17 November, 2011



Sibblingz exploits Adobe’s retreat from mobile Flash with Spaceport 3.0

Posted: 17 Nov 2011 09:00 AM PST

Sibblingz, the maker of a cross-platform game engine, is exploiting Adobe’s retreat from the mobile Flash plug-in business with the launch of the Spaceport 3.0 platform today.

Adobe created a hole in the market when it admitted finally that it will be unable to create a version of its Flash that can run on mobile devices. Sibblingz is stepping into that hole to provide game developers with a platform that enables them to create web and iOS and Android mobile games at the same time.

“Mobile Flash blew up,” said Peter Relan, chairman of YouWeb, the incubator that created Sibblingz, a Burlingame, Calif.-based startup. “Now we have this new version of Spaceport to serve the developers who were otherwise depending on Adobe.”

Relan said in an interview that Spaceport 3.0 has been designed to be a drop-in replacement for Flash, which Adobe gave up on adapting to mobile devices. For years, Flash ran fine by tapping a computer’s central processing unit (CPU). But in the mobile era, CPUs were to under-powered to run Flash properly. If Adobe had adapted Flash to run on graphics processing units (GPUs), it would have worked fine on mobile devices. But Adobe never did that.

Sibblingz allows developers to create their games in a hybrid HTML5/native app format that allows them to be played on any device as efficiently as native apps. Developers can also greatly improve the update process by changing their own Javascript, rather than waiting for a platform owner to approve their updates.

Sibblingz created its game development platform by creating a rendering engine that could run on GPUs. So it works fine on either the PC or mobile devices. It also uses Javascript, which makes it compatible with HTML5, the new lingua franca for cross-platform applications. While many browser-based HTML5 applications run slow because they don’t take advantage of native hardware, Spaceport applications can run fast because they take advantage of the Sibblingz GPU rendering engine, Relan said.

As a result, developers can use Spaceport to create games that run on web sites, on iOS devices, or on Android phones. Relan said the work on this began after Sibblingz shipped Spaceport 2.0 in the spring. After that, developers offered their feedback for what they wanted in the version 3.0. After that, Sibblingz created an applications programming interface (API) that mimicked the Flash API, making it a lot easier to take a Flash game and move it over to Sibblingz.

With the compatible API, game creators can still use their familiar Adobe PC content creation tools to create games for the Sibblingz platform. That is one of the main differences between Spaceport 2.0 and Spaceport 3.0. Another key thing is that Sibblingz will now ship a Spaceport app in iOS and the Android Market. That will allow developers to test their games on an actual device, rather than on simulation software known as emulators. Developers can convert their ActionScript 3 game code to Javascript translation with Flash-like API libraries in Javascript so the developers can continue to work with familiar APIs.

Michael Cai, an analyst at market researcher Interpret, said that game developers are looking for alternatives like Sibblingz because of Adobe’s move. Space 3.0 has a web service that automatically converts Flash animations created with Adobe tools into SWF files using Spaceport’s vector graphics. These are then rendered on iOS or Android devices by the GPU-based rendering engine.

“Adobe is a great tools company, but they failed to do this for the developer community,” Relan said.

In a side-by-side comparison, games rendered with Spaceport 3.0 run visibly faster on Android, compared to rendering via a Flash mobile plug-in. (See the video below for a comparison). Developers can use Spaceport with no upfront fees.

YouWeb has an interesting position in the mobile game market, since it has created by iSwifter and Sibblingz. iSwifter enables developers who continue to create PC flash games to get those games to run on iOS tablets via streaming technology. Sibblingz, meanwhile, lets game companies migrate from Flash to Spaceport.

Rivals include pure HTML5, which is slow and may be a couple of years away from having enough performance to run fast-moving games. Sibblingz is being used by CrowdStar and a couple of other game companies now.

Filed under: dev, games

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Box.net unveils the Box Innovation Network to spark imaginative enterprise development

Posted: 17 Nov 2011 08:55 AM PST

Box.netBox.net, which provides cloud storage services for the enterprise, announced its third party developer network today, called the Box Innovation Network, or /bin.

Enterprise is not the sexiest business class in the room, but it encompasses the biggest, most influential companies in the world. Because these companies are so big, they have big needs, which can make for daunting projects. Developing for smaller companies may provide more freedom, affecting a less regulations-prone area of business. Enter the issue with enterprise cloud software Box.net is taking on: lack of imagination.

“The state of innovation in enterprise software feels very, very stilted,” said Chris Yeh, Box.net’s vice president of platform, in an interview with VentureBeat. “Doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of great innovation.”

Box.net is part of the growing “cloud” trend, which uses the Internet to provide otherwise physically implemented services such as software and infrastructure. In particular, Box is a competitor of Dropbox, which allows people to store files on a remote server, accessible to anyone with permissions to enter that folder, by computer or mobile device. Enterprises are quickly recognizing the benefits of this kind of document availability and ease of sharing. In fact, Box says 77 percent of Fortune 500 companies have already deployed its solutions in their companies. Though, in keeping with the pace of large corporations, the deployment has mainly been seen across individual departments.

It’s this sort of pace that may be stunting innovation, but Box sees an opportunity to excite its growing developer community, which totals around 4500.

“We have quite a bit of momentum on [the developer] side of the business,” said Yeh. “API [application programming interface] keys are growing at about 4 times than they were last year.”

Box hopes the developer network will tackle a few key elements missing in the Box product today, which Yeh believes will kick-start innovation around the enterprise. Those areas include improved security options for administrators, expanding capabilities in the file sharing itself, as well as vertical-specific customizations for Box.

Currently, Box lets you view over 100 different file types, but as Yeh points out, there’s increasing demand for capabilities in, say, doctor’s offices to show patients a cat scan on an iPad. This leads Box developers to more vertical packaging, such as a Box product tailored to a law office for sharing mortgage paperwork, or pharmaceutical company needing drug information.

The company didn’t want to throw resources at developers without any external help, however. The company launched /bin with a number of strategic partners including Heroku, Rackspace, Cloud Foundry (a division of VMWare), Appcelerator, SnapLogic, and Twilio. All of these companies are providing their own tools for developers to work with in addition to Box’s APIs and other resources.

Telecommunications API provider Twilio, for example, has already worked with Box through a joint competition which created The Interviewer. This allowed a person to set up an interview call with each involved person’s credentials and the time and date of the call. Twilio would then call and record the interview, and store the transcript on Box for the parties to access.

“[Enterprise development] isn’t sexy and we don’t really know what people will build,” said Danielle Morrill, director of marketing for Twilio, in an interview with VentureBeat. “But Box has a huge user base, so if we can help developers find a magical tool that users love, we could see another GroupMe [a Twilio-based group messaging app recently purchased by Microsoft]. I certainly hope we will.”

With today’s announcement, Box is also announcing a $2 million fund to get the program up and running.

“Our intent was not to create an open forum that anybody could get into without any support, ‘Here’s the API, go knock yourself out,’” said Yeh. “There are some people that we really do want to invest in and work with.”

Box was founded in 2005 and recently received an $81 million fourth round of funding expansion, landing the company at a valuation close to $600 million.

Filed under: cloud, dev, VentureBeat

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Want to try one of those hot new Windows Phones from Nokia? Look to AT&T in 2012

Posted: 17 Nov 2011 08:51 AM PST

Americans, forget the shaky economy and comedic political theatre: We’re getting the new Windows Phones from Nokia!

Word on the street is, AT&T is bringing the much talked-about new devices stateside in 2012.

AT&T executive Glenn Lurie told Businessweek that the carrier is in final talks with the smartphone manufacturer to bring its Lumia 800 and 710 Windows Phones to U.S. consumers.

We know you tech blog-reading types love to bag on Microsoft, but we crave your indulgence. We spent some time hands-on with both Nokia phones, and we were most impressed with the slick Windows Mango operating system coupled with Nokia’s signature smart design.

As our Devindra Hardawar wrote at the time, “The Lumia 800 is stylish enough to make Nokia a hip brand once again, and it just may help to push Microsoft's Windows Phone platform beyond its current also-ran status.”

If you love the idea of taking the hardware (and its software) for a spin, but you don’t want to jump onboard the AT&T network, just wait for more announcements over the next couple months.

Nokia had previously stated it would be bringing a lineup of devices to the States on multiple carriers in early 2012.

The Nokia brand has been on a steady decline in the U.S. ever since the advent of smartphones. And Microsoft has struggled with its mobile offerings, which have typically featured design work on par with or better than that of their competitors but which fail to perform commercially.

But since its launch, we’ve been calling Windows Phone a “sleeper hit.” Even Microsoft doesn’t really expect the OS to take off until 2012. And as for the Nokia partnership, this might be a case where two seeming “wrongs” make a right.

Time — and sales figures for next year — will tell.

Filed under: mobile

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Latest Microsoft Surface display ready for preorder

Posted: 17 Nov 2011 08:39 AM PST

Microsoft and Samsung are starting to take preorders for the latest version of the Microsoft Surface touchscreen display. The new multitouch tabletop screen will be known as the Samsung SUR40 Surface 2.0 display.

The Surface technology is cool because it looks and works like a sci-fi display. You can touch any part of the display to make cool images appear or become distorted. Now the companies are trying to turn that cool technology into a real business tool for a street price of around $8,400.

Microsoft announced the cool display in January 2011 at the Consumer Electronics Show, but Samsung pushed off shipments until January 2012. While the first Surface was a bulky table, Microsoft designed the second generation of the display to be a flatscreen, manufactured by Samsung.

The new Surface system is available in 23 countries for preorder. You can image that it would look good in a hotel lobby or high-end retail store. It can be used as a table, a wall-mounted screen or kiosk. It can be combined with Microsoft’s Kinect motion-sensing system for the Xbox 360 so that you can control the system with gestures rather than touching. Surface is meant for multiple people to use the screen at the same time and it can recognize up to 50 points of simultaneous finger touches at the same time.

Surface is still one of the coolest ideas Microsoft has come up with, but it remains to be seen if the company can get the prices low enough to turn the display into cool coffee tables. Microsoft sees business uses in automotive, education, finance, retail, healthcare and other markets. Customers include Dassault Aviation, Fujifilm Corp. and Royal Bank of Canada — all planning to deploy units around the world in early 2012.

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Stitch Labs gives Etsy crafters high-tech inventory management

Posted: 17 Nov 2011 08:30 AM PST

Stitch Labs inventory reportStitch Labs, a provider of an inventory management service for small retailers, has integrated its service with online craft marketplace Etsy.

You might not think that the people who make crocheted pot holders and carved wooden iPhone docks have inventory management issues, but a significant number of people who sell on Etsy actually make hundreds if not thousands of items a year, selling them not only through Etsy but also in craft fairs, through wholesale channels and consignment shops.

“It’s unbelievable how much carbon paper floats around,” said Stitch co-founder and “thinker upper” Brandon Levey, referring to the carbon-copy slips still used for credit card transactions at craft fairs and trade shows.

With a bunch of old technologies and a variety of different sales channels, keeping track of the inventory gets to be a pain. If someone places an order for a forest green knitted hemp tea cozy through Etsy, how do you know if you have enough additional tea cozies to re-list the item on the site?

Stitch’s solution is a slick, web-based “cloud” app that can tell you how much you’ve sold, which channels are working best, how much money you’re making and whether you need to start knitting to replenish your stock (see screenshot above). It can also email invoices to customers and automatically create packing slips. Now, with the Etsy integration, it logs sales directly from Etsy — and can automatically repost the listing if you have items left in stock.

The interface gives small business owners a dashboard similar to the sophisticated enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems used by big companies.

It’s aimed at people who have significant but not gigantic operations, with 1-4 people and under $500,000 in annual revenues. For example, one Stitch customer, Girls Can Tell, currently has 152 separate product listings on Etsy, representing about 20 percent of the company’s total sales.

“We’re the first thing you log into in the morning and the last thing you look at at night,” Levey said.

Levey, knows the problem intimately. He used to run a small clothing line, Naked Cotton, on the side (his day job at the time was at Sandia National Laboratory, helping ensure the security of the nation’s nuclear stockpile). As his business grew, his garage filled up with cardboard boxes loaded with T-shirts in various sizes. Invariably, there’d be too many of the sizes that people didn’t want (like smalls) because he wasn’t good at predicting demand, and it was hard to know how many of each size were lurking in the garage.

Later, Levey made bendable paper iPhone stands under the brand name iBend, ultimately selling more than 100,000 for $3-6 apiece.

“We did really well on the mommy blogs,” Levey said.

After attempting to use Google Spreadsheets to track inventory (“that became obsolete in two minutes”), Levey and business partner Jake Gasaway started building what would become Stitch.

Stitch Labs, based in San Francisco, has 3 employees and about 120 customers. It has raised a “friends and family” round of funding, and has just started looking for institutional funding.

Stitch Labs teamThe Stich Labs team, left to right: Andrew Lassetter (intern), Michelle Laham (co-founder/creative design lead), Brandon Levey (founder, thinker upper), Jake Gasaway (co-founder/director of business development), Willo O'Brien (marketing and social expert).

Photo courtesy Stitch Labs.

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!

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Amazon rumored to be working on a phone — but is that wise?

Posted: 17 Nov 2011 08:25 AM PST

Amazon CEO Jeff BezosSurprise surprise, shortly after Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet has started shipping, the company is now rumored to be working on a phone for 2012.

Citigroup analyst Mark Mahaney lays out the case for the Amazon phone in his latest report,  AllThingsD reports.

“Based on our supply chain check, we believe FIH [Foxconn International Holdings] is now jointly developing the phone with Amazon,” Mahaney wrote. Foxconn, it should be noted, is also the premiere device manufacturer for Apple’s mobile devices.

An Amazon phone makes sense for many reasons, especially after the company showed off its ability to tweak Android to its own purposes with the Kindle Fire. It would be another way for Amazon to promote its content ecosystem, and the company is big enough to do something truly innovative in the way cellphone service is offered in the US.

But I can’t help but express trepidation about the news. Will Amazon really be able to make a dent against the glut of Android phones on the market? And is it wise for the company to offer a phone, which would be a big departure from its more consumption-focused e-readers and tablet?

It made more sense for Amazon to get into tablets: Other than the iPad, no other tablet has truly been successful with consumers (except for perhaps Barnes and Nobles’ Nook Color). The market was wide open for Amazon to step in and offer something inexpensive and easy to use. Android tablets, while increasingly thinner and more powerful, are still weighed down by the platform’s nascent tablet interface and lack of apps optimized for big screens.

With the Kindle Fire, Amazon took it upon itself to offer a better Android tablet interface, and it’s already sparking interest from developers. Android needed a standout tablet to convince developers to build slate apps, and it looks like the Kindle Fire will accomplish just that.

When it comes to Android phones, Amazon has less to offer consumers. There are already cheap Android handsets on the market, and while Amazon’s Kindle Fire user interface is well-suited to a tablet, it wouldn’t work as well on a phone. If anything, creating a phone would likely be more for Amazon’s benefit than for consumers. That doesn’t seem like Amazon’s style, especially when it would be better served to focus on delivering improved mobile shopping experiences for all mobile platforms.

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Gawker Media is ditching its porn site, Fleshbot. Any takers?

Posted: 17 Nov 2011 08:24 AM PST

Gawker Media is getting ready to sell Fleshbot (NSFW), its blog devoted to adult entertainment and human sexuality.

The network contains a roster of successful sites, from Lifehacker and Gizmodo to Jezebel and Jalopnik, each relatively well respected in its niche.

However, Fleshbot doesn’t seem like such a good fit for Gawker anymore. The site doesn’t appear in Gawker Media’s public lineup of online properties, and Fleshbot editor Lux Alptraum wrote recently that Gawker’s “sales strategy and technology platform have ceased to effectively support Fleshbot’s needs.

“We think someone else could be a much better partner to grow the site with us, and as such, Fleshbot is for sale.”

Gawker Media chief Nick Denton told All Things D this morning that Fleshbot “Just hadn't fit for a long long time” but that he held onto the property “because [he is] slow to realize the inevitable."

Of course, being cynical journalists, we’re wont to follow the money when inexplicable business decisions come to light. After all, bad fit or no bad fit, Denton had held onto Fleshbot for eight long years — in Internet years, that’s something close to the lifespan of your average Galapagos tortoise. The site may have been simply underperforming financially (which Alptraum hinted at in noting a lack of marketing support, perhaps?), making it an easy target for amputation from the Gawker family — or making its own leadership seek out new owners.

One thing you can take to the bank, though: The day a porn site can’t make money on the Internet is the day we all pack up and go home.

Filed under: media

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Brazil social gaming market to hit $238 million by 2014

Posted: 17 Nov 2011 08:00 AM PST

The market for social games in Brazil is expected to grow as large as $238 million by 2014, according to a study released by social research firm SuperData. That’s a significant increase from the $136 million the market is expected to be worth by the end of this year.

The study, which is based on the user behavior of 2,414 users in the region also concluded that in that same time frame the size of the social gaming userbase in Brazil will grow to 52.3 million. Currently Brazil accounts for 35 percent of the Latin American social gaming market, which itself makes up five percent of the worldwide market.

A similar study released last month by Amsterdam-based research firm Newzoo revealed that the current userbase of social gamers in Brazil is around 35 million. Earlier this year SuperData released a study showing that virtual goods revenues across all of Latin America are expected to rise to $517 million by next year, with Brazil leading the way, followed by Colombia and Mexico.

Currently the average revenue per paying user in Brazil is $1.87, approximately $0.50 less than in North America. The most popular form of payment is local electronic wallet solutions, such as Payseguro. The largest social network in Brazil is Orkut, which boasts 66 million active users, nearly 60 percent of which hail from Brazil. Games based on platforms other than Facebook, such as Orkut, are expected to reach $5.6 billion in revenue by 2014.

“With social game revenue growing more than 36 percent over the past year alone, there are real opportunities to capture market share and make the most of this first-mover advantage,” Janelle Benjamin, SuperData's Director of Research, said in a statement.

Filed under: games, social

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Free Saints Row 2 with PS3 version of Saints Row: The Third

Posted: 17 Nov 2011 07:18 AM PST

THQ has announced a special treat for Playstation 3 gamers, with a free digital copy of Saints Row 2 being made available when you redeem your Saints Row: The Third online pass within the next 90 days.

These kinds of promotions are becoming increasingly common as game publishers look for ways to maximize the revenue on their new games by bundling titles from their older libraries.

Speaking on the Playstation Blog, Jon Miller, spokesman at THQ said “At long last, THQ and our friends at PlayStation are proud to unveil additional content for Saints Row: The Third owners on PS3. For all players that purchase Saints Row: The Third on Playstation 3 and redeem their online pass codes within the next 90 days, they will receive a digital copy of Saints Row 2 (a $19.99 value)… absolutely free!”

In the ongoing fight against the pre-owned games market, many publishers are now making online game modes available only by purchasing a brand new game, or buying an online pass from the Playstation Network and XBox Live stores. Saints Row The Third is no exception, with the co-operative functionality of the game relying on an online pass to enable it. This offer from THQ sweetens the deal somewhat though, particularly coming weeks after Electronic Arts withdrew its offer to include the downloadable title Battlefield 1943 with the PS3 version of Battlefield 3.

This offer will be available until midnight on February 13, 2012, but is only valid for customers in the United States, Canada and Mexico. There is no word from THQ as to whether this bonus content will be made available in any other regions.

Filed under: games

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Yes, Samsung’s Galaxy S II will get Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich”

Posted: 17 Nov 2011 07:14 AM PST

Samsung Galaxy S IIWith Android 4.0, codenamed “Ice Cream Sandwich,” being the talk of the town, owners of Samsung’s recently released Galaxy S II have been anxious to hear if and when they’ll receive Google’s latest mobile update.

Now, they can rest a bit easier, as Samsung’s UK division has confirmed on Twitter that the Galaxy S II will indeed receive Ice Cream Sandwich.

There’s still no release date yet, and Samsung US has yet to corroborate the announcement, but it’s a good sign for owners of the phone, who have had to sit back and watch Google unveil Android 4.0 soon after the Galaxy S II’s launch in the US. Google’s flagship Galaxy Nexus phone, also developed by Samsung, will be the first Android phone to run Ice Cream Sandwich, which together with its better specs, made it quickly overshadow the Galaxy S II.

With Android 4.0 on the horizon, just about every other major Android phone  being released now is promising support for the new OS early next year, including the Droid Razr, HTC Rezound, and Sony’s entire Xperia smartphone lineup.

As the Verge notes, Samsung UK’s plans typically fall in line with the company’s other European rollouts. Samsung has historically been slow about rolling out Android updates in the US, but hopefully that’s something that will be improved this time around. There’s also no word yet on if the original Galaxy S will get upgraded to Android 4.0

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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This is where your Facebook profile lives

Posted: 17 Nov 2011 07:00 AM PST

Your Facebook profile doesn’t exist on your computer or in some nebulous cloud called “the Internet.”

It’s stored deep in the brick-and-mortar walls of a real-world fortress. It comes to life as electricity flows through wires that connect tens of thousands of servers to the grid.

And for some users some of the time, it lives among the wind and scrub brush of central Oregon, where Facebook has erected its first fully functioning data center in a town called Prineville.

The still-young company leases equipment and facilities at various locations, but the Prineville center is something special. Facebook designed and built this place from the ground up. More interestingly, it’s shared its customized hardware designs and super-efficient operational specs with anyone who wants to see them.

Yesterday, we spent the afternoon poking our nose around Facebook’s Prineville data center. We’ll have a longer video tour of the place posted soon, but we wanted to share the images from the trip as soon as possible.

Enjoy the data center porn, and be sure to read up on why Facebook thought open-source hardware was so important in the first place.

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Former Call of Duty and Activision veterans start social game startup U4iA Games (exclusive)

Posted: 17 Nov 2011 06:00 AM PST

Former Activision and Call of Duty veterans have started a new video game studio called U4iA Games. Their aim is to bring hardcore games to social game platforms, from the web to Facebook and mobile.

The Bellevue, Wash.-based studio is making an online-only hardcore free-to-play game that it calls a “first-person social game.” The company founders are Dusty Welch (pictured right), chief executive officer, and Chris Archer (pictured left), chief creative officer. In their careers, they have worked on games such as Call of Duty, Doom, Guitar Hero, Spider-Man, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.

U4iA (pronounced “euphoria”) believes that there is a new segment of players emerging: the hardcore social gamer. Facebook game creators Kixeye and Kabam have already discovered this. But Welch said in an interview that his company aims to shoot even higher on the quality bar, creating AAA-quality games along the lines of what Riot Games, creator of League of Legends, has done for web-based combat games. China’s Tencent acquired Riot Games earlier this year for nearly $400 million. League of Legends is a fast-action combat game that uses the free-to-play model, where users play for free and pay real money for virtual goods.

Welch believes that hardcore gamers are wholeheartedly embracing that model and are more likely to actually purchase something in a game. That model enabled Kabam to raise more than $130 million and hire more than 400 people. Like casual gamers, Welch believes that players are moving to new platforms such as social networks and mobile devices.

Given the huge numbers being bandied about, it’s no surprise that U4iA has raised money. The company has raised $1.5 million in seed funding and has 14 employees. Archer believes that people using social networks and mobile devices deserve great games just like anybody else and those games haven’t been made yet.

“Many studios are making casual games for a core audience,” Archer said. “We're making core games for a social audience." Welch added, “We think the hardcore gamers are going to start looking for the core games on the social and mobile networks now.”

U4iA got its start earlier this year after Sony Online Entertainment shut down several studios, including the Seattle studio that Archer was running (they were making an online game called The Agency). Archer and Welch got together and started their new company.

Archer and Welch have created, designed, produced or marketed more than 50 video games that have generated more than $4 billion in revenue. Welch was a co-founder of the Call of Duty franchise. Years ago, he saw the movie Saving Private Ryan and felt like the game Medal of Honor, published by Electronic Arts, failed to capture the excitement of the film. So he conceived of Call of Duty and contracted Infinity Ward to create the first title, aiming “to kick the snot out of EA.”

After that, the series took off and it is now the best-selling video game franchise of all time. While at Activision for 13 years, Welch also worked with id Software, the Soldier of Fortune title, and the Guitar Hero group.

Archer is a 20-year game development veteran and has produced more than 40 games across a wide variety of platforms. He helped create titles such as True Crime: Streets of LA, the Spider-Man movie games, the X-Men Legends games, 11th Hour, and Powerslave.

The company’s first game is in the works and will be announced later. Besides Kabam and Kixeye, rivals include Valve, Nexon, and Neowiz. U4iA is using the Unity 3D engine to create its games for the web, mobile devices, and social networks. Investors include ABR Capital and several executives from top game publishers.

“We think we’re at the spearhead of a lot of cool things,” Welch said.

Filed under: dev, games, mobile, social, VentureBeat

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Hear that iTunes? Google Music is playing ‘Eye of the Tiger’

Posted: 17 Nov 2011 05:54 AM PST

Apple’s iTunes might be the undisputed leader in digital music, but Google’s new Google Music service is poised to win the fight in the long-run.

Google Music, which launched to the public today, is a free service that allows you to upload your digital music library to the cloud so that it can be played anywhere with a viable internet connection. The search engine giant also added the ability to purchase music through its Android Market, which makes it a direct competitor to iTunes.

Earlier this week, Apple preemptively launched a new “cloud” service of its own, called iTunes Match. For $25 a year, the service will allow you unlimited downloads on all tracks that you’ve previously purchased or are already in your library at no additional cost. You can download and sync all your music across all iOS devices (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Desktop running iTunes software). Other than that, Apple didn’t add anything new to iTunes in regards to music.

Up to speed? Great. Now I can explain why Google Music is possibly the biggest threat iTunes has ever encountered, and why it’s likely to become the music service of choice for most people in the future.

Music Distribution & Artist Hub

Right now, the only legitimate way for copyrighted music to get recognized through iTunes is if the record label that represents the music strikes a deal with Apple to have it appear within the iTunes store. There are lots of small and relatively unknown artists represented in the store, but nowhere near the number of people in the country who seriously consider themselves musicians — each with their own library of original songs. In the past, it didn’t make financial sense for Apple to add these unknowns without some kind of guarantee that they would make money.

Google Music, however, has taken the opposite approach. It’s Artist Hub allows virtually anyone with the rights to their own music to sell their songs through the Android Market for a nominal $25 fee. Instead of turning away musicians with little marketable value, Google Music provides them with the necessary tools to turn their passion into a profitable business. It’s very similar to the early days of blogging when Google rolled out AdSense.

The sheer potential to turn your musical work into a viable business is going to drive any serious musician to set up shop on Google Music. With that kind of music library, all Google has to do is sit back and wait for the talented ones to get popular. However, “sitting back” isn’t actually Google’s strategy, which brings me to my next point…

Music Discovery & Promotion

Having one of the largest networks of up-and-coming music artists doesn’t do much if people never unearth the good stuff. Until now, the only way to discover good music depended mostly on the artist and/or a large company that spent money getting the word out about it.

Google Music is designed to change that. First of all the service, it integrates with Google’s social network Google+. If you allow it, purchases and listening activity can appear within Google+’s news feed — prompting exposure of songs to your intimate social circle (where you have lots of influence).

Also, when you purchase a new song or album through the Android Market, it enables all of your friends to listen to those purchases  — in their entirety — once. It’s bound to spur digital music sales, or at the very least some new exposure to artists you otherwise never would have heard about.

The discovery functionality in iTunes pales in comparison to Google’s. It does have services like the failure that is Ping as well as the ability to share the music libraries of others around you, but both of those methods require you to out of your way to find something new.

Music Store Selection and Licensing

Phil CollinsOne area that iTunes greatly excels beyond Google Music is the ability to purchase a digital download of the studio version of Sussudio by Phil Collins. This is because Google failed to reach an agreement with Warner Music Group to sell the song — meaning none of the music that Warner Music owns the rights to is available for sale in the Android Market. (You can get around this because some of those tracks, the more popular ones, are available on compilation albums.)

The fact that Apple has a greater number of tracks available from all the major record labels isn’t actually much of a win for Apple. If Google Music does rise to popularity, people will figure out a way to add their music to the service — making Warner Music the only real loser.

In the future, Google will have the advantage because the popular artists of tomorrow will already be licensed and available for purchase. Apple’s iTunes, on the other hand, will have to play catch up. If Apple’s stronghold over music devices ever weakens, people will have little reason to keep using iTunes over Google Music.


Both services aren’t without their limitations. Google Music caps the number of songs you can upload to 20,000, while iTunes Match allows you to upload 25,000. I did find that many tracks from well-known artists in my music library weren’t recognized by iTunes Match, and thus, are unable for unlimited download. This is certainly a pain in the ass since I paid money to gain access to my entire collection of songs. VentureBeat’s Sean Ludwig had a similar experience when he tested the service earlier this week.

Alternately, I can’t download any songs through Google Music. I also didn’t spend money to use the service so it seems like a fair trade-off — especially since the availability of internet is likely to improve over time, which makes downloading tracks unnecessary.

Filed under: cloud, media, mobile, VentureBeat

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Update: Activision is slowly nursing Call of Duty Elite online network back to health

Posted: 17 Nov 2011 04:00 AM PST

Activision Blizzard is slowly bringing the gamer social network Call of Duty Elite back to life. The service was supposed to launch last week with the debut of Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3. But the company was overwhelmed by a huge number of registrations and other issues that brought down the service, forcing Activision into an embarrassing apology to gamers. Now it’s slowly adding more users.

During this time, gamers have been able to play the multiplayer version of the game, but the servers for the Elite service have been spotty. Daniel Suarez, vice president of production at Activision’s Beachhead Studios, said in an interview that the company has been able to restore enough service to guarantee service for those gamers who have signed up for the paid service. But at least half of those who are using the free version of the service aren’t able to log in, so they are still seeing error messages when they attempt to get in.

Activision has begun to add some services such as game statistics. Beachhead allowed users to start setting up their clans, and 22,000 clans were created in the first 12 hours after that feature was restored. But the company hasn’t been able to restore every feature to the service, since each time it restores a feature the usage puts a strain on its backend databases. Those databases have been the weak link in the service so far.

Suarez said that the company is now able to add tens of thousands of user registrations per hour, so that isn’t a bottleneck like it was on the first day. The lack of progress has been frustrating to gamers who want to access data such as their career stats and competitive opportunities. The delay is embarrassing for the company because it billed Elite as a way to deepen gamer engagement on a year-round basis for the Call of Duty games.

“Registrations are OK now,” Suarez said. “The next thing is to get more people into the service and we are doing that hour by hour.”

Suarez said that Activision is not asking gamers to pay for subscriptions so that they can get into the service.

“I don’t want to create the perception that we are forcing people to pay at all,” he said. But the company is still forced to prioritize and it is allowing paying users or those who bought the Hardened edition of the game into Elite first. “In the next week to two weeks, we will be able to open the service up to all free users.”

To communicate with users, Suarez has been doing interviews with the press when new things develop, and the company is making status updates on a web site and on its Twitter account @CallOfDutyElite.

All game play data is safely stored in separate gaming servers. Activision Blizzard is extending the period for signing up for Founding Member status for the paid version ($49.99 a year) by 30 days. That means players who sign up now can get an extra month free, as their memberships will expire at the end of December a year from now.

Those who signed up to receive Founders’ status will be able to get their in-game benefits once they are able to log in. The mobile app is still offline as the company won’t start that up until it can be sure that it will work properly.

Suarez said that the company is still working on providing a free service for players who play the game on the PC. Those players will have access to stats and group features, but Activision is not planning to create a paid premium service on the PC.

Suarez said the team has postponed the launch of the web service for PC game players, mainly to ensure security for statistics. Suarez said that the entire Beachhead Team, Demonware, and Activision teams are all hard at work on restoring service.

As we noted before, Beachhead Studios worked on the Elite service as a social network for all things Call of Duty for more than two years. The goal was to integrate the service deeply with Modern Warfare 3. Since Activision Blizzard dedicated a full studio to Elite, it is considered a major investment.

Even before the launch of Modern Warfare 3, the Call of Duty community is already one of the strongest there is. More than 30 million people have played online this year and 20 million players play each month. On average, the Call of Duty player plays 170 hours of the game per year. That's as much time spent as watching the full series of the Sopranos and Lost, combined.

Suarez said that the first competition among Elite members will be held next week and the first Friday Night Fights video will debut on the Elite TV part of the service on Nov. 25.

“We are making progress as we speak,” he said. “We know there are a lot of people who can’t get in.”


Filed under: games

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Why a Sony internet TV service is likely to fail

Posted: 16 Nov 2011 10:43 PM PST

Sony TVNot content to simply partner with services like Google TV, electronics manufacturer Sony is exploring the idea of launching its own Internet-based TV service, according to a Wall Street Journal report that cites people familiar with the matter.

Such a service would provide an alternative over cable-TV and satellite operators, but would also face growing competition from popular set-top boxes, like Roku, Apple TV and others.

According to the report, Sony has approached several big media companies about offering their TV channels to air over the proposed service, which customers would access through Sony television sets, Blu-ray players and the Playstation gaming consoles.

Basically, Sony wants to mimic what cable providers are already doing — reaching agreements with media companies for a channel (or channels) or content that can be bundled together and sold as a subscription to customers. Sony’s service, however, may allow for greater flexibility. For example, the company might charge for each individual channel of programming rather than large packages.

Sony has lots of incentive for wanting to enter the TV service market. It has millions of internet-connected devices in homes across America. It understand that most people find the current selection of premium TV content from cable providers over-priced. If Sony were to steal even a small portion of Comcast’s 22.4 million video subscribers, it would be very lucrative.

However, if Sony does decide to create its own TV service, its unlikely that it would be very successful. First of all, the company has to reach partnerships with all the same media companies that Comcast, Dish Network, DirecTV and others currently have. Since some of those media companies are also the owners of cable provider businesses, its unlikely that they’d be willing to forge deals with Sony. Also, the company has had ages to put together a media service comparable to Microsoft’s Xbox Live Gold offers. Any attempt to do so now would be well behind.

Filed under: media, VentureBeat

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Decide’s new iPhone app will make you a Black Friday ninja

Posted: 16 Nov 2011 10:23 PM PST

Decide iPhone app

Should you buy that new digital camera at Best Buy, or order it on Amazon? Or should you hold off altogether for a new model?

Decide has been answering those sorts of questions with its website for the past few months, but today the site has finally gone mobile with the launch of its free iPhone app. With the ability to compare consumer electronics prices across nearby stores and the web, as well suggestions on when to wait for a new model, the company’s iPhone app should be a useful tool for any holiday shopper.

The app allows you to search for specific products, or even better, you can scan barcodes instantly while you’re browsing a retail store. Once you scan an item, or choose a search result, the app will provide the best price for the item nearby and online. Most importantly, it’ll give you a clear answer as to whether you should buy that item at all, or wait for something better to come along. The app provides you a history of pricing data for every item, as well as a confidence score for its buying decision.

Just like the Decide site, the app also provides reviews rounded up from Amazon, Best Buy, and other sites across the web, as well as technical specifications. Once you’ve searched for an item, you can share Decide’s results with your friends via Twitter, Facebook, or over e-mail.

One glaring omission from the app is the ability to save products for future reference. The Decide site allows you to login through your Facebook account and get alerts about pricing changes and new models for specific products. There’s no such functionality on the iPhone app yet, though it does helpfully keep a history of your searches. I suspect the company decided to push out the app without the product alert feature to get it into consumers hands in time for Black Friday.

The company added mobile phones to its database of electronics in September, but it also tracks most popular electronics categories like televisions, computers, tablets, and cameras.

Decide is based in Seattle, WA, and has raised $8.5 million in funding from Madrona Venture Group, Maveron and angel investors.

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Occupy SF: Protesters pitch a tent inside a bank branch

Posted: 16 Nov 2011 08:23 PM PST

This afternoon news came to VentureBeat’s front door in the form of an Occupy Wall Street protest in the lobby of our building. Around a hundred Occupy protesters streamed into a Bank of America branch at 50 California Street, located in the heart of San Francisco’s financial district.

Tenants in our 36-story building were told to shelter-in-place, a term more commonly used by Homeland Security in the case of terrorist threats or hazardous materials spills. Naturally, we had to go see what the fuss was about.

The protesters were originally part of a “ReFund Public Education” march that began in Justin Herman Plaza at noon. Around one o’clock, protesters arrived at the Bank of America and asked to speak to BoA board member Monica Lozano. Bank employees asked them to leave, but about three dozen of the protesters, mostly UCSC students angry about a new tuition hike, opted to stick around and pitch a tent inside the branch.

Police arrived right away, and officers in riot gear calmly filed into the bank while demonstrators settled in. The protesters sat down on the floor and perched on desks, alternately chanting, clapping and quietly waiting for the police to make a move. One woman used the downtime to charge her iPhone, plugging it in at an abandoned desk. Another gathered the names and phone numbers of protesters and taped the list to window for a legal worker outside.

The sit-in was clearly visible from the street through the large bank windows, and it drew a mixed crowd of spectators, other protesters, legal workers and journalists. After an hour, police started to carefully arrest demonstrators one-by-one and load them into a waiting police bus. We shot this video of the action:

Filed under: offBeat, VentureBeat

Angie’s List posts $13 IPO share price, as offering window creaks open

Posted: 16 Nov 2011 08:01 PM PST

As the tech IPO window creaks open, contractor reviewing site Angie’s List has announced a $13 opening share price for a planned initial public offering later this month.

Evelyn Rusli of The New York Times reports that the company plans to raise approximately $114.3 million by issuing 8.79 million shares, with underwriters Bank of America Merrill Lynch keeping open the option of adding an additional 1.3 million shares, if the initial flotation is oversubscribed.

Angie’s List, which lets users review a wide variety of service providers, from landscapers to surgeons,  is not a pure-play technology company. Angie’s List earns much of its money from paid search results, with contractors who wish to appear more often paying for placement.

Technology companies are once again testing the public’s appetite for their stock, beginning with the IPO of LinkedIn this past March. Social Games site Zynga has filed its S-1 and its IPO is expected before the new year. Yelp, another local reviews site for restaurants and services has also expressed its intention to go public and recently selected its underwriters.

Groupon, which became a publicly traded company on Nov. 4, listed its shares at $2o for its initial public offering. Groupon shares initially soared, hitting $28  per share on their first day, but have continued to cool. At the close of trading today, Groupon shares were trading at $24.07. LinkedIn shares, which debuted at $83 per share in May, were trading at $71.56 at the close of markets today, just as the employee lockout period comes to a close.

In the case of Groupon, Yelp, and Angie’s List, and to an extent, LinkedIn, the companies’ core products are not technological. So, while the public offering signal a return of tech stock offerings to the market, it is a bit of a mischaracterization, because none of the companies make and sell software.

Angie’s List, while not as well-known as other IPO contenders, is a 16-year-old company that raked in $38.6 million in revenues during the first six months of 2011, though the company is not yet profitable.

[Image Credit: Stuck in Customs/Flickr]

Filed under: deals, VentureBeat

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Minecraft to launch on iOS devices on Thursday

Posted: 16 Nov 2011 07:45 PM PST

Minecraft - Pocket Edition for iOSThe iOS version of popular indie sandbox building game Minecraft will be available in the Apple App Store starting tomorrow.

Minecraft – Pocket Edition will be scaled down compared to its PC counterpart. It won’t feature the game’s popular Survival Mode, but it will allow players to invite others to the worlds they create through a local wireless network. It will also feature randomized worlds, 36 different kinds of blocks to build with, and the ability to save multiplayer worlds on your phone.

Earlier this month, Minecraft creator Markus Persson revealed the game had reached over 4 million copies sold on the PC – while still in its beta testing phase. It sold over 500,000 while still in its alpha phase of development back in October 2010 and won numerous awards, including “Users Choice: Best Indie Game of the Year” from video entertainment network Machinima.

The iOS launch coincides with this weekend’s MineCon event in Las Vegas, where developer Mojang and its fans will celebrate the game’s official launch on the PC.

Minecraft – Pocket Edition will cost $6.99 and will be compatible with iPhone, iPod touch and iPad devices. It will require iOS 4.3 or later.

An Xbox 360 version of Minecraft is also in production and is set to launch sometime in 2012.

Filed under: games

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Cisco introduces new WebEx and Jabber features, taking on Dropbox and Box.net

Posted: 16 Nov 2011 06:14 PM PST

WebExCisco announced new features to its WebEx web meeting client and Jabber messenger today, in an attempt to compete with increasingly popular cloud storage companies such as Dropbox and Box.net.

“People who are using web conferencing have a challenge…the first ten minutes is [spent] figuring out who has what,”said Cisco’s Michael Smith.

That is to say, many meetings start with an agenda, there may be some files you want to share, a presentation to give, or a new manual to pass around. That requires finding the files, sharing the files with everyone at the meeting and re-sharing when someone at the meeting doesn’t have them. Not exactly arduous, but annoying enough to create a solution around it. Indeed, companies have found an easy was to share and find these files in solutions such as Dropbox and Box.net. Through these cloud services, you can place a file in a folder kept on a remote server, and give coworkers access to that folder. From there, PC users can grab the files whenever they want — whether connected to the internet or not through sync features — and mobile users can view them while connected to the web.

Cisco wanted its WebEx users to have similar integrations and created WebEx Spaces. The spaces allow meeting-goers early access to the meeting to share and grab files off of WebEx’s new cloud storage service. Anyone joining the meeting can take whatever documents they need straight from their PC or mobile device. Participants can collaborate and change the doc in the cloud as well. As with previous WebEx versions, you can also chat with participants, but the new pre-meeting feature has an activity stream, which allows you to send updates to meeting participants if necessary. The activity stream is particularly useful on mobile, as they translate into notifications or alerts leading up to the meeting.

The video quality has changed, as well, up to high definition, with the capability to connect to Cisco’s TelePresence meeting rooms. TelePresence is a high-tech conference room, which Cisco outfits with a number of screens set up to emulate physical presence. When you use the room for meetings, it seems as if the people are actually there, when in fact, they are sitting in a mirrored room somewhere else in the world.

WebEx has also changed its payments structure, and could be reeling in some smaller sized companies. Cisco is now offering a low level of WebEx for free. Up to three participants can hold a meeting without charge, with access to video, instant messaging, 250MG of storage and more.

The company has also made changes to its Jabber messaging and voice client, allowing users to access it over the web, as well as embed it directly into Gmail accounts. A software developer kit (SDK) for using Jabber in various web applications will be available in January.

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!

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Cognito Comics reinvents storytelling with dazzling Operation Ajax iPad app

Posted: 16 Nov 2011 04:26 PM PST

Cognito Comics today launched Operation Ajax, a dazzling graphic novel for iPad, in a bid to reinvent storytelling for the digital age. The app is free for a limited time.

Operation Ajax is a bold retelling of the book “All the Shah’s Men,” which recounts the CIA-led Iranian coup d’etat of 1953, that deposed  Mohammad Mossadegh, the elected leader, and ushered in the regime of the brutal Mohammad Reza Shah, who was largely seen to be a puppet of the U.S.

Ajax was built from the ground up by Cognito Comics to take full advantage of the iPad as a new and exciting tool for storytelling. To mimic the experience of reading a comic book or graphic novel on the page, all panels are rendered in portrait format, and the story blends the best of print and digital publishing, with arresting visuals, in-panel animation and sound effects. The ominous, haunting images are works of art by themselves, and the iPad as a platform makes possible the inclusion of historical news reels and rare, declassified documents that further augment the story.

Having played with the app myself, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Operation  gives a glimpse of what the tablet can do to transform the reading experience. It’s akin to watching a movie, where you can pause the action at any time to gape at the scenery.

The whole process of creating Operation Ajax took about four years, Cognito Comics’ Ash Aiwase told VentureBeat. Aiwase gives due credit to Cognito’s angel investors and their long term vision, which helped Cognito to get through the many stages of the final product launch. Originally Ajax was conceived as a graphic novel in print, says Aiwase, but this was before  the iPad was announced in 2010. With the prospect of interactivity, and storytelling innovation, the idea morphed into something that fully utilizes the iPad’s bright screen and powerful image processors.

“Using the platform we used, the only thing limiting us with Ajax was time and scope,” says Aiwase. “Put it this way, we didn’t run up on our technology limits doing Ajax. There’s still a lot of ways we can put together comics stories that include elements that people just don’t see right now, and that’s very exciting.”

While the graphic novel is free for the next two weeks, it will cost $7.99 afterwards, which is very cost competitive with other forms of print media and premium digital content. Aiwase says that for the same $7.99, a comic fan gets about 40 pages of a comic book at today’s prices. DC Comics this week announced that its series Batman Beyond will be available as a download first, and in print second, indicating the comics industry is also starting to tap into the iPad as a distribution mechanism.

But Cognito’s mission isn’t just to replicate the comics industry on the iPad, the broader vision is to reinvent storytelling for the digital age. While Aiwase wouldn’t comment, Cognito is hard at work on a new story about a pint-sized monster slayer, which will take full advantage of their experience with Ajax, and continue to push the boundaries of storytelling.

“One of our missions is to tell stories in innovative ways, and this is just the first step,” says Aiwase, “This is just getting out into the marketplace.”

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Google Music’s Artist Hub turns indie musicians into personal record labels

Posted: 16 Nov 2011 04:01 PM PST

It seems that Google was paying close attention during the years in which Myspace was slowly pissing away its potential to remake the way independent music artists promote and distribute their music.

The search giant today publicly launched its free Google Music service, which offers users the ability to upload their music library (up to 20,000 tracks) that can be accessed anywhere with a viable internet connection. Google also announced the addition of music sales to its Android Market — a move that’s sure to give Apple’s iTunes a run for its money and make independent music artists take notice.

But perhaps the biggest piece of news revealed by Google about the new service is its intention to give smaller, virtually unknown music artists a direct route to distribute their music to fans (provided that they own the rights to their work).

The new music service includes an Artist Hub feature, which lets up-and-coming musicians set up a profile that allows them to upload songs, set prices, link directly to music clips or videos and more. The Artist Hub profile costs $25 — the same amount as an Android developer account.

Those artists keep 70 percent of the revenue from each sale and gain access to detailed financial and promotional analytics. The Artist Hub is a far cry from what Myspace started to accomplish with its own music profiles in 2008. However, unlike previous Myspace owner News Corp., Google isn’t trying to retain the copyright to anything that gains popularity on its site. The move by Google also seriously damage’s Myspace’s future plans to remake itself as a music-focused social network.

I’d expect every indie/hipster/underground music group to flock to Google Music in droves with this kind of opportunity.

If you’re an aspiring musician, let us know your thoughts about the Artist Hub in the comments below.

[Screenshot above features indie group Monogold's artist profile]

Filed under: cloud, media, VentureBeat

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HotelTonight calls room service, orders up $8.6 million Series B

Posted: 16 Nov 2011 02:52 PM PST

Location-based hotel booking app HotelTonight has raised an $8.6 million Series B round, according to a regulatory filing. The San Francisco-based company has an iPhone app that lets people discover and book discounted hotel rooms at boutique establishments.

Because HotelTonight targets hotel rooms would otherwise be empty, the app is a win for hoteliers and customers. Rather than cannibalizing the hotel market, by forcing hotels to compete on price, HotelTonight hopes to rope in last-minute hotel guests who might otherwise crash with friends.

In a recent interview with VentureBeat (see below), HotelTonight chief executive officer Sam Shank said his company aims to be the next billion-dollar company in the travel industry.

HotelTonight previously raised $3.25 million from Battery Ventures, Accel Partners, and First Round Capital.

VentureBeat has reached out to HotelTonight CEO and co-founder Sam Shank for comment. We will update with any news.

Filed under: deals

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Google Music service launches with music sales in the Android Market

Posted: 16 Nov 2011 02:31 PM PST

google-music-androidGoogle has launched its answer to iCloud and iTunes with Google Music, a free service to listen to your music from the cloud and download songs from the Android Market.

While Google has done a great job in the mobile arena and Android is by far the dominant smartphone OS in the world with more than 200 million activations, the search giant hasn’t done a great job with media. Accessing music on Android has been an afterthought up to this point, but Google Music looks to help change the perception that Google is behind when it comes to music on the go.

Jamie Rosenberg, director of digital content for Android took a direct stab at Apple’s iCloud and iTunes Match by saying: “Other cloud services think you have to pay to listen to your music. You don’t.”

Rosenberg’s comment is an acknowledgement that Google is late to the music party and faces some heavyweight competition. Apple’s iTunes Music Store has been dominating digital music sales for a decade, and has locked down licensing agreements with every major music label (Google has only 3 of the big 4, with Warner Music being the holdout). Facebook, with its 800 million users, recently integrated Spotify for real-time music sharing. Meanwhile, file-synchronization services like Amazon Cloud Drive, Apple’s iTunes Match and even Dropbox let you store your music files in the cloud and listen to them anywhere. Meanwhile, streaming-music services like Spotify, MOG, Rdio and Grooveshark (or their older cousin Last.fm) have built out large audiences eager to hear new music.

Against that, Google brings integration with Android — which is now the most popular smartphone platform — and the promise of social-media integration through Google+, its social network, which currently has about 40 million users.

It was already established from the Google Music beta that Google would let its U.S. customers upload songs to its cloud and let them listen from desktop browsers and Android phones. That service was invite-only and now will be available to anyone who wants to sign up, and it’s still free. Google will allow you keep up to 20,000 tracks in the cloud. That’s 5,000 less tracks than what Apple allows with iTunes Match, but iTunes Match costs $25 a year while Google Music is free.

The biggest change is the addition of music tracks to the Android Market. Google promises that “millions of songs” are available for purchase, and it played new tracks from the latest Coldplay album. A screenshot Google provided also prominently displayed new tracks from Drake and Pearl Jam. The company also mentioned The Rolling Stones and Busta Rhymes, who will be releasing his new album on Google Music before any other outlet.

Google said it has partnered with major labels EMI, Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and independent record labels like Beggars, Merge and Warp. Noticeably missing from the list is Warner Music Group. The company also said it is doing everything it can to add more tracks “as fast as it can.”

The company also announced a Google Music “Artist Hub” which helps artists build a custom home page, upload songs and set prices for their songs. Ideally, this makes for a very easy approach to selling new music. Like iTunes, artists keep 70 percent of the revenue from selling music and Google takes a 30 percent cut.

Google has partnered exclusively with T-Mobile to let its users purchase Google Music tracks directly so they can pay through their phone bills for any music they buy. That overall makes it easier to buy tracks and should help convince you to buy more. T-Mobile said it would also offer some music tracks, including a song by Drake, exclusively to its customers.

The Google Music service will roll out to Android phone owners in the U.S. over the next few days. No word on when the service will go live in other countries.

Filed under: cloud, media, mobile

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Following Rdio’s lead, Grooveshark redesigns its streaming music site with new social layer

Posted: 16 Nov 2011 01:59 PM PST


Streaming music service Grooveshark has launched a new design of its website this week with a new emphasis on a better social and search experience.

Grooveshark is different from other prominent streaming music services like Spotify, MOG and Rdio because it doesn’t have broad licensing agreements to play the majority of its music. Co-founder and CTO Josh Greenberg told us he considers the company more like “a YouTube for audio,” so it depends on users to upload music that can be enjoyed by the community. If a user uploads a file that he or she doesn’t own and it gets a DMCA complaint, Grooveshark takes the file down.

“We take a very open approach to music streaming,” Greenberg said. “As it stands, the site now has more flexibility, and we’re committed to building a community.”

The new website (take a glance above to see the new home screen) gives users easier access to the site’s estimated 15 million tracks. The search bar on the main page is easier than ever to access and now sometimes features slick-looking advertising. The prominent Explore tab shows off up and coming artists. There’s also a Community tab that makes it easier to see what everyone on the site is plugged into. The closest direct comparison is to Rdio’s social music approach that makes it easier to discover and talk about new songs.

Apple and Google have removed Grooveshark from their respective app stores because of copyright concerns, but the company’s mobile apps do have workarounds. Grooveshark on iOS works on jailbroken iPhones and iPod touches, while the Android mobile app can be downloaded direct from Grooveshark.

Gainesville, Fla.-based Grooveshark has seen strong growth even if it has had some copyright issues, and it now has between 30 and 35 million regular monthly users. It is almost entirely self-funded and has only raised two seed rounds worth about $6 million. Grooveshark has about 140 full-time employees.

Take a look at the gallery below for more photos that show off the new Grooveshark design:

Filed under: media

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PlayStation Network to be down for scheduled maintenance for full day

Posted: 16 Nov 2011 01:41 PM PST

PlayStation_Network_LogoSony’s game division announced today  that the PlayStation Network will undergo scheduled maintenance tomorrow for a full day.

As a result, the service will be down from 8am to 10pm PST on Nov. 17. According to Patrick Seybold, spokesman for Sony Computer Entertainment America, users will be unable to use the PlayStation Store on their PS3s and PSPs. Account management and registration for PSN will also be down. Furthermore, sign-in from us.playstation.com will also be disabled.

The good news? Some players will still be able to play online, so that should ease the pain a bit for some our PS3 owners.

Trophy collectors will be happy to know that those will still be working, and will update once PSN is back online.

Maintenance isn’t uncommon for online networks such as PSN and Xbox LIVE. The difference here is that in the past PSN maintenance typically lasts a few, short hours, such as the scheduled maintenance the network underwent in September of this year. Ever since Sony had a six-week outage due to a hacker attack, everyone watches Sony’s downtime closely.

We’ve contacted SCEA to ask about the extra-long downtime, and will update accordingly.

Filed under: games

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Get Square with Santa: Salvation Army volunteers now take donations with Square readers

Posted: 16 Nov 2011 12:33 PM PST

You know how every holiday season you avoid eye-contact with the Salvation Army Santas collecting donations, mumbling “I don’t have any cash, sorry” as you hurry by? Well, now you’re totally screwed, Scrooge. This season, Salvation Army Santas are taking donations using Square!

Every year, more than 25,000 bell-ringing volunteers, some dressed at Saint Nick, hit the street corners near stores and shopping malls to collect change and small bills from holiday shoppers. Last year, these good Samaritans raised $142 million for the Salvation Army, which was used to buy clothing, food, toys and other goods for people in need.

Square is providing the card readers and Sprint is donating the smartphones and the wireless service. This year, only Salvation Army bell-ringers in San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas and New York City are getting the mobile charging units. They will of course still have the trademark red kettles, for those of you who believe in cash.

"The goal of the technology behind the Square reader is simple — make transactions easier, and this year, we plan to make donating to The Salvation Army as easy as possible for our donors," said Salvation Army’s Major George Hood in a statement

While the Salvation Army Santas are not directly affiliated with the actual Santa Claus, a quick swipe could go a long way to getting your on his Nice list.

[Santa image via Shutterstock]

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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VivaReal raises funding to tackle Brazilian real estate market

Posted: 16 Nov 2011 11:55 AM PST

VivaReal, a Latin American real estate portal we wrote about in 2010, announced that it has pulled in its first round of institutional funding for an undisclosed amount.

Greg Waldorf, an investor and board member of real estate portal Trulia, participated in the round and will sit on VivaReal's board. Simon Baker, former CEO of REA Group, Australia's leading real estate portal with a market capitalization of over $1B also invested and is an advisor.

Whereas, in the US, real estate agents and portals can make use of a centralized property database called the Multiple Listings Service (MLS), other countries lack such a repository. In those regions, providing access to such a database can attract substantial advertising spend.

In the US, Internet real estate plays such as Zillow and Move, Inc. are valued at $828 million and $277 million respectively, while Trulia is still private with plans for an IPO. In contrast, in the UK, a country lacking a comprehensive, centralized MLS database, a portal such as Right Move is valued at well over $1B. This is could be an example of what Glenn Solomon, partner at GGV Capital, recently wrote about concerning Internet companies outside the US having potential to realize strong profit margins and valuations.

VivaReal, a company founded in 2007, has amassed a database of 260k properties in Brazil and uniquely offers a fixed price for unlimited listings. Its main competitors ZAP and ImovelWeb have approximately 250k and 100k properties respectively. These players are vying for a real estate advertising market estimated to be worth over $2B.

The Globo and Estado São Paulo newspaper groups founded ZAP in 2006, while Archote Publicidade founded Imovel Web in 1999. Though only a fraction of Brazil's 57k real estate agents advertise on any portal, ZAP and Imovel Web have managed to grow revenues substantially by building direct sales forces to target these customers.

VivaReal's approach includes direct sales, unique offerings (packages with unlimited listings) as well as leveraging investments in its technology platform for improved user experience and better integration with other sites. This is important because while the US boasts real estate portal integration standards such as RETS, countries such as Brazil have as many as 50 different such standards to support.

With both the soccer World Cup and the Olympic Games coming to Brazil in the coming years, the country should continue to have a dynamic economy and real estate market. According to VivaReal CEO, Brian Requarth, the current funding will provide the resources required to step up sales efforts and better leverage the company's platform investments.

Other investors participating in the deal include, Shaun Di Gergorio, CEO of iProperty, Asia's fastest growing property portal network, Wences Casares and Micky Malka of venture fund, Meck, Jeff Fluhr of Angel Hub, Dave McClure of 500 Startups and Chamath Palihapitiya of the Social+Capital Partnership.

Filed under: deals

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Google re-releases Gmail iPhone app, but it still needs work

Posted: 16 Nov 2011 11:41 AM PST

Google has re-released its Gmail app for the iPhone and iPod touch, two weeks after the company botched the app’s initial debut and yanked it from the App Store.

The major bugs have been addressed — there’s no more error warning when you first start-up the app, notifications work and images embedded in emails scale down to fit the small screen.

Unfortunately, bugs were just a fraction of what was disappointing about the Gmail iPhone app. Even with those glaring errors fixed, it is still an slightly tricked-out version of Gmail’s mobile web app.

Thankfully, Google is paying attention to the complaints. In its blog post announcing the update, Google said that it is working on adding many of the new features users have requested in the past couple of weeks, including support for multiple accounts and signatures.

The unlucky few who downloaded the first version will need fully uninstall or log out of the original app before installing Gmail 1.0.2.  The free app works on iPhones and iPod touches running iOS 4.0 or later.

Filed under: media, VentureBeat

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The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim ships 7M copies, actual sales unclear

Posted: 16 Nov 2011 11:02 AM PST

Bethesda Softworks, publisher of last week’s long-awaited The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, has announced that its latest game has shipped seven million copies globally across the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Windows PC. Digital distribution platforms such as Steam also seem to be counted towards this figure.

It’s important to note that “shipped” is not the same as “sold.” By comparison, Battlefield 3 sold five million copies in its first week, making it the biggest ever game launch for publisher Electronic Arts, while Activision’s Modern Warfare 3 has sold over 12 million copies during the same period, making it the biggest launch in entertainment history. Modern Warfare 3 was released on Nov. 8, three days before the release of Skyrim.

Still, shipping 7 million games to retailers is a good indicator; those retailers wouldn’t take the games if they didn’t think they could sell them. The question is whether or not they’ll be placing reorders soon as well.

Previous Bethesda games include the award-winning The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and Fallout 3, both developed internally. Although the studio, owned by Zenimax Media Inc., only publishes a couple of games each year, they tend to be extraordinary successes such as Skyrim and id Software’s RAGE, or very poorly received products such as 2009′s Rogue Warrior, which currently has a 27 on Metacritic. Bethesda also released Hunted: Demon’s Forge and Brink to disappointingly low reviews earlier this year. However, even Bethesda’s most well-received titles, including Skyrim and last year’s Fallout: New Vegas, are notoriously plagued by technical issues.

You can read VentureBeat’s Skyrim review here and our tips guide here. Although we agree the game is definitely worth playing, we cited more than a few glaring flaws that prevent it from being the masterpiece it truly had the potential to be.

Filed under: games

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