12 November, 2011



RockHealth Demo Day shows off some cool health apps

Posted: 11 Nov 2011 10:10 PM PST

Disruption in the health care industry is not going to come from health care providers; it will come from small, scrappy startups. RockHealth Demo Day was a chance to see some world-changing ideas on display. Selected from a pool of 350 applicants, the first 13 companies of startup accelerator RockHealth combine social media savvy with pervasive technology, such as smartphones, to improve the health of millions of people through simple behavior modifications.

It’s likely that Crohnology co-founder and RockHealth participant  Sean Ahrens said it best during his pitch: “Being an entrenched player in healthtech puts you at a  disadvantage.” Crohnology is a patient-to-patient information sharing platform where people with crohn’s disease and colitis can connect with each other and share knowledge and experiences.

RockHealth Demo Day was the rare opportunity to be in the presence a batch of companies whose sole mission is to transform unhealthy habits through technology. It was a truly exhilarating experience, and here’s a look at a few of the standout companies.


BitGym is a deceptively simple concept, but the team may have found the holy grail. Combine the lean-back fun of Nintendo’s Super Mario Kart with the aerobic potential of an exercise bike. Put your iPhone or iPad on the magazine rack of an exercise bike, and BitGym app will capture the vibrations of your movements to speed up or slow down a car driving on a race track. The forward-facing camera tracks eye movements so that you can steer. All of a sudden a nation of couch potatoes can get fitness and video games in one.


CellScope is going to unlock the power of smartphone cameras for assisting in medical diagnosis. The idea of doing smartphone-based health diagnostics is not entirely new, but the practice has been confined largely to parts of the world where access to medical care is limited. Each year more than 30,000 million children are taken to the doctor for ear infections, but often a diagnosis could be rendered just by looking at a photo. With a special light attachment fastened to an iPhone or comparable mobile device, CellScope patients can relay information to their doctor or health professional without having to travel.


BrainBot is dedicated to helping people lead better, less stressful lives through meditation. The company has a smartphone app that is connected to a brainwave-sensing device worn on the skull that tracks brain activity and encourages focus. The voice of a meditation expert can remind the user to focus on her breathing when the sensor detects changes in brain activity that indicate distraction. These same brain wave monitors are plummeting in price, largely as a result of the their growing popularity in video gaming. As a revenue stream, neural researchers interested in accessing a large data pool on brain behavior might pay the BrainBot to use their data, or they may sell subscriptions to meditation guides from the world’s top meditation masters, or both.


HeartBeat bills itself as an enterprise solution for wellness practitioners. Citing the example of a yoga teacher who has a Twitter account, Facebook page, Yelp and an email list, as well as software for billing and booking appointments, the HeartBeat team says that too much time is spent on administrative tasks, and not enough on doing actual healing. HeartBeat combines these services into a unified set of tools that are familiar to social media users, making it easy to claw back time for what they’re passionate about.

Health in Reach

We have great choice when shopping for a flatscreen TV. Should we really have less information when choosing a surgeon? Health in Reach wants to inject cost transparency into the purchase of out-of-pocket health care, such as non-insured dental work and a host of others. Americans spend $100 billion each year on out-of-pocket medical treatment and Health in Reach wants to help save people money by adding a group-buying dyanic into this lucrative market.

In addition to the brilliant founders on display, RockHealth did a lot of things right during its demo day. RockHealth had a simple app that let attendees connect with presenters and ask questions, or visit their websites with the click of a button. Nothing too complicated, but it was effective.

There was a very refreshing vibe around the RockHealth Demo event. Very enthusiastic applause followed each presentation, and then again after the question and answer session. There was also lots of laughter throughout.

“I think when you bring the right minds together, what we’ve done is really break down the barriers between the medical community and the technology community, which have traditionally been very siloed,” RockHealth creative director Leslie Ziegler told VentureBeat. In the Silicon Valley tech world we spend a lot of time celebrating companies that thrive in the attention economy, where clicks, likes and user data matter more than impact. It’s a rarer to encounter startups focused on improving our lives physically.

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Ho-ho-holiday online shopping to rake in $60B this year thanks to mobile

Posted: 11 Nov 2011 05:51 PM PST

Charlie BrownIt’s a holiday retail wish come true: online holiday shopping spending is predicted to increase 15 percent to $60 billion this year. The reason? Tablets and smarter online shoppers.

According to a report by Forrester, customers are finally taking heavily to Internet shopping not just for convenience, but for deals. Online retail shopping used to be seen as a “can’t find it in the store, look on the web!” option. Now, with the tons of available daily deals sites, and a much larger competitive landscape, prices are often better online than in stores. Comparing prices is getting even easier too, especially as smartphones become more widely adopted.

Even giant online retailers such as Amazon are offering ways to compare prices. The company recently released its Flow app, which allows customers to scan bar codes in stores. The app then displays the Amazon.com product price, along with information about it and any associated media, such as videos.

Because of products like this, mobile is going to be huge this holiday season, with 30 percent of smartphone users saying they use their phones to research products. That’s a 30 percent raise from last year. In fact, 50 percent of tablet owners use their devices for product research. Because of the tablet’s larger screen and mobility, people can easily turn to it for information on a targeted gift.

It would only make sense then that consumers would buy online at the source, and Internet retailers are reacting to accommodate the new traffic. Perks such as free shipping always drive more purchases as it makes the online price the same, or better, than the one in-store. Shop.org says that 92.5 percent of online retailers will offer free shipping this season. Other than the instant gratification of buying in-store, free shipping from nearly 100 percent of online retailers will definitely level the shopping field.

The report states 58 percent of Americans are more price conscious this season. The combination of online discounts and new technology connecting people back to the Internet is providing fertile ground for online holiday shopping.

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Better Place raises another $200 million for electric cars and charging network

Posted: 11 Nov 2011 05:29 PM PST

Electric vehicle infrastructure startup Better Place has raised $200 million of Series C financing from a consortium of investors including GE Capital and UBS, the company announced today.

Better Place is working with Nissan/Renault on the production of electric cars with swappable batteries that can be charged at home, or taken to battery-swapping stations where fresh batteries are inserted within minutes. Vehicle owners will rent the batteries from Better Place, and pay only for the miles they drive.

This battery-swapping technology is not yet available commercially, though in 2010 in Tokyo, Better Place ran a pilot program with electrified taxis running on swappable batteries. Better Place founder and CEO Shai Agassi joked that the taxi’s batteries lasted longer than the drivers’ bladders, after only one cab ran out of juice during the program.

"We've worked hard over the past four years to engineer and build a technology solution that competes with oil-based transportation," said Agassi in a statement. "We are entering the next phase of growth for our company where we prove that our solution works, that it's in demand, and that it scales, as we begin to push into new markets and attract new investors and new partners. I believe that our investors should be applauded for having the vision to finance the future of transportation."

Better Place has partnered with local governments in Denmark and Israel to build a charging infrastructure to support its brand of electric cars. The company is also rolling out city-wide charging initiatives in Toronto, Hawaii and throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Better Place will provide commercial charging infrastructure for electric car owners of all models, and is in the final testing phases to choose the Renault Fluence Z.E. (Zero Emissions) as its vehicle of choice.

Today’s investment in Better Place raises the company’s total to $750 million, with previous investors Israel Corp., HSBC Group, Morgan Stanley Investment Management, VantagePoint Capital Partners, Ofer Group and Maniv Energy Capital also joining the round.

Filed under: deals, green

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Nintendo says 3DS will outsell original DS in its first year

Posted: 11 Nov 2011 03:35 PM PST

Nintendo said today that its 3DS handheld game system has sold more than 1.65 million units in the U.S., according to sales tracked by market researcher NPD.

The number puts the 3DS on track to surpass the first-year total of the Nintendo DS, which was previously the fastest-selling game platform. Of course, this is what you would expect. After all, in 2011, the video game market is much bigger than it was in 2004.

The Nintendo DS sold 2.37 million units in the U.S. in its first 12 months in the U.S., with about 50 percent of those sales happening during the holidays. Nintendo hopes that big games such as Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7 will enable the 3DS to keep growing.

Overall, however, the 3DS has been a disappointing launch for Nintendo. The system debuted in March, but some people complained about the quality of the glasses-free stereoscopic 3D. In August, Nintendo had to slash the price of the 3DS from $249.99 to $169.99. That helped triple sales, but it means that the system isn’t as attractive as the old DS was, given the new environment of other portable devices such as iPhones and iPads.

Nintendo said it sold more than 675,000 hardware units in October, including 250,000 3DS units, 250,000 Wii units, and 180,000 older DS units.

Filed under: games, VentureBeat

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U.S. console video games (finally) grow 1 percent in October

Posted: 11 Nov 2011 03:30 PM PST

U.S. retail video game sales finally showed some life in October, when sales grew 1 percent from a year ago, according to market researcher NPD Group.

That comes after a 6 percent drop in September, a 23 percent drop in August, a 26 percent drop in July and a 10 percent drop in June, NPD reported.

The main reason for the boost was strength on the Xbox 360 platform and good sales for new titles such as Electronic Arts’ Battlefield 3.

It’s not an impressive gain, but the numbers represent only retail sales and don't count other digital sales. Those other parts of the business – including used games, rentals, online games, mobile games and social games — have shown constant growth.

Total video game hardware, software, and accessory sales at retail stores were $1.08 billion in October, up 1 percent from $1.07 billion a year ago. Overall console video game sales (excluding PC games) were $1.05 billion, up 3 percent from $1.03 billion a year ago.

Game hardware sales were $295.6 million, up 6 percent from $279.9 million a year ago. Game software sales were $621.3 million, up 3 percent from $604.8 million a year ago. Accessory sales, which in earlier months this year were up thanks to strong sales of Microsoft's Kinect motion-sensing system, were $135.9 million, down 5 percent from $142.4 million a year ago.

If you throw in the sales of PC, console and portable games, the total is $649.5 million, up 1 percent from $643.9 million a year ago. That still means PC sales have been weak.

The bright spots of the month were some of the big new releases such as Battlefield 3, which was the top-selling title of the month, with more than 2 million units sold. Warner Bros.’ Batman Arkham City came in at No. 2, with more than 1.5 million units sold.

The next hot titles of the month were Take-Two Interactive’s NBA2K 12, Bethesda Softworks’ Rage, Ubisoft’s Just Dance 3, EA’s Madden NFL 12, Microsoft’s Forza Motorsport 4, Microsoft’s Gears of War 3, and EA’s FIFA Soccer 12.

Anita Frazier, analyst at NPD, said that the Xbox 360 showed dollar growth across hardware, software, accessory, and store software sales compared to a year ago. Overall, the whole category could come in flat to down 2 percent for the full year. The strength in October was helped by the fact that it was a five-week retail month this year, compared to four weeks a year ago.

Frazier said that seven of the top 10 titles were new releases and they sold 23 percent more units than the top 10 percent last October. The dance category was up 135 percent from year ago due to the launch of Just Dance 3 and Dance Central 2. Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure, a new hybrid toy-game from Activision Blizzard, came in at No. 11 for the month. November is expected to be a huge month for game sales because of launches such as Uncharted 3, Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and the Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword.

Microsoft said it held 44 percent of the console market share in October, selling 393,000 Xbox 360s, up 21 percent from a year ago. Total spending on Xbox 360 products was $490 million, the most for any console in the U.S. Xbox titles held six of the top ten console game titles during the month. Microsoft said it will have more than 75 new Kinect titles for the holidays, or four times as many as a year ago.

David Dennis, spokesman for Microsoft, said that the numbers may not be showing dramatic overall industry growth, but they are certainly indicators of a healthy ecosystem in spite of headwinds such as a tough economy and stock market uncertainty.

Nintendo said it sold more than 675,000 hardware units in October, including 250,000 3DS units, 250,000 Wii units, and 180,000 older DS units.

Filed under: games

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The cloud is changing how software startups make money

Posted: 11 Nov 2011 03:05 PM PST

CloudBeat 2011Cloud computing has fundamentally altered the economics of software.

Thanks to the cloud, it is much, much cheaper for users who only need a browser to tap into the world’s largest data centers. It is cheaper for developers to write code and deploy it on virtual servers that are rented by the minute. And it is fundamentally cheaper for entrepreneurs to build and launch new services, to support business users and to scale rapidly.

Traditional SaaS companies have ridden the wave of lower costs, taking significant share from traditional software companies, but their single biggest cost continues to be sales and marketing. Innovative cloud service providers are figuring out how to take this advantage further, using lower costs to generate millions of users by giving away their service for free.

This approach is common in consumer world because advertising revenue can support the operating costs, but increasingly, business application companies are utilizing this approach by relying on a small percentage of users who pay for premium features or heavy usage.

In just over two weeks at Cloudbeat 2011, some of the leading business freemium thinkers and entrepreneurs will come together for a panel (Wednesday, November 30 at 1:30pm) to discuss how they were able to build fast growing, capital-efficient market leaders that are disrupting established competitors and making real money by giving away their crown jewels. Expect an interesting and in-depth discussion about how a business freemium company works, and how it is effecting the software landscape. Our panelists will include:

Ivan KoonIvan Koon is CEO of YouSendIt. A proven and passionate business executive with over 20 years of experience, Ivan has built YouSendIt into the Web's largest business content collaboration solution. Under his leadership, YouSendIt has aggressively expanded its B2B collaboration platform and increased its registered user base from zero to over 23 million around the world.

David SacksDavid Sacks is Founder & CEO of the enterprise social network Yammer. He has been involved in the internet space for ten years as an entrepreneur, executive and investor. Prior to founding Yammer, David was PayPal's Chief Operating Officer and product leader, taking the company from startup to IPO and eventual sale to eBay for $1.5 billion.

Jason LemkinJason Lemkin is Founder and CEO of EchoSign, acquired by Adobe. His operational experience spans the business development, sales, legal, human resource, and finance fields, and he is an acknowledged expert in the field of electronic signatures and electronic contracting.

Freemium in the business world is here to stay, and I am excited to talk with some of the pioneers of who can share their experiences and insights. Join us!

Brian Jacobs is a General Partner and Founder of Emergence Capital. He has over 20 years of venture capital experience, a deep national network and an understanding of how technology startups grow into market leaders.

CloudBeat 2011CloudBeat 2011 takes place Nov 30 – Dec 1 at the 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. Speakers include: Aaron Levie, Co-Founder & CEO of Box.net; Amit Singh VP of Enterprise at Google; Adrian Cockcroft, Director of Cloud Architecture at Netflix; Byron Sebastian, Senior VP of Platforms at Salesforce; Lew Tucker, VP & CTO of Cloud Computing at Cisco, and many more. Join 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. Spaces are limited!

Filed under: cloud, VentureBeat

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The world of Tetris champions comes to life in new documentary

Posted: 11 Nov 2011 02:00 PM PST

If you liked King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters, you’ll love Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters, a new documentary showing the world’s best Tetris players as they hone their skills (and talk plenty of smack) gearing up for the Classic Tetris World Championship.

According to the movie’s official website, “From the days of Thor Aackerlund and his historic victory at the 1990 Nintendo World Championships right up to the present and Harry Hong’s perfect max-out score, this documentary expertly chronicles over two decades of Tetris mastery.”

Portland filmmaker Adam Cornelius started making the documentary about Hong, who was the first Tetris player to officially reach a max-out score. He raised a slim $1,610 for that project on Kickstarter.

However, when Tetris master Robin Mihara informed Cornelius that as many as two Tetris players might have actually been better than Hong, the scope of the film changed.

“He took the news well,” wrote Mihara in a blog post, “and from there we fantasized about holding a live contest with all the greats, and having big screens, announcers, spotlights, all like we did [at the Nintendo World Championships] in 1990.

“The next day I got a call from Adam. ‘OK, I want to do it. You're my star. You put it together.’ I was in my car speeding to his house in 30 seconds.”

Ecstasy Of Order: The Tetris Masters is currently in post production and will be in the festival submission process during the last few weeks of 2011. So far, the documentary is an official selection of the Austin Film Festival and SF Doc Fest.

The producers are accepting donations through the film website via Paypal to help complete the documentary. Go be a nice gamer and give ‘em a couple bucks for curiosity’s sake.

Filed under: games

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Someone please tell Michael Arrington I’m not a unicorn

Posted: 11 Nov 2011 01:23 PM PST

Editor’s note: CNN’s upcoming documentary, Black in America 4, has sparked a heated discussion about race in the tech industry. VentureBeat has asked several black entrepreneurs to contribute their opinions prior to the airing of the show on Sunday November 13. Read the rest of VentureBeat’s stories on diversity in tech.

I just saw a trailer and a clip for the upcoming CNN special, “Black In America.” In this clip I couldn't help but notice that Michael Arrington was making some wild statements. Money Mike said "I don't know a single black entrepreneur." Then the interviewer prodded him with the statement, "and you are in the industry, what does that say?" He replied, "That means there aren't any."

Huh, I thought. I am not a unicorn. I exist.

My first thought was this is Michael Arrington, Eminem of the tech world. He’s a man who uses shock to create publicity. But then I thought about the deeper issue. Maybe Arrington was just being honest. In "Flatland" it's very difficult to grasp the idea of a sphere. When the people you surround yourself with have never really extended themselves past their own dimension, it is easy to be very naive in your thinking. It's far easier to say something doesn't exist just because you've never come in contact with it.

It's not just a black thing either: It's really about access.

In the south, or Mid-South as some of us call Kentucky, where I live, there is what many people call the “good ol' boy network.” The good ol' boy network is getting older and dying off, but there is a new network that seems to have taken its place. In my hometown, there are gatekeepers you must go through before pitching to the local angel investor club.

At one of our first meetings with these gatekeepers (who all happen to be white men), the advice given to us was we may want to let someone else take the lead when speaking to investors. Someone who is more like Dick Cheney. My first thought was, you want us to get some old white man who shoots his buddy in the face while hunting? He went on to explain that we needed someone more like Obama.

Then I realized what he meant: He would rather I not be myself. The same me who has won oratorical contests in the past. The same me who taught little old ladies how to use Photoshop at our public library. We needed someone who wasn't as passionate. Someone who wasn't as disruptive.

Needless to say we didn't go looking for Barack OCheney. We decided to be us, the whole us and nothing less.

Which leads me to the main reasons many tech leaders in Silicon Valley don't know about black entrepreneurs: access and opportunity. When the gatekeepers think you should change your appearance, your voice, and your actions to fit a mold, it becomes difficult to convince them there are other dimensions they are missing out on.

If the black entrepreneurs dress, sound and act differently to fit in the "White and Asian world," as Arrington states in the trailer, then how would they ever believe there are totally new dimensions? If the gatekeepers are looking for chameleons, they will miss all the other wonderful species in the rain forest.

But you know what? These are not excuses. They are just realities. It's like growing up with a family member who is addicted to drugs: You love them but you know not to leave your wallet out around them. You learn to play within the rules, even if those rules seem unfair.

There are some rules to being a black entrepreneur as well.

  1. Hustle, hustle, hustle hard.
  2. Let yourself be known. (My mantra is: Stand on your water cooler.)
  3. Create your own network. Stop looking at what you don't have and focus on what you do.
  4. Treat people right.
  5. Be candid.
  6. See opportunity in obstacles. Create solutions.
  7. Make dope products.
  8. Fail, fail, fail, succeed.
  9. Be Yourself, because there are already enough chameleons.

It may be a little bit harder as a minority, but “hard” has never meant “impossible.” I will get a meeting with the best venture capitalists in the land when it's time. And if we have to pitch 999 times, we will land at least one. Because we are a great team, with a new disruptive product.

So without further ado allow me to introduce myself.

My name is Lamar Wilson. I am a black entrepreneur. I bought my first duplex at 22. I bought two Cold Stone Creamery franchises at 25, after first starting as a $6 an hour crew member. My parents are not independently wealthy, nor did I come from old family wealth. My dad is an honorable tile setter and pastor. My mother has been a federal government employee for the last 35 years. They’re good, clean, hard-working folk. I was married at 19, have three wonderful honor roll kids and a beautiful wife. I even made an appearance on "Deal or No Deal," and had fun running from Big Bird.

I may not be the two-dimensional Flatland polygons you are used to, but hopefully you will begin to see my complexities.

I graduated from the University of Kentucky with a finance degree, but taught myself how to program from a recliner in my living room, chilling in my underwear. I started building social applications when my Cold Stone franchises failed. Yes: I said failed. After that experience, the software applications I was building began to supply income for my family and I have been on the web ever since.

Today I own a company called 212ths, with a gentleman named Lafe Taylor, who is also a black entrepreneur. We have created a startup with a software architect named John Meister, called Pheeva. Pheeva provides tools for HTML5 games and applications. We have been together for a year, bootstrapping great tools, so game developers can focus on building great games and allow us to handle the boring, necessary stuff.

We were awarded a grant for technology in our state, not for being black, as some would think, but for being good technologists.

I am not angry with Mr. Arrington, as some would think. Actually those clips made me want to meet him and anyone else who wants to connect with an entrepreneur who loves business and solving problems. Maybe we can sit down have lunch or something. Mr. Arrington: You can email me at lamarwilson@facebook.com. I'd love to meet and talk business.

Lamar is an entrepreneur from birth, humorist by nature and optimist in spirit. He co-owns a web media company, 212ths in the growing start up community of Lexington, KY. He is also co-founder od Pheeva, an HTML5 game development and monetization platform. He can be found on Twitter: @bigmarh.

[Unicorn image via √Čole/Flickr]

Filed under: Entrepreneur Corner, VentureBeat

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Apple juice: Battery life “fix” still leaving phones bleeding

Posted: 11 Nov 2011 12:51 PM PST

Apple is still investigating ways to mitigate rapid battery loss in its iPhones, a company spokesperson said.

While Apple has issued an over-the-air software fix aimed at plugging the leak, many users are saying their phones are still losing juice at an alarming rate.

"The recent iOS software update addressed many of the battery issues that some customers experienced on their iOS 5 devices," the company said in a statement to AllThingsD.

"We continue to investigate a few remaining issues."

A couple weeks ago, Apple engineers began contacting new iPhone 4S customers to get more information about a possible defect in the device's battery.

Even our own reporters were experiencing sudden and dramatic decreases in battery power when the phone wasn’t actively being used. As an example, one might fall asleep with a fully charged phone and wake up to find a stone-cold brick on the nightstand where one’s iPhone 4S used to be.

A few days later, Apple spoke up on the issue, blaming the software — in this case, iOS 5 — for the malfunction. At that time, an Apple rep told VentureBeat, "A small number of customers have reported lower than expected battery life on iOS 5 devices. 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."

That update, iOS 5.0.1, rolled out yesterday. However, more than a few iPhone 4S owners took to the web to complain that the update had not, in fact, fixed their battery issues.

Some users are even saying on the company’s support forum that the update left their phones in “the same if not worse” condition.

We’ll see what Apple can cook up next to finally fix these persistent battery-life issues, and we’ll be sure to keep you updated.

Filed under: mobile

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Review: Why you should get the Humble Voxatron Debut indie game bundle

Posted: 11 Nov 2011 12:19 PM PST

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The Humble Voxatron Debut, a bundle of indie games, isn’t really all that humble, when you get down to it. For two weeks, users are able to name their own price for a bundle of top-tier indie games that includes the first-ever alpha release of Voxtatron along with the full versions of The Binding of Isaac and Blocks That Matter. And now that we’re entering the final weekend that the bundle’s on sale, we thought it might be time to tell you whether it’s worth it.

The actual results of these bundles is something worth bragging about: despite letting customers go as low as “nothing” with their named prices, the Humble Voxatron Debut has raised just shy of $800,000 as I write this, and past Humble Bundles have cleared the million-dollar mark. Historically, about a third of that money has gone to the developers, which is still hundreds of thousands of dollars, a fair chunk of change for these – dare I say it – humble game studios. It is a novel way of selling indie games in a way that they can get noticed, without a huge marketing budget.

The proceeds from the Humble Bundle get split up between the developers and a handful of geek-friendly charities. When you purchase the bundle, you set where your money goes: if you want it all to go to the Electronic Frontier Foundation or Child’s Play, you can do that. If you think it should all go to the developers – or even just one developer – you can do that, too. But by default, Humble Bundle automatically does an even split. Minecraft creator Notch is topping the contributor list with a $2,000 purchase.

All the games included are cross-platform, so you’re in the clear to participate in the Humble Voxatron Debut even when running Mac OS X or Linux. The Humble Bundle is even nice enough to include a Steam key for those so inclined (though it’s worth noting that as an alpha, bundle headliner Voxatron isn’t eligible for Steam). And I should mention that to unlock The Binding of Isaac and Blocks That Matter, you need to beat the current average contribution.

So here’s the skinny on the games included as we enter its last four days of sale:

The Binding of Isaac

  • Developers: Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl
  • MSRP: $4.99
  • Kind of Like: Jhonen Vasquez Presents Robotron 2084

If I had to describe The Binding of Isaac in one word, it would be “merciless.” The game’s story, as presented in the opening cinematic, shows Isaac’s mother systematically abusing her child at the behest of the voice of God. When God finally tells her to kill her son, he escapes to the basement under his house – which is apparently the gateway to Hell and filled with strange monsters and treasure.

It only gets more brutal from there: Isaac begins the game (and every level thereafter) crying in the fetal position on the floor. When he stands up, an inscription on the floor reveals the game’s primary control scheme: Move around with WASD and shoot in eight directions with the arrow keys in a manner very much reminiscent of Robotron 2084. You use one of the many, many magic items you find with the spacebar and drop bombs with the shift key.

It took me a few minutes to recognize that Isaac’s main projectile weapons are his own tears.

But that doesn’t mean that the game is dark. Quite the opposite, actually: the game has an appealingly super-deformed cartoon style that manages to somehow stay cute even when the walls are covered in the blood and viscera of the eldritch horrors you’ll be fighting. Oh yes – there will be blood.

The Binding of Isaac is a throwback to a time when video games didn’t hold your hand. The game will punish mistakes, and the game revels in throwing harder and harder challenges your way while continually giving less health and pick-ups. When you die, there’s no save point. It’s back to the beginning for you. Every. Single. Time.

And from the word “go,” you’ll face headless zombies that spurt blood from their necks to glowworms that grow giant sets of gnashing teeth when they spot you. That doesn’t even begin to describe the named bosses, who each come with a semi-unique matchup screen that gives them the encounters an appropriate amount of gravitas.

The randomly-generated dungeons themselves look a lot like those from the original Legend of Zelda. You’ll traverse lots of cave walls and pits and infernal landscapes, with atmospheric music to match. Interestingly, it seems like the game switches up the layouts on you depending on performance: someone who dies a lot (like yours truly) will find more loot and fewer monsters.

There’s a definite action RPG element to The Binding of Isaac, too. Isaac has four key stats: speed, range, defense and attack. But there aren’t any experience points – over the course of Isaac’s adventure, he collects money, items, tarot cards, pills and magical weapons from the rooms he loots that can affect those stats positively and negatively. More weapons, items, and monsters are unlocked the more you play, meaning that there’s almost always something else to get.

These magical items are whimsically named, with most some kind of reference to Internet culture and other video games: a laser you fire from your mouth is called “Shoop Da Whoop,” and a tiny fly familiar that stays at a distance is called “Forever Alone.” In a very nice visual touch, most items you pick up are reflected on your character. You may find yourself with a giant head that improves damage. But that also means you might find yourself fighting Satan himself wearing high heels.

It’s a difficult game to sum up because your tolerance will largely depend on your capacity for punishment: there are plenty of satisfied customers who are glad for a game that makes no bones about its lack of compassion for the player. And there’s nothing quite like the feeling of victory after squeezing past a boss with only half a heart of health remaining. But there are also going to be those who get frustrated and put it down forever after their third time dying after stepping into a fire pit right after finishing off a tricky boss (yes, it happens).

Final Word: A fun retro-style action shooter with a wicked sense of humor, but only those with patience, fortitude and an itchy trigger finger need apply.

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The case of the “stolen” Twitter account

Posted: 11 Nov 2011 11:37 AM PST

The ownership of a moderately popular Twitter account and the value of the account’s 17,000 followers are at the center of an ongoing legal dispute.

In the case of the stolen Twitter followers, or PhoneDog v. Noah Kravitz, PhoneDog, a mobile review site, alleges that former staffer Noah Kravitz misappropriated trade secrets by changing the password and name of a Twitter account he used while employed by PhoneDog. PhoneDog argues that Kravitz caused the company $340,000 in damages.

Kravitz changed the Twitter account from @PhoneDog_Noah to @noahkravitz after departing the company. He currently maintains ownership of the account and now has nearly 22,000 followers.

“I’ve always viewed it as my account,” Kravitz told VentureBeat of the now hotly disputed Twitter account. “It’s always served a wide variety of purposes.”

VentureBeat has also uncovered evidence to suggest that there’s more than a little Twitter envy going here. The PhoneDog lawsuit over Kravitz’s Twitter account may be a retaliatory response to a lawsuit Kravitz filed earlier this year.

In October 2010, Noah Kravitz parted ways with the mobile review site where he served as Editor-in-Chief, contributing written and video content, since April 2006. On June 8, 2011, a case entitled Kravitz vs. PhoneDog and Tom Klein (founder of PhoneDog) was filed (Case#: RG11579535) at the Fremont Hall of Justice, a County of Alameda court. In the lawsuit, Kravitz, the plaintiff, argues that he was a vested partner and owner of PhoneDog and entitled to 15% of the site’s gross advertising revenue, even after he had terminated his employment.

Kravitz, in the lawsuit, accuses the defendants of fraud, breach of contract and unlawful conduct because the company has not paid him the agreed upon share of gross advertising revenue. PhoneDog claims that Kravitz was not an employee (i.e. he was a contractor) and not entitled to employment claims. The case remains open with hearings scheduled for 2012.

“I filed suit after trying to unsuccessfully work it out on our own,” Kravitz said. “I tried to get them to uphold their side of what I thought we had agreed to. I felt that I had upheld my side. I didn’t get anywhere directly with them, so I sought legal advice and here’s where we are.”

PhoneDog filed its own lawsuit against Kravitz on July 15, 2011, but this lawsuit was centered around the aforementioned Twitter account and the $340,000 in alleged damages.

In this suit, PhoneDog accuses Kravitz of “misappropriation of trade secrets,” “intentional interference with prospective economic advantage,” “negligent interference with prospective economic advantage” and “conversion.”

The company claims that Kravitz opened the account on its request and that its followers are “akin to a business customer list.” The Twitter account in question had 17,000 followers, each valued at $2.50 a month according to “industry standards,” when Kravitz left PhoneDog.

“PhoneDog contends that its damages amount to $42,500 ($2.50 x 17,000) for each month that Mr. Kravitz has used the account, which at the time of filing amounted to $340,000 for eight months,” according to court documents.

Kravitz, currently the Editor-at-Large at TechnoBuffalo, challenged the financial calculations and PhoneDog’s claim of ownership over the account, but a judge ruled Tuesday to deny his request to throw out the case. The judge also dismissed PhoneDog’s intentional and negligent interference claims, but the case remains open.

“I am also alleging that PhoneDog never asked me for the account back,” Kravitz said in a statement to VentureBeat. “They actually said to me … ‘go ahead and keep using it, all we ask as a favor is that you tweet some things on our behalf.’”

The role that Twitter plays in this story of greed and revenge is quite fascinating. Who owns a Twitter account? Is it Twitter, an employeer or an individual? And what’s the value of a Twitter follower? A California federal court may be the first to decide legal answers to these questions.

Update: This article has been updated to reflect statements Noah Kravitz made to VentureBeat in an interview by phone.

[Image via yFrog]

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Monster blogger turns monster product guy: Marshall Kirkpatrick stepping back from ReadWriteWeb

Posted: 11 Nov 2011 11:13 AM PST

Marshall Kirkpatrick, a formidable voice and fascinating mind in the tech blogosphere, is turning his attention from writing about startups to running his own.

Kirkpatrick has been at ReadWriteWeb, a publication covering all things Internet-related, for the past four years, most recently as co-editor and VP of content development.

He will be stepping back from this full-time role to work on Plexus Engine, a tool that will help poor saps like you and me be as immediately up-to-date on information as Kirkpatrick himself is.

I worked with Marshall during the earlier phases of my tech blogging career; the man has a deep fascination with the gears, levers and pulleys of real-time communication. He was also famous, internally and externally, for his secret sauce: a system for seemingly instantly knowing when anything had happened anywhere — and knowing it before anybody else.

Truly, he was and is uncanny about lightning-fast information gathering.

This skill, coupled with his fantastic analyses, made Kirkpatrick a great in the industry. But now, he’s taking this same skill (being the first to know everything) and turning it into a web product and platform.

“It's a learning-curve busting, ‘first mover’s advantage’-as-a-service technology for information workers who want to win. It’s about helping users skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it’s been,” Kirkpatrick wrote in a blog post.

In short, he’s giving anyone who needs it a distinct competitive advantage.

The shopworn axiom tells us that knowledge is power; if that’s true, then knowing something before anyone else constitutes a first-strike weapon.

The service is currently in private beta; Kirkpatrick is acting as CEO of the venture.

“A plexus is a place where nerves branch and rejoin in the body,” Kirkpatrick explains, “and the Plexus Engine analyzes points of intersection online to detect emerging signals… I've been learning about how to do this kind of stuff for as long as I've been working online. The methods I've explored have been complicated, experimental and challenging but now I'm going to productize the lessons I've learned in a way that anyone can use them.”

Kirkpatrick writes to us in an email, “I’m hoping to launch [Plexus Engine] to the public in about 3 months.” In the meantime, he will continue to write his famous analysis posts on ReadWriteWeb.

Stay tuned for more details on Plexus Engine soon.

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Is Google+ worth your time and effort?

Posted: 11 Nov 2011 10:39 AM PST

"Why should I be interested in Google+?"

This was a common question I both pondered and came upon from others while writing Google+ for Dummies.

It's a great question – after all, all my friends and family are on Facebook and I'm certainly not going to find them over on a new network by Google, at least not yet.

But the answer kept coming back to me as I got to know those working on the product, and as I started to understand the intentions of the product, that Google+ was not just any other social network.

Google+ is simply a new feature of Google. In fact, I think it's very likely that in the future we will see the "+" removed from Google+. That's evident with the path they're taking now.

I thought it would be interesting to show some of the elements of Google that Google+ has called home:

Plus is coming to Search

The biggest, and perhaps most evident component of Google that Google+ has become commonplace is Google.com itself: Google Search.

If you have joined Google+ and are signed into Google, you should already be seeing search results augmented by pictures of your Google+ friends that have "+1'd" articles in search results. Google is also rumored to be weighting articles with more "+1's" with higher rankings in search results.

It's therefore to your advantage to get on Google+ and to start building a presence. The experience will also become more personal as you do so, as your friends' +1's and interests will now play a factor in the results you see.

On top of your friends from Google+, Google just launched a new feature of Google+ called Direct Connect. By setting up a Google+ Page for your brand on Google+ (Google's answer to Facebook Pages), when you type in the Google search bar a plus sign (+) followed by the name of any brand that is set up correctly, you'll be taken straight to that brand's Plus Page, straight from Google Search.

This gives brands more reason to be on Google+ and even more reason for brands to include Google's +1 icons and badges in order to get this to work. This means not only will you see Google+ on Google products themselves, but on the websites you visit as well.

Plus is coming to Android

The second biggest reason you should be on Google+ is Android.

I predict that in the future, Google+ will be integrated by default into the Android operating system. This means there will be no app to install.

Once you give Android your Google ID, it will automatically bring your friends from Google+ into every element of the Android experience.

Already in Android, you can set up your phone to automatically upload photos and videos to Google+.

After installing the Google+ app, Google+ appears in the default options for the share menu in any app that intends to allow you to share. I think all these elements will be parts of Android in the future.

Plus in the “Sandbar"

You've already seen it, but in most Google products there is a bar at the top, which has been coined "The Sandbar" by people inside and out of Google.

Notice the "Share" button: If you click that in any Google product, you can immediately share to Google+. Or, let's imagine that Google+ as a separate site and social network goes away. Just click your notifications and you have immediate access, from any Google product, to all your Google+ updates without ever needing to leave your favorite Google products.

Technically, you don't even need to visit plus.google.com to use Google+ — see what I mean?

Follow the Plus money: Adsense

Of course, Google wouldn't be Google if they couldn't make money. All of this ties back to Google's ad platform, Adsense.

With Google+’s social layer, Google now has data they can put into the ads that makes them more social and more interesting to you, the user. In your search results they can show you your friends interested in that ad. They already allow you to +1 ads you like. Google can also add this rich data to display ads in their other products, similar to what Facebook does.

This all just touches the surface. What Google is doing right now is leading them to a future that makes Google, as a whole, more social. It brings your friends, and with that eventually their family members into the Google experience.

If you're not yet on Google+, I suggest you get on, set up a profile and learn how you can start building your network.

Even if it isn't what you want it to be right now, as long as you're one of the billions that use Google products (even search), you'll be using Google+ in the future even if it no longer has the "+" sign. I guarantee it. Just as it was worth my investment, I think it will be worth yours.

Jesse Stay is an author, speaker and consultant on the topics of social media technologies, marketing and strategy. Most recently, he wrote Google+ For Dummies, Portable Edition. You can circle him on Google+ at profiles.google.com/jessestay.

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Tips and tricks: How to get ahead in Skyrim

Posted: 11 Nov 2011 10:00 AM PST

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After writing a 4,000-word review and nearly a hundred hours spent in Skyrim (with many more to come), I’ve learned a few tips and tricks that I thought I’d pass on to my fellow adventurers. In this Skyrim Starter Guide you’ll learn how to boost your way to a more powerful character almost immediately, as well as making the most of the crafting systems and various other helpful things.

If you get into the game and have any questions about, well, anything, feel free to come back and ask in the comments. I may not know the answer to all of Skyrim’s mysteries, but with our powers combined, I’m sure we can at least argue over them like civilized people from the internet do.

Easily sneaking your way to level 100

Normally, leveling a skill to 100 would take dozens of hours of natural gameplay. However, if you're in a rush, you can actually do it at the very beginning of the game. As soon as you enter Whiterun, find the second guard barracks. It's not the one across from the blacksmith. If you're having trouble locating it after filling in the map by walking around, save your game and get arrested. Then break out of prison and the building you exit from is the building you want. Now mark that location on the map in your brain and reload.

Upon entering the barracks, use the "wait" feature until it's after 10 pm, assuming it's not already. Now simply crouch down and sneak back and forth in the sleeping area at the back. There will likely be two guards who never go to sleep and will see you when your Sneak skill is low, but they won't attack so it won't matter. Just by moving back and forth like this you will begin to rapidly level your Sneaking skill. Soon you'll be able to sneak right behind the guards and they won't even know you're there. At this point your Sneak skill will be high enough should you want to quit and play the game normally as a stealth character.

However, should you choose to continue, you could eventually max out the Sneak skill and gain quite a few character levels as well. It's not really game-breaking, since there seems to be very little difference between Sneak level 25 and Sneak level 100, but not building up your skills evenly may have adverse effects on the difficulty early on.

Make sure you have activated the Thief standing stone before doing this to increase your sneaking experience by 20 percent.

Quickly increase your Speech and Pickpocketing

One of the lower skills in the Speech tree is the ability to bribe guards, effectively saving you from jail time for any crimes you commit. Once you have this, you can actually use it to level up very quickly. To kill two birds with one stone, you should go around pickpocketing people. It doesn't matter what you take, so long as the steal is successful you'll gain pickpocketing experience. When you get caught, make sure your weapons are sheathed and just wait for a guard to appear. Given the option, bribe them to look the other way. Unlike persuade and intimidate, this speech option never fails, and will give you a big boost to your speech experience.

You can't do this in the same area over and over again, however, so you'll need to make an adventure out of it. Go around to each city or village, leveling up your pickpocketing and speech skills, then circle back around and do it all over again.

A higher speech skill will allow you to get better prices when buying and selling from merchants and sell any type of item to any type of shop.

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CloudBeat breakout session: The new social layer

Posted: 11 Nov 2011 09:42 AM PST

social-networking-625x450I’m excited to present a CloudBeat 2011 breakout session focused on what we're calling the new social layer. The session will explore the knowledge generated by structured and unstructured data, which helps us know what customers, and the world at large, think about our enterprises and their services and products.

The panel includes the following passionate practitioners and analysts in the area of social analytics (bios available here):

Anjul Bhambhri, VP of Big Data Products, IBM
Greg Merkle, VP of Product Strategy & Design, Dow Jones & Company
Ben Kepes, Diversity Limited
Kris Duggan, CEO, Badgeville

I will play the role of the moderator, with an opinion.

Big data is changing how we approach our work and think about our products and services. I think, however, that the data is about to get away from us — unless we can grab "bigger" tools and change our thinking.

I've had the chance to cover some of these issues (and I've had the pleasure of meeting Anjul Bhambrhri and Greg Merkle). These discussions often refer to a recent McKinsey study that says the following:

By 2018, the United States alone faces a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with deep analytical skills as well as 1.5 million managers and analysts with the know-how to use the analysis of big data to make effective decisions.

If we are to take advantage of this new social layer, we need to find new tools and practices that mix together the data, technology and unmatched ability of humans to ask questions. As Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee note in their recent book, Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy:

In particular, softer skills like leadership, team building, and creativity will be increasingly important. They are the areas least likely to be automated and most in demand in a dynamic, entrepreneurial economy. Conversely, college graduates who seek the traditional type of job, where someone else tells them what to do each day, will find themselves increasingly in competition with machines, which excel at following detailed instructions.

This panel includes the people who can spur our thinking about how best to align current capabilities with new tools and practices that build on, rather than are smothered by, this new social analytics layer. I'm very much looking forward your thoughts on helping us set our direction during the panel.

Are you ready for this new social layer? Have you taken on new tools, skills, practices, or all three in your efforts to make use of this data?

Terri GriffithTerri Griffith, Ph.D., is a professor of management at Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business and the author of The Plugged-In Manager: Get in Tune with Your People, Technology, and Organization to Thrive. Visit TerriGriffith.com.

CloudBeat 2011CloudBeat 2011 takes place Nov 30 – Dec 1 at the 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. Speakers include: Aaron Levie, Co-Founder & CEO of Box.net; Amit Singh VP of Enterprise at Google; Adrian Cockcroft, Director of Cloud Architecture at Netflix; Byron Sebastian, Senior VP of Platforms at Salesforce; Lew Tucker, VP & CTO of Cloud Computing at Cisco, and many more. Join 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. Spaces are limited!

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Will Zynga’s snafu over employee stock impact its coming IPO?

Posted: 11 Nov 2011 09:22 AM PST

Social gaming powerhouse Zynga has been the buzz of the blogosphere today and the star of a back-and-forth over whether the startup is being equitable with how it hands out (and possibly takes back) equity to employees.

Originally, the Wall Street Journal reported Zynga executives, including CEO Mark Pincus (pictured), had decided to take back employee stock in light of the startup’s coming IPO. According to the Journal’s sources, company leadership started giving employees an ultimatum: Give back your stock, or you’re fired.

Then this morning, Pincus sent out a company-wide memo saying the Journal’s reporting was “based on hearsay” and that it portrayed Zynga’s culture of meritocracy “in a false and skewed light.”

He continued, “I am proud of the ethical and fair way that we’ve built this company… Being a meritocracy is one of our core values and it’s on our walls. We believe that every employee deserves the same opportunity to lead. Its not about where or when you enter zynga its [sic] how far you can grow. This is what our culture of leveling up is all about and its [sic] one of our coolest features. we want everyone to put zynga first and contribute to the overall success of our company and all of you have.”

It’s hard to say exactly what “meritocracy” means inside Zynga’s walls. Pincus could simply be putting a thin veneer on underhanded motivational practices that involve changing how stock is vested; he could also be the tone-setting chief of a truly lovely company culture. However, what is certain is the Journal’s hit piece could not have been more portentously timed.

Zynga is said to be looking toward a post-Thanksgiving date for its upcoming IPO.

The company filed to go public in July, and all parties, including VentureBeat, were optimistic about the financial outcome of that action. As of July 2011, Pincus himself owned 112 million shares, or about 18.1 percent of the company's overall 618 million shares, according to Zynga’s SEC filings. It’s hard to imagine an IPO scenario in which Pincus would emerge as anything less than a multi-billionaire.

However, the IPO has been fraught with delays. While the company filed to go public back in the late summer, its leadership could not have anticipated the stock market meltdown in August. Many wondered if the company’s IPO plans would survive the bloodbath at all. Many other IPOs in August — a record number of them, in fact — were delayed or sent overseas. The IPO window was closing.

Now, with the company’s IPO just a couple weeks away, reports such as these, be they ever so “based on hearsay,” stand a chance of doing some damage to Zynga’s public market performance, especially if those reports escalate.

We’ve contacted Zynga for comment and will update you when more information is available.

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Skimlinks skims $4.5 million to help bloggers earn cash (exclusive)

Posted: 11 Nov 2011 09:22 AM PST

Skimlinks automatically converts product references in blog posts into affiliate sales links. The London startup just closed a funding round of $4.5 led by Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments, the investment arm of media giant Bertelsmann AG.

For example, Skimlinks converts every mention of “Modern Warfare 3” in a review of that game into a link to a site like Amazon where the game can be bought. The blog earns a cut of every sale driven from the review. That commission can range from 4 to 15 percent of the price of the product, and Skimlinks takes 25 percent of the blogger’s fee.

New investor Bertelsmann AG owns the RTL Group, Europe’s biggest broadcaster, and Random House, the world’s largest trade book publisher, as well as numerous magazines. Another investor in this round is Dave McClure of startup accelerator 500 Startups, in a departure from his normal focus on very early stage companies.

Skimlinks’ main competitor is Google-backed VigLink. Skimlinks CEO Alicia Navarro doesn’t seem worried. “VigLink does much of what we do, although we innovate faster,” said Navarro. “We launched our link-insertion product, SkimWords, over a year ago, and they launched a soft version of it a month ago, but it isn’t commercially as ready or as lucrative for publishers as ours is. We also differ in that, as we are London-based, with offices in New York and San Francisco, we have a very international mindset.” Gaining the backing of a media behemoth like Bertelsmann, which has revenues of over 22 billion and employs 100,000 people, certainly helps counter the Google threat.

Skimlinks was founded in 2008 and has 30 employees.

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