23 October, 2011

Google considers financing a deal for Yahoo buyout

Posted: 22 Oct 2011 06:48 PM PDT
Google is the latest company to be connected to a potential buyout of troubled Yahoo Inc. The search giant has talked to at least two equity firms about helping it acquire a chunk of Yahoo, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, which sites an unnamed source close to the matter.
The talks are said to still be in the early stages, and no serious offers have been made, but the play would be for Yahoo’s “core business.” The Wall Street Journal’s source said that a formal proposal hasn’t been assembled, and it’s possible Google could end up not even perusing a bid.
Any deal between the two companies would undoubtedly draw the attention of antitrust regulators, and Google is already in the hot-seat. In September, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt testified at a Senate Judiciary antitrust hearing. The committee is concerned that Google’s dominance of the search market gives it an unfair advantage when promoting its own businesses.
Google is just the latest big name to be tied to a possible Yahoo acquisition. Rumors of Yahoo putting itself up for sale have been circulating wildly since it fired Chief Executive Officer Carol Bartz in September. Microsoft, Aol and Chinese company Alibaba have all expressed interest in buying all or part of the company. Yahoo co-founder and former CEO Jerry Yang considered making a deal with private equity firms to buy up the company and take it private.
The struggling company is currently being led by interim CEO Tim Morse.

Filed under: media, VentureBeat

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Posted: 22 Oct 2011 04:39 PM PDT
Government-backed electric car company Fisker Automotive is delaying plans for production after missing its early manufacturing goals. According to a report by the Washington Post, the delays are being blamed on regulatory issues, and the company is brushing off any comparisons to Solyndra, another clean-energy company that received half a million in government loans, which filed for bankruptcy in September.
Fisker has already received $529 million in loans from the U.S. Department of Energy to make its plug-in extended-range vehicles. The majority of the loans are going toward the development of the Nina, a mid-priced family car, to be built in a former GM plant in Delaware. The manufacturing delay means that the creation of thousands of promised new jobs will also be postponed. Fisker now plans to start production in 2013.
A $169 million chunk of the loan has gone to development of Fisker’s Karma, a luxury sedan made in Finland that costs $96,000 (pictured above). However, Fisker and the Department of Energy say the loan money is not being spent in Finland, but rather on U.S. design, engineering and integration.
The Karma has just been cleared for sale in the U.S., two years late and without meeting its promised efficiency standards. Last week the EPA gave it a rating of 52 miles per gallon in electric mode, and a low 20 miles per gallon in gas mode. Only 40 of the cars have been shipped to the U.S. from Finland, but the company still plans on ramping up production to 15,000 cars a year.
The Obama administration’s $38.6 billion loan guarantee program for green-energy companies is part of a “green jobs” initiative that was supposed to create or keep 65,000 jobs. So far it has given out half its loans and created 3,545 full-time jobs, according to the Washington Post. The failure of solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra in September thrust the program into the spotlight, with many questioning the decision to tie investing in unproven and emerging green technology companies to job creation. It’s likely that all of the program’s loan recipients will be closely scrutinized.
The Department of Energy has adjusted the terms of its loan agreement with Fisker to accommodate the delays. Fisker Automotive’s founder, Henrik Fisker, told the Washington Post of comparisons to Solyndra, “This is completely different. You can't compare at all.”
Fisker Automotive has raised over $600 million in private equity financing, the majority of which has been used to create jobs, including 650 in Calif. and 100 in Delaware, according to Fisker.
[via Washington Post]

Filed under: green, VentureBeat

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Posted: 22 Oct 2011 02:44 PM PDT

VentureBeat ran into Blizzard Entertainment’s Paul Sams at this weekend’s BlizzCon fan event in Anaheim, Calif., and we sat down with him to discuss the company’s newly announced World of Warcraft Annual Pass, declining subscribers, and the company’s plans for future mobile projects.
Sams has been with the company since the mid-90′s, and as chief operating officer, he’s overseen development of every Blizzard title in some way or another since Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness. Sams was also responsible for publicly telling notorious German director Uwe Boll that Blizzard would never sell him film rights to World of Warcraft film. VentureBeat interviewed Sams in 2008 and earlier this year as well.
Here’s what he had to say about the company’s current strategy:
VentureBeat: The World of Warcraft Annual Pass was a big announcement. It’s an ambitious decision, especially to give away Diablo III. Does it tie back into reports from earlier this year of declining subscribers for World of Warcraft?
Paul Sams: Honestly, what it ties into [is that] we always are looking for ways to show an amount of, I guess … gratitude or what-have-you to our player base. We talk about, all the time, how can we do something cool for our players that’s going to benefit them, benefit us, and that they’ll feel is a give-back of sorts. That’s where this started. There’s a variety of benefits that come from it. Certainly the players get DIII, which is pretty exciting. That doesn’t mean they get the expansion sets, it means that they get DIII, right? So we get people excited about playing that … they get to touch it, feel it, experience it. And then from our perspective, it also is a situation where they aren’t necessarily going to leave WoW to play our own game. We don’t want to take players from our universe and shift them over from World of Warcraft. There’s a lot of players playing WoW that have huge amounts of friends and family that they play World of Warcraft with, so [giving Annual Pass subscribers Diablo III] says, enjoy both of them. You don’t have to pay any more than you already do for WoW.

VB: Is the potential profit that Blizzard stands to make from the real-money auction houses in Diablo III an incentive to try and get more people into Diablo, by giving away the base game? 
PS: Yeah, I guess it could. That hasn’t been the primary focus, to be honest. We thought it would be a cool thing to have our players be able to experience that game without having to leave WoW. We really view it as a give-back to the players. Will that mean that there’s more people potentially playing DIII? Maybe. Does that mean more people might engage in the real-money auction house? Possibly. That could be very positive for the organization, and I think for the players.
VB: Earlier this year you also moved to free-to-play for the first 20 levels of World of Warcraft. Can you talk about the impact that’s had on the game and the players? 
PS: The thought process there was, we wanted people to be able to experience the trial of the game more fully. The previous trial was not as in-depth. By allowing people to play through 20 [levels] it really allows them to get immersed in the experience. It allows them to get a connection with their character and to understand the dynamics of the game, the different ways to play and all the different mechanics of the game. So we thought what that would engage players at a level that would allow them to want to become subscribers. We thought that would do that more so than our prior trial version. We’ve had good acceptance of that. We feel pretty good about that decision.
VB: With the announcement of Mists of Pandaria, there’s a handful of World of Warcraft expansions now. Do you feel that each one increases the barrier of entry to potential new players?
PS: Well, we’re shrinking down the number of boxes, essentially. You won’t see the brown box, the original, as we call it, by itself on the shelves very often anymore. What we’ve done is we’ve brought it together with Burning Crusade so we don’t have as many boxes on the shelf. It’s been a while since we released the original game and the first expansion set. We feel comfortable bringing those together at a price point that’s palatable to new players. To be able to catch up is not that difficult. If we had the original and then 17 expansions that you had to go and buy and upgrade through, that could be pretty challenging. So we’re trying to minimize the number of steps to be able to come up to the most recent version. I think it’s also important, though, to understand that you don’t have to have all the expansion sets to play the game. You can play the game with any version. If you have just the original you can play that, if you add Burning Crusade you can play that content. As you progress through the content, if you want to have more you can add an expansion, but you don’t have to feel as if you need to do it from the get-go.
VB: But at the same time, you also said that a lot of people have their friends and family already in the game. So if someone is already off in Northrend (which is exclusive to the second expansion set) and their friend who’s just joined only has the core game, they actually do need to pay for those extra boxes.
PS: If they’re looking to play with someone else that is already up through Cataclysm, as an example, then yeah, they do need to do that.
VB: Which is, with so many subscribers, undoubtedly a common occurrence.
PS: I think it happens on a regular basis, but I think also, based on the statistics that we have, there are still players playing the game without the most recent expansions.

VB: Blizzard has not really tapped into the mobile or the casual market. Those are two areas where billions of dollars are being made right now. There’s the World of Warcraft Armory, and there’s also the BlizzCon app, which are obviously free to all players, whoever wants them. But what is your stance on possibly exploring mobile or casual in a more substantial way?
PS: Well, we’re regularly looking at all the different possibilities out there. Our challenge is, I think, that, like a lot of companies, we have to prioritize our opportunities. At this time, our current slate of products is our priority. That does not mean, though, that we’re not looking hard at the mobile market, the tablet market, what-have-you.
As you mentioned, we do have a number of offerings that are kind of around game experiences, but aren’t necessarily an actual stand-alone game experience. Those have been pretty well-received by our players, they’ve done well. I think what that tells us is, we can continue to add to those offerings and potentially do others around game offerings. We have a mobile auction house for World of Warcraft, which I think is also pretty cool, and it’s done well for us. I would guess that if we come up with an idea that we think is appropriate and exciting for one of those devices, we certainly would look at it.
Typically, when we’re deciding what games to make next, it’s based upon figuring out what the gameplay experience is, what the game is. Then we decide what platform is most appropriate for it. So if the answer is mobile or tablet, when we’re having those conversations, we’ll definitely go there. We do have a group within the organization that’s focusing on mobile and tablet apps. Thus far it’s been around our games. But that does not mean that we won’t go there in the future.
VB: A lot of massively multiplayer online (MMO) games are experimenting with a “freemium” model and finding varying degrees of success. Obviously, World of Warcraft is not sinking. It doesn’t need to do the DC Universe Online thing where it’s like, “Oh, we’re free to play now, let’s hope this saves us.” But what’s Blizzard’s stance on the freemium pricing model? Do you see it as a viable option for an existing or future game?
PS: It’s a very interesting business model and approach. Whether or not we will end up doing that at some point or not, I don’t really have the information to share. But certainly it’s possible that could happen with an existing product that we have. I think what you tend to see is that happening when games are on a decline or they don’t have a user base that can support itself through subscriptions. So then they’ll introduce the new model in hopes of being able to generate a different type of revenue to support that community and ongoing content. So it certainly is possible, if we find ourselves in that circumstance, or if we come up with a game where we think that’s the right business model, the most appropriate for players to experience it. We don’t have any opposition to the concept, it’s just that at this point we haven’t decided to make a game where that is the model. But that doesn’t mean that we won’t.
VB: Thanks for your time, Paul. Enjoy the rest of the show.

Filed under: games, mobile, VentureBeat

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Posted: 22 Oct 2011 02:33 PM PDT
Facebook’s international headquarters in Dublin, Ireland is facing an audit this month for keeping users’ deleted data. The company could face a $138,000 (€100,000) fine if it does not comply with Irish data protection laws.
The audit was triggered by an Austrian law student named Max Schrems, who requested a copy of all of his personal data from Facebook while writing a paper on privacy laws. What he received was a CD containing 1,200 pages of information on everything from his ignored friend requests to deleted messages.
Facebook’s international headquarters in Dublin supports all Facebook users in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Because of its location, the Irish Data Protection Commissioner has jurisdiction over the non-U.S. and Canada segment of the company. Users in the U.S. and Canada, however, have contracts with Facebook Inc. in Calif., and their rights are covered under different laws.
After seeing the breadth of information on him, Schrems and 21 other students filed complaints against Facebook with the Irish Data Protection Commissioner, alleging the company is creating “shadow profiles” of its members, and even non-Facebook users, without their consent or knowledge. The Irish Data Protection Commissioner then decided to do its own audit of Facebook.
According to the complaints, Facebook is illegally holding on to information on members and non-members, including phone numbers and email addresses. Schrems says Facebook scrapes this information from the data its users synch with their profiles, say from a mobile phone or email account. The group has also started the Europe vs Facebook group, which includes instructions on how to request your own data from Facebook (for users outside of the U.S. and Canada only). Facebook has already received an influx of requests.
A $138,000 fine isn’t likely to harm a company valued at over $80 billion, but the real result of the audit will be increased attention to the issue and a requirement to comply with the law.
[Image via AHMAD FAIZAL YAHYA/Shutterstock.com]

Filed under: security, social, VentureBeat

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Posted: 22 Oct 2011 10:14 AM PDT
Developers of the ridiculously popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft announced that the next game expansion will include a new battle system that essentially turns a player’s companion pets into Pokémon.
The announcement, made yesterday at the annual Blizzcon event, was one of many that Blizzard Entertainment made about World of Warcraft’s fourth expansion, Mists of Pandaria. Companion pets are somewhat of an accessory. They follow a player’s character around when summoned but can’t be controlled independently.
However, the new battle system will allow players to enter into companion pet battles with pet trainers, other players and even wild pets. It sounds very similar to Nintendo’s Pokémon. If you replace the word “pet” with “Pokémon” in the description Blizzard gives below for pet battling, it sounds like the same game.
You and your friends can pit your pets against each other in fun, friendly duels. You can teach your pets unique abilities and attacks, and they will use these abilities when battling other pets. As they fight and win battles, your pets will gain experience and level up, which makes them tougher and may even unlock new abilities. Assemble your roster and duke it out with your friends to see whose pets are the strongest!
While the addition of a companion pet battle feature will arguably add some value to the game, its true purpose is likely to generate a new stream of revenue by selling virtual goods for Blizzard. The company first experienced the money-making potential of selling unique virtual goods in April 2010 where it offered a one-day sale of a unique Celestial Steed mount, which netted the company over $2 million.
But allowing players to purchase cool in-game gear is something the company is no doubt very cautious about. Allowing too many in-game items through virtual sales can hurt the over all game play — because some of the less dedicated players will likely spend $40 bucks on a cool new item that they otherwise would have taken 40 hours playing the game to earn.
With the new pet battle system, Blizzard can sell virtual goods without hurting the main game play.
Blizzard released some mock-ups of what the pet battles will look like, but at this point it’s little more than concept art. Let us know what you think in the comments.
WoW Pet battles-1
WoW Pet Battle 2

Filed under: games, VentureBeat

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