13 October, 2011

BlackBerry service back online globally after worst outage in RIM’s history


Posted: 13 Oct 2011 08:20 AM PDT

BlackBerry users can breathe a sigh of relief. Research in Motion announced today that global BlackBerry services are “operating well” following a massive outage that began on Monday, which disrupted web, e-mail, and messaging capabilities for tens of millions of customers.
The BlackBerry outage — which was the worst in the company’s history — initially started in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, but yesterday the issue also spread to North America. With Apple’s iPhone 4S hitting shelves on Friday, this was certainly the worst possible week for RIM’s services to fall apart.
RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis issued a video apology about the service disruption (above), and he joined co-CEO Jim Balsillie on a conference call this morning to discuss the situation.
“I want to personally apologize to all of the BlackBerry customers we have let down," Lazaridis said. “You expect better of us. I expect better of us," he added.
RIM yesterday pointed to a “core switch failure” within its infrastructure as a cause for the failure. On the call, RIM said that it’s working with vendors to prevent any future failures like this, and it’s conducting an analysis of what took its system so long to restart. At this point, it’s not clear which vendors within RIM’s infrastructure failed.
As for what took so long for an apology, Lazaridis said that he was busy leading the team to restore the BlackBerry services. The company hasn’t yet decided on how it will make reparations to customers, but that will be a focus now that the services are back up.
When asked if the company is concerned about alienating customers so close to the new iPhone’s launch, one of the executives said, ” We've worked 12 years since the launch of the BlackBerry… We're going to fully commit to win that trust back."
Via AllThingsD

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Posted: 13 Oct 2011 08:15 AM PDT
TalkapellaKhush, a company that focuses on producing music apps that turn regular speech into song, today launched Talkapella, an a capella version of its popular Songify iOS app.
Much like Songify, the company’s new Talkapella app takes ordinary speech recorded on an iOS device and musically transforms it into singing. However, in true a capella fashion, Talkapella enhanced singing won’t feature background music inspired by the Gregory Brothers of Autotune the News fame.
“We believe that music is a fundamental form of human expression and a universal way to communicate,” Khush CEO Prerna Gupta told VentureBeat. “So, what we’re doing is launching apps that make it easier for people to make music in different ways.”
The app breaks the audio of a speech into four different parts. It then intelligently 
stretches and
 compresses the 
consonants. The end result is a speech that is transformed into one voice of a capella harmony, Prerna said.
“When you listen to a harmony, traditionally what you hear is four different people’s voices acting as one voice,” Prerna said. “What we do is take your one voice and turn it into four different melodies that sounds like one harmony.”
Talkapella is free to download in Apple’s App store and comes with two original harmony styles. Users have the option of purchasing more styles within the app.
Founded in 2009, the Atlanta, Georgia-based startup has raised $135 from 500 Startups, Shotput Ventures and angel investors Pat Matthews and Yee Lee. The company has also received $250,000 in government grants from the Georgia Research Alliance and the National Science Foundation.

Filed under: media, mobile, VentureBeat

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Posted: 13 Oct 2011 08:00 AM PDT
Mobile social games firm Ngmoco has hired a former Mattel executive, Michael Staskin, as its chief marketing officer. His job will be to ensure that the company’s broader ambitions of creating a worldwide mobile social entertainment network take off.
Staskin (pictured right) has more than 15 years of marketing and communications experience and he joins an Ngmoco executive team that includes founder/CEO Neil Young and the recently hired chief operating officer Joanna Drake Earl. Japan’s DeNA, operator of the Mogabe mobile social network, bought Ngmoco for up to $403 million last year, but it has given Ngmoco the autonomy to keep its own management team.
DeNA is generating $1.3 billion in revenues in Japan from the Mobage network with 30 million (mostly feature phone) users in Japan. But the company’s ambitions are a lot bigger than that. DeNA and Ngmoco launched Mobage in English on a worldwide beta test on Android smartphones in July.
The Mobage network will have mobile social games developed by Ngmoco, but it will also include games created by third parties. On top of that, there will be other kinds of mobile entertainment on the network as well.
That is where Drake Earl, who has TV experience, and Staskin come in. Staskin will lead global marketing and communications efforts for Ngmoco, including the launch of Mobage.
Most recently, Staskin was vice president of marketing and communications at Sisal, the gaming and lottery giant based in Milan, Italy. He also held management positions in North America and Europe for Mattel. Young called Staskin a “world-class marketer” who has managed some of the world’s biggest brands on a global scale. Staskin said that Mobage will be a new way to consume, share and experience mobile entertainment.
So far, Ngmoco hasn’t said how well the Mobage beta test is going. Some naysayers have said it isn’t catching on that well. But Ngmoco says it is not ready to release preliminary results.

Filed under: games, mobile, social

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Posted: 13 Oct 2011 07:12 AM PDT
SpringpadDigital notebook service Springpad has doubled its user base in the last six months to 2 million, the company tells VentureBeat.
Springpad’s mobile apps allow people to save specific things — like movies, wine, books, check-ins, recipes and more — they come across during the day. It then automatically organizes that saved data within smart notebooks, and arranges it into a useful packages. For example, if I’m looking for movies in the area, I can pull up a list of the most popular movies among my friends. That movie page will have a map of theaters in the area, movie times, etc. It’s a pretty useful tool for keeping track of things and discovering your next few steps throughout the day.
Apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so either. Springpad’s user base has saved over 27 million things using the service, according to the company.
“People’s habits are shifting from sharing their activities with one large network to smaller subsets of friends, like Facebook’s smart friend lists and Google’s Circles,” said Springpad CEO Jeff Janer in an interview. “What Springpad does is take the data from what you and your friends share and turn it into something much more useful.”
Right now, the company makes its money through affiliate partnerships from new business it directs to various products and services. Its mobile apps send users alerts for relevant news, price drops, product availability, coupons and other retail offers, which helps facilitate that part of the business. Eventually, Springpad plans to open up relevant advertising into its smart notebooks, while continuing to keep the service free for consumers.
Founded in 2008, the Boston-based company has $5 million total funding to date. Springpad faces competition from services like Evernote.

Filed under: media, mobile, social, VentureBeat

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Posted: 13 Oct 2011 07:01 AM PDT
VoIP company Rebtel announced version 2.0 of its iPhone app today, which sports a unique feature not found anywhere else: the ability to easily move between WiFi/data networks and voice networks during VoIP calls.
The proprietary network hopping feature, dubbed KeepTalking, allows VoIP callers to easily continue a call on a voice network if they notice their WiFi or data network degrading. This solves a major problem facing many VoIP users, who want to make free or cheap calls using data networks, but who sometimes find that those networks aren’t as robust as their carrier’s voice network.
As with the original iPhone app, and Rebtel’s other apps on Android and BlackBerry, the new app lets you make free calls to other Rebtel users around the world. The company also offers extremely cheap rates for calls to international numbers.
To use the KeepTalking feature, you simply need to hit the appropriate button (see pic) while in the middle of a call. CEO Andreas Bernstrom tells me that it typically takes around two seconds for a call to switch over to a voice connection, at which point the app will use your cellular voice minutes. With KeepTalking, you’ll still be able to make free international calls to Rebtel users.
The Swedish company has spent considerable funds and effort setting up the infrastructure for its service. Bernstrom tells me it brought in $20 million worth of financing from Benchmark Capital and Index Ventures in 2006 to build a system where they could connect with operators around the world, and terminate voice calls in any country. Over the last 9 months, the company put together the data side of its infrastructure, including codecs and stacks to carry voice over data connections.
Rebtel is the world’s second-largest mobile VoIP company (behind Skype) with 13 million connected users. The company says that 90 percent of its users make calls from its mobile apps, and that it expects to hit 1 billion call minutes during 2011. It has 70 employees, most of which are app and VoIP developers.
The company says the KeepTalking feature will reach its Android app in about a month. It’s already available on the Windows Rebtel application.

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Posted: 13 Oct 2011 07:00 AM PDT
Mobile gaming is one of the free-for-all markets in the game business. Nobody dominates smartphone and tablet games the way that Zynga has dominated social games on Facebook.
But Zynga is stepping up its own efforts to penetrate the mobile market. That was evident this week as the company announced five new mobile games at its press conference this week in San Francisco. Mobile could be a bigger market than Facebook games, so Zynga has to grab market share in that market in order to keep growing fast, diversify beyond Facebook, and continue executing well so that it can go public.
John Schappert, chief operating officer at Zynga, said at the event that mobile is critical to the mission of reaching gamers wherever they are.
“We’re building games for every player and every device they want to play on,” Schappert said.
If Zynga wants to go public, mobile is also one of the prime areas where it has to execute, said Peter Relan, chief executive of CrowdStar, a rival social and mobile game maker.
“They are still very early in that market,” Relan said. “It is fairly experimental at this stage, and is not a major market for them.”
The job of breaking into mobile falls to leaders like David Ko (pictured below), chief mobile officer, and Justin Cinicolo (pictured above), general manager for mobility at Zynga. This week, they announced Mafia Shakedown and Dream Zoo as upcoming native mobile games. And they also showed three new HTML5 mobile games: Words With Friends, Zynga Poker, and FarmVille Express.
The HTML5 games are intended to be cross-platform titles, running on any mobile device with a web browser. But most successful mobile games have to be optimized for the native formats of different mobile devices, such as Android phones or iPhones. That raises the costs of mobile development.
There is a lot at stake. In Zynga’s IPO filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, one of the risk factors says, “Our growth prospects will suffer if we are unable to develop successful games for mobile platforms.” Zynga expects to devote considerable resources into its mobile game development, where its experience of making Facebook games may not be all that useful.
But invest it must. Games are the most popular activity on smartphones. And the free-to-play business model is generating solid returns for mobile games, which are often given away for free in the hopes that users will purchase virtual goods.
Gaining market share won’t be easy with big players such as Gameloft, Electronic Arts, Rovio, Ngmoco, Digital Chocolate, Glu Mobile, Big Fish Games, Disney Mobile, Storm8, Pocket Gems, and a long list of other players. Zynga is late to the party. In fact, Zynga dove into iPhone games early on but pulled out when it found it much more lucrative to put teams to work making Facebook games.
Acquisitions such as the $53 million purchase of Newtoy, maker of Words With Friends, have put Zynga back in the mobile game. And Zynga has also said that it believes that most mobile games haven’t been very social to date and that it will have an edge in creating games that are fundamentally more social. In Mafia Wars Shakedown, for instance, you’ll be able to steal from your friends, Ko said. And in Dream Zoo, you can manage a zoo and feed and clean the animals in your friends’ zoos.
At some point, Zynga’s 265 million monthly active players on Facebook will help it gather a bigger mobile audience, since Zynga expects to unify its mobile and social games through its own social game platform, dubbed Project Z, which is coming sometime soon.
Zynga still has a lot of cash to spend on acquisitions. As of June 30, the company had $964 million in cash. And it generated $18 million in net income on revenue of $522 million for the six months ended June 30, compared to net income of $20 million on revenue of $231 million a year earlier. The company’s biggest mobile hits so far have been Words With Friends and Hanging With Friends, which have dominated the word game category in the App Store. But Zynga doesn’t yet break out mobile game revenues.
Before the new introductions, Zynga had four games on Android, four on the iPad, and nine on the iPhone. You can expect those numbers to change a lot in the coming years.
“Mobile is important to us because it is important to our players,” Cinicolo said.
Here’s our video interview with Cinicolo below.

Filed under: games, mobile, social, video

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Posted: 13 Oct 2011 06:00 AM PDT
Game rental startup GameFly is announcing today that it is starting its gamer-centric social network on Android devices with an updated app that gives gamers access to more networking features.
The Los Angeles company already has more than 4.5 million installs of its apps for iOS (iPhone, iPod, iPad) and Android. With the latest update on Android, gamers across both platforms can socialize with their friends, find like-minded gamers, and discover new selections from GameFly’s 8,000 game titles.
GameFly launched its social network app on the iPhone back in April, and now that social network app will make its way to Android devices as a comprehensive resource for gamers who want to discover new games. With the new updated Android app, gamers can do things such as create a profile page and browse friends’ profiles; find new people to play with on connected consoles; post updates and share information with followers; follow friends and discover what they are playing; view recent game activity; comment on posts and get notifications when others comment on yours; connect to Facebook and Twitter accounts; and share games with friends.
Sean Spector, GameFly co-founder and senior vice president of business development, said that the new mobile app appeals to all gamers, not just members who subscribe to GameFly’s game rental service. On average, app sessions last more than an hour. The updated GameFly app is now available in the Android Market and will be available soon in the Nook Store and the Amazon Appstore for Android. It can be downloaded directly from www.gamefly.com/mobile.
GameFly has a Netflix-like model, and Netflix itself said recently it plans to compete with GameFly in game disk rentals. GameFly was founded in 2002 and it has more than 250 employees. Other rivals in gamer mobile apps include IGN, GameSpot, G4 and others. Investors include Sequoia Capital and Tenaya Capital.

Filed under: games, mobile, social

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Posted: 13 Oct 2011 04:30 AM PDT
Educational technology startup Knewton has raised $33 million in a fourth round of funding as it rolls out an online learning platform that can be adapted to each student’s needs.
Knewton’s Adaptive Learning Platform can dynamically and automatically remix a school’s online educational materials to match every student’s strengths, weaknesses and unique learning style. It is part of a larger trend of “big data,” or using a large amount of feedback to analyze and then adjust to a user’s individual needs. And it is believed to be the largest funding round ever for an education technology startup.
That may sound like baloney, but New York-based Knewton has won recognition such as an award as a technology pioneer from the World Economic Forum. And its platform is being used by universities such as Arizona State University to tailor online education to thousands of students. If it truly works, then it will be a big deal, as the stats in the graphic on the right suggest. Education is in a funding crisis, but the internet can help alleviate that.
Knewton’s platform works by dividing the lessons into unique building blocks and then measuring the student’s performance while learning each section. It takes into account how long a student works on a problem, in addition to whether they got the answer right or not. And it takes into account how many videos you’ve watched. Then it serves up the next bite-sized bit of online content that the student should learn next. The system is algorithm-driven, generating unique lessons dynamically and automatically for the student.
The net result is a personalized education for each student. Knewton says it gets measurable results on retention and better-prepared students in class.
The platform is the brainchild of Jose Ferreira, founder and chief executive, who wants to bring about a revolution in education. A former executive at education firm Kaplan and an ex-venture investor, he started the firm in 2008.
"Between increased broadband and the rise of tablet computing, many more students are accessing their homework and even their classes online,” he said. “In so doing they are producing unfathomable quantities of data.”
Knewton captures that data and makes use of it throughout the education of the student.
David Liu, chief operating officer at Knewton, said in an interview that schools such as ASU have taken the platform through its proof-of-concept stage and are now using it with thousands of students. That allows advanced students to skip boring lessons they have already mastered and allows them to move on to targeted lessons.
“We tak into accounts thousands of data points per student,” Liu said. “We can be much more surgical.”
Liu said that the company’s system goes beyond adaptive testing, where a course difficulty is adapted to a student based on how well they do on a test. Instead, Knewton’s approach takes a lot more than test scores into account.
Founders Fund (headed by partners that include education-focused billionaire Peter Thiel) and education publishing giant Pearson led the round. Also participating were Accel Partners, Bessemer Venture Partners, and FirstMark Capital.
Liu said that Knewton will use the money to accelerate adoption of the Adaptive Learning Platform. It will hire more people and sell the platform more broadly. Knewton will also take the product to grades K-12 and create more partnershisp with publishers, universities and school districts.
"Knewton is poised to become a global lynchpin in online education and, more importantly, to improve education for everyone," said Luke Nosek, managing partner of Founders Fund.
In the past year, Knewton launched two first-year college math courses – College Mathematics and College Algebra – and a self-paced Math Readiness for College course.
Besides ASU, Knewton has been adopted by Penn State University, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Mount St. Mary's University, Washington State University, and Education Management Corporation.
Liu said the company has 70 employees now and plans to double that over the next two years. It will hire software engineers and data scientists in particular. Knewton plans to open up the platform to make it available to third parties.
Knewton has now raised $54 million to date. The funding and all of the adoption is giving the company some “real external public validation,” Liu said.

Filed under: deals, VentureBeat

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Posted: 13 Oct 2011 12:05 AM PDT
The Wall Street Journal reported today that web startups are hitting a cash crunch. Based on anecdotal evidence of this “nascent” trend, the publication said that strains are starting to show for startups seeking money.
In Silicon Valley, money has been flowing like rivers into web startups. But now some investors and entrepreneurs say it is getting harder to raise money. Some entrepreneurs are turning to bridge financing or are beginning to accept lower valuations in exchange for funding.
The story ignited a debate in the Twittersphere among a number of angel investors. Some agree there has been a modest drop in valuations, but there is plenty of cash available and it isn’t clear if the small or the large deals are being affected the most.
There is still excess funding available for most of the market, but early-stage companies are running into headwinds, the Journal said. The Journal went on to say that the trends are similar to the late 1990s, just as the dot-com boom turned into a bust. The Journal also cited the third quarter report from the National Venture Capital Association, which said that venture fundraising fell to its lowest quarterly level in eight years.
It isn’t clear what the fundamental reason for the slowdown is, though it could be the ailing worldwide economy, a pause in innovation, a slowdown in the cycle for web-based startups, or the fears of Wall Street finally spooking investors in Silicon Valley.
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Filed under: deals

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Posted: 12 Oct 2011 08:31 PM PDT
Foursquare, RadarLocation-based check-in service Foursquare released a new version of its iPhone app today that adds a new feature called Radar, which takes full advantage of the latest version of Apple’s iOS 5 update.
Using iOS 5′s new region monitoring functionality, the Radar feature sends alerts to users about things they are interested in whenever they are physically near the area. For instance, if a group of your friends are at the bar next door to you, Radar will shoot you a message letting you know. It also sends you alerts for things on all the Foursquare To-Do list you follow. The Foursquare app doesn’t have to be open for Radar to work, either.
“Radar is a big step in the direction of Foursquare’s vision,” wrote Foursquare Head of Product Alex Rainert on the company’s blog.
Not only does Radar add a new level of social interaction for its users, but the feature also has huge implications for Foursquare merchants. Local business owners now have a new tool to promote their venues and special deals that doesn’t rely entirely on people opting in — provided that users turn on Radar via their iOS device.
While Radar does add a lot to the user experience, it could take a long time to actually provide significant value, according to Nicholas Holland, CEO of Interactive development and marketing firm CentreSource.
“Basically, Foursquare is a hindsight service for the majority of people. You go somewhere and then think about checking in. With Radar, they have to be proactive. So, asking people to use your service in a new mental state is a challenge,” Holland said in an interview with VentureBeat.
Prior to Radar, users needed to physically check in to locations in order to see alerts about friends in the area or tips added to a To-Do list.
Holland said the Radar feature might require Foursquare to add some additional prompts to help users catch on to the benefits. But ultimately, Radar’s fate ultimately depends on “clever use cases”, he added. “If they abuse with advertising, it’s DOA. But since (Radar) is optional, it will start with early adopters and live/die by their experience.”
Foursquare said it plans to release the Radar feature on its other mobile apps in the future.
Image via Foursquare

Filed under: mobile, social, VentureBeat

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Posted: 12 Oct 2011 06:21 PM PDT
samsung_enterpriseSamsung is best known for its consumer-focused products, but the company is beginning to take enterprise more seriously and wants to gain recognition from the business community.
“We want businesses to think about us like they think about IBM,” Ken Daniels, Samsung senior director for strategic alliances in enterprise mobility, said Wednesday at the CTIA Enterprise conference in San Diego. “Wherever you have an office in the world, you can buy a Samsung phone, so why not think of us as an asset to business?”
Daniels said Samsung has established many partnerships to help the company branch out, including with American Airlines, Sybase, SOTI and Juniper Networks. The company also now offers its Enterprise Alliance Program to make it easier for other companies to work directly with Samsung.
“We have an ecosystem of partners that no one else has,” Daniels said. “We’re not going to have a 10,000-person sales team so we need our partners.”
I pressed Daniels on how Samsung could be expected to be taken as seriously as a player like IBM by businesses when it doesn’t offer many back-end services itself and would need to rely on “partners.” Daniels said it will be a gradual process, and eventually the company will offer more business-focused services and products.
“We’re starting with making our consumer-focused products friendlier for business,” Daniels said. “We’re looking at delivering software and hardware that’s enterprise-friendly, and working with enterprise developers.”
While I get that Samsung wants to make a deep footprint in the enterprise sector, that will be difficult to accomplish unless the company starts to offer its own services, such as infrastructure and cloud offerings. Whether it does this by acquiring companies or by setting up entirely new operations, it is certainly doable. It will be a tough battle either way since the space is already crowded.
Do you think Samsung will be able to make an inroad to the enterprise, or will it be stuck with a perception as a consumer-only technology company?

Filed under: enterprise, VentureBeat

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Posted: 12 Oct 2011 05:20 PM PDT
steve_yegge_google_plusA Google engineer accidentally posted his extremely honest thoughts about former employer Amazon and current employer Google to the Google+ social network Tuesday night. Sometimes, honesty isn’t pretty.
Steve Yegge, the Google engineer in question, took to Google+ with the intention of writing to his fellow employees about the state of affairs in the tech industry and at Google as he saw it. His note said harsh things about Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Google from the standpoint of development and establishing a platform. At one point he said Bezos “makes ordinary control freaks look like stoned hippies.” Later, he called Google’s relatively new Google+ social network a “pathetic afterthought.”
One of the most inflammatory paragraphs of Yegge’s screed reads:
Google+ is a prime example of our complete failure to understand platforms from the very highest levels of executive leadership (hi Larry, Sergey, Eric, Vic, howdy howdy) down to the very lowest leaf workers (hey yo). We all don’t get it. The Golden Rule of platforms is that you Eat Your Own Dogfood. The Google+ platform is a pathetic afterthought. We had no API at all at launch, and last I checked, we had one measly API call. One of the team members marched in and told me about it when they launched, and I asked: “So is it the Stalker API?” She got all glum and said “Yeah.” I mean, I was joking, but no… the only API call we offer is to get someone’s stream. So I guess the joke was on me.
Yegge has since pulled the original Google+ post down, but the full text of it is saved here. In a follow-up Google+ post, Yegge apologized for posting the rant to everyone, saying he was not “experienced” with Google+, adding, “by the time I figured out how to actually post something I had somehow switched accounts.”
He also emphasized Google did not force him to take down the post and that he did it on his own accord. “They went out of their way to help me understand that we’re an opinionated company, and not one of the kinds of companies that censors their employees,” Yegge wrote.
This type of public outburst is not something we’re used to seeing from employees at major tech companies. These organizations, especially behemoths like Apple and Google, carefully control their messages and make sure we only hear what they want us to hear. But it’s somewhat funny a Google employee used a Google product to unleash his true thoughts on key industry players. Frankly, I wish we saw more honesty like this.

Filed under: social

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Posted: 12 Oct 2011 02:37 PM PDT
Social link sharing startup StumbleUpon has reached a record 20 million users, the company announced today.
StumbleUpon’s service lets people discover and share new web content based on a broad spectrum of categories. Users click a “stumble” button to discover new content, and then have the option of voting and commenting on the selection. The service launched an Explore Box feature in August that allows people to get even more specific with how they seek out new web content.
The company, which had 10 million users in June 2010, attributes most of its user growth to a combination of new features, mobile usage and new employee talent, according to StumbleUpon VP of Business Development and Marketing Marc Leibowitz.
“There’s been more content sharing from everyone across the web, and I think people are turning to services to filter the fire hose of information that’s coming at them,” Leibowitz told VentureBeat. “So, I think we’re definitely benefiting.”
The company said it has more than doubled its number of monthly “stumbles” (the number of times someone finds content by clicking the stumble button) from 400 million in June 2010 to over a billion. That’s a thousand stumbles per second, StumbleUpon said.
StumbleUpon was acquired by eBay in 2007, only to be sold back two years later by original founders Garrett Camp, Geoff Smith and Ram Shriram, as well as Accel Partners and August Capital. StumbleUpon now operates as an independent company. The company closed a $17 million round of funding in May 2011 and has raised $18.5 million total funding to date.
Image via StumbleUpon
StumbleUpon Growth

Filed under: social, VentureBeat

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Posted: 12 Oct 2011 02:13 PM PDT
The two men who found and sold a prototype iPhone 4 to a tech blog last year have reached a plea bargain with prosecutors today.
Brian John Hogan, 22, and Sage Robert Wallower, 28, will pay Apple an earth-shaking $250 each. Each man will also serve 40 hours of community service and one year of probation.
A spokesperson stated that San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe asked the judge to require that each man serve five days of jail time, but the judge decided that putting the duo behind bars was unnecessary.
Last May, court documents revealed that Hogan had known that the iPhone 4 he found in a bar in Silicon Valley actually belonged to an Apple engineer and that, rather than trying to return it, he deliberately chose to try to sell it instead, making offers to several technology publications.
The then-21 year old said that he regretted selling the prototype to tech blog Gizmodo, but that he thought the blog merely intended to review the phone. In other words, the young man thought he was renting an iPhone prototype to a blog for $5,000.
Gizmodo published its blockbuster post, This Is Apple’s Next iPhone, to huge acclaim and traffic. Eventually, after verifying its authenticity, Gizmodo returned the phone to Apple.
Eventually, Gizmodo itself was let off the hook, as the San Mateo district attorney’s office decided not to press charges against writer Jason Chen. Investigators concluded that the blog and its staff were “not motivated by financial greed.” Also, the publication cooperated with with authorities by producing “relevant documents” about the case.
However, that meant Hogan and Wallower would face misdemeanor possession of stolen property and misappropriation of lost property charges. All things considered, the two got off rather light for some distinctly unethical behavior.

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Posted: 12 Oct 2011 01:24 PM PDT
LCD television sets that spontaneously melt or catch on fire only sound awesome. In reality, they’re the kind of thing that can endanger and inconvenience consumers, and lead to product recalls.
Sony is recalling around 1.6 million of its Bravia TV sets for precisely that reason. A faulty component of sets sold since 2007 may lead in some cases to overheating, smoke, melting parts and even fire. Sony is offering in-home evaluations to Bravia TV owners and will repair defective components free of charge.
The defective part is an inverter transformer used for LCD backlights; the inverter can sometimes overheat and occasionally ignite. And when that happens, it can create a hole in the cabinet of the set.
So far, Sony is only admitting that 11 incidents of TV malfunctions of this nature have been reported since 2008, all in Japan. And according to Sony’s statement, no injuries have been reported yet. However, there are reports on Consumer Affairs’ website of fire-catching Sony Bravia TVs popping up as near as Hawaii and as recently as last month.
“I purchased a 40-inch Bravia Sony LCD TV in December of 2007 from Sears in Hilo, HI,” writes Dan, a consumer from Keaau, Hawaii. “It worked fine until two days ago. Then, it literally caught on fire. Smoke was coming out with an acrid smell… I called Sony customer support. The person that I talked to didn’t have the foggiest idea of what I was talking about and couldn’t care less. She would only send me a flyer that ‘would tell me what to do.’”
Disturbingly, owners of other flaming and melting Sony sets, such as the WEGA did report injuries including burns on the Consumer Affairs site. It seems unlikely that out of 1.6 million sets, no consumers have been burned or lost property due to the faulty components.
Sony is expected to announce recalls in the U.S. an Europe, as well.
Earlier today, we also reported that another division of Sony was suffering a bit of a meltdown, too. The PlayStation Network remains under attack, and so far, hackers have gained access to 93,000 accounts.
All in all, today hasn’t been a red-letter day for the consumer electronics company.

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Posted: 12 Oct 2011 01:00 PM PDT
Heyzap has released version 3 of its game check-in app, adding functions that make it a lot easier for gamers to manage and launch their games.
The Heyzap app for Android will include a new Play tab (pictured at right, bottom) that makes it simple for users to organize and launch all of their games from one convenient location. In doing so, the company is shifting further into helping both gamers and developers with the discovery of new games on mobile devices.
Jude Gomilla, co-founder of San Francisco-based Heyzap, said in an interview that the existing Android interface makes it hard to find and manage games. For instance, you have to click on menus a total of nine times just to delete a game from a phone.
With Heyzap’s app, you click on the app once. Then you hit the Z Play button at the bottom of the screen. That calls up all of your games, but in the order of the most frequently played first. With this scheme, you don’t have to go looking through a list of dozens of icons in order to find your favorite game. You can launch it with a single click.
“We can launch a game 10 times faster on Android,” Gomilla said. “We make games management much easier. We have become like a central hub for games.”
You can also click on other buttons that show your friends, your profile, or the latest activity, which shows which games your friends are playing. The Play tab will show you games that have new updates available. This kind of interface is increasingly necessary for people who have dozens of games on their phones, Gomilla said.
An iPhone update is coming soon. Gomilla said that the company is making money from the app by selling non-incentivized ads. Developers place those ads in part because Heyzap inspires users to install games that their friends are playing.
You can use the play tab to view information such as discussions about a game, tips for playing it, and how to connect to other players. Heyzap has about 1.6 million installations for its check-in app.
Heyzap launched its check-in app for mobile gamers in March and it has now evolved it into a social network for gamers. More than 600 games use the Heyzap software developer kit. Publishers and developers using it include Pocket Gems, Digital Chocolate, Animoca, Mega Jump, Office Zombie, and others. If developers integrate the SDK into the game, gamers can then check into games and broadcast what they are playing to Facebook, Twitter and the Heyzap network with the press of a button.
Heyzap has 18 employees and it has raised $3.65 million from investors including Union Square Ventures and Naval Ravikant of Angellist. The company was founded in 2008. The company started out creating widgets for flash games, but it has shifted entirely into the mobile social games market now. Rivals could potentially include both Google and Apple, which could improve their interfaces to absorb what Heyzap does. But they aren’t doing that now. Other rivals include OpenFeint, PapayaMobile, and DeNA.

Filed under: games, mobile, VentureBeat

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Posted: 12 Oct 2011 12:28 PM PDT
San Franciscans took to the streets today to express their frustration with banks and a host of other economic institutions.
About 200 protestors blocked all three entrances to the Wells Fargo headquarters downtown, chanting, singing songs and waving signs. While the protestors offered a variety of opinions and messages, they all seemed more or less unified around the feeling that most Americans — “the other 99 percent” — are suffering while a tiny minority of the wealthiest see increased profits, reduced taxes and a general lack of accountability for the overall country’s economic health.
“We’re here because many people have lost their homes because of foreclosures by Wells Fargo,” said Barbara Roose, a Berkeley, Calif. resident who came to the protest with her son and grandson.
“Many, many large corporations pay no taxes while the rest of us suffer,” continued Roose’s son, Mateo Nube, of Oakland, Calif.
It’s not an unusual sentiment in San Francisco, a famously liberal city with a long history of support for labor movements and anti-corporate sentiment. But it does illustrate one striking note of discord in the city to the north of Silicon Valley, one of the country’s biggest engines of entrepreneurship and the cradle of large corporations (such as Google, Apple and Oracle) and of billionaire founders (such as Larry Page, Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison). This part of the world is famously friendly to startups, entrepreneurs and technology companies, as well as the venture capitalists and banks that facilitate them. But the region also has a strong current of anti-corporate and anti-financial sentiment.
One protestor, Charles Smith, parked himself in front of the bank’s ATMs with a big sign calling for a general strike. A retired member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 444, Smith said that a nationwide strike was the public’s only option for getting their demands met.
“This is an economic issue, not a moral issue,” said Smith. “The only option available to the other 99 percent is a general strike.”
One woman, who gave her name only as Rachel, said that she came to the protest because of her concern over the inequalities in the economy.
“The economic system isn’t working for the 99 percent,” she said, pointing to joblessness, poverty and lack of health care. Meanwhile, she said, “There are record profits for banks. The inequity is appalling.”
“It’s a global thing and it’s not going to end until it all evens out.”
The majority of protestors gathered in front of the bank’s main entrance, but a secondary group blocked the side entrance. A singer, Sky Nelson, played guitar for protestors as police stood by in front of the bank’s empty lobby.
In contrast to other recent protests in San Francisco, this demonstration seemed very well organized. A media representative spotted me taking photos and gave me a press kit.
The protest remained peaceful. While demonstrators had blocked traffic and snarled the morning commute, police were on the scene in force by 9am and were keeping people out of the street. A long line of motorcyles stood by, with police standing around in case things turned ugly.
Even the bank’s back loading entrance was blocked by protestors. It was there that the protest’s best music was to be found, with a brass band, the “Liberation Brass Orchestra,” playing funky and somewhat wooly New Orleans-style jazz (see video below).
While Wells Fargo was shut down completely, other banks in the neighborhood were unaffected by the protests. Citibank, California Bank, Bank of the West, the Far East National Bank and even the Bank of Guam (“The People’s Bank”) all remained open.
Photos and video by Dylan Tweney/VentureBeat.

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Posted: 12 Oct 2011 12:20 PM PDT
Amid a host other game announcements, Zynga unveiled its newest “Ville” game, CastleVille, at the Zynga Unleashed event this week. CastleVille certainly seems more ambitious than other games — it has better graphics than Zynga’s other titles and the soundtrack features a 75-person orchestra.
I got a chance to chat with Bill Jackson, creative director of CastleVille, to find out just how much work went into the game.
VB: Can you give me a sense of the scale? How big is this game compared to, say, CityVille?
BJ: There are three things we focus on with CastleVille. It's the fourth installment in the Ville franchise, so we're building upon the shoulders of giants. There are elements we each bring to the franchise, and we wanted them to sit there nicely with our own elements. We wanted to focus on exploration. We wanted to bring Story and narrative to the next level. That's part of the push on production values in the game, because we need the characters to be engaging and rich and we spent a lot of time bringing them to life.
We first focused on taking social to a new level, the way we want to do that is not by forgetting the lessons from old games but improving on areas and providing new twists. something as simple as the reputation system, we've had that in a few Ville games, but in our game it also serves as a way to unlock rewards and it permeates the entire design.
VB: How big is the team that worked on CastleVille?
BJ: We aren’t disclosing how big Zynga Dallas is or the size of the CastleVille team. We start with a really small concept team, completely develop in that small team, and as we progress and create a much larger game, we add more people to the team.
VB: CastleVille certainly looks much better than other Zynga games, but will I be able to run it on a weaker computer?
BJ: One of the things we really focus on, and we say this a lot, is everyone should be able to play the game. When we test these games, particularly CastleVille which is beautiful, we test it on a wide variety of computers to make sure it's stable. Not a lot of people notice or keep track of that.
VB: Can you tell me a little bit about the art direction behind the game?
BJ: We're inspired by a lot of places, there's a lot of traditional animation we're inspired by in this game. DreamWorks has done Shrek — that was an inspiration for us. Part of it is also evolution of an art style that our art directors have been working on their entire lives. It's progressing and progressing, we do different things, we've worked on some really serious stuff, but if you look you can see a progression toward this art style that's really beautiful and we're really proud of it.
VB: How long do you expect people to play CastleVille each day?
BJ: We talk a lot about the fifteen minute window where people have time for us, and it's all about as much time as you have. There's a corollary too, if you want to spend as much time with the game, we make sure that's possible. It's relaly up to the player. When we're talking around the design table, we really care that it's on your time, you can play it on your coffee break and it feels like a meal — not just a snack.
VB: Is the game any more complex than, say, CityVille? Or are you guys trying to keep it simple?
BJ: We work very hard to make sure the game is accessible, it comes back to the everyone comment. It's accessible, building your castle is fun and rewarding. Building walls in this game is fantastic and fun and we want to make sure you can build it however you want. You can build hedge mazes or anything crazy like that, we just make sure it's super simple and super accessible.
[Photo credit: Dean Takahashi]

Filed under: games

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Posted: 12 Oct 2011 11:53 AM PDT
X.commerceEBay is starting to think social. Today, the online auction company announced integration with Facebook’s open graph for its developer arm, X.commerce. It also unveiled PayPal access, a Facebook Connect-like way of checking out.
“[Facebook] wants to enable their developers to monetize,” said Naveed Anwar, head of community for X.commerce, in an interview with VentureBeat. “Who better to partner with than the people who are leading in social?”
Facebook recently introduced a new “vocabulary” to its open graph, a platform for developers on Facebook, which allows people to do more than just “like” something. Developers on X.commerce will now be able to use that extended vocabulary and the open graph in their own creations.
For instance, instead of liking Levi’s newest pair of jeans, it’s possible to have bought them, recommended them, and more. The idea is people are more influenced by their friends’ purchases than they are by official reviews from a source such as the Kelley Blue Book. If someone sees your action on a product, they may be more inclined to take action of their own.
“To make something truly social, you have to put it in at the start of the page, through to the end,” said Matthew Mengerink, vice president and general manager of X.commerce, at today’s press conference.
X.commerce wants to give developers access to Facebook at the very beginning and integrate it deeply into their applications. Mengerink explained developers could integrate Facebook features on the side, but having it baked into the X.commerce offering will make it a fuller product.
eBay also announced PayPal Access, which is a combination of Facebook Connect and the prompt you see to approve an app on Facebook. PayPal’s main concern is the loss of sale when the buyer has to fill out forms with shipping, contact, billing and other information. Access prompts you to share your pre-loaded PayPal credentials with an eCommerce website so it can remember you on return trips.
Commerce and social companies alike are recognizing the opportunities for marketing and purchasing in the retail world. eBay continues to deepen its relationship with Facebook. Last year the company announced PayPal would fuel all Facebook credits, and at the end of September it added Mitic as an advisor to its board of directors.
But eBay is not restricting itself to just Facebook. He explained, “We’re open and we’ll work with any partners who want to play in this ecosystem with us.”

Filed under: dev, social, VentureBeat

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Posted: 12 Oct 2011 11:12 AM PDT
Intel is dropping its smart TV initiative in order to put more resources into its “top corporate imperatives,” the company confirmed today.
The new strategy will focus on Ultrabook (thin laptops) devices, smartphones and tablets.
“As you can imagine, this was a tough decision – Intel led the creation and launch of the smart TV category and its first products. But, these collective actions will help to ensure that Intel has the best people focused on top business priorities,” a company spokeswoman said.
Intel will still make chips for the consumer electronics market, focused only on gateway and internet protocol set-top boxes. But it will wind down its operations in digital TVs. AnandTech first reported that Intel will close its Digital Home Group division.
Intel says there is a ton of synergy between tablets and TVs and so the consumer electronics business within Intel will now be folded into the tablet division, headed by Doug Davis.
Intel’s current line-up of consumer electronics chips includes system-on-chips for IP set-top boxes; chips for cable modems, cable gateways, fiber-to-the-home gateways, retail IP gateways, and multimedia terminal adapters. Intel was also making media processors for digital TVs and is now discontinuing that. A potential winner here is Mips, which has been designing chips for Android-based smart TVs.

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Posted: 12 Oct 2011 10:54 AM PDT
Game maker BioWare has added a four-player cooperative multiplayer mode to its Mass Effect 3 game, one of next year’s most anticipated titles, the company said today.
The new multiplayer mode drops you into a game with three other players. The Mass Effect series has traditionally been a single-player experience and the game has relied on compelling storytelling and creating a cinematic experience to draw gamers in. It’s a formula that’s worked exceptionally well so far, with the original Mass Effect game earning a score of 91 out of 100 across 74 reviews and its sequel earning a score of 96 out of 100 across 98 reviews.
Mass Effect puts players in control of Commander Shepherd as he tries to fend off an ancient alien race called the Reapers. In the final installment of the trilogy, the Reapers have taken control of earth and Shepherd has to rally the forces of the galaxy to take back the planet and destroy the reapers. It’s an over-the-shoulder shooting game that features role-playing game elements, such as earning experience for completing objectives and becoming more powerful over time with better skills.
When entering the game, you can choose your race (among others, there are the massive Krogan and the powerful, psychic Asari races) and class, like a Sentinel or a Soldier, each of which has different abilities. You then face off against waves of enemies while trying to defend strategic locations across the galaxy.
Successfully completing those missions contributes to Shepherd’s “war assets” in the main story line — the more assets you have means you get a better and more complete ending. BioWare added multiplayer to the game to make use of its new team in Montreal and to give players an alternative way to build up their war assets in the game, Mass Effect series executive producer Casey Hudson said. Players can still get the best ending by playing through the game in a single-player campaign, but now they have an alternative way to build up their war assets.
“This is really the best place to start playing the Mass Effect series, this is the beginning, middle and end of the whole galactic war,” he said. “You'll be able to take control of characters you have never been able to play before — you’ll have access to all the different classes and many of the races.”
Hudson said it made the most sense to add multiplayer to this title, which tells the story of an all-out galactic war at a huge scale.
Mass Effect 3 will come out March 6 next year.

Filed under: games

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Posted: 12 Oct 2011 10:14 AM PDT
MicroVenturesJust a decade ago, if you wanted to invest in a startup you had to know someone. A lawyer, an accountant, a friend of friend would give you a referral to a company looking to raise money, or they'd invite you to invest with them. That's how you got in the door.
You had to have a lot of money to play – often $50,000 or more. And the startups you'd see were from your geographical region. That traditional scenario left a lot of interested angel investors sitting on the sidelines.
Today, it's a lot easier to become an angel investor, due to crowd funding, micro lending and investment sites like MicroVenture Marketplace Inc., which is opening doors to those looking to invest $1,000 to $10,000 or more.
The way to win at angel investing, of course, is to invest in the right startups. To get there, you need:
1) Good deal flow from which to spot potential winners.
2) The ability to invest in multiple deals so you gain experience.
3) A knack for spotting companies, and more importantly people, who will succeed.
Getting good deal flow is often the stumbling block for the average person looking to get started in angel investing. And it's one of the reasons Bill Clark founded MicroVentures. He wanted to begin investing, but didn't have access to good deals.
Like many others thinking about making angel investments, Clark wanted to invest smaller sums in more companies, allowing him to spread out his risk and also increase his changes of picking a winner. And he wanted access to great companies outside of the Austin area, which is his hometown.
More than a thousand investors have joined MicroVentures since Clark launched the investment service a year ago. The service matches companies seeking money with investors looking to invest anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 or more.
MicroVenture helps investors learn about companies they may never have heard of, and to invest smaller sums, which is virtually unheard of with traditional investing.
MicroVentures also helps with the initial due diligence process by filtering start-ups and then providing documents to help investors conduct their own due diligence to help them make a final decision.
When you sign up be sure to put "VentureBeat" in the referral code and we will send you a $100 gift card after you make your first investment.

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Posted: 12 Oct 2011 10:05 AM PDT
Apple has released its biggest mobile update yet, iOS 5, which offers a slew of compelling new features and will likely make many iPhone 4 owners think twice about upgrading to the iPhone 4S.
As I pointed out in our roundup of iPhone 4S reviews, iOS 5 compatible devices will receive most of the software upgrades featured in the iPhone 4S, and that may just be enough for most iPhone 4 owners.
Sure, you won’t get access to the Siri virtual assistant, and you won’t get the upgraded 8 megapixel camera and faster A5 CPU, but you’ll have access to the new iMessage app, improved notifications, Reminders, and more. Altogether, Apple says there are over 200 new features in iOS 5.
iOS 5 is compatible with the iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, both the iPad 1 and 2, as well as the third- and fourth-generation iPod Touch.
I’ve been testing out iOS 5 on my iPhone 4 for some time now, and I’m shocked at just how much better the experience is compared to iOS 4. iOS 5 basically makes the iPhone 4 feel like an entirely new phone.
The new notifications system means you’ll never have another annoying pop-up box disrupt your workflow. Instead, notifications appear elegantly at the top of the screen. They’re collected in a notifications tray that you can swipe down to access (yes, just like Android). Apple’s new iMessage app will definitely serve as iOS’s alternative to RIM’s popular BlackBerry Messenger. It’s faster and smarter than texting, and it also doesn’t require any extra texting charges, since messages go over the data network.
Dealing with the iPhone’s camera is also less cumbersome in iOS 5. You can now access the camera app by double-clicking on the home button, even from the iPhone’s standby mode. New editing features also let you touch up photos easily, including cropping and red-eye removal, instead of relying on third-party apps.
To access the update, you’ll first need to upgrade to iTunes 10.5, which was released yesterday. Users of older iPhone 3G and second-gen iPod Touch devices that aren’t iOS 5 compatible will have to be content with iOS 4.

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Posted: 12 Oct 2011 09:52 AM PDT
Electronic Arts came out of nowhere when it launched The Sims Social on Facebook. The social game that simulates human life took off like wildfire, surpassing FarmVille and closing in on Zynga’s most popular game, CityVille. Now Raptr, the social network for gamers, has revealed some interesting data about just who is playing The Sims Social. As suspected, many of the players came from Zynga.
The majority of The Sims Social’s user base are Zynga players, according to data collected from 10 million people on Raptr’s gamer social network. EA’s own social games and The Sims 3 accounted for only 15 percent of the total players of The Sims Social. Zynga players, on the other hand, account for 50 percent of all of The Sims Social players. About 30 percent came from other social games, and 5 percent came from World of WarCraft.
The Sims Social is now the No. 2 game on Facebook with 66 million monthly active players, compared to 76 million for CityVille, according to AppData. If roughly half of those players came from Zynga, we’re talking about close to 33 million users. Of course, not every single one of the Zynga players has quit playing a Zynga game in order to play The Sims Social. But CityVille has dropped from more than 100 million players.
Worth pointing out: The Sims Social has gained quickly on CityVille, but the rate of gain has slowed down dramatically recently. The latest Appdata information in recent days shows that CityVille is holding strong now.
The first trick in EA’s playbook, according to Raptr’s analysis, was that it successfully marketed the game to EA’s existing fans, including 10 million players of The Sims 3 game and 36 million social game players. More than 30 percent of The Sims 3 players are playing The Sims Social. But more than 60 percent of EA-Playfish fans of Restaurant City and Pet Society are also playing The Sims Social. That’s an impressive conversion rate, and it doesn’t hurt that EA has sold more than 140 million Sims games.
EA is enjoying a lot of success, now that it has more than 100 million monthly active users, more than double what it had just a few months ago. But EA is also cannibalizing its own social games. The average percent loss of total play time per week since the launch of The Sims Social in August has been heavy. The Sims 3 has seen its play time drop by 50 percent. Bejeweled Blitz from PopCap has declined 20 percent, and Pet Society has declined 50 percent. CityVille play time, by comparison, is down only 10 percent, while Zynga’s FarmVille is down around 25 percent and Zynga’s Empires & Allies is down about the same.
Prior to the launch of The Sims Social, EA had a terrible record in social games. In 2010, it purchased Playfish for as much as $400 million. That gave EA access to a team with proven expertise in social games. They applied their skills to The Sims Social. Now EA’s numbers are looking pretty good in terms of engagement, or how much time users spend in the game.
On average, users play The Sims Social for 4.95 minutes a session. They play eight sessions per day, 19 sessions per week, and 39 sessions per month. Zynga players, meanwhile, play 4.95 minutes per session, eight sessions per day, 20 sessions per week, and 34 sessions per month. EA’s social games that are based on console franchises (such as Dragon Age Legends and Madden NFL Superstars) have longer play sessions but fewer return sessions.
In fact, only 5 – 24 percent of EA’s players for its FIFA 11 hardcore soccer game converted to play FIFA Superstars on Facebook. And only 24 percent of Dragon Age 2 players converted to play the social game Dragon Age Legends. That is far below the 34 percent of The Sims 3 players who converted to The Sims Social. That’s one reason EA’s social games based on hardcore franchises only had about 1 million to 4 million monthly active users.
EA has a lot of new hope now that it has acquired PopCap Games (for at least $750 million). PopCap has a number of casual titles that can be converted to social games on Facebook. About 59 – 79 percent of the players for popular PopCap casual games are also playing social games on Facebook. Roughly 60 percent of Plants vs. Zombies players — a big PopCap franchise — are also playing social games. So PopCap’s audience  should be easier to funnel from casual web site games to social games. With PopCap, Raptr concludes, EA is poised to have strong follow-ups to The Sims Social.

Filed under: games

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