03 November, 2011



Euclid pulls in $5.8M to deliver Google Analytics-style metrics to physical stores

Posted: 03 Nov 2011 09:00 AM PDT

EuclidMany online retailers use Google Analytics to track traffic to their site, but what if real-world retailers could access the same data about traffic to their stores? The technology exists in Euclid Elements, which announced a $5.8 million first round of funding today.

Euclid Elements was founded by the minds behind Urchin, the company Google acquired that later become Google Analytics. The analytics software itself is used by millions of website administrators to see how many people are coming to their sites, where they entered the site, how much time they spent on the site and more. It is very instrumental in keeping a business aware of its own traffic.

Physical retailers would benefit from this kind of data, which would help them evaluate if a certain storefront marketing tactic is bringing in more people, what times of day people are walking past the store most and other metrics.

“We’re looking at rates of change, not the individuals,” said Will Smith, chief executive of Euclid Elements, in an interview with VentureBeat.

Euclid’s technology is fairly straight forward. The company sets up a sensor in your store, which detects the Wi-Fi on potential customer’s phones, in addition to people simply passing the store outide. This throws up privacy alarms, but Smith assures his customers there are none. The sensors don’t connect to the Wi-Fi, and Euclid can’t reach out to the internet connection. Instead, it maintains a tally of all those who enter the store with a Wi-Fi connection on their person, as well as of how frequently a person enters the store, how many people walk by, and more. Indeed, the company has an entire privacy section on its website explaining that data is only collected anonymously, isn’t linked to, and customers can opt out of having data collected on them.

However, the technology assumes that everyone is carrying a smartphone. Safe assumption for an area like San Francisco, where Euclid’s first customer, Philz Coffee, is deploying the technology. But around the country, feature phones still exist as a norm. According to a study by Neilsen, 57 percent of cell phones in America remain feature phones. That’s a big chunk of consumers who may be missed by the sensors.

In fairness, it’s still early days for the technology, however, and with this round of funding, the company is planning on making more hires in its engineering department for product development. Long term, the company is looking to deploy new metrics for store owners to measure traffic and on-location marketing success.

Euclid was founded in 2010 and is based in Palo Alto, Calif. The company currently has 15 employees and has raised money from New Enterprise Associates, Harrison Metal, and Triple Point Capital. See an example of what the analytics look like below.

euclid analyticseuclid analytics

Filed under: dev

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Jawbone’s new Up health wristband is equal parts cool and creepy

Posted: 03 Nov 2011 08:36 AM PDT

Jawbone-Up-iOSBluetooth headset maker Jawbone will soon release its new Up life monitoring wristband that’s designed to help you live a move healthy life by tracking every move you make, what you’re eating, how long you’re sleeping and how many calories you burn.

The Jawbone Up, in many ways, is a cool use of technology to tackle the problem of not being active enough. Using the wristband and an iOS app, you can get prompts to move when you sit at their desk too long, be told exactly how long you’ve slept, be prompted to wake up in accordance with your natural sleep cycle and track how many calories you eat by snapping photos of your food.

To get the most out of the product, you are expected to wear the wristband 24 hours a day. To make that possible, the Jawbone team has made the Up band water resistant and durable and it lasts 10 days on a single charge.

While all of those aspects are handy in some way, some potential users may shy away because they don’t want a piece of technology tracking every single thing they do or eat 24 hours a day. While the data isn’t neccesarily being shared with anyone else, there is something a little creepy about a machine that knows every little thing you do in your life. Additionally, if someone else gets their hands on your iPhone, he or she may be able to see all of those things.

As someone who spends a lot of time at my desk each day and not enough time in my bed at night, the Up wristband actually seems like a good idea to help get back into a healthier routine. The trick, if I decided to get one, would be keeping it on me regardless of activity and remembering to track my food intake.

The Up wristband goes on sale Nov. 6 for $100 from retailers including the Apple Store, Best Buy and Target. The wristband comes in small, medium, and large sizes and in seven different colors: black, brown, blue, white, silver, dark red and bright red.

A video showing various aspects and benefits of the Up wristband can be viewed below:

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Motorola unveils new Android tablets: Xoom 2 & Xoom 2 Media Edition

Posted: 03 Nov 2011 08:01 AM PDT

Motorola has announced the launch of its Xoom 2 and Xoom 2 Media Edition tablets, both pictured above.

The new Motorola tablets both feature Android 3.2, a Honeycomb variant, as well as dual-core 1.2 GHz processors and 1GB RAM with 16 GB storage.

The Xoom 2 features a 10.1-inch display, while the Media Edition has an 8.2-inch display. Both feature Gorilla Glass touchscreens and a splashguard coating.

Thought the Media Edition is technically smaller, if can play music for 3 days straight and boasts an adaptive virtual surround sound array with multiple speakers and what Motorola calls “booming bass.” Motorola says the Media Edition brings a 20 percent improvement to graphics performance over the performance of the original Motorola Xoom.

The Xoom 2 brings more enterprise-friendly features such as Active Sync for work email, contacts and calendar, an Ethernet port, GoToMeeting software and enterprise-grade security features.

As far as cameras go, the tablets both have 1.3 MP front-facing and 5 MP rear-facing HD cameras with digital zoom, auto focus and LED flash.

For now, these products are rolling out in the UK and Ireland only; expect to see units on shelves mid-November.The company hasn’t stated yet when the Xooms will come to the U.S. or other areas., but we anticipate a U.S. launch on Verizon in the relatively near future. Stay tuned for official announcements of U.S. Xoom 2 launches.

The company is also plugging its Work and Play accessory kits for both tablets. The kits include peripherals for multimedia and living room control, Bluetooth keyboard and mouse for productivity, as well as a stylus for the Xoom 2.

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Famigo SandBox lets you pass mobile devices to your kids worry-free

Posted: 03 Nov 2011 07:27 AM PDT

Rest easy parents, thanks to Famigo’s SandBox app, you no longer have to worry about your little monsters calling or texting your boss when they’re playing with your phone.

The free Famigo SandBox turns any Android phone or tablet into a kid-friendly device, granting kids access only to the apps on your phone known to be kid-friendly, as well as those you choose to approve. There’s no access to the web or any advertising.

The goal behind SandBox is to “make mobile work for families,” said Famigo co-founder and CEO Q Beck, a former executive for Nickelodeon and Dreamworks. Indeed, that seems to be the goal of all of Famigo’s products, like its review site that lets parents find family-friendly Android apps.

"Let's face it: Kids love mobile media. That's not a bad thing; mobile devices empower parents to facilitate anywhere, anytime learning. With Famigo Sandbox, parents can unlock the benefits of mobile media without risk," Beck said in a statement today.

SandBox not only provides a safe environment for kids, it’s also an app discovery solution, giving parents recommendations for other apps their kids may enjoy. The company says it has over 8,000 users in its beta program, who have essentially crowdsourced a list of over 40,000 child-safe Android apps. SandBox also provides parents with a weekly report of the apps their kids use, as well as the amount of time spent on them, which could help parents learn more about what their kids enjoy.

The app itself is simple for kids to navigate, sporting bright colors and large icons. To exit the app’s protected mode, parents have to unlock their phones with a special swipe. Famigo says that the app will also grow with your child — for example, if you configure the app to recommend new programs for your two-year-old, it’ll know to bump up the target ages for apps as your child grows up.

The company tells me that SandBox works on over 500 different devices at the moment, and they’re also prepared for Amazon’s Kindle Fire as soon as it launches. More so than smartphones, the company says that they a greater potential for SandBox among tablets, which are typically shared among the entire family.

Given just how extensively the app locks down mobile devices, the company says that it’s not possible to bring SandBox to iOS devices. It’s also exploring Windows Phone, but given how restrictive Microsoft is being with that platform, it’s unlikely that SandBox can be ported there in its current form.

Austin, Texas-based has six full-time employees. The company was incubated with Austin's Capital Factory incubator, and it has raised an undisclosed amount of funding.

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Apple reportedly making 2M iPad 3 units in 2011 & unveiling iPhone 5 in late 2012

Posted: 03 Nov 2011 07:15 AM PDT

Apple is planning facelifts for the iMac and MacBook Air, as well as the launch of the iPad 3 and iPhone 5, all to occur next year.

According to Taiwanese blog Digitimes, which has previously picked up accurate news from sources in Apple’s supply chain, these refreshes amount to a complete overhaul and include December final order dates for important iPad 3 components.

The blog’s sources said that apple is ordering enough inventory to manufacture 2 million iPad 3 units by the end of 2011.

Last month, two research analysts predicted the 2012 iPad 3 launch, as well. Susquehanna Financial Group's Jeffrey Fidacaro and Christopher Caso both published research notes about the gadget, with Caso stating that as many as one million iPad 3 units could be built between now and the end of 2011.

Earlier in 2011, Apple had to disclose some rather low sales revenues for the iPad 2. During Q2 2011, Apple shipped fewer than 5 million units — much less than the projected figures, which had ranged between 6 and 8 million.

But the company said the lower sales figures weren’t due to flagging consumer demand.

"We sold every iPad 2 we could make," said Apple CFO Peter Oppenheimer at the time, indicating that the supply chain was, in fact, the problem.

In September 2011, we read reports that the company had been slashing the number of iPads it was ordering from manufacturers. According to analysts at JPMorgan, this happened because the company was shifting its focus (and the focus of its supply-chain partners) to the manufacture of the iPad 3.

Digitimes’ supply chain sources also stated Apple has requested the development of flat panel modules and LED light bars for two iPad 3 prototypes, which were reportedly codenamed J1 and J2. Touchscreen panels should begin shipping this month from TPK Holdings and next month from Wintek.

As for the iPhone 5 and the new iMac, Digitimes predicts a Q3 or Q4 unveiling of those products.

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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How Groupon’s accounting changes hide what’s really going on at the company

Posted: 03 Nov 2011 07:00 AM PDT

Magician doing a card trick

I have long criticized Groupon’s accounting practices. As someone who has watched the company closely since the it first filed the paperwork to go public (now scheduled for November 4), I have seen how it has continually adjusted its S-1, often in response to withering criticism.

Analyzing Groupon has been like playing 3-card monte. I’ve managed to successfully follow the queen and track the changes in the company’s accounting. Until now. I’ve lost the queen.

Continually revised accounting

Groupon started off its reporting by claiming that marketing expenses don’t matter and that investors shouldn’t worry about them. It invented a new metric called Adjusted Consolidated Segment Operating Income. If you ignored Groupon’s marketing expenses, Groupon generated a profit of $81.6 million in the first quarter. That metric was so ridiculed that Groupon removed it in the second amendment to its S-1. When that was converted to a more normal accounting metric, Groupon actually lost $98.3 million in the quarter.

Groupon also initially reported its revenue on a gross basis, meaning that it included in its revenue the portion of a Groupon’s value that is shared with merchants. This was clearly in conflict with FASB regulations. So Groupon also abandoned that metric with the third amendment to its S-1. That change dropped Groupon’s 1Q revenue by more than half from $644.7 million to $295.5 million.

But the company’s most recent change in its accounting practices is especially troubling. Released just two weeks before its IPO, Groupon significantly changed the definition of key expense metrics such as marketing expenses, cost of revenue and selling, general and administrative (SG&A) costs. When it made these changes, Groupon did not restate the numbers for the preceding two quarters. We are just supposed to trust that Groupon is now near breakeven, right before the IPO.

At least with ACSOI and gross accounting, all of the correct information was in the S-1. Savvy investors and analysts could ignore the numbers that Groupon wanted investors to focus on and look at the right numbers. With the most recent changes, investors have no way of reasonably comparing its expenses in 3Q with expenses in 2Q and 1Q.

Groupon continues to try to get investors to focus on year-over-year numbers, but those numbers are utterly irrelevant when the company has grown as fast as it has. The quarterly numbers are the only ones that are relevant and Groupon does not provide those.

For example, based on the previous filings, we know that Groupon’s SG&A in was $178.9 million in 1Q and $273.1 million in 2Q. In the third amendment to the S-1, the combined figure for 1Q and 2Q was $407.7 million. But with the latest revision, all we know is that under the new new rules, the combined number for 1Q-3Q is $565.7 million.


One of my long-standing concerns about Groupon is the extent to which the “Groupon Promise” represents a risk to investors. Under the promise, Groupon customers who are unable to redeem a Groupon or are unsatisfied with their experience can get their money back. Based on the third amendment, it was possible to estimate the percentage of Groupon’s revenue that went to refunds. I pointed out that on a percentage basis, Groupon’s cost of revenue increased more than 40 percent, from 6.8 percent of revenues in the first half of 2010 to 9.6 percent in the first half of 2011.

Sources with knowledge of Groupon’s internal numbers have told me that refund rates are increasing in line with that estimate. I specifically asked Groupon for clarity on this number. Groupon did not respond to that request.

I also gave Groupon the opportunity to comment on its accounting practices for this post. Spokeswoman Julie Mossler responded, “Rocky, we’re choosing not to work with you.” (The company is also currently in its SEC-mandated quiet period surrounding the IPO and often does not respond to media requests for legal reasons.)

After my request, Groupon again redefined the cost-of-revenue metric, including in it many other expenses that would make it hard to evaluate the impact of the Groupon Promise on the company.

If Groupon had consistently reported the expense numbers from the beginning, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. If it restated 1Q and 2Q based on the new new rules, I wouldn’t have a problem with that, either. The fact that it did neither should be a red flag to diligent investors.

In other areas, Groupon continues to hope that investors will make meaningless comparisons. For example, Groupon expresses its marketing expenses as a percentage of gross billings. What investors should really pay attention to is marketing expenses as a percentage of revenue. Groupon’s marketing expenses are 22.3% of gross billings, but 54.8% of revenues. This discrepancy will only increase as Groupon’s share of Groupon deals continues to drop.

Since the beginning, Groupon has not reported key metrics that are essential for investors to assess the health of its business. This includes email open rates (which are likely declining rapidly), churn among customers (likely increasing) and subscriber/customer acquisition costs. (In fairness, the latter number can be approximated using Groupon’s marketing expenses.)

One key number that was in previous S-1s was removed as it got worse: the percentage of each deal that Groupon gets to keep. This number dropped from 42% in 2Q to 37% in 3Q. Over time, I expect this number to drop to 15%-20%.

In other cases, Groupon reports numbers in ways that are very confusing to casual observers. I saw several news outlets report that 30 million consumers purchased Groupons in 3Q. That’s incorrect. Groupon only reports cumulative numbers of Groupon purchasers. Because it’s a cumulative number, by definition, that number can never go down. But it’s reported in the quarterly column. By my estimates, only about 17.6 million people purchased Groupons in 3Q.

Barely passing grade

Groupon is like the consistently failing student who suddenly gets barely enough questions right on the final exam to get a passing grade, without showing any of his work. By not offering restated numbers for 1Q and 2Q, Groupon is not showing its work.

It’s possible that the student was diligent and worked really hard to earn a passing grade. Or it’s possible that the student cheated. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to determine what exactly happened without a deeper audit.

But these factors are important to keep in mind:

  • Since the beginning, the company has consistently tried to make its revenues seem substantially bigger than they are and tried to convince investors that its massive losses were, in fact, profits.
  • In explaining the business model of Groupon to merchants, Groupon ignores one of the biggest factors that causes Groupons to be unprofitable: the percentage of Groupon customers who are already existing customers.
  • Groupon co-founder and chairman Eric Lefkosky has a troubling past with other companies, according to Fortune. In one email, about Starbelly, he wrote, “Lets start having fun… lets get funky… let’s announce everything… let’s be WILDLY positive in our forecasts… lets take this thing to the extreme… if we get wacked [sic] on the ride down-who gives a shit…” Starbelly sold itself for $240 million to Ha-Lo industries, lining Lefkosky’s pockets. Ha-Lo soon went bankrupt.
  • Ed Ketz, an associate professor of accounting at Penn State University, told Bloomberg West that according to a model that he ran, there’s “almost a 100% probability” of accounting fraud at Groupon.
  • Ketz also pointed out that Groupon’s auditor, Ernst & Young, has not issued an audit report on Groupon’s internal controls. From Groupon’s S-1: “We were not engaged to perform an audit of the Company’s internal control over financial reporting. Our audits included consideration of internal control over financial reporting as a basis for designing audit procedures that are appropriate in the circumstances, but not for the purpose of expressing an opinion on the effectiveness of the Company’s internal control over financial reporting. Accordingly, we express no such opinion.” Two former Groupon salespeople tell me that Groupon’s systems are not robust enough to accurately track its operations. Even in the week of its IPO, Groupon has changed the definition of numbers from 2Q.
  • In its roadshow video, Groupon CFO Jason Child says that the company had “over $240 million of cash on the books and no debt.” Potential investors had to rely on the accompanying slide to see that the company owes merchants who have run Groupons $466 million.

The irony is that if Groupon hadn’t tried to push through its unusual accounting measures, it might have gone public sooner and at a higher valuation.

Rocky AgrawalRocky Agrawal is an analyst focused on the intersection of local, social and mobile. He is a principal analyst at reDesign mobile. Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He blogs at http://blog.agrawals.org and tweets at @rakeshlobster.

Top photo: Art Prestige Studio / Shutterstock.

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Review: Forza Motorsport 4 roars onto the Xbox 360

Posted: 03 Nov 2011 07:00 AM PDT

Editor’s note: This is our first game review from Rob Wyatt, a game programming veteran, Xbox architect and chief scientist at Otoy. He plans to review games using his lens as a technical expert.

"An unapologetic love letter to cars." That’s how Jeremy Clarkson, host of racing show Top Gear, describes Forza Motorsport 4, Turn 10′s latest racing game for the Xbox 360, which has just debuted two years after its predecessor.

The use of Top Gear in the latest iteration of Microsoft’s exclusive racing series for the Xbox 360 shows that the stakes are high in the racing genre, which generates $2.5 billion in sales a year worldwide, according to market researcher EEDAR. And in this multibillion-dollar battle, Forza represents the pinnacle of Microsoft’s bid to wrest control of the market from Sony’s Gran Turismo series.

The Top Gear connection is not limited to the introduction; the production style throughout is very characteristic of the TV show and this is especially true in the non-racing section known as ‘Autovista,’ a viewing-only mode which is like having a visual encyclopedia within the game.

This mode is like having a digital version of Top Gear in your console. Of course, the content is narrated by Clarkson in his usual dry and witty style. It provides a nice break when not racing.

All about the racing

But racing is what this game is about. The game, which takes about 45 seconds to load, is a lot of fun. You’ll see that it flows well, looks good, sounds good, and it’s one of the few racing games where you get a real feel of speed.

I am no hardcore racer and I had a ton of fun playing. It is very accessible whether this is your first time with a racing game or you are a seasoned vet. Playing in career mode, you begin with a world tour in a “group F” amateur league with cars such as the Toyota Aygo and the Chevy Aero; probably not your dream vision of motor racing, but you have to start somewhere.

The game lets you progress quickly as being stuck for an eternity in a rather boring sub-compact car would be awful; in no time you'll be unlocking features, winning races and moving up through the ranks. Every time you increase your standing, you are rewarded with a new car. Existing cars can be upgraded with credits earned while racing, and you can pretty much take any car to a ‘group A’ performance. Even with all the upgrading, it takes time and effort to get a bona fide super car.

If you have the previous version of the game, the game data will be automatically detected and you'll get a whole bevy of  cars. If you don't have the previous game, all is not lost if you just want to drive fast. Outside of career mode, you can engage in ‘free play,’ which provides arcade-type play and lets you drive any car in any scenario, whether on an empty track, in a quick race, or in a head-to-head split screen race with a friend. All the free play modes are great if you just want to waste 15 minutes.

Driving against the AIs

Difficulty can be set from 'Easy' to ‘Expert.’ In Easy mode you get easy artificial intelligence (AI) opponents and a car featuring an automatic transmission, stability control, traction control and assisted steering and braking. In expert mode you’ll be up against professional AI opponents and a car with physically simulated steering and a manual transmission with a clutch.

The AI drivers behave realistically for the selected difficulty, and overall the AIs provide a good race. In the more advanced modes, the AI cars are difficult to get past as they hold a good line at high speed and you either have to wait for them to mess up or break from the ideal line and power past them — assuming you have the car to do so.

Turn 10 recommends using a physical steering wheel and pedals while in expert mode, and I would have to agree. But in the non-expert modes, using the standard controller is intuitive and comfortable. The physics in the game feel good but are obviously being messed with, in a good way, to make the easier settings feel more like a game and less like a simulation.


In Expert mode, it very much feels like a simulation. The game does support Microsoft’s Kinect motion-control system, but I couldn’t get into it. It really feels gimmicky, like it was implemented for a checkpoint on the box. You play with a virtual steering wheel holding your arms out in front of you. Doing so is frustrating and tiring. Another frustrating Kinect feature is the head-tracking. As you turn your head, the camera pans to the direction you are facing. Moving your head around in a real car works but when you do that while playing a game you are no longer looking directly at the TV. You are limited to a single lap when playing, and for this your arms will the thankful. In a social or party setting, where it’s less about actually playing the game and more about entertaining your friends, you can get some laughs using Kinect.

You can choose from hundreds of cars from at least 80 manufacturers. The selection gets bigger online as additional vehicles can be downloaded from the marketplace. I was impressed to see classics from all over the world: vintage cars, muscle cars. The European rally and track cars are all represented and can be raced against each other. The cars from the United Kingdom are right-hand drive, which is a nice touch.

These cars do take damage — you can scratch them up and roll them over. But they'll remain mostly recognizable and you don't get the crazy destruction that other games provide. From a graphical point of view, the damage is simple but effective and comprises of decal textures for scratches and small modifications to the 3D model for more serious damage.

A number of new tracks are provided in version 4, including the infamous Top Gear test track and a few real world circuits: Hockenheimring (Baden-Württemberg, Germany), Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Indianapolis, Indiana), and Infineon Raceway (Sonoma, California).

The audio is realistic, the engines sound great with surround enabled. The music is good but it’s all electronic and adds to the atmosphere when racing, although its more or less drowned out by the engine noise. Effects from the environment on the audio are there but are very subtle; when you drive into a tunnel, not much changes. I would have liked the reverberation and echo to be a bit more pronounced.

Into the nuts and bolts of the graphics

Graphically the game is very good. The rendering of the Autovista and the car selection menus is stunning and the car models are fantastic.

While in the game, the car models are lower resolution but still great, and you won’t have any problem identifying the vehicles. The world consists of a 3D model in the middle of a photographic environment that makes the backdrop.

The backdrop works well, the outdoor lighting is very nice and you can can race at different times during the day with the lighting changing accordingly. Everything is properly shadowed. The HDR reflections, road glare and bloom are all very well done, and for once they are not annoying or distracting. The racing is smooth, with a solid 60 hertz (hz) frame rate (it gives you a new screen of imagery 60 times a second).

The mirror views update at 30 hz, but you would never notice. The frame rate stays at 60 hz for split screen, and there is minimal, if any, reduction in quality. So head-to-head competitions are just as fluid. The cars have reasonable reflections, but to get the best reflections you need to play with the hood camera when your own hood gets an awesome reflection of the world. This reflection is very cleverly derived from the rendered frame buffer (the graphics memory with a rendered image), so you get awesome detail without much additional render overhead.

The default camera is the first person cockpit camera, but it’s not a favorite of mine because the car takes up too much screen real estate. The car interiors are better than previous versions, but they are not pretty enough to consume so much screen space. I prefer either the third-person view of the chase camera or the first-person view of the hood camera.

The hood camera gives an incredible perception of speed. Fortunately, the type of camera can be changed on the fly and per player, so everybody can play in the mode that suits them. One thing to mention with the hood camera is it doesn’t do some cars any justice, especially those with decals on the hood. In the Aston Martin image below, the 007 decal texture on the hood is incredibly low resolution, considering it is so close to the camera (click the image to see it at full resolution).

It’s a shame that Turn 10 didn’t spot these little details. Overall, it provided a nice rendering system; the graphics are a lot better than version 3. Personally, I would have really liked some atmospheric effects more advanced than basic fog, which appears to be all you get. But if there was only one feature on my wish list, it would be some form of anti-aliasing (which smooths out jagged lines in computer graphics) to reduce the sparkles.

The anti-aliasing is one reason Gran Turismo 5 on the PS3 looks so much better. Yes, it’s more difficult to do anti-aliasing on the 360 than the PS3 or PC, but it would have made a huge difference, especially in Autovista. With only a single model, Turn 10 could afford the rendering overhead. Car games are prone to aliasing issues because cars have lots of hard edges with small gaps between body panels, which are very unforgiving. The track and environment for a racing game don’t help either, because of the high contrast markings from a low camera angle.

The game has all the usual replay modes, and the camera work with the replays is great; it tracks your car very nicely. Within the game, you can live rewind a few seconds at a time and continue again. That is great when you screw up, although it does kind of feel like cheating. While in replay mode, you can make a movie and, if you have an Xbox Live Gold account, upload and share it. There is a photo mode you can enter at any point from the pause menu, and after a brief load you get a free camera with which to compose your shot. This mode uses the high-resolution models along with higher quality rendering to make some pretty convincing images.

Shooting your own photos

Photos take just a few seconds to generate and are all rendered with the graphics processing unit (GPU). Forza’s photos are not quite as photo realistic as the path-traced images you get from GT5′s photo mode, but they are a lot more convenient and much quicker. You can save photos and share them on social sites. Another social side to the game is the messages you receive from Turn 10 encouraging you do to things for prizes, such as "Take your favorite car to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and send us your best photo!"

One of the Autovista unlockable items is Halo's Warthog vehicle. Unfortunately, it is only in Autovista, not in the main game, and it can’t be raced. There is a giant game of bowling on the Top Gear test track, multiplayer car soccer, games of tag and various other silly games that have been featured on Top Gear at some point.

For multiplayer, which supports 16 drivers in a race, you start in a typical lobby, which is very similar to the previous game’s. So if you are familiar with version 3, you’ll be right at home. You have to download an update from Xbox Live before you can play, but it’s small and installs promptly.

You can quickly get into a multiplayer game by using the Quick Match feature. But if you are more picky about your racing partners, you can use the search feature to select drivers for a particular track, skill set, car class etc. Clubs are new for version 4. This where a group of friends can own a collective garage and share cars and complete with other clubs.

A big oversight is that you can only join one club and moving between clubs doesn’t seem possible. Maybe Turn 10 has future plans for this, but at the moment you have to choose wisely. Rival mode is new too, and it’s awesome. In this mode, you get notifications when a friend has beat your lap time or did something you didn’t. You get the typical leaderboard showing the results, but you can download their lap as a ghost lap and compete against it. If you’re competitive, this mode will ensure you never put the controller down.

When it comes down to the pure fun of racing, Forza Motorsport 4 surpasses Gran Turismo 5, and other than a few small graphical issues, it’s just as pretty. I suspect there will be a fair amount of downloadable content in the coming weeks as the 2012 cars become available. Combine all this with the online community features and you have a game worthy of its price tag. I, for one, will be playing for a while.

Rating: 89 out of 100

Here is a few minutes of video around the fictitious Bernese Alps circuit, one of the new tracks for version 4.  Starting with the incredible rendering in the menus, progressing through a lap of the circuit and ending with the auto generated replay.  All the footage is captured in game.

Filed under: games

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Google+ is not a social network, but it’s not a graveyard, either

Posted: 03 Nov 2011 06:30 AM PDT

Pages: 1 2

Over the past couple of weeks, the Internet’s frothy enthusiasm over Google+ has dried into proclamations of its imminent death.

Social media experts and bloggers who were one month ago hailing the fledgling service as the second coming of Christ are now calling it a graveyard and a ghost town.

But from where Google executive Bradley Horowitz sits, in an office on the Google campus in Mountain View, the vista isn’t nearly so dire.

“I don’t blame the pundits,” he says, “they’re not privy to our long-term strategies.”

The comment may seem snide or passive-aggressive; it’s also true to some extent. To understand Google’s plans for Plus, Horowitz says, you need to listen less and watch more.

“Six months from now, it will become increasingly apparent what we’re doing with Google+,” he says with a measure of opacity. “It will be revealed less in what we say and more in the product launches we reveal week by week.”

Over the past couple of weeks, we have, in fact, been seeing Google+’s social features creep into other Google web products, including Reader and Blogger.

We were clued into the real scope of Google’s plans by Louis Gray, a relatively new employee of the company who is a product marketing manager for Google+. A few weeks ago, Gray gave us a glimpse at the long view: Plus isn’t a social network; it’s Google’s new way of getting you to use all its web products.

Now, Horowitz confirms that conception. As I explain to him the vision that Gray explained earlier to me, he says, “Directionally, the world you’re describing is the world we aspire to. And it will be much better than the current state for our users.”

What is Google+?

Too many pundits and tech bloggers have made the mistake of thinking of Google+ as a Facebook competitor, but it’s absolutely not — at least not as far as Google is concerned.

Of course, Google is still in the business of competing with Facebook for ad dollars. That boils down to compiling the best, most actionable data about consumers to sell to advertisers.

And if Plus catches on, Google stands a much better chance of accomplishing that goal, not by orchestrating a Great Migration of users from one social network to another, but by subtly linking all your Google-powered online activity and profiles so advertisers can see a more complete picture of you than Facebook could ever offer.

But that’s just the follow-the-money part of the story of how Google is banking on staying in the black. As far as what you, the average end user, are expected to do to use Google+, there’s a lot less effort involved than you might think.

After all, Google is a company renowned for the massive collective brainpower of its workforce, and no one in that workforce really expected a billion people, give or take, to switch their online lives and relationships to a new destination.

Rather, Google+ is simply a new way of accessing Google’s web search. And Gmail. And Google Maps.

In other words, Google+ is (or soon will be) part of all of those products, rather than a standalone social network of its own.

“We think of Google+ as a mode of usage of Google,” says Horowitz, “a way of lighting up your Google experience as opposed to a new product. It’s something that takes time to appreciate, even internally. It’s easy to think of Google+ as something other than just Google, and I think it’ll take more launches before the world catches up with this understanding.”

Until the world does catch up, however, Google has to find its own metrics for success. Users are complaining they don’t see enough activity in their circles, that too few people are coming to Plus to hang out and interact.

Then again, if you buy into the idea that Plus isn’t, pardon the pun, a hangout or destination per se, you can accept the idea that Google+ could still be a success without massive amounts of public sharing and user activity.

Google gets holistic

One part of Google+ that Horowitz says is essential at this point in Google’s lifecycle is the unification of account management and data.

Simply put, right now you have separate profiles and logins for Blogger, Reader, YouTube and Gmail. That will soon end, to be replaced with a single account and a single login.

The multiple logins are complicated and can be confusing, and the only real reason for the disparity is because Google has evolved over the past 10 years as a many-limbed beast without a head.

Since its inception, Horowitz says, the company has placed a premium on autonomy and innovation, which, as a younger company, gives it a distinct competitive advantage.

“We have browsers, phones, self-driving cars, TVs,” he says, by way of illustrating how Google has invented better mousetraps in a variety of industries. “In many ways, these products have grown up very autonomously and have veered off in different directions, and it’s clear that we can now rationalize them and make them coherent and accretive to each other.”

While he praises the company’s culture and the diversity of its product suite, Horowitz concludes, “Now, for the user’s sake, we need to make improvements across all these products. … We were making a lot of bets in a lot of places, now we’re harvesting the bets that have paid off and weeding out the others. There’s an art to that which is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a natural oscillation that is very user-focused.”

In the coming versions of the Internet as Google sees it, the company’s products are not disparate but holistic, and you, the average Joe or Jane, can comfortably and conveniently be a Google user with one account over multiple identities and multiple products.

“Right now, Google requires users to invest a lot of duplicative effort in all our products,” says Horowitz. For example, he tells me he’s getting married soon and will have to change his marital status across around nine different profiles for a lineup of products.

Instead, Google wants to let your profile and social graph move fluidly with you across your YouTube account, your blog, your email and wherever else you need that identity.

By contrast, Horowitz calls the current Google experience disconnected and haphazard.

“We think in providing this base level of infrastructure, it’s much less work,” says Horowitz. “Managing all these facets vanishes. The interfaces get very appealing and unified. You now have one coherent frame, and we can use these metaconcepts like circles to apply to how you share content across all that Google does.”

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Kaggle raises $11M to make data science competitive, and Silicon Valley bigwigs are impressed

Posted: 03 Nov 2011 12:04 AM PDT

“Spec work” is a term of derision in the creative industries, applied to work that’s done for free to win a prize or a contract. But for some, the model has worked so well that Kaggle is applying the model to science.

The company’s hope is that the competitive spirit can produce new data analysis algorithms as well as it does logos and website designs.

Promulgated by sites like 99designs, the idea behind speculative work is that there are hordes of hungry creatives just raring for a chance at a job. A potential client stages a competition to determine who gets the contract. The creatives compete, each creating work specifically for the client, most wasting hours of time in the process.

For the client, however, it’s a win: They don’t risk anything on an unknown, and the result is often reasonably acceptable.

Kaggle is a new company that is bringing this concept — getting smart people to do specific work free of charge — from the creative industries into the sciences. The startup just announced an $11 million round of institutional funding, quite a large amount considering this is the company’s first round.

The funding was led by two stellar Silicon Valley firms, Index Ventures and Khosla Ventures. In addition, the company scored Max Levchin, a cofounder of PayPal and a Silicon Valley power player, as its chairman.

Kaggle lets organizations such as companies and governments, which have big questions and mountains of relevant data, to post their data and problems to the site, then stage a competition to see who can extract meaning from the data using an algorithm or two.

Data scientists then compete for prize money in return for their intellectual work. These scientists include a network of thousands of PhDs from fields including computer science, statistics, maths and physics. These people come from more than 200 universities in 100 countries around the world.

The scientists who don’t win the contests walk away empty-handed.

But Jeremy Howard, Kaggle’s president and chief scientist, says that isn’t as disappointing as it might sound.

“Most players don't enter mainly for the cash prizes,” he wrote in an email to VentureBeat. “I competed very frequently on Kaggle prior to joining the company… and was never personally motivated by the money – and was never disappointed to not win. In fact, it was the competitions where I didn't win that I learnt the most, because I then got to read the winning papers and learnt about what those people found that I missed.”

Kaggle says it has the ability to surface a wider variety of viable solutions. More heads are better than fewer, after all. But the entire model of spec work is a tad exploitative for some people’s tastes, not to say disrespectful of the time and expertise of the parties involved.

On the other hand, Kaggle’s PR reps and clients say it delivers cheap data analysis.

In addition to public competitions, the startup also conducts invitation-only competitions with access to data requiring non-disclosure agreements. For those competitions, the prizes will work more like the rewards for the top-placing athletes in a golf tournament, said Howard, with runners-up also receiving smaller sums.

“We expect to run more than 10,000 private competitions per year in the future and expect many data scientists will earn their income from this,” he said. “We hope to see the world's best data scientists earning more than $25 million per year in this way.”

Vinod Khosla, the founder of Khosla Ventures, said this in a statement from Kaggle: "Kaggle's platform has the potential to change the way we tackle data analysis problems… This is a fundamental shift in how we've traditionally looked at the multi-billion dollar market for data analytics. Add competition among the best scientists, their egos on a leaderboard, and large challenging problems, and you’ve got the perfect mix for stellar innovation."

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Got Amazon Prime and a Kindle? Now you can borrow one book a month for free

Posted: 02 Nov 2011 09:25 PM PDT

Making its ecosystem just that much sweeter, Amazon today announced that Kindle owners subscribed to its premium Amazon Prime service will be able to borrow one e-book a month for free.

Dubbed the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, it will give Prime members access to a library of thousands of titles, including over 100 former New York Times Bestsellers.

The service, first rumored back in September, is yet another perk for Amazon Prime members, who for $79-a-year also receive free two-day shipping and unlimited video streaming. It’s also another feature that Amazon offers with the Kindle that other e-reader competitors, like Barnes & Nobles’ Nook, don’t have.

Amazon says there won’t be any due dates, although you will only be able to borrow one book at a time. Titles available include Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” trilogy, “Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain, and Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball.”

Amazon says that the publishing deals for titles in the Lending Library differ from publisher to publisher:

For the vast majority of titles, Amazon has reached agreement with publishers to include titles for a fixed fee. In some cases, Amazon is purchasing a title each time it is borrowed by a reader under standard wholesale terms as a no-risk trial to demonstrate to publishers the incremental growth and revenue opportunity that this new service presents.

Given how much publishers have fought with Amazon over issues like pricing, I’m sure they’re being very cautious about how they’re approaching the Lending Library. If it proves successful, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if Amazon eventually raises its borrowing limits.

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From Android app to big business? ShopSavvy raises $7M for mobile shopping service

Posted: 02 Nov 2011 09:01 PM PDT

ShopSavvy, a barcode scanning startup with applications for the iPhone and Android devices, is making the mobile shopping experience more social and ramping up hiring, thanks to $7 million in fresh funding.

Led by Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, this is ShopSavvy’s first formal round of funding, despite having first launched its Android application more than three years ago.

ShopSavvy has somewhat accidentally blossomed into a viable business. “I don’t think we realized what we had,” said ShopSavvy co-founder Alexander Muse said in an interview with VentureBeat of the company’s early days. Today, however, ShopSavvy has more than 10 million users who use the application to scan product barcodes, comparison shop and build wish lists.

With a large user base and new funding to support growth, ShopSavvy’s next priority is to build better ways for users to engage with the products they scan, as well as foster a more social experience that taps the shopper’s Facebook and Twitter social graphs for product recommendations, said Muse.

“We think shopping is changing,” Muse said of the intersection between mobile and social shopping. “We’re going to be able to show you how to engage with this new world that’s coming about.”

The average ShopSavvy user now scans nine products per month. But the company plans to maneuver down the grocery aisle and push users to scan grocery items. Muse predicts that the average monthly scan volume will jump to between 21 and 30 scans when that happens.

Bumping up the scan-per-user count is essential to ShopSavvy’s bottom line. “We have a business model driven by scans,” Muse said. “We know what store you’re in and what you’re going to buy, and we can deliver an ad based on that.”

Because of this localized and contextualized data, ShopSavvy’s average CPM is north of $400, Muse said.

With the new financing round, ShopSavvy is also expanding its board of directors to include Eduardo Saverin, James Bailey and ShopSavvy COO John Boyd.

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Prosper takes on Wall Street, hopes to rewire banking

Posted: 02 Nov 2011 07:13 PM PDT

Peer-to-peer lending startup Prosper makes no secret of its support for the Occupy Wall Street movement, which seeks to break the hold of banks on the American political process. Prosper wants to do a similar thing, by creating a sort of bank that is owned by and run for the people.

Based near the OWS encampment in San Francisco’s Justin Herman Plaza, Prosper is using crowdfunding site Indie Gogo to host its 99 Sandwiches campaign, raising money to donate 99 sandwiches per day to feed the protesters.

But Prosper’s own platform has the power to do more than donate sandwiches. It could shake up the banking industry at large, if its model catches on.

“Everybody knows that banking is broken, the system is broken,” Prosper co-founder and chief executive officer Chris Larsen told VentureBeat at Crowdconf, a crowdsourcing conference in San Francisco, today. “There’s no reason with the technology we have today, all this great stuff, that you couldn’t completely rewire banking in five years.”

That’s a bold claim.

Prosper makes it possible for individuals to lend out money and earn interest  on the money they lend, which has been the sole province of banks. But the reason this was not possible before wasn’t lack of technology, but because of regulations meant to protect banks.

If successful, Larsen thinks that the future of the banking industry could be Silicon Valley, not Wall Street.

“You need banking, but you don’t need banks,” said Larsen.

In order to launch his company, Larsen invested $10 million and spent five years fighting through a bramble of regulations meant to protect banks and stifle innovation. As evidence of the banking industry’s hold over the political system, Larsen pointed out that there are 61 members of the House Committee on Financial Services, the legislative entity that governs banking and finance. He said that there are perhaps two startups that exist today that are able to charge interest on peer-to-peer transactions, out of as many as 100 that were started around the same time as Prosper.

In a recent blog post, “Why Hasn’t a Facebook of Banking Emerged,” Larsen implored anti-Wall Street protesters to use new technologies to support the movement, and support innovation.

…[W]hile it's important to keep up the demands for change, we also need you to start using these new technologies and spreading the word when you find one that excites you. Use a crowdfunding site to support a project, make a $25 bid on a peer-to-peer lending site. Start-ups are, well, start-ups, and every show of community support could make the difference between obscurity and escape velocity. Vote with your wallet.

This last point is an important one.

Larsen does, however, think there’s a role for banks in preventing their own demise, and he encourages them to make their infrastructure available to startups, as a platform for innovation.

“[Y]ou don't have to just stand by and get pummeled….Even if these start-ups are tiny now and even if their stated mission is to destroy your franchise, partner with them. Technology is not going away, it's accelerating with or without you. It's time to stop cutting your R&D budgets and start embracing new, big ideas.

While Chase bank may have an iPhone app that allows customers to make deposits to their accounts by taking photos of checks, Larsen says this type of solution is “bolting on little pieces to a system that isn’t serving people well.”

Prosper has funded more than $271 million in person-to-person loans to date. As a startup, it has received $74.5 in investment from Jim Breyer of Accel Partners; Tim Draper of Draper Fisher Jurvetson; Jerome Contro of Crosslink Capital, CompuCredit; Omidyar Network; Capital One Co-founder Nigel Morris of QED Investors; Court Coursey of TomorrowVentures and Larry Cheng of Volition Capital.

Larsen’s last company was eLoan, which he co-founded in 1998, and eventually took public.

Prosper is going to need luck, time and a lot of support if its going to have a chance of taking on the multi-trillion-dollar financial industry, which accounts for 7 to 8 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product, twice as large a proportion as it commanded in the 1960s. Chances are slim that executives at banking giants like Citibank or Bank of America are worried much about Prosper, if they have even heard of it.

Such long odds don’t daunt Larsen, who has passion to push him forward.

“We’re in a crisis here. We have a yield-starved world, and we have a credit-starved world, which is kind of funky. That means banking is truly not working.”

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Apple says iOS 5 bugs are causing iPhone 4S to suck battery power like a hungry vampire

Posted: 02 Nov 2011 06:16 PM PDT

hungry vampireRemember those phantom battery draining issues that some iPhone 4S owners have been reporting? Apple has finally determined a cause for the problem.

The company confirmed today that the unusually short battery life is due to bugs in Apple’s iOS 5 mobile operating system software, and not due to defective hardware.

"A small number of customers have reported lower than expected battery life on iOS 5 devices," an Apple spokesperson told VentureBeat. "We have found a few bugs that are affecting battery life and we will release a software update to address those in a few weeks."

While Apple declined to comment beyond the statement above, some iPhone 4S owners are reporting that the battery draining is caused by corrupted contact data imported from Mobile Me, iCloud or Google. Others have reported that clearing the contacts data and re-uploading it has fixed the battery drain problem.

As we mentioned in a previous report, the 4S already has an unimpressive standby battery time (the total amount of time the device can stay powered when inactive) of 200 hours. That's 100 hours less standby time than the iPhone 4, and 50 less than the first generation iPhone.

Hopefully, Apple will release the iOS 5 update soon so those experiencing the problem don’t have to plan their day around finding electrical sockets to communicate.

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Game maker RockYou to cut staff by 40% just weeks after launching two new games

Posted: 02 Nov 2011 05:59 PM PDT

Game-maker RockYou is set to announce major layoffs tomorrow just weeks after launching two new games, Galactic Allies and Hooked, VentureBeat has learned. Redwood City, CA.-based, RockYou makes games for social platforms like Facebook, and is responsible for popular titles such as the Zoo World franchise.  As many as 55 employees will lose their jobs, according to a leaked copy of an internal document we have seen.

The news, to be announced on Nov. 3, is meant to bring the company’s overall size down to 87, and weed out those  ”‘those that really arent "all in,”‘ according to the memo. The document appears legitimate, although RockYou did not return multiple calls to comment, so we were unable to verify its authenticity. According to the document:

[G]oing forward we will need to be much more focused and lean in order to ensure we keep hitting these success milestones. Unfortunately, that means that over then next week or so the management team will need to make some very tough decisions that will result in an overall reduction of our workforce.

RockYou, which bought up rival game makers Playdemic and Tirnua previously announced  a round of layoffs in October of 2010, and the company’s CEO resigned in late 2010. In April 2011, the promoted Lisa Marino to the position of CEO, after former CEO Lance Tokuda left the company in November of 2010. RockYou recently lost Jonathan Knight, the creator of Zoo World, to San Francisco-based Zynga, which is gearing up for an initial public offering.

The confidential draft document shows that roles the company eliminates in order to “focus on the long term vision” will not be back-filled, unless business circumstances change. The company plans to “stay lean,” according to the documents, but will move to replace employees who may quit after the announcement, though no effort will be made to re-hire former employees.

RockYou was founded in 2005 and has received more than $129 million from investors Sequoia Capital, Partech International, Lightspeed Venture Partners, DCM and Softbank. Partech is also an investor in VentureBeat.

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Klout lets you delete the profile you didn’t create — Huh?

Posted: 02 Nov 2011 04:49 PM PDT

Klout observerKlout, the startup best known for its ability to measure a person's online influence, is allowing people to remove Klout profiles that they didn’t actually create.

Last week, Klout altered the way it determines a person’s “Klout Score” — the measure of a person's activity on a variety of social networks such as Twitter, Facebook LinkedIn Google+ and others. Based on an individual's interaction within those social networks, Klout calculates the true reach of that person's communications and issues them a 1 to 100 Klout score.

The new way of measuring factored in profiles from people who haven’t even signed up for Klout. Those accounts, which don’t require an actual person to opt in, are dubbed “observers”. For instance, a second Twitter account that you occasionally use and/or a public Facebook profile that isn’t connected to a Klout account will pop up in Klout as an observer profile.

Much in the same way that people have criticized services like Pipl and Spokeo, some Klout users reacted negatively to the observer profiles. One user, Tonia Ries, questioned the ethics of the startup’s actions after finding an observer profile for her young son.

“When I logged into my Klout page this morning, I was very surprised to see that Klout now lists my son as one of the people I influence. Anyone who is a parent of a young adult will know that nothing is more unlikely,” Ries wrote in an article for The Realtime Report. “Knowing that my son is not on Twitter, and has always been very careful about managing his privacy on the Internet, [I wondered] how did Klout get the information to create a profile on my son?”

Because of concerns like this (as well as Klout’s policy of not allowing anyone under the age of 13 to use the service), the company has decided to provide a way for anyone to delete their observer profile information. Anyone who wishes to do so can visit Klout’s Opt Out page, which requires you to enter in Twitter or Facebook credentials to verify that the account you’d like to delete is actually yours. “Note that we request only the bare minimum information provided by Twitter or Facebook for authentication. We will not store any of the data, and will never share your information publicly,” Klout states.

The decision to allow people to delete their profile info is definitely the right move for Klout — especially since it uses personal information in its business dealings. However, I suspect that many people will still react negatively, since it does require you to opt-out of the service.

And despite the potential backlash, the practice of adding observer profiles to Klout only enhances its ability to accurately measure a person’s true influence online. I’m sure the company weighed these two factors before deciding to go forward.

“Ultimately, we’re only using publicly available information about people that plenty of other sites are already taking advantage of,” Klout CEO Joe Fernandez told VentureBeat. He added that anyone who is fearful of personal information gathered on a Klout observer profile should re-examine the privacy setting on Facebook and Twitter. “The only information that shows up on a (observer) profile is stuff that those users have decided to allow the world to see.”

Founded in August 2008, the San Francisco-based company previously raised an initial $1.5 million round, followed by a second $8.5 million round in January 2011. The company has a total of $11 million in funding to date from Kleiner, Greycroft Partners, ff Asset Management and others. Klout is rumored to be raising a new $30 million fund that would value the startup at an estimated $200 million.

[via LockerGnome]

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VentureBeat welcomes our newest writer, Jennifer Van Grove

Posted: 02 Nov 2011 04:39 PM PDT

VentureBeat is very happy to welcome the newest member of our reporting staff: Jennifer Van Grove.

Jennifer is a talented reporter with years of experience covering the tech industry. What convinced us that we wanted her on our team was her dedication to getting the inside stories that other publications weren’t, whether that was about Apple officially blessing Twitter, the relaunch of heavily-funded startup Color, or the bumpy relationship between Apple and Facebook.

That kind of dedication to getting the story — and getting it right — is one of VentureBeat’s core values, so we think Jennifer will be a great addition to our crew.

She joins us from Mashable, where had been since 2009. Jennifer was also NBC San Diego’s tech correspondent from 2009 to 2010. She has played a prominent role in her city’s tech scene, helping start the San Diego tech tweetup, and she’ll continue to be based there. We expect we’ll be seeing a lot of her around Silicon Valley too, though.

She’s a vegan and loves running, and has a B.A. in English from UCLA. Her Twitter handle is a tribute to her alma mater: she’s @jbruin. And she already knows all about the vegan donut place in the Ferry Building here in San Francisco, so we’re pretty sure she’ll fit right in.

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How the tech industry can remedy its race problem

Posted: 02 Nov 2011 03:25 PM PDT

Box of golf balls, mostly white ones

The U.S. tech industry has a race problem.

Anyone who’s worked in Silicon Valley for any length of time will have noticed the alarmingly large number of white guys occupying positions of power. There are good-sized groups of Asian entrepreneurs among the entrepreneurial and venture capital classes. But there are not many women and there are almost no black or Hispanic entrepreneurs or VCs.

Despite the incredible diversity of the Bay Area, the people at the top of the Silicon Valley power pyramid have a depressing sameness. An upcoming CNN documentary called Black in America looks at the issue by following a group of black entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. Thanks to early previews, the show is already making waves, and it hasn’t even aired yet. Check out Soledad O’Brien’s update on the controversy, which is as good a place to catch up as any. (If you want to watch the show, VentureBeat’s Chikodi Chima will be moderating a discussion at an upcoming screening of Black in America, while the show will be broadcast on November 13.)

The same is true of the tech industry elsewhere in the U.S. According to the Level Playing Field Institute, women hold just 20 percent of the computer software engineering and programming jobs nationwide. Meanwhile, African-Americans have just 7 percent, and Latinos only 5 percent of those jobs. The reasons for that are varied and often misunderstood.

But there is something we can do about it.

If you’re black, Hispanic or female, you’re going to need an extra dose of moxie, persistence and determination to make it in tech. You will probably want to connect with others through business networks aimed at supporting people like you. Some people have taken more drastic measures, as Vivek Wadhwa did when he hired a white man to be the public face of his company. (Wadhwa also points at the importance of building your own networks.) These decisions will have to be up to you and whatever friends and allies you recruit to help you.

If you’re one of the white men in positions of power in tech, you have a responsibility too, and that’s what I’m going to focus on for the rest of this column — because that’s what I know about. As a white guy who has worked in Silicon Valley for almost two decades, I have tried to live up to this responsibility for personal as well as ethical reasons.

Here are my tips for white guys on how to fight racism and sexism.

First, educate yourself. Compared to people who have experienced prejudice, you don’t know squat about racism or sexism. So read. Watch movies. But most of all, talk to people. Find people who are trained in anti-racist education and invite them to educate you and your staff.

In my case, I have spent many, many hours in anti-racism seminars, educational programs about race and culture, and dinner table discussions with my family, extended family and friends. It’s a topic that is never far from my mind. That doesn’t make me an expert, but it has given me some understanding of the issues, and I hope it’s made me a more effective advocate for diversity.

photo of different people's handsSecond, make an effort to connect with people who are different from you. Make friends with a variety of people. Extend your social circle.

And really make friends. Early in my education, a friend once told me, that the diversity of your circle of friends is best measured by who comes to dinner at your house. You may work with people who aren’t like you, but if you’re not having them over to dinner, you’re not really getting to know them.

My kids go to a school where there are people from diverse racial and economic backgrounds, my neighborhood is all over the map economically and racially, and I live in one of the most diverse areas in the country. It’s only when I start talking to PR people and Silicon Valley executives that the diversity level drops. But it’s taken me a decade of conscious decisions to get to this point.

Third, when you’re recruiting, widen the circle of candidates. Make decisions about who to hire (or invest in) based on merit. But make sure the pool is diverse, so you can at least make fair choices.

I try to follow this principle whenever I hire people. I’ve reach out to professional associations like the National Association of Black Journalists. Groups like the Black Founders of Silicon Valley or Women in Technology International can be helpful. I ask people I know to recommend talented women they know. I ask for help from my existing networks wherever I can get it.

Once I get that pool of candidates, I evaluate everyone based on their merits. I’ve never given a job to anyone because I wanted to increase the diversity of my team. But I have gone to lengths to make sure that the pool of candidates is diverse.

This is, I think, the most important thing that white people in positions of power can do.

There’s a real benefit to this diversity, too, beyond some abstract notion of fairness. A diverse workforce is going to better at producing products that appeal to a broad range of customers.

And diversity breeds creativity. People who come from different backgrounds are more likely to have different approaches to problems, or different ideas. Bring them together and, yes, there can be conflict and misunderstandings. But out of that conflict can often come much better ideas than you’d get from a roomful of people who have the same backgrounds.

Finally, be willing to talk about race. Realize that you are going to sound like a clueless idiot much of the time. But also know that for people of color, race and racism are constant topics of discussion. Race is an incredible taboo only for white, middle-class people. We are often embarrassed to talk about it, or even to acknowledge it. But until we do, we can’t really learn. And yes, I am sure it sucks when someone holds you up as an example of white-guy cluelessness.

But when you refuse to talk about racism and race, whether from fear of embarrassment or out of ignorance, you can’t learn. If you pretend that it’s just a meritocracy, or that the problem is too mysterious to be addressed, or that you yourself are not racist, you can’t learn.

More importantly, you can’t do anything good about it.

I don’t expect that most white men in power will follow these steps. It’s too uncomfortable and too difficult to do. But I can say that it’s something very much worth doing. The benefits are real, not just for yourself but also for your company and the tech industry as a whole.

An earlier version of this essay appeared on my personal website.

Top photo: Keo Akana/Flickr. Lower photo: Yuri Arcurs/Shutterstock.

NOTE: Subscribe to my newsletter and you can read these columns a whole day before they appear on our website.

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Angie’s List hopes to raise up to $130M in initial public offering

Posted: 02 Nov 2011 02:02 PM PDT

Angie’s List, a niche site helping people find and review plumbers, building contractors, doctors and other service professionals, plans to raise up to $130 million in its upcoming public offering, which could value the company at more than $720 million.

The IPO has been planned since late August. In updated SEC documents filed today, the company indicated that it plans to offer about 10 million shares at up to $13 apiece. After the offering, 49 million shares will be outstanding, which would put the company’s value at $641 million. No date has been set for the IPO.

The company lost $8 million on revenue of $61 million in 2010. It has about $1 million in the bank.

Angie’s List was founded in 1995 by Angie Hicks (referred to as Angela Hicks Bowman in SEC documents) who initially collected reviews by going door-to-door in her hometown of Columbus, Ohio, according to the company’s official bio. She left the company in 1998 to get an MBA at Harvard Business School, according to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and later returned at the company’s chief marketing officer.

Hicks holds 1.8 percent of the company that bears her name, while chief executive William Oesterle holds 7.5 percent.

Chief backers include TRI Investments, Battery Ventures, BV Capital, and T. Rowe Price.

Filed under: deals, VentureBeat

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RIM’s BBM Music app finally goes live, emphasizes song sharing

Posted: 02 Nov 2011 01:51 PM PDT

RIM-BBM-MusicResearch in Motion has finally launched its BBM Music app out of beta, giving its BlackBerry users a social way to listen to music on their devices, the company announced Wednesday.

RIM first showed-off its new BBM Music app back in late August, but it is just now rolling out to all users. The service costs $5 a month and works differently than other music services.

Each paid user of BBM Music can pick 50 songs to post to their BlackBerry Messenger profile, and anyone who is friends with that user can then listen to the posted songs. So, the more friends you have on BBM Music, the more music you can listen to. Users are allowed to swap out 25 of the posted tracks each month.

The company officially describes the service as such:

BBM Music is a BBM-connected social music service that allows BBM and BlackBerry smartphone users to discover, play and grow their music collections together. In other words, BBM Music helps you connect with your friends around music on a whole new level.

The introduction of BBM Music isn’t particularly groundbreaking, but RIM is exploring new ways to connect with (and hopefully retain) owners of its smartphones. RIM faces stiff competition from Apple’s iPhone 4S and various Samsung and Motorola Android phones, and has gone through a rough patch the past few months. Not only did the company experience a disastrous worldwide outage recently, but its BlackBerry PlayBook tablet had a considerable OS update pushed back to February.

Personally, I think the BBM Music service is going to be a considerable flop because there are already better options for on-demand music streaming for BlackBerry devices. Spotify debuted its BlackBerry app just a few weeks ago, and Rdio and Rhapsody have high-quality apps that provide a better music-focused experience. Most importantly, they don’t limit you to just 50 tracks.

Watch the offical BBM Music intro video below for more details:

Filed under: media, mobile

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Yahoo reinvents TV-tagging app IntoNow, releases it on the iPad

Posted: 02 Nov 2011 12:56 PM PDT

Television-tagging application IntoNow has launched for the iPad, and it now matches tagged content to real-time news and updates, parent company Yahoo announced today at a press event in Sunnyvale.

IntoNow is the iPhone and Android application that uses patented technology to listen to and identify millions of television and movie titles, in a similar fashion to how Shazam identifies music. The technology originated at Auditude, but the app was spun out as its own entity. Yahoo acquired IntoNow in April 2011, just 12 weeks after the then nascent startup launched its iPhone app in the App Store.

Available for free on the App Store, IntoNow for iPad is designed to engage the multitasking television viewer. It tags live and time-shifted broadcast television content, highlights related content, and recommends television shows and movies based on your tagging behaviors and preferences.

The app’s most compelling feature, however, is its ability to discover and feature real-time content — in the form of tweets, news headlines or play-by-play sports updates — related to what the user is watching.

IntoNow for iPad, explained product manager Adam Cahan in a demonstration of the application, is taking closed captioning data and analyzing it using Yahoo Core technology, the company’s personalization and optimization engine. It then works to understand show content and context, matches that information against current news items, and surfaces results in the right-hand sidebar of the application.

Cahan referred to the process as ambient-style computing, and said that IntoNow will focus on this technology to better answer the question of “what’s next?” in the second-screen entertainment environment.

IntoNow had close to 600,000 users and was averaging 25,000 to 35,000 tags per day prior to being acquired by Yahoo. Cahan disclosed that, to date, IntoNow has been downloaded more than 1.6 million times on Android phones and iOS devices.

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Square’s updated Card Case app gets you a step closer to ditching your wallet

Posted: 02 Nov 2011 12:36 PM PDT


Mobile payments startup Square launched its Card Case app in mid-August with the promise of disrupting mobile payments even further by giving customers of Square retailers more info and control. Now, with today’s updated Card Case app, you can even pay Square merchants hands-free.

Square’s mobile payments service has seen incredibly huge growth since its debut in late 2009. The company is signing up between 30,000 and 50,000 new merchants each month and we just heard the company is aiming to go more mainstream by selling its credit card readers at Wal-Mart. Plus, the company raised $100 million back in June on a $1 billion valuation.

The new Card Case app for iOS could help make Square even bigger. The app for iOS integrates geofencing through Apple’s iOS 5 operating system to enable hands-free payments. After you enable the feature in the app’s settings, the phone will ping retailers you like that are within 100 meters of your location. Then you can go to store, stand or food truck and say your name at check out to pay rather than pull out a wallet.

The idea of removing your wallet from the essential items you carry around has really taken off in the past year. We’ve seen Google Wallet’s mobile payments service emerge, and many NFC-enabled smartphones are beginning to crop up. Now Card Case can add to this ecosystem to let you visit Square retailers you frequent without touching your wallet.

On top of this, the Card Case app now lets you know about Square merchants that are in your area using a public directory of merchants. So far more than 20,000 merchants have signed up to be in the directory and more are sure to follow.

A full video showing the new Card Case app in action can be viewed below:

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Hands-on with the Kobo Vox e-reader (video)

Posted: 02 Nov 2011 12:24 PM PDT

The Kobo Vox e-reader went on sale Friday, and we were lucky enough to get our hands on one at the VentureBeat offices. While the word “e-reader” often evokes images of the iPad or the Kindle Fire, (there are some other, less popular Android tablets out there, too), Kobo general manager, Matthew Welch, says that the Kobo is “For readers, of readers, and about readers.”

This last fact bears repeating: The Kobo Vox is a reader. “Amazon and Apple can fight the tablet wars,” says Welch.

The Android-powered device does a lot of other things, but it’s a product with books, and the needs of readers, in mind. It comes pre-loaded with 1 million free books, allows viewers to choose from different fonts, and boasts a screen that is highly readable, even in direct sunlight.

Kobo is a global e-book retailer that has distribution partnerships with some of the top brick-and-mortar booksellers across the world, such as W.H. Smith in the UK, and Fnac in France. Kobo books are available in a wide variety of languages, and can be accessed across devices. The Kobo Vox is on sale for $199, which is cost competitive with the new Kindle Fire, and less than half the price of the entry-level iPad. While Apple has iBooks, and Amazon provides access to its vast catalog of print content, and now streaming video with the Kindle Fire, neither offers anywhere near the number of free books as the Vox.

Kobo was launched in Dec. 2009, and has received $66 million in funding from Indigo Books and others. The first Kobo reader was released in July of 2010.

We’ve done head-to-head reviews of the Kobo, iPad and Kindle, and you can see the Kobo Vox in action in the video above.

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Meet our first batch of CloudBeat 2011 speakers: Aaron Levie, Lew Moorman and more

Posted: 02 Nov 2011 11:52 AM PDT


VentureBeat’s first annual CloudBeat conference is only a month away. Hosted on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 at the Hotel Sofitel in Redwood City, we will be exploring many cases of real and revolutionary enterprise adoption of cloud services. We’ll be cutting though the hype of the “cloud” and see how it’s changing the way business is being done from a customer perspective rather than a vendor-focused one.

We'll identify the most disruptive cases in each of three layers of the cloud: 1) web applications, or SaaS, 2) middleware, or PaaS and 3) back-end infrastructure, or IaaS. And these cases will highlight core components of the cloud revolution, like security, collaboration, analytics, mobile usage, increased productivity and integration.

On top of exploring these pressing topics, we will also be hosting an Innovation Showdown where 10 finalists will be able to showcase their products or services to a full, captive audience.

Tickets are selling incredibly fast for the conference, but we want to extend a special offer to those who actively read VentureBeat. If you decide to get tickets today (and you should), you can get a 15% discount with the following code: “CBVIP“.

To get an even better expectation of what’s the come later this month, here’s a look at our first list of incredible speakers:

Aaron LevieAaron Levie is the CEO and co-founder of Box.net, which he originally created as a college business project with the goal of helping people easily access their information from any location. Box was launched from Aaron's dorm room in 2005 with the help of CFO Dylan Smith. He is the visionary behind Box's product and platform strategy, which is focused on incorporating the best of traditional content management with the most effective elements of social business software.

Byron Sebastian leads the global Platforms teams and organizations at salesforce.com. Sebastian also runs Cloud Platform as a Service (PaaS) innovator Heroku, as its general manager. San Francisco-based Heroku offers an industry-leading rock-solid cloud application platform supporting a variety of developer-friendly runtimes. Heroku was acquired by Salesforce.com in December 2010. Prior to joining Salesforce.com, Sebastian was GM of BEA's Web Services, WebLogic Platform from 2001 to 2003 and vice president of product management of Crossgain, a software development company and pioneer in developing tools and applications to enable customers to build web services.

John DillonJohn Dillion is CEO of Engine Yard. He has over 20 years of experience in executive leadership positions and has delivered several successful exits as CEO of well-known technology companies including Salesforce.com and Hyperion as well as Navis, the leading provider of shipping logistics software. Prior to his CEO roles, John held sales management positions at Oracle and Arbor Software and was a systems engineer at EDS (Electronic Data Systems).

Lew Moorman is President and Chief Strategy Officer at Rackspace. Moorman is instrumental in driving strategic planning, product development and new business initiatives for Rackspace. He joined the company in April of 2000 and has served a variety of strategy and marketing roles throughout the company's growth. Before joining Rackspace, Moorman held several positions at the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, advising high technology clients on critical strategic issues. As Rackspace Hosting's Chief Strategy Officer, Moorman drives strategic planning, product development and new business initiatives across the company. He also serves as President of Rackspace's Cloud business, leading the company's fastest growing business unit. He speaks frequently at industry events on cloud computing, hosting and the rapidly evolving world of IT.

Michael CrandellMichael Crandell is the CEO and a founder of RightScale, where he provides the vision and direction for the company as it pioneers innovative ways to bring the power of cloud computing to any organization. Crandell is a frequent speaker at cloud computing industry conferences, and he has played a major role in helping establish and promote openness and transparency in the cloud market. Prior to RightScale, he served as CEO at several Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) companies and as executive vice president at eFax.com.

Randy Bias is co-founder and CTO of Cloudscaling. His provocative views on the profound disruption caused by cloud computing have made him one of the most influential voices in the industry. He uses this influence to advocate an open and honest debate about which technologies will win in driving cloud to large-scale adoption. Since 1990, Randy has driven innovations in infrastructure, IT, operations, and 24/7 service delivery.

Solomon HykesSolomon Hykes is co-founder and CEO of dotCloud. As co-founder, Solomon is the visionary behind the company's mission to deliver the power of cloud computing to all developers. As CEO, Solomon drives dotCloud's day-to-day operations as well as leads the company's product strategy. Solomon sets the pace and drives a corporate culture of action, transparency, synchronization, accountability, and opportunity. Since launching the company in 2010, he has focused on building a team comprised of the brightest engineers from a range of backgrounds across the globe. Solomon has his roots in cloud computing and has worked in large-scale distributed Internet services for most of his professional career.

We want to thank the industry leaders that are supporting CloudBeat 2011: Sequoia Capital and Scality as Gold Sponsors, Cloudsoft, New Relic, and Trinity Ventures as Silver Sponsors, and Norwest Venture Partners, Box.net, and Loggly as Event Sponsors.

CloudBeat 2011CloudBeat 2011 takes place November 30 – December 1 at Hotel Sofitel in Redwood City, CA. Unlike any other cloud events, we’ll be focusing on 12 case studies where we’ll dissect the most disruptive instances of enterprise adoption of the cloud. These case studies will highlight the core components of the cloud revolution: security, collaboration, analytics, mobile usage, increased productivity, and integration. Join over 500 executives for two days packed with actionable lessons and networking opportunities as we define the key processes and architectures that companies must put in place in order to survive and prosper. Register here. Tickets are limited!

Filed under: cloud, VentureBeat

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Yahoo launches Livestand, a “living magazine” for the iPad

Posted: 02 Nov 2011 11:42 AM PDT

Yahoo has launched Livestand, an iPad application and publishing platform that offers users a touch-based, personalized, news-reading experience.

The visually-driven app is designed to be interactive, rich media-centric, personal and social. It appears to be a hybrid social news reading application and digital newsstand — a cross between the Flipboard app and Apple’s Newsstand, if you will.

Livestand already features more than 100 different titles from third-party publishers, along with content from Yahoo’s News, Finance and Sports news channels. Yahoo is referring to Livestand as a personal digital newsstand and a living magazine.

Yahoo will face some stiff competition from a host of other magazine newsstands aimed at capitalizing on tablet customers’ increasing appetite for the printed word. Flipboard was the first of these, but it has been quickly followed by Zite (acquired by CNN for a reported $20 million in August, 2011), Editions by AOL, Amazon’s Kindle Fire newsstand, and more. Google previously tried to buy Flipboard, which was valued at more than $200 million in April, but the company remains independent. Meanwhile, Google is working on its own newsstand/reader app, called Propellor.

The Livestand experience is structured around the user’s content library, and includes a store where they can browse and subscribe to any of the publications featured in Yahoo’s content directory. Publications are spread across categories such as news and politics, arts and culture, technology and entertainment.

Yahoo first announced Livestand in February of this year. The application was released in the App Store in the U.S Wednesday, and will be rolled out to international markets in 2012.  The free app requires iOS 4.3 or later.

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Former Facebookers launch Asana, a “modern way to work together”

Posted: 02 Nov 2011 11:24 AM PDT

Dustin Moskovitz and Justin Rosenstein, two former Facebook engineers, have launched Asana, a tool for helping people work together on projects and get things done.

Moskovitz (pictured) worked on Facebook when it was still a side project running out of a dorm room. Rosenstein was one of the company’s engineering managers and was responsible for such recognizable features as Facebook’s Like button.

While both co-founders were employed at Facebook, they helped design the company’s internal collaborative task-tracker. But, as Rosenstein noted in a recent blog post, “In general, good tools for staying in sync just haven't been built and made available to the world.”

Asana, the new company the duo started working on in 2009, bills itself as “a modern way to work together.” The site launched today.

Asana uses a collection of tools to help teams collaborate on tasks, track their progress and communicate in real time about their work.

This brief demo video explains more about Asana’s specific tools and features:

“We began our private beta a year ago, and today thousands of people in hundreds of organizations are relying on Asana to organize their teams and their tasks, and to do some truly great things,” wrote Asana staffer Kenny Van Zant on the startup’s blog.

The service will be free for teams of up to 30 members and includes mobile applications for smartphones and tablets.

“Working together in concert more smoothly not only helps us move more quickly; it changes the nature of what we can undertake,” said Rosenstein. “When we have the confidence that we can orchestrate the group effort required to realize them, we dare bigger dreams.”

During 2009, the Asana team raised $10.2 million in two rounds of funding.

Filed under: VentureBeat

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“Safeguarding the planet” with a solar- and wind-powered oil tanker

Posted: 02 Nov 2011 11:21 AM PDT


Pay no attention to the 2 million barrels of fossilized dinosaurs inside this ship, en route to the cars that will incinerate them and spew them into the atmosphere.

Instead, look at the supertanker’s sails! And its solar panels!

That’s right, this is an oil tanker powered by the wind and the sun. Let that sink in for a minute.

Richard Sauter of Sauter Carbon Offset Design released his design for the “solar hybrid supertanker” today. If the ship is ever built, you can bet that some big oil company will be using it to tout its “green” credentials in short order.

a closeup of Deliverance shows the solar panels and sails stuck on top of the supertankerSauter’s certified carbon offset projects are aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from super yachts and ships. His design team, Sauter Carbon Offset Design creates ships reducing greenhouse gas emissions down 50-100 percent by using all the technology available.

“Not [using the technology available to us] is allowing boats over this same period of time to put up to 6 billion tons of GHG into the biosphere needlessly,” reads the Sauter Carbon Offset Design website.

As Sauter’s site reads, the International Maritime Organization, Richard Branson and green technology company Wartstila believe a 75 percent reduction in these emissions is a completely realistic goal and Sauter’s team agrees. They have already created a slew of boats and vehicles to that end, but the real gold was tackling the most ironic ship ever: the oil tanker.

The ship is a 330,000 dead weight tonnage (DWT) tanker holding up to 2 million barrels of crude oil and it runs on wind, sun and a sprinkling of its own liquid natural gas. She is considered Post Panamax, or designed for the newly installed large locks on the Panama canal.

Chipping away at the 75 percent starts with the new and improved hull by Mitsubishi. The hull is called a bubble hull and allows for less drag on the ship herself. This drag usually creates friction which must be powered through, and in order to do so, ships consumer more energy. Having this hull in tandem with the new hybrid engine reduces up to 35 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, well on our way to 75 percent.

The hybrid engine, a Wartsila's liquified natural gas (LNG) hybrid power system, uses both gas and solar power from the ship’s built-in SunPower Solbian solar panels. She is also outfitted with sails created by DynaWing, which when used in conjunction with the Warstila power system creates 20 megawatts of energy, enough to run the entire ship 10 megawatts below the usually required energy supply.

Another 20-30 percent of emissions are reduced with these sails and the last 15-20 percent are reduced using the solar panels.

The ship overall will cost 15 percent more than the regular price for a plain old, fully-polluting supertanker of the same capacity. There is an big benefit for business people considering the added cost, however.

“A Solar Hybrid Post Panamax VLCC [very large crude carrier] presents us with a  major win-win scenario,” said Sauter in a jargon-filled statement. “For apart from safeguarding the planet, oil companies can look forward to savings of up to 60 million dollars a year on the purchase of fuel.”

That means that at today’s regular prices for these supertankers, Deliverance will not only pay for herself in 4 years, but will save over $1.5 billion over her years in service. In the end, the super tanker will use 110,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year, which will save 3 million tons over a 25 year lifespan. That’s great, but when it docks at port and its owners celebrate the good deed of saving the atmosphere so much energy, they will also be able to rejoice in the 2 million barrels of oil it hopefully won’t spill on the way over.

If you’re as excited as VentureBeat executive editor Dylan Tweney is about the supertanker, click here for a full-size rendering of the ship, suitable for making into your desktop wallpaper.

Filed under: green

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Humanoid puts human brainpower to work in the cloud

Posted: 02 Nov 2011 11:00 AM PDT

Humanoid is today launching the world’s first human brain-powered API for developers and programmers “that actually works.”

With Humanoid developers can harness the strength of crowd-sourcing and get accurate results, not currently available from existing solutions such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, where people around the world can complete small tasks for payment, or outsourcing hubs like oDesk or Elance. Imagine a 20,000-person workforce at your fingertips completing tasks for $4.99 per hour.

Humanoid founder Matt Mireles wanted to build the API to solve a problem he ran into at his video-transcription company, SpeakerText. ”We launched SpeakerText, and it took us about a year and a half to get actual quality results from Mechanical Turk,” Mireles told VentureBeat. The problem, Mireles said, is that it was extremely difficult to ensure the quality of an anonymous, distributed workforce. For every dollar the team spent on labor on Mechanical Turk, it had to spend two dollars on quality assurance and cleanup. Everyone is trying to game the system, because there’s no accountability.

"Mechanical Turk is a marketplace with no sheriff," Mireles said.

Humanoid operates like a good boss and does what bosses have done since the beginning of time, Mireles said. When someone is new, the boss pays closer attention to them and ensures that they’re producing quality work. As the quality improves, there is less need for scrutiny, and the employee can operate with more autonomy. This has never been possible before, because there wasn’t a software program focused on assuring quality.

“Businesses demand accuracy, and quality, but they can't get it, because they have to manage the teams themselves,” Mireles said. In the case of SpeakerText, that meant hiring people to manage the quality of the work produced by the teams doing jobs from Mechanical Turk, a problem that is remarkarkably widespread.

Using statistics to predict how accurately a task will be completed based on a worker’s past performance, Humanoid is able to judge whether a worker is showing signs of fatigue, or if other factors could be interfering with the completion of a task. When these warning signs arise, the job is rerouted to another distributed worker who can meet the company’s standards, so no time is lost fixing work that is not up to snuff.

SpeakerText will live on as a feature of Humanoid and will continue to serve existing customers as needed. Mireles and team previously received funding from Mitch Kapor  and 500 Startups for SpeakerText. Humanoid has received funding from Google Ventures.

Filed under: cloud, VentureBeat

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Google releases (then pulls) buggy, unimpressive Gmail app for iPhone and iPad

Posted: 02 Nov 2011 10:52 AM PDT

Updated: Google is pulling the new Gmail app, just hours after it was released. The official Gmail Twitter account posted this apology:

The iOS app we launched today contained a bug with notifications. We have pulled the app to fix the problem. Sorry we messed up.

VP of Apps, Dave Girouard, posted the following on Google+:

Sorry but we pushed a bad version of our iOS app for Gmail. More info shortly – we’re working on it.

After years of waiting, Google has finally released a Gmail app for the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. Unfortunately, it seems all that time was not spent on careful development of the mobile application, which is a buggy version of the popular email service’s web app.

First impressions are not good for the free mobile app. Many users, including this one, are getting error messages when they launch the app (right). There’s no support for multiple accounts and Messages with images don’t scale down to fit the smaller iPhone or iPod touch screens, which makes it pretty useless for anything but plain text messages.

In its blog post announcing the release, Google says the app improves on current Gmail access with more speed, improved efficiency and added touch features. There are some new tricks, like attaching an image to an outgoing message, and alerts (though the error message is related to the alert functions).

The app’s design also falls flat. The layout will look familiar to anyone who has logged into Gmail using Safari on their iOS device. Swiping left to right brings up a tray for navigating your mailboxes, while right to left swipe brings up the same archive option as the web app. The iPad version does have a nice side-by-side view of the inbox and message threads.

The app is compatible with iPhones, iPod touches, and iPads running iOS 4 or later.

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Check out some great new classes at pariSoma

Posted: 02 Nov 2011 10:00 AM PDT

parisoma logoThe following is sponsored by pariSoma

pariSoma classes are all about quenching your thirst for learning through classes on a variety of fascinating topics. pariSoma is one of the best coworking and tech event lofts in SF — housing over 100 coworkers and 60 startups — and it knows how to cater to the learning palates of SF, whether that be on the technical, business or leisure domains. pariSoma courses are open to everybody and will permit you to gain knowledge on a particular subject while allowing you to network with amazing teachers and other class participants. pariSoma provides tasty snacks and refreshments in all classes.

Check out the classes currently running:

Some of the successful classes pariSoma has hosted in the past and might reteach in the future are about Funding, Marketing, Google Apps, Sales, Project Management,Video Creation, Photoshop, PR, Marketing, Music Rights, Women Leadership and Biz Dev.

Would you like to teach a class? Let pariSoma know!

Visit the class website at http://www.parisoma.com/classes.

Filed under: social, VentureBeat

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