm really not arguing that every content company would fare better than a distribution company. Clearly distribution companies are set up to scale faster.  But the fact is, it takes a lot less capital to grow a content business these days thanks to YouTube's awesome platform.  With a new flavor in distribution popping up each year (Google, MySpace, StumbleUpon, Digg, Twitter, Facebook– and only some retaining their value), it could be argued that distribution in aggregate has become a commodity while content has become easier to scale and more defensible.

Moreover, content has become the new software, what with zero marginal production and distribution costs.  When you consider especially that cheap hardware and open source software has rendered technology anything but defensive, you wonder if the VC herd will perk up and follow Mark's lead.

 Photo credit: Karl Baron 

Today In Wishful Thinking: Dogbnb

Posted: 26 Dec 2011 08:52 PM PST

Screen Shot 2011-12-26 at 9.00.30 PM

Like most people, I love dogs. But also like most people I am completely irresponsible — Like, I can’t even keep my iPhone consistently charged let alone take care of another creature (Yeah I know, I’d be a great mother, we’ve already discussed this).

This being said, wouldn’t it be so cool if you could own a dog, but for a limited amount of time? Like you wouldn’t have to commit to it forever or anything — because that is just asking too much —  but maybe you could just borrow it. I don’t know where I’m going to be waking up TOMORROW let alone a MONTH FROM NOW, so if only there were like a Dogbnb, where you could temporarily have like, a dog? To pet.

Well move over Rover.com, apparently Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky is already on top of this, and has secured the domain Dogbnb.com. Hahahahahahahahahahhahahahaha, smart.

I totally asked Chesky if Dogbnb was a joke (or more likely, a place to board pets while people travel), but he hasn’t responded to my email. Whatever. So who wants to let me borrow their puppy?

Guy Retweets Particularly Entitled Christmas Tweets, Becomes A Phenomenon

Posted: 26 Dec 2011 07:33 PM PST

Screen Shot 2011-12-26 at 7.35.56 PM

This is the first Christmas where I didn’t get a single gift. Because I had to take care of a bunch of logistics issues, I decided not to celebrate “the holidays” this year, and you know what? It was awesome.

It’s amazing not having any expectations about what you’re going to get, give and whatnot. Also, for some reason I got tons of digital messages of gratitude in lieu of material gifts, and I absolutely adore all the people who reached out to say ‘Merry Christmas,’ adore.

There is a darker side of the blatantly consumerist holiday (why are people being killed on Black Friday? WHY?), and comedy writer Jon Hendren (@Fart) managed to perfectly capture everything that is wrong with Christmas by searching for tweets that were particularly spoiled, like “I swear, everybody got an iPhone 4S. I asked for one and I didn’t get it. Santa, I hate you” and “My parents are the worst mother Fucking parents in the world fuck you mom and dad for not getting me a Iphone. FUCK YOU. FML,” and then retweeting them.

This simple action resonated with the webosphere, so much so that Internet bard Jonathan Mann turned Hendren’s retweets into a song (above) within a 48 hour turnover.

To compile material for his impromptu performance art, Hendren used Twitter search strings like: ”not getting,” “iPhone” and “iPod” or “iPad” or “Car” which would return tweets for people unhappy about “not getting.” “You can do the same thing with ‘didn’t get’ or ‘where’s my’ as well,” he says.

So what possessed this sort of ad hoc social commentary on people unhappy because of  the lack of iProducts under the tree? (Amazing in light of the 1.4 billion people who don’t have clean drinking water, right?)

“I was visiting with my family,” says Hendren on the impetus behind his critique. “They’d all gone to bed somewhat early on Christmas Eve night, and I was lying awake playing with Twitter’s search function on my iPhone (oddly enough). Nobody I was following was tweeting much of anything at that time, so I didn’t feel too bad about flooding my timeline. I think I did about 40 or 50 before people started posting fake tweets, which made it harder to find real ones among the search results, so I cut it off probably around Noon on Christmas morning. There are probably even better real ones among all the fake ones out there by now, but it’s too hard to tell.”

Hendren currently writes part-time for Something Awful as a day job and got laid off three weeks ago from his full time job due to “restructuring.” For the record, I am really really upset that no one bought me a house this Christmas. Okay, not. Well, maybe a little.

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