24 November, 2011



AT&T and Deutsche Telekom kill FCC application for T-Mobile merger

Posted: 24 Nov 2011 09:35 AM PST

Question: What costs over $4 billion and a coveted slice of wireless spectrum? Answer: The stipulation included in AT&T’s bid to purchase rival carrier T-Mobile USA in the event that the sale doesn’t go through.

Today, AT&T and current T-Mobile USA owner Deutsche Telekom announced that they are withdrawing the application for the sale, which was pending approval from the Federal Communications Commission. As a cautionary measure, AT&T has listed the $4 billion pretax charge on its Q4 2011 accountancy sheet, which includes a $3 billion payout to Deutsche Telekom, a portion of wireless spectrum valued at $1 billion and other assets. However, AT&T’s total loss could amount to $6 -$7 billion if the merger does fail to happen.

Both company’s still intend to pursue the billion dollar merger, but it seems very unlikely to gain approval from government regulators.

AT&T and Deutsche Telekom first announced plans to sell T-Mobile USA for $39 billion in March 2011. T-Mobile, which is the fourth largest wireless carrier, has struggled to compete against Verizon, AT&T and Sprint. So, selling to a competitor for a large sum (or getting a payout if it doesn’t work out) is obviously an attractive option. AT&T, on the other hand, is interested in swallowing up T-Mobile to improve its wireless network infrastructure and eliminate competition.

Due to the plethora of opposition to the sale, it makes sense that AT&T is factoring in the $4 billion loss to its record books. In September, Attorney Generals from seven U.S. states joined the Department of Justice in filing a federal lawsuit against the merger. More recently, FCC announced that it’s seeking a hearing on AT&T/T-Mobile merger before giving it approval. It also faces a lawsuit by third-largest wireless carrier Sprint on the grounds that it would eliminate competition.

As for withdrawing the FCC application, Reuters reports that the move is part of a new strategy by both companies to refocus their efforts on gaining antitrust approval for the merger from the DOJ.

Filed under: deals, mobile, VentureBeat

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Z2Live expands Trade Nations brand with launch of free-to-play strategy game Battle Nations

Posted: 24 Nov 2011 08:00 AM PST

With the launch of Battle Nations on iOS, developer Z2Live is hoping to repeat the success that has made it a force in the free-to-play games market.

Seattle-based Z2Live might not be as well-known as other mobile developers like Angry Birds maker Rovio, but the studio's first two games — Trade Nations and Metalstorm: Online — can regularly be found near the top of the highest-grossing app charts on iOS (iPod, iPhone, iPad). Now the developer is following that up with the recent launch of Battle Nations. As it does so, the company is finding ways to stand out in a sea of mobile game developers. That’s increasingly hard to do.

Whereas its previous games focused on vastly different markets — Trade Nations is a social city-building game while Metalstorm is a 3D air-combat game — Z2Live's latest game is somewhat of a blend of the two, letting players build up a military city and engage in strategic combat with both other players and computer controlled armies.

The idea behind the game was actually inspired by feedback from players.

"Players have consistently wanted to attack their neighbors," Z2Live chief operating officer Lou Fasulo told VentureBeat, "but this didn’t feel like the right game play expansion for Trade Nations so we decided to build an entire new title around the concept. This also created an opportunity for us to put our learnings from Trade Nations to work in a new title.”

He added, “Our experience with Metalstorm also contributed both technologies and design best practices. Specifically, Metalstorm taught us a lot about the relative importance of player-versus-player and single player content. It also provided some of the underlying technology for the Battle Nations battle system. You can’t see it as a player, but when you engage other players in Battle Nations random PvP matches, Metalstorm’s match making technology is under the hood.”

The name of the game was also influenced by past releases, attempting to create a recognized brand based on the success of Trade Nations.

While many mobile developers are content with a rapid release schedule, launching new games with very short development cycles, Z2Live has gone a different route. Three games in three years is quite slow by mobile standards. Part of this has to do with the company's origins. Prior to the release of Apple's Game Center app, Z2Live was attempting to build something similar to offer users an Xbox-live style experience on a mobile device. It received $3 million in funding for the idea in August 2009. Once Apple entered the ring Fasulo and his team decided to shift their focus and work in internally developed games.

As the studio continues to grow Fasulo says that the rate at which new games will launch will increase, but that the developer will still maintain a focus on quality game experiences.

"We don’t have ambitions to release a new title every month," he said, "we would rather build brands that players can engage with for years to come. Trade Nations is a perfect example: we have players that have been with the game, and with Z2Live, for over a year and they continue to look forward to each new release of content and expansion of the universe."

Battle Nations, as with all of Z2Live's mobile games, is free to download but monetized via in-app purchases. In Trade Nations, for instance, users can purchase a premium currency called "magic beans" that can be used to buy special in-game items or speed up the production of resources. Battle Nations uses a currency called "nanopods" that can be used in much the same way. For Z2Live, the free-to-play model is useful in reaching as many players as possible.

"We’re big believers in the value of having a large player base," Fasulo said. "Specifically in social games, where interaction with friends and other players is a big part of the engagement. Having said that, not all gameplay models make sense in the freemium format. It’s easy to see why freemium is becoming popular, but unfortunately, not everyone understands how it works or when its appropriate. There will be some painful learning – freemium is not a panacea; games will always be about creating that engaging moment-to-moment fun experience."

The developer is currently in the midst of fixing bugs for the newly launched Battle Nations and making changes based on player feedback. After that the focus will be put on to developing the second chapter of the story arc and adding more features to the player-versus-player multiplayer portion of the game.

"The feedback from players has been overwhelmingly positive, so we’re very excited about the future of the game."

Filed under: games, mobile, VentureBeat

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Black Friday 2011: the best apps and services for holiday shoppers

Posted: 24 Nov 2011 06:00 AM PST

Whether you’re braving retail stores this Black Friday, or just choosing to stay at home and hunt deals virtually, it’s best to be prepared. If you have a smartphone, then it’s easier than ever to plan your Black Friday festivities ahead so you don’t end up missing out on the best deals.

We’ve compiled a list of our favorite apps and services to make you a Black Friday master:

TGI Black Friday: If you haven’t come across this nifty app yet, then you’re likely new to the whole Black Friday app business. TGI Black Friday, available free for the iPhone and Android, compiles leaked deals and flyers from both online and retail stores. You can keep track of deals, share them with friends, and download PDFs of store flyers. If you download just one Black Friday app, this should be it. (All of TGI Friday’s deals are also available on its website, but since you can’t synchronize saved items between the site and app, we recommend you do most of your browsing on the app.)

Black Friday by Fatwallet: This app provides deals to retail stores from Fatwallet.com’s forums. It doesn’t cover online stores, but it may contain some deals to brick and mortar retailers that TGI Black Friday doesn’t offer.

ShopSavvy: Before you snap up a supposed deal, you can use ShopSavvy to scan product barcodes to search the web and competing retailers to see if there are any better offers.

FastMall, Point Inside, Micello: These apps all offer indoor mall maps, which will help you to keep your bearings if you need to trek out to far off shopping centers.

Lemon, Slice, OneReceipt: All of these services help you to manage your physical and electronic receipts, which will help you keep better track of Black Friday spending. They all offer mobile apps to let you snap a photo of physical receipts, as well as the ability to scan your inbox for digital receipts. OneReceipt has yet to launch, but you can sign up for the private beta right now.

Mint: Want to keep track of your spending on a broader level? Mint will help you to make sense of Black Friday spending, as well as all of your other everyday expenses. If you need need help figuring out a personal budget, Mint is the ticket.

And, as always, we’ll keep you in the loop on particularly great deals here at VentureBeat, like Apple’s upcoming Black Friday plans.

Have any useful Black Friday apps or services in mind not mentioned here? Let us know in the comments, as we’ll be updating this post throughout today and tomorrow with your suggestions.

Photo by Tshien on Flickr

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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Apple yanks Big Fish Games’ subscription app for iPad games

Posted: 23 Nov 2011 06:07 PM PST

Apple has yanked the Big Fish Games subscription app after a few days on the market. So much for a great experiment in subscription gaming on the iPad.

Big Fish Games announced the new app today, as it was the first game publisher that Apple permitted to offer a subscription gaming service on the iPad. The app charged gamers $6.99 a month in return for allowing them to dozens of video games from Big Fish’s library of titles.

"We were notified that the app was removed," said Paul Thelen, founder of Big Fish in Seattle, in an interview with Bloomberg. "We're trying to follow up with Apple to try to figure out what happened."

Thelen was surprised because Big Fish had worked with Apple for several weeks to make sure it met the requirements for recurring monthly charges. Previously, subscriptions were used mostly by magazines and newspaper publishers. iSwifter also briefly charged subscriptions for its service of running Flash games on the iPad, but now it has reverted to a one-time fee.

"It was officially approved," Thelen said. Apple had even reviewed today’s press release. Apple declined comment to Bloomberg.

Big Fish gave gamers access to titles such as Mystery Case Files and Mahjong Towers from within its app. Those games could be streamed via Wi-Fi to a user’s iPad from Big Fish’s data centers. Clearly, something strange happened today within Apple, which has often been mysterious when enforcing restrictions with game companies such as iSwifter and Tapjoy.

Big Fish was founded in 2002 and generated $140 million in revenues last year.

Filed under: games, mobile

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RiseArt introduces the fine arts world and social media with its new e-commerce website (exclusive)

Posted: 23 Nov 2011 03:55 PM PST

RiseArtArt e-commerce website RiseArt sees a disconnect between artists and the digital world, which it is changing today with new social features and an undisclosed round of funding.

When was the last time you heard about an amazing new collage, or a great new painter? Probably not recently enough to feel like fine art is still a staple in our society. So when RiseArt co-founder Scott Phillips saw his wife, an amateur painter, and her fellow artists having trouble connecting to galleries, customers and critics in an increasingly digital world, he set out to create a website that met those needs. Artist needs in addition to the needs of customers who were also wondering where fine arts went.

“The art wold is so fragmented and intimating,” said Phillips in an interview with VentureBeat, “We fundamentally believe the art world doesn’t have to be a ‘you have to rich or an insider’ to have access. So we set this up.”

The recently launched RiseArt, like a number of art-oriented websites, allows artists to upload and sell artwork from dedicated profiles. But while this website helped artists get online, it wasn’t unique — websites such as ImageKind allows you to upload artwork for sale — and wasn’t interactive. That’s where the new social elements come into play. Now visitors to the RiseArt website can follow artists they like and receive notifications based on their activity. The website boasts an activity stream, which allows you to see when an artist uploads a new work, sets up an event, updates their status and more. You’ll also receive notifications from artists you’ve purchased from in the past.

It’s not that easy to sell your art on RiseArt, however. In order to approved for sale, artists go through round of voting from the community, which is then passed on to a panel of “experts” for judgement. These experts include gallery owners and others in-the-know such as well known curator Kenny Schachter.

“They review the portfolios on the site, let us know which ones they really like, and based on their view, we feature the artists,” said Phillips.

According to Phillips, only about 10 percent of artists make it to sale-approval after the voting.

There is mutual benefit for an artist being judged and a volunteer expert, however. Artists often want their works showcased in a gallery, it brings on attention and potential buyers. Gallery owners want to find budding artists they find talented, who may make a good exhibition. In this way, the two parties are able to meet a little less serendipitously. Experts are also welcomed to create profiles on RiseArt and promote gallery events and other news.

But RiseArt doesn’t make money through facilitating these relationships, instead it only makes money when the artists do. The company has revenue share agreements and takes a cut of every work sold. Artists are also commissioned by RiseArt to create exclusive works to be sold on the website only.

The company is using its undisclosed seed round to fund new forms of revenue intake, such as an art rental program, which is yet to be released. The program will allow you to install a piece of artwork for a certain period of time to make sure it fits with your house and personality. Art gets expensive and without the in-person aspect a gallery provides, this service brings the purchase back down to a human level.

Investors in the seed round include StubHub founder Jeff Fluhr and Great Oaks Venture Capital. RiseArt was founded in 2010, is headquartered in London and serves over 30 countries worldwide.



Filed under: social

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Sun shines on Solaria as solar panel maker raises another $30 million

Posted: 23 Nov 2011 03:27 PM PST

The future is looking bright for solar panel maker Solaria. The company just raised $30 million according to documents filed today with the SEC. Solaria makes crystaline solar panels and is based in Fremont, CA, with operations in Germany and the Philippines.

The advantage crystaline solar panels have over thin film (the more popular manufacturing technique) is they rely on optical concentrators which can deliver 30 percent more output from the same amount of surface area. Solaria power modules have a 14 percent efficiency rating, while the most efficient solar panels in ready supply throughout California are rated at 15.64 percent efficiency, according to SROeCo. Solar panel efficiency is calculated by dividing the power output in watts by the surface area of a cell.

Solaria solar modules are built for solar collectors which follow the sun’s movement throughout the day in order to harvest the maximum possible amount of energy.

Previous Solaria investors include Sigma Partners and Moserbaer India. The company raised $65 million in a Series D in September of 2010.

VentureBeat contacted Solaria for a comment on the funding announcement. No one was made available at press time. We will update with any comment.

Filed under: green

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Startup and the City: View from the other side of the hiring process

Posted: 23 Nov 2011 02:45 PM PST

Editor’s note: Julia Plevin recently started a job at a startup that’s still in stealth mode. She’ll be posting occasional columns on VentureBeat about her experiences.

"Would you be able to spend twelve hours in an airport with this person?" our CEO asks each of us as we consider engineering candidates we've interviewed for open positions.

I started to interview people during my first week at the startup. It's been a pretty awesome experience.

When every member of the team, no matter how new or how junior, gets a say in important company decisions, it fosters a sense ownership. I know I'm inspired to do my best work when I feel my opinion matters. Involving everyone and avoiding secret closed-door meetings as much as possible makes for a healthy work environment at a small company.

So far, there are seven of us on the team. Most of our engineers have been contractors who rarely, if ever, come to the office. But now we have a minimum viable product that we are testing with friends and family, and we need more full-time engineers to implement all the improvements we want to make. Hiring the right engineers is key at this point.

I've been doing user research with each candidate, so while I can't test them on their Javascript or Ruby on Rails prowess, I am able to talk with them and make sure they can communicate like normal human beings. That was my bar for engineers. As long as they were on the human side of the human-to-robot spectrum, I'd give them a pass.

One candidate showed up to the interview wearing a wrinkled t-shirt. He was straight out of the engineer stereotype many programmers resent. But I enjoyed his quirky sense of humor, so if the other engineers on the team thought he was smart and could add value, sure, I'd give a thumbs up.

As you can tell, I'm still new at this whole hiring people thing. Soon I'll feel empowered to give a straight yes or no to a candidate, but so far I've been wishy-washy and relatively easy on each candidate. But I am constantly reminded that there's an endless supply of talented people around, and we only want those who are a perfect fit.

Right now, everyone on the team can communicate easily with one another. We have a nice rapport and are all on the same page. Bringing on someone who has a different mindset could poison the whole vibe of the company, especially at this early stage.

"I'm just not sure what standards I should have for engineers," I responded when the CEO asked me if I thought a candidate was a good cultural fit for the team. Everyone on the team now is sporty and enjoys the occasional round of drinks at the bar, but I thought surely our nerd quotient would increase as we hired more engineers.

"What about Dan and Josh?" the CEO said, "They're not nerds." The engineers on our team are super sociable, athletic, and shower daily — a seemingly rare breed.

"Yeah, I know, they're awesome," I said, "but how many engineers like them are out there?" I asked, recalling the "nerd herd" at my previous startup that would roll out to pick up lunch at precisely 12pm and then return to their desks to eat while typing away on their keyboards.

"There are plenty," said the CEO, "and they will want to come work with us for that reason."

We're working in the social sphere so it makes sense that we have high standards for sociability. We don't need to be a team of social butterflies, but we should all be able to work together, or spend 12 hours at an airport together.

This question of spending time at the airport with someone is just a way to gauge whether a candidate is a good match culturally.

It reminds me a bit of my sorority days back in college where, after rush, we'd sit around and discuss the girls we'd just met in order to decide who we wanted to back. "How far would you drive her?" the rush chair would ask.

If you liked the rushee you might say, "I'd drive her home for winter break," or maybe, "I'd drive her around the moon a thousand times!" If you were not a fan you could say, "I'd drive her to the grocery store," or "I wouldn't even let her in my car!"

But unlike women during rush, engineers ultimately have a leg up in the startup hiring process. They have a highly valued skill and are compensated accordingly. If things don't work out with one startup, there's always another one with a different office culture seeking engineers.

I'm grateful to be on the other side of the hiring process now and to never have to go through sorority rush again.

Julia Plevin is a writer and blogger who recently returned to the United States after managing a magazine in Hanoi, Vietnam. She now works at a startup in San Francisco.

Filed under: Entrepreneur Corner, social, VentureBeat

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YouTube rolls out the first of its Disney movie archive to renters

Posted: 23 Nov 2011 02:05 PM PST

Disney YouTubeAs promised, YouTube is rolling out content from Disney and is starting with movie rentals through the website today, according to a company blog post.

Children are becoming increasingly interested in playing, imagining and being entertained by the internet over traditional forms of family play. According to a survey performed by Nielsen, 44 percent of kids aged 6-12 want an iPad for Christmas, closely followed by an iPod touch. Where families once gathered around the glowing fire, now we’re gathering around the glowing screen and YouTube is keeping us there with nostalgic Disney classics and new titles for rent.

Along with its user-driven content, YouTube has sported television shows and movies and become a TV station of its own. To continue this, the company announced a partnership with Disney earlier this month, to bring original content to the website. The deals helps glue together two companies in need, YouTube filling Disney’s need to connect with new audiences in the digital age, and YouTube’s need for original content that makes it competitive with the Hulu’s of the internet.

Currently available Disney movies include the original Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh and Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides, as well as Pixar creations Cars, and Cars 2. YouTube plans to release more movies in the coming weeks. Also in the pipeline are “extras” such as cast and crew interviews and behind-the-scenes looks.

You can rent and watch the movies at youtube.com/movies.

Filed under: media

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Online holiday shopping jumps 14 percent

Posted: 23 Nov 2011 01:21 PM PST

Thousands of people are taking to the streets to protest the sad state of the economy, but online, it appears that business is booming.

Online shoppers are spending more than ever, dropping $9.67 billion between Nov. 1 and Nov. 20, according to a new comScore report. That’s a 14 percent increase over the same period last year.

By the time the dust settles at the end of December, comScore, predicts that online shopping will be up 15 percent over last year.

The study tracks non-travel and consumer spending online at thousands of online commerce sites. Heavy discounting and offers of free shipping are some of the forces driving the trend.

ComScore is one of the world’s leading online research firms.

The company predicts that $37.6 billion will be spent online through the end of the holiday shopping period, from November through January, which is a 15 percent increase over 2010. In 2010 comScore reported a 13 percent increase in online shopping activity over 2009, so the trend appears to be continuing.

Santa image via ShutterStock

Filed under: VentureBeat

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Nexon will hold $1.3B IPO on Dec. 6 (exclusive)

Posted: 23 Nov 2011 01:16 PM PST

Online gaming firm Nexon is expected to go public on Dec. 6 in Japan, VentureBeat has learned. The company, which was started in Korea and moved its headquarters to Tokyo, is expected to raise $1.28 billion in its initial public offering.

Next to Zynga’s expected IPO, the Nexon deal is one of the biggest pending IPOs in the video game industry and it’s an example of the continuing strength of Asian online game companies. Nexon in particular has pioneered the top business model of the day: free-to-play games where people play games for free and pay real money for virtual goods. It’s a growing business: Market researcher Strategy Analytics expects the virtual goods market to grow from $6.8 billion in 2011 to $12.7 billion in 2016.

Nexon has not commented on the IPO date. Earlier reports placed the IPO in mid-December.

Last month, Japanese publications reported that the Nexon IPO could raise that amount in an offering on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. The prospectus for the offering says that Nexon has 1.2 billion cumulative registrations, 77 million monthly active users as of September, 600 million virtual items sold in 2010, and 500 billion minutes played in 2010.

Nexon is one of Asia's biggest online game publishers, with games including MapleStory, Mabinogi, Vindictus, Combat Arms, Dragon Nest and Dungeon Fighter Online. The games take anywhere from two years to five years to develop. To juice sales of the games, Nexon sells its virtual currency game cards in 45,000 stores in the U.s. alone.

The IPO would be the biggest IPO in Japan in 2011 and the largest one since Otsuka Holdings raised $2.05 billion in December, 2010.

Nomura Securities, Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs are lead investment managers. After the IPO, Nexon could have a market value of about $7.69 billion to $8.97 billion. That compares to $6.99 billion for Electronic Arts.

In its IPO filing, Nexon said it has eight games with more than $100 million in lifetime revenues. Of those games, three had more than $300 million in revenues and one had more than $400 million in revenues. Two games combined have generated lifetime revenues over $1.5 billion. Nexon noted that as of last year, Dungeon Fighter accounted for 30.9 percent of revenues and MapleStory was 26.3 percent of revenues.

In 2010, Nexon’s revenues were $903 million, up from $668.2 million a year earlier. Net income was $107.5 million in 2010, compared to $229.2 million a year earlier. For the nine months ended Sept. 30, 2011, revenue was $853.5 million, up 26.5 percent from a year ago. Net income was $260.1 million, up 14.6 percent. Overall, Nexon expects to continue growing for the full year in 2011. Nexon has been profitable since 1996.

Much of the revenue is spread across multiple territories. For instance, only 35.2 percent of revenues for the Mabinogi game comes from Korea. In the U.S., virtual goods typically sell for 50 cents to $5. In MapleStory, there are 2,000 virtual goods items for sale in the U.S. version, all designed for a Western audience. They include things like a “summer royal hair” hairstyle.

Nexon has 3,537 employees, including 1,507 employees in development. Rivals include NCsoft, NHN Games, Hanbit Soft, Neowiz Games, Square Enix, DeNA, Gree, Nintendo, Sony, Tencent, Shanda Games, Electronic Arts, Activision Blizzard, Riot Games, Zynga, Disney and Microsoft.

More recently, Nexon has been expanding in the U.S., launching a Facebook version of MapleStory and investing in mobile social games. It also invested in social game maker 6waves Lolapps. The company’s overall strategy is to take its games to new platforms and devices, build a global brand, expand its game portfolio, and extend its existing game franchises.

Nexon is planning to issue 70 million shares of common stock on a global basis, including 34.9 million shares to be issued outside of the U.S. and Japan. In Japan, the company will issue 35.05 million shares. After shares are issued, Nexon will have 430.6 million shares of common stock. After the offering, NXC will own 59 percent of Nexon’s shares. NXC is controlled by Nexon founder Jungju Kim.

Among the risk factors, Nexon cited hacker attacks. It said that in April 2011, a server in North America was hacked and that may have led to access to encrypted data on 24 million accounts. Nexon found that virtual currency had been tampered with and it suspended the accounts of users who saw abnormal increases in virtual currency. In August, 2011, another hacker attack in Korea may have provided hackers access to 4.5 million unencrypted cell phone numbers, including 130,000 with other personal information. Nexon said it was also aware of 200 illegal servers that were hosting its games for free.

As of Sept. 30, Nexon had $577.7 million in cash. Nexon was founded in 1994. It began a global expansion in 2005. Over the years, it acquired Wizet, Neople, Ndoors, and GameHi. Revenues from mobile games were not material in 2011.

Now it has 57 online games played in 104 countries. Some 32 of the games are role-playing games, six are first-person shooters, and 19 are in other categories such as social games. Nexon’s KartRider game has more than 270 million registered users.

Among the investors is Min Seo, Sangbeon Kim, Seungchan Lee, Softbank Ventures Korea, NE Partners and Insight Venture Partners. Nexon said that it invested in JC Entertainment on Oct. 24, giving it a 16.3 percent share in the company.

Filed under: games

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Signaling acquisition talks, Microsoft pens NDA with Yahoo

Posted: 23 Nov 2011 12:57 PM PST

microsoft-earningsMicrosoft has signed a nondisclosure agreement with Yahoo so it can take a closer look at its books, a signal the software giant might be getting serious about acquiring Yahoo.

We heard back in early October that Microsoft was eyeing Yahoo for a possible acquisition. At that time, signals were clearly mixed about the possible deal. On one hand, Yahoo would give Microsoft a highly trafficked web portal that would help it compete with content powerhouse AOL. But on the other, Microsoft investors were lukewarm on the potential of buying a property that has little growth potential.

The nondisclosure agreement with Yahoo, which was first reported by the New York Times, allows Microsoft to join private equity firms Silver Lake, TPG Capital and others to look closely at Yahoo’s financials. The report indicates Microsoft may be interested in Yahoo because it wants to preserve existing deals and potentially integrate Yahoo with Skype, the latest major Microsoft acquisition.

Microsoft already has a 10-year deal that allows its Bing strong search engine to power Yahoo's search and to display Microsoft's ads alongside Yahoo's search. As part of the deal, Yahoo gets an 88 percent cut from advertising revenue, but that's still a nice bonus for Microsoft because it gets added exposure for Bing and its ads.

Back in 2008, Microsoft famously failed to purchase Yahoo for a reported $44.6 billion. But times have changed and Yahoo’s position in the market looks a lot shakier than it did then. Yahoo recently fired CEO Carol Bartz and its latest quarterly report showed its revenues were down 24 percent from the year-before quarter.

AOL also might be looking to merge with or acquire Yahoo. AOL CEO Tim Armstrong has reportedly been pitching top AOL shareholders to see whether a merger could work because it would allow each company to equal between $1 billion and $1.5 billion in cost savings.

Filed under: deals, media

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Y Combinator alum HighlightCam gets $2.8M, giving your iPhone videos purpose

Posted: 23 Nov 2011 12:08 PM PST

HighlightCamMobile video editing company HighlightCam received $2.8 million in funding led by Quest Venture Partners, according to a Form D filed with the SEC today.

Cameras are getting better on the iPhone, with the iPhone 4S sporting an 8 megapixel camera with 1080p high-definition quality video. People already carry their phones around to use in lieu of a camera, and the App Store is filled with photo-editing applications such as Instagram and Hipstamatic. Their charm comes from the easy, no-edit-photo-editing” that turns so many plain shots into hipster sepia-tone masterpieces. Similarly, HighlightCam is a no-edit-editing way to make great mini-movies out of those quick videos you’ve captured with your iPhone and never knew what to do with.

HighlightCam is a Y Combinator alum, which uses face recognition and video editing software to create mini-movies. First, you choose the videos you would like to mash up, and can preview them before selecting. After you’ve chosen your videos you select a name, and whether you want the software to focus on people, audio, action or a balance of the three. Depending on the size of your video, it can take a little while to create the work. Mine only took about two minutes. Movie credits are your form of currency, and you start out with 10. You can purchase more depending on how many videos you’d like to make.

HighlightCam officially launched in February 2011, was founded in 2009 and graduated from Y Combinator that year. The company started as a type of surveillance camera, “highlighting” when changes in audio and movement occurred in a video. Founder Michael J.T. O’Kelly thought up the idea when his wife wanted to see what her rabbits were up to when she was out of the house.

It seems Y Combinator has been its only funding thus far, other than this new investment from Quest Venture Partners, with no other Form D’s filed. The venture firm colors itself an early stage investor with “the first money in” according to its website.

We have contacted the company for comment and will update the story upon hearing back.

Filed under: mobile

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Activision says Call of Duty Elite service will be stable for Thanksgiving users

Posted: 23 Nov 2011 11:59 AM PST

Gamer social network Call of Duty Elite will be stable this Thanksgiving and for the subsequent holiday weekend, Activision Blizzard said today.

When the service debuted on Nov. 8 it had a number of issues that made it tough for users to connect. Now, the company says it has stabilized the service and can deliver all of its major features to both paid and free users.

“We are where we should have been at launch,” said Daniel Suarez, vice president of production at Activision in an interview today. “It should be an enjoyable holiday weekend for people.”

Call of Duty Elite hit more than a million paid subscribers in its first six days, Activision Blizzard said. It now has more than 4 million paid and free gamers registered. That was part of the problem, as demand for the service overwhelmed the company’s server infrastructure. Gamers were still able to play Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 multiplayer, but the service for Elite wasn’t good.

Suarez said that the company has slowly been adding more users and more features to the service. On Friday night, the Elite TV section of the service will debut the first episode of Friday Night Fights, featuring an Army vs. Navy game competition. That is the last big remaining piece of the service to debut.

Meanwhile, Suarez said that Activision will have announcements of downloadable content coming soon. Users who pay a subscription fee of $50 a year are entitled to DLC for free. Normally, they would have to pay for content such as new multiplayer maps.

As we noted yesterday, the subscription numbers suggest Activision Blizzard is marching on its way to getting gamers to pay for Call of Duty on a year-round basis, deepening their engagement beyond a few weeks after a game launch.

Call of Duty Elite has the benefit of riding on the coattails of the most popular video game in history. Modern Warfare 3 sold more than $775 million worth in its first five days of sales, making it bigger than last year’s Call of Duty Black Ops debut.

Last week, Suarez told us in an interview that the company had 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 weren’t able to log in, so they were still seeing error messages when they attempt to get in. The Elite web site as of yesterday finally shows that the service is fully operational.

So far, 80,000 Elite clans have been created and that should probably pass 100,000 shortly. The service has had more than 3 million daily logins. During the past week, Activision started offering competitions for gamers. Suarez said the Beachhead Studios team continues to chase small bugs such as making sure that users get their entitlements for Founders status.

Suarez said the mobile app for Elite will be available next week.

“Every week, we have progressively improved,” Suarez said. “Everything is now up and running.”

Filed under: games, VentureBeat

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LandingZone for MacBook Air makes docking stations cool (exclusive)

Posted: 23 Nov 2011 11:51 AM PST

When you think of cool, innovative technology, docking stations aren’t the first things that come to mind. But a young startup called InfiniWing has built an impressive add-on for Apple’s wildly popular MacBook Air laptop that could turn some heads.

InfiniWing plans to target business as well as consumer users with its LandingZone docking station, which lets users plug the MacBook Air in to make use of a larger screen, wider keyboard, and printer. It features four USB drives and a locking system for security.

InfiniWing will be face some stiff competition, since there’s already a whole ecosystem of third-party docking stations for the MacBook Air.

LandingZone quick specs

Expand the capabilities of a MacBook Air

-3 USB 2.0 ports on the back

-1 USB 2.0 port on the left side;

-Supports device charging with included power adaptor

-Direct pass-through USB port to MacBook Air

-Built-in 10/100T Ethernet port with LED

Enhanced Security

-Built-in locking socket compatible with Kensington Lock products.

MagSafe compatible

-Built-in connector slot seamlessly charges MacBook Air using MagSafe power supply

Supports both 11′” and 13″ Macbook Airs

The BookArc docking station, for example, is a graceful competitor from designer TwelveSouth that helps to elevate and cool your computer, while also saving desk space. But many  popular MacBook Air docking stations on the market today are ghastly by comparison.

“Many people aren’t using [them] because [they don't] align with the functionality and aesthetic of the MacBook Air,” InfiniWing founder and CEO Kitae Kwon told VentureBeat. Kwon is a semiconductor design engineer, and he developed the LandingZone, along with the team at InfiniWing.

The company hasn’t begun manufacturing its hardware yet. In fact, it has just put the LandingZone project on funding platform Kickstarter, and wants to raise $50,00o to begin its first production run. Backers who pledge $139 or more will be among the first to get their hands on one. The company has also raised $500,000 in angel funding.

While it’s an object that’s meant to be observed, design alone is not what sets the LandingZone apart from its competitors. The LandingZone makes it easy to connect your computer to your TV to watch movies on a big screen, or power multiple devices such as phones and external harddrives, all while keeping power chords untangled. “We’re addressing real pain points for people,” says Kwon.

The MacBook Air is certainly a good laptop to bank on. It accounted for nearly one-third of all notebook sales for Apple in the third quarter, more than 5 million units. Even HP Chairman Ray Lane was recently outed using a MacBook Air at home in a recent Reuters story, although his company is the world’s number 1 personal computer manufacturer. And laptops are expected to replace more desktops at businesses as companies move to the cloud and rely less on running native apps. Apple itself is aggressively pushing its iCloud service. So the docking station market could well be readying for a good ride ahead.

Should the MacBook Air someday become the dominant Apple laptop for business and pleasure, docking stations like the LandingZone and others could play a key role in making them office-friendly. Will design be a key differentiator? Kwon certainly thinks so.

“It’s very subjective, but at least we can say we have elegant design.” Kwon says.

Filed under: gadgets, VentureBeat

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The 25 most beloved web services and work apps

Posted: 23 Nov 2011 11:51 AM PST

Ever wonder what business applications people really love, versus those they just tolerate?

Take QuickBooks for example: Millions of business people use it, but what percent really love it?

On the BestVendor beta site, we ask people to share three favorite "work apps" they recommend, along with other products they use. Nearly 3,000 startup and small business professionals have signed up so far.

Using their data, we compared applications based on how much they are recommended versus how much they are used overall. We only included products that were used at least 20 times.

The results reveal a ranking of "belovedness" — a NetPromoter-like score for work apps. While our results are early and we're just getting started, here's a list of the top 25 at this point. If you haven't already done so, be sure to check out these rising stars of the work world.

Jeff Giesea is the founder of BestVendor.

[Laptop image via Shutterstock]

Filed under: Entrepreneur Corner, VentureBeat

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Tablet magazine publisher Zinio raises $20 Million

Posted: 23 Nov 2011 11:29 AM PST

Online magazine publisher Zinio has raised a an investment round of $20 million, according to documents filed with the SEC.

Zinio lets magazine publishers who don’t want to build their own mobile apps distribute their content on devices such as the iPad. The last known funding for Zinio was $7 million the company raised in  September 2005, according to PaidContent.

Zinio describes itself as the “world’s largest news stand.” The company has been around for nearly a decade, was partly dismantled in 2007, and pieces were sold to Gilvest.

Zinio is the chosen tablet partner for magazines such as TV Guide, Men's Health, Black Enterprise and Penthouse.

While the print magazine industry continues to falter, Zinio raising a significant round of financing to digitize content suggests that its investors are bullish about the future of online content, and tablets in particular.

Filed under: deals

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Investors should be even more worried about Groupon, as its share price falls

Posted: 23 Nov 2011 11:24 AM PST

Groupon’s stock has fallen precipitously during the last three days. Today, it broke below the Chicago-based couponers IPO price of $20.00 for the first time. At a recent price of $17.41, any IPO investors who were still holding on to the stock would be down nearly 13%.

Someone who bought at retail at Groupon’s 52-week high of $31.14 (shortly after the stock debuted) would be down 45%.

As with many stock movements, it’s impossible to pinpoint a specific cause. Here are some likely candidates:

  • Short-selling of Groupon has become easier this week. The cost to borrow the stock to sell short has dropped. Last week, it would have cost 99% on an annual basis to borrow the stock. This week, it was in the 20s. According to Cory Johnson of Bloomberg West, the borrow cost has gone from stupid expensive to pretty expensive.
  • Sources tell me some insiders had lockups much shorter than 6 months. They may be looking to cash out.
  • Some brokers had restrictions that if people flipped their Groupon stock immediately, they would be barred from future IPOs. For example, when I put in my indication of interest to buy Groupon at the IPO price, I was advised that if I sold before Nov. 21, I would be restricted from future IPOs. (I received no shares; if I had, I would have flipped immediately.)

Just as important, Groupon has always been a momentum play. If the sentiment is that it is going to fall, it will fall.

This is an even bigger risk for Groupon than for most companies: Groupon’s cash flow is highly dependent on merchants continuing to offer Groupons and consumers buying Groupons. If this negativity permeates the mainstream press and consumers and small businesses begin to doubt Groupon, its whole model will collapse.

See my earlier post, Who gets hurt if Groupon collapses.

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

Filed under: deals, social

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Spotify’s impressive growth continues, with 2.5M paying subscribers

Posted: 23 Nov 2011 10:31 AM PST

spotifyStreaming music service Spotify has over 2.5 million paying subscribers — a 25 percent increase since September, the startup announced today.

Spotify’s premium service is a paid, ad-free version of its streaming music service that lets people share playlists. The premium service has continued to grow at a healthy rate since launching to U.S. customers in July, due in part to a major partnership with social network giant Facebook. To jump-start that partnership, Spotify decided to force all new users to have a Facebook account if they wanted to join. For now, it appears that the company’s strategy is paying off.

But despite impressive growth, Spotify is also dealing with some bumps in the road. Earlier this week we reported that 200 independent music labels ended their licensing agreement with Spotify because it was hurting their digital sales. Spotify still has licensing agreements with all the major music labels, but if that were to change, it could affect the company’s growth.

Spotify is planning to announce a “new direction” for the company November 30. It’s likely that the company will go into greater detail about its growth as well as what to expect from the service in the future (perhaps a Spotify MP3 store, iPad app, or exclusive content).

Filed under: media, VentureBeat

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China overtakes U.S. to become world’s largest smartphone market

Posted: 23 Nov 2011 09:59 AM PST

It was bound to happen eventually. Smartphone sales in China for the third quarter of 2011 surpassed U.S. sales, making China the largest smartphone market by volume, reports Strategy Analytics.

The firm’s research found that smartphone shipments reached 23.9 million units in China during Q3, while the U.S. had 23.3 million units shipped.

Even more telling is how those sales compared to the past quarter: China grew 58 percent, while the U.S. fell 7 percent. Strategy Analytics notes that U.S. shipments were atypical for the quarter, since many consumers were waiting for the iPhone 4S, so the U.S. could still bounce back to the lead in coming quarters. But given China’s population of 1.3 billion, I suspect that it will soon be able to leap ahead of the U.S. in smartphone sales organically.

“China’s rapid growth has been driven by an increasing availability of smartphones in retail channels, aggressive subsidizing by operators of high-end models like the Apple iPhone, and an emerging wave of low-cost Android models from local Chinese brands such as ZTE,” said Strategy Analytics director Tom Kang in a statement today.

The firm says that Nokia leads China’s smartphone market with a share of 28 percent. HTC, on the other hand, leads the US market with 24 percent.

Filed under: mobile, VentureBeat

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