15 November, 2011



TalkDesk solves the customer support headache for small businesses

Posted: 15 Nov 2011 09:40 AM PST

Customer service is taking on new and exciting forms. Putting together a full customer support team is so expensive that it’s out of reach for most small businesses. Often the choice for small companies and startups is to pile all outreach onto a single individual, who can no longer do his or her core job. Those are the companies TalkDesk is targeting with its customer support tool.

TalkDesk lets businesses set up a customer support center in minutes, all from a browser. When a call is placed to a customer service number, that person’s information is automatically pulled up in a browser window along with call history and any information that may help resolve their problems. The real genius of TalkDesk is its interoperability with popular customer relationship management services (CRMs) such as Salesforce and Zendesk. With a clever use of their APIs, TalkDesk pulls customer information from Salesforce, Olark and other business tools, so users can quickly see if the caller has outstanding tickets using these other tools.

“When you have all the information about the customer — a 360 degree view of the customer — you can better take care of his problems,” TalkDesk co-founder Tiago Paiva told VentureBeat. “You don’t even have to ask his name.”

TalkDesk also pulls in information from sites such as Linkedin and Twitter, which might seem strange at first, until you consider how valuable it might be to know if you’re talking to a customer who is trashing your product on popular social media sites.

Co-founders Paiva and Cristina Fonseca of Portugal have been working on web applications for a number of years, but their journey to the U.S. came in a flash. They were notified one day before this year’s Twiliocon that they were selected to present, and they were subsequently chosen as the winners. The duo were admitted into the current class of the 500 Startups accelerator and had to return to Portugal to get their visa situation in order before returning to California to get cranking on their company.

The two have been so busy building their product since arriving in the U.S., that they’ve not even had the chance to buy themselves cell phones. This is especially funny given the fact that their whole product revolves around helping other businesses provide customer support over the phone.

“When you come to Silicon Valley you have to focus a lot on raising money, and maybe because we are from Europe we really want to build a sustainable business based on customers, and grow from the revenue we make every month,” said Paiva.

On Sunday Paiva and  Fonseca had dinner with Portuguese President Anibal António Cavaco Silva, who is on a tour of Silicon Valley to learn how to bring some of California’s startup energy to his country.

TalkDesk was recently chosen as one of the 10 finalists of the CloudBeat Innovation Showdown and will be presenting at VentureBeat’s CloudBeat conference at the end of the month.

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 very limited!

[Image Credit: Cloud via ShutterStock]

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Art can pay: Minted raises $5.5M to expand graphic design and stationery business

Posted: 15 Nov 2011 09:16 AM PST

A Twilight-themed wedding invitation from MintedMinted, a marketplace for community-sourced paper products like custom stationery and wedding invitations, has raised a big pile of the other kind of paper — the green kind, which you can spend.

For anyone whose parents told them to stop doodling Celtic knots or obsessively repetitive graphic designs and focus on doing schoolwork so they could get a decent job, that must come as encouraging news.

Minted has just completed a $5.5 million series B round led by Benchmark Capital, with additional investors including IDG Ventures, Menlo Ventures, Jeremy Stoppelman of Yelp and Marissa Mayer of Google. The money will be used to recruit staff and to expand into new product lines.

It’s a sign of health for the design and stationery category, which has become trendy in the past few years. Stores like Papyrus and Paper Source have tapped into people’s desire for a classier, craftier time, when ladies and gentlemen sent thank-you notes on personalized note cards and then probably spent their evenings knitting sweaters or assembling model boats inside bottles.

Based on my experience, it’s easy to spend a lot of money on stationery: I recently went searching for custom note cards and matching envelopes, settling eventually on a slightly homemade solution (a custom rubber stamp and nice card stock) that I hope exudes hipster craftiness more than “too cheap to pay for letterpress.” However, even on a budget I still wound up spending $120 on supplies before I realized what I’d done.

So it’s easy for me to believe it when Minted claims that it’s aiming for a piece of the $10 billion market for stationery, invitations and cards.

In addition, the company is launching an art contest. Three design experts will judge the contest: Alison Pincus, the cofounder of One Kings Lane; Mary Jo Bowling, the editor-in-chief of California Home and Design; and Christina Brian, a blogger at the Full House blog. Those names won’t mean anything to you unless you’re an obsessive design geek — but if you are, you’ll probably be entering the contest for a shot at winning $1,000 and a trip to San Francisco. The three winning designs will also be sold on One Kings Lane as art prints.

Minted, based in San Francisco, was co-founded by chief executive Mariam Naficy (who cofounded online cosmetics startup Eve.com in 1998) and senior vice president Melissa Kim.

Minted Raises Series B Round, Led by Benchmark Capital (press release)


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Exploit turns Facebook into a haven for gory, violent and pornographic images

Posted: 15 Nov 2011 09:05 AM PST

If you’re wondering why we’ve chosen the impossibly cute photo of five-week-old kitten Link as eye bleach for this post’s art, it’s because an increasing number of eyeballs that frequent Facebook could use it.

Many of the giant social network’s 800 million active users are experiencing a flood of pornographic and gory images that pop up on their news feed lately.

The reason for this is due to a linkspam virus (under the guise of celebrity news about Kim Kardashian — among others) that’s exploiting Facebook’s new media-rich Timeline upgrade. When users click a malicious link, it turns their news feed into a stream of pornographic, gory, violent and/or just plain unpleasant images.

It’s unclear who is to blame for the linkspam attacks, although many are pointing the finger at online hacktivist group Anonymous. Facebook isn’t saying much about the incident, but the company did send us the following statement:

“Protecting the people who use Facebook from spam and malicious content is a top priority for us and we are always working to improve our systems to isolate and remove material that violates our terms. We have recently experienced an increase in reports and we are investigating and addressing the issue.”

Have you experienced unpleasant images in your news feed due to the recent linkspam virus? Leave us a comment below.

[Photo via Reddit user HLef]

Filed under: security, social, VentureBeat

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Review: Kinect Disneyland Adventures is the most unique and most disappointing Kinect game yet

Posted: 15 Nov 2011 09:00 AM PST

For the better part of five years, I worked as  Disney cast member. I spent day after day learning the biggest secrets of a company that protects fiercely and, as a result, I lost what Disney and its fan know as “the magic.” The extraordinary became mundane,  and in a weird way, I began to step away. Who knew it would take a virtual trip back to reignite my love?

In that sense, Kinect Disneyland Adventures does its job, and it does it very well; you’re constantly reminded of just what’s right about the Disney company and its brands, especially if you play with those familiar with the park. As a game though, it’s more of a mixed bag. It’s really fun and a cool demonstration of the tech behind Kinect to interact with the characters, but basic mechanics like moving around feel incredibly complicated, and will make you practically hate the experience. Still, I can’t help but recommend Kinect Disneyland Adventures for all of its charm, especially if you’re big on the park itself.

The Disneyland that never was but always will be

The idea behind Disneyland Adventures is simple, guide your avatar through the Disneyland park and go on adventures and quests as given to you by Disney characters. Now, this is a very idealized version of the famous theme park; there are no lines, the cast members all speak English, it’s not crowded, and you’re able to walk directly up to any of the characters at anytime. Curiously enough — there’s always a crowd around the characters, but no one — but you, ever goes up to them.  To the game’s credit, the Disneyland in the game is pretty accurate compared to the real deal; I was able to run around, without looking at the map, and get where I needed to go just based on my memory of the park. Of course, some changes have been made for the sake of game play, but those are few and far between. The permanent popcorn carts and stands are even in the right place, impressive for a game that basically serves as a commercial.

The characters are also impressive in their recreations. For instance, we found Captain Hook outside of Peter Pan’s Flight in Fantasyland, and one of the options is to extend your arms in a hug motion to interact in that way with the characters, and while everyone from Mickey and Donald to Cinderella and Buzz Lightyear was happy to give a squeeze, Captain Hook (along with the rest of the Villains for that matter) were unsure of what to do and seemed very confused when we tried. Of course, this is a Disney game and every villain has a heart of gold deep down inside, so we eventually got our hug. There’s a fair number of interactions with each character, like dancing and signing autographs. The autographs are one of the game’s coolest feature, as you’ll gain points for collecting different autograph books (there’s one for heroes, one for villains, one for Princesses and so on) and getting the right characters to sign them. I was at first a bit annoyed that I had to do so much backtracking, but it became incredibly fun to dash around the parks with different books.

Each character you find will give you a different quest to go on in the park, whether it be giving something to another character, tracking something down or going to one of the attractions. The attractions are where the Kinect capabilities really come in. The rides and shows take the form of motion-themed mini games, where you’ll interact with the attraction and its story. Much like The Disneyland park itself, these are idealized versions inspired by the attractions, so instead of actually going on the Matterhorn itself, you’ll be bobsledding down a hill and trying to evade the Yeti. A lot of these worlds are pretty cool, like the Haunted Mansion inspired world, which finds you hunting ghosts with a flashlight while the famous Ghost Host narrates your adventure. The worlds are given a more cell shaded look than the rest of the game, which lends a classic animation feel to them. The best part of all of this again is just how right they got everything, with the Ghost Host in the Haunted Mansion, Captain Hook and Smee in the Peter Pan levels and even the corny jokes in the Jungle Cruise section.

Traffic flow problems

Now, it can be pretty hard to walk in a Disney park because of the crowds, but even though they are pretty much non existent in the game, it’s an incredibly frustrating experience just to walk. Kudos to the developers for trying to not just making it an on-rails game like most Kinect developers, but there’s simply got to be a better way. You move around the game by holding your hand up; holding it straight causes you to move forward while moving to the left or right has you moving in that direction and putting your hands to your side to stop. When it works, it’s great, but unfortunately, it doesn’t work a lot. The slightest movement will cause your character to shoot off into another direction — just hope you don’t get into a corner, as it’s going to be hell to get out of it.

Things get worse when you start unlocking different items to use like a magic wand or a megaphone. You gain these items by lifting your hand up and selecting them from a pop up wheel. While it may sound simple, the game has a hard time registering whether you’re trying to pick an item, or run forward and it’s incredibly frustrating. At one point I had the wand equipped, and saw the same teacup animate probably 20 times because the game wouldn’t register that I was just trying to put it back. On that same note, the voice controls are pretty superb. While they weren’t perfect, the game was incredibly responsive a good portion of the time.

It may be a pain to get around, but Kinect Disneyland Adventures does its job of reminding you just why you love the Disney parks. You’ll interact with your favorite characters, go on your favorite rides (sort of) and even find some secrets hidden around the park. The game is at its best when its played by families and kids get excited when they see their favorite characters. At the very least, it serves as a running commercial for the Parks. Kinect Disneyland Adventures gets a 70.

Filed under: games

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Sony, Toshiba, Hitachi combine small display forces to form Japan Display

Posted: 15 Nov 2011 08:54 AM PST

If you need any further evidence that Japan’s display business isn’t so hot today, just take a look at the newly formed Japan Display, a joint small and medium-sized display venture between Sony, Toshiba, and Hitachi.

The companies are working together with the government-backed Innovation Network Corporation of Japan (INCJ), which is investing around $2.6 billion in funds from the Japanese government, Reuters reports. The electronics titans are pooling together their display businesses for mobile devices and tablets to better compete against Korean companies like Samsung and LG, which are dominating the display market.

And to be clear, the news doesn’t mean that the companies are giving up on their profit-draining big screen TV businesses (as much as Sony would like that).

With Japan Display, the companies are bringing together their engineering talents to take on Korean rivals, and they won’t have to worry as much about funding since INCJ is flush with cash from the Japanese government. INCJ will hold 70 percent of shareholder rights in the company, while Hitachi, Sony, and Toshiba will each get 10 percent.

Japan Display is set to launch in the spring of 2012. The company also announced today that it has purchased a domestic factory from Panasonic for an undisclosed sum.

Filed under: media, mobile, VentureBeat

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Microsoft’s Code Space project combines Kinect, touchscreens for awesome meetings

Posted: 15 Nov 2011 08:05 AM PST

Microsoft Research is at it again: The wily folks who created the Kinect, among other cool projects, have put together a project that could redefine the way we approach meetings.

Dubbed Code Space, the project allows groups to collaborate using air and touch gestures with Kinect sensors and touchscreen devices, thereby “democratizing access, control, and sharing of information across multiple personal devices and public displays.”

While still a very early concept, Code Space shows the potential uses for the Kinect beyond a mere gaming accessory. With its motion tracking capabilities, the Kinect sensor could be the key that would make Minority Report-style computer interaction commonplace.

Why the need for so many input devices, when a simple whiteboard would do for most meetings? Code Space was created with developers in mind, so having a way to share information across devices could ultimately make meetings more efficient. For a simple PTA get-together, where there’s not much data to share, Code Space would likely be overkill.

The project’s design principles offers up some insight on what Microsoft Research hopes to accomplish. “Everyone can interact with the shared display, from anywhere in the meeting space, with any device they bring,” reads the first principle. That’s certainly a meeting I wouldn’t mind booking.

Check out a video of Code Space in action below:

Via: MSDN, Engadget

Filed under: gadgets, offBeat, VentureBeat

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Jetpac takes you on a guided world tour, as seen by your Facebook friends (exclusive)

Posted: 15 Nov 2011 08:00 AM PST

Jetpac debuts Tuesday as a Facebook friend-propelled rocket belt, taking you on a visual journey around the world for your travel inspiration.

The startup has developed a travel magazine-like iPad application, slated for release before the end of the year, that culls Facebook photos to recommend locales and attractions to visit. It also points you to the right Facebook friend for travel advice.

Intrigued? You can sign up, reserve your profile and get a sneak peek at what’s to come.

“The best place to get excited about travel right now is still magazines and guidebooks … and to talk to friends to get their travel stories and recommendations,” co-founder Julian Green told VentureBeat in an exclusive interview. “What Jetpac tries to do is bring those two things online and make them better.”

The startup connects to Facebook to marry a rich magazine-inspired experience with travel recommendations from friends. Jetpac then analyzes the thousands of photos your Facebook friends have shared, determines photo locations and activities pictured, and plucks out the best shots — it knows that a photo of mom and dad, for instance, is usually not a good one, so these are automatically left out — to place them into entities called “trip books.”

Trip books represent the latest and most popular places that your Facebook friends have been to. Trip books include only the photos that will help you make informed travel decisions. You can see who’s been where, click a picture to see photos in a slideshow, “like” a photo and save it to your stream for even more content related to the pictured place, follow activities like scuba-diving, and connect directly with friends for travel questions.

“It solves that problem of, ‘How do I know in real-time where my friends have gone and had fun, and are willing to tell me about?’”

Jetpac’s visual approach to travel recommendations is currently powered by Facebook photos, but the startup will soon add additional inspiration sources, including Instagram and Flickr, Green said.

The startup, founded in 2011, is based in San Francisco and has raised $300,000 from angel investors.

Filed under: mobile, social, VentureBeat

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The making of the Xbox: Microsoft’s journey to the next generation (part 2)

Posted: 15 Nov 2011 08:00 AM PST

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Editor’s note: This story is the second of two pieces on the 10th anniversary of the launch of Microsoft’s Xbox video game console, which debuted Nov. 15, 2001. The narrative is based on recent interviews as well as my two books: Opening the Xbox: Inside Microsoft’s Plan to Unleash an Entertainment Revolution, published in 2002; and The Xbox 360 Uncloaked: The real story behind Microsoft’s next generation video game console, published in 2006. Part 1 took us through the launch of the Xbox. This story takes us through the aftermath, the launch of the Xbox 360, and the present day state of the video game wars.

It was a miracle that Microsoft got the first Xbox out the door. The company’s first video game console came together in just 20 months from conception to launch. It earned Microsoft a precious toehold in the living room, selling 1.5 million units in its first season. It sold three games for every box and generated $750 million in revenue. Over four years, that grew to 21 million consoles sold.

But Sony won the war for that console generation. The PlayStation 2 sold more than 90 million units by mid-2005, while Nintendo’s GameCube came in a close third with 20 million units sold. With such a lopsided tally, Sony was able to snare exclusive games such as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

To turn things around, Microsoft had to initiate a new console war with its own surprise attack. Instead of being 20 months behind Sony, Microsoft now planned to hit the market at the same time or before Sony came out with its next console. As soon as the Xbox shipped, Microsoft had to start running full blast. The next project was code-named Xenon. Later dubbed the Xbox 360, it would finish what the Xbox had started.

On the night that the Xbox launched in Times Square, chief Xbox officer Robbie Bach was standing with co-creator Seamus Blackley. “Welcome to the starting line,” Bach said. “Fuck off,” Blackley said, laughing because he was so exhausted.

Bill Gates himself summed up his feelings with a Time magazine writer. He said, “The first generation, it’s just like a video game. If you play perfectly, at the end, it says, ‘You get to play again.’ That’s all it says! You put your hand in the till. There’s no quarter down there. There’s no, like, even tickets to buy funny dolls or anything. It’s just, ‘Hey, play again.’”

Easy come, easy go: $4 billion in losses

Blackley had no more stomach for this second battle. He left Microsoft in the spring of 2002, following his buddy Kevin Bachus out the door. In a recent interview, he had no regrets about leaving.

“The thing I’m really good at is being immune enough to pain to continue to push ideas I really believe in,” he said. “I’m stupid enough to push them even when it is disadvantageous to me. I’m not the right guy to hang out and optimize a business like that.”

A bunch of veterans did stick around. Bill Gates was up for another round, though this time he would do it as chairman, in a secondary role to the newly-minted CEO Steve Ballmer. There were now around 2,000 people in the game division, still less than what Sony had but far more than the 400 that Microsoft had before the Xbox.

But Microsoft had dug itself a hole. After four years, Microsoft’s Home and Entertainment Group reported a total loss of $4 billion. That number included some other money-losing ventures too. But the vast majority of it was due to Xbox and the loss that the company was taking on every machine that it made. Insiders believed that Microsoft lost $3.7 billion on the original Xbox by 2005. That amounted to a $168 loss on every  machine that Microsoft sold.

The toughest part was that the machine wasn’t designed to take advantage of declining prices or volume discounts on component manufacturing, the way a mass-market electronics product would ordinarily be designed. That was driven by necessity, since the machine went from idea to product in about half the time it usually took to design such a complicated device. There wasn’t enough time to design unique chips and hardware that could be made more cheaply over time. Microsoft had to take a lot of costly off-the-shelf parts, including an expensive hard disk drive. When the machine started selling for $299, the cost for making each machine was around $425.

Selling games was the way to offset the losses. But game making was getting costly. One Electronic Arts executive estimated that it took 20 employees to make a PlayStation game, 80 to make a PS 2 game, and 150 to make a PS 3 game. Working for two years, the PS 3 game could consume $30 million in payroll costs, not counting marketing. Xbox game making costs were not so different.

At the same time, the price gamers paid for games was dropping. Fewer games were accounting for all of the big unit sales. If a game wasn’t a hit, it could be a huge drain on a game publisher. Microsoft had entered the market to ease the burden on game developers, but their problems were multiplying. After its first round of hits and duds became clear, Microsoft cut back on its own teams that made duds.

Some observers in the industry were astounded at the losses Microsoft was willing to absorb. The company seemed like it was taking profits from its Windows and Office franchises and flushing it down the toilet of the Xbox. Later on, Microsoft’s pile of cash dwindled and the company found other needs for that cash, such as trying to catch up with Google in search. Even so, at the time, losing $4 billion over four years wasn’t a big deal; Microsoft was generating $4 billion in cash every two quarters. By sticking it out, Microsoft eventually wound up with a game business that was generating more than a billion dollars a year in profits.

“Clearly it was a big investment — but one that paid off well,” said Bach. “A business has been built that is worth much more than the original investment, the ongoing earnings potential is high, Microsoft has an ongoing relationship with millions of consumers through Xbox Live, and the company has a great opportunity in the living room and three screen entertainment space going forward.”

Ed Fries, former head of Microsoft Game Studios, added, “I wouldn’t say we lost $4 billion. I’d say we spent $4 billion building the Xbox brand and business.”

He noted that a recent brand value study says the Xbox brand alone (not counting the actual business) is worth more than $4 billion today.

Only a company like Microsoft could absorb such losses. And Bill Gates saw the strategic value in stopping Sony in its tracks and building a second pillar for Microsoft software, beyond productivity, based on entertainment in the home.

He knew the battle for the living room would play out over two decades, not just four years. Microsoft earned credibility with game developers and consumers by breaking the chokehold of the Japanese game giants. On a consumer level, Microsoft generated its most passionate fans. Gamers loved new titles such as Halo. In this arena, Microsoft was an underdog that had the power to upset the status quo and invigorate a market with new competition. In any other market it entered, Microsoft was always seen as an anti-competitive gorilla. Here, it was the good guy. Microsoft marketer Pete Parsons was able to joke about “world domination” without getting hauled off to court.

Microsoft’s entry into the console industry also had a broader effect on the industry. It strengthened a lot of American game developers, from Epic Games to Electronic Arts. And it forced Sony and Nintendo to come up with more innovations for their own consoles. Nintendo in particular had to move outside its own comfort zone to come up with its own risky console, the Wii.

“It escalated the technology arms race that had been building in the ’90s,” Kevin Bachus, one of the original Xbox founders, said recently.

Microsoft still had to make the transition that Sony had, leaping from hardcore gamers to the mass market. With the Xbox 360, Microsoft would pursue that goal aggressively.

Front image via Scott Akerman

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Google may finally launch its music store (and music file-sharing) tomorrow

Posted: 15 Nov 2011 07:51 AM PST

Since the launch of Google Music, we’ve been waiting for the ability to buy songs from inside the app. According to new reports, that wait might be over as soon as tomorrow.

According to Bloomberg sources close to the matter, EMI has already signed an agreement with the Android maker, and a deal with Universal Music Group should be official tomorrow, November 16. Billboard also confirms this report and states that indie distributors are also signing up.

All in all, the new music store launch is Hollywood’s worst-kept secret, and we can’t wait for all the rumors to be confirmed.

Google is holding a press event in L.A. starting at 2 p.m. Pacific Time on Wednesday, November 16. Stay tuned for live coverage and news from the event.

Here’s another interesting tidbit about the Google Music experience: Google Music will support peer-to-peer file sharing. Users who buy songs will be able to share those songs with friends, and those friends will be able to play the songs a limited number of times without purchasing the songs themselves.

When Google Music launched at Google I/O, the company’s developer conference, back in May, it did so without any fully negotiated agreements with any record labels. At the time, Hollywood wasn’t too happy with the company.

"People are pissed," one record label source told The Hollywood Reporter. Google had tipped labels off that the service was coming, so the Google Music launch wasn’t a total shock. Nevertheless, the company portrayed the labels as a problem child and launched a cloud-based music service without inking any agreements first; you can’t blame the record companies for a bit of pouting in that scenario.

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Sony is bringing Ice Cream Sandwich to the entire Xperia line

Posted: 15 Nov 2011 07:31 AM PST

Ice Cream Sandwich, the newest (and arguably best) version of Android, will soon be available on the entire Xperia line of gadgets from Sony.

“We plan to upgrade the entire 2011 Xperia portfolio to the next version of Android known as Android 4.0 or Ice Cream Sandwich,” wrote Sony employee Martina Johansson on the company blog this morning.

That portfolio includes such devices as the Xperia arc and arc S, Xperia PLAY, Xperia neo and neo V, Xperia mini and mini pro, Xperia pro, Xperia active, Xperia ray and Sony Ericsson Live with Walkman. All of these are smartphones, and some have special features for gaming, music or business.

“We are working on merging our current Xperia experience with the new features in Android 4.0,” Johansson continued.

Ice Cream Sandwich’s new features include a one-size-really-does-fit-all approach that makes the OS suitable for phones, tablets, TVs — just about any connected device, according to Google. Previously, Google had offered separate forks of the OS for different devices — the 2.X line was intended for smartphones, while the 3.X line (a.k.a. Honeycomb) was meant for tablets.

The new mobile OS version also features a ground-up redesign that places a large emphasis on user experience, large imagery and stunning typography. Google even built a brand new typeface just for Ice Cream Sandwich (type nerds can check out our deep-dive coverage, including type samples, for the typeface, Roboto).

What Sony hasn’t stated, however, is whether or when it’s bringing Ice Cream Sandwich to its tablets. The Sony Tablet S, which claims to feature “the latest version of Android,” is still running on the 3.X Honeycomb fork.

In fact, if recent reports are to be believed, Lenovo may actually bring the first Ice Cream Sandwich tablet to market later this year.

Filed under: mobile

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Nintendo’s Wii U online service may be powered exclusively by EA’s Origin

Posted: 15 Nov 2011 07:13 AM PST

Nintendo could be looking for third parties to provide the online infrastructure for its upcoming Wii U console, according to a report released this week.

An anonymous source, claiming to be working within Electronic Arts, says that the company is in talks to make Origin, EA’s digital games distribution platform, an integral part of the Wii U online service. The previously reliable site WiiUGo quotes the source as saying that EA are "aggressively persuading Nintendo to go Origins exclusive with Wii U's online".

Despite impressive hardware sales, the online features of the Nintendo Wii have failed to match up to those of its rival consoles this generation. In April this year, Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata commented that "Wii’s future could have been different if Nintendo had made better partnerships with outside companies in the field of network services at the early stages of the penetration of Wii." Referring to network services, he added "we would like to clearly differentiate what is our true strength from what we can basically do by ourselves but can be done better by more skillful outside specialists".

Such a position clearly leaves the door open for a third party to step in and support Nintendo's online services on its upcoming console. According to the source, Nintendo sees an alliance with EA and Origin "as an opportunity to rebuild relationships with Western gamers because they feel that only a massive western company such as EA understands what is needed to make an online service attractive to western gamers."

An exclusive partnership would give EA an opportunity to gain a foothold in the console market for their Origin platform, which has most notably been used to power the hit game Battlefield 3 on PC. It would also be a shot across the bows of Steam, the rival online service provided by Valve, which is also reported to be keen on gaining a share of the Wii U market.

We’re checking with both companies to see if they have comment.

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Netflix revamps Android tablet app for Kindle Fire, Nook Tablet debut

Posted: 15 Nov 2011 07:05 AM PST

Netflix, Android InterfaceNetflix has unveiled a brand new interface for its Watch Instantly streaming video service on tablets running Android, the company announced today.

The move comes just as Barnes and Noble’s Nook Tablet and Amazon’s Kindle Fire — both Android-powered tablet devices — enter the market for the holiday season.

The redesigned interface (shown above) displays twice as many titles on the video browsing screen than the previous iteration. The artwork for each movie and/or television series is also much larger than the old version. However, this doesn’t prevent you from navigating through titles. The new interface looks a lot like the one made for the web browser, but it works far better on a touch screen.

“In the last 12 months we have seen a threefold increase in how long Netflix members are watching on their tablets,” said Neil Hunt, chief product officer at Netflix, in a statement. Those viewing habits aren’t just specific to Netflix either. According to comScore, tablet viewers are more than twice as likely to finish a video than those watching from a desktop. Also, tablet viewers watched movies 30 percent longer than other mobile devices.

Netflix said the new streaming interface will make its way to the iPad in the next few weeks. It’s interesting that the company decided to lead with Android-powered devices instead of the great and mighty iPad, but not surprising. Android devices have a small but growing share of the tablet market, and it’s easier to deploy new apps to Android than it is to the iTunes App Store, where companies have to wait for Apple to approve every update. With the Nook and Kindle Fire on the way, its pretty obvious for why Netflix chose to concentrate on Android.

Filed under: media, mobile, VentureBeat

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MacBook Air accounts for 28% of Apple laptop shipments, 15″ version rumored

Posted: 15 Nov 2011 06:59 AM PST

MacBook AirIt’s thin, it’s light, and it makes up nearly a third of Apple’s laptop shipments.

Apple’s MacBook Air ultraportable has seen explosive growth since its summer revamp, and it now makes up 28 percent of Apple’s notebook shipments, according to Morgan Stanley analyst Katy Huberty.

That’s a big jump over the 8 percent share the MacBook Air held before its latest update, as AppleInsider reports, and it’s a sign that Apple will likely focus more on its ultraportable line in the future. Clearly, consumers are hankering for ultrathin Apple laptops.

The company has long been rumored to be developing a larger version of the Air, and the latest report from Digitimes indicates that Apple is indeed working on something in the 15-inch range. At this point, it’s too early to tell if the 15-inch ultraportable is another Air, or simply a slimmed down version of the MacBook Pro. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some design elements from the Air in Apple’s other laptops soon though — that certainly makes more sense than adding a bigger and heavier model to its ultraportable lineup.

Digitimes says the 15-inch ultrathin laptop could appear as early as the second quarter of next year. If it ends up being another Air model, I wouldn’t hold out much hope for the inclusion of an optical disc drive — Digitimes notes that would be extremely difficult given the thickness restrictions of the Air.

Filed under: gadgets, VentureBeat

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Los Angeles startup accelerator Start Engine opens for applications

Posted: 15 Nov 2011 06:00 AM PST

Start Engine hopes to help the city of Angels live up to its name, as the startup accelerator today opens up the application process for its first class of 30 startups. The audacious goal of accelerating and mentoring 120 startups per year is all part of trying to put Los Angeles on the map as an American technology capital, perhaps one day rivaling Silicon Valley.

The effort is being led by Howard Marks, co-founder of video game studio Activision, and Paul Kessler, one of LA’s most active angel investors.

Each Start Engine class will last for 90 days, and the participants will have access to offices, resources and professional networks. Approximately 30 mentors have committed to helping Start Engine founders throughout the program period, and Marks said those mentors are either CEO founders or CTOs.

“LA at its roots is a very entrepreneurial city,” said Marks, noting that biotech and aerospace are two of the larger indusrtries in the region. While Los Angeles lags behind Silicon Valley and San Francisco in the number of tech companies it has spawned, the city has long been a top destination for non-technical entrepreneurs. Hollywood and the film industry are one and the same. Music, fashion and entertainment are all part of the L.A. business environment.

Marks also points out that the Los Angeles area has many of the nation’s top colleges and universities, such as Caltech, UCLA and the Claremont University Consortium. Start Engine is setting up shop directly across from the UCLA campus in Westwood, Calif., and banking on the growing allure of startup life as a post-graduate career path to fuel its ambitions.

[Image Credit: mi..chaell/Flickr]

Filed under: Entrepreneur Corner

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Review: Despite its age, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is a breath of fresh air

Posted: 15 Nov 2011 06:00 AM PST

In many ways the first-person shooters of today owe a lot to the original Halo, which launched back in 2001 alongside the original Xbox on November 15. It stomped its way onto the scene and proclaimed the genre could indeed be successful on consoles despite most gamers believing a keyboard and mouse was needed for a truly great experience. The naysayers were incorrect and nowadays first-person shooters are the single most popular genre on both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Halo not only proved that first-person shooters could work on analog sticks for a console game controller, but it also created a totally original universe steeped in cultural and religious undertones as well as a meaningful, yet understated relationship between the main character and his computer-AI fueled, yet simply human, compatriot known as Cortana.

So, here we are ten years removed from Halo: Combat Evolved's launch with a remastered edition staring us in the face, trying to have a voice among the throng of other titles in the holiday season. The original developer Bungie has moved on, but Microsoft’s new Halo studio 343 Industries — and two external developers Saber Interactive and Certain Affinity –have created a “gift for gamers.” The game packs re-done high-definition visuals that take advantage of the leap from the original Xbox to Xbox 360 and game play that’s extraordinarily similar to the original, less a few discrepancies that I'll get into later. It also comes complete with six remastered multiplayer maps that piggyback on the Halo: Reach multiplayer experience as well as a reduced price tag of just $39.99, compared to the standard $59.99 for most games.

It’s good to be back

If you've never played the original Halo (first of all, where have you been?), it's a classic tale of good versus evil with players taking the reins of Master Chief, a revered soldier in the UNSC (United Nations Space Command) and humanity's last hope against the alien race known as the Covenant. Master Chief begins Halo as a silent participant, not unlike Gordon Freeman from Valve’s Half-Life series, but soon changes to become something more. Something wholly relatable despite the most unrelatable of circumstances. This is largely thanks to his purple digital compatriot, the aforementioned Cortana. It all begins with a very simple setup that gains depth and meaning as you progress through the campaign and through the subsequent games in the series. Very little has changed from ten years ago as far as the story is concerned. The dialogue is identical and the cut scenes, though re-imagined with some nifty new camera angles, are essentially the same.

The first of two deviations in the single-player is the addition of terminals. There's one hidden in each level and activating them triggers a cut scene that peels back a small layer of the Halo mythos. Terminals are designed to tie the action of the original Halo to the direction that the series is going to take with Halo 4. I won't give away anything other than to say that they're well done and add some nice depth to a few select characters and events. The second change is the inclusion of hidden skulls, items that originally debuted in Halo 2. Picking up a skull allows you to alter the game play in some way, almost always increasing the difficulty.

As you make your way through the somewhat lengthy (at least by today's first-person shooter standard) campaign, you'll realize that the game play feels exactly as you remember, though there are some slight inconsistencies. First of all, you no longer have access to binoculars by clicking the right analog stick. This won't matter if you have a scoped weapon in-hand, but if you want to zoom in on enemies from afar when using the assault rifle or shotgun, you're going to have issues. Secondly, for some reason the folks at 343 Industries didn't include vehicle degradation in this anniversary edition. In the original players could shoot off hub caps, break windshields and further tear up their rides, but none of that is included here. Neither of these subtle changes have a detrimental effect on the core fun you'll have in the campaign, but they're noteworthy nonetheless.

Of course, if we're talking about purely aesthetic changes then there's more than this review will allow. The entire campaign has been remastered and includes the requisite amount of detail that you'd expect on the current Xbox 360 hardware. Textures on enemies and objects are far more stylish than they were ten years ago and everything else has an extra sheen of polish. Particle effects are more plentiful (as evidenced in the later levels when snow flurries become common), enemies are a bit more intimidating and even weapons and vehicles have benefited from the upgrade in technical capability. In fact, the developers were so proud of their work that they saw fit to include a flashback ability. By tapping the back button or saying "Classic" if you have Microsoft's Kinect peripheral, you'll be teleported back to the 2001 version, just as it was. You can play the entire game in either mode, but take note that you can't switch back and forth during a cut scene, which occasionally contains some of the most impressive visuals.
All of that new panache comes at a price, though. The frame rate (the number of images that are displayed in a second) chugs very often, especially when Master Chief heads outdoors or the action gets especially frenetic. What's more puzzling is that the frame rate runs into issues in both Remastered and Classic modes. The great looking textures that I mentioned earlier also run into some issues. Occasionally they'll take a split-second too long to load and some objects wind up looking very muddy until the high-resolution texture loads into frame. This was especially prevalent in later levels.

While Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary does a solid job of bringing new life to the visuals, the same can't be said for the core design of the game. Much like they did in 2001, the levels feel very repetitive late in the campaign with backtracking being commonplace and mission objectives being quite redundant in spots.That withstanding, this dated campaign still manages to be a breath of fresh air when looking at the current stable of first-person shooters. Franchises like Battlefield and Call of Duty tend to be more about style than substance. Enemies pop up from behind cover and retreat again as if in a game of whack-a-mole. There's none of that in Halo. Enemies typically have a discernible level of intelligence and strategy is a must when attacking a situation. And while the campaign is linear, different situations present a number of tactical opportunities for players to discover. Halo: Anniversary is less about awesome scripted set pieces and more about delivering fun game play and crafty artificial intelligence and it’s a better experience for it.

A missed opportunity

Straying away from the campaign, Halo: Anniversary also comes complete with multiplayer game play. Sort of. It leverages the Halo: Reach (released in 2010 and developed by Bungie Studios) multiplayer engine, which means you’ll get Firefight as well as Forge. Firefight pits you and a group of players against wave after wave of AI opponents that increase in difficulty as you progress. The Anniversary Edition comes with a new Firefight map called Installation 04 that’s ripped right from the campaign and should please fans of the original Halo. Forge is taken straight from Halo: Reach and allows players to make edits to current maps by adding and deleting objects as they see fit. Neither of these modes are unique to the Anniversary Edition, but both are welcome inclusions.

What people will be most interested in, though, are the six newly remastered multiplayer maps from Halo: Combat Evolved. They’ve been given a similar graphical treatment as the campaign missions and play largely as you remember, except with Halo: Reach’s game play. That’s my single biggest issue with the multiplayer offering in this Anniversary Edition, it simply isn’t faithful to Halo: Combat Evolved. It was a conscious decision from the folks at 343 Industries to not fragment the Reach player community and ecosystem, but those who want to experience the same nostalgic feeling that they’ll get from the campaign will be sorely disappointed, despite maps like Beaver Creek and Hang ‘Em High making their return (the absence of Blood Gulch is blasphemy in my mind). It’s obvious that the developers knew this was going to be an issue and thus included some options to make Halo: Reach’s gameplay feel like the original’s as much as possible. Sadly there’s still a fairly large disconnect between the two experiences, and it sadly keeps the Anniversary Edition from feeling like a complete package.


Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is a good game, made even more impressive if you’ve never played a Halo title before (I envy you, in a way). It does a great job of replicating the feel of the single-player gameplay and story with some great-looking visuals, that do come at a cost. Being able to use that over-powered pistol again and hear the Halo theme that was crafted by Marty O’Donnell more than a decade ago is a fantastic experience, especially when you toss in the ability to hop back into 2001′s version of Halo whenever you please.

But with a lot of good, you also get some bad. The framerate and texture issues are inescapable and the mission design as well as level structure could use some serious variety, especially when compared to what else is on the market today. The multiplayer, while it is as strong as Halo: Reach’s offering, never feels connected to the Halo: Combat Evolved experience, despite six original maps making an appearance. The Anniversary Edition of Halo: Combat Evolved is a definitive rendition in terms of the campaign, but for my money I’d rather be playing in a LAN (Local Area Network) party with four Xboxes wired together in my parents’ house with the original game than this Halo: Reach version of a handful of original maps. In the end, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary gets an 82 out of 100.

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Vyatta nabs $12M from HighBAR, JPMorgan, Citrix to push cloud networking security

Posted: 15 Nov 2011 04:30 AM PST

Kelly-Herrell-VyattaLeading software-based networking provider Vyatta has raised $12 million in a new round of funding, with a goal of continuing to improve security for physical and cloud infrastructures.

“The number one concern of CIOs is security,” Vyatta CEO Kelly Herrell (pictured) told VentureBeat. “We help give them peace of mind by solving some of the biggest security networking issues.”

Vyatta offers several networking solutions, including its popular Network OS for the Cloud. With it, the company claims to deliver “advanced network security and connectivity in a cloud-ready, virtualization optimized, software appliance.” The software is simple to deploy and maintains security with its enterprise-class firewall, IPsec VPN, OpenVPN, network intrusion prevention, web filtering, and more.

Harrell told us that Vyatta’s growth with customers using its cloud solutions has grown at an astounding pace this year, signalling how many companies want to get into the cloud. Specifically, Vyatta’s sales were 20% cloud-focused at the beginning of the year but will reach 60% by the end of the year. Vyatta counts Dell and Carpathia as clients it helps with securing their cloud offerings.

The new funding round was led by HighBAR Partners, with participation from existing investors JPMorgan, Arrowpath Venture Partners and Citrix Systems. Vyatta’s funding now totals around $45 million.

"The networks for cloud architectures need the security, flexibility and elasticity of Vyatta's software-based approach, not the traditional 'black box' model of legacy vendors," said Roy Thiele-Sardiña, Managing Partner at HighBAR Partners, in a statement. "With Vyatta, HighBAR sees an opportunity to redefine how networks and data centers are connected and secured."

Belmont, Calif.-based Vyatta was founded in 2006 and now has 50 employees. Herrell said the company is “hiring rapidly” and just opened a European office last month.

Take a glance at the photo below to get an idea of what Vyatta’s software is set up.


CloudBeat 2011CloudBeat 2011 takes place Nov 30 – Dec 1 at the Hotel Sofitel in Redwood City, CA. Unlike any other cloud event, 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 very limited!

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Korean game startup Pangalore targets HTML5 games

Posted: 15 Nov 2011 12:01 AM PST

More and more game companies are turning to the HTML5 web format to create cross-platform games. The latest is Pangalore, a social and mobile game startup based in Seoul.

Pangalore was founded in May to create games that can run on multiple platforms by using HTML5 as their technical foundation. Pangalore built from scratch a game engine that can work within the limits of HTML5, said Doyon Kim, chief product officer and co-founder of the company who runs the office in San Jose, Calif., in an interview.

Pangalore is announcing two new Facebook and mobile games today: Artfit and Wild West Solitaire. Both are slow-moving, cartoon-like titles that accommodate the main weakness of HTML5 now: slow speed. Pangalore is also working on two more titles, Pop the Candy and Bubble Prince, for release later. Kim says the company will release titles every couple of months.

“The benefit of HTML5 games is that you can start them on one platform and then finish them on another,” Kim said. “We designed our games from the start to be multiplatform games.”

While young, the company has a big staff. It has 25 employees and funding from NHN, the largest online game portal in Korea. The good thing about HTML5 games is they can run on just about any platform, from Facebook to Android phones and tablets. It runs on browsers on mobile devices, PCs, and Macs. Pangalore is also making native format games for the Apple iPhone.

Kim said that deeper strategy and role-playing games are in the works as well, using the Unity 3D game engine. Those games, including a simulation title, will be coming in early 2012. Among the team are some experienced game creators including those who created Ragnarok Online, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game with 3 million players in North America.

The games are free-to-play and are accessible from a single Facebook account that works across all devices. Kim co-founded the firm with Brian Kang, former chief executive of Gravity and a former venture capitalist. Kim previously founded Dialpad Communications, Opinity and Spotplex. Rivals included other HTML5 game makers such as Moblyng and Zynga.

The Wild West Solitaire game sets players on a card-playing journey along the historic Oregon Trail, where you race against the clock or friends to play solitaire challenges. Artfit is a falling blocks game where players must place the pieces into forms to score points and advance through increasingly complex levels. Over time, HTML5 is expected to show better performance so that a wider variety of games will be playable on it. Pangalore hopes to be ready when that happens.

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Warren Buffett has taken an $11 billion stake in IBM

Posted: 14 Nov 2011 11:46 PM PST

Billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway now has a stake in IBM worth $11 billion, making it the largest single stakeholder in the company.  With fully 5.5 percent of the all common shares, Buffett, who is the president, chairman and chief executive officer of conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, has been snapping up as much IBM as he can over the past eight months.

“I don’t know of any large company that really has been as specific on what they intend to do and how they intend to do it as IBM,” Buffett told CNBC reporters today.  Known as the “Oracle of Omaha,” Buffet’s investment strategy has been characterized as “buy and hold forever.”

IBM would seem to be pretty safe bet. The company, which started off making typewriters and adding machines has been in business of helping businesses since 1911. Buffett has traditionally shied away from technology companies, in spite of keeping very close company with tech impresarios such as Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, because he says he doesn’t understand technology and can’t accurately judge the quality of tech company stocks.

Buffett has quietly amassed 64 million shares of IBM for Berkshire Hathaway since March of 2011, and made the disclosure only after crossing the disclosure threshold in the third quarter, according to Reuters. The investments had been so hush-hush that even IBM was unaware it was Buffet, according to the Reuters article.

Only a portion of IBM’s revenue comes directly from technology and software. The company spun off its personal computer division to Lenovo in 2004, and a significant percentage of its operating income is generated through business consulting, logistics, supply chain management, infrastructure planning and other related activities.

Filed under: deals

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Siri sibling Trapit launches as intelligent discovery engine for the web’s content

Posted: 14 Nov 2011 09:01 PM PST

Say hello to Trapit. The latest offspring from CALO, the DARPA-commissioned artificial-intelligence project that gave birth to iPhone virtual assistant Siri, launches in public beta Tuesday as a personalized discovery engine for the web.

The service offers web denizens a search-free, sit-back-and-relax way to stumble upon news articles, images, videos, recipes and other content on specific topics of interest. More than 10,000 participants have been using Trapit to find and “trap” content since the site’s private beta release in June.

“We’re revolutionizing the way people will access content on the web,” Trapit CEO and co-founder Gary Griffiths told VentureBeat. “This is the web following you.”

The word “revolutionary” gets thrown around with reckless abandon these days, but if Trapit is to the web what Siri is to the iPhone, as Griffiths promises, then perhaps it’s a fitting description.

Here’s how it works: You tell Trapit what you want to discover with a keyword or two. The intelligent discovery engine then goes to work and scans an archive of data collected over the past 30 days. In 10 seconds or less, Trapit will find and return up to 100 pieces of content related to your keywords.

You can save the results to a topic-based information stream, called a “trap.” After you hit save, the artificial engine continues to grab new content as it’s published to the web and adds it to the trap.

Pretty cool, right? Just don’t call it search. Trapit’s discovery process is much more sophisticated, co-founder Hank Nothhaft said. Griffiths and Nothhaft said that what Trapit is actually doing is taking your keyword and matching it against content with the same context, making associations at a level deeper than text.

You can, as would be expected, train Trapit to find better photos, videos and news articles for your trap. Hit the thumbs up and thumbs down buttons to steer Trapit in the right direction. And as you express your tastes, this handy assistant to the web’s most pertinent content will once again query its trove of data to find even better content for your trap.

“Trapit gets to know you. It gives you more and more of what you want and less of what you don’t like,” Griffiths said. “It’s not just pure search, it’s going out and creating that sense of delight.”

Just how delightful it is remains to be seen. Trapit’s technology may share the same storied upbringing as Siri, but the Trapit service is missing the smack-you-over-the-head-with-it wow factor of its buzzed-about cousin on the iPhone 4S.

Trapit, founded in early 2010, has raised several million for its intelligent discovery engine. The startup landed $2 million in its first round of financing, and is said to be in the process of raising a second, more sizable round. The company plans to release mobile applications for iOS in early 2012.

Filed under: social, VentureBeat

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Mobile payments turf war intensifies as Verifone acquires Point for for $1B+

Posted: 14 Nov 2011 05:32 PM PST

Verifone has acquired European alternative payments provider Point, in an effort to broaden its range of mobile payment services for merchants and retailers, the company announced today.

Among its many payment offerings, Verifone makes near field communications (NFC) terminals that allow customers to swipe phones and payment cards at the point of sale to complete a purchase. Verifone is paying $816 million (600 million euros) for all Point equity and assets, and will be paying an additional $231 million (170 million euros) to settle outstanding Point debts.

Point is based in Stockholm and serves more than 450,000 merchant customers in 11 countries. Point, which handles point-of-sale transactions, conducts more than 10 million transactions per day. The acquisition should give Verifone a toehold in its battle against alternative and mobile payment services such as PayPal, Google, as well as large credit card companies such as Visa.

As AllThingsD has reported, Verifone has been on a tear of late, spending more than $1 billion per year to acquire smaller payment services providers. With the acquisition of Point, Verifone hopes to build the world’s largest infrastructure for rapid mobile payments. In a release accompanying the announcement, Verifone said it expects the acquisition of Point to add $260 million to its bottom line within the next 12 months.

[Phone image via Shutterstock]

Filed under: deals, mobile

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Co-founder of “open-source Facebook” Diaspora dies at 22

Posted: 14 Nov 2011 04:24 PM PST

diaspora-Ilya-ZhitomirskiyIlya Zhitomirskiy, the 22-year-old co-founder of the Diaspora social network — which gained recognition for challenging Facebook — died this weekend, the company confirmed Monday.

The official cause of death has not been reported, but CNNMoney has said that it was likely suicide, according to an anonymous source. Neither the company nor the San Francisco Medical Examiner's office has released details on the death, and the San Francisco Coroner’s Office has stated that determining the cause of death will take weeks.

Diaspora was announced by four New York University students, including Zhitomirskiy, in April 2010 and launched later in the year as a "personally controlled, do-it-all, distributed open source social network." In other words: the anti-Facebook.

The project garnered a large amount of press in May 2010 when it raised over $200,000 on the pledging site Kickstarter, with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg even reportedly making a donation. But later on, the site struggled to find further funding and relied solely on donations.

We at VentureBeat, who follow and talk daily with members of the startup community, would also like to extend our thoughts and condolences to Zhitomirskiy’s family, friends and co-workers.

Filed under: social

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Ice Cream Sandwich is now open-sourced

Posted: 14 Nov 2011 04:03 PM PST

Google has begun the release of Android 4.0 (a.k.a. Ice Cream Sandwich) source code into the wild.

What happens to it now is everybody’s business. You can download it right this second by following these instructions.

Googler Jean-Baptiste Queru notes in a Google Groups discussion, “Since this is a large push, please be aware that it will take some time to complete. If you sync before it’s done, you’ll get an incomplete copy that you won’t be able to use, so please wait for us to give the all-clear before you sync.”

UPDATE: Queru has stated on his Google+ page that it’s alright to sync now.

Why so large?

Queru goes on to note that this particular release will encompass “the full history of the Android source code tree, which naturally includes all the source code for the Honeycomb releases.”

Honeycomb had previously stuck out as the only closed-source Android release; apparently, the tablet-only OS was being used for some shade-tree hacking that the company found inelegant, and Google decided to exercise a bit more control over that release until the unifying Ice Cream Sandwich was revealed.

The code you’ll be able to download soon is the source code for Android version 4.0.1, the same version that users will have in their hands when the Galaxy Nexus ships out. The Galaxy Nexus is the lead device for Ice Cream Sandwich. In the Android 4.0.1 source tree, the device build target “full_maguro” can be used to build a system image for Galaxy Nexus.

Queru said that other build configurations for other devices will be available at a later date.

Ice Cream Sandwich is the latest Android OS, and it’s primarily known for two things: uniting the disparate worlds of different forks for different devices, and featuring a beautiful new design language that both consumers and app makers are sure to approve. Ice Cream Sandwich even comes with its own gorgeous, house-made typeface, Roboto.

DevBeatCheck out DevBeat, VentureBeat’s brand new channel specifically for developers. The channel will break relevant news and provide insightful commentary aimed to assist developers. DevBeat is sponsored by the Intel AppUp developer program.

Filed under: dev, mobile, VentureBeat

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Twitter captures user activity during 11/11/11 at 11:11:11 (video)

Posted: 14 Nov 2011 03:43 PM PST

Twitter elevenTwitter today released a new video visualizing all the tweets that mention the momentous occasion that took place last Friday: 11:11:11 on 11/11/11.

“Each ’1′ is a location that moves with the conversation on Twitter. Their scale varies depending on the volume of Tweets posted from the location they represent. You can see the main wave move from right to left, and then a second one that occurred at 11 p.m. around the world,” Twitter wrote in a blog post explaining the visualization.

This isn’t the first time the company has released a video to show the global impact of how its users are reacting to a particular moment in time. In June, Twitter released a set of videos that showed the Global pulse of tweets during various events, like the World Cup and some of the major natural disasters experienced over the last year.

As you can see from the video, Twitter is certainly flexing its real-time data muscles. We’ve embedded it below. Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Filed under: media, offBeat, social, VentureBeat

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Sprint adds cheaper 3G/4G mobile broadband plans to undercut AT&T, Verizon

Posted: 14 Nov 2011 03:37 PM PST

dan-hesse-sprintSprint has added two new 3G and 4G mobile broadband data plans to its lineup that will replace more-expensive plans it previously offered, as well as undercut AT&T and Verizon, the company announced today.

As the distant third-place carrier in the U.S., Sprint is using every trick in the book to help distinguish itself as the best value versus its competitors, namely Verizon and AT&T. Recently, Sprint helped set itself apart from the two largest carriers when the Apple iPhone 4S was released by being the only carrier to offer an unlimited 3G data with the hyped device.

The new 3G and 4G broadband plans apply to basically every device that’s not a smartphone, including tablets, mobile hotspots, netbooks, notebooks and USB modems. The two new price plans will charge a similar price for slightly more data than the competition, with $50 getting you 6GB of data each month and $80 getting you 12 GB of data each month.

Comparably, Verizon and AT&T’s standard mobile broadband plans aren’t as good of a deal. On contract, Verizon offers 2GB for $30 a month, 5GB for $50 a month and 10GB for $80 a month. AT&T offers a similar 5GB data plan at $50 a month, but does not offer a plan with higher data usage like Verizon and Sprint.

"Sprint is committed to delivering exceptional value to its customers, and our new 3G/4G Mobile Broadband plans are the latest example of that," said Will Souder, vice president of pricing for Sprint, in a statement. "Sprint gives customers more data at lower prices than competitors, so they can do more with their mobile broadband devices on Sprint's 3G and 4G networks."

Sprint also took the opportunity to launch a new plan for just tablets and mobile hotspots, with $35 per month getting you 3GB of data. There’s also another new plan only for tablets, with $20 a month getting you 1GB of data.

A full chart with more details about the revamped mobile broadband and hotspot plans can be viewed below. You can click here for even more details.


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Here’s what RIM’s next-gen BlackBerry “London” may look like

Posted: 14 Nov 2011 02:21 PM PST

Zune says what? What we have here is a potential glimpse at Research in Motion’s first BlackBerry to run the next-generation BBX operating system — but honestly, it just looks a lot like Microsoft’s Zune HD to me.

It’s called the BlackBerry London, and it’s reportedly headed for release in June 2012, reports The Verge. While the image is still unconfirmed, it gives us a decent sense of where RIM could be headed.

According to the source who provided the image, the London is said to be “thinner than the iPhone 4,” at about the same size as Samsung’s Galaxy S II. The phone will reportedly pack in a 1.5 gigahertz dual-core processor, 1 gigabyte of RAM, and 16 gigabytes of storage. It’ll also feature an 8 megapixel camera with a 2MP front-facing camera.

A Zune HD, for comparison

If the image turns out to be true, it sounds like RIM is finally aiming to create a serious touchscreen smartphone — though those specs, which are competitive now, may seem outdated by the middle of next year.

The Verge’s source says that the picture is of a dummy unit, so the image on the screen may just be a placeholder. Still, it gives us an idea of what RIM’s BBX operating system, which is based on the PlayBook’s QNX software, will look like.

The image may still be an elaborate hoax, but at this point I have a hard time believing someone would waste their time creating a fake next-generation BlackBerry when they could be spending their time faking a device more people are looking forward to.

Filed under: mobile

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Chegg acquires web design team 3D3R, potentially beefing up Facebook app

Posted: 14 Nov 2011 01:44 PM PST

dan rosensweigChegg, an online textbook rental company, acquired Flux Software Co./3D3R, according to a Form D filed with the SEC today.

The company, which started out as a textbook rental entity, has exploded into an education conglomerate with it’s hands in course registration, homework help, tutorials and more. Chegg may be focusing on more internal design efforts, however, beefing up its design team with the simultaneous acquisition of software design studio 3D3R.

"Chegg is always striving to offer students the very best tools to save time, save money and get smarter,” said Chegg president and chief executive officer Dan Rosensweig in an e-mail to VentureBeat. “In that spirit, we recently acquired Flux Software Co./3D3R, which is an incredible engineering and design team focused on helping Chegg deliver the dynamic user experience students expect today."

According to the filing, the deal rung up a little over $1.1 million in common stock.

Flux, as TechCrunch points out, is not associated with the enterprise software company Flux Software. Instead Flux/3D3R is a design team, which may, more specifically, have been brought on for Chegg’s recently announced Facebook application.

“We've created apps and experiences for a variety of web platforms, and have an extensive history of developing for the Facebook ecosystem,” reads 3D3R’s website.

Chegg announced its Facebook integration soon after Facebook’s f8 conference in September. The company says it will provide course listings for over 1000 colleges and universities, and allow students to add their own through a Chegg widget.

3D3R was founded in 2005 with offices in both San Francisco and Tel Aviv. It has worked with companies like Yahoo, Nokia and Boxee.

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Lenovo reportedly rolling out Android Ice Cream Sandwich tablet

Posted: 14 Nov 2011 01:31 PM PST

Lenovo might be getting ready to pop out a new Android tablet, this time running Ice Cream Sandwich, the latest (and best designed) version of Google’s mobile OS, by the end of 2011.

According to “the little birdie” Engadget cited as a source, the tablet will feature a 10.1-inch touchscreen and should be ready in time for the holiday shopping season.

The blog also reports the new tablet will bring users a fingerprint scanner, a rear-facing camera, a USB port, 2GB of 1,600MHz DDR3 RAM and a “Special Fusion-Skin Body.”

We know you stopped reading and started freaking out at “fingerprint scanner.” This hardware feature reportedly does double duty as an optical joystick and is located with the camera on the rear side of the device.

Ice Cream Sandwich is the first version of Android that’s intended for both smartphones and tablets — as well as almost any other connected device you can imagine.

The launch device for Ice Cream Sandwich was a smartphone, and to date, we haven’t seen any Ice Cream Sandwich-running tablets in the wild.

While Android tablets have traditionally played second fiddle to the impeccably designed iPad, the new Ice Cream Sandwich variant may help to make the consumer experience of Android tablets much more pleasant. The entire operating system as seen a ground-up redesign. Google even threw in a gorgeous house-made typeface, Roboto.

We’ll see if Lenovo does indeed launch an Ice Cream Sandwich tablet this year, and if so, how the promise of Ice Cream Sandwich holds up to the new hardware.

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The making of the Xbox: How Microsoft unleashed a video game revolution (part 1)

Posted: 14 Nov 2011 01:00 PM PST

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Editor’s note: This story is the first of two articles on the 10th anniversary of the launch of Microsoft’s Xbox video game console, which debuted Nov. 15, 2001. The narrative is based on recent interviews as well as my two books: Opening the Xbox: Inside Microsoft’s Plan to Unleash an Entertainment Revolution, published in 2002; and The Xbox 360 Uncloaked: The real story behind Microsoft’s next generation video game console, published in 2006. This piece follows the Xbox from conception to launch. Part two of the series traces the history from launch through today.

Microsoft launched its Xbox video game console a decade ago this week. Nobody expected it to succeed. The skeptics were out in force when the giant-size console launched on Nov. 15, 2001.

But it turned out to be successful beyond Microsoft’s wildest expectations. Microsoft lost (or, more politely, invested) more than $4 billion in the first console. But it has created an entertainment business that is now much more valuable than that, said Robbie Bach, the former head of Microsoft’s game business and the highest-ranking executive who was present at the beginning of the project through his retirement last year.

Microsoft’s second console, the Xbox 360, and the game business that goes with it are now churning out more than $1 billion in profits a year in what has become Microsoft’s most successful diversification to date. The making of the Xbox was a historic event that changed gaming forever, allowing Microsoft’s brand to be associated with something cool and sexy for the first time.

The console finally helped Microsoft wedge its way into the living room with a device that people craved. Now that box is a gateway to internet services, from online games to streaming video. The Xbox Live online gaming service, launched a year after the Xbox in 2002, represents Microsoft’s greatest achievement in the social market that has become key to engaging users for the long term. Not only did it create a true connected console and make online console gaming a reality, Xbox Live created an ongoing relationship with 35 million gamers and a live service that could be updated through software changes, not the introduction of new hardware.

“Today, the TV screen is just one of several where you want entertainment and other experiences,” Bach said a couple of weeks ago. “Xbox plays a central role in delivering that. It is now more than just gaming, but includes social interaction, video, TV, movies, and communications like Skype.”

For gamers, the Xbox brought a whole new landscape to gaming. Before, first-person shooters were a lucrative domain on the PC. But with the launch of its massive hit Halo, Microsoft migrated the first-person market to the game console. More broadly, consumers got to see the benefits of increased competition at a time when Sega’s failure had consolidated the market into two rivals. The result was a whirlwind of better games, improved graphics, and innovations in game play.

“More generally, it played an important role in making gaming a mainstream for of entertainment and broadening it to include video, music and other forms of entertainment,” Bach said.

Microsoft didn’t defeat its rivals Sony and Nintendo, but it has earned a measure of respect for its accomplishments in games. There’s no denying that Microsoft is now a force to be reckoned with.

A decade later, the original Xbox team has scattered to the winds. But we caught up with a number of the key members of the founding team to get their perspectives on the tenth anniversary of the Xbox.

“It feels awesome how it turned out,” said Seamus Blackley, one of the Xbox founders. “Xbox seems like a de facto, foregone conclusion in the history of games. It wasn’t. It was a tenuous thing for the first year. It is a testament to the people who made it happen.”

Before Xbox was born

At the beginning, Microsoft started with very little. The company had scraped together a game business with popular niche titles such as Microsoft Flight Simulator. In 1995, the team had about 150 game developers. At that time, Ed Fries took over the business and commissioned a game that would become a monster hit: Age of Empires, produced by Ensemble Studios in Dallas. It debuted in the fall of 1997 and Fries used the profits from that business to justify an expansion of the game development studios.

But Microsoft had no presence in consoles. By comparison, Sony had carved out 47 percent of the game console market with its PlayStation, soaring past both Nintendo and Sega on the strength of a flood of cool games.

Microsoft tried many times to create set-top boxes or game boxes for the living room that never saw the light of day. Sega agreed to use Micrsoft’s software for Dreamcast games, but that partnership went nowhere.

Meanwhile, in the 1990s, a trio of engineers that nicknamed themselve “the Beastie Boys” arrived at Microsoft. Three rather large, physically-imposing engineers — Alex St. John (pictured above), Eric Engstrom, and Craig Eisler — were renegades of the empire. In a strategy document dubbed Taking Fun Seriously II from 1995, they noted that Sony depended on third-party developers for much of its content and so it was vulnerable to having those developers lured to another platform. They thought the winning game platform would be the PC, which could adopt new technology a lot faster.

They saw the future of 3D graphics — then the domain of Silicon Graphics supercomputers — coming to the PC. To capitalize on that, they created DirectX, a set of technologies that enabled 3D software to run on a computer. DirectX would make it easy for game makers to create 3D games without having to port their games to every single graphics card that could be plugged into a PC. Spurned by their official bosses, the “Beastie Boys” worked on their own, stealing resources to make DirectX viable.

DirectX enabled the PC to take advantage of the enormous boosts in 3D graphics and keep up with consoles such as the Sony PlayStation. Were it not for DirectX, Microsoft would have had no foundation at all to build a software-based games business.

To court game developers, St. John threw lavish parties, like one themed Pax Romana, complete with “slave girls” and a Playboy Playmate who auctioned off guests to the audience. Maybe it was tasteless. But the industry adopted DirectX, embracing it even to the point where Microsoft’s proprietary Talisman graphics chip architecture never got off the ground.

Sadly, St. John got himself into hot water after he ordered a $2 million alien spaceship to be built as part of a gigantic game promotion. Then he got himself fired after he mouthed off in a “fuck you all” way, in a dripping-with-sarcasm response to criticism from a colleague. Then Microsoft found that the PC alone wasn’t quite enough to conquer the game industry.

A state of panic

One of the apocryphal stories was that Bill Gates approached Sony’s CEO, Noboyuki Idei (pictured right), before the PlayStation 2 game console was announced. Gates wanted Sony to use Microsoft’s programming tools, but Idei turned Gates down. Idei said that Gates flew into a rage, taking the affront surprisingly personally. Later, Idei said in an interview with Ken Auletta of the New Yorker, “With Microsoft, open architecture means Microsoft architecture.”

Sony’s decision not to depend on Microsoft was no surprise. Everyone in the tech industry knew not to turn their back on Microsoft, based on what happened decades ago when IBM gave its PC operating system rights to Microsoft. So Sony decided to make its own software for its machine.

Sony announced the PS 2 on March 2, 1999. Sony game chief Ken Kutaragi called it a “revolutionary computer entertainment system set to reinvent the nature of video games.” Trip Hawkins, who ran the rival 3DO game company, called Sony’s box a “Trojan Horse,” meant to get into the home as a game machine and then becoming the gateway for all home entertainment. With such a machine, no one would need a personal computer in the home. Andrew House, then-senior vice president of marketing at Sony’s U.S. game division said that Sony had broader ambitions.

“If it is just a game console, then we have failed,” he said.

Gates had seen it coming. After his meeting with Sony’s Idei, Gates returned to Redmond, telling his people that Sony wanted the PS 2 to compete with the PC, that it was going to be more than a TV set-top or game box: It was going to be a threat to Microsoft’s Windows franchise. (Gates recalled the meeting with Idei as amiable.)

The PC and consumer electronics were on a collision course, and the press was already talking about a “post-PC era.” Gates held a strategic retreat where his executive team focused on two pillars, the first based on productivity software such as Microsoft Office, and the second based on home computing and entertainment. At the end of the retreat, the executive team decided it had to delve deeper into gaming and come up with an answer to the PlayStation 2. Games were on the cusp of breaking out into the mass market and could even become bigger than the movies. The fear that Microsoft would miss out on this lucrative market flowed down from the top.

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The lean startup: How to stay lean when your company takes off

Posted: 14 Nov 2011 12:43 PM PST

The Lean Startup concept, developed by Eric Reis roughly two years ago, has been embraced by the startup community. And though I think it's the best and most consistent framework available for entrepreneurs to methodically evaluate their ventures, what happens when you get a product into the market that customers actually want and your business starts to grow? Does the "lean" focus end there?

So far, there isn't enough data to show what happens next. But I would bet that as soon as sales, marketing, HR, IT, help-desk and other departments in your company start to grow, most of the lean principles that guided you during the startup phase will be diluted, and may even vanish completely.

Can lean scale up? A lean startup should strive to follow the path to becoming a lean organization by using its founding DNA to focus building a lean culture. By embracing leanness as an organizational and cultural philosophy, and incorporating principles beyond those found in the Lean Startup model, you can ensure continuous value as you grow beyond the startup mode into a successful business.

What it means to be lean

The Lean Startup model shares some conceptual tenets with the Lean philosophy adopted by Toyota in its manufacturing operations, and which has been employed frequently in software application development. The focus on adding value, simplifying processes, working in small batches, removing waste, the build/measure/learn concept and asking the "five whys" are shared by the Lean manufacturing model. However, for the most part, that's where the similarities end.

The Lean approach used by Toyota encompasses far more than these basic — and fundamental — concepts, and many of its principles can be extended throughout the startup's life and woven into its cultural and organizational fabric. In Reis's "Lean Startup" book, he states: "Lean Startups, when they grow up, are well positioned to develop operational excellence based on lean principles."

I couldn't agree more, but there's a big gap between being "well positioned" and ready. How can a Lean Startup close this gap, and ensure that the new company is built to deliver continuous innovation and value? By considering the following tools and methods.

Use these tools to move beyond the basics

The lean philosophy emphasizes an endless journey of organizational learning. My advice as a lean practitioner and entrepreneur is that any entrepreneur should learn about the following ideas and tools as soon as their company starts to grow, and adapt them to the company’s specific situation.

Here are some of the tools that, once embraced and implemented, can help a Lean Startup become a lean organization:.

Value Stream Mapping:  This is a method that creates a big picture of all processes occurring during the various steps of a company's relationship with its customers. The goal is to map material and information flow through the process and measure both waste and value-added timing. It's a fundamental tool for identifying bottlenecks and sources of waste.

The 5S’s: A set of five very simple workspace organization principles that, unfortunately, many organizations tend to ignore. They focus on promoting visual order, organization, cleanliness and standardization:

  • Sort: The first step in making a workspace clean and organized.
  • Set In Order: Organize, identify and arrange everything in a work area.
  • Shine: Regular cleaning and maintenance.
  • Standardize: Make it easy to maintain; simplify and standardize.
  • Sustain: Continue what has been accomplished.

Visual Displays & Controls: This is the use of visual displays for quick recognition of the information being communicated within the organization, in order to increase efficiency and clarity. They include the following:

  • Andons: Signboards with embedded alerts, crucial to quality control systems.
  • Kanbans: Visual and physical signaling system that ties together the JIT (just-in-time) production.

Continuous Improvement and Planning: These fundamental processes and rituals are crucial to a lean organization, as they allow the company to create consensus among all stakeholders about optimization needs, solutions and goals. They include:

  • PDCA (plan-do-check-act): An iterative four-step management method used to control and optimize a process. PDCAs are a great way to formalize the "build-measure-learn" iterations of a Lean Startup.
  • Kaizen: Practices and rituals designed to involve stakeholders in the discussion of issues, to find solutions and to create changes in the processes to ensure the issues do not occur again.
  • A3 Management: A simple-to-understand mechanism for fostering deep thinking, thorough analysis, a problem-solving attitude and follow-up action. A3 eases consensus-building and paves the way for the quick and easy implementation of changes. It's applicable to all areas of the business, including HR, finance, IT, help-desk, production and others.
  • Hoshin Kanri: A method that helps the organization to focus on a shared goal, to communicate the goal to its leaders and Involve  leaders in planning to achieve the goal, and to hold participants accountable for achieving their part of the plan.

Seem daunting? This is just the beginning. There are a host of other processes and tools in the lean toolkit. But remember — the path to lean is a journey, not a quick fix. The principles outlined above, and the others that comprise the lean arsenal, should be implemented methodically and in a way that makes sense for each individual company.

Take it from someone who's been there: once you start implementing lean principles in your own company and begin reaping the rewards, you'll want to continue down the path toward becoming a fully lean organization.

Make lean your philosophy

The Lean Startup approach is great, but it's also relatively new as a concept and lacks data to support its effectiveness. For this reason it has yet to produce a true juggernaut of a success story. As more and more startups using the Lean Startup approach become successful companies, the question of which organizational process is best to employ will become increasingly important. Eric Reis points the way toward embracing additional principles in "The Lean Startup:"

As a successful startup makes the transition to an established company, it will be well poised to develop the kind of culture of disciplined execution that characterizes the world's best firms, such as Toyota.

The word "culture" is key here. Above all, lean is a philosophy wrapped around a big set of processes and tools. It's not just a set of guidelines to optimize a company's operation, but a way of thinking that needs to be woven into every aspect of the organization. By embracing lean principles and introducing the processes and techniques I've listed here, startups can ensure that they continue to deliver value and eliminate waste as they scale into viable, successful companies.

Marcio Cyrillo is head of mobile services and senior business manager at Ci&T, a software product engineering company that delivers application services using lean principles and agile methodologies. He also is a member of the Ci&T Entrepreneurship Program, from which he launched the program's first mobile app, runens, in early 2011. As a result of his success developing runens, Cyrillo now serves as a mentor to Brazil-based Ipanema Games, a mobile gaming start-up.

[Money tree image via Shutterstock]

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Foursquare starts leveling-up expertise badges

Posted: 14 Nov 2011 12:08 PM PST

Foursquare BadgeFoursquare is updating the functionality of its “expertise badges” to make a user’s history of check-ins a better representation of real-life experiences, the company announced today.

Foursquare users can obtain expertise badges by checking in multiple times to several different venues in the same category. For instance, if you check in to five different pizza places in the same area, you’d get an expertise badge for eating pizza. Those badges are then displayed in a user’s trophy case on their profile.

To improve upon the aforementioned concept above, Foursquare is now adding levels to those particular badges, which can increase based on check-in activity. Users can reach the first level by either checking in to three unique places in a single category or checking in to the same place five times. The second and subsequently higher levels can be achieved by checking in to five more unique venues within the same category.

Users can check their badge trophy cases today to see what level they’re currently at, as well as what they need to do to advance to the following badge level.

The point of the new badge functionality is to reward users for higher degrees of exploration while making their trophy cases mirror their real life expertise, the company said in a blog post announcing the badge update. “Your actions within foursquare should help you build a true, rich representation of your expertise about the things you love to do,” the company wrote.

New Foursquare BadgesThe company said it plans to add the leveling functionality to other aspects of the site, such as the ability to level up when multiple people complete a Tip you’ve left at a particular venue. For the time being, Foursquare has added three new expertise badges to better reflect a person’s eating habits: Herbivore (for vegan/vegetarians), Hot Tamale (for those who love Mexican food), and Bento (for sushi lovers).


Filed under: mobile, social, VentureBeat

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